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Violence and Vandalism Don’t Threaten the System, Occupy’s Positive Image Does

Occupy Wall Street, November 12th. (Photo: Saint Huck)


Violence and Vandalism Don’t Threaten the System, Occupy’s Positive Image Does

Occupy Wall Street, November 12th. (Photo: Saint Huck)

We were confronted on Wednesday by two images of violence on college campuses.

On the one hand, there were the students at UC Berkeley who had to do nothing more than link arms and chant in order to incur repeated thrusts of police batons to the gut. The campus police's unprovoked violence against the peacefully protesting students, who were part of an Occupy Cal protest, elicited chants of “Stop beating students!” from the comrades of those being beaten.

On the other hand, there were the students at Penn State, who rioted, tearing down lampposts and overturning a news van, in retaliation for their school's decision to fire their football coach who, however successful his record on the gridiron, had concealed child rape for years. One of the lampposts fell into a crowd of students. A number of the rioters threw rocks and fireworks at police.

The takeaway was obvious: rioting requires no courage, no moral righteousness, no intelligence and no revolutionary spirit – just rage.

This is a difficult topic, so I feel that full disclosure is warranted. I am not against violence. Thank goodness, for instance, that Frederick Douglass beat the hell out of Covey. If the Vietnamese patriots had not marshaled their violence against the illegally invading imperial Army attempting to occupy their country and subjugate their society, America might still have a colony in Southeast Asia. “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence,” wrote Gandhi, “I would advise violence.”

But for the Occupy movement, that is not the choice.

Nor am I in principle against vandalism. Graffiti, be it scrawled by les soixante-huitards or stenciled by Banksy, is an indispensable form of protest – perhaps there is a future for the Occupy movement in surreptitious night-time alterations to billboards advertising banks. Ecotage, for instance, setting animals free at factory farms, biotech companies and research facilities, also strikes me as essentially noble and just.

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It is crucial to acknowledge the difference between the two. The law considers destruction of property a different crime from harm to living beings – vandalism is gratifyingly not punished the same way as assault. It is important to remember this when reporting on events like the black bloc's window smashing and arson in Oakland on November 2 and a number of reporters have carelessly conflated the two distinct concepts. As one speaker at an Occupy Oakland debate about these matters rightly noted, according to Mother Jones' Gavin Aronsen, “The only guys in black [I've seen who are violent] are the fucking police [who shot me.]”

The violence-vandalism issue is not the only semantic problem that plagues the discussion around events like what happened in Oakland. There is also a trickier concern: not everything that isn't violent is necessarily nonviolent, in the same way that not everything that isn't moral is necessarily immoral. Amorality is a meaningful and applicable designation and I would submit that so is “aviolence,” so to speak, and it is into that category that smashing windows falls.

Perhaps a useful way to think about this category is this: any act that isn't violent, but would be if there were a person caught in its midst, isn't nonviolent either. When the Earth Liberation Front commits arson at a logging company's offices, no one is harmed, but if a person were in the building, the case would change. When the black bloc sends projectiles through windows, no one is harmed, but if a person were in the way or right on the other side of the window, the case would change. These acts, therefore, might not be violent, but they are not nonviolent, and I wish to propose that the Occupy movement commit itself specifically to nonviolence.

Occupy is unique in a lot of ways, but it descends from a lineage, too. A number of those of us who helped to start Occupy Wall Street (who exchanged planning emails over the summer and assisted in establishing its earliest functions) were present this spring for a meeting with Egyptian revolutionaries Ahmed Maher and Waleed Rashed, of the April 6th movement. In the first calls for a Wall Street occupation, Tahrir Square was often cited as an inspiration.

Well, the Egyptian revolution was a nonviolent one and the young people of the April 6 Movement, who provided much of the energy behind the revolution, were doctrinally committed to nonviolence. Maher and Rashed repeatedly, over the course of their meeting with us, mentioned Otpor!, the nonviolent Serbian student group that helped to overthrow Slobadan Miloševic, members of which have also met with Occupy Wall Street. It is, of course, also worth recalling that the year in democratic revolution started with Mohamed Bouazizi's decision in the final days of 2010 not to set fire to anyone but himself. Our actions obviously do not have to be governed by our predecessors – as a democratic movement, our actions have only to be governed by ourselves and as essentially a federalist movement, no one occupation can govern any other – but it is worth taking them into account by way of culling best practices and noting courses worth avoiding.

The goal of Occupy Wall Street, as I understand it, is to challenge the system that incentivizes the abuse and exploitation of the 99 percent by the 1 percent, who run the country and manipulate its every function to cater to their greed. To the extent that that is an accurate description, the question for Occupy of tactics and strategy has to revolve around what poses the greatest threat to that system.

Violence and vandalism do not threaten the system.

First of all, the system is incredibly violent. In fact, it is the most violent thing in the world. As such, if it came down to a contest of destruction, the system would defeat Occupy, no problem. As it happens, violence is the only tactic the system has at its disposal to deal with the threat that Occupy poses, as we continue to see. Vandalism and violence on the part of occupiers constitute an attempt to challenge the system in its own area of expertise, which is self-evidently a doomed experiment. It would be better to challenge the system in ways that play to Occupy's strengths. What the movement has by way of advantages are courage, moral superiority and a beautiful message. Reliance on those provides the movement with its best chance for ongoing success.

Dr. King addressed this point in his “Where Do We Go from Here” speech:

Occasionally Negroes contend that the 1965 Watts riot and the other riots in various cities represented effective civil rights action. But those who express this view always end up with stumbling words when asked what concrete gains have been won as a result. At best, the riots have produced a little additional antipoverty money allotted by frightened government officials and a few water sprinklers to cool the children of the ghettos. It is something like improving the food in the prison while the people remain securely incarcerated behind bars. Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations.

Elsewhere, Dr. King confessed that, in certain cases, such as in the Cuban revolution, violence had succeeded. But, he noted, such cases require widespread support from the general population, nothing like which exists as regards the Occupy movement.

That gets to a central feature of the Occupy movement: image is everything. More specifically, the ability to attract broad swaths of the American population to the cause is everything. The lack of demands; the 99 percent meme; the movement's sense of humor; the willingness to claim and own anarchists, hippies, trade unionists, sympathetic rich people etc. – these have all helped the movement grow to a national force in early November from a few hundred activists in mid-September. The exertion of pressure on the system to change requires huge numbers of supporters, occupiers, protesters, sympathetic organizations and favorable polls. Vandalism and violence alienate the public just as successfully as nonviolent civil disobedience (of the sort that goes punished by authoritarian violence) attracts it.

Bouazizi attacked no one and nothing and that sparked the Tunisian fuse. The Tunisian people attacked no one and nothing and that sparked the Egyptian fuse. The Egyptian people attacked no one and nothing and that sparked the European and American fuses. Everywhere this year, a commitment to nonviolence has attracted solidarity and enlisted camaraderie. When that commitment has lapsed (as in Greece and parts of England), the chief results have been 1) fear on the part of average people who might otherwise be sympathetic; and 2) a burden on those nonviolent protesters among us to explain away violence and vandalism as lamentable results of injustice and inequality, even when they do not appear to further the cause.

In nonviolent civil disobedience, there is a picture of fearlessness – once the fear of a system's violence is gone (and that really is what a prison system is, what authoritarian law is, what an institution of dominance is – violence that survives on fear), the portent is its collapse. This was expressed by myriad Egyptians; shedding fear was a prerequisite for toppling a dictatorship there. By contrast, images of destruction on behalf of protesters show a deep fear, a terror even, a panic, among people whose centers are not quiet with bravery and righteousness, but loud with chaos and confusion, who so lack the courage of their convictions that they cover their faces while smashing, spraying or igniting.

That is why Indian hunger strikes engender more global support than Palestinian suicide bombings. The willingness to give ones freedom to jailers, to give ones well-being to batons, to give ones life to the oppressors, all in the service of the cause – this is how the movement expands. We who have nothing but our own bodies to contribute can only win by contributing them.

Nonviolence is more radical, in any case. During the civil rights movement, people linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome” while dogs trained to kill attacked them. It is difficult to see how smashing windows is more courageous, more moral, more effective or more radical. There is an admirable emphasis in the ideology of nonviolence on self-purification, which is a radicalizing force – channeling rage into discipline focuses a movement on its targets, while channeling it into riots focuses a mob on its own immediate gratification. Just listen to the Penn State rioters. One, a 19-year-old, said, “This definitely looks bad for our school. I'm sure JoePa wouldn't want this, but this is just an uproar now, we're finding a way to express our anger.” It wasn't about a defense of “JoePa,” and the rioters knew that; it was about angst, and there is nothing revolutionary about angst.

I have met and spoken with a considerable number of black bloc folks at protests over the years. They, too, tend to be around 19 years old and they tend not to resemble the folks in 1965's Watts, oppressed to the breaking point, so beaten down by subordination that violence and vandalism are the only visible course of action. I'm certain that many black bloc members are eloquent and that many have read Emma Goldman and Mikhail Bakunin and are well versed in anarchist theory. But I have also seen nonviolent anarchists (like the one who started Occupy Wall Street) constitute a much greater threat to the system and create a much more meaningful inconvenience, a much more impressive tension, a crisis. In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Don't let's act in any way that allows this movement to be ignored.

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