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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Spring Is Near, And Let's Talk About #Occupy Violence

Oakland Violence
Image from Washington Post's blog Post

[Update: Morocco Bama at Ian's place provides a link to a clarifying talk by Harsha Walia on YouTube (1 of 3, all of which are embedded below, after the break).]

In the wake of Chris Hedges' controversial take-down (The Cancer in Occupy) of the Black Bloc "anarchist" phenomenon (why I use scare quotes), I've been engaged in conversation at blogs somewhat more popular than this one (apologies to TBogg, "a somewhat popular blogger").

I am generally come-down on the side of non-violence.

The Hedges piece referenced above is a pretty visceral take-down of the BB "anarchists":
The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists—so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property—is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state...

Because Black Bloc anarchists do not believe in organization, indeed oppose all organized movements, they ensure their own powerlessness.
Firstly, I strongly disagree with that last statement. To me, the Black Bloc are quite "organized" - in that lock-step, dangerous mob-identity way - and anyway anarchy, as a philosophical position, if it is deeply felt, doesn't necessarily eschew organization. It is more about "leaderlessness" (or the clumsy but beguiling coinage "leaderfulness"). But that is not the point of this conversation.

What I want to pull from the quote above is the presentation of violence by Hedges as a tactical misstep, rather than a moral question divorced from any "ends-justify-the-means" consideration. A consideration that is touched on in the essay:
...Random acts of violence, looting and vandalism are justified, in the jargon of the movement, as components of “feral” or “spontaneous insurrection”... Whoever gets hurt gets hurt. Whatever gets destroyed gets destroyed.

There is a word for this—“criminal.”
But it is, in the end, mostly a lament over tactical disadvantage, with some (valid) jabs at the immaturity of violence - to which I hope to add some perspective:
The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship. It permits an inchoate rage to be unleashed on any target. Pity, compassion and tenderness are banished for the intoxication of power. It is the same sickness that fuels the swarms of police who pepper-spray and beat peaceful demonstrators. It is the sickness of soldiers in war. It turns human beings into beasts.
But it's really (to Hedges) about tactics:
The corporate state understands and welcomes the language of force. It 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...
I don't disagree with Mr. Hedges' piece at all.

But plenty do.

Don Gato, at Revolution by the book, writes (To Be Fair, He Is a Journalist: A Short Response to Chris Hedges on the Black Bloc):
Some of this is personal to me, in the interest of full disclosure. I have friends in Oakland. They’re brave and awesome. Seeing them stand up to police repression and attempt to take an empty building while people sleep in the streets was exciting and invigorating for me. It was a welcome sight in today’s age of non-violent fundamentalism, where so many are beset with the crippling belief that if we just get beat up badly enough we’ll attract “the masses” with our moral superiority and somehow the wealthy and powerful will recognize the error of their ways and give us the world back that they’ve so successfully turned into their nightmarish, authoritarian, and wasted playground. My friends were gassed, beaten, given broken faces, broken dreams, and locked in cages for their bravery. And now they’re being denounced by a comfortable journalist who wasn’t there who refers to them as a “cancer”.
I don't disagree with Mr. Gato, either.

Can we square the circle?

First of all, I dislike dragging tactical efficacy into discussions regarding non-violence. For me, violence is to be avoided, full stop. Yes, I can make PR arguments that will buttress my violence-avoidance philosophy, but there are arguments that are just as credible that can support the use of violence that can degrade the conversation (just ask Michael Dukakis what he would do if his Kitty were raped and murdered, or if Hitler stomped on your Poland). The arguments that make efficacy a valid point are those that successfully pull the justification argument in their wake.

Normally, it is quite easy for us Gandhian types to say it is never justified. The leaders that are thrown up in a violent revolution, the festering wounds that reappear down the road, the repressive policies that must be lain down in order to keep those festering wounds from appearing - these are all favorites of mine and, I feel, quite robust on their face.

There is another aspect to the question, one that is exposed by a contradiction that Don Gato calls Chris Hedges out for.
But here I feel betrayed. When Hedges wrote about the Greeks, notorious for their black blocs, he praised them for “getting it.” Indeed, according to Hedges, they knew what to do. In Hedges own words:
“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.”
Apparently for Hedges, that’s good enough for the Greeks. But, by God, don’t you dare bring this filthy resistance to his home! You might accidentally (horror of horrors!) break a window! Perhaps it might belong to Hedges! Well, I passed around his piece on Greece thinking that perhaps there was, in fact, a journalist that “gets it.” I was wrong and I feel betrayed.
Ho! I'm feeling that, Gato.

Which brings me to my latest attempt to think about this question (excerpted and edited):
I think the nut of contention is in [the] statement that "Greece is us, and we are Greece" - implications, made more strongly elsewhere, that condoning the often-violent uprisings of the Arab spring is a cultural bigotry (OK for those "backward" people.) This may be true for some people (this is "America," after all), I hope its not necessary for me to say that I find such notions repellant.

And yet, I think I can contain this apparent contradiction of Hedges' and (well-meaning) others'.

Perhaps the lines are drawn differently in our different cultures. While it is in decline, we still have a relatively robust "middle class," and these are people who, while deserving of the condemnations expressed here (e.g., Ian's awesomely provocative post Yes, the American people are responsible), they can still be characterized as relatively innocent (recall the contentious debate there that still crops up in these threads), or at least naive, about their political role in enabling the elite's sacking of the commons.

Money is grease everywhere, but our system(s) are designed to put a credible veneer on it, so there is a significant swath of the American population that does not "get" the sort of rioting that was more quickly embraced by masses overseas - at least not until more decimation of the "middle class" occurs here, and the gap and clean delineation of rich and poor is more decisively established.

Yes, I am making a point about "tactical" non-violence. So - lest I, at this point, be accused of contradicting myself (having argued upthread that non-violence is a moral virtue to be considered independently of efficacy), I would like to make the point that in a culture where the lines are more clearly drawn, so is the violence against the people more clearly visible, so that what looks like aggression from afar is much more defensive to the participants involved.

Simply put - the American "Black Bloc" in general have not yet suffered the privations - material and emotional - that populations abroad have suffered. In this view they are, relatively speaking, poseurs.

It's a tautology, really. As long as the population in general doesn't get it, it isn't popular. When they do get it, the nature of "revolution" changes. It's like insurgency - if you have the popular support, you have the beds and the foods to play rope-a-dope with the State. If you don't, then you are a criminal.


Black Bloc Tactics - 10 Quick Points! (1 of 3)

Black Bloc Tactics - 10 Quick Points! (2 of 3)

Black Bloc Tactics - 10 Quick Points! (3 of 3)

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