Anyone who takes political resistance seriously must eventually confront the timeless question of tactics: which forms of resistance are appropriate to the struggle at hand; and which—if any—are not? A second set of questions necessarily accompanies the first, namely, by what set of criteria are tactics deemed appropriate or inappropriate to begin with and (most importantly) who can legitimately make such a determination? All social movements respond in some way to these questions, but the dilemma is especially complicated for movements seeking to mobilize a broad base of support.
Now that the first “phase” of Occupy has given way to a more dispersed movement, the debate over tactics has intensified. It’s important to remember that the proliferation of ideas and perspectives at work in every movement invariably creates tension. This is part of what makes Occupy, like all democratic movements, so exhilarating. Unfortunately, tension is often misunderstood as disorganization. To those activists for whom uniformity is synonymous with coherence, conformity is paramount. Tactics undertaken on behalf of the movement must be strictly regulated so as not to disrupt a narrow vision of Occupy’s character and aims. One such vision was recently articulated by Chris Hedges in his recent polemic, “Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy.”
As the title of his column suggests, Hedges sets out to discredit the Black Bloc tactic of protest as incompatible with his vision of Occupy, a cancerous tumor that needs to be excised from the body of the wider movement. To this end, he describes Black Bloc tactics as “criminal,” characterized by “hypermasculinity” and “mob violence.” Hedges is convinced that Black Blocs transform “human beings into beasts” and “hooligans.”
In his one-dimensional characterization, Black Blocs exist for a single purpose: to cause a kind of nihilistic, unthinking mayhem, excused under the euphemistic phrase “diversity of tactics.” Whether or not we accept his characterization of Black Bloc protestors, Hedges’ argument is important—if only because it underscores the contention over tactics. “Random acts of violence, looting and vandalism,” he argues, play into the hands of the state, allowing its police apparatus to intensify repression while alienating the mainstream public.
The corporate state … can use the Black Bloc’s confrontational tactics and destruction of property to justify draconian forms of control and frighten the wider population away from supporting the Occupy movement. Once the Occupy movement is painted as a flag-burning, rock-throwing, angry mob we are finished.
Unsurprisingly, the column caused a flurry online, provoking countless responses from across the political spectrum.
There have already been many excellent rebuttals of Hedges’ column, but they have generally concentrated on his straw-man characterization of Black Blocs as monolithic and universally violent. There has been virtually no consideration of the deeper intellectual timidity underlying Hedges assumptions about civil disobedience: a form of political cowardice that has become endemic among self-described progressives in this country. Although precious little of what has happened at Occupy protests can be reasonably characterized as violent (or even disorderly), legality has become a reflexive mantra. Meaningful resistance is, in effect, ruled out from the start. To the extent that a social movement refrains from defying the state in any way, it is taken as mature. In short, the “disobedience” in “civil disobedience” must be eliminated as much as possible if you want to be taken seriously by today’s defanged progressives.
The problem with Hedges’ column is not his basic willingness to criticize features of Occupy that he dislikes. Anyone concerned with the future of the movement has his or her own vision of what it can achieve and what the best way of doing it might be. This is understandable. Rather, it is the forcefulness with which Hedges singles out a specific element within Occupy for special denunciation that I find so troubling. Hedges does not simply criticize particular tactics; he suggests that those who engage in such tactics should be excluded from the wider movement.
To advocate for the proscription of anyone from Occupy is a fundamentally anti-democratic impulse. Like those who generally sympathize with Occupy, but resent the involvement of “hippies,” it defies the inclusive nature of democratic politics. The implicit division Hedges draws between authentic occupiers and imposters is far more damaging to the movement in the long-term than a couple of broken windows at a corporate coffee shop.
Even if we accept Hedges’ central claim that violence in any form undermines Occupy’s future prospects, it’s still difficult to know where to look for the symptoms he describes. Where are all the broken windows? Where are the police casualties? Hedges raises only one concrete example. He accuses Black Bloc protestors of smashing and looting a locally owned coffee shop in Oakland last November. It’s since been revealed that the damage was not actually the work of Black Bloc protestors, nor was the shop locally owned. Yet, even this particular case is not statistically significant. Oakland police have been hesitant to report that the overall crime rate in the city dropped by 19% since the protests began.
Yet Hedges is not only concerned about violence and vandalism. He’s wary of tactics not recognizable as either violent or lawless. The use of homemade shields, for instance, is oddly condemned as antithetical to the principles of nonviolence—and don’t even think about shouting at the police, no matter how much they pepper spray your comrades.
If one looks at the radical social movements throughout the 20th century from labor and civil rights, to feminism and the antiwar movement, it’s pretty clear that change never occurs without challenging state power. This does not necessarily imply violence, but revolutionary activity by definition seeks to disrupt the status quo. It also tends to be unpredictable: violence and property destruction do occur and an unsympathetic media inevitably chooses to focus overwhelmingly on these instances, however minor. We admire figures like Gandhi and King in part because we recognize the discipline it takes to maintain uniform nonviolence in a revolutionary moment. Yet, as David Graeber pointed out in his rebuttal of Hedges article, even Gandhi refused to speak out against the bombing of British trains by allies less dedicated to his nonviolent methods. If one can say anything about these matters in the context of Occupy, it’s that the movement has not been disruptive enough.
One of the most striking aspects of Occupy, especially for foreign observers, has been its remarkable restraint in the face of unusually aggressive police attacks. While European cities literally burn, American occupiers have been at comparative pains to act in compliance with state power. They remain within designated “free speech zones” during demonstrations, content at being shepherded along by America’s finest. In fact, this was a strategic decision made by the New York General Assembly in the movement’s early days. Many of the same activists Hedges would exclude from Occupy for allegedly counterproductive behavior were among the earliest nonviolent tacticians of the movement.
In an op-ed for an early copy of Occupy’s publication, the Occupied Wall Street Journal, Hedges called on Americans to “rise up” and, in a nod to the Palestinian intifada, “shake off” the 1%. Now he condemns those who refuse to conform to his preferred paradigm of resistance. His newfound animus against militancy is especially confusing because, in another column, Hedges seems to embrace riot tactics:
Here’s to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their country. They know what to do when Goldman Sachs and international bankers collude with their power elite to falsify economic data and then make billions betting that the Greek economy will collapse. They know what to do when they are told their pensions, benefits and jobs have to be cut to pay corporate banks, which screwed them in the first place. Call a general strike. Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out. Do not be afraid of the language of class warfare—the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it.
The contrast is striking. Just weeks after three people burned to death in a bank set ablaze by militant protestors in Athens, Hedges praised the Greeks for “getting it”, yet he now rebukes American activists for their comparatively tame acts of burning American flags and chanting “Fuck the police.” I’m quite sure Hedges would not approve of tactics that result in deaths here in the United States, nor should we. But singing paeans to the Greeks, while condemning militancy at home speaks reams about the problem with the American Left today. Progressives like Hedges are content to romanticize foreign struggles, but at the end of the day, what happens abroad stays abroad.
Occupy is arguably this country’s most important broad-based social movement in decades, but we must not shrink from direct action nor should we attack those who engage in unlawful tactics. We should remain open to radical measures designed to influence American politics at the structural level. At some point, protest needs to become open resistance. Though we may disagree over just what this means, we recognize that the movement is strengthened by the diversity. If Occupy represents a democratic moment, a breath of fresh air amidst the double-pronged forces of neoliberal capitalism and American empire, we should be careful not to undermine that spirit by launching trivial internecine attacks. After all, what Eric Hobsbawm wrote a propos of the French revolution remains true of all spontaneous eruptions of political activity: “judgment is less important than analysis … [W]hat is the point of preaching a sermon against an earthquake? (Or in favour of it?)”