The Oakland rock throwing disorder: is there a cure?

Occupy Oakland’s first attempt at a general strike began with press coverage that had supporters high-fiving across the country. Then came the hangover. Once again we watched as angry black bloc anarchists hijacked the media message. From the powerful pictures of protesters standing atop cargo vans, headlines of a shut down port and accounts of up to 10,000 peaceful marchers—including a children’s brigade of marching toddlers—we went to scenes of fire and chaos in the streets.

What is to be done? The story of black bloc anarchists swooping in like vultures to feed off the work and effort of peaceful activists, steal the media spotlight with angry displays and then disappear has passed the point of being tiresome. How can we use peer pressure to wage nonviolence within the movement? How can we be pro-active and take what we know about defusing anger with individuals and apply it to large out-of-control groups?

As a starting point, watch this video footage (above) of the attempted dialogue between volunteer peace keepers and rock tossing “enthusiasts” in Oakland.

First, hats off to the courageous people who stood up to this harassment and to the Occupy activists who helped city workers clean up the next day. But folks, this is a train wreck. The well intentioned effort to respect a “diversity of tactics” is an experiment that has failed. Miserably. The flipside of tolerance for others’ tactics was supposed to be an equal respect for a separation of activities in “time or space” (see for example the 2008 St. Paul Principles). From Seattle’s 1999 anti-WTO extravaganza to the 2010 G20 Meeting in Toronto and this year’s black bloc riots in Rome, we have a trail littered with broken treaties. It’s time to move on. Here are my best five ideas to chew on.

1. We need to be loud and proud about nonviolence. Every Occupy group should have a Principle of Nonviolence (like Occupy Chicago’s) clearly posted at their website and repeated daily like a mantra. The point is to give peace keepers firm ground to stand on if they have to face their anarchist colleagues. If I’m chucking rocks in the firm belief that a peace keeper confronting me needs to respect my “diversity of tactics” there’s no way I’m going to follow to his or her bourgeois ass. But if the drumbeat of nonviolence is being heard daily, there’s no ambiguity. As a rock thrower I’ll at least know I’m pissing on the movement’s carpet.

2. As we look longingly at the incredible nonviolent discipline in the Arab spring and the pro-democracy uprisings in eastern Europe and wonder how they did it, one factor stands out. Starting with Poland, then Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Tunisia and Egypt you hear repeated descriptions of the festive atmosphere in their protests and occupations. “It was like carnival in Rio De Janeiro,” says a Ukrainian activist of their occupation of Kiev. Occupy groups can choose that “vibe,” and find creative ways to sublimate the anger we all share or they can fill the air with angry speech after speech about Police Brutality, etc. That is a choice, but I strongly suspect the latter path sets the stage for a surge in broken windows.

3. A majority of people in OWS appear to be at a stage of expressing their outrage as opposed to thinking strategically. That’s probably a normal part of our grief cycle. If we are primarily expressing our feelings, then tolerance and solidarity with anyone’s expressions comes naturally. But at some point, we hopefully turn to a stage of strategizing about what game plan could actually dislodge the corporate stranglehold on our society. That’s a hard-nosed weeding out process and the most obnoxious, invasive, unnecessary, movement-throttling weed is street violence.

4. The move towards street fighting tactics was fueled by a perception that civil disobedience had become ineffectual. This view received its highest expression in Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology. Churchill argued that pacifism had become a “politics of the comfort zone,” a polite civic charade that allowed liberals to engage in moral posturing. That was written in 1986.

Three years later, the flood of pro-democracy uprisings began in Eastern Europe that led up to the Arab Spring. This happened after organizers evolved a wider repertoire of creative and even comedic nonviolent tactics. These peaceful victories from South Africa to Tahrir Square have been game changers that have left anarchist calls for violence at the level of climate change denial. We need to teach the stories of how those movements grew.

5. During the occupation of Kiev in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, the government organized counter-demonstrations and a counter-encampment. Movement activists in the group Pora (“It’s Time”) responded by going over to the other camp with food and warm clothes, telling them, in our terms, “even if we disagree, you’re part of the 99 percent too.” Matthew Collin, in his book The Time of the Rebels, recounts these words from an activist:

When we started to give them flowers and sandwiches, they were astonished. And maybe that’s why, the next day, many of them didn’t turn out on the streets again, they just went home.

In place of the expected conflict script, Pora members went underneath the anger and emotionally co-opted their opponents. It suggests we stifle our natural impulses and not demonize our black clad comrades. Instead, let’s reach out and put them in charge of committees (that’s humor). For more ideas do take a look at Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s excellent documentary The Interrupters, about three very unique individuals intervening to stop gang violence in Chicago.  A slightly more challenging job.

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