In the wake of the failed building takeover, there has been a lot of discussion about violence, self defense and the police response. The discussion about violence vs nonviolence has been going on since the beginning of Occupy Oakland. I’ve struggled to find a way to express my thoughts on this subject, and a friend of mine had already encouraged me to express them. The conversations I had today with people down at the plaza have allowed me to solidify my thoughts on this issue.
There are several things to discuss. The racial angle in how people discuss violence is one that has been on my mind for quite a while. Another is how people in the movement mistake a discussion of whether violence is “justified” for an actual tactical or strategic discussion. Finally, the reactions people have to violence by the police exposes exactly why Occupy should be a nonviolent movement.
Discussions about violence in Occupy have a heavily racialized angle. Often, people are more ready to hear out discussions about the role of violence from white or black males. I often see or hear black male violence fetishized as “authentic” by Occupiers. Furthermore, it is often very clear to me that my voice as an Asian male is routinely dismissed, not sought or ignored by people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and this includes people of color. To the extent that my comments on this issue have not been dismissed, it is only because I have forcefully injected them into the discourse.
In this way , Occupy is a mirror of the wider American society, where as a friend of mine says, only white people are viewed to be people with a variety of characteristics. Latinos are coded as “emotional”, blacks as violent, and Asians as passive. I find this hilariously inaccurate, actually, since in the twentieth century alone, Asia witnessed numerous wars and revolutions wherein armies slaughtered each other on the battlefield by the hundreds of thousands. For example, in 1978 China and Vietnam fought for less than a month, with more than 50,000 people dying as a result. In China during the late 1960s, factions of high school and college students fought pitched street battles with edged and blunt weapons. I don’t expect people to know this history, but really, no one should have to know this history if they actually saw someone as a person, and not as a stereotype.
I have noticed that some of those who most loudly proclaim their militancy are the ones who basically ignore me unless I approach them first.
And speaking of militancy, today I heard more than a few people talking about police violence who were unable to articulate the difference between whether police violence was “justified,” and whether a particular action taken by Occupy Oakland was tactically or strategically sound.
Those are two different discussions, and whether anyone was “justified” has nothing to do with failing to take Kaiser Auditorium in the face of police action. The operation to take the building failed, and it failed because there were not enough people in the street to deter the police from acting against the crowd. Think back to the first day of action to close the port, the General Strike. Probably 20,000 people marched that day, and there was no way to stop them from moving to the port, short of the police opening up with real bullets. Therefore, the march happened, and Occupy was able to shut down the port.
The fact is, 20,000 people did not march on J28. They did not march because the organizers and instigators of the march were unable to attract a large enough crowd. You have to expect that the police will try to kettle protesters, and make them stop. Failing to plan to take that into account, and failing to develop an operational plan to do that is irresponsible. I saw the ABC7 helicopter livestream of people marching into Laney College, which slowed down the march and dispersed people. While people were walking through Laney, the livestream showed a group of riot police sprinting to cut off the march at the exits to the college, and successfully doing so. Whoever came up with the idea of marching through Laney was foolish, and should have expected the outcome.
And there is a reason that 20,000 people did not show up on J28, and did not show up during the second port strike. It is the reason that very few people show up for the “Fuck The Police” marches, and fewer and fewer people want to show up to Occupy events. And that is the belligerent and unrealistic rhetoric that comes out of people’s mouths, threatening the city with “indefinitely” shutting down the airport, port, etc. Boots Riley has already discussed that in some detail. After seeing the poor turnout for J28, it is unrealistic to expect that Occupy could even carry out those actions, which just makes everyone involved look stupid and foolish– there is nothing worse than making idle threats that everyone knows you can’t pull off. Actions we take should draw in the undecided, and connect us more strongly with the community, and not drive people away. The reason is that movements can easily become echo chambers, where the numbers shrink only to the “hard core.” The “hard core” does things which build in-group solidarity, so that the members feel they are ever more correct, while at the same time alienating the public. In those situations, you don’t end up with a mass movement, you have a cult, like the Japanese Red Army Faction. They ran around for years with a tiny group of people, pulling operations and killing people (and their own group members). The crazier they got, the more they felt justified (there’s that word again) but the more they were alienated from Japanese society. The Baader-Meinhoff group in Germany was similar. It is almost as if people get so hung up on action that they stop thinking about whether it serves any other goal besides the rush. Therefore, to avoid those kinds of self-destructive scenarios, we always have to think about how to draw in the uncommitted with our actions.
Before taking action, people have to think very hard about whether the risks and costs of the operation are worth it, and whether we can succeed before we mount an operation. We don’t have infinite resources, and I’m not just talking about money. I’m talking about time and people’s lives. Mass arrests mean that many people are going to be sucked into the justice system and the time they spend dealing with that, is time they can’t spend doing anything else, like serving food or organizing in the community. I’ve heard people talk about “wearing down” the police– this is silly, as the police and law enforcement have tremendous resources, that outstrip what a few hundred people can bring to bear. I have talked with people who say that there were plenty of people who knew the action was going to fail, but it was important to do it anyway, just to do it. People may not realize it , but that callous attitude towards wasting operational resources mirrors the rhetoric and actions of World War 1 generals, who repeatedly threw their men into losing operations, “just because.” Only, it wasn’t “just because,” it came out of a sense of entitlement to people’s lives, and a refusal to avoid head to head battles by finding smarter ways to engage their opponents.
I find it ironic that people who so often claim to be against the mfilitary industrial complex so often mirror the military at its worst.
And speaking of foolish and stupid, the entire shield wall, Black Bloc stuff is pretty ridiculous. Again, I hear discussions of justification, legalistic arguments about self defense, and people quoting Frantz Fannon. Frankly, there is no such thing as self defense, there is only survival. Self defense is a legal concept that has to do with when the state or society views a particular action as permissible. But out on the street, it’s just two people, or two groups struggling to prevail and take a space. So you’re either violent, or you’re not. Getting caught in between, just means getting a beating, because by waiting there with shields it’s reactive, and waiting for the police to make the first move. If people are going to pick the path of violence in their confrontations with the police, then they are always going to lose because the police have more training, better equipment and are used to working as a unit. Person for person, you aren’t beating the cops. You can only prevail when you have massive overwhelming numbers on your side, because at that point there isn’t much the police can do to stop you. And if you really must talk about justification, with tens of thousands of people on your side, you can really say that you are standing up with and for the people. Seeing tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people in the street is the kind of thing that will make a significant number of police and military ask themselves if they really want to continue strapping on a weapon for a government and system that lacks the support of the governed.
And it is the discussions about justification, and the outcries of police brutality that really demonstrate to me why Occupy Oakland should be a nonviolent movement. Frankly, what I saw in the livestreams was a fairly restrained OPD. Most cops were delivering hits on protesters’ torsos, arms or legs. For healthy young people, this isn’t a very big deal, since those kinds of bruises will heal in a couple of days. Yes, getting shot in the face by a bean bag, or taking any kind of head trauma, or permanent crippling injury are serious. But the other stuff? Not really. It’s not more rough than what you see in a typical full contact sparring session. And if people find that shocking and “brutal” then they sure as hell aren’t ready for all-out-violent-war in-the-streets-revolution.
In those situations,elaborate justifications go out the window. It’s about survival, and ensuring that you and your own survive no matter what. That is terrifically ugly, and in those situations, it sure isn’t horizontal democracy that informs the situation. When governments fall, the people absolutely turn to those who can provide protection to them and their interests, and it is historically, the hierarchal organizations that provide said security. It is the former soldiers and cops, and the organized crime groups that rise to the fore. I guarantee you that those kinds of people aren’t going to give a shit about temp checks and consensus.
You don’t have to take my word for it — you can look at what happened when the USSR collapsed in the 1990s, and when the Chinese empire collapsed in 1911. It’s not pretty. Men like that are not going to want to listen to people screaming about police brutality– they’ll just send over a squad of armed men, with kill-on-sight orders. All the talk about justification is just excuses, it’s the stuff that people tell themselves so they can feel better about what they are doing, because they know in their hearts that what they are doing clashes with their temperament. And in this way, the rhetoric that I hear at Occupy Oakland sometimes is ironically not all that different from the kinds of lies that our society tells young men before it sends them off to do battle in a foreign land. People talk about “serving the country” and “fighting for freedom” and “just war,” as a way to assuage their guilt over killing people who have not done a damn thing to us, simply so a defense contractor can make a buck, a careerist military officer can get a promotion, and a politician can rake in contributions.
Occupy Oakland should stay a nonviolent movement because most of the people involved, do not really want a violent revolution, nor are they prepared for it. Because otherwise, then they wouldn’t be as bothered by OPD’s relatively measured response. There are a lot of people at Occupy Oakland who clearly value things like horizontal democratic meetings and organizing, and they show this by the way that they organize. And, I don’t hear people trying to justify these things, because they don’t really need any justification, they are things that are self-evidently positive, empowering, and life affirming. This is why I say that the movement should be one that is nonviolent, because those values, and the people that hold them, mostly would not survive a violent revolution. Hierarchal command structures are used by every successful fighting force because those are what work best in the chaos of battle. And those things are the antithesis of the best things about Occupy.
Violent revolution isn’t what I want. It has always been my hope that Occupy would speak truth to power and, with the voices of tens of millions of Americans, compel those with power in our society to concede peacefully. I’m not looking for some kind of utopia where everyone lives free of existential crises. Rather, I would be happy if we had a social democratic society where people had food to eat, roofs over their head, medical care when they get sick and a place to retire when they get old. In fact, if we look at the history of humanity, those are extremely radical demands, since for most of the time people suffered from routine starvation, epidemic diseases and brutal absolute monarchies. In contrast, a life of quiet desperation isn’t quite so terrible.
I got involved with Occupy because I saw it as the first nationwide movement with the potential to challenge our corrupt and terribly incompetent system. I have seen some really beautiful things in this movement– seen people struggle to overcome racial barriers to work together to build a better world, seen us feed the hungry and house the homeless, and learned a lot about how hard it is to build democratic organizations. I would hate to see those things destroyed by the very people who I know treasure those ideals the most.