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by danps

Utopian colonies and the deep roots of Occupy

2:32 am in Uncategorized by danps


Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Last year I worked on a series of posts1 with a loose collection of bloggers, mostly from Corrente. The general theme was arguing against the “diversity of tactics” approach being introduced at numerous Occupy encampments, Occupy Oakland in particular. During this process one of our co-authors – jaspergregory – referenced “The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America” by Richard J. Ellis as providing a good examination of authoritarian impulses among progressives since roughly the 1830s.

I put the book in my queue and am just now getting to it (I work slowly, what can I say). Having gone about a third of the way through I’d say it’s a good read but not a must read. On the plus side, I think liberals benefit from taking an unflinching look at the intolerance that has sometimes come from their own side. This does not mean paying attention to manufactured outrage on the right, incidentally.

On the other hand, Ellis seems to have started from a contrarian impulse. In his introduction he describes his reaction on reading a liberal author’s book on right wing authoritarianism. In Ellis’ view such a book needed to be balanced by a similar one, by and for the left. As his book proceeds he sometimes shoehorns his history into his thesis, and sometimes the poor fit shows.

For instance, Ellis’ examples show exactly the kind of false equivalence liberals point out in MSM “both sides do it” narratives. Right wing authoritarians have at times in American history prospered greatly. When the environment is friendly, and it has been friendly numerous times, there seems to be no limit to how far a right wing authoritarian can go.

The same is not true for liberals. Left wing authoritarians either marginalize themselves or are marginalized by political leadership. They do not ascend to power the way right wing authoritarians can. On the right you can point to Senator Joe McCarthy. On the left is George Pickett, who is not even the most famous George Pickett. See the difference?

Another weakness in Ellis’ argument is his rather expansive definition of words like authoritarian. In writing about Walt Whitman and his spiritual descendants, he repeatedly uses authoritarian terms to describe their longing for a charismaic leader to help bring the world they envision. That doesn’t strike me as authoritarian though. It seems more messianic or prophetic, a way for a nonreligious movement to articulate a sort of mystical or transcendent vision. That doesn’t seem especially authoritarian though, and Ellis’ book is least persuasive to me when he reaches like that.

What is really fascinating (and surprisingly relevant) is Ellis’ coverage of utiopian communities that began to form in the late nineteenth century. Inspired in part by proto-science fiction like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, these communities withdrew from the larger society in an effort to construct the one they envisioned. While the only separatist type impulses these days seem to be on the right, their governance had striking similarities to Occupy – including its weaknesses. (I will include short clips here and longer excerpts in footnotes):2

These colonies were typically hyperdemocratic: “democracy with the lid off,” in the words of one colony leader. Unlike in religious colonies where the leader could single-handedly expel dissenters, expulsion in these secular egalitarian colonies often required a near-unanimous vote of the general assembly. Within the general assembly, moreover, any man in the colony could speak for any amount of time on whatever issue.

The near-unanimous vote of the general assembly resembles the consensus model used by Occupy. As our group noted last year, a consensus model eventually works to the advantage of those with the most time. Getting 90% approval might represent the overwhelming view of the majority, but it might also might represent 90% of the handful left after an extended and frustrating filibuster.

When a tiny minority can block change like that, popular ideas and general sentiment cannot be codified; something like a formal commitment to nonviolence remains ever out of reach even if the vast majority approve. When substantive action is ruled out, it becomes all about personalities:3

For instance, an attempt to write a constitution that would remedy some of the evident weaknesses in the colony’s political structure foundered after getting bogged down in interminable arguments over details. The untempered egalitarianism of the General Assembly not only made collective decision making difficult, but it also tended to inflame personal jealousies and factional rivalries.

In California’s Llano del Rio Colony this led to an extreme enforcement of loyalty under the charismatic leader George Pickett:4

Pickett responded to this challenge to his authority by having the organizers of the opposition movement expelled from the colony. He justified his actions by arguing that “there should be NO MINORITY in such an organization or enterprise as the colony, for the reason that IT ITSELF IS THE MINORITY” within the capitalist system. The threat posed by the external enemy required a “solid phalanx” and the “utmost loyalty” within the colony. Disloyalty in such critical times could not be tolerated; indeed it was treasonable since it threatened the future existence of the colony.

Which seems quite similar to the “comrade” language that was especially popular at Occupy Oakland. This line between voluntary solidarity and enforced unanimity is something both Occupy and the utopian colonies struggled with. Ellis writes this about the demise of Llano, but it too has more contemporary echoes:5

Embedded in the ideal of a perfect unity is an invitation for one person to speak for all without considering their opinions or preferences. Recognizing that interests and values inevitably and legitimately clash is necessary to protect against the charismatic or authoritarian leader. Cooperation and harmonious relations are always nice, but they are worth precious little if they come at the expense of democracy and dissent.

Finally, a more general note. Idealism can be dangerous when it causes people to compare the world they wish to come with the current one. Frustration, impatience and even despair over the difference can cause a jaded outlook and corrosive cynicism to creep in; abstract celebrations of the working class sour into denunciations of the crass and vulgar people who actually comprise it; the striving to create alternate political models makes it tempting to write off and boycott existing political structures as hopelessly corrupt. Perhaps most importantly of all, an overly ideological outlook makes it easy to demonize others:6

The often rancorous character of debate in the Llano General Assembly must be put down in part to a worldview that made no allowance for legitimate conflict. Since Llano had eliminated conflict between rival interests, disagreements must reflect bad faith, sinister intent, or plain ignorance. Civility and respect become difficult when one construes opponents in terms of betrayal or benightedness. Put positively, recognition that different groups and individuals have interests can be a profoundly democratic and even egalitarian idea. In following the elusive grail of natural harmony and innate goodness, colonists subverted their own egalitarian and democratic ends.

Simply maintaining a belief in the existence of legitimate conflict, and making allowance for it even in the midst of a heated debate, is a very liberal sensibility. It’s worth claiming as our own and holding onto, even (especially) when it is most tempting to discard it.

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by danps

Keeping 1 percent values out of a 99 percent movement

2:31 pm in Uncategorized by danps

This was published with considerable feedback from affinis, JuliaWilliams, okanogen and lambert. My sincere thanks to them for their help.

The purge of livestreamers and other transparency advocates at Occupy Oakland has been largely successful, and last weekend produced one of its predictable results. At the weekly Fuck the Police march there was a huge spike in vandalism (via) over previous ones, and there was a greatly escalated police response. The unilateral disarmament of livestreamers meant that, as Sue Basko (among others) pointed out, only the authorities were able to record the events of that night. If they choose to selectively edit or show only clips that support their side of the story, what will there be to rebut that?1 (Basko also points out that livestreaming video can be used to rebut charges made by authorities, something the accused in this case might find handy. Her Occupy Symposium has been collecting really nice essays on this topic, incidentally.)

It actually is not strictly true that there were no live streamers at Fuck the Police. There were a couple, and they were physically threatened.2 Because of that intimidation they radically trimmed their coverage. The resulting video is of some help, but not nearly as much as a full and open livestream.3 In an email exchange afterwards affinis noted that livestreamers have become afraid of covering the news, to which lambert responded: “Exactly. Since when is covering the news about respect? This is no different from the Washington Post!”

On the face of it that is just a little bit of snark, but there’s a very serious subtext. At its most ambitious Occupy represents an audacious leap of imagination, what some call prefiguration: Envision the world you want to see, and then begin to inhabit it. Model the behavior you want to see in the larger society. Or more colloquially, fake it till you make it.

Doing so takes time and patience, though. It takes a while for something that radical to sink in to people’s heads, even those people who are sympathetic. Matt Taibbi – a close observer of the movement and no friend of Wall Street – took a couple of months to come around, but he finally did: “People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something.”

Getting people on board with something so different requires openness and transparency. One very important aspect of openness that has either been only sporadic or entirely missing from Occupy is stated values. The consensus process at Occupy – which has been criticized for not being an authentic one – has largely prevented the adoption of broad principles that a minority object to. With something like a statement of nonviolence, a tiny minority with strenuous objections has shown the ability to frustrate the will of the overwhelming majority. A dynamic like that could ultimately cause the long term failure of Occupations that cannot resolve it, though as in science failures can be useful (lots to examine and learn from for those inclined!)

As for transparency, advocates need to not only expect visibility into others’ processes, but must willingly open themselves to that visibility too. If your new model does not allow for that – if, for instance, you want to plan violence in secret and carry it out anonymously (neither of which is transparent) – then you can’t very well expect to draw too many others to your cause. Why go to all that bother to trade one opaque, unaccountable elite for another?4 The prefiguration is crucial.

One type of prefiguration is media ecology. Big media outlets catering to power instead of challenging it have been a major source of dissatisfaction for nearly a generation now.5 That dissatisfaction may be driving viewers away, which opens up new possibilities – which Occupy is showing an ability to seize. The emerging sensibility of the new media environment is one of lightly mediated – or entirely unmediated – transmission of information. There are certainly hazards with this approach. For one, it means trying to take a drink from a firehose. A twitter stream or livestream can be hard to process; too much information, too much video to watch, too many links to click on, too many stressors maintaining online relationships. Consumers need to be their own quasi-editors, deciding which sources to rely on in order to be able to process what’s coming in.

Another hazard is epistemic closure, the condition where one only gets information from sources one trusts. The resulting echo chamber serves only to reinforce one’s prior beliefs, and causes people to retreat into rigid, sclerotic worldviews consisting exclusively of agreeable sentiments. There’s an entire book that can be written about that, though, so I’ll just note that it’s a phenomenon that predates the Internet.

For all the potential problems, though, there is no denying that Occupy’s media ecology is a very different model than legacy media’s. Which is the point! I don’t think most of the people who support Occupy do so because they want some new version of the Washington Post. I for one have had quite enough trembling deference towards those in power, and I’m not especially interested in seeing the same thing start to happen in this new context. As John Seal put it, “some Occupy supporters are now eagerly mimicking the high-security, everything-is-classified government they supposedly hold in such contempt.” And they are attempting to impose the same atmosphere of meek compliance on those who cover them. None for me, thanks; I’ve seen how that movie ends.

Lack of transparency leads easily to lack of accountability, and unsurprisingly that was what happened in the Fuck the Police march. In addition to the absence of livestreamers, those engaged in violence concealed their faces. This is a preferred tactic among violence advocates, but it has some obvious drawbacks that Jasper Gregory pointed out: One, a child could figure out how to infiltrate such a group, and two, the choice of that tactic made it irrelevant who did the actual violence. If you choose anonymity in advance, then anyone who uses it is one of your fellows – whether you want them to be or not.6

Some violence advocates tried to distance themselves by saying it wasn’t the real black bloc that did it (“no true Scotsman”), but a heretofore unknown imposter black bloc that is merely comprised of an immature group of transient kids who are only in it for the adrenaline rush of violent confrontation. Unlike the actual black bloc, of course! It’s hard to know where to even start with unconquerable ignorance like this, though Jasper captured its essential absurdity nicely. (Bonus stupidity: “if pigs want to smash capitalism by my side, i say let em.” Yes, capitalism was certainly dealt a death blow while you – and the pigs, naturally – engaged in petty vandalism against a Quizno’s and a local credit union. Well done.)

For as much as conformity, opacity and lack of accountability have become characteristics of elites that Occupy is rebelling against, it may be that their violence is the most objectionable – and therefore the most important not to reproduce. A country exhausted by endless wars (including of the death-from-above covert drone variety), militarized police forces, executive assassination programs and a brutally punitive criminal justice system is not going to rally around a movement that promises more of the same. Those who are rising up against the wholesale theft of ordinary citizens’ houses (a truly great act of violence) will not generally see justice in wild acts of retribution.

“Retribution” is the most charitable way to describe the rioting that violence advocates are so enthusiastic about. And yes, it is wild. While there are occasional lazy stabs at trying to circumscribe their vandalism, violence is a fundamentally chaotic act. It can veer out of control with little warning, and the destruction at the Fuck the Police march is just the latest example. Small wonder there has been so little discussion about it. People did not flock to Occupy to shift the locus of antisocial behavior in society from wealth-addled bankers in suits to twentysomething punks in black.

In order to have a chance at substantial and lasting change there has to be more to Occupy than some crude idea getting even. There has to be something that calls the overwhelming majority of people to something better. Part of that call is strategic. There is already a great deal written on the ultimate advantages to a nonviolent approach, with this being a great example. Lambert recently made the case in an email: “Rhetorically, I think we need to frame over and over again that [nonviolence advocates'] strategy has the greatest chance of success. That’s what we want, success. We want to look to successful movements.”

While that is certainly important (winning counts!), I believe the greater part of that call is moral (or ethical if you prefer). In an extended exchange (see footnote), Hugh wrote: “Change does not come from winning arguments but by changing hearts.”7 If you turn people off the way violence advocates do, then the only way to produce change is at the barrel of a gun. This would be the “neither hearts nor minds” approach. It is oppressive, and those under it will throw it off at the first opportunity. If you seek to persuade people to your cause, it is possible to win them over. You can then make more durable changes, though it can be reversed by a shift in the political winds or effective sophistry. This would be the “minds but not hearts” approach.

But if you change people’s hearts as well, they are liable to do more than simply accede to your wishes; they might just join in the effort as well. In the case of Occupy is also allows for the greatest contrast with the ruling class. Convincing most that our bellicose foreign policy is making us more enemies than friends, or that rampant lawlessness by the people running our biggest financial institutions will prevent the housing market from finally bottoming out; saying that such things are bad policy for America and ultimately against our long term interests might get lots of head nodding in agreement. But convince those same people that these things are grave injustices and deeply immoral? That’s the stuff revolutions are made of.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.


1. “Marchers wearing black clothing and backpacks were captured on video committing acts of vandalism and retreating into the marching crowd, police said.” Also: “Several of these acts of vandalism and suspects were captured on video surveillance.” Way to go, dumbasses.

2. See here for how violence advocates have intimidated livestreamers. In particular, jeffkloy, Josh and worthoftheworld were all present; Eiko Huh stayed away entirely. Josh appeared to be representing the Oakland Media Group, but no livestream of the event is available at their site. Jeffkloy avoided recording violence to “show respect” to those engaged in it (not that it won him any good will). Meanwhile, worthoftheworld – who appears at least somewhat sympathetic to those engaged in violence – announced a livestream, but as far as we know has not posted it. Interestingly, she had this to say about the suppression in a series of Tweets (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

every1 is so quick to confront the streamers for their accountability in capturing sensitive evidence… we should put same energy on holding ourselves accountable to our actions, helping comrades make wiser decisions in the heat of moments & ultimately, we need to put serious energy in holding the system (#SFPD, #OPD, #DEA, etc..) accountable!!! every1 attacks a streamer for their footage, who actually makes a physical effort to hold the System accountable? Beyond #Ftp marches? streamers are not the key element of arrest. an action of wrong doing has to happen first. this is The System failing,or comrade mistake. so on the topic of streaming, 3 elements of accountability. let’s spend equal time on all of them. and be fair


3. Affinis: “The basic chronology is pretty clear. Watching what actually happened (or at least, what Kloy was able to capture) is very different from you’d infer if the OO twitter stream was your only source of info.”

4. Here is where things start to get a little interesting. One sticking point among those working out prefiguration is, prefigured by whom? Or more precisely, excluding whom? In a movement of the 99% presumably the 1% would have no say, right? Are Wall Street executives kept out of the discussion? Violence advocates? There’s a whole slippery slope argument around that, as well as around who performs the gatekeeping function.

Without laying down any specific markers, I’d just say as a general principle that more inclusion is better. If the goal is to subvert existing pillars of the establishment, it seems to me that engaging with those who provide crucial support for those pillars – not antagonizing them – is the best way to win them over. If the prefiguration includes a rigorous process of harmonizing new groups and ideas with the stated values, there’s a pretty good chance it will be robust enough to resist falling into a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” trap.

5. That’s provided you date your disillusionment with the start of the Clinton impeachment circus and the way the big outlets uncritically catapulted right wing propaganda during the entire affair. There are lots of different places one could put that marker down, though.

6. Those fellows could include modern day Pinkertons, among others (emph. added):

Approaches more often used by intelligence agencies are needed to confront this threat. The creative use of intelligence officers, either developed internally or borrowed from the private sector, can afford police agencies the speed, knowledge and agility needed to counter these emerging threats and the chaos that they promote.


7. Original exchange here. Here is a lightly edited (for readability) version:

By Hugh on Fri, 03/30/2012 – 10:42pm

Also I think people need to go back and study social movements in the past. I would suggest in particular Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. King and the movement were effective because they were willing to confront authority in the pursuit of justice and they infused their movement and actions with a moral purpose. This not only served to unify those involved and keep them moving together in the same direction but the morality of what they were doing and what they were willing to risk and sacrifice won over millions to their cause.

It wasn’t that they were intellectually right on the issues that swayed the country. That in itself was insufficient. Nor was it the justice of their cause. That might have won them a few converts. It was the moral purpose with which they imbued their struggle and which they were able to communicate to the general public that gave them their power. They did it in their words, their actions, and their sacrifices. They made millions care. They put their opponents on the defensive. They did this by focusing on the moralness of their purpose. People can dance around an issue for an age and still remain uncommitted. But by their example and sacrifice, those in the civil rights movement forced Americans to respond to them on a moral level. And on that level they were irresistible because a moral response is about who and what we are as human beings. It is the one place, if only for a little while, that we can cut through all the bullshit.

John Jay Chapman who belonged to a different era and another struggle said that reform movements to be effective must be religious in character. At the time when I read him, I wasn’t sure I agreed. But with time, I have come to see the wisdom in what he was saying. Change does not come from winning arguments but by changing hearts. Change someone’s mind, they may acknowledge the justice of your arguments, and do nothing. Change their hearts, and your struggle becomes their struggle. It is on the moral level that all this plays out. Words must fit actions and both must fit the moral purpose being invoked. If there is a dishonesty in any of that, then the battle is lost because people will be repelled by the falsity. They don’t need to know all the facts and arguments. They only need to see the flaw. But if these are true, suffused with a moral purpose, and tempered by real sacrifice, most people will respond to that truth and act according to its demands.

This is what I see missing from Occupy. Certainly you can see bits and pieces of this in particular actions but overall the movement remains strangely morally empty.

By RanDomino on Sat, 03/31/2012 – 9:26pm

I think I agree with the sentiment if not the terminology. “Morality” to anarchists means the morality of religion and society – personal restriction even when it would harm no one, for no other purpose than control of individuals by institutions such as the church and State.

If you mean something more along the lines of ‘vision’ that we certainly have.

By Hugh on Sun, 04/01/2012 – 12:24am

Yes, “vision” will win you 3 or 4 new converts at the least. Sorry for the snark, but it really looks like you have no interest in making common cause with the 99% because you reject right off the bat speaking to them in any way they are likely to respond to. Not only will you be unsuccessful but you will deserve to be because you are being incredibly disrespectful of those you want as allies. You can not expect them to set aside their prejudices for even a little while if you are not willing to do the same.

Most people are focused on their everyday lives. They have their plans and their schemes. It is a lot to ask them to set that all aside, but there are moments in life such as before a great cause when they will if addressed precisely on that moral level which you discount. And that is where the disrespect comes in. The moral level is inherently respectful because, as King understood and what he counted on, was that millions of Americans could be reached at that level because he did not just believe in his own morality but he also believed in theirs. That’s respect. He did not necessarily believe in their plans and schemes nor ask them to believe in his. This was not about doing away with difference. It was about finding the underlying similarity, and for that you have to go deep into a person. At that level if you ask them to stand shoulder to shoulder with you, you better damn well be ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. And if you are not even willing to go to that level, well the game is over before it is even begun. You are left on the level of everyday plans and schemes. And why really should they sacrifice theirs for yours?


by danps

How disorganization is damaging Occupy

2:28 am in Uncategorized by danps

This was published with considerable feedback from affinis, Jasper, JuliaWilliams and lambert. My sincere thanks to them for their help.

A few weeks ago Occupy Oakland (OO) began to emphasize secrecy (or security culture) over transparency, which resulted in livestreamers being attacked as snitches or quasi-authorities. In addition, large group of transparency advocates have been ostracized as racists with little or no due process.

The attacks on transparency have become an ongoing effort; last week Kate Conger Tweeted her experience in running afoul of the secrecy police at OO. Interestingly, she is a freelancer who was more interested in the decision making process than whatever nefarious purpose the more conspiracy-minded saw in the shadows. And she also asked: “Explain to me why a movement founded on free speech principles doesn’t support freedom of press?” Which as far as I know has not been answered yet.

This week it has gone even further, led by the explosive charge that police used livestreaming video in the arrest of activists Nneka, Cincinnati and Teardrop – aka the Ice Cream Three.1 There has been a great deal of comment on the piece; the key excerpt:

According to defense lawyer Dan Siegel, it was the livestream footage that allowed OPD to target and arrest the Ice Cream Three at subsequent demonstrations over a week later: “There would be no case at all if people were not taking video and posting it publicly, and if the defendants had refused to speak with police once they were in custody.” Patti, Nneka’s mom, commented, “The really sad thing is that the footage came from Nneka’s best friend. She would never have wanted this!”

Keep in mind these are the thoughts of a defense attorney employed to present his client’s case in the best possible light. Maybe his allegations are true, but then again maybe not. The eagerness with which anti-transparency advocates have swallowed those comments whole is striking, even taking into account the natural human inclination to believe those things that bolster one’s worldview and more closely scrutinize those that don’t.2

One of the, ahem, benefits of shutting down efforts at openness is that those who are calling the shots can hide in a cloak of anonymity and make decisions from behind the scenes. Occupations that have shut down what began with a robust culture of openness have constructed a neatly self-contained universe – one that permits them to wield substantial authority but disclaim ownership of anything produced by it. (It also tends to create its own self-reinforcing structures.) Decision making done by a few, responsibility shared by all. See here for an analogous dynamic.

Those who want to constructively criticize that dynamic are then left grasping at straws: with no transparency, there is no way to know who in particular is driving these unhealthy developments.

If it seems that, say, facilitation has turned into a power center where much of the direction is set, but there is no way to see or read exactly what is going on, how does one even begin to offer a critique? Those who are happy as clams with this state of affairs can simply demand to know who in particular is the source of the problem. With no transparency into the process, this is unknowable from the outside. So those who wish to be insulated from accountability get a free ride. A nice arrangement, if you can manage it.

Perhaps not coincidentally, opacity tends to work well in conjunction with violence advocacy. A culture of repression is very congenial to chaotic notions of autonomy, “no snitching” orders3, and an apocalyptic mindset that insists if revolution does not happen immediately then all is lost.

It also seems supportive of a certain moral vacuousness that stridently denies any responsibility for violence on the grounds that the violence had already been completed by the real villains (e.g. “anarchists don’t fuck up health centers. Corporations and the government does”).4 Cries of snitching and sexism in support of an attack on a clinic that serves the community are a bit hard to take.

Opacity works well with a certain kind of wilfully naïve view of the process, too. Consensus doesn’t mean “everyone agrees” or even “most people agree.” It is very involved, and some in the Occupy power centers seem largely ignorant of it5. Look at the contrast between this from one of the folks on an InterOccupy listserv:

The early facilitators seemed to believe that OWS invented the consensus process. Many of us who had training and experience in consensus decision-making were dismayed from the beginning, because what we were witnessing was not consensus, but a faux consensus. Many didn’t return. I stayed to see if I could persuade the facilitation working group to adopt other modes, e.g. breaking up into groups during GAs, allowing for debates during GAs, making sure that substance was at least as important than process.

We have had a big problem of late in that insisting on being “leaderless” has left a vacuum that has been filled by tyrants in the group. Until the various dysfunctions are dealt with, we’re unlikely to make significant progress. A few of us have identified the dysfunction rooted in lack of nonviolence training, including true consensus decision-making. And add to that a lack of vision of how it all fits together in horizontalism self-governance on a broader scale.

And this by an anarchist in the OWS Direct Action Working Group

This is just such an elementary understanding of the anarchic nature of occupy’s functioning. It disregards autonomy entirely. You don’t need “the movement” to do something. When you do something that is movement. Movements are more time than group. If this is a time of a peoples liberation movement then things that happen now in that vein are pieces of that movement. If what you are doing appeals to folks you will get their buy in and if not you will be doing it on your own. Those are both ok, so long as you’re not speaking for people other than those present to consent to what’s being said on their behalf.

The reason consensus would be a burden is if you’re trying to force others into something they don’t want. Nothing about other’s non interest keeps you from doing something with those who choose to participate.

The ideas expressed in the second excerpt strike me as shockingly immature. You cannot just say, do your own thing and if others dig it a hundred flowers will bloom! Nor can you say that whatever any subset of Occupy does is by definition Occupy; some actions – most notably violence – will be seen as representative of the entire movement. For those who want a nonviolent mass movement, a violence advocate’s “when you do something that is movement” ends up being the negation of the movement.6

None of this is merely academic. Maintaining the charade that Occupy is leaderless, preventing any sort of visible decision making structure from emerging, not implementing any sort of review or sanction mechanism for those who refuse to adhere to an authentic consensus process: these all come at a terribly high cost, and nowhere was that more obvious last week than in the The Million Hoodie March. Elon James White wrote about his experience with an Occupy movement that at least partially attempted to co-opt a protest against the murder of Trayvon Martin. His report is consistent enough with others’ (Esther Choi’s, for example) that it cannot be dismissed as the griping of a malcontent.

Saying that those who tried to use the protest for their own ends are just a few bad apples is – in addition to being pretty stunningly unaware of the term’s unsavory recent history – a nonsensical response if your position is “when you do something that is movement.” In the kind of amorphous culture being created by those opposed to transparency, everyone does their own thing and therefore no one can be held responsible for anything. “That’s not the REAL Occupy” isn’t terribly persuasive under those conditions. However much logic it might have to those locked into that solipsistic world, the view of those like White and Choi who encounter it from the outside is overwhelmingly negative.

An Occupy movement that becomes increasingly insular and suspicious will thus alienate larger numbers of people. It will insist on its rightness and purity, oblivious to how it looks to those who haven’t been marinated in its exotic narrative. It will be unwieldy, with uncoordinated arms each pursuing its own agenda, sometimes in contradiction. It will turn off all but the true believers. The backlash against the actions of some at the Trayvon Martin protest is a good snapshot of where Occupy goes if it does not become more open and yes, more organized.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.


1. Here’s a summary of the incident from the Oakland Police Department:

On February 22, 2012, at 6:00 p.m., the Oakland Police Department contacted a female victim after responding to a report of a robbery in the 4000 block of Piedmont Avenue. The victim told officers she had been walking down the street, across from the Wells Fargo bank, near a small group of Occupy Oakland protesters calling for a riot. The victim, who has been a resident of the area for over 20 years, suggested to the protesters not to riot in her neighborhood.

She was surrounded by three protestors and battered as they yelled vulgar epithets regarding their perception of her sexual orientation. Her wallet was taken during the crime. The victim broke away from the group, and called police who were able to arrest one suspect near the scene.

The Oakland Police Department prioritizes hate crimes for immediate investigation. A suspect who commits a hate crime aims not only to terrify or harm one individual, but to threaten and terrorize the entire actual or perceived group of people to which the victim may belong.

And a summary from a source more sympathetic to the defendants:

February 22nd was a day of arraignments for Occupy Oakland protesters at Wiley Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland. According to Nneka’s mother Patti, a group of approximately two dozen left the courthouse after the day’s proceedings for Fenton’s Creamery on Piedmont avenue and then convened a protest at the nearby Wells Fargo bank. An altercation took place later, around 5:45pm, in front of Dr. Comics & Mr. Games and was initiated by Stowers herself. In Stower’s testimony, she saw one Black woman, one Black man and one white man standing together on the sidewalk shouting the words “Let’s start a fucking riot!” As she passed them on her way to Piedmont Grocery she said, “I’ve lived in Piedmont for twenty years and I know you don’t belong here,” to which Nneka responded “that sounds pretty fucking racist to me,” and to which Teardrop replied “we need to talk about this.” In the confrontation that ensued, Stowers’ Obama pin was allegedly ripped from the outside flap of her purse. Then, she alleged, she saw Cincinnati’s forearm emerging from her purse. She did not actually see him remove her wallet.


2. Note the assumption that live streaming being used to arrest violent insurgents is a bad thing. There are many possible objections to the arrest of activists in general. For instance: activists could just be removed and warehoused for extended periods without trial or in other ways denied due process; they could get shot through a judicial proceeding little more than a kangaroo court; put through a penal system that is heavy on retribution, light on rehabilitation, and that brands them as criminals long after they pay their debt to society.

Those are all perfectly legitimate points to raise. As a general proposition, though – and specifically without comment on the details of the Ice Cream Three case – I would regard the use of livestreaming to identify and arrest those engaged in violence as a ringing endorsement of live streaming, a vindication of its use and a victory for transparency.

Also: look at the contrast between this and a nonviolent mass movement like Otpor. They spared some energy to try to win over the police instead of taking a stance of unrelenting antagonism, took arrests in stride and included all walks of life (“Parents of the kids were informed, and we had a network of old ladies who called the police station continuously” etc.) Which approach is more flexible? More sustainable? Which is better able to subvert authority?

3. The fact that conspiracies of silence are championed by gangs, the mafia, and those engaged in cover-ups tells you roughly where that tactic resides on the ethics spectrum. As David Graeber noted, one of the goals of Occupy should be to demonstrate an improvement on the existing culture and not merely to shuffle its privilege:

That’s why it’s key to have an effect that will genuinely benefit people’s lives. #Occupy certainly doesn’t contradict that revolutionary impulse, and helps move us in a direction towards greater freedom and autonomy, by which I mean freedom from the structures of both the state and capitalism. Now, to create broad alliances along those lines, you’d have to be very careful about your organizational and institutional structures. Because one of the things that is revolutionary about the #Occupy movement is that it’s trying to create prefigurative spaces in which we can experiment and create the kind of institutional structures that would exist in a society that’s free of the state and capitalism. We hope to use those to create a kind of crisis of legitimacy within existing institutions.


4. Tina Dupuy makes the connection between transparency and nonviolence explicit:

A true nonviolent movement can have its plans known – the cops can know, the public can know, it can be on the livestream for everyone to see – because you can’t thwart civil disobedience by disclosure. Vandalism, property damage, graffiti, sabotage, throwing rocks and bottles at the police and petty criminal acts are not what the perpetrators want on UStream.


5. For as important as consensus is, though, it shouldn’t be fetishized. It is a means, not an end, and if not monitored carefully it can obstruct the achievement of the ends it is being used to further.

6. For just one example of how violence is inimical to a mass movement, look at how Canadians reacted to the use of it during protests. When the public views you as a terrorist maybe you aren’t some romanticized revolutionary vanguard as much as a common criminal.

by danps

Provocateur tactics and the subversion of Occupy

4:38 pm in Uncategorized by danps

This was published with considerable feedback from affinis and lambert. My sincere thanks to both of them for their help.

The Occupy movement has already had a positive impact in many areas, but potentially the biggest one is rescuing concepts of public rights and the understanding of what is public. The very idea that there could be a common good, that there are things that belong to all of us and that in fundamental ways we are all in this together seems to have been under attack for a long time now.

For example, part of the right wing assault on the right to vote has included the talking point that since you need a license to drive why wouldn’t you need a photo ID for something as important as voting? Which actually gets the logic backwards. Driving is a privilege, so setting a more stringent standard for it makes sense. When it comes to the right to vote there ought to be a presumption that the individual requesting a ballot is eligible. The law should bend over backwards to accommodate voters, not erect barriers. Of course, on the rare occasions when fraud does happen it needs to be prosecuted vigorously.

Similarly, the idea of the public has been under assault. The fight for a public option in the health care debate a few years back is one prominent example. The idea of the government offering a basic menu of elementary health services to everyone seemed terribly provocative. It ended up being left out of the final bill despite the fact that it was a very modest (compared to, say, single payer) reform. This despite the fact that a similar model for banking has been a demonstrable and phenomenal success for nearly a century.

Meanwhile, things that currently are public are being spun off like crazy to the private sector. Here in Ohio I’ve watched John Kasich push to privatize prisons, the turnpike, the lottery, and more – while turning down federal funds for public transportation. Residents of other states have seen their own versions of this process.

Occupy has pushed back on those dynamics. In the environment sketched out above, a group of citizens simply becoming physically present in a public space over an extended period is provocative – and has the potential to produce change. Anything that would work against Occupiers’ ability to continue to hold public space ought to be considered antithetical to the spirit of the movement. Nothing would degrade that ability faster than violence, and having already posted extended thoughts on that subject I’ll just link to both and leave it there for now.

Occupation sites that have successfully endured without too much interruption have eventually had to answer the question, now what? Seizing and holding public space is significant, but how is it then put to use? Here is where the struggle over what Occupy means becomes most pressing. There seems to be a general agreement in using it to fight against systemic problems, but there seems to be a split as to how to express it. Some favor a nonviolent mass movement, others a smaller and violent insurgency. Which has more to recommend it?

One way to answer that is to ask: Which approach does the status quo favor? Because the answer favored by the establishment might not be the one for activists to embrace. A systemic critique by definition is at odds with established power. What might authorities favor? Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

Opacity and creeping exclusion at Occupy

5:00 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Opacity - Translucency - Transparency (image: William Cromar/flickr)

Opacity - Translucency - Transparency (image: William Cromar/flickr)

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.

Occupy has seemed to be in a bit of a winter hibernation. There are still encampments, meetings, decisions, protests, and so on, but it seems like there has been a relative lull in its activity level. This is fine; you can’t stay cranked all the way up to 10 all the time. A little pause to regroup, rethink and recharge is a good thing. There is a chance that the some occupations that emerge might have a very different character than the one that began to recede from public consciousness towards the end of last year, though.

Some recent developments have prompted me to refer back to my experience with the No on SB5/Issue 2 campaign in Ohio last year. For instance, there was tremendous outreach by supporters and organizers to the general population, and the umbrella group We Are Ohio went to great lengths to accommodate anyone who showed an interest in being part of the effort. Those who could only participate on a limited basis were given the opportunity. Whether it was a walk list for education or phone banking for those who couldn’t get around so easily, anyone who wanted to help was found a way to do so in whatever capacity they could. A low barrier to entry is very mass movement friendly.

The fact that SB5 centered around an issue and not a candidate made it very different from the usual election year political campaign, too. On the surface it might not have looked much different from a Vote For Me effort; the logistics of mounting it, connecting with voters, and turning out support were all probably lifted from some strategist’s playbook. But the spirit animating it was very different. It SB5 was driven by those who cared most about the issue, with elected officials generally falling in behind. As a direct democracy action it gave citizens the chance to work for an issue they cared about and, if successful, vote on the issue in the next election.

Putting together an effort like that (and winning, of course – which we did) is far more satisfying than working to elect someone who, given the labyrinth any proposal usually must travel to become enacted, will at best be able to offer the change and whip up support for it. That kind of open, issue-oriented campaign is not just a template for other direct ballot actions like tax hikes on the rich or card check for union membership (to name just two issues that have been paid extravagant lip service by politicians and somehow – darn the luck! – continue to resist being enacted anywhere). It is something activists in general could learn a lot from. Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

Concerning violence advocates and nailing jello to walls

12:00 pm in Uncategorized by danps

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.








Hell yes.

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.

by danps

Concerning violence advocates and the Black Bloc in Occupy

2:00 pm in Uncategorized by danps

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.

The issue of violence at Occupy flared up last week when Chris Hedges used violent rhetoric to make the case for nonviolence. It was not the first time, either; he’d approvingly written of Greeks rioting – his protests to the contrary notwithstanding. (Lambert has been using the “own goal” metaphor to describe Hedges’ clumsier efforts.)

This is a big problem because of his prominence. When he writes something, people notice. Someone like David Graeber is moved to respond, spending a good deal of time on the theme of “whatever your intentions, it is very hard to read your statement as anything but an appeal to violence.” If violence advocates (VAs) feel the need to answer language like that (or are simply clever enough debaters to seize that rhetorical opening), it crowds out discussion of other issues, and there’s plenty else to discuss.

For instance, the idea that NVAs should emphatically disassociate themselves from VAs seems terribly provocative to Graeber. He writes (emph. in orig.):

Successful movements have understood that it’s absolutely essential not to fall into the trap set out by the authorities and spend one’s time condemning and attempting to police other activists. One makes one’s own principles clear. One expresses what solidarity one can with others who share the same struggle, and if one cannot, tries one’s best to ignore or avoid them, but above all, one keeps the focus on the actual source of violence, without doing or saying anything that might seem to justify that violence because of tactical disagreements1 you have with fellow activists.

First, there’s a world of difference between condemning violence and attempting to police it; lumping these together is careless at best and a sneaky tactic at worst. Second, condemning VAs loudly is important because, as Graeber himself shows later in that same piece, the absence of explicit denunciation is taken by VAs as an implicit endorsement (“Gandhi made it clear that while he was opposed to murder under any circumstances, he also refused to denounce the murderer.”2). If NVAs want to avoid that kind of unwelcome association they have no option but to be crystal clear about their stance.

Also, Graeber’s framing is a false choice where condemning violent reactions to police brutality is somehow excusing and further, even inviting police brutality. One can believe both kinds of violence are wrong, and it is a mighty cynical kind of solidarity that requires those who believe in nonviolence to ignore those who practice violence. Silence equals approval. If you employ a tactic that you know goes against my deeply held beliefs, why is it my beliefs which must be suppressed? In that formulation, violence trumps nonviolence, because only the former is granted a full spectrum of expression.

The calls for silence among NVAs has taken a particularly sinister turn recently as VAs have begun to also insist that no (potentially inconvenient) live streaming be done of events, lest they show Black Bloc tactics in action without the aid of a painstaking explanation by an apologist. So Black Bloc now comes full circle to embrace precisely the same mindset of brutality and suppression that they claim to find so objectionable in police. And since Black Bloc is relatively easy to infiltrate during an action, we aren’t necessarily just talking about an ideological merger, either.

These tactics are spectacularly wrong-headed; as Charles commented:

[Hedges] would have done better to point to the long history of the police inserting their agents into demonstrations to commit crimes and thereby tar the demonstrators. The logical question then is, “if the police are paying people to smash windows, why are you doing it for free?”

Why indeed? As DCblogger remarks in mail: “No snitching cries are a good indicator of a police informer. Bringing in the police is very dangerous to informers, so they don’t want anyone to do that.” As for the suppression, I initially considered likening it to the infamous Stop Snitchin’ campaign, but refrained because I thought VAs might find the unsavory connection objectionable. Well, turns out they’re going there themselves3. What’s next, omertà?

Perhaps VAs, like Mitt Romney, believe some things should only be discussed in quiet rooms. That would be very convenient for VAs, to have gentle talks in dulcet tones out of the spotlight while chaos is stirred up on the streets, and the public views the entire movement through the lens of violent activism.

Those opposed to violent actions (no matter how you define them) do not have that luxury, though. They need to voice their opposition strenuously and publicly, because literally everyone else — VAs, authorities, and the wider citizenry — will assume they approve of violent tactics otherwise.

Finally, there’s a dynamic that both sides are coming to grips with. Susie Cagle describes it thus:

While previous criticisms came from the right or center of the political spectrum, these perspectives are arising from the left and mainly from journalists who have not been in the field to witness these tactics in action and within context.

And Graeber (again):

I am also writing as someone who was deeply involved in the early stages of planning Occupy in New York. I am also an anarchist who has participated in many Black Blocs.

There are two points being made. First, Cagle is right that those who are actually on the scene are best qualified to report on what is happening. God knows there has been enough shoddy reporting from those who blandly pass along press releases from City Hall or who parachute in for a day or two and presume to write their authoritative accounts. There’s no substitute for long term, on-the-ground reporting, and the accounts from those folks should be taken to be the most credible unless they demonstrate otherwise.

But as valuable as that experience is for a reporter, it can be hazardous for an activist: There’s a certain “I was there” snobbishness that can creep in. Arguing from authority has been one of the major complaints of those frustrated with insular, self-referential and power privileging reporting from MSM outlets. Seeing it from activists is particularly disturbing, and seeing it from anarchists like Graeber is mind-boggling.

While those on the inside are better positioned to give a front row story, they are also susceptible to the myopic perspective that causes relatively small or inconsequential elements to be wildly distorted. VAs may have an elaborately constructed paradigm to justify their tactics, and may have meticulously selected a regional franchise’s windows to break, instead of a “locally owned” coffee shop4 (curated vandalism, if you will), but guess what? The uninitiated observer will just see destruction5.

The position of VA that destroying property and physically confronting police is some kind of sublime critique requires an almost complete level of self-absorption. It takes a resolute and willful ignorance to not see how obviously repellent such tactics are to the population at large6. VAs might respond by saying they disregard the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois pigs, which is fine. But those who characterize the populace like that have no place in a movement that strives to represent — or at least get approving forbearance from — the bottom 99% of the economic scale.


1. VAs are notoriously slippery in their arguments. They insist that they never, ever be criticized over what they call tactical disagreements — but refuse to make themselves distinct from those who want no part of their tactics. NVAs tried to make that distinction plain from the very beginning in Oakland and violence advocates prevented it. In effect, the groups were associated against one of the groups’ will. Yet VAs remain extraordinarily touchy about being criticized. So they force themselves on those who strenuously disagree with their tactics and then act like aggrieved victims if there is any objection. And incidentally, that disagreement is foundational. VAs like to pretend its some sort of minor semantic difference, but in fact it goes to the very heart of what Occupy represents: VAs consider it an insurgency; NVAs a mass movement. Those two are mutually exclusive.

2. Any veering off into What Would Gandhi Do is an unhelpful distraction as far as I’m concerned. Occupy is happening right now; we need to focus on what’s happening right now and give our arguments for or against it in terms of what’s happening right now. Hypotheticals, theoreticals, thought experiments and other flights of fancy are as counterproductive as eliminationist rhetoric.

That said, Graeber misrepresents Gandhi. His claim that Gandhi refused to denounce the murderer by a radical is simply not true. The passage comes from here (via affinis in email), and Gandhi clearly denounces it: “I must say that those who believe and argue that such murders may do good to India are ignorant men indeed. No act of treachery can ever profit a nation. Even should the British leave in consequence of such murderous acts, who will rule in their place? The only answer is: the murderers.”

Affinis also sent along this; see particularly the last part: “Do you not tremble to think of freeing India by assassinations?” etc. Perhaps violence advocates require a certain amount of historical revisionism to make their ideology palatable for the masses. I wonder why that would be?

3. There’s at least an equally long post that can be written about suppression, bullying and sexism by violence advocates. While they bristle at any suggestion they are animated by a hypermasculine mindset, it’s pretty clear that women are overwhelmingly (but not unanimously!) turned off by the kind of glorified hooliganism VAs champion. If they don’t lose their voices entirely they will only be heard if they manage to become sufficiently appealing to a powerful male.

4. The romanticized notion of targeting a national coffee chain over a locally owned coffee shop might be some more historical revisionism. Affinis, via email:

I doubted this when I read it, since most Black Blocs agree on a strict policy of not damaging owner-operated enterprises, and I now find in Susie Cagle’s response to your article that, in fact, it was a chain coffee shop, and the property destruction was carried out by someone not in black.”

This is a reference to Tully’s coffeeshop. I tried digging into this a bit. Individual Tully’s coffeeshops explicitly advertise themselves as locally owned and operated. But Tully’s is a franchise. Across firms, franchises vary in their level of central control. Apparently with Tully’s the individual shops are pretty much independent in operation and style (unlike say a McDonald’s franchise), but all sell coffee from the mother firm, etc.

Whether or not the property destruction was carried out by someone in black (and I’ve not seen any evidence of this outside of Cagle’s article, where she was arguing against Hedges) might be a bit besides the point. In the Nov 2 evening events, in the videos, the people carrying out the trashing seemed to be predominantly be young men wearing bandannas, and it seemed that they clearly knew each other and were acting in a coordinated fashion, but many were not wearing black. Incidentally, in Oakland, both Tully’s and that Starbucks that later had its windows smashed had donated food to OO before getting their windows smashed.

As far as BB respecting owner operated businesses – I’ve seen little evidence of that.

So take the lofty claims with a grain of salt.

5. One of the few resonant points VAs make is that those who go into the legal system face a very hard time. America’s onerous and punitive criminal justice policies not only warehouse people for excessively long periods, but brands them for life after release. But that is just one part of the issue. DCblogger in an email: “[P]utting someone into the criminal justice system is a very serious matter. it is life altering. But then, so is smashing the window. The bank can replace the window. Or they can shut down the branch. Washington DC’s riot corridor was a ghost town for 30 years. The damage of a riot lives a long time after the riot. I hate to think what business insurance is in Oakland right now.”

6. In a way, getting bogged down in VA arguments is counterproductive because it distracts us from looking at what kind of actions are inclusive and inviting. This is an extension of the “insurgency vs. mass movement” dichotomy in footnote 1. Via email, activist Joseph Anderson:

Occupy Oakland, and the Occupy movement, cannot both have a diversity of people and a “diversity of tactics” at this time — and the movement can’t shortcut the process of attaining, and retaining, the first by jumping to the second.

Via email, lambert:

The object IMNSHO should be to get as many people as possible supporting Occupations with their physical presence. This is what the Egyptians did. “All walks of life” must participate. One can also think of this as “safety in numbers.” Only NV can do that.

As a corollary, transparency and accountability are key, because if the GA decides that an event will be NV, and a bunch of parents bring their kids in strollers, and a lot of old people come with their walkers, and then a black blocker heaves a bottle at the police and the police charge the crowd, then (a) you’ve put innocents at risk, (b) you’ve lost a ton of people, who not only feel fearful but betrayed, and rightly so, and (c) you make it harder for part of the country that are not yet Occupy-friendly to become so.

And as a corollary to that, Occupy is pre-figuring what a transparent and accountable public process looks like. Where else have you seen one of those lately? But if, in the name of autonomy, you’ve got black blockers doing violence, then nothing is transparent and accountable at all (unless you want to make the assumption that random violence is always possible). So the pre-figuration gets destroyed as well.


And I don’t think that the idea is that the state will respond with illegal violence. A child of six knows that. The lesson is in the prefiguration. The libraries, the kitchens. Doing something.

And finally this from activist Soul:

We are being killed economically especially small businesses and all resources for our children. We have schools closing down, we have murders daily. That needs to be addressed, but we’re trying to teach our children not to use violent measures, to use restorative justice and things. And then we have this violence and madness. Whether the police do it to them or they do it – both sides need to stop, I feel. The police and them, and let us get busy to try and build and create in a positive manner.

So that is why I’m standing; I’m not with the Chamber of Commerce. I’m representing West Oakland community – the children that are voiceless, the poor, the disabled – that will not have a voice with that group…I think [black bloc] has been infiltrated by police infiltrators, by provocateurs and stuff, and they’re falling for it.

Because see there’s this game in Occupy. As soon as any violence or any type of aggression happens it’s the anarchists. And then when they do their call out, that’s who they’re calling to go front lines, and then they deny it…I think a lot of them, especially those that are always in the camera – you can see the one over there – are protest prostitute media whores. They look for the camera, they look for the sensation, rather than be busy daily in the community like many of us are. Daily. They’re going to tear down our infrastructure. Well it’s not going to be allowed…I want them to go home, they’ve overstayed their welcome. Many of them aren’t even from this city, and I can start pointing at who don’t live here. But I don’t want to do that. I send them much respect and love, but enough’s enough. You know, enough is enough.

There’s no direction, no demand. They talk about foreclosures. Why the hell aren’t they standing in front of a bank all day every day, jamming the engines? No no, we’re gonna tear up city hall, we’re gonna tear up whatever.

Preventing Wells Fargo from foreclosing on a house may not provide the adrenaline rush that smashing shit up provides, but it is actually far more provocative and subversive. To the extent that VAs prevent that kind of more productive activity it is deeply damaging to Occupy.

Also, the “There’s no direction, no demand” critique has traction that initial “why don’t they have demands?” cries against OWS didn’t have. Occupy has begun to formulate demands via direct actions like Occupy Our Homes and supporting local strikes. The first charges were specious because they were leveled against a mass movement just beginning to articulate its beliefs. In the early days, what Charles Pierce called shouting at the right buildings was enough. Once activism started it became more reasonable to expect protesters to have some kind of message. So “no direction, no demand” is a fair charge to level against VAs.

by danps

Diversity of tactics – and uniformity of outcomes

2:57 am in Uncategorized by danps

(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. 


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? Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

2012 will be more about actual problems than phantom movements

4:13 am in Uncategorized by danps

It’s funny that professional left now describes those who have been too critical of Democrats. To the extent that such a thing – a well funded, fully staffed and perennially active infrastructure presuming to be a liberal standard bearer – exists, it is the province of the think tanks (Center for American Progress), media (New Republic) and personalities (Jonathan Chait) constantly flacking in defense of Washington.

While it may offer occasional quibbles, the real professional left is ultimately supportive of current leadership, and more interested in rationalizing its actions than examining whether that leadership has been less than exemplary. And since there is a rotating cast of political followers who need faux-progressive commentary designed to lionize and prop up the established order, there is always plenty to do.

Because of the relatively high turnover among those followers (it changes as leaders change), folks like Chait can offer up new wankery on a regular basis without having to answer for previous instances. Really, Chait’s time as an analyst should have ended with: “No matter how badly we might bungle a post-Saddam rebuilding of Iraq–and Bush’s record in Afghanistan, alas, suggests little reason for optimism–it is difficult to imagine that deposing Saddam will not greatly improve the living conditions and human rights of the Iraqi people.” But failure is not discrediting for the professional left.

This is not to say it consists entirely of snake oil salesmen. Some like Steve Benen are very sincere and thoughtful, and in fact Benen is a regular read for me. But while I enjoy his analysis, sometimes he seems a little too determined to explain everything as the result of GOP perfidy.

Take the payroll tax cut. Forget that if you’re talking about tax cuts then you’re on Republican ground. The bigger problem is that it is being played up way out of proportion to its usefulness. Does anyone think it has been substantially stimulative? Is there any evidence it has made a real impact – say 1% or more – on the unemployment rate? The whole squabble is essentially inside baseball, which means non-political junkies will just regard it as more background noise from Washington. The kind of fine distinctions Benen makes are destined to be lost on the broader electorate.

To really energize the base, I suspect Democrats will need to identify an agenda and also a legislative path for its enactment. Using the payroll tax holiday as one item in a substantial list of initiatives (including, say, mortgage cramdown, taxing the rich, reinstating Glass-Steagall and the previous bankruptcy program, and a massive infusion of grant money for colleges) could be a real selling point. Whining about how the big bad GOP stymied all the awesome things you were on the verge of doing? Not so much.

Which is why a concrete platform has to also be accompanied by a road map. When Democrats had the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2008 they proved more concerned with the tender feelings of their friends across the aisle than with the actual fates of millions of their fellow citizens. It will be incumbent on leadership – Harry Reid and others in the Senate particularly – to show how they will move items through the process.

Maybe they can tell voters they need at least 75 Democrats to overcome defections from “centrist” members of their own caucus along with reflexive filibusters. I suspect they’d get a better reception by simply pledging to do away with the filibuster and going with majority rule, but I’ll leave political calculation to the professionals.

There is also what Eric Scheiderman called the “sense that we don’t have one set of rules for everyone anymore, that people are not held accountable for misconduct.” For instance, the Justice Department just settled an eight year lawsuit with no disclosure and no admission of wrongdoing. Also, a former Treasury Secretary was just alleged to have tipped of his Wall Street buddies with insider information. These are merely two recent examples.

There seems to be complete impunity above a certain level; call it Too Big To Jail. Democrats have at least allowed it to flourish, and that encourages the perception that there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between the parties. Want to change that? A perp walk for Hank Paulson would be a splendid place to start.

But at a minimum, outline a program that might make a real difference in voters’ lives. Tax cuts won’t do it, and “we’ll try not to once again be confounded by Republican parliamentary maneuvering” is not the path. The question voters’ need answered is, what will be different this time? If they don’t have that answer, election day might disappointing for Democrats.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

by danps

The Occupy movement and reclaiming the First Amendment

3:48 am in Uncategorized by danps

We seem to have happily gotten past the point of Occupy critics plaintively asking what the occupiers want and demanding that Occupy release some, well, demands. Instead the pundit class seems to have concluded that it was all a bit of fun but it’s time for those people to move on so we can all go back to obsessing about the deficit. At the mainstream media level we seem to have gone into some kind of Ghandian Groundhog Day where we repeat the course he outlined over and over (“first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they ignore you,” and on and on).

So it’s probably only a matter of time before the MSM makes its way back to “then they fight you,” and at that point some recent developments will come in handy. The most important of those might be the way the militarization of our police forces has been put on full display. The nature of the official response lately has highlighted the fact that, independent of any particular grievances, the very right to peacefully protest has become so tightly constricted that the act of protest has become a demand in and of itself. (And as Angus Johnston very helpfully noted: “Nonviolence doesn’t mean doing whatever the police tell you to do.”)

A lot of people were raising alarms as our civil liberties kept getting clipped, trimmed and kettled over the last decade. When the warnings weren’t ignored they were mocked. Joe Klein was perhaps the worst offender, dismissing the people trying to call attention to it as “civil liberties extremists.” That was typical of the response when some nice, respectable centrist journalist deigned to acknowledge the issue.

I checked my own archives for references to just fusion centers and found them here, here and here among others. A lot of us were basically saying, no good will come of this. Well, no good is upon us. (Just for the record, I’m not patting myself on the back for seeing how it would turn out. It was fairly obvious to anyone who was simply paying attention.)

Look at the ACLU bullet points on fusion centers from four years ago; Ambiguous lines of authority? Check. Military participation? Check, to the extent that the police forces themselves have become militarized. Excessive secrecy? Um, yeah that’s a check. A lot of pieces that were quietly moved into place over the last decade – and that were regarded as trivial by those who should have known better – have moved ferociously out into the open.

Incidentally, while doing the research for this post I came across some fascinating recent history. Remember that DHS report by Homeland Security that warned of a rise in right wing extremism? And how the sunshine patriots on the right were in full howl over the mortal danger it posed to liberty and freedom in America? And how they weren’t angry about what was basically a fairly bland warning amounting to “watch out for kooks!” but about the principle, gosh darn it? Remember that? Here’s a refresher if you don’t:

the problem with this DHS study is not that they are threatening extra-Constitutional surveillance and interrogation of people; it is that they are coming very close to attempting to criminalize non-violent political dissent. That is deeply problematic even if they do it with all the proper warrants.

Yes, criminalizing non-violent political dissent is awful, so of course Maguire has, true to that wonderful principle, been vocal in his condemnation of that very thing happening right now, even though he disagrees with the protesters themselves (“homeless vagrants” and “over-educated unemployables,” to wit)? Not so much: “Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD clear out Zucotti Park overnight, although it may be only temporarily[.]” Yes, cleared it out all right. As of this writing there is literally no word at all about the heavy handed police tactics.

And again this is not just criminalizing dissent, but the militarization of the police that has gone with it. Look at this from Denver (via):

Or this from North Carolina (via):

Those are just two of the more dramatic photos that have been snapped. We are seeing responses like that in city after city. As digby pointed out, it has become difficult to even tell the difference between the responses here and those in countries headed by a military government – and those governments are in fact using our militarized responses to justify theirs (via).

So when Occupy folks start once again being asked what exactly they want, I hope they have at least one ready response: The right to be here.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.