Debating Violence in the Occupy Movement

The term “diversity of tactics” is used to distinguish direct tactics that include property damage and armed retaliation against the police from nonviolent direct action and extremist tactics such as planting bombs and armed insurrection.

By now several thousands progressives and liberals have read the article “The Cancer in Occupy,” by Chris Hedges from February 6. In the article, Hedges condemns the so-called “Black Bock Movement” and “Black Bloc anarchists” for a variety of sins that include breaking store and car windows, burning flags, and swearing and throwing tear gas canisters at the police. There is a major problem with the whole premise of the article. As Hedges’ critics are quick to point out, “black bloc” (lower case) refers to tactics – there is no such thing as a “Black Block Movement” or “Black Bloc anarchists.” However unless they are regular readers of anarchist and left libertarian websites and blogs, activists are unlikely to have seen the numerous critiques of “The Cancer in Occupy” that correct this and other factual errors in Hedges’ article.

Hedges’ Critics

The longest and most comprehensive critique of Hedges’ article, “The Folly of Chris Hedges,” appeared on Infoshop News later the same day. Infoshop News also links to other excellent critiques of “The Cancer in Occupy.” Two of the best are an article by Don Gato on the AK Press website entitled “To Be Fair He is a Journalist: A Short Response to Chris Hedges on the Black Bloc” and magpie’s “I am the Cancer (or ArmchairsGTFO).” ((“Armchairs” refers to armchair liberals who critique activist efforts without ever becoming actively involved. GTFO translates to “Get the Fuck Out.”))

For me the major problem with “The Cancer in Occupy” is Hedges’ failure to acknowledge that 1) the debate over “diversity of tactics” (i.e., incorporating tactics other than exclusive nonviolent resistance) has been raging for months in local Occupy groups and 2) his views represent only one side of the debate. Contrast his Truthdig article with more objective articles in the Occupy Wall Street Journal and on the Occupy Oakland website that present both sides: “Diversity of Tactics or Divide and Conquer” and “The Revolution Will Be Strategized: Reflections on Diversity of Tactics From NYC.”

A Generational Split Over Violence

I first became aware of the “diversity of tactics” debate on January 21, when Making Contact radio played excerpts from the December 15 forum “How Will the Walls Come Tumbling Down: Diversity of Tactics vs Nonviolence in the Occupy Movement.” There has been an erroneous assumption by many armchair liberals and progressives that commitment to exclusive nonviolent resistance is a basic tenet of the Occupy movement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the vast majority of Occupy protests have been nonviolent, groups in different cities have taken very different positions about their willingness to engage in corporate property damage and retaliation against police violence. As the WAMMM (Women Against Military Madness) blog describes, diversity of tactics advocates are more likely to be young, newly recruited activists. Those favoring exclusive nonviolence are more likely to be older activists who have engaged in civil disobedience in the antiwar or nuclear movement.

A Range of Positions on Diversity of Tactics

Both Occupy Boston and the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park adopted statements in October 2011 endorsing diversity of tactics,” as opposed to exclusive nonviolence (see Boston statement of diversity of tactics and Occupty Wall Street Library).

In contrast, both Occupy Los Angeles and Occupy DC began with a commitment to exclusive nonviolence. However after the extreme police violence that accompanied the police crackdown on Occupy sites in many cities, both sites are revisiting this stance. ((See “Occupy LA debates diversity of tactics” and “Should the Should the Occupy Movement Adopt Strategic Non-violence?“))

Prior to the December 15th public forum, Occupy Oakland had no formal position either way. The outcome of their “How Will the Walls Come Tumbling Down” forum was a refusal to endorse exclusive nonviolence. Occupy Seattle, which held similar internal discussions in December, took a similar position. Occupy Portland held a similar debate four days ago.

Commending Violence in Greece

Nearly all the on-line critiques (rightly, in my view) accuse Hedges of being a hypocrite for endorsing “rioting” in the Greek anti-austerity protests in his 2010 Truthdig article “The Greeks Get It,” while simultaneously condemning disenfranchised minorities when they engage in similar “class warfare” in his own backyard. This is doubly ironic given the important role the Greek black bloc played in these protests:

Here’s to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their country. They know what to do when Goldman Sachs and international bankers collude with their power elite to falsify economic data and then make billions betting that the Greek economy will collapse. They know what to do when they are told their pensions, benefits and jobs have to be cut to pay corporate banks, which screwed them in the first place. Call a general strike. Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out. Do not be afraid of the language of class warfare—the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it.

The Historical Role of Violent Resistance

Several are equally dismayed by the way Hedges (deliberately?) misrepresents the historical debate over violent vs nonviolent tactics. Numerous critics object to his inclusion of window breaking, erecting barricades, flag burning and swearing at police as “violence.” Prior to the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, the activist community has consistently distinguished between physical harm to other beings and damage to private property, which has never been equated with violence. Moreover as Nihilo Zero points out in “The Folly of Chris Hedges,” the latter is clearly taking the side of the ruling elite in minimizing the important role played by militants like John Brown, Malcolm X, and Emma Goldman in the American struggle against class and racial oppression. The US civil rights struggle was won by both the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King and the violent tactics of the black power movement. Likewise, in the struggle for Indigenous peoples’s rights, the American Indian Movement embraced violence alongside other organizing tactics in fighting for Indigenous peoples’s rights.

The Bizarre Interview with Derrick Jensen

All agree that Hedges’ phone interview with activist author Derrick Jensen is the most bizarre section of the piece. Several question whether Jensen really said what Hedges claims he did, or if he’s being quoted out of context. The Jensen quotes, referring to the Black Bloc throwing flowerpots at the police “because it’s fun” and the need to “work with the system more” before resorting to violence are diametrically opposed to the views he expresses in his writing and his recent documentary End:Civ Resist or Die. In the film Jensen openly advocates violent resistance against what he portrays as a corporate/fascist occupation.

A Tactic, Not a Movement

Yet as Nihilo Zero, Don Gato, and others point out, the major problem with Hedges’ article is that the so called “Black Bloc Movement” he attacks doesn’t exist. Black bloc is a term used to describe a specific tactic – dressing alike (in black) and wearing masks – to avoid identification by the police. Its use is by no means limited to anarchists. Black bloc is employed by activists across the ideological spectrum who wish to avoid identification by the police. Hedges clearly has no direct knowledge or contact with either “black bloc” practitioners or the thousands of other Occupy activists who reject pressure to commit to exclusive nonviolence. Thus the entire article is based on totally erroneous assumptions, starting with Hedges faulty premise that “black block” represents a specific movement with a coherent ideology:

  • According to Hedges, the so-called “Black Bloc” don’t see capitalists as their real enemies. This is an extremely bizarre accusation to make without supporting evidence, especially as “black bloc” doesn’t refer to any specific belief system. Hedges cites an article by an anarchist writer named John Zerzon in making this assertion. However as several critics point out, Zerzon doesn’t speak for the black bloc – no one does.
    According to Hedges, the so-called “Black Bloc” opposes “all forms of collective organization.” Again, Hedges has absolutely no idea who the people are behind the masks nor the diversity of views they represent. In “To Be Fair He is a Journalist: A Short Response to Chris Hedges” on the Black Bloc, Don Gato refers readers to real life leftist and Canadian activist Hersha Walia, who helped organize the Tent Village protest at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He provides a link to YouTube speech in which she describes friends who engage in black bloc tactics as some of the hardest workers in other movement building activities, for example infoshops that produce and distribute literature, bike and food collectives and other political organizations that deliver services to marginalized groups.
  • Accord to Hedges, the so-called Black bloc is “rigid” and “dogmatic.” Nihilo Zero points out that it’s actually Hedges who is being rigid and dogmatic when he uses his prestige as a so-called working class journalist to declare off-limits a long list of tactics, such as swearing at the police, destruction of corporate property, flag burning and blocking streets with garbage and debris.
  • According to Hedges, so-called “Black Bloc anarchists” are “hypermasculine damaged males.” Again he has no way of distinguishing the sex of protestors with their faces covered. As Gato suggests, this totally unsubstantiated accusation is a great insult to the Feminist and Queer blocs that participated in Move-In Day in Oakland.
  • According to Hedges, protestors who shout “Fuck the Police” will alienate the people they seek to draw into their movement. Nihilo Zero asks which people? He acknowledges that profantiy may alienate uptight politically correct liberals, but not disenfranchised minorities for whom police harassment and violence is a regular, life long experience. He points out that N.W.A’s “Fuck Da Police” is one of the most popular songs in American history. For his part, Gato questions the use of “moral superiority” as a draw card for recruiting the disadvantaged. The argument that allowing the police to beat them up without retaliating to impresses the masses with activists’ moral superiority shows a total lack of understanding of the circumstances or values of low income Americans.
Stuart Jeanne Bramhall is a retired American-trained psychiatrist and long time citizen activist living in New Zealand. Substack page Email her at: Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne.