The “Cancer” In Occupy? An Anarchist Reponds

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A microscopic cancer cell.

“The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement.”

Chris Hedges, a former war reporter for the New York Times, opened a recent editorial about the role of the Black Bloc with this assessment, which prompted furious derision and debate within the Occupy community. It was written a week after #J28, Occupy Oakland’s Move-In Day, which saw unrelenting police brutality and prompted mirror protests in New York and other cities.

At the New York protest, demonstrators identifying as Black Bloc anarchists threw bottles and provoked police, who then randomly arrested innocents from the crowd when the perpetrators ran away. Diversity of tactics is integral to a leaderless movement like this one, and thankfully there is a place for practitioners of non-violence as well as those who do not feel comfortable with minor property damage.

But Hedges, many feel, went too far in his condemnation of a tactic:

Black Bloc adherents detest those of us on the organized left and seek, quite consciously, to take away our tools of empowerment. They confuse acts of petty vandalism and a repellent cynicism with revolution. Because Black Bloc anarchists do not believe in organization, indeed oppose all organized movements, they ensure their own powerlessness. They can only be obstructionist.

“The Black Bloc can say they are attacking cops, but what they are really doing is destroying the Occupy movement,” the writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen told me. “If their real target actually was the cops and not the Occupy movement, the Black Bloc would make their actions completely separate from Occupy, instead of effectively using these others as a human shield. Their attacks on cops are simply a means to an end, which is to destroy a movement that doesn’t fit their ideological standard.”

The anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber refutes Hedges’s piece below in the form of an open letter.

I am writing this on the premise that you are a well-meaning person who wishes Occupy Wall Street to succeed. I am also writing as someone who was deeply involved in the early stages of planning Occupy in New York.

I am also an anarchist who has participated in many Black Blocs. While I have never personally engaged in acts of property destruction, I have on more than one occasion taken part in Blocs where property damage has occurred. (I have taken part in even more Blocs that did not engage in such tactics. It is a common fallacy that this is what Black Blocs are all about. It isn’t.)

I was hardly the only Black Bloc veteran who took part in planning the initial strategy for Occupy Wall Street. In fact, anarchists like myself were the real core of the group that came up with the idea of occupying Zuccotti Park, the “99%” slogan, the General Assembly process, and, in fact, who collectively decided that we would adopt a strategy of Gandhian non-violence and eschew acts of property damage. Many of us had taken part in Black Blocs. We just didn’t feel that was an appropriate tactic for the situation we were in.

This is why I feel compelled to respond to your statement, “The Cancer in Occupy.” This statement is not only factually inaccurate, it is quite literally dangerous. This is the sort of misinformation that really can get people killed. In fact, it is far more likely to do so, in my estimation, than anything done by any black-clad teenager throwing rocks.

Let me just lay out a few initial facts:

Black Bloc protesters in Germany. Photo: FUCKYEAH ANARCH@PUNK/Tumblr

1. Black Bloc is a tactic, not a group. It is a tactic where activists don masks and black clothing (originally leather jackets in Germany, later, hoodies in America), as a gesture of anonymity, solidarity, and to indicate to others that they are prepared, if the situation calls for it, for militant action. The very nature of the tactic belies the accusation that they are trying to hijack a movement and endanger others. One of the ideas of having a Black Bloc is that everyone who comes to a protest should know where the people likely to engage in militant action are, and thus easily be able to avoid it if that’s what they wish to do.

2. Black Blocs do not represent any specific ideological, or for that matter, anti-ideological position. Black Blocs have tended in the past to be made up primarily of anarchists but most contain participants whose politics vary from Maoism to Social Democracy. They are not united by ideology, or lack of ideology, but merely a common feeling that creating a bloc of people with explicitly revolutionary politics, and ready to confront the forces of  order through more militant tactics if required, is, on the particular occasion when they assemble, a useful thing to do. It follows that one can no more speak of “Black Bloc Anarchists” as a group with an identifiable ideology than one can speak of “Sign-Carrying Anarchists” or “Mic-Checking Anarchists.”

3. Even if you must select a tiny, ultra-radical minority within the Black Bloc and assume their views are representative of anyone who ever put on a hoodie, you can at least be up-to-date about it. In 1999  people used to pretend “the Black Bloc” was made up of nihilistic primitivist followers of John Zerzan opposed to all forms of organization. Nowadays, the preferred approach is to pretend the Black Bloc is made up of nihilistic insurrectionist followers of The Invisible Committee, opposed to all forms of organization. Both are absurd slurs. Yours, Mr. Hedges, is also 12 years out of date.

4. Your comment about Black Bloc’ers hating the Zapatistas is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen. Sure, if you dig around, you can find someone saying almost anything. But I’m guessing that, despite the ideological diversity, if you took a poll of participants in the average Black Bloc and asked what political movement in the world inspired them the most, the EZLN would get about 80% of the vote. In fact I’d be willing to wager that at least a third of participants in the average Black Bloc are wearing or carrying at least one item of Zapatista paraphernalia. (Have you ever actually talked to someone who has taken part in a Black Bloc? Or just to people who dislike them?)

Zapatista women protest the death of a woman at the hands of the Mexican Army in Chiapas.

5. “Diversity of tactics” is not a “Black Bloc” idea. The original General Assembly in Tompkins Square Park that planned the original occupation, if I recall, adopted the principle of diversity of tactics (at least it was discussed in a very approving fashion), and at the same time we all also concurred that a Gandhian approach would be the best way to go. This is not a contradiction: “diversity of tactics” means leaving such matters up to individual conscience, rather than imposing a code on anyone. This is mainly because imposing such a code invariably backfires. In practice, it means some groups break off in indignation and do even more militant things than they would have otherwise, without coordinating with anyone else—which is what happened in Seattle.

The results are usually disastrous. After the fiasco in Seattle, where some activists actively turned others over to the police, we quickly decided we needed to ensure this never happened again. We found that if we declared: “we shall all be in solidarity with one another. We will not turn in fellow protesters to the police. We will treat you as brothers and sisters. But we expect you to do the same to us,” then those who might be disposed to more militant tactics will act in solidarity as well, either by not engaging in militant actions at all for fear they will endanger others (as in many later Global Justice Actions, where Black Blocs merely helped protect the lockdowns, or in Zuccotti Park, where mostly people didn’t bloc up at all) or doing so in ways that run the least risk of endangering fellow activists.

But all of this is secondary. Mainly I am writing as an appeal to conscience. Your conscience, since clearly you are a sincere and well-meaning person who wishes this movement to succeed. I beg you: Please consider what I am saying. Please bear in mind as I say this that I am not a crazy nihilist, but a reasonable person who is one (if just one) of the original authors of the Gandhian strategy OWS adopted—as well as a student of social movements, who has spent many years both participating in such movements and trying to understand their history and dynamics.

I am appealing to you because I really do believe the kind of statement you made is profoundly dangerous. Whatever your intentions, it is very hard to read your statement as anything but an appeal to violence. After all, what are you basically saying about what you call “Black Bloc anarchists”?

1) They are not part of us.

2) They are consciously malevolent in their intentions.

3) They are violent.

4) They cannot be reasoned with.

5) They are all the same.

6) They wish to destroy us.

7) They are a cancer that must be excised.

Surely you must recognize, when it’s laid out in this fashion, that this is precisely the sort of language that has historically been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse or exterminate another. After all, if a group is made up exclusively of violent fanatics who cannot be reasoned with, who are intent on our destruction, what else can we really do? This is the language of violence in its purest form – far more than “fuck the police.” To see this kind of language employed by someone who claims to be speaking in the name of non-violence is genuinely extraordinary. I recognize that you’ve managed to find certain peculiar fringe elements in anarchism saying some pretty extreme things, it’s not hard to do, especially since such people are much easier to find on the internet than in real life, but it would be difficult to come up with any “Black Bloc anarchist” making a statement as extreme as this.

Time Magazine's Person of the Year, re-imagined as a celebration of the Black Bloc. Image: Occupy Duniya.

Even if you did not intend this statement as a call to violence, which I suspect you did not, how can you honestly believe that many will not read it as such?

In my experience, when I point this sort of thing out, the first reaction I normally get from pacifists is, “What are you talking about? Of course I’m not in favor of attacking anyone! I am non-violent! I am merely calling for non-violently confronting such elements and excluding them from the group!” The problem is that, in practice, this almost never happens. Time after time, what it has actually meant in practice is either:

a) Turning fellow activists over to the police, i.e., turning them over to people with weapons who will physically assault, shackle, and imprison them, or

b) Actual physical activist-on-activist assault.

Such things have happened. There have been physical assaults by activists on other activists, and, to my knowledge, they have never been perpetrated by anyone in Black Bloc, but invariably by purported pacifists against those who dare to pull a hood over their heads or a bandana over their faces, or, simply, against anarchists who adopt tactics someone else thinks are going too far. During one 15-minute period in Occupy Austin, I was threatened first with arrest, then with assault, by fellow campers because I was expressing verbal solidarity with, and then standing in passive resistance beside, a small group of anarchists who were raising what was considered to be an unauthorized tent.

This situation often produces extraordinary ironies. In Seattle, the only incidents of actual physical assault by protesters on other individuals were not attacks on the police, since these did not occur at all, but attacks by “pacifists” on Black Bloc’ers engaged in property damage. Since the Black Bloc’ers had collectively agreed on a strict policy of non-violence (which they defined as never harming another living being), they uniformly refused to strike back. In many recent occupations, self-appointed “Peace Police” have manhandled activists who showed up to marches in black clothing and hoodies, ripped their masks off, shoved and kicked them, always without the victims themselves having engaged in any act of violence; always with the victims refusing, on moral grounds, to shove or kick back.

The kind of rhetoric you are engaging in, if it disseminates widely, will ensure this kind of violence becomes much more severe. Perhaps you do not believe me, or do not believe these events to be particularly significant. If so, let me put the matter in a larger historical context. If I understand your argument, it seems to come down to this:

1. OWS has been successful because it has followed a Gandhian strategy of showing how, even in the face of strictly non-violent opposition, the state will respond with illegal violence.

2. Black Bloc elements who do not act according to principles of Gandhian non-violence are destroying the movement because they provide retroactive justification for state repression, especially in the eyes of the media.

3. Therefore, the Black Bloc elements must be somehow rooted out.

As one of the authors of the original Gandhian strategy, I can recall how aware we were that we were taking an enormous risk. Gandhian strategies have not historically worked in the U.S.; in fact, they haven’t really worked on a mass scale since the civil rights movement. This is because the U.S. media is simply constitutionally incapable of reporting acts of police repression as “violence.” (One reason the civil rights movement was an exception is so many Americans at the time didn’t view the Deep South as part of the same country.) Many of the young men and women who formed the famous Black Bloc in Seattle were in fact eco-activists who had been involved in tree-sits and forest defense lock-downs that operated on purely Gandhian principles only to find that in the U.S. of the 1990s, non-violent protesters could be brutalized, tortured (have pepper spray directly rubbed in their eyes) or even killed without serious objection from the national media. So they turned to other tactics. We knew all this. We decided it was worth the risk.

Members of the April 6 Youth Movement carry an injured protester in Tahrir Square. Photo: Palestinian Pundit

However, we are also aware that when the repression begins, some will break ranks and respond with greater militancy. Even if this doesn’t happen in a systematic and organized fashion, some violent acts will take place.  You write that Black Bloc’ers smashed up a “locally owned coffee shop”; I doubted this when I read it, since most Black Blocs agree on a strict policy of not damaging owner-operated enterprises, and I now find in Susie Cagle’s response to your article that, in fact, it was a chain coffee shop, and the property destruction was carried out by someone not in black. But still, you’re right: A few such incidents will inevitably occur.

The question is how one responds.

If the police decide to attack a group of protesters, they will claim to have been provoked, and the media will repeat whatever the police say, no matter how implausible. Many police claims will be patently ridiculous — at the recent Oakland march, police accused participants of throwing “improvised explosive devices”—but no matter how many times the police lie about such matters, the national media will still report their claims as true, and it will be up to protesters to provide evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, with the help of social media, we can demonstrate that particular police attacks were absolutely unjustified, as with the famous Tony Bologna pepper-spray incident. But we cannot by definition prove all police attacks were unjustified, even all attacks at one particular march; it’s physically impossible to film everything that happens from every possible angle all the time. Therefore we can expect that whatever we do, the media will dutifully report “protesters engaged in clashes with police” rather than “police attacked non-violent protesters.” What’s more, when someone does throw back a tear-gas canister, or toss a bottle, or even spray-paint something, we can assume that act will be employed as retroactive justification for whatever police violence occurred before the act took place.

All this will be true whether or not a Black Bloc is present.

If the moral question is “Is it defensible to threaten physical harm against those who do no direct harm to others?” one might say the pragmatic, tactical question is, “even if it were somehow possible to create a Peace Police capable of preventing any act that could even be interpreted as ‘violent’ by the corporate media, by anyone at or near a protest, no matter what the provocation, would it have any meaningful effect?” That is, would it create a situation where the police would feel they couldn’t use arbitrary force against non-violent protesters? The example of Zuccotti Park, where we achieved pretty consistent non-violence, suggests this is profoundly unlikely. And perhaps most importantly at all, even if it were somehow possible to create some kind of Peace Police that would prevent anyone under gas attack from so much as tossing a bottle so that we could justly claim that no one had done anything to warrant the sort of attack that police have routinely brought, would the marginally better media coverage be worth the cost in freedom and democracy that would inevitably follow from creating such an internal police force to begin with?

These are not hypothetical questions. Every major movement of mass non-violent civil disobedience has had to grapple with them in one form or another. How inclusive should you be with those who have different ideas about what tactics are appropriate? What do you do about those who go beyond what most people consider acceptable limits? What do you do when the government and its media allies hold up their actions as justification—even retroactive justification—for violent and repressive acts?

Successful movements have understood that it’s absolutely essential not to fall into the trap set out by the authorities and spend one’s time condemning and attempting to police other activists. I remember my surprise and amusement the first time I met activists from the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, when the issue of non-violence came up. “Of course we were non-violent,” said one of the original organizers, a young man of liberal politics who worked at a bank. “No one ever used firearms or anything like that. We never did anything more militant than throwing rocks!”

This man knew that if the police start aiming tear-gas canisters directly at people’s heads and beating them with truncheons, some of them will fight back. There’s no way to prevent this. The appropriate response is to keep reminding everyone of the violence of the state authorities, and never, ever, publish lengthy denunciations of fellow activists, claiming they are part of an insane fanatic malevolent cabal. This is why most of us are aware that Mubarak’s regime attacked non-violent protesters but are not aware that many responded by throwing rocks.

Egyptian activists, in other words, understood what playing into the hands of the police really means.

Gandhi leads the Salt March in protest at the government monopoly on salt production, January 1930. Photo: Central Press/Getty Images

Actually, why limit ourselves to Egypt? Since we are talking about Gandhian tactics here, why not consider the case of Gandhi himself? He had to deal with what to say about people who went much further than rock-throwing (even though Egyptians throwing rocks at police were already going much further than any U.S. Black Bloc has). Gandhi was part of a very broad anti-colonial movement that included elements that actually were using firearms – in fact, elements engaged in outright terrorism. He first began to frame his own strategy of non-violent civil resistance in response to an Indian nationalist who walked into the office of a British official and shot him five times in the face. Gandhi made it clear that while he was opposed to murder under any circumstances, he also refused to denounce the murderer. This was a man who was trying to do the right thing, to act against an historical injustice, but did it in the wrong way because he was “drunk with a mad idea.”

Over the course of the next 40 years, Gandhi and his movement were regularly denounced in the media – just as non-violent anarchists are also always denounced in the media – as a mere front for more violent, terroristic elements, with whom he was said to be secretly collaborating. He was regularly challenged to prove his non-violent credentials by assisting the authorities in suppressing such elements. Here Gandhi remained resolute. It is always morally superior, he insisted, to oppose injustice through non-violent means than through violent means. However, to oppose injustice through violent means is still morally superior to inaction. And Gandhi was talking about people who were blowing up trains, or assassinating government officials, not damaging windows or spray-painting rude things about the police.

David Graeber is a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author, most recently, of Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

A version of this article originally appeared on n + 1.

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  • Patrick

    What made the movements Gandhi and King led both unique and powerful was the commitment to non-violence. Your quote from Gandhi illustrates his clear condemnation of the tactic of violence on the part of the man who shot the British official: “…wrong way, because he was drunk with a mad idea.” That’s not approval, even if Gandhi may have subsequently refused to hand the man over to the authorities, preferring not to do their jobs for them (not that I know the story). The real question is whether he would have encouraged or permitted that behavior among his followers, and the answer there is a clear “no.”

    Same thing happened around King a couple decades later, with the same response. And in the clear moments that followed, when the eye of history finally came to rest on those movements – like on the Edmund Pettus bridge or during the salt march – nonviolence won the day and changed the consciousness of a nation permanently, forever, for the better.

    Sadly, that is not Occupy’s fate. In permitting both violence and nonviolence in Occupy during that decisive GA in Tompkins Square Park, the anarchists there missed the key opportunity to make this movement as successful as the other two cited here. And we have discovered, the hard way, that those two tactics can’t both exist in the same movement, under the same name, in the same crowd while that movement stays healthy and strong. Those who prefer violence as a tactic have now won control of OWS; not by pushing anyone out, but by creating an environment where those who would choose nonviolence as a tactic are obliged to leave.

    I personally found it interesting to watch how violence slowly came to dominate us, and how “diversity of tactics” acted as a shield *against nonviolence,* every time it tried to gain the upper hand, either in the park or out of it. Those poor folks in Safer Spaces, and what they went through in trying to craft a community agreement; how it was ultimately only adopted in Spokes Council, applying there and only there, but then only after clear nonviolence language was dropped from the document. Violence also crept into GA more and more over the last several months, as we found ourselves unable to develop any kind of “peace police,” for at least a couple of different reasons. The result was that a couple of self-centered individuals quickly learned how to exploit that weakness, using both verbal and physical violence as their principal tools. Showing up there today and speaking one’s mind can easily result in physical assault against the speaker, with little negative consequence accruing to the aggressor.

    Some things just don’t mix: oil and water, lions and lambs, the tactics of violence and nonviolence. Put those things into the same container and, one way or another, one of them will always dominate the other.

    I still care about the issues that are big items in OWS, but I do not stand in solidarity with OWS’s violence. Is it serious enough to call a cancer? Yeah, I think so, and I’ve watched it since September, same as you.

    • Jen Sacks

      Thank you for your comments. My two cents: this movement is not the GA. Since we lost Zuccotti and more encampments are getting evicted, the two fronts of the movement are now the marches and the media. Everyone senses the GA has lost its effectiveness since it shed its role as park facilitator. Be true to yourself. If that’s forming a peace police, then do it. The bottle-throwing is perpetuated by a fringe minority here in NY; Oakland is its own beast, with its own unique history that’s separate from Occupy. Please don’t give up just because some people act the fool. The movement needs people with your mindset. We’re running out of opportunities to change our society in a fundamental way.

      • Patrick

        Hi Jen,

        Thanks for your comments. The OWS movement began with a GA, and so very many of us were attracted into the movement by the equality and empowerment that the GA format promised. If the GA, that central component of the movement, has indeed lost its effectiveness, then so has the movement, in my opinion. I shall carry on being true to myself, always, and I thank everyone in OWS who influenced me positively in that regard. However, in this case, being true to myself means not associating directly with those who wish to use violence to overthrow the state – or even just to gain media attention.

        David neatly points out how nonviolence has failed in his opinion to get anything done in this country since the civil rights movement (which was sort of major, I think we’ll all agree). However, his ultimate ambivalence on nonviolence as a tactic misses the real story: violence is unlikely to accomplish anything at all here and now without a full-scale war. My true self does not want to be involved in starting one; it seems to me that many others’ true selves do.

  • Jagadees

    There is only one way to success. It is the right way of nonviolence without masks. These other “tactics” will destroy the movements. That’s what the 1% wants.
    Anarchism is good if all the people in this planet are in one page. But sadly we are not. So to make Anarchism please educate all the people to get all the knowledge we found. That is the first act an Anarchist should do.