In the foreword to “Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea”, Mark Kurlansky asserts:
Responding to violence with more violence is rarely appropriate. However, discussing nonviolence when things are going smoothly does not carry much weight. It is precisely when things become really difficult, urgent, and critical that we should think and act with nonviolence.
A February 3 piece in the Guardian highlights the apparent divide within the Occupy movement. Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York marched in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, where over 400 demonstrators were arrested on February 1.
As they marched, and occasionally sprinted, through lower Manhattan, masked protesters were seen pulling debris into the road. A small minority of demonstrators threw bottles at police officers, while larger numbers chose to berate the cops with chants of “fuck the police” and “racist, sexist, anti-gay/NYPD go away.” The combative attitude and aggressive tactics, justified by some by ongoing police violence, upset a number of demonstrators.
Timothy Pool, a well-known citizen journalist in the Occupy Movement, was accosted by some protesters who demanded he stop filming their actions – releasing air from the tires of an NYPD vehicle. He had been assaulted by a masked assailant just days earlier. These incidents, as well as the attacks on and intimidation of other citizen journalists have brought to light an underlying tension within the Occupy movement. While much of the media focuses on the more radical elements, Occupy needs to address this division and the tactics used by the few that put all of us at risk.
Citizen journalists often do not have the protections offered to the credentialed main stream media. While events in New York and Oakland, as well as in other cities, have shown that police are sometimes willing to arrest and brutalize these credentialed and well-known journalists, the larger number of us are always at risk of arrest and censorship. For further risk to come from within the movement itself is disturbing.
The identity of Tim Pool’s attacker and some others caught on tape committing destructive acts is questionable. The first reaction I usually get is that they are law enforcement infiltrators, sent in to commit acts of violence, discredit the movement, and give the waiting police an excuse to brutally crack down on the protest action.
The FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was created in 1956 and officially ended in 1971 (more on that in a moment). COINTELPRO is often referred to as a surveillance program, but that was not its primary aim. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, agents regularly infiltrated activist groups with the goal of subverting the organizations. The main goal of COINTELPRO was never surveillance – monitoring alone does not require the level of infiltration employed by the program. Agents sought to disrupt activist groups by instilling fear and distrust, causing internal collapse. COINTELPRO was exposed in March 1971 and declared officially over later in the year.
The program – or at least, its tactics – has almost certainly continued, and it targets activists. Sophisticated technology, the acceptance of warrantless wiretaps, surveillance vehicles, and smaller hidden cameras and microphones all reinforce the theory that surveillance itself is not the aim of counterintelligence programs.
In fact, the exposure of COINTELPRO and the assumption that it continues may itself be a tactic. We know about these programs and see undercover agents exposed, as recently occurred in the Supreme Court protest on January 20. The mere presence of DHS vehicles on-site and the assumption that infiltrators are among Occupy is enough to cause some people to panic. These agents have been visible or revealed largely because that is their role. The point of COINTELPRO has always been to create paranoia within the group.
What concerns me is the seemingly automatic assumption made by many people that any action considered violent or destructive is done by infiltrators. This is naive. The Occupy movement embraces and prides itself on being of the 99% – we are quick to apply that label to nearly everyone, but apparently refuse to acknowledge that destructive, radical people are indeed the 99%. Occupy is a populist movement without central leadership, open to everyone, that acts in the public squares and streets. It is the perfect movement for infiltrators – not only law enforcement, but Black Bloc and others inclined to violence.
I have always argued that the General Assembly and consensus process would protect us from these elements, but the attack on Tim Pool and threats on other citizen journalists has led to discussions about diversity of tactics. While this seems to be largely a euphemism*, the conversation is important and needs to be public. On Sunday, January 29, members of Occupy Wall Street held a Diversity of Tactics meeting in Washington Square Park around 3 pm. Pool told me that he and others were told cameras “were not a good idea.”
The Guardian quotes Occupy Wall Street protester Ted Hall as saying, “our strengths are not in secrecy. Our strengths are in transparency…. [anything] that’s secretive is going to attract instigators and undercovers like a moth to a flame.”
I am personally in favor of asserting our commitment to nonviolence. Nonviolence is not an ideology, does not require us to ‘roll over’ and does not weaken us. Nonviolence is a tactic. It is active and demanding and powerful. More powerful, in fact, than throwing bottles and breaking windows.
Kurlanksy notes the absence of a positive English term that properly conveys the principles of nonviolence. “Nonviolence” itself seems to suggest that violence is the norm, or an eventuality. The Sanskrit ahimsa, which Gandhi used as the basis for the Indian Satyagraha civil resistance movement, is active – the avoidance of violence – the choice to act without harming others. Gandhi makes clear in his translation of “Satyagraha in South Africa” that Satyagraha is an active, not passive, civil resistance. He further considered Gita, the concept of a just war, to be allegorical, interpreting it as an internal struggle and ahimsa to mean violence in all states – including dishonesty, wrath, and hatred.
The movement needs to make choices. If we recommit to nonviolence we can then address how to protect both journalists and the masses from retaliation. Will this cause a schism? Possibly.
A contingency calling itself the White Bloc announced its intentions for the February 4 Occupy Oakland FTP march. The amount of anger directed as this decision seemed to highlight the divisions within the Occupy movement.
Subsequent conversations I had with Occupy Oakland protesters revealed that the name White Bloc could easily be interpreted to mean something other than what I believe its original intentions to be – specifically against the Black Bloc. Coming from a privileged background, I too quickly overlooked how this designation would affect persons of color. It is evident to me that, while the White Bloc may have been an important experiment, a group labeling itself as white (or any color) has broader implications. Persons of color and other minority groups have for years been the targets of law enforcement profiling and narrow-minded surveillance programs and the onus is on the rest of us to be sensitive to anything that could cause people to feel further disenfranchised. Journalist Ayesha Kazmi puts it best:
As tempted as many white Occupy protesters are to proclaim “we are all one and the same!”, you cannot expect minorities, whose communities have been subjected to intimidation and abuse, to suddenly throw away the race card and jump on the bandwagon. These are critical times, and as such, it is important for Occupy to get it right. We are all part of the 99% – and the concerns of some should fast transform into the concern for all.
However, with the NDAA and EEA looming, we need to make a decision now about what kind of movement we are, and act accordingly. The transparency and nonviolence that were behind the White Bloc idea are what is most important. Defacement, vandalism, and the use of projectiles are not self-defense. If we want protect ourselves from the destructive elements, we need to reaffirm our commitment to nonviolence and make it evident, always, to those outside the movement. This means the media, the public at large, and law enforcement. Along with everything else, Occupy is fighting an information war.
There is more information on nonviolent ideology, tactics, and its dynamics available from Nonviolence International.
*interestingly enough, ‘Diversity of Tactics’ came into widespread use at the height of the anti-globalization movement in the 1990s, right around the time when Black Bloc tactics were increasing in western United States.