This was published with considerable feedback from several bloggers at Corrente: DCblogger, affinis, lambert and okanogen. My sincere thanks to all of them for their help. Note: this post was updated shortly after publication.
When writing about violence at Occupy there seems to be a great deal of controversy over what the word itself means, so I’ll lead this post with what I hope is an unobjectionable definition. Since it comes from Google (via) it may well be the most-read definition of violence in the English speaking world:
violence – noun – Behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.
Now, some don’t think that’s what violence is. Some strenuously object to the last two words and insist violence can only be done to someone, not something1.
For purposes of a public discussion, though, it’s best to go with the commonly understood definition. That common understanding may be wrong, and you may think the vast majority of people are credulous fools for believing as they do. That’s fine! Do your best to persuade them that violence cannot be done to some thing, only some one. (Or, if you want, that violence is really an ice cream sandwich.) Make that your project. Language evolves; do your part!
Until you reach that critical mass, though, you can’t just redefine a word and then insist that your new definition be the one everyone uses. This is an example of the kind of frustration okanogen was referring to when he wrote “debating violence advocates [VAs] is like nailing jello to a wall.” So once again, just to be extra clear, the definition of violence in this post is the common one: Behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.
VAs often seem to edge right up to approving of violence, but never take that last little step. For instance, Graeber writes: “While I have never personally engaged in acts of property destruction, I have on more than one occasion taken part in Blocs where property damage has occurred.” He has the opportunity to disavow the violence (keeping in mind that under the novel VA definition property destruction is not violence), yet chooses not to.2
“While I have never personally engaged in acts of property destruction” is a curious construct. It reads as though he understands such violence would be widely disapproved of, so he does not want his own name actually attached to it – but that he is sympathetic to it. So he splits the difference; doesn’t condemn it, but says he’s never done it. Try that in another context and see how convincing it sounds: “While I have never personally engaged in [insert crime here], [finish sentence as best you can.]“
Then there is the conflation of objecting to violence with turning the violent over to police (or vigilante policing by activists). Much of the discussion by nonviolence advocates (NVAs) objecting to violent tactics has centered around finding ways to disassociate themselves from VAs. Violence advocates most often refuse to acknowledge that NVAs have any right to be considered separate from them. Again and again, attempts by NVAs to say “no, this is not us; no, this is not what we stand for” is flipped into a call for violence against the VAs themselves (and through the looking glass we go).3
One interesting result that has emerged from our conversations: The deep reluctance of VAs – who claim to really be in favor of nonviolence, just their own proprietary definition of it – to even theoretically endorse the idea of nonviolence as others have. Look at the thread that starts here. The talking point that there has only been one incidence of Black Bloc violence in 800 occupations quickly emerges. It’s not true, incidentally – see below – but let’s allow it for the sake of the argument.
Two responses: One, the time to speak out against violence is before it becomes common, and two, if it really is that rare then why not keep it that way or eliminate it altogether? VAs seem reluctant to address these points. This one commenter attempts to, but badly. “Let the throwing under the bus begin!” etc. These kinds of probably unrepresentative individuals are the best we seem to be able to find, though. Overall VAs are not interested in even paying lip service to nonviolence; they are more interested in erecting elaborate constructs to justify we-don’t-call-that-violence.
Doing so reduces violence to but one item on a menu. In VAs formulation smashing windows is right there along with, say, a drum circle in terms of acceptability. If you think smashing windows is violent, though, and you are forced together with those with a, shall we say, more expansive view of acceptable behavior, then you have to make some choices. You can remain silent and risk having that silence be taken as approval, or you can speak out.
NVAs speak out with the goal of encouraging all like-minded individuals to voice their opinions, show what an unrepresentative minority VAs are, and (hopefully) isolate them from the larger group. Graeber insists this inevitably leads to either the dreaded snitching or the even more dreaded Peace Police (yes, he actually uses that term). Objecting to violence equals attempting to police VAs, and policing them equals violence. So if you object to someone trashing a local establishment, you’re the real thug and oppressor.
Entering into that kind of Twilight Zone logic obscures what would otherwise be very clear: That there are irreconcilable differences between the approaches of VAs and NVAs. The strategy of nonviolence has certain qualities that cannot coexist with violence advocacy in general or Black Bloc tactics in particular.4 The most obvious quality is transparency. General Assembly and other meetings are open, actions are publicly discussed and debated, minutes are kept and posted, and participants show their faces. The consistent message is, we have nothing to hide. As affinis put it: “Straightforward honest communication builds trust and support.”
Another difference is the spirit of inclusion versus exclusion. A nonviolent mass movement is open to all walks of life – from strollers to walkers. Introducing violence will keep away most of those with young ones who (rightly) would fear for their safety. It would also keep away many older people for whom a fall is not something they can just spring up from. And furthermore, the prospect of arrest is going to keep away many people of color. While arrest is a possibility with nonviolent civil disobedience, an arrest on violence charges is much more serious. Sachio ko-yin put it this way: “By making protest space even more unsafe for folks from communities of color, people who can’t afford an arrest record, and working class people generally, the Black Bloc has always frustrated me.”
Which leads to yet another difference: the willingness to be arrested. NVAs undertake direct action and civil disobedience with the understanding that they may be detained by police, perhaps unreasonably so and in poor conditions. VAs, on the other hand, regard the prospect of arrest as abhorrent. Now, there may well be stiffer penalties for property destruction than for a sit down strike, but the principle is the same either way: If you have the courage of your convictions you should be willing to pay the civil cost of your disobedience. NVAs have that courage; VAs do not. Look at the way one NVA movement approached it (in the context of a peaceful mass movement):
Towards the climax of their uprising in Serbia, the police started rounding up activists wearing Otpor! T-shirts and hauling them into the police stations. Naturally the kids were terrified. Otpor! set about defusing their anxiety.
“First we debriefed our people when they came out of the police station, then we briefed the people who were at risk of being arrested. We told them, you will be handcuffed, then if you are male you will be put in a cell with drunk people; if female, with whores. They will separate you from your friends, then after a few hours they will come and take your fingerprints and they will remove your belt and shoelaces and you will feel embarrassed because your trousers will fall down. Then after a few hours they will take you to an interrogation and this is the list of questions they will ask you and these are the answers you will give them.
“Meanwhile, we invited people to gather in front of the police station; everybody at risk of being arrested had lined up a lawyer in advance. Parents of the kids were informed, and we had a network of old ladies who called the police station continuously to ask about those who had been arrested. And now you are sitting there, and everything is happening as predicted, and the good detective is offering you a cigarette and the bad one is hitting you on the head and it looks like a bad joke. And the phones are ringing in the police station and nobody can do anything. And my question is, who is under siege now? This is not the most comfortable situation for the police: they deal with criminals. You block them from doing their normal job, traffic, looters, the things they should do instead of interrogating an 18-year-old kid for wearing a T-shirt…” And gradually that particular pillar of tyranny, the police, is weakened, one policeman at a time.
(Also note the conclusion of the piece: “He quotes Jorge Luis Borges: ‘Violence,’ the great Argentine writer put it, ‘is the last refuge of the weak.’”)
Which would you rather be a part of? And is it any wonder VAs are trying to blur the lines between themselves and NVAs? Even beyond the immediate case of arrest and detention, trace out the implication of NVA strategies versus VA tactics. One is sustainable, one is not.
For instance, what would VAs say to the woman who alleged to have been sexually assaulted at Occupy? She went to the police; was she a snitch? Should she have gone to VAs instead of authorities? Would they have handled it in-house, so to speak? Have VAs articulated some sort of neo-feudal code of chivalry by which its members will voluntarily restrain themselves – without resort to the legal system or the (eek!) Peace Police? 5 For those which such rosy dispositions, Willem Buiter: “Self-regulation is to regulation as self-importance is to importance.”6
VA tactics don’t work as a model because they are not designed to work as a model. Their main function is to shield those engaging in violence from the consequences of their actions. Whether it’s the high minded “One expresses what solidarity one can with others who share the same struggle, and if one cannot, tries ones best to ignore or avoid them” or the much bolder “snitches get stitches,” the result is the same: those who object are silenced. In fact, by playing directly into the media and political elites’ preferred theme of violent confrontation, VAs are arguably more naturally allied with authorities than NVAs.
Identity versus anonymity; openness versus secrecy; direct action as preservation or improvement (i.e. Occupy Our Homes) versus direct action as destruction; mass movement versus insurgency; invitation versus exclusion. The two approaches could not be more different.
VAs want the halo effect. They want to force an association with a much larger group: one that enjoys much broader popular support; one that embraces values in many ways opposite from theirs. If they can do that, some of the shine of Occupy’s good reputation might reflect on them. More probably, though, they will drag support down to their own unpopular level (via) – and will sharply reduce the number of people participating (via)7
I began with a definition of violence. There are other definitions obviously, and I have no desire to get into a game of Dueling Dictionaries with VAs. So I’ll close with a multimedia illustration of what I consider violent. It focuses on events at Occupy only and is not comprehensive. It is simply a way to show what I’m thinking about when I’m thinking of violence. These examples are not characteristic of Occupy; so far incidents like them have been exceedingly rare. I’d love to see them stay exceedingly rare, or even better go away completely.
So, do the examples below contain violence? My answer precedes or is embedded in each link.
Pay particular attention to that last video. Around 1:05 a protester – wearing a helmet but otherwise with his face clearly visible – tries to put himself in front of the ones smashing windows and pleads “No violence! No violence!” As he does so he is pushed and then surrounded by a masked, black clad group of, ahem, activists. This is not nuns protesting nukes.
It’s a measure of how thoroughly inverted VAs have made the narrative that they claim in this scenario it’s the man saying “no violence” and being menaced by a swarm of anonymous vandals who is the one doing violence – and the vandals here are the victims!
VA claims simply do not survive contact with reality. They are parlor tricks intended to be considered without reference to what is actually happening. And as far as I am concerned they are presented with the intent to deceive.
By my lights, anyone who thinks the linked content above is not violent acquiesces to violence at a minimum. They can more properly be called apologists for violence. The refusal to denounce it in the current context – namely, its imminent danger of discrediting a popular mass movement – could arguably (but less generously) be called advocacy. I don’t feel especially charitable towards those who I think are lying to me about such a serious matter, so I have called and will continue to call them violence advocates.
1. I’ve mostly used quotes from Graeber to argue against for two reasons. One, his original piece and prominence as a spokesperson make him one of the more important voices out there in this discussion. Two, he stopped by my cross post on Daily Kos and shared some thoughts with the Kos community. This post is in part an extension of the dialog that began there. While I’ve used his arguments as the main ones to address, I’ve tried to keep the focus on principles and not personalities (“YOU’RE AN IDIOT” etc.) I’ve made an effort to keep this from reading as an attack on Graeber; it’s his objectionable ideas I’m more concerned with. I’ve tried to write the post so it reads that way, and I hope it shows.
2. This is from the “I never inhaled” school of argument. Also note the passive voice “has occurred”, as in “mistakes were made.”
3. In his rebuttal to the previous piece in this series, Graeber claims to be compiling a list of violent actions taken by NVAs. Purely on the basis of making Occupy transparent and holding it accountable, all should welcome such a list, if and when it is presented. We look forward to its release.
However, such a list would prove the very case made here: (1) that violence as a strategy does not work – in this case, putting NVAs in a poor light (even if VAs going against GA NV commitments turns out to be the instigating factor) and (2) the need for explicit commitments to NV by Occupations, which all should adhere to.
4. See here for a good discussion of strategy vs. tactics – among other things.
5. Consider also the potential that such an honor system has for further exclusion. Women have learned to not set too much store on the purity of men’s motives, and an environment where things are informally “worked out” seems much more prone to cover ups and conspiracies of silence. So you can add women to people of color, the very young and the elderly to those excluded by VAs tactics. Do the demographics seem to be narrowing towards a particular group here?
6. For those who think Anarchism is the answer, what kind of relevant real world examples can they supply? Because the tendency in the kinds of environments under discussion – socially unstable, developing and volatile – is for what Rachel Luft called disaster masculinity to emerge. See her Searching for Common Ground [PDF] for a useful case study. The experience described here seems much closer to reality than the utopian dream world VAs are trying to sell people on:
American individualism, exacerbated by men’s sense of entitlement to autonomy, in the context of the pervasive [New Orleans large grassroots relief effort Common Ground Collective] CG do-it-yourself culture of decentralization, was deployed to resist accountability in the name of rugged freedom. As one white male volunteer with an anarchy symbol on his shirt retorted in response to the facilitator’s suggestion about gender caucuses, “So you think homogenization is the key to antiracist growth?”
And please spare me the “anarchism cannot fail, it can only be failed” replies. An ideology that has no mechanism for restraining senses of entitlement or checking aggrandized egos is not one suited for planet Earth.
7. Much, much more from Chenoweth here and here.