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Wednesday, Feb 1, 2012, 6:53 pm

Good Protesters, Bad Protesters and the Question of Nonviolence in Occupy

By Rebecca Burns

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“We have to remember that [the police] are the ones shooting at us and using chemical weapons,” said Lisa Fithian of the Alliance of Community Trainers on a conference call Wednesday where, in the wake of last Saturday's action in Oakland, members of multiple occupations were discussing the movement’s commitment to nonviolence. “People can be upset about broken glass, but we also need to talk about what we’re going to do about the violence against our movement.”

Following mass arrests in Oakland, the mainstream media has largely shifted blame for police violence onto a group of protestors who burned flags, smashed display cases and sprayed-painted graffiti in City Hall. Yesterday, Alameda County prosecutors announced that they would only file charges against 12 demonstrators, releasing the more than 300 who were cited for “remaining at the scene of a riot” (and who the National Lawyer’s Guild says were kettled and illegally arrested.)

Now, Reuters is reporting on a broader “split over confrontational tactics” in the Occupy movement at large. The Christian Science Monitor has called this a “Hamlet moment” where the movement must decide whether “to be or not to be” nonviolent.

To be sure, this is a significant moment for the young movement, and some in Oakland have expressed frustration with the tactics employed by their co-demonstrators. Writing in Counterpunch today, Nick Robinson, a Bay Area resident who took part in Saturday’s action, argues:

A conversation in the language of street battle is rendered instantly one-sided by a well-funded, overwhelming, militarized police force because that is the only language they speak, and it is phrased adeptly. . .Our power is not in combat with the tools of Capital and the State.  That is a losing battle, lost over and over. . . We, those of us marching in the streets in the USA, occupying plazas, parks, and buildings, are not at war, as anyone who has actually been at war would explain.  Underpinning this romanticization of our situation is an understanding of the very real war on poor people, people of color, women, and LGBTQ identifying people in this city and throughout this world built on a foundation of genocide, slavery, and hatred which continues to undergird so many of our economic and social relationships.  But the battlefields of that war are not solely demarcated by lines of riot cops.

But is it fair or accurate to describe the strategic choice at hand the way much of the media is doing--along the lines of “violence vs. nonviolence?” Not really. But counterposing the two options is certainly an effective way to characterize the situation at hand according to a familiar narrative: that of “good protesters" vs. "bad protesters,” wherein the latter is the scary, unknown element that supposedly necessitates crackdowns on both groups.

This frame also encourages the “good” protestors to be responsible for reprimanding the “bad” protestors (see: Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's call for OWS to "disown" Occupy Oakland), thereby dragging movements into abstract but highly divisive debates about the meaning of violence and nonviolence. In the wake of the Oakland crackdown, activists on the national call to discuss nonviolence warned against shifting blame to their fellow activists.

The strategic decisions at hand for Occupy are not most usefully characterized as a choice between nonviolence and “violence.” There are myriad perspectives over the definition of nonviolence, particularly whether tactics such as property damage and verbal retaliation toward aggressors are compatible with a nonviolent strategy. There are also a number of perspectives critical of nonviolence that fall far from advocating offensive violence. Kingian nonviolence is, in part, about dramatizing the immorality of oppression--including, if necessary, by drawing out the oppressor’s violence onto one’s own body. Black intellectuals and activists such as Stokely Carmichael have praised King’s sacrifice but argued that his strategy puts too much of the burden on the oppressed.

Embracing a “diversity of tactics,” as is being discussed in Oakland and in New York would mark a shift from the movement’s general stance of nonviolence—but it’s wrong to conflate this with advocating violence.

What the fallout after Saturday’s action in Oakland has perhaps demonstrated, as has been noted previously by Nathan Schneider on Waging Nonviolence, is that Occupy’s commitment to nonviolence has not heretofore been very specific or strategic.

The Alliance of Community Trainers, prior to the Oakland arrests, called openly for the Occupy movement as a whole to commit itself to strategic nonviolence:

Within [the strategic nonviolent] framework, Occupy groups would make clear agreements about which tactics to use for a given action. This frame is strategic—it makes no moral judgments about whether or not violence is ever appropriate, it does not demand we commit ourselves to a lifetime of Gandhian pacifism, but it says, ‘This is how we agree to act together at this time.’ It is active, not passive. It seeks to create a dilemma for the opposition, and to dramatize the difference between our values and theirs.

Though noting that they had participated in coalitions embracing a diversity of tactics, they assert:

‘Diversity of tactics’ becomes an easy way to avoid wrestling with questions of strategy and accountability. It lets us off the hook from doing the hard work of debating our positions and coming to agreements about how we want to act together. It becomes a code for ‘anything goes,’ and makes it impossible for our movements to hold anyone accountable for their actions.

Thus far,  Occupy's non-hierarchical structure and embrace of ideological diversity has often meant that direct actions serve as a locus for popular anger rather than a means to develop and build agreement on strategy. At stake is not so much "nonviolence" writ large as autonomy, and the degree to which disparate groups are willing to make and keep agreements that could allow them to act in greater coordination. There are advantages to allowing groups autonomy to organize their own actions within larger actions. But this can also inhibit growth and trust within movements.  

While the mainstream media tells a story of good protesters and bad protesters fighting it out for the nonviolent soul of the movement, there are real questions about the autonomy of Occupiers with different ideological and strategic preferences—and how they can work together for the long-term.

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times assistant editor based in Chicago, where she also covers labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at] Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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