I admit, I laughed a little too. When I first saw videos of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched by a protester, I thought it was funny. And even now, I’m not exactly shedding a tear for him. I certainly pray that the attempts to find and target the person who threw the punch prove unsuccessful.
As many of us expected, the election and subsequent inauguration of Donald Trump has given rise to a new movement of white supremacy and hatred. It has empowered an ideology that never really went away, but has been lying largely dormant for decades. But resistance to those ideologies has also been on the rise.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
So that is where we are. The racism that this country knows so well is being exposed. So much so that terms like “alt-right” have now entered our common lexicon. But so have terms like “antifa,” short for anti-fascism.
Many of these movements, however, have utilized Black Bloc tactics and believe in the principle of “diversity of tactics.” This includes property destruction and acts of violence. Much of this came to light recently during protests at UC Berkeley around an event featuring alt-right leader and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
People have credited the violence that erupted at these demonstrations for its success. After all, student activists tried multiple nonviolent strategies to have the event cancelled, and it was ultimately the violence that “worked.”
And let’s be clear, there was violence. Videos of Yiannopoulos fans getting pepper sprayed and attacked have surfaced.
Debates have been raging on social media since these actions. Debates have been had about whether or not we should have debates about them. Some have criticized the violence, while others have criticized those critics for demonizing other activists and playing respectability politics.
While I don’t believe it is helpful to cast out activists that we disagree with, I also think that our movements are not always skilled at evaluating the effectiveness of certain tactics. Not only are we not skilled at it, the conversation is oftentimes shut down by those who believe we should never criticize another’s tactics.
And that is dangerous. There is a fine line between denouncing activists and evaluating the efficacy of certain tactics. And it feels that we are often so dogmatic in our beliefs that we are not able to have objective conversations about their effectiveness. And that hurts our movements.
I don’t believe that advocates of “diversity of tactics” really mean that they honor all tactics. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should kidnap and torture the children of white supremacists. So even those that use catch phrases like “by any means necessary” or “at all costs” agree that there’s some line that we should not cross. Saying that we support “a diversity of tactics” does not allow us to have the conversation about where that line is and what is effective vs. harmful.
Questions like “do lighting fires justify more police repression,” “does violence turn people away from movements,” or “what does violence do for accessibility” are valid and need to be explored. People may ultimately believe that they are effective tactics, but violence and property destruction brings a lot of new variables into the equation, and we need to be open enough to continue to evaluate them so that our movements can learn and grow.
Is property destruction violent?
This is one issue where people tend to be very dogmatic, so let’s start here. I think anyone who believes that property destruction is never violent or that it is violent period needs to think more critically about the issue.
The recent burning of two mosques in Texas were acts of violence. The Ploughshares movement, in which activists sneak into military bases to dismantle weapons, is an act of nonviolence. Property destruction can be incredibly violent, or it can be an act of nonviolence. Context matters.
Writer Rebecca Solnit wrote that, “the firefighter breaks the door to get the people out of the building. But the husband breaks the dishes to demonstrate to his wife that he can and may also break her. It’s violence displaced onto the inanimate as a threat to the animate.” During Occupy Oakland, I witnessed a mob of people using Black Bloc tactics rush a corporate business in the middle of the day and start spray-painting and banging on their windows. I remember seeing a young child inside the business with her mom. I don’t care about the window, but I do care about the impact on that girl. I don’t think breaking a window itself is an act of violence. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that act also traumatized that little girl — and that is violent.
However, regardless of your stance on property destruction, the basic fact remains that the majority of Americans seems to view it as violent. We spend too much time arguing about what we feel, and ignore what the public feels. And if we are not including that into our calculations, we are making a huge mistake.
Generally speaking, I believe we spend too much time debating about whether or not something is violent. There is a more important question that we need to be grappling with: Are violence and property destruction effective?
In order to answer that question, we need clarity on what the goals are. If the goal was simply to cancel one appearance by Yiannopoulos, then by definition it was successful.
But that to me is an incredibly shortsighted goal at the expense of long-term consequences. The goal should not be to cancel one event. It should be to ensure that people like Yiannopoulos don’t have a platform, and to transform the culture that brought us people like him, Trump and other members or supporters of the alt-right.
And if those are our goals, were the actions at UC Berkeley ultimately successful?
Giving him a platform
The problem with violence is that it has a tendency to backfire. Yes, the event was cancelled. But the attention that the protests received gave Yiannopoulos a bigger platform than he has ever had. Pre-sales of his book increased by over 1,200 percent overnight and made it the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon. His name showed up all over media. He was trending on Twitter, despite him personally being banned on the social network. The number of followers on his Facebook page skyrocketed.
The protest made him the victim. It swung popular support towards a man whose message of hatred should disqualify him from any sympathy.
This dynamic can swing both ways. When the Senate censored Sen. Elizabeth Warren for reading Coretta Scott King’s letter during a debate about Jeff Sessions, it gave Warren a huge platform and Mrs. King’s letter ended up being read by more people than ever.
Regardless of your personal beliefs about a certain tactic, you have to consider the short, medium and long-term impact it will have on your target.
Criminalizing protests and public support
Another potential negative impact is how it may play into the hands of the Trump administration’s attempts to criminalize dissent. Republican lawmakers in 10 states have already introduced legislation that could increase the penalties associated with protests.
It is true that many of these bills were introduced before these protests, and that Trump and others will try to criminalize dissent anyway. But it’s also hard to argue that actions like this don’t give them more ammunition to push that agenda forward. Not only will it make them feel more justified, it will also empower them by giving them more public support.
We have seen time and time again that the public is willing to sacrifice civil liberties if they are afraid. And again, regardless of your personal feelings about these tactics, the vast majority of Americans view them as senseless at best and criminal at worst.
Most people will not be able to separate those who engage in these tactics with those committed to nonviolence, and the entire movement will lose popular support — with much of that support shifting toward efforts to criminalize the movement.
We cannot make change without the support of the majority. If the public views protesters as “trouble-makers” and sides with the state’s efforts to “maintain order,” our movements will be at a severe disadvantage.
We live in an ecosystem of relationships. When you engage in acts of violence (real or imagined), you are not alone. The whole world is watching, and you are communicating a message with your actions.
Whether you agree with the way the media reports these actions is also irrelevant. We know how it is going to be spun, regardless of your beliefs. Again, what you feel about these tactics is not the question. The question is what impact these tactics are having on the public conscience.
And when we engage in violence, we are losing the public.
The left engaging in violence continues to legitimize violence from all sides. It says to the world that using pain, fear and intimidation to force our will is a justified tactic if we view ourselves as being on the “right” side of an issue.
Not only might this empower the state to use more repressive tactics, but it may also give the right justification to use violence against the left. What is the message we are sending to activists on the far right when those of us on the left celebrate, joke about and mock Richard Spencer getting punched during an interview? When memes of him getting assaulted go viral all over the Internet?
When the right sets up websites to try to identify those involved in the violence, are we in a place of moral authority to denounce this kind of violence? These websites and other attempts by the right to identify these people and target them for violence is scary and should be banned. But do we put ourselves in a place where we can make that argument when we were celebrating violence against activists on the right?
Do we only get outraged when people we agree with are victims of violence, yet celebrate violence against those we disagree with? Do elementary arguments like “they started it first” or subjective arguments like “they deserve it more” connect with people who don’t already agree with you?
What dangers are we putting our people, our communities, our allies in by using violence against others and celebrating it?
We will not win unless we can build a movement that is diverse and inclusive of marginalized communities. When we introduce violence into the equation, it limits who can participate and take leadership. And when the police respond with more repression, it is marginalized communities who suffer the most.
When we use violence, what does it do to access for undocumented communities? People with criminal records or disabilities? Elders? Caretakers who need to get home? People who may be more vulnerable if they are arrested, such as people of color or transgendered people?
When we introduce violence into the equation, is the leadership of women generally lifted up or undermined? Does it increase toxic masculine energy that can be harmful not only to movements but to all relationships?
I remember talking to a young formerly incarcerated Latino man, who used to spend time at an Occupy camp after one particular march that turned violent. “Man, these marches, that’s for white people,” he told me.
And while that analysis may be too simplistic, the implicit message he had received was understood. That his safety, as a young man on probation with young kids at home, was not a priority or a consideration. He simply did not feel safe at these events if people were using tactics that would likely bring about an aggressive police response. As a life-long Oaklander, Occupy Oakland was no longer a place he felt welcomed.
In my work in the prison system, I have found that it is impossible to engage in violence in one area of your life and not have it impact your relationships in other areas. The more time you spend dehumanizing someone or hurting another human being, the more you internalize violence and the more it plays out in other areas of your life.
As I wrote before, it is violence that gave rise to Trump and Yiannopoulos, and it is violence that is our enemy.
This is the case both for incarcerated people who grew up surrounded by violence as well as those who work in institutions that rely on violence. Prison guards, police officers and military personnel have some of the highest rates of alcoholism, depression, suicides, domestic violence and other forms of violence in any profession. It has also been the case for violent revolutions, which have a higher tendency to fall back into dictatorship or civil war than nonviolent revolutions.
What nonviolence is not saying
There are so many misconceptions about nonviolence that I think it’s important to address some of them.
Personally, I am not saying that Yiannopoulos should have been allowed to speak. His rhetoric is violent and hateful, and his words could bring violence to marginalized communities.
I am also not saying that we can ask nicely of fascists and white supremacists to change their ways. Like many antifa activists, I believe we need a militant movement, and that we need to escalate our tactics to match the escalation of hate. I also agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. who called for a nonviolent army that is as “dislocative and disruptive as a riot.”
I believe we can build such a movement. One that is grounded in nonviolence, but is just as powerful and militant as violence. That, however, requires work, strategy and training. Violence is easier, faster and more natural to us. Its dynamics are simpler to understand. “I make you suffer until you give in.”
But now is not the time to get seduced by the short-term. We need to continue to train and grow, to have the humility to be self-critical, and to objectively evaluate our tactics and strategies. We need to continue to build a movement to transform violence.
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A really brilliant article. As a union organizer and nonviolence trainer for 40 years, I think you have raised the level of discussion and made an important contribution around movement-building. Thanks!
Thanks for your thoughtful article.
When I see Black Bloc violence, I often wonder if these are actually right wing provocateurs. I’ve been a life long activist in Canada, which is pretty peaceful, and we have a strong tradition of non-violence in our demonstrations.
Here’s an example out of Canada from a number of years ago from Quebec where police were dressed up as protesters and trying to incite violence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=St1-WTc1kow
In the 1970’s I was trained as a nonviolent monitor and worked with a team of monitors on a number of actions to surround individuals bent on disrupting the action by destroying property and antagonizing the police. More recently I was trained as a monitor for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York and a couple of hundred of us watched for disrupters, who thankfully didn’t materialize. I think it is useful for organizers of these actions to prepare teams of monitors to engage with those who are not willing to abide by the nonviolence guidelines of the action and to nonviolently prevent them from their disruption.
Could you point me to any resources for teaining monitors? I’d be really appreciative. Knowing how to maintain disciplined nonviolence with interlopers is one of our big questions.
Sure Mark. Send me some info on your work and needs by email: Stephen.email@example.com
I agree with the author’s overall points. I also hope that someday he won’t find anything funny in anyone getting punched in the face, regardless of who it is.
Some of those who were violent at Yiannopoulos’ Berkeley talk may have been agents provocateurs, but there are always young men of various political persuasions that are quite happy to cause havoc when a good opportunity arises. As they age, some of them will find their way into positions of power within the establishment and happily support all sorts of foreign slaughter.
It’s hard to support nonviolence. Most “liberal” Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton, who infamously laughed about Gaddafi’s killing and sodomizing with a bayonet (not to mention the Honduras coup, various wars, etc.).
” his words could bring violence to marginalized communities.” They will. Do you know nothing about that pitiful troll?
You should read about game theory, forgiving tit-for-tat is the best strategy!
There has been a lot of stuff written on this topic but not much as accessible and down to earth as this article. I hope that union organisers like Steve are successful in using it to stimulate debate in their organisations.
In many ways now it is incumbent on the left to take stock and reflect on their failings. Here is what a respected journalist in my neck of the woods says about Black Bloc:
“The “black block” is a kindergarten anarchist movement that is ideologically stuck in the early 20th century and strategically and tactically in the 1970’s and 80’s.” I think there’s more than a grain of truth there.
Thank you for this article. I agree with much of your analysis and appreciate what you wrote.
I am writing to point out that the term “transgendered” is no longer used – this term is outdated. Language is changing rapidly and can be hard to keep up with. The correct term currently is transgender. The word is a noun and not a verb. When someone is transgender that refers to their gender identity. This word is often shortened to trans and is acceptable as well. Other words not to use are “tranny” which is now considered to be pejorative, although is sometimes used among trans people. Transsexual is also no longer used.
Thank you for including transgender people in your article. And now that you have learned the correct term it might change again.
By the way, I am cisgender, which means that I am not transgender, but I am an ally. Do you want to know the term for that? It’s “SOFFA” which means significant other, friend, family, and ally. Language is evolving and we need many more words, especially more pronouns.
Thank you for writing this, Kazu. You’ve articulated so many of my own reservations about property destruction at protests and the arguments many of my comrades make in favor of said property destruction. I dislike “any means necessary” and similar rhetoric for *exactly* the reasons you bring up.
I have a couple corrections and a question I’m struggling over that I wanted to share.
First, my understanding, like Emerald’s is that “transgendered” is not a politically correct term anymore, if it ever was. “Transgender” is the acceptable term now, as best I understand.
Second, while I’ve never personally participated in a black bloc, everything I’ve read leads me to understand that property destruction and street fighting with white supremacists and fascists are only a subsection of black bloc tactics. Just because those are the ones that get all the media attention doesn’t mean we should dismiss the other work done by black blocs.
“If the goal was simply to cancel one appearance by Yiannopoulos, then by definition it was successful.
But that to me is an incredibly shortsighted goal at the expense of long-term consequences. The goal should not be to cancel one event. It should be to ensure that people like Yiannopoulos don’t have a platform, and to transform the culture that brought us people like him, Trump and other members or supporters of the alt-right.”
When I first read this, I agreed with it implicitly, but I’ve been rethinking it more recently.
Yes, the goal should be to ensure that people like Yiannopoulos don’t have a platform, but it should also be protecting the people he might directly harm in the meantime.
A little while ago, I read a deeply disturbing account of a transgender woman whom Yiannopoulos outed and mocked at one of his previous university appearances. I also read that he was planning to out undocumented students at this or another upcoming appearance.
This, in my book, is violence against marginalized persons. What Yiannopoulos is doing here is nothing less that painting a target on the backs of students who are already highly maltreated by society, and who have been specifically targeted for hatred and violence by the Trump campaign and Presidency. Yiannopoulos is flat-out inviting abuse against specific, marginalized persons.
Therefore, shutting down an event where he has literally threatened violence against marginalized students is a good thing *in its own right*, and not just for how it relates to undermining his platform.
So if – I emphasize *if*, as I haven’t been following the matter closely – there was no nonviolent way of shutting down the appearance, then shutting it down violently becomes a matter of protecting marginalized students from Yiannopoulos’ violence on the one hand, at the cost of giving him a greater platform to go out and inflict even more violence on other marginalized students in the future.
If – again, *if* – this is indeed the situation, then it’s easy for a white, cisgender person like myself (no matter how much I care about the issues) to speak up in favor of one way or another, according to my own sensibilities and preferences, because it’s not my life and wellbeing on the line. My personal inclination would be to say it’s more important to stand up in solidarity with marginalized students and protect them from Yiannopoulos’ violence now, and then work on undermining his larger platform for inflicting this violence later. But the truth is, for all the theory I’ve read, I don’t know the “right” answer here. Maybe some others here have useful ideas on this particular dilemma.
Thank you for writing this piece.
This past weekend I attended the protest against the Trump/Violent Right here in Portland Oregon.
I refuse to refer to them as AltRight, a term they use to mask the violent hatred, Christo Obedience and racism they promote.
While there I strode and mingled with all 3 major groups opposing the V-Right and I noticed that Antifa and Black Bloc, hard to see where one ends and the other begins, seem to be made up of young people who are justifiably angry but too eager to throw the first brick in an undisciplined attack.
The property damage done by Black Blac following Trumps win in Nov. is the stuff of legend, just now tonight (7 months later!) saw clips of it on TV in an ad for local news using it to defame dissent and it is as damning to the movement against fascism as anything else.
In order to create an effective nationwide cohesive movement…an army all the same..to stand fast against the white nationalists, someone or better yet a roundtable of leaders needs to give direction to the many various groups that are opposed to Trumpism.
The groups now individually battling the V Right are too uncoordinated and un disciplined to effectively contain let alone eradicate white nationalism.
I do understand your commitment to non violent
solutions and in the end we all need to eat at the same table so to speak. That said, I believe that a strong, highly disciplined population of resistors stands some chance of thwarting the rise of a new Fascist Amerika.
Without some central leadership, a tough sell among antifa Im sure, I fear that a few more unprovoked punched faces and rocks aimed at cops under TV news scrutiny could bring the whole thing to an early end. Im not convinced that total pacifism will subdue nazis but uniform coordination of large groups “surrounding” them might reduce violence to a defense only tactic.
How to and whom will bring these disjointed groups, dedicated and strong as they are, under one banner to show en masse that nazis are outnumbered 900 to 1 by average citizens willing to defend their neighbors?
Thanks for taking the time.