As an activist for over seven years, I have witnessed numerous progressive organizations—even entire movements—fall apart due to internal conflict. Many blame this phenomenon on government infiltrators, which undoubtedly have played a role in sowing discontent and provoking violence within our ranks, but the presence of infiltrators alone cannot account for the general divisiveness that even the thoroughly inclusive Occupy movement has fallen prey to in its weaker moments.
Those in need of an example can look no further than what occurred in Oakland during the epic port shutdown last month. Conflict between Black Bloc anarchists and nonviolent activists propagated an easily exploitable rift in the movement during what should have been its finest hour.
A major contributor to this divisiveness that is far less obvious than the age-old battle of nonviolence vs. “diversity of tactics” has been the tendency of radicals to incessantly highlight the many transgressions of the government, its corporate masters, and other upholders of the status quo while focusing on solutions only as an afterthought. I will not repeat this tendency here as my whole purpose for writing this is to propose a solution to internal conflict within the Occupy movement, and I do not wish to be ironic. I will, however, add that it is inherently difficult for those who identify as the oppressed/victims (in this case the Occupiers) of a given situation to come up with a solution to their own plight. Calling oneself oppressed implies that the oppressors owe some type of concession—which they certainly do—but there is a problem: If the basis for one’s satisfaction lies in the hands of a party that one has no control over, what can be done if said party refuses to relent? This is where the true conflict begins and it extends to internal struggles as well.
My antidote is simple: We must acknowledge that not every struggle is an outward one and that we bear some responsibility both as a movement and as individuals for our shortcomings. My hope is that such an acknowledgement will be the first step toward building our own justice/accountability process with the aim of strengthening the movement by approaching conflict as an opportunity for individual and collective growth/transformation rather than as a menace to be avoided. It’s not as if we would readily trust the police and the courts to judge our own, so why not take up the gavel ourselves? Of course, I do not mean that we need our own court system and police force; we should instead use our Occupations as laboratories for community-based restorative justice.
The experiment has already begun. Several teach-ins and workshops on restorative justice and related subjects have taken place at Occupy D.C., Occupy Wall Street, and elsewhere—with plenty more likely to follow. (I should note for the sake of full disclosure that I co-organized one teach-in and plan to continue). Many Occupations have also formed Safe Spaces committees and agreements geared toward maintaining an inclusive and secure environment for the vulnerable populations that are present.
Given the ubiquitous nature of the movement and its pre-existing focus on consensus, it seems to me that it is only a matter of time before the Occupy movement becomes synonymous with restorative justice. Many of us may want to see Wall Street bankers and crooked corporate CEOs behind bars, but this should not deter us from building a true alternative to costly prisons and archaic retribution within the tent camps in which we reside—if only to help us better combat the system that treats us so unjustly.
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I have to object to stereotyping the Black Bloc as small “a” anarchists. They may call themselves big “A”narchists but that is their business. Small “a”narchists should not be blamed for the mindless, random destruction of property that undermined the nonviolent solidarity of the action.. In fact it was the “a”narchists that have been the ones that originated horizontal democracy and horizontal economics that have so empowered the Occupy movement.
But that is not really what I want to say. First, nonviolence provides the ultimate “diversity of tactics” It is violence, including the random destruction of property, that is limiting because it always produces only one result – more violence. The Black Bloc not only undermined the key asset of the action – nonviolent solidarity – but it also employed a tactic that limits the diversity of nonviolent tactics. As an aside, our moral obligation to defend ourselves from violence and resist and actively disarm instruments of violence is another separate issue. Similarly, horizontal democracy is a process that also produces and encompasses a wide diversity of tactics. Absent a vertical leadership and decision making process, individuals can voluntarily associate and participate as they see fit. There is no need to control and manipulate the group to get them to do what YOU want. Voluntary associations mean that if people don’t like what is going on they can do there own thing. This in itself reduces internal conflicts.
Of course internal conflicts are not eliminated, nor should they be. When everybody is thinking alike somebody is not thinking. The key to horizontal democracy and the consensus process is that internal conflicts are resolved in a nonviolent way – without resorting to psychological or physical violence. It is not the conflict that is important but how it is resolved. Diversity is a good things. One of the measures of the strength and resiliency of a natural ecosystem is its diversity. Such is the case with social movements, the more diversity the stronger it is.
Movements like Occupy should welcome internal conflict – it’s always going to be there so why not make the best of it. What is crucial to the effectiveness of movements is not that all conflict be eliminated but that it be channeled into constructive ways that support the underlying values of the movement, ie nonviolent resolution of conflict, sharing, respect, equality, justice etc. But we should also realize that not all conflicts can be constructively resolved . Sometimes, this may in result in people leaving “the group” and/or finding other groups or taking direct action apart from and contrary to the larger group. Such is the case with the Black Bloc. We can disassociate ourselves from them, condemn them, even point them out to the police, each person and group must make its own decisions. What we can’t do is to believe that we can control or otherwise persuade them to come around to our way of thinking.
I want to first say that I completely agree with the author that restorative justice should be an important part of any social justice movement, particularly one that is clearly organized around anarchist principles. I also think it´s both hypocrtical and cowardly for people who claim to be “non-violent” to rely on law enforcement to police their occupations (see above comment for a case in point: outsourcing violence to the boys in blue is no different from committing the violence yourself). This is actually a common occurence at many occupations, particularly ones with a large homeless population, who the white, privileged occupiers seem genuinely uncomfortable around. Which brings me to my only criticism of this article. Why not focus on the serious lack of anti-oppression training, and the complete inability of many of the occupations to adequately address the class and race issues and divisions within the movement? a friend and colleague told me of a black, homeless women telling her about being actively ignored at a general assembly meeting (in DC) while attempting to bring up these very same issues, and I have had numerous incredibly frustrating discussions with people complaining about the “drug-using, violent homeless people” frequenting many occupation encampments, who in many cases were “occupying” these spaces well before the crowd of white college students decided to set-up tents and claim it as their own space without even so much as consulting them.
So, my question is, with all those dangerous dynamics boiling beneath the surface, rarely being acknowledged, and threatening to actually tear the moral legitimacy movement apart, why did the author choose to further divide the movement, as well as alienate its philosophical forebears by implicitly blaming the black bloc for creating divisiveness? to be fair, i dont think the actions of the black bloc in oakland were particularly laudable or effective, but absolute non-violence is both untenable an ethically bankrupt (would you counsel a rape victim to use non-violence against her attacker, or a black man who is being illegally detained and brutalized to not practice self-defense? and why do so few people who claim to be non-violent activists not take a stand on prison abolition?) we should be discussing the whole spectrum of tactics available to us and making important moral and strategic decisions based on reality, not an idealized vision of what we wished things could be like. that path would end with the same conclusion in my opinion (for examplge, in the case of the oakland scuffle, the people who practiced property destruction were expressing justifiable rage, but were using ineffective and poorly thought-out tactics and should potentially change their targets as well as expand their methods), but it would end the pathetic aura of self-righteousness that so many non-violent activists hold that allows them to get away with doing absolutely nothing in the face of extreme injustice and still claim victory.
and to make a direct response to the commentor above: plese stop contributing to the whole “small-a” versus big-A” anarchists debacle. it is also divisive and i know of no true anarchist who would make the distinction, except possibly as a rhetorical exercise. also, at the risk of getting pulled into the very terms of debate i depise, if my gathering of what people seem to mean by the difference between anarchists and Anarchists is correct, then you have exactly no idea what you’re talking about. real, genuine, big-A anarchists have been holding general assemblies, practicing direct action, advocating horizontal economics and politics and (yes) using a diversity of tactics EFFECTIVELY since at least the spanish civil war. so learn a little bit about the history before you start running your mouth.
again thanks to the author for discussion a very important tool in the fight against interally oppression dynamics in an social movements, and hopefully expanding some people´s views on the alternatives to punitive justice, and i’m sorry if my criticism comes off as harsh. and if it makes you feel any better, i’m at least as critical of the cynical anarchists (many of whom are completely okay with the reasoned, rational, and ethical practice of targeted violence under certain circumstances) who are refusing to participate because the movement “isn’t anarchist enough”.
Thank you for the comments. I just want to point out that I was not implicitly blaming the Black Bloc or anyone else for anything but merely making a statement of fact.
I certainly agree that anti-oppression trainings must occur in tandem with trainings on restorative/transformative justice. I’ve noticed similar dynamics between younger white male activists and activists of color. It is critical for any community justice process to take into account race, gender, class, ability, and other dynamics.
The Occupy in my city is also going through some internal conflicts. Some members are condescending to newcomers or those of us who don’t live on site. Other people are attached to their own projects and when you present a new idea they don’t want to hear it and act as though it’s some sort of a competition to see who has the best ideas for changing the world. It’s also dominated by white males and when some women pointed that out, some of the men got very defensive. Some of the guys actually sent spies to listen in on the women’s group! And some other women are mad at those of us women who’ve mentioned sexism as a problem because they don’t believe that women are discriminated against (even though it has been painfully obvious when some of the meetings were, in fact, completely all male.)
I have nothing against white males, believe me. But we live in a city with a huge African-American population and quite a few immigrants. And, of course, women do comprise half the population, so when the meetings are dominated by white males, something is wrong. Yet when we’ve tried pointing out these problems, some of us were attacked.
I have decided to stay out of the movement for a while and regroup.
However, I did suggest they set up a tent devoted to empathy and compassion and I think that may help resolve some of these conflicts. Inspired by Edwin Rutsch at Occupy Oakland, the tent would be devoted to cultivating empathy and compassion, a place in which people learn to communicate better with and understand each other better. The theory is that in our society we’ve been conditioned to be dog-eat-dog. We’ve forgotten how to talk to each other directly and how to live together peaceably. But perhaps we can learn?
Although according to this post, there are still conflicts at Occupy Oakland, I think regaining empathy in a corporate-controlled, dog-eat-dog society is a process that takes a bit of time. I’m avoiding the movement for a while but hoping my occupy does go through with setting up the tent. I support the occupy movement because I think communities are very important in difficult times like these. People need to learn to work and live together. Maybe when/if I come back the atmosphere will have improved.