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Reconsidering Nonviolence & Violence in the Era of Occupy

By now anyone who is interested in the future of Occupy has read or heard about Chris Hedges’ article wherein he decries Black Bloc as a “cancer” on the movement.  Since then Hedges has been roundly criticized for failing to understand that Black Bloc is a tactic, rather than an organization, for mischaracterizing the motives of practitioners, for assuming its adherents are all followers of anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan, and for promoting strict adherence to nonviolence in the Occupy movement.

Hedges, whom I very much admire, and who knows more about violence, having reported from a number of war zones, than many of those criticizing his views, clearly didn’t do sufficient research on Black Bloc.  Nevertheless, by initiating the conversation, Hedges has done us all a service.  The ensuing debate about the virtues and limitations of nonviolence has been enlightening.  I, for one, would never have read Ward Churchill’s Pacifism As Pathology or Peter Gelderloos’ How Nonviolence Protects the State without it.   Whether or not you are a staunch proponent of nonviolence, these works raise important issues about the limitations of the pacifist approach and challenge the mythology built up around it.

I am not arguing here that it’s time we had ourselves a riot, or that random acts of vandalism advance the cause, or even that shouting “fuck the police” is useful (although completely understandable when police brutalize peaceful protestors).  What I am advocating is thoughtful consideration of critiques of nonviolence as the only permissible strategy – and of what it is that we mean by “nonviolence”.  (For example, is self-defense “violent”?)  Such consideration is consistent with the values of a movement dedicated to inclusiveness and that has as a central institution the general assembly where all voices are allowed a chance to be heard.

Both Churchill and Gelderloos make a number of well-reasoned critiques of nonviolence as a sole strategy for direct action and there are many points worth debating in their respective works.  However, I want to focus on just three that I think are particularly salient for those of us taught to venerate nonviolence.

First, both Churchill and Gelderloos make the point that the success of nonviolent action is usually dependent on others doing the dirty work of more aggressive, perhaps even violent, resistance. For example, both Churchill and Gelderloos argue that the British were induced to quit India for multiple reasons, including the weakening of the British empire during the two World Wars, and the violent resistance that co-existed with Ghandi’s nonviolent movement.

Churchill writes:

While it is true that the great Indian leader never deviated from his stance of passive resistance to British colonization, and that in the end England found it cost-prohibitive to continue its effort to assert control in the face of his opposition, it is equally true that the Gandhian success must be viewed in the context of a general decline in British power brought about by two world wars within a thirty-year period.

Prior to the decimation of British troop strength and the virtual bankruptcy of the Imperial treasury during World War II, Gandhi’s movement showed little likelihood of forcing England’s abandonment of India…  Hence, while the Mahatma and his followers were able to remain “pure,” their victory was contingent upon others physically gutting their opponents for them (p11).

Gelderloos concurs, and further argues that “while Ghandi was perhaps the most singularly influential and popular figure in India’s independence struggle” his method “can be viewed most accurately as one of several competing forms of popular resistance” (p8).  Gelderloos cites “important militant leaders such as Chandrasekhar Azad, who fought in armed struggle against the British colonizers, and revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh, who won mass support for bombings and assassinations” as playing crucial roles in the British decision to withdraw (p8).

Churchill and Gelderloos similarly note that although the black civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. “had considerable power and influence,” it was not until black people began rioting in Birmingham that President Kennedy called on Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act (Gelderloos, p11).  The rise of the black power movement also increased pressure on the government to act.  “Without the specter, real or perceived, of a violent black revolution at large in America during a time of war,” Churchill writes, “King’s nonviolent strategy was basically impotent in concrete terms” (p12).

Both Gelderloos and Churchill downplay the role of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement in ending that conflict.  They give primary credit instead to the ferocious armed resistance of the Vietnamese themselves and the resulting deterioration in the morale of U.S. troops. Gelderloos quotes Colonel Robert D. Heinl’s assessment of the situation in June 1971:

By every conceivable indicator, our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous.  Elsewhere than Vietnam the situation is nearly as serious (p14).

Churchill points out that the peace movement petered out long before the war ended:

Actually, there was no mass antiwar movement in the United States, nonviolent or otherwise, by the time the war ended in 1975.  It had begun to dissipate rapidly during the summer of 1970 in the wake of sustaining its first and only real casualties – a total of four dead at Kent State in Ohio that spring [104].  By the time the last U.S. ground troops were withdrawn in 1973, Nixinger (sic) had suspended the draft, and with the element of their personal jeopardy thus eliminated, the “principled” opposition fueling the mass movement evaporated altogether while the war did not (p31).

It is easy to idealize non-violence when we are far removed from violent struggles.  It may be difficult for the 99% in the Occupy movement – many of whom have lost jobs and homes, are burdened with student loan debt they can never hope to repay, and have been brutalized by police in many cities – to see themselves as privileged. But compared to most of the rest of the world, we are the 1%.

As citizens of a powerful imperial nation, we are largely protected from the violence others experience around the world, often at the direction of our own government.  We do not experience drones from other countries invading our airspace, shooting at people the invading country believes are enemies (without benefit of trial), and in the process killing dozens of innocents.  (However, domestic use of drones for surveillance has already begun.) We have not been weakened by severe economic sanctions and then attacked militarily because the invaders think we might have “weapons of mass destruction.”  We have not experienced another country instigating the overthrow of our democratically elected leaders followed by brutal repression of protest against the coup.  When we advocate for strict adherence to nonviolence to resist oppression we need to understand that we do so from a position of privilege.

Second, and related to the above, Gelderloos and Churchill argue that proponents of pacifism as a sole strategy often fail to recognize the violence perpetrated against disadvantaged communities in this country.  It’s a point forcefully made by Angela Davis in her Black Panther days.  In the Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, (a 2011 documentary film comprised of archival footage found in the basement of Swedish public television), a Swedish journalist asks Davis:  “The question is: How do you get there?  Do you use confrontation?  Violence?”

Davis responds:

Oh, is that the question you were asking?  You ask me?  Whether I approve of violence?  That just doesn’t make any sense at all.  Whether I approve of guns.  I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama.  Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs.  Bombs that were planted by racists . . . [F]rom the time I was very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street.  Our house shaking.  I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment we might expect to be attacked.  The man who was at that time in complete control of the city government, his name was Bull Connor, would often get on the radio and make statements like, “Niggers have moved into a white neighborhood; we’d better expect some bloodshed tonight.”  And sure enough, there would be bloodshed.

Davis goes on to relate that her family had close relationships with the four girls who were killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham, and that Davis’ mother drove the mother of one of the girls to the church after they received word of the bombing.

They went down, and what did they find?  They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place.  And then after that, in my neighborhood, all the men organized themselves into an armed patrol.  They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.

That’s why when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible.  Because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through.  What black people have experienced in this country, since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.

Let’s recall here that the “violence” advocated by the Black Panthers was simply self-defense!

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that when “violence” erupted from an Occupy group it happened in Oakland.  (That’s assuming we can properly call what happened there “violence.”  As Rebecca Solnit points out, while the OO “camp was in existence, crime went down 19% in Oakland” and the “smashy-smashy” committed by a few on November 2nd “didn’t send anyone to the hospital, drive any seniors from their homes, spread despair and debt among the young, snatch food and medicine from the desperate, or destroy the global economy.”)

The Oakland police department is on the verge of a federal takeover, due to its failure to fully comply with a laundry list of court-ordered reforms to remedy its long history of brutality, framing suspects, and corruption.  The OPD has perpetrated shocking violence against OO, using tear gas, flash grenades, and bean bag projectiles, creating scenes that look like something from a war zone.  When Iraq veteran Scott Olsen sustained a serious head injury from a tear gas canister, police fired on fellow protestors who ran to his aid.  Given this context, can we really blame the more militant wing of OO, the Move-In Assembly, for using shields, tearing down a fence to avoid police kettling, and escaping police through a YMCA on January 28th?

In the Wisconsin Uprising, by comparison, it was relatively easy to remain peaceful because the police were on our side.  We were not attacked with tear gas, pepper spray, or flash grenades; indeed, in most cases, the police were unwilling to arrest anyone!

Finally, both Churchill and Gelderloos argue that pacifism is ultimately disempowering. While taking our beatings without resistance may garner sympathy among the general public, it will not move the oppressors.  Further, at what point will a people trained to accept whatever brutality the authorities dish out lose their ability to resist at all?

Churchill examines the extreme example of Jews walking, without resistance, into gas chambers and to their certain deaths.  Orthodox Jewish leaders, Churchill writes, counseled “social responsibility,” “not exacerbating conditions,” and “not alienating the German people” (p3).  By the time the Nazis implemented the “final solution”:

The dynamics of passive resistance were so entrenched in the Jewish Zeitgeist (the Nazis having been in power a full decade) that a sort of passive accommodation prevailed. Jewish leaders took their people quietly and nonviolently, first into the ghettos, and then onto trains “evacuating” them to the east.  Armed resistance was still widely held to be “irresponsible” (p4).

Churchill quotes former concentration camp inmate Bruno Bettelhiem at length.  Bettelhiem observes that in the one known revolt of camp inmates, “seventy SS were killed. . .  one of the crematoria was totally destroyed and another severely damaged” (p5).  Bettelheim wonders why there was not more resistance, and even suggests that had the Jews armed themselves before being taken away, they could have shot a couple of the SS that came for them.  “The loss of an SS with every Jew arrested,” according to Bettelhiem, “would have noticeably hindered the functioning of the police state” (p5).

“Pacifism,” Churchill concludes near the end of his book, “not only inverts Emiliano Zapata’s famous dictum that ‘It is better to die on one’s feet that to live on one’s knees;’ it actually posits the proposition that it is best to die on one’s knees and seeks to achieve this result as a matter of principle” (42).

Fighting back, on the other hand, can be empowering.  The Stonewall Riots of 1969 erupted when gays and lesbians, fed up with police harassment and brutality, spontaneously fought back.  Widely viewed as the catalyst for the gay rights movement, the riots proved to be an empowering experience for many of those involved.  Gelderloos quotes one participant:

We were not taking any more of this shit.  We had done so much for other movements.  It was time…  I’m glad I was in the Stonewall Riot.  I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought:  “My god, the revolution is here.  The revolution is finally here!”  (snip)

I am proud of myself as being there that night.  If I had lost that moment, I would have been kind of hurt because that’s when I saw the world change for me and my people (p73).

Allen Ginsberg reportedly said, “Gay power! Isn’t that great!… It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.”  After visiting the Stonewall Inn for the first time following the riots, he remarked, “[T]he guys there were so beautiful—they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”

Again, the purpose of this essay is not to suggest that we all take up arms tomorrow.  Violence, once unleashed, is hard to contain and control and often changes us in ways we don’t anticipate.  Rather, my goal is to contribute to a dialogue on the limitations of pacifism as the only legitimate form of protest, and to promote reconsideration of what it is that we mean by “violence.”

Is using shields to protect oneself and fellow protestors from police-fired projectiles “violent”?   Is confiscating orange netting used for kettling “violent”?  Is swarming to protect fellow protestors from arrest “violent”?  Is reclaiming fellow protestors from police custody “violent”?  None of these tactics, promoted by some Occupiers who favor more aggressive tactics, involve harming anyone.  They’re generally disapproved of by strict adherents to nonviolence because using these tactics may enrage police, causing them to respond with more violence, endangering even pacifist protestors, and ruin the image of movement participants.

It’s worth remembering here that a classic pacifist tactic, going limp when arrested, will now count in Chicago as resisting arrest.  Will strict adherents to “nonviolence” now advise protestors to cooperate fully with police rather than going limp?  One is reminded of the words of the great abolitionist, writer, and orator, Frederick Douglass:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.  (1857 speech on West India Emancipation, New York).

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