Occupy and “Violence”: A response to Tina Dupuy (Updated)

Posted: February 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

*** I think there was a little bit of confusion. Without supporting Black Bloc tactics, I can say I support the right of Black Bloc people–or the crowds of which they are a part–to not be viciously attacked by the police. I also think that people who get incredibly angry about Black Bloc “hijacking” but then decry organization and accountability within Occupy–the best methods to have comradely responsibility to each other for our actions–as similarly being hijacking are hypocritical. Under the current model of horizontal leader-lessness, I feel such things will continue to happen.

My main point is that just because we disagree with Black Block tactics–and even actively argue against them within the movement, it doesn’t mean you denounce the whole Oakland movement, and it certainly doesn’t mean siding with the cops and calling their actions justified–because they’re not. That argument is akin to saying because you didn’t support Qadaffi, you had to support NATO. The answer is no, you don’t have to support either to oppose imperial intervention.  I do not support Black Bloc tactics, but neither do I support the police crackdown on Occupy Oakland because of Black Bloc tactics.


Tina Dupuy, managing editor of Crooks & Liars, wrote an article after the last round of police violence against Occupy Oakland, Why #OWS Needs to Denounce Violent Tactics On Display at Occupy Oakland.

The argument she presents is, quite frankly, wrong, but it is an argument pervasive in quite a lot of the tactical discourse surrounding Occupy.  I’d like to analyze and respond to her article here, pointing out its numerous logical errors.

She begins her article thus:

The Occupy Movement, “the 99 percent,” has, ironically, been hijacked by a small minority within its ranks. I speak of a small percentage of Occupiers who are okay with property destruction. As we saw in Oakland over the weekend: They’re okay with breaking windows, trashing city buildings and throwing bottles at the police. In short: They are not nonviolent. They are willing to commit petty criminal acts masked as a political statement.

There are several problems with this opening.  First, suggesting the movement has been hijacked by a small minority okay with property destruction distorts reality by implying 1) that the “hijackers” are illegitimately influencing the Occupy movement and 2) that property destruction takes place within a vacuum and was part of the “hijackers” original intent.  Second, she equates “not nonviolent” (in other words, violence) with “petty criminal acts” (i.e., things that are illegal).

The first set of problems have to do with questioning the “legitimacy” of the protestors, connecting back to the word “hijack.”  It is impossible to hijack something you have a legitimate right to steer.  Because Occupy has to this point eschewed electable leadership–or really anything beyond the horizontal leadership model–all participants are also decision makers.  As one occupier in Greensboro put it, “whoever shows up are the right people; whenever they get here is the right time.”  I’m not arguing that this method is necessarily the most desirable or the most effective–that’s another discussion entirely.  This is, however, the model we are using at the moment, the model that has “reached consensus.”  The people who were on the streets of Oakland that night made their decisions.  Perhaps Dupuy disagreed with their choices, but it’s hardly hijacking.

The second problem–the equation of illegality with violence–is perhaps one of the most dangerous fallacies I have heard within the Occupy movement.  People have varying definitions of what violence is (mine, for example, doesn’t include breaking glass), but it goes far deeper than that.  After all, it is a “crime” to walk across the street in an area where there is not a crosswalk.  Do we define that as violence?  Most certainly not.  In the 1850s, it was a “crime” to escape slavery or to harbor runaway slaves.  I dare you to find one person who classifies that as violence.  And what about the students who undertook lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s–in violation of Jim Crow laws?  Laws are supposedly used to punish violence (again, that’s up for debate, since there are no laws against wars, poverty, hunger, etc.), but that is not their exclusive function.  Laws are supposed to serve as a way of encoding safety into our society (traffic laws, for example).  Most importantly, they also serve as a crucial form of social control for the ruling class and as the first line of protection for private property.  In fact, only a small portion of the things that are “illegal” would be considered “violent” by most people.

She continues:

These are Black Bloc tactics and they’re historically ineffective at spurring change. The now Gingrich-vilified Saul Alinsky in 1970 said the Weather Underground (the terrorist wing of the anti-war movement) should be on the Establishment’s payroll. “Because they are strengthening the Establishment,” said the “professional radical” Alinsky. Nothing kneecapped the call for the war to end quicker than buildings being bombed in solidarity with pacifist sentiments.

Here we have a combination of historic and semantic inaccuracies, combined with some anarchist baiting.  While she and I would agree that these “Black Bloc” tactics are not the most effective way to build a mass movement, neither is voting for Democrats an effective strategy for success, yet I don’t see articles condemning the participation of people who have voted Democrat and plan to do so in the future from Occupy.  It’s important to address sectarianism, adveturism, pranksterism, etc. within the movement, but Dupuy’s method is similarly divisive, ineffective, and lacking in good theory.

The historic/semantic inaccuracies (I’m not sure which it is, because I’m not inside her head) have to do with constructing the anti-Vietnam war movement as driven by “pacifist” sentiments.  I’m unsure if she is unfamiliar with the history or if she is equating antiwar with pacifism, but both are wrong.  There were certainly pacifist elements in the movement–both in the United States and Vietnam, but the movement as a whole was never pacifist in nature.  (For more on the Vietnam war, see Joe Allen’s Vietnam: the (Last) War the U.S. Lost, Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars, Mark Phillip Bradley’s Vietnam at War and Home to War: a History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement.  If you are interested in more titles, please contact me.  I’ve got a shelf-full of recommendations.)

Dupuy then soapboxes:

Here’s the key point: Occupy is not an armed conflict – it’s a PR war. Nonviolent struggle is a PR war. Gandhi had embedded journalists on his Salt March. He wasn’t a saint. That was a consciously cultivated media image. He used the press and its power to gain sympathy for his cause. What he didn’t do is say he was nonviolent “unless the cops are d*cks,” a sentiment voiced at Occupy. Nonviolent struggle has nothing to do with how the cops react. In actual nonviolent movements they welcome police overreaction because it helps the cause they’re fighting for.

It seems a bit strange to claim that Occupy “is not an armed conflict” when people are daily being brutalized by hyper-militarized police forces for their participation in a movement that has sought at every turn to avoid violence.  Occupy is not a guerilla war.  It’s also not a PR war.  But it is an armed conflict.  A one sided one.  There are people with guns (and a vast array of other weaponry)–the police–and there are people without them–the protestors.  It is a ludicrous assertion to suggest that people hurling bottles at police who are tear gassing them and shooting flash-bang grenades at them are taking up arms.  And using corrugated metal to defend themselves from the onslaught–corrugated metal covered in peace signs at that?  That’s common sense.

Perhaps Gandhi had embedded journalists on his Salt March.  But Gandhi’s tactical decisions are not above criticism.  Snehal Shingavi has dealt with them far more eloquently than I can.  In addition, it’s unclear how useful having journalists embedded in Occupy would be–since they’re already there and 1) they get arrested whether they have press credentials or not and 2) the mainstream media has already avowed itself to ignore Occupy at best and slander it at worst.

Dupuy says protestors should not defend themselves and should welcome and submit to police brutality because that’s what Gandhi would do.  Is it what Malcolm X would do?  What the Vietnamese people would do?  History is filled with a diversity of tactics that have all been used successfully.  Nonviolence is a tactical decision, not a principled one–but again, that’s really another discussion, because I have a difficult time calling tearing down a fence and throwing bottles “violence.”  From the way Dupuy describes it, you’d think Occupy Oakland had armed themselves with RPGs.

Property destruction is not only a bad PR move (it costs taxpayers and small business owners money) it’s not constitutionally protected Free Speech. It’s also not what democracy looks like. The First Amendment specifically states the right to peaceably assemble to redress grievances.

Well, no, property damage is not Constitutionally protected speech.  Why would it be when the entire document is constructed to protect private property rights?  Essentially, however, this is just another form of the illegality = violence fallacy–constructed here as Constitution = framework for human rights.  While the Bill of Rights does (purportedly) secure some human rights which it is important to protect and fight for, to suggest that these rights are adequate for producing moderate social reforms (let alone revolutionary restructuring) is woefully misguided.  After all, draft-dodging, while peaceful protest, was not considered a protected right.  At Occupy, whether the action has been occupations of public space (which are Constitutionally protected) or property damage (which is not), the outcome has been the same–repression and brutality on the part of the state.

As a general rule, before one references the wonders of the Constitution, remember that it was a document so perfectly constructed that a Bill of Rights was an afterthought to the part delineating property relations and that it had to be amended to end slavery, give women the right to vote, and declare equal protection for all citizens.  It still grants almost no rights to immigrants, does not declare equal citizenship for women (by design) and renders invisible the oppression of LGBTQ people.

Moreover 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. You can’t rail against Bankaneers while trashing a City Hall. You can but you lose. Then the cops look justified in their show of force. Being quiet is seen as consent and being in solidarity with Oakland is standing with their well-documented embrace of “diversity of tactics.”

Occupy should denounce violence and property damage. There should be a statement that Oakland doesn’t speak for the movement as a whole. Holding solidarity marches against Oakland police brutality is exactly what that sounds like. It sends the message that Occupy is happy to cost the Oakland taxpayers millions in damages. If Occupy is to succeed it has to purge the extreme (read: ineffective waste) elements now commandeering the movement.

Actually, this section is nonsensical.  First, Occupy is not about the destruction of property.  Addressing massive economic inequality?  Yes.  Fighting oppression?  Yes.  Ending foreclosures?  Yes.  Destroying property and taking it away are not the same thing.  Also up for debate is how much wealth and property working people had in the first place.  The focus of most anti-foreclosure work has not been around “property rights” but housing as a human right.

The second paragraph is equally nonsensical.  Saying that property destruction destroys moral authority is exactly like saying that protesters should welcome and submit to police brutality for good PR.  It’s liberal nonsense.  There is a strong argument that can be made against property destruction as a tactic in many instances, but it’s pretty hard to equate putting a brick through a window with the crimes of bankers–like, say, the way Goldman Sachs made immense profits on food shortages and let thousands on thousands starve to death.

And no, the cops do not look justified in their show of force.  Just like they didn’t look justified when Amadou Diallo pulled his wallet out and NYPD cops shot him 41 times.  Just like the United States doesn’t look justified in the occupation of Iraq when an IED explodes.  Tearing down a fence does not require bean bag rounds to protect society.  Burning a flag does not require hundreds of arrests.  There is no justification for such actions.  To take the side of the police in this situation–as Dupuy does–is reprehensible.  Which side is she on?  Not ours.

Even if we disagree with a tactical decision that has been made by other occupiers, nothing they did justified the police response against them.  Solidarity, in this instance, is the only option.  Dupuy openly calls for a purge of these “elements” which she describes as “ineffective waste.”  She says we should denounce the Oakland Commune.  If Dupuy is willing to throw people who throw bricks into windows under the bus–saying in essence that they deserved tear gas, bean bag rounds, and flash-bang grenades–what’s next?  The people camping who “provoke” the police by holding their ground?  This a classic “which side are you on” moment.  It’s very clear Dupuy has taken the side of the police and the state.

Dupuy finished her article with another frightening call for a purge.  I realize this critique has been fairly lenghty compared to what I usually write, but I felt it was necessary to dismantle her dangerous argument.  We cannot allow this baseless, vile rhetoric to divide us, to break our movement apart.  You don’t build a mass movement by moralizing before siding with the forces of repression.  You do it by building a united front, and you build a united front by living by the old labor cry: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

***As mentioned above, I don’t see Black Bloc tactics as helpful to the Occupy movement–quite the opposite.  Here are some other articles from today that address dealing with obstructionist tactics in a way that is logical and grounded in good politics.

Alessandro Tinonga: The Backlash Against Occupy Oakland

  1. Ché Pasa says:

    Well said.

    This is Occupy Oakland’s Move In Assembly’s response to some of the internal and external criticism they have received regarding the J28 actions:


    A quote from their statement:

    “Let it be clear: we are not victims of police brutality but survivors of it. There is no question that we demonstrated militant resistance to the police last Saturday. It is only natural to do so when our best intentions of creating a new world our met with such hostility. This time, the chant “When Oakland is under attack, what do you do? Stand up! Fight back!” was not an empty one. At the same time, it should also be clear that there is nothing preventing those who want to from organizing non-violent direct actions autonomously with clear guidelines as such. This is what we mean by diversity of tactics.”

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