'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Doctor Hedges Misdiagnoses the Decline of Occupy (Part 1) 

The police have raided many of the encampments across the country. Protests and actions called by Occupy are declining in number, with reduced participation. Workers and marginalized people, like the homeless, who were initially drawn to Occupy have, in many instances, departed. It is discouraging, and someone or some people must be responsible.

Chris Hedges has the answer: Occupy has a cancer known as the Black Bloc that must be aggressively treated before it becomes terminal. According to Hedges, the Bloc, its violence, its contempt for collective social organization and its hypermasculinity are turning the public against Occupy. If Occupy is to survive, the Bloc must be expelled. His answer has a superficial allure especially given his skillful elaboration of it. As a consequence, his article has been posted all over the Internet. For those with a legitimate grudge against the Bloc, like Louis Proyect and other Marxists, it is a golden opportunity to drive a stake through the heart of it. Perhaps, that would be a good thing, as I've never been very enthusiastic about people who knowingly put others at risk by precipatating violent confrontations with the police. Anyone who does that, Bloc or not, has no place in Occupy or any other movement for social justice.

But it's all just a little too convenient. Preliminarily, there's a conceptual problem. Contrary to what Hedges, and even Proyect, would have you believe, the Bloc isn't nearly as monolithic as they suggest, as this perceptive comment by Black Bloc at Pink Scare demonstrates:

There is no the Black Bloc. A black bloc is a tactic, not an organisation, engaged in by anarchists (yes, even us boring old neo-Platformist anarchocommunists, not just Insurrectionists) in which anarchists show up en masse at a protest, take steps to preserve their anonymity (as defense against state profiling), band together, ignore demands from illegitimate authority (i.e. the cops) and act together to defend participants' bodies and autonomy against state violence. It does not necessarily include sabotage-style direct action nor confrontation with cops (except for the fact that cops in general *seek* that very confrontation with any black bloc that forms on the ground). In fact there have been numerous black blocs on the east coast that I have been a participant in and that did not result in any property damage nor violent confrontation with cops whatsoever.

If you require a more detailed, even more convincing explanation of Black Bloc practice, consider reading David Graeber's response to Hedges at n+1. Given the decentralized, transitory nature of what anarchists describe as the Bloc, periodic Bloc groups come into existence around the country, sometimes for violent purposes, sometimes not. Graeber even states that participation in these blocs is not limited to anarchists. Accordingly, the question becomes less about the Bloc, and more about why some people gravitate towards violent forms of political activity, and the consequences of such activity for Occupy. As such, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to treat Occupy consistent with Hedges' diagnosis. There are few readily identifiable people that can be characterized as Bloc (for example, consider this photo of the Occupy Oakland Tactical Action Committee, promoters of the weekly Fuck the Police marches, who's Bloc and who's not?), and, even if there are, they may or may not be involved with the violent police confrontations associated with some occupations, like Occupy Oakland. One can read the comment of Black Bloc as an implicit approval of Bloc violence in self-defense, but, if so, it is hard to rely upon it to justify a characterization of such Bloc behavior as cancerous, although such an interpretation does raise thorny, but less polarizing, issues of personal responsibility within a collective movement. Possibly, for this reason, Hedges prefers to expound upon Zerzan and Bloc ideology to avoid engagement with them.

Indeed, Occupy Oakland, an occupation that appears to be the target of Hedges' polemic, illustrates the lack of factual support for his theory. On November 2nd, I participated in one of the several marches during the general strike. Some masked people broke windows at a couple of bank branches, a Wells Fargo one and a Chase one. Interestingly, the media gave little attention to these incidents, perhaps because the vandalism was so trivial in nature. Instead, the media was much more engrossed in the attempted takeover of the Traveler's Aid Society Building near Oscar Grant Plaza later that night, as the police responded to ineffectual efforts to take the building and defend it with tear gas and flash grenades. A large crowd of young people, still out in the streets, participated, and, as the situation with the police escalated, some of them looted a Tully's Coffee Shop. Hedges describes them as Groups of Black Bloc protesters.

But were they? I have looked in vain for pictures of the people who did it, but I did find this article about the episode, which questions the utility of describing it within the confines of Bloc theory and practice accessed over the Internet by Hedges:

At the Oakland encampment, Hale Nicholson, who described himself and others as pacifists, said he participated in Wednesday's demonstration and march to the port and then went to sleep at the camp around 9:30 p.m. Around 1 a.m., he said, he was awakened by the sound of flash-bang grenades.

A group of protesters broke into the former Travelers Aid building in order to, as some shouting protesters put it, reclaim the building for the people. They voiced anger over budget cuts that forced the closure of a homeless aid program.

They blocked off a street with wood, metal Dumpsters and other large trash bins, sparking bonfires that leapt as high as 15 feet in the air. Several businesses were heavily vandalized. Dozens of protesters wielding shields were surrounded and arrested.

They voiced anger over budget cuts that that forced the closure of a homeless aid program. Think about that for a moment. Doesn't sound very Bloc like, does it? Instead, it sounds like a group of people influenced by a variegated mixture of direct action principles, motivated to do something spontaneous by their involvement in the strike. Of course, such behavior can be damaging to a social movement, but it is not something that can be so easily addressed by subsuming their behavior within the repository of a Black Bloc, specifically designed for this purpose.

Susie Cagle, in an article posted at Truthout, refutes Hedges even more categorically:

Hedges condemns property destruction in political protest by condemning black bloc tactics, regardless of the facts. The local coffee shop vandalism Hedges contends was committed by black bloc was in fact one window of a corporate coffee chain smashed in that post-strike fog of war - and by someone not wearing a mask, not wearing black. The people who broke into City Hall on January 28, and many of those who destroyed property there, were also largely unmasked. And both of these acts came immediately after, as in within minutes of, violent mass kettling and arrest actions.

As Cagle relates elsewhere in the article, the challenge presented by some involved in Occupy Oakland is their willingness to embrace more and more confrontational forms of protest, forms that make people like Hedges uncomfortable, at least when they aren't happening in Greece:

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.

My, my, Hedges comes across here, does one dare say it, as very much like his characterization of the Bloc, or close to it, certainly more so than the people who attempted to take over the Traveler's Aid Society building. Here, it seems, we have on old activist stereotype, one who exoticizes political violence in other places, usually lesser developed ones, but finds himself alarmed when it emerges close to home. Proyect, in a post otherwise sympathetic to Hedges, perceptively observes that, to date, the riots, general strikes and attacks upon businesses celebrated by Hedges have failed to stall the ruthless imposition of austerity measures upon the Greek populace.

Consistent with this, while Hedges confined his condemnation to the Bloc, I suspect that the popularity of the piece, the reason why it went viral, is because liberals and progressives, non-socialists, in other words, have become fatigued with the direct action ethos of Occupy. For example, read through the comments to this post, written by someone who participated in the January 28th attempt by Occupy Oakland to seize the vacant Kaiser Center Auditorium and convert it into a community center. Numerous people, who, because of their local knowledge, appear to be Bay Area progressives, posted hostile comments, showing no sympathy for the people who were attacked and arrested by the police, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority were not among the few who threw rocks, bottles and firecrackers at the cops. Confronted with an excessive police response, especially at the end of the day, when officers kettled protesters, subjected them to a barrage of tear gas and flash grenades, and then arrested over 400 in front of the YWCA building, the commenters were either silent, or dismissed it as predictable. Clearly, they objected to the attempt to seize the building just as much as they did the people who threw objects at the police.

The reason for this hostility is simple: they, like Hedges, are alarmed at the increasing intensity of the confrontations with the police. Hence, liberals and progressives will be critical of any action, even non-violent ones, like property seizures, if they degenerate into street violence between protesters and cops, while conversely, ones that actually involve property destruction, without a violent police response, like the windows broken during the day of the general strike, or, more recently, the windows broken at an upscale car dealership on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco during the evening of the Occupy Wall Street West action, generate much less comment, except by those who learn of them during the real time livestreams and Twitter feeds or subsequent YouTube videos.

Such a response exposes the fault line that runs between older progressives and the young militants of Occupy. Older progressives live within existing institutional structures, unions, universities, schools and the public sector, and have become, in many instances, middle and upper class. Overall, they have a positive opinion of the police, even as they believe that officers should stop treating poor people and peole of color so badly. In other words, they believe that the police are necessary to preserve social order, and that they can be reformed. Conversely, many of the young militants of Occupy now consider the police to be an implacable enemy, a bulwark of the existing system of social oppression. And, in Oakland, they knew about the predations of the police prior to Occupy, which explains the intensity of the conflict there.

Here, finally, we begin to recognize some of the challenges currently confronting Occupy. On the one hand, we have people who purportedly want to support it, and may have even done so in the initial period of occupations, but cannot do so now because of the violence they perceive associated with it. On the other, we have others, rightly outraged over the conduct of the police, who risk substituting confrontations with law enforcement over direct challenges to crony capitalists responsible for the economic distress experienced by so many. Occupy also initially attracted marginalized people, but they seem to have departed.

Is there a path out of this dark forest? If so, it may lie within the processes of Occupy itself. As Pham Binh and others have observed, Occupy is a direct action social movement where those who dedicate the most time and energy disproportionately influence the outcomes. There is nothing unique about this, it is true of most institutions in this society. But such an approach will not work for a movement that seeks to represent the 99%. As Tiny, also known as Lisa Garcia-Gray, wrote about her experience during a march and bank occupation in San Francisco:

POOR Magazine was in the march on this day, sadly with only three members, we did have four family members but several of our poor parents are houseless and jobless and so our fourth member had his phone cut off the night before and so we couldn’t find each other in the masses of people, and all of our other family members were working one of several jobs and hustles and so they didn’t even have the privilege to be there at all.

At first I was taken by the almost flawless organizing by Bay Area non-profit organizations. From the emcee to the turn-out from group after group, the whole event was wound tightly as a rope on a drum. Each act of civil disobedience, set-off at the mouths of Wells Fargo bank branches, were beautifully orchestrated stages of theatre and action. It was obvious that funded organizations with time and paid staff had organized this event down to the last balloon, slightly like a party we at POOR Magazine had never received an invitation to.

As we left the protest to get our young kids to school on time, Tony and I spoke about the power of the resistance that we had just been part of. I brought up how although I am excited and about all of the issues peoples were speaking and acting on I remain vexed by the fact that as poor peoples of color and indigenous peoples we are constantly in battle, in protest about the genocide and violence perpetrated on us and yet it is a struggle for us to get 50 people to show up for protests, so what is the difference? and what really is our role in all of these resistance occupations as poor peoples of color in struggle who are also in struggle with the occupation of our time due to no-wage and low-wage work, system abuse and ongoing criminalization and why do our resistance movements stay at the margins of what is important to show up for?

At last, Tiny, not Chris Hedges, has revealed what ails Occupy, the difficulty of reaching and empowering the people most victimized in this capitalist society. By targeting the ephemeral Bloc as the source of the illness, Hedges evades this much more challenging social and political dilemma. Accordingly, Occupy should evaluate its internal processes and future actions by the extent to which they bring these people into the movement, and not by simplistic bright line rules about violence and non-violence.

For now, and, perhaps permanently, that means trying to avoid violent confrontations with the police as much as possible, not because the conduct of the police should be considered acceptable, far from it, but, rather, because many of the people that might embrace Occupy most enthusiastically are terrified, and for good reason, of being beaten, arrested, and, if undocumented, deported. I actually accidentally had the opportunity of seeing Tiny request Occupy Oakland support for an immigrants rights march during a general assembly in mid to late November, and someone asked, because of the attempted Traveler's Aid Society takeover, whether there would be any violence. She emphatically said something like . . No . . No . . absolutely not . . we are going to have families with children with us on the march. In relation to the attempt to take over the Kaiser Center, such considerations might suggest an initially more covert effort to seize it, with a subsequent display of public support, as occurred at Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley in November 2010, instead of a mass attempt to storm police lines at mid-day. Similarly, the manner by which Occupy Oakland organized in advance of the port shutdown, and provided picket line support for striking workers might serve as good examples as well. All three constituted effective efforts to support workers at the base.

Labels: , , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?