Update: Susie Cagle’s take here.
I don’t know if you’ve read it, but Chris Hedges wrote a piece last week denouncing the Black Bloc activists in the Occupy movement, calling them a “cancer.” I’m not even sure what he had in mind, since Hedges is not a pacifist himself (as he points out). Many well-meaning (dare I say, risk-adverse) progressives jumped to support him, emphasizing that as far as they’re concerned, non-violence is the only acceptable strategy in this movement. (I find it kind of strange that so many liberals think if there’s a revolution, those taking part will defer to their preferences, but whatever. And it’s baffling to me that so many movement types act as if self-defense is inherently immoral.)
Hedges’ position (and that of his supporters) is grounded in the idea that anarchist actions give the cops an excuse to attack Occupiers (you know, as if they need one!) and skew the media coverage, making Occupy unsympathetic to those whose support we need.
White liberals might be the last group of Americans who still believe cops won’t attack without a “reason.” And the media? Please. Like their coverage has anything to do with “facts”?
This is not to say I think non-violence is a worthless tactic, because I don’t. It’s that I don’t think it’s the only tactic, and I think as our society falls apart, we will see an array of tactics, from many different kinds of people. There’s more than a whiff of class privilege and laughable arrogance around the notion that of course they must all stop and ask liberals for directions first.
Anyway, David Graeber responds. It’s very thought-provoking, especially when he points out the logical (and inadvertently violent) consequences of attempting to police fellow activists:
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. One makes one’s own principles clear. One expresses what solidarity one can with others who share the same struggle, and if one cannot, tries one’s best to ignore or avoid them, but above all, one keeps the focus on the actual source of violence, without doing or saying anything that might seem to justify that violence because of tactical disagreements you have with fellow activists.
I remember my surprise and amusement, the first time I met activists from the April 6 Youth Movement from 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 actually worked at a bank. “No one ever used firearms, or anything like that. We never did anything more militant than throwing rocks!”
Here was a man who understood what it takes to win a non-violent revolution! He knew that if the police start aiming tear-gas canisters directly at people’s heads, beating them with truncheons, arresting and torturing people, and you have thousands of protesters, then some of them will fight back. There’s no way to absolutely prevent this. The appropriate response is to keep reminding everyone of the violence of the state authorities, and never, ever, start writing long denunciations of fellow activists, claiming they are part of an insane fanatic malevolent cabal. (Even though I am quite sure that if a hypothetical Egyptian activist had wanted to make a case that, say, violent Salafis, or even Trotskyists, were trying to subvert the revolution, and adopted standards of evidence as broad as yours, looking around for inflammatory statements wherever they could find them and pretending they were typical of everyone who threw a rock, they could easily have made a case.) This is why most of us are aware that Mubarak’s regime attacked non-violent protesters, and 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.
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 US 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 mass non-violent civil resistance in response to a debate over the act of an Indian nationalist who walked into the office of a British official and shot him five times in the face, killing him instantly. 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 (and I might remark here that while not an anarchist himself, Gandhi was strongly influenced by anarchists like Kropotkin and Tolstoy), 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 not doing anything to oppose injustice at all.
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.