Thursday, February 9, 2012

Black Bloc Backlash (say three times fast)

It's a given that Chris "Death of the Liberal Class" Hedges is one of the intellectual inspirations and living legend heroes of OWS. So when this Pulitzer Price-winning journalist wrote that there is a cancer growing in the movement, it caused a widespread stir. More than one stomach plummeted, heart sank, spine chilled. Depression became epidemic in a matter of hours as Hedges' TruthDig piece spread throughout progressive cyberspace.
Hedges, of course, was talking about so-called "Black Bloc" anarchist elements infiltrating various Occupy groups and fomenting violence. Occupy Oakland is the poster child for the radicalization of the movement, with its shutdowns of ports and storming of vacant buildings and "clashes" with paramilitary police.

That the corporate pundits are quick to smugly declare OWS dead and buried with each crackdown and each eviction is to be expected; they have, for the most part, denigrated it from Day One of its Zuccotti Park birth. From time to time, the mainstream press has legitimized the protests and it actually became chic to take quick rides on the resistence bandwagon, straight to cable. If you had a minor tussle with the fuzz and got the plastic cuff treatment for an hour or two, so much the better. It seemed like the nightly cable shows were filled with celebrities chattering about their forays into one camp or another. Then came the presidential horserace reality show, and Occupy was pushed off the national radar. Coverage revolved around the latest in a round of serial evictions. The public, decreed the pundits and their polls, was growing tired. The novelty of a protest movement was wearing off. 

And now, coupled with corporate media ennui, comes Hedges' declaration that there is a Cancer on Occupy. What's up with that?  I love Chris Hedges, I really do. But let's face it: the man is a professional diehard pessimist. Read his book -- he predicts that sooner or later we'll all be living in widely scattered communes, scratching out a miserable existence in a dystopian hell that even George Orwell didn't imagine.  During interviews at the burgeoning of Occupy, he expressed pleasant surprise that the propagandized masses had actually mobilized. It seemed like he was All In.

Then the revelation of the Black Bloc element, which Hedges predicts is a possible death decree to the inherently pacifist Occupy. Only peaceful nonresistance is allowed in a populist uprising. Be good little Gandhis, or begone, I reckon. The violent, "hypermasculine" outside agitators, he writes, will give the security state the perfect excuse to smash the entire movement into smithereens:

The corporate state understands and welcomes the language of force. It can use the Black Bloc’s confrontational tactics and destruction of property to justify draconian forms of control and frighten the wider population away from supporting the Occupy movement. Once the Occupy movement is painted as a flag-burning, rock-throwing, angry mob we are finished. If we become isolated we can be crushed. The arrests last weekend in Oakland of more than 400 protesters, some of whom had thrown rocks, carried homemade shields and rolled barricades, are an indication of the scale of escalating repression and a failure to remain a unified, nonviolent opposition. Police pumped tear gas, flash-bang grenades and “less lethal” rounds into the crowds. Once protesters were in jail they were denied crucial medications, kept in overcrowded cells and pushed around. A march in New York called in solidarity with the Oakland protesters saw a few demonstrators imitate the Black Bloc tactics in Oakland, including throwing bottles at police and dumping garbage on the street. They chanted “Fuck the police” and “Racist, sexist, anti-gay / NYPD go away.”
The absolute worst thing we as citizens can do is moan, groan, bitch that anarchists are spoiling things and therefore we might as well give up while we are ahead. What we should be doing is mounting a PR counteroffensive. The "official" newspaper of OWS -- The Occupied Wall Street Journal -- is doing just that, and publicizing the debate. Here's how Crooks & Liars Managing Editor Tina Dupuy tells it in one guest contribution: 
.... the destruction of property is exactly what Occupy is protesting against; it’s what the banks took from us. Occupy has pointed out the criminality of the banks and the seeming collusion with government to take wealth and property away from working people and give it to the wealthy. So protest property crimes, by committing crimes against property? It’s nonsensical.
Destroying property destroys moral authority.
On the other hand, protest movements throughout history have had their ugly, violent sides. People protest when they get angry, and some angry people have  anger management issues. And Occupy Oakland is unique. It exists in a city with a horrible reputation for police brutality and repression, even murder; its police force is on the verge of being taken over by the Feds because of its pattern of civil rights violations. Blogger Josh Cook of Deep Green Awakening thinks we can acknowledge the anarchic mindset without condoning it: 
Compare the “property damage” (and the whole issue of property and what sort of damage constitutes violence is another discussion altogether) with the long-term harm done to the People of Oakland, especially minority groups, activists, and Occupiers. It should dawn on rational, empathic people that such intense moments of conflict are practically unavoidable in the face of so brutal a system, and rather than waste time judging people, we ought to cry out louder for an end to the rule of the 1% and their system, the true root cause of social unrest and violence.
Furthermore, at this point, it is silly to talk about Constitutional rights. We in the US live in a Police State. We have no such rights — most recently and dramatically demonstrated by the passing of the NDAA. For moral force, I suggest speaking of human rights, as this has the added benefit of keeping us connected to the international dimension of this movement. Solidarity with all people struggling for democracy and justice is of utmost importance.
And in an article in Counterpunch (don't you love all these aggressive-progressive blog titles?) Peter Gelderloos accuses Hedges of using the C word as a scare tactic to frighten OWS into submission... or nonexistence. Nobody, he says, ever promised you a revolutionary rose garden:
The medical language of Hedges’ title, referring to the anarchists as a “cancer,” should immediately ring alarm bells. Portraying one’s opponents as a disease has long been a tactic of the state and the media to justify the repression. This language was used against the Native Americans, against the Jews, against communists, and many others. Recently the police and the right wing used this same language of hygiene to talk about the occupations around the country as health threats so as to justify their eviction and generate disgust and repulsion.....
But beneath the black masks, anarchists have been an integral part of the debates, the organizing, the cooking and cleaning in dozens of cities. Anarchists also participated in preparing the original call-out for Occupy Wall Street, and they played a key role in organizing and carrying out the historic Oakland general strike and the subsequent West Coast port blockades–probably the strongest actions taken by the Occupy movement to date.
There have been setbacks in every movement for change. Outside agitation is nothing new and it serves the agenda of the oligarchy in squelching protest only too well. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) incident of violent elements nearly destroying the entire labor movement was the Haymarket Massacre in 1886, when an unknown assailant threw a bomb into a crowd of protesters, killing a Chicago policeman, with an ensuing gunfight killing more cops and citizens. It was not until several years later that the "anarchist" labor movement demonstrators got what they wanted in the first place: an eight-hour day. It's something we take for granted today, not something we can envision people actually dying for.


James F Traynor said...

Better that we on the left address this. I'm not totally averse to the use of violence, but what Hedges is talking about is the adolescent behavior of some of these people. Violence, if it is to be used, is the sort that Michael Collins used against the Brits in Ireland. It has to benefit us and not the enemy. And it was why Churchill hated and admired Collins.

I myself stay away from these demonstrations because I know damn well I couldn't take that kind of thing from the police without reacting in kind. And my reaction wouldn't benefit me or those around me. So I'd rather wait, sign petitions, donate, whatever. When the time comes, if the time comes - well that's something else. But I don't at all support the kind of nonsense Hedges is talking about.

And Karen, I understand your'e frustration, but we must not take lightly what Hedges is talking about. I don't think he's being pessimistic, just practical.

DreamsAmelia said...

Just about the first person I met when I left home to go to college in Madison, WI, was this guy who cheerfully exclaimed, "Oh, I'm an anarchist!" in reply to some political mumbling I made...Being only 18, from a very pro-military and provincial section of my town, I had a visceral reaction, probably very much what I imagine some of the hard-frozen conservatives who whine about socialism in the comment sections might have if someone at a party warmly embraced them in a 2-handed handshake and said, "Oh, _delighted_ to meet you, I'm a Socialist!" (Love it when Bernie Sanders gives his inimitable grin to Boehner's french-fried frown)

"But what about the post office? What about roads? The EPA? Schools? Taxes? Food safety? Non-poisonous drugs, water, land?" I sputtered, uncomprehending...he was self-assured that all the social aspects of society could be well taken care of without all our bureaucratic inefficiencies and infrastructure. And who hasn't had their own private Kafka play with a bureaucrat, policeman, jailer or judge at some moment, to bolster sympathy for such a radical dream?

Yet he was one of the most doggedly cheerful, optimistic, honest people I came to know in that town...never mind that his trade was in pot. But that's a pretty big market in that town--even the mayor comes out on the lawn of the capitol and lights up (and yes, he inhales) at the annual celebration of the fact that marijuana is legal in Madison for personal use (Heck, if you legalized pot nationally, the taxes from sales in Madison alone might wind down the national deficit pretty fast).

I doubt he would don a mask and be one of the angry anarchists--So my experience with him and many anarchists (Yay House of Anarchy! RIP) in Madison, WI as essentially chipper, half-stoned, with not a very practical take on accomplishing the minutia of a nation of 300 million makes me tend to think that, like everyone else, you can't even paint anarchists with such a broad brush--and we see as much of the "angry fringe" on the political right with the Koran-burning pastors and lone right-wing gunmen. So there are angry, violent anarchists, and there are mellow, seriously non-violent ones, just like there are many flavors of Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc....

It's amusing in Hedge's piece that the movement should be safe enough for moms with strollers to feel comfortable--that relegates it to the feeling of walking in a mall, safely shopping.

The anarchists aren't going to get a seat in congress, but having them around would make the general assembly debates more interesting than C-Span. The anarchists are the perfect antidote to the rush to fear and judgement, if only they and Hedges and the suburban moms would talk--that's all that's left after the windows are broken and the smoke cleared. Did the bloody Civil War (or all the wars before and since) in the U.S. change ANYTHING? I would say not. Opportunity still comes down to proclamations, laws, treaties, and whether people will respect them or not, with a big dose of personal compassion and empathy. The south dug its heels in and did everything in its power to keep slavery going in all but name for decades after, and yes, those vestiges are what we are still fighting today. (Hello, Walmart). Breaking windows or bones doesn't change will or spirit. Generosity and miserliness fight each other ceaselessly, indifferent to whether the wars are with words or bullets--they fight each other in the soul of one person, and between people, families, and nations. So I would hope the 99% can tolerate the black bloc as a cranky uncle or recalcitrant brother--even concede they have a right to be mean and cranky and counterproductive, but never losing sight that our real enemy is a system that makes a few billionaires and too many jobless and starving people.

Denis Neville said...

Nonviolence, or Pacifism as Pathology

Peter Gelderloos writes that “anarchists are part and parcel of the Occupy movement and their methods of struggle resonate with many people more than the staid, hand-wringing pacifism and middle-class reformism of careerists like Chris Hedges.”

According to, the Black Bloc are National Anarchists, quasi anarchists, an international export of a new version of fascism. National Anarchists are part of a larger trend of fascists who appropriate elements of the radical Left to obscure their core fascist values.

Why should we pay attention to such new forms of fascism? They have the potential of playing havoc on social movements, drawing activists out from the Left into the Right. Like the European New Right, they adapt a sophisticated left-wing critique of problems so as to avoid the stigma of the old discredited fascism. This can disrupt left-wing social movements and their focus on social justice and egalitarianism.

Language matters. Hedges chose the wrong metaphor and imagery. However…

The best parts of Hedges’s article:

The words of Derrick Jensen: “Their thinking is not only nonstrategic, but actively opposed to strategy. They are unwilling to think critically about whether one is acting appropriately in the moment. I have no problem with someone violating boundaries [when] that violation is the smart, appropriate thing to do. I have a huge problem with people violating boundaries for the sake of violating boundaries. It is a lot easier to pick up a rock and throw it through the nearest window than it is to organize, or at least figure out which window you should throw a rock through if you are going to throw a rock. A lot of it is laziness.”

His insight on the psychological dimensions of the Black Bloc: “The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship.” [fascism]

Also: “The Black Bloc’s thought-terminating cliché of “diversity of tactics” in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans. The state could not be happier. But with or without police infiltration the Black Bloc is serving the interests of the 1 percent. These anarchists represent no one but themselves.”

Diversity of tactics open to all possibilities is like trying to build a house without a strategy.

Why has there been such a reaction against Hedges, as someone who has been willing to get arrested for the movement and who has been a good friend of the Occupy movement? Other voices have also come down hard against the Black Bloc:

“Occupy Oakland: Are We Being Childish?” Osha Neumann

George Lakey writes, “The issue of the appropriateness of property destruction and/or violence is, like any other aspect of community organizing, not settled by blanket statements or posturing but by getting in there and dialoguing, over and over again. Advocates of nonviolent action need to learn from the Civil Rights movement and the field of community organizing in this way—there really aren’t any shortcuts.”

4Runner said...

As something of a former radical--now of the armchair variety--I'm suspicious of anarchists of any stripe taking over non-violent street actions. Just who are they, and what is their true motivation? Back in the late 60s I was deeply involved with a student/faculty anti-war group which was infiltrated by several self-proclaimed anarchists. On their agenda: torching the university library. That was not to happen, but it did lead to factionalizing our group. Many years afterward we learned that they were on the payroll of the FBI. Typical of those times--as well as today?

DreamsAmelia said...

Sorry to rant off topic (love your title, Random Rants!)--but please add the Consumer Affairs website to your essential reading list.

I cut up my credit card of more than 15 years about 2 years ago, realizing I'm shooting myself in the foot because the record "falls off" your report and lowers your credit score after 5 years--but I got burned twice on 1-day-late payments and the second time I paid their mean fees and left for good.

Anyway, my relatively "good" and truly local bank offered a credit card recently, which I took because the car rental companies are impossible with debit cards.

To my horror, the bank issuing the credit card-- Fifth Third Bank-- fraudulently identified itself to me as MY BANK--"Hello, this is customer rep from [names my local bank] calling to see if you would like to activate your card." I thought it a little odd, because my local bank never markets anything to me, but I wrote it off as a "courtesy." I peeled off to the rep several horror stories of people I know who were screwed by their card companies, added my own experience with my former company, and tried to warn them they would not be long with me if they stooped to similar dirty tactics. She just cheerfully activated my card, not saying much at all.
Then, a few days later, as I was about to throw away a pile of papers, I saw their "Terms of Use" and for the first time realized the bank is Fifth Third Bank, not my bank--worse, they claim the right to my social security number, name, address, email, income, and assets information even AFTER I have cancelled the card! I cannot limit this marketing and joint marketing with "other financial companies" ever--it clearly says "No" "No" "No" to "Can I limit Sharing" in three columns, so basically I gave them the right to mine my private financial info indefinitely.
I have limited ability to limit some sharing by calling them but they would not say specifically how or what when I did.

I knew the credit card companies were sleazy when even Charles Schwab (my former Big Bank, before I went local) cut off business with one of its former card issuers. That kinda shocked me--Schwab said the company was charging usurious interest rates (and they were!)--but I thought they all were--and I don't think Schwab picked up any other card companies (while I was a customer), because they are just all the lowest of the low.

But worst of all, the rep was just rude and unsympathetic--when I balked at these egregious violations of privacy she yelled at me that she can't fix the economy. So, I hung up, looked up all these other woeful customer complaints, called them back and cancelled my card, telling the next rep that they are exactly why Elizabeth Warren is running for Senate---we desperately need consumer protection--read the consumer affairs complaints and weep!

Karen Garcia said...

@DreamsAmelia, and all,

There is a link to the CFPB on the blogroll to your right. They are taking complaints.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Black Bloc is not a philosophical anarchist movement, some kind of ultra left, tolerably kooky splinter group that the Left must tolerate to get through another day of resistance to oppression. The philosophy that permeates BB is explicitly anti-organization and anti-civilization. That tells us its adherents are not anarchists, they are nihilists.

There's a difference: the anarchist refuses to pay the restaurant bill; the nihilist blows up the restaurant half way through the main course.

OWS, at least as lived during the time of Zuccotti Park, is not against organized society; OWS is about improving society for everyone’s benefit. OWS is not about scattering crowds; it's about bringing people together under the banner of fairness. Nihilist mayhem will distort everything OWS stands for. In other words, BB is an existential threat to OWS. Cancer is more forgiving.

Here and elsewhere Chris Hedges is being discounted as some kind of Gandhi purist, as if he were a naïf about crowd action and the advances that can be made through a judicious touch of violence now and then. You can read Hedge's own defense of himself in this response to a somewhat hostile telephone interview:

Valerie said...

This is a great topic for debate.

I am a huge fan of Hedges. I think he is thoughtful and sincere and while he does seem to have a depressive side to his temperament, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t seeing things pretty realistically. That is why I was so delighted when he was so positive about the Occupy Movement. If Chris Hedges had faith that this was “the real thing” and cause for hope, that was a very good sign that the Movement was legitimate and would endure.

Like Derrick Jensen who Hedges quoted in his piece, “I don’t have a problem with escalating tactics to some sort of militant resistance if it is appropriate morally, strategically and tactically,” There will come a point when violence will be the right approach but the time for violence is later – when we have exhausted all other options. Right now, Occupy needs to be focussed on winning hearts and minds, particularly of the average middle class person in America and those people – people like me – are repelled by senseless violence and senseless destruction. We DO want mothers and fathers pushing strollers and grandmothers bringing their grandkids to protests. We want to draw as many every day Americans to our numbers as possible because our power and legitimacy will lie in our numbers. We won’t attract the people we want to attract if Occupy protests are not perceived as being peaceful and safe.

I agree with Chris Hedges that the Black Block doesn’t serve a valuable purpose. They remind me very much of the young skin-heads (neo-Nazis) in Germany. They enjoy the power of being able to destroy something with little effort and the feeling that people are a little afraid of them. It is very much a mob mentality; people acting in a way they probably wouldn’t otherwise act if they were on their own and couldn’t remain anonymous. Chris Hedges is right. The behaviour of the Black Block – particularly the dishonesty of doing their mischief anonymously – alienates people who might otherwise be willing to listen and support Occupy.

Mike said...

When I was a teenager marching against our participation in the Vietnam war, there were Communists, anarchists and others I totally disagreed with marching with me. That was, and still is, a fact of life, shouldn't deter a movement and didn't deter me.

It's interesting that when the right attracts violent members to gatherings, it's written off as an abberation. When Sarah Palin said it's time to "reload" and put Democratic contenders "in the crosshairs" and Gabby Giffords was soon shot in the head, Palin and the right acted outraged that anyone might suggest they had created a toxic climate of violence.
How about a single standard for a change?

Valerie said...

Thanks for that link, @Jay.

I just want to add one more thought - Chris Hedges has covered many of these movements throughout the world and he knows which ones have been successful, which ones have not and WHY. If, in his experience, he has seen that entirely peaceful movements are far more successful and far more enduring, then it is appropriate that he say so and speak out against something within the movement that has the potential to damage its mission and legitimacy.

If we think back on the Civil Rights Movement, would white people in northern states have been as sympathetic if blacks in the South were wearing masks, knocking over garbage cans, setting fires and throwing rocks through windows? No, it was the peaceful-at-all-costs behaviour of those courageous protesters that appealed to northerners sense of decency, fairness and compassion. That is what people like Chris Hedges want Occupy to do - appeal to the decency, fairness and compassion of people looking at the movement from the outside and, hopefully, draw more and more of them over to our side.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Who Whom?

“We must assume we [OWS] are targets. And we must fight back by relying on our strength, which in the great paradox of resistance movements is embodied in our weakness. This does not mean we will avoid being repressed or persecuted. It will not keep us safe from slander, lies or jail. But it does offer the capacity to create internal divisions in the apparatus of the oppressors rather than permit the oppressors to create internal divisions within the movement. Divided loyalties create paralysis. And it is our job to paralyze them, not allow them to paralyze us.”

Neil said...

Chris Hedges is correct in my view, and should be commended for taking a much-needed stand. And thanks to Valerie for her earlier link to Hedge’s article back on Feb-07-12.

The "Black Bloc" anarchist do not help the Occupy movement. Fomenting violence - stupid violence like breaking windows and confronting the cops - is a sign of frustration, impatience, and a lack of ideas. The broken widows only hurt the victims of the damage, not Wall Street and the central banks. The cops do not set corporate policies, they just follow orders.

I am sorry to read the marginalisation of Gandhi in this post. (Be good little Gandhis, or begone, I reckon.) Gandhi was a success in his own right, and an inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Indian Independence Movement took 27 years, as counted from the first non-cooperation movement under Gandhi in 1920 through official independence in 1947.

The American Civil Rights Movement was over 12 years, from the arrest of Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus in December 1955 through the assassination of MKL in 1968.

"The absolute worst thing we as citizens can do is moan, groan, bitch that anarchists are spoiling things and therefore we might as well give up while we are ahead. What we should be doing is mounting a PR counteroffensive."

First, this is a false dichotomy, there are alternatives to stupid, counter-productive violence, and other ineffectual OWS tactics. Enough PR already. Time to get real.

While an opposition movement is needed to corporatism, lets face it, OWS is the result of a blog post on Adbusters. OWS may have realized the limits of a "leaderless resistance movement" with "the only solution is WorldRevolution".

Many in OWS blog away on expensive Apple iproducts made in China under slave-like conditions. Apple is the poster child of corporate fascism. OWS should boycott Apple. The OWS tactic of camping in public parks is unsustainable, and appears lazy to much of the public. And the various statements of OWS sound like committee gobbledygook and lack moral clarity.

Martin Luther King laid down a moral imperative. MLK lead protest marches throughout the south. Marches take effort, unlike camping in a park. King and his followers were clean, well-dressed, some in suit and tie. The peaceful marchers took, and held, the moral high ground. The images of the time show dignified people being attacked by police thugs, mobs, dogs and fire hoses. The Freedom Riders were well-groomed people going about normal activities, like paying a fare to ride a bus. In comparison OWS often appears as freeloading bums, expecting to camp indefinitely in a park, while making ambiguous demands.

Last week PBS television presented "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975", a documentary of recently discovered film of Swedish journalists who covered the anti-war and Black Power movements of the late 60s and early 70s. The film shows ideas and perspectives that would be useful today against corporatism and central banking.

On January 23rd I went on a ten day hunger strike to protest the failure of a federal court to rule on my affidavit of indigence in a case. The hunger strike was difficult, and got the attention of the court in a way that breaking a window would never accomplish.