‘This! May not be! A peaceful protest!’: How to Occupy nonviolently

The photo from Occupy Oakland used to advertise "Solidarity Sunday" on OccupyWallSt.org.

Occupy Oakland got rough on Saturday night, when an attempt to occupy a vacant convention center resulted in police using tear gas and other weapons, as well as, reportedly, protesters throwing rocks back at them. Some of the most widely-circulated photos depicted the burning of an American flag that had been removed from Oakland’s City Hall. On Sunday, other Occupy groups around the country took to the streets in solidarity marches. In New York, there were reports of potentially dangerous actions, including a bottle being thrown. Entrepreneurial live streamer Tim Pool, as The New York Observer anxiously reports, noted that there was more of a black bloc presence than usual. The night before, an OWS-er allegedly used pepper spray on a police officer.

Those who had been at the afternoon’s Occupy Town Square beforehand might have seen this coming. Members of OWS’s Direct Action Working Group—which oversees the planning of most marches and other actions—gave an impromptu teach-in about the idea of “diversity of tactics,” which was in many respects insightful, but ultimately became an apologia for undertaking, or at least tolerating, what might be construed as violent actions. The villains of the presentation, perhaps even more so than police, were those within the movement who denounce or try to stop others who want to do such things. They were described as likely to be sexist and racist for trying to insist on nonviolent discipline.

The teach-in also revealed a misunderstanding. Several participants indicated that they thought Occupy Wall Street had a statement of nonviolence, and that there was an underlying presumption that all movement actions would operate under such an assumption. (Hence the often-heard chant, “This! Is! A peaceful protest!“) To an extent, this is true; just about every major document passed by the General Assembly includes some mention of nonviolence. Many other Occupy groups have issued much more explicit commitments to nonviolence, and the Alliance of Community Trainers has eloquently called for the movement as a whole to do so more. But New York’s Direct Action group has in its GA-passed guidelines a nod to respecting “a diversity of tactics”—which opens the floodgates. It means that, effectively, in an Occupy Wall Street action, you can’t assume that nonviolent discipline will be maintained by everyone in the movement. And this teach-in was a reminder that nonviolent tactics are not favored by some of those most influential in Direct Action.

A diversity of tactics can be a good thing. A lot of the movement’s success stems from creating a framework that smaller, autonomous sub-groups can fill with their own creativity and instincts, as well as their sense of what tactics are appropriate. Gandhi would be the first to add that willingness to fight violently is preferable to mere passivity. And to the credit of their common sense, Occupy protesters have overwhelmingly left the violence to the police.

But the diversity of tactics framework might have other consequences as well. For a movement that still hasn’t managed to mount a demonstration in New York as well-attended as a single sold-out game at Yankee Stadium, the prospect of vigilantes doing dangerous things on behalf of a larger crowd could make even fewer people feel safe taking part. Such a framework can also mean that the media attention is unduly monopolized by a violent few, rather than the effect of a peaceful—even militantly peaceful—many.

When the afternoon teach-in was over, a small group of participants stuck around, many of whom seemed to be concerned about what they’d just heard. (The demographics among these stragglers would have deflected accusations of racism or sexism.) Some were coming to terms with the realization that Direct Action, as it stands, is not planning its marches and demonstrations with nonviolent discipline in mind. And they knew that truly nonviolent action and destructive tactics don’t easily mix.

Therefore, if people in the Occupy movement want to infuse their resistance with a fuller spirit of nonviolence, they will have to organize new kinds of direct actions themselves, whether within or alongside the Direct Action group, and ask outright that those who take part in these particular actions do so nonviolently. All the better if trainings can be provided in advance. Those who believe that nonviolent force is really more powerful and more revolutionary than hateful or destructive force should find ways to prove it. The burden, as it stands, is on them to carve out new space even within the diversity of tactics framework—as well as on their comrades respect these tactics in turn.

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