January 8, 2012

Occupy Seattle: Open Letter Regarding Non-violence vs. Diversity of Tactics Debate

Diversifying tactics does not mean that our movements have to polarize around the "violent/nonviolent" debate. This letter from a member of Decolonize/Occupy Seattle frames the debate well. It might give you some ideas for clarifying this debate at your local General Assembly.

Open Letter to Decolonize / Occupy Seattle

Originally published at Occupy Seattle

I am writing concerning the debate about nonviolence vs. diversity of tactics. I can’t be at GAs this week because I am visiting friends and speaking about the port shutdown to folks from Occupy Wall Street in NYC. Please share this with people on all sides of the debate; I wished to raise some of these points in the GA on Tuesday but was never called on (which is okay, a lot of other people had crucial things to say). For transparency’s sake, I wish to emphasize I am definitely part of the broad “radical” tendency of Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle, but I do not speak for all radicals. We have no representatives or leadership structure; in fact, we are a loose grouping of like-minded activists, not an organization. Here I wish to emphasize a particular radical perspective that I think has been unfortunately drowned out by the polarizing debate.

First of all, I want to emphasize that when radicals argue for a “diversity of tactics”, we are not arguing for “anything goes.” If someone advocated a stupid tactic that would put all of us in unnecessary danger than the radicals would surely oppose this. There are all sorts of stupid tactics. Some of them, like trying to explain to a police officer why he should support a militant direct action would be considered “nonviolent.” Others, like setting off a bomb near cops stationed inside the family-friendly “green zone” of a demonstration, would be considered “violent”. We’d try to stop both of these because both of these would surely lead to violence coming down on folks who have not chosen to participate in a violent action – the first by giving the police info that could lead to violent arrests of fellow activists, the second because it endangers protesters’ lives.

In contrast, “diversity of tactics” means we are are open to all sorts of smart tactics that would be considered nonviolent by the mainstream society, as well as others that are similarly smart, but get labeled as “violent” by the mainstream media. Basically, I think we should start the conversation with the question: which tactics are smart and which ones aren’t? We may find we have more agreement there then we’d expect, agreement that’s getting overlooked in this debate about violence vs. nonviolence.

Given that, I think we need a clear, non-polemical answer to this question: why is this debate happening right now? If folks think it is because liberals are trying to take over the GA they need to prove it. If folks think it is because radicals are trying to take over the GA then they need to prove it. If it is for a different reason, what is that reason? I think answering this question will help us move forward.

My hypothesis is that this is coming up right now because the movement is at a turning point. We no longer have the camp, which brought out its own clear social groupings that have been in motion together since the fall. Some of these groupings have been dumpies (downwardly mobile urban professionals who the economic crisis has dumped into the working class), homeless folks, unemployed folks, and low wage workers. We are asking now: what new strategies can continue to mobilize these social groupings together ? What strategies can reach out to new groupings that we haven’t yet reached? Which groups should we be trying to reach? Is it possible to reach all communities at once? If not, which communities should be prioritized?

It’s clear the movement still has vitality, but it does not yet have a new direction. Really, we should be debating about how to find that direction. There is no reason why that debate should rip us apart, especially since it is entirely possible that some of us might choose to focus on some communities, and other might choose to focus on others, and that’s okay because we’ve already established a principle of autonomy in the movement.

Instead of having these debates in a healthy way, a few folks from the liberal faction of Occupy Seattle decided to frame the debate in terms of violence vs. nonviolence. It think this is unfortunate. We are trying to name and debate about the “elephant in the room” which is how this movement can grow as it enters its second phase. A few of the liberals have found the elephant’s tail and they are shouting “I found the elephant! We need to be nonviolent!”.

However, beneath their overzealousness lies some serious political concerns that can’t easily be dismissed, and need to be addressed through healthy political debate. Their main argument, as far as I can tell, is that unless we adopt a policy of nonviolence, they won’t be able to reach out to the groups they want to reach out to (groups that will be turned off by anything that can be labeled violent). This is a serious point that deserves a serious political response.

To give folks the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume that not all of the folks who are for the nonviolence proposal are doing it simply to get funding from liberal groups. Some might be, but some of them are probably doing it simply because they want people from their communities to participate and may be getting strong criticisms from their communities for the actions that some of the radicals in Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle have done. This could be amplified as folks spend time with family over the holidays, and face pressure around the dinner table.

The main response from the radical faction, as far as I can tell, is equally serious: if we adopt a policy of nonviolence, then we wont be able to reach out to the groups we want to reach out to: groups that face systematic racist, sexist, capitalistic, and homophobic violence and will not participate if we are required to renounce our capacity for self-defense. Radicals also face pressure from our communities – life is getting increasingly harder, there is more and more drama going on as the economic crisis deepens, and people all around us are asking how we can come together to provide safety for each other as we struggle to get free. Just when we think Decolonize/Occupy could be a way to provide this safety, we are faced with a mandatory nonviolence proposal that will tie our hands and make it harder for us to do that.

I think if we could cut out a lot of the rhetorical fireworks and focus the discussion on these contending points, we might be able to reach a breakthrough. I do think some choices will need to be made about which community’s concerns we prioritize most, but this does mean that other communities need to be shut out of the movement and it does not mean we need to split.

For example, I think that this movement should be grounded in, and in solidarity with, the struggles of working class communities of color. Wall St. and the 1% get their profits by exploiting working class people of color more than they exploit working class white people. (Note, when I say working class I don’t just mean people who currently work, I also mean unemployed folks, and anyone who has been displaced, dispossessed, or separated from their land and the means of production by colonialism). I do think that this movement will not be relevant to working class communities of color if it relies on the police for safety. In a white supremacist society, people of color are far too likely to be attacked by police or by racist white people. For this reason, it is unfair and unrealistic to ask folks to check their capacity for self-defense at the door if they wish to join the movement. A mandatory nonviolence policy also puts at risk people of color who have been tirelessly building this movement from the beginning. That’s not right and we won’t let it happen.

However, I don’t think the radicals’ response to this demand has simply been “white people go home.” If you listen closely, folks are not saying white people have no role in the movement. Most radicals are simply saying the movement should not be white dominated and white people should not be telling people of color they can’t defend themselves.

Many of the radicals recognize that white people are not all the same, and that white women, queer, transgender, working class, and gender nonconforming folks are also much more likely to be attacked by police or by other violent, reactionary forces in society than white middle and upper class straight men are. We want to build alliances, and defending each other is part of that.

This piece by a few of the radicals argues that working class white people are actually facing less and less privilege under the system. The economic crisis has lead to even greater attacks on working class people of color, but it has also lead to attacks on working class white folks. It is in the interest of working class white folks to unite with working class people of color, and to be in solidarity with their struggles: http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/occupy-to-end-capitalism/. Not all radicals agree with this article, but it’s worth considering.

It’s important to emphasize that none of the radicals are advocating that Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle should take a position of guerilla warfare or armed revolutionary warfare right now. This is a straw-man argument that some liberals have raised to discredit us. Primarily, many radicals are concerned about our personal safety and our need to defend ourselves. People won’t join the movement if they know they will be needlessly unsafe within it.

At a broader level, many of us are part of this movement because we believe in taking responsibility for all aspects of our lives, including matters of security and accountability. We don’t believe in leaving these up to a racist, capitalist, sexist, and heterosexist police and judicial system. We wish to start building an alternative, rooted in the same principles of autonomy and direct democracy that animate the General Assembly. Many of us were central to attempts to provide safety in the camp. We are not saying we oppose this nonviolence proposal because we love violence. We are saying we oppose it because it limits our ability to take responsibility for ourselves and each other. In some respects, it actually means we’d have less freedom than we do outside of the movement, which seems backwards.

I am hearing from some white middle class folks that they can’t be associated with OS unless it takes a pledge of nonviolence because their own communities will see them as violent by association even if they don’t participate in violence themselves. They are saying that being in a movement that is labeled violent will hurt their organizing efforts more than it will hurt radicals if we are associated with a movement that is “nonviolent.” First of all, this is not accurate. In many of our communities, we will be seen as naive, whitewashed, bourgie, or not serious if we are associated with a movement that is known to require nonviolence for all of its participants. Worse, some reactionaries out there might think that they can take advantage of us more easily because the movement has required us to renounce our capacity for self-defense and we might be put at danger.

Given this, I don’t think the nonviolence proposal should be passed. At the same time, I don’t think that radicals should just dismiss liberals, including white middle class liberals, when they say that the defeat of this proposal will mean it’ll be harder for them to organize in their communities. I think that Occupy Seattle should work together to make it clear to the public that we are for a diversity of tactics, not mandatory self-defense or armed struggle. We should make it clear that folks who believe in nonviolence can still participate in the movement. We should also try to open up a dialogue about how organizers from white middle class backgrounds can go back to their communities and explain why Occupy Seattle has not passed a mandatory nonviolence resolution. This could be a great opportunity to educate and challenge folks, and to expand the movement.

At the same time, I think radicals should be careful not to catch people in the crossfire. (to be fair, most of us have been careful, but if the debate polarizes further this could become an issue). Not everyone who believes in nonviolence is white, and not everyone is a liberal. And some people who started out liberal have become radicals the past few months; others are somewhere in between. The vitality of the radicals so far is that we have not hardened into a rigid organization. We don’t have our own borders or leaders. We have many voices. We are open to new people joining; many of us are in fact new to organizing, and folks who are more experienced are working together for the first time. This is exceptional – it is not happening as much in other cities, and it is a major reason for the dynamism not only of Seattle’s radical scenes but of Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle as a whole. It is also a major reason for the sucess of the port shutdown. If we start to draw hard lines against everyone who belives in nonviolence then we will loose this vitality. If someone believes in nonviolence and they’re willing to shut down ports chanting “everything for everyone the revolution has begun”, then we should work together.

I’ve been doing research recently on the tactics police use when they try to infiltrate and destroy movements. One tactic they have used over and over again is to infiltrate liberal circles and label all radicals as violent extremists, or to suggest that radicals are police provocatuers to discredit them. Often, their goal is to join and encapsulate/ contain a movement within a limited and moderate set of goals. Another tactic they have used is to infiltrate radical circles in attempts to provoke an over-reaction against liberal nonviolence, and a premature split. They want radicals to become closed off, paranoid, and mistrustful so that our organizations and communities will no longer be accessible or attractive to new folks. I think Seattle’s radicals are too smart to fall for that. I hope Seattle’s liberals are as well. I have no evidence that there are police agents in Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle currently, but I do think that how we handle this debate will affect our long-term resiliency in the face of possible police interference.

One of the things that disappoints me about this debate is that there have been few folks who have made arguments from a principled, radical pacifist perspective. It seems most of the main arguments for the nonviolence proposal center around tactics, not principle. I worry that folks who believe in nonviolence on principle might be getting sidelined or silenced. I am not a pacifist today, but I first became an activist through Christian and interfaith organizing against the war in Iraq, and was deeply inspired by radical pacifists like Daniel Berrigan who burned a bunch of draft files with homemade napalm and went underground to evade the FBI because he thought that a violent, oppressive, racist state has no right to apprehend him and put him on trial. This goes a lot further than classic notions of civil disobedience where you’re supposed to turn yourself in to accept the legitimacy of the system minus the one law you are protesting because you think it’s unjust. In fact, I think Berrigan’s actions actually have a little more in common with some tactics used by anarchists, and I’m not sure, but I think he may have considered himself an anarchist pacifist.

Berrigan was working in solidarity with the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese resistance movements against colonialism. He wanted to build a nonviolent alternative to the armed solidarity work being done by groups like the Weather Underground. However, he didn’t distance himself from the Underground or from the Panthers or any other armed groups. He was not ashamed to be associated with the anti-war movement just because these groups were a part of it. Instead, he stayed in the movement and tried to create a nonviolent option for resistance through his own activity.

Instead of trying to impose mandatory nonviolence resolution, I encourage those who really believe in nonviolence to figure out ways to challenge the violence of the state, capitalism, patriarchy, rape culture, heterosexism, and white supremacy. We can work together on that. If you want to challenge it nonviolently, I respect that. But to be philosophically consistent, you shouldn’t collaborate with politicians, cops, and the system because the system is incredibly violent. Instead, you should think of ways to work with the radicals in Occupy Seattle to oppose the violence of this society. If you want to do that nonviolently, then organize yourselves to do it. I’m sure you will find support, even from those of us who may be labeled as “violent”. That’s what “diversity of tactics” is all about.

I’m not an anarchist, but I’ll end with a quote from an anarchist flyer that was distributed at the camp this fall. It is a reminder of why we are all here in the first place: “the greatest violence would be to return to normal.” After what we’ve all been through together we can’t just walk away from this movement without inflicting great violence on our own hearts, minds, and souls. Think about the level of of repression and denial that it will take to walk away and to go back to a “normal” life where you just put up with a future-less, dream-less reality full of endless work and economic anxiety. Trying to readjust to that just because you lost a debate in the GA is a recipe for misery. Doing that to yourself is way more violent then anything the radicals have done in this movement.

peace and solidarity,
participant in Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle

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