The Activism Entry Point: Critiquing The Cancer in Occupy Debate

Longtime Berkeley activist Joseph Anderson weighs in on the ongoing debate around Occupy Oakland on the issue of diversity of tactics and the use of BlackBloc style tactics. He weighs in on the recent debate between Chris Hedges and Occupy oakland organizer Kristof Lopaur

Well, by now everyone in the Occupy movement is hotly debating “nonviolence” vs. “diversity of tactics”, as recently so in, “Chris Hedges and Kristof Lopaur of Occupy Oakland debate black bloc, militancy and tactics,” February 8, 2012, on KPFA in Berkeley, California. 

Chris Hedges

Both Lopaur and Hedges made some critically weak, flawed, at times somewhat disingenuous or self-contradictory and, in Lopaur’s case, often specious arguments in their radio debate. This so, even though I politically agree with Hedges, and although Hedges’ recent commentary, “The Cancer in Occupy,” seemed poorly supported journalistically. But, Hedges is dead on about, ‘Go do violence under your own name, not the Occupy movement’s.’

Hedges would have been better off just writing his opinion, presented analytically, but he deserves great credit for using his stature to get an “Anarchist”-suppressed, but mortally important, debate firmly out in the open and over progressive airwaves. Let me say that both of them have respectively done very good progressive work.

This is my partial, but most important, analytical response to Kristof Lopaur’s (and those he represents) support for Black Bloc, or otherwise, “diversity of tactics” in the Occupy Movement. My main point: Occupy Oakland, and the Occupy movement, cannot have both a diversity of people and a “diversity of tactics” at this time – and the movement can’t shortcut the process of attaining, and retaining, the first by jumping to the second. 

Kristof Lopaur

As most Occupy activists know by now, “diversity of tactics” is primarily, so-called, “Anarchist”/Black Bloc code phrase euphemism for advocating autonomous vandalism and gratuitous property destruction (against even small businesses and movement-sympathetic owners or managers) and recently a program of regular, police confrontation marches (lately toned down). 

However, all these kinds of actions – either disconnected from, transiently tangential to, or occurring long after the main events – actually involve a very tiny percentage of marchers or limited instances; nevertheless, when especially played up by the media, the public are quite unsympathetic and even hostile to them. Among the  latest instances were the vandalism at, followed by the American flag-burning on the very steps of, City Hall. 

At the last large march, on January 28, corrugated metal or long wooden ‘battle shields’ were futilely deployed at the front line ostensibly to protect other marchers – dramatic but ineffective actions – but the TV news visuals made it appear from a distance as if their true purpose was aggressive. (On TV or in news photos, from a distance, you couldn’t necessarily see the peace signs on the shields, a mixed visual anyway.) 

When the public sees these visuals, they can easily be manipulated by the police, mayor and media into believing virtually any lies or distortions about Occupy Oakland events. This enables the media – portraying out-of-chronology or even geographically unrelated, exaggerated, TV news video repetitions of vandalism (including graffiti defacings) – to easily convince the public that there was “widespread violence,” thus providing a pretext to justify the indiscrminate police beatings and torturously drawn-out mass arrests (using bitingly cinched plastic wire handcuffs) that took place long before any vandalism occurred. On the January 28 march, *409* marchers were arrested – virtually all of them guilty of only being “kettled” by the cops!

But, there has always been opposition within Occupy Oakland to violence (as commonly understood). That opposition within understands, in addition to any possible violence (or “diversity of tactics”) from within an Occupy, the ability of the police, and ultimately the 1%, to exploit such violence by even inspiring or instigating it (especially, childish, indiscriminate or politically unintelligible acts). Thus, this also leaves an Occupy vulnerable and open to police agent provocateur actions that create alienation within the movement or a huge public opinion backlash against it – which is, after all, exactly what provocateur work is meant to accomplish!: discredit the movement, scare people from joining it, and thus divide the working public. 

Highly sectarian leftist militant ideologues constantly show that they don’t even know how to relate to, or verbally and, just as importantly, visually communicate with ordinary people (by comparison, right-wing organizers understand this far better). Very few people are ready to jump directly from political inactivity (except merely voting) straight to hardcore militant, ‘armed,’ so-called, ‘revolutionary’ action, as Lopaur apparently advocates – let alone to start The Worldwide Armed Revolution To Overthrow Global Capitalism and Western Imperialism – today! 

But, political movements not only open to, but enthusiastically calling on, the general public to join need to first build up mass numbers – a diversity of people – before they can (as economic and political times get much more dire, urgent and, otherwise, essentially futureless, as in Greece) then support various forms of growing militancy for fundamental, perhaps even radical, change. 

This could be militancy, like greater direct mass action, like general strikes, or tens of thousands of people shutting down a major port or other critical centers, nodes or points of capitalist commerce or production. This so, even then not necessarily engaging in violence, but rather engaging people power – mass action’s greatest resource – to pursue actions which are not only militant but hugely popular! The marchers acclaimed and the public didn’t scorn the huge banner, “DEATH TO CAPITALISM!!,” boldly strung across the intersection of Oakland City Center during the massive Oakland “General Strike” rally there. 

Actually, I never considered social, global and economic justice and human rights to be a morally “militant” or “radical” cause; to me, mass oppression, systematic injustice, violating people’s human rights, the patriarchal control of women, legalized state murder, or neo-/colonial theft of another people’s land, is what’s militant and radical.

But, those mass numbers for mass actions will only continue to build up – and be retained – if there is an entry point mass movement, even if nonviolently militant, that many political activism newcomers feel relatively safe in joining and participating with in mass direct actions – and where these newcomers feel they can reasonably trust the judgements of the organizers. 

I couldn’t risk the further judgement of those, especially organizers, in Occupy Oakland who have an absolute ideological stranglehold against ANY  “nonviolence” resolution. That stranglehold failed to realize that such a resolution was critical to Occupy Oakland’s actions, public perception and success: to define itself  based on nonviolence regardless of the actions of others. 

A generous but failed resolution, called a “Proposal on ‘Action Agreements’,” that I and others presented, was critical, so that the mayor, the chief-of-police, the chamber of commerce, and the mainstream media couldn’t repeatedly blame and try to smear Occupy Oakland for increasing crime and for every act of violence that occured literally anywhere in Oakland, as though crime had never been happening in this big city before. Their #1 weapon is to directly associate Occupy Oakland with violence.

In fact, downtown Oakland felt a lot safer at the time, instead of steadily and ominously semi-deserted at night, while the police chief and the mayor hid  the following information: except for, then and afterwards, a huge spike in violence in downtown Oakland by the police, crime in Oakland actually dropped by 20% during the Occupy Oakland encampment.

The now national Occupy movement, acting as it began at this stage of great public disaffection with the economic and political state of affairs, even against the ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’, duopolistic, corporatist and militaristic political parties, starts as just such an entry point – especially with highly visible, physical, citizen centers, the Occupy encampments themselves. There was a place people could go to politically talk to people 24 hours a day, create a community oriented to human needs, and even creatively organize direct mass actions. 

OWS began a mass, public, political, citizens’ civic engagement and organizing hub for many ordinary, but finally ‘had-it,’ people who realize that the current economic and political system is not serving “us” – not serving human needs (the 99%, especially of the world), but rather corporate greed (the 1%). A diversity of people were interacting and even living with a diversity of people !

Given this groundswell ferment, Occupy movement activists should be most concerned with building up that level of engagement and participation – gaining a diversity of people – rather than ideologically pushing autonomous “diversity of tactics,” an “Anarchist”/ Black Bloc agenda to jump-start and lead “The Revolution!” And “autonomous” means too few people, or individuals, too unaccountable, deciding too important decisions, with too critical consequences for us all: sounds like the system of government we have now! The consequences on the rest of us are not “autonomous.”

The ideological agenda, imposed on the movement, would contain the seeds of the movement’s own destruction. Or, at least the destruction of Occupy Oakland as a movement: it could otherwise survive paramilitarized police excesses and brazen brutality –  exposing that the city can come up with millions of dollars for that and, perhaps, a million more in the always almost inevitable legal costs negotiating lawsuits for committing egregious bodily injuries (or worse) and un-Constitutional mass arrests. 

In order to achieve a diversity of people, there has to be at least one general mass movement that is an entry point  for people to get involved in the original goals of OWS, including demanding an alternative to the political and even economic system. But, Kristof Lapaur and the “Anarchists”/Black Bloc want this entry point movement to be one that is not committed to nonviolence (as commonly understood, not ideologically hairsplit), but indeed advocates violence (or whatever Kristof and the parochial ideologues ideologically want to call it) from the start! 

The “Anarchists”/Black Bloc (and Kristof) really seem to want to turn the Occupy movement into some kind of ‘armed’ guerrilla (or, at least, Black Bloc) movement: “We have to learn how to move cohesively through the streets, to take offensive [it originally said "attack"] and defensive initiatives…” (Pgh. 7, Statement of the OO Move-In Cmte, reading like all sanguine PR releases, talking about everything but the critical problem: it never once mentioned continuing, headline-stealing, public-alienating vandalism or, lastly, flag burning).

Lately, at certain, especially, much smaller, weekly, nighttime, “F The Police!,” marches, organizers and leading participants would appear to engage in regular passive-aggressive confrontations (again, recently toned down) with the police. They played cat-&-mouse, with the march aimlessly winding over the entire downtown area and, often, surrounding neighborhoods, with no particular, practical goal. A weekly schedule of nighttime, traffic-snarling, merchants-angering exercise of directly confronting the cops – however much they do deserve it – in the streets of Oakland might make us – often brutalized by the police – feel good, but begins to lose its message, displaces that of the Occupy movement, and confuses the general public, turned off, after a while.

What the “Anarchists”/Black Bloc contingent within Occupy Oakland has really done is, too often, snatch movement dismay or public anger from the jaws of complete victory, or ‘would-be’ victory. (Like, the January 28, “Move-In” march, another relatively large, peaceful [except for the police], festive turnout, showing sustained interest, even if, with the planners’ methods, an ill-considered objective, Occupying the mammoth Kaiser Auditorium.) That contingent is actually ‘doing the work of the 1%‘ by subsequently generating: 

(a) negative TV news video headlines and great public disappointment (over indiscriminate downtown vandalism, naturally played up and generalized by the TV media), after an otherwise unimaginably successful day of the Oakland General Strike rally and, respectively, two massively huge nonviolent port shutdowns by up to 50,000 people, with the, otherwise, overwhelming support of a public that was awed, deeply moved, and morally with us; 

(b) later, even more negative TV news video headlines (distracting the public from even more OPD excesses and brutality that otherwise would have been the headlines) and a public backlash (after city hall vandalism and American flag-burning on its very steps), instead of the same overwhelming public sympathy that UC Berkeley and Davis students and academics – who sustained the moral high ground – when they suffered brazen police brutality (the only TV news headline videos available then, because the students didn’t ‘cooperate’ with the mainstream media’s penchant exaggerations of, hypothetically, any student violence);

Given the above, how is the ordinary person – who doesn’t want to directly provoke, goad or engage in weekly, nighttime, mock, let alone any real, streetfighting against the police, who doesn’t want to advocate, condone, or physically associate with vandalism and gratuitous property destruction in the streets of their city (let alone flag-burning and accusations of destroying children’s art at City Hall), who doesn’t want to be a part of that particular kind of group or movement, and who doesn’t know what possible escalation of violence to expect next from such a group – supposed to feel comfortable (or even physically or legally safe) participating in such a movement? 

How do self-indulgent Black Bloc advocates compare smashing a few local business windows, setting a couple of overturned dumpsters on fire, or burning the flag for a moment, back in downtown Oakland, to, instead, a major port shutdown by 50,000 peaceful marchers for miles!? And what do you think the TV news would lead with?: “Violence again from Occupy Oakland…!” But, the greatest successes of Occupy Oakland have always been nonviolently achieved.

Under “diversity of tactics,” would an ordinary person want their employer and workplace, their church, synagogue or mosque (especially given state surveillance or criminal entrapment against Muslims), or any other social institutions to which they belong, to find out – let alone their friends and neighbors find out – that that they are actually a participant in such a movement? That kind of movement is going to alienate most people – the very kind the organizers claim they want to attract. But, I have my doubts about that claim, to hear those parochial ideologues at Occupy Oakland, including Kristof, who smack more of insular, elite vanguardism.

Without any safe entry point mass movement for newcomers to join, the movement, especially the Occupy Oakland movement, will stagnate, dwindle down, and turn into just another politically irrelevant, small, narrow group of ideological true believers and such buzzflies, incapable of any unsuppressed, true, open self-examination and, thus, who, themselves, will never succeed in meaningfully changing anything in society. 

Or, as one veteran activist anguishedly said to me, “It’s sad to think that this could be just another promising [but illusory] burst of energy that’s just going to wither away with sharp dissension [and regularly alienatingly controversy that fatigues people's souls and steals the main goals and successes] and flagging interest.” Like, ‘Oh, no…, those people again…

written by Joseph Anderson

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FYI: for copy of “Proposal on ‘Action Agreements’,” November 20, 2011; Ref. under OccupyOakland.org, Open Forum tab, Discussion, “Did DOT Pass GA?,” February 7, 2012; by Joseph Anderson, February 8, 2012: “Nonviolence” resolution proposal presented to the Occupy Oakland General Assembly…