(image: opk/flickr)

Economics is a closed system; internally it is perfectly logical, operating according to a consistent set of principles. Unfortunately, the same could be said of psychosis. What’s more, once having entered the closed system of the economist, you, like the psychotic, may have a hard time getting out.

- Judy Jones and William Wilson

The Occupy movement has largely been relegated to the margins of mainstream coverage lately – big outlets may mention something in a news capsule but generally have ignored it beyond that. It is still very much alive though, and one aspect of it has become the subject of intense debate recently: The use of violence, or what proponents call diversity of tactics.

The controversy flared up over Chris Hedges’ piece on Monday sharply critical 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.” Hedges believes there is widespread disapproval of violent tactics and that attaching them to Occupy is a cynical attempt to legitimize them. But because the two tend to be conflated in popular opinion (to the extent that anyone is paying attention) the primary effect is the discrediting of Occupy generally – both in Oakland and beyond.

The debate can take a downright philosophical turn as people hash out what violence means to them. Some don’t view property destruction as violence at all, but only the destruction of living things. Susie Cagle posted a response to Hedges and described a couple different kinds of property destruction. The first:

There was a dispersal order, but no means of escape. Protesters with shields attempted to push the police line, which responded with several volleys of tear gas into the crowd, still trapped. Instead of enduring the gas, the crowd pulled down chain-link fencing that separated them from the street and safety. 

Another:

On November 2, an autonomously organized anti-capitalist black bloc marched through Oakland, destroying windows and other property at banks and, allegedly, strike-busting businesses such as Whole Foods. 

Were both of those violent? Neither? I tend to think violence can be done against property, though it is less objectionable than violence done to living things. But context matters too – I wouldn’t consider Cagle’s first example violent because people were trying to get away from police teargassing them. The second, though? While I don’t have any particular love for Whole Foods or the big banks who have caused such misery, I don’t see where video of seemingly random acts of vandalism help the Occupy movement. To this point Occupy has largely – and rightly – been seen as nonviolent.

If that perception changes, pack everything up and go home because it will not achieve anything more of value. We can debate all day long about what’s really violent; about whether Black Bloc is a part of Occupy, an offshoot, an infiltrator or a welcome counterpart; about whether actions taken during demonstrations need to be understood within a longer historical context. In the end, such fine distinctions will mostly be lost on those watching what little coverage is available. In order to get the support of that group – the steelworker union member, the unemployed recent graduate weighed down by debt, the nervous professional dreading word of the next round of layoffs – an unambiguous reputation for nonviolence is essential.

And yes, perceptions matter here. The 1999 Seattle WTO protests have been cemented in the popular imagination as violent, and as being overrun by thugs looking for a respectable veneer for the crime spree they wanted to embark on anyway. I know that isn’t what really happened so please don’t leave comments “correcting” me! The narrative long ago came to consensus on that, however, just like it did on the (ahem) fact that Al Gore said he invented the Internet, and any other number of breaks of reality that were improperly set into casts and hardened into a deformed historical record.

If Occupy doesn’t get it right starting now the same kind of distortions will take hold. It will be presented as the nihilistic rage of a bunch of uneducated criminals and it will be marginalized. No respectable person will be permitted to endorse it – and no amount of strenuous objection will overturn that judgment. The decisions and strategies Cagle reports on may well have their self-contained logic, but like the economist and the psychotic, their world might end up inscrutable to outsiders. If Occupy loses its simple, obvious and visceral appeal to the 99% – remember them? – then get ready for a full retrenchment of the status quo.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.