The question of whether Occupy should adopt a code of nonviolence has stirred contentious debates among activists since the movement began.
A general assembly at Occupy D.C. decided to explicitly require that participants in the local encampment agree to “practice nonviolence and respect for all.” Occupy Oakland, on the other hand, has formally embraced the idea of a “diversity of tactics,” refusing to expel or renounce activists who engage in acts of property destruction or active resistance against police. Even now, with many encampments raided and dismantled, debates on this issue continue to crop up during planning sessions for future Occupy events. Last week the issue of what role, if any, faith leaders should play in pushing local encampments to adopt codes of explicit nonviolence garnered debate at the March 20-22 Occupy Faith National Conference in Berkeley, California.
The remarks below, which are selected and adapted from a public forum that took place at the Oakland First Unitarian-Universalist Church this December in Oakland, offer an entry point to the discussion, giving space for activists on both sides to state their views. Antiwar and environmental organizer Sean O’Brien, conscientious objector and graduate student Matthew Edwards, teacher and anti-authoritarian organizer Melissa Merin, and Occupy Oakland participant Paolo argue that a diversity of tactics, including what some would term “violence,” have a place in the Occupy movement. Meanwhile, civil-rights activist Reverend Phil Lawson, restorative justice advocate and nonviolence trainer Kazu Haga, Iraq war veteran Josh Shepherd, and author and global justice activist Starhawk argue that nonviolence is the only way for Occupy to move forward.
Remarks from Sean O’Brien
Sean O’Brien is an anarchist organizer. He works with the Holdout—an organizing and events space in Oakland, California—and with the direct action groups Unconventional Action (UA in the Bay) and Direct Action Against War. He also organizes around environmental issues.
In considering the range of strategies that Occupy should use, I believe that many times peaceful actions actually make the most sense and are the most strategic. That said, I also challenge those pushing for an exclusively nonviolent movement to stop talking in terms of the morality or immorality of violence. Please stop suggesting that I am not as moral, not as courageous, or not as loving if I disagree with you on this point. Instead, we should discuss what is effective and what is not. If we discuss violence, we must acknowledge that there is no universal agreement on what violence is, because there are so many gray areas. Is it violent to respond when you are being attacked? Is it violent to throw a tear gas canister back at the police who threw it at you? Is industrial sabotage violence? Without agreement on these kinds of issues, the discussion of the role of violence in our movement becomes somewhat incoherent. That said, I also challenge proponents of “diversity of tactics” organizing to figure out how we can be more transparent and how we can come to certain points of agreement with people of different ideologies.
Many people cite Martin Luther King Jr. as a guide for us. But in his famous talk “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” he says the American racial revolution is a revolution about getting in rather than overthrowing. He expresses African Americans’ desire to share the American economy, the housing market, the educational system, and social opportunities.
If the goal of the Occupy movement is for us to be included back into the system, to participate in a housing market, to have lower taxes, to get lower debt, to get back the house or a car that we might have lost in the past few years of economic retraction, then the nonviolent strategy of King makes a lot of sense. But if our goal is to tear down this corrupt system and build something better in its place, then we’re going to come to a point where nonviolence is not as effective and it’s not going to be enough.
Remarks from Reverend Phil Lawson
Reverend Phil Lawson is a retired Methodist minister who has long worked on immigration, civil rights, and economic justice issues. He sits on the Council of Elders, which is a newly formed group of veterans from the nonviolent civil-rights movements of the last sixty years.
Nonviolence is not a tactic or a strategy—nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. I started out in the journey to nonviolence as a fifteen-year-old member of the fellowship of reconciliation and learned my nonviolence through Bayard Rustin and through working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Nonviolence is not pacifism. It is not passive resistance. It’s assertive—spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Nonviolence seeks to win friendships and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemptions and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of a Beloved Community. Therefore I contend that nonviolence is the most consistent way that the Occupy movement can transform this nation. The opposite of oppression and domination and slavery is not freedom to do what you want to do. The opposite of domination and slavery is community. People together. Freedom from domination.
Nonviolence seeks not to defeat human beings, but to defeat injustice. The white privileged male is a victim who believes he is better than others. He has grown up with a false sense of superiority in the same sense that African Americans and people of color have grown up with a false sense of inferiority in this society.
Nonviolence holds that voluntary suffering can educate and transform the nation. One black man in the Dr. King movement looks at it this way: “I will let them kick me and kick me until they have kicked all the hatred out of themselves and into my body where I will transform it into love for those who kicked me.”
I grew up in the situation of Jim Crow. We will not convince large numbers of the African American community that violence is a way to freedom and community since violence is what the domination system uses to impose its way and to support the status quo. Violence will never be able to set me free and help me to live in community with you and with others.
Remarks from Matthew Edwards
Matthew Edwards is an anarchist organizer and Ph.D. student in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2002, he refused deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been involved in radical politics ever since.
I want to speak for a moment about the facts of our current movement. I hate to say it, but it’s actually a violent movement. Let me explain why: There’s racism in our movement. There’s some classism in our movement. There really is. I don’t know if you’ve been down to the Occupy encampments. You can tell that there are differences in class, and I think it’s fair to say that out loud. There’s homophobia. The fact that there are safe spaces that have been fought for prove that. And there’s patriarchy—lots of it.
Now those are all extremely violent structural forms. And those forms are wrapped around our movement like a cancer. So to say that we have a nonviolent movement is false. I’d like us all to pause for a moment and just reflect: this movement has some deep elements of violence.
Now, we come to the discussion of tactics. I agree that nonviolence can be a way of life, and I would ask that you keep your way of life to yourself and let me live my life how I want to live it. And I will do the same for you.
I’d like to turn to our collective memories here. A week after the murder of Oscar Grant, nothing had been done. There’d been rallies. There’d been press releases. But nothing structurally had been done. And then people went out into the streets and they smashed shit and they set some stuff on fire. And they fought the cops. And a hundred people got arrested. Over the course of almost two years, there were three other riots. The cop who killed Oscar Grant served a little bit of jail time. He would have served no jail time had people not gone out into the streets and demanded vengeance. It was violence, and I’m actually OK with that.
Another memory: During the General Assembly, there was a disruptive individual. He’d come, maybe suffering from some sort of mental situation; maybe he was on drugs, alcohol. He was intense. He was aggressive. The first two nights he was calmed down using nonviolent tactics. It was great. But on the third night, he pulled a knife. Someone grabbed a two-by-four and hit him on the back of the head. He got knocked out. He was pulled from the camp. Medics checked him to make sure he was alive. He was.
Now, I wonder, in our nonviolent movement, if someone hadn’t gotten up and smacked him on the back of the head, would the cops have been called? That probably would have happened, and this poor guy would have been thrown into the violent penitentiary system, maybe beaten by police. Instead, people took it upon themselves to use a little bit of violence to end a situation that needed to be ended, and I applaud that.
And finally, the reason why people were able to re-occupy Oscar Grant Plaza the second time is because they fought the police. Not with guns, not with firebombs—with their bodies and sometimes rocks. People resisted in a way that made sense. There are so many different forms of structural violence that we need to confront. Let’s stop arguing about tactics that have been proven time and time again to actually get some results.
Remarks from Kazu Haga
Kazu Haga is a certified trainer in Kingian Nonviolence and is active in Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. He writes for the Positive Peace Warrior Network.
I believe in a “diversity of tactics.” There is a lot of diversity of tactics in nonviolent movements, as well as ones with violence.
But without some sort of baseline and some principles to ground us, what does a diversity of tactics mean? As someone from the General Assembly one night said, “does that mean we would endorse someone kidnapping, torturing, and murdering the children of corporate executives?” None of us, I’m sure, would advocate for that. But without some common understandings, we don’t know how far we’re allowed to take it, right? There’s moral relativism, moral ambiguity.
During the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, about 650 marchers were attacked by police in 1965. As a result, that 650 grew to 2,500 marchers, and two weeks after that, that 2,500 grew to 8,000. When we’re able to maintain and represent the values that we want to see in the society, it paints a very clear picture of who’s right and who’s wrong. And that public narrative is a powerful weapon. When we engage in acts of property destruction, it taints the narrative and it confuses things.
So, when we saw images of Scott Olson getting shot in his head, or when we saw images of the students at UC Davis getting pepper sprayed, those images helped to awaken the moral conscience of the nation. In contrast, after the violence of the Oscar Grant rallies and things like that, the public narrative that went out was “rioters fight police” and things that confuse the public narrative. And so we lose potentially huge amounts of support from the mass public, and without support from the majority, no revolution is really possible.
Nonviolence does not simply mean to “not be violent.” Nonviolence means taking a stand against this belief that we can use violence, fear, and intimidation to bring about the changes that we want to see in our society. The police and the corporations believe that they can just take what they want and use fear and intimidation to get what they want. Nonviolence means taking a stand against that belief. We have to recognize that we’re all stuck in this unjust system. And the struggle is not against the 1 percent; the struggle is not between the 1 percent and the 99 percent; the struggle is between the 100 percent and injustice. If we use violence and intimidation to get what we want, that’s what’s going to be reflected in the world that we create.
Remarks from Melissa Merin
Melissa Merin is a self-described “flagrant supporter of human rights” and “shameless anti-authoritarian.” She is a youth educator at an afterschool program in San Francisco.
I keep hearing the mention of violence: violence is good; nonviolence is great; violence can be useful; violence is not useful. The topic of violence can be a very narrowly construed one. I think that focusing on “What is violence?” keeps us from thinking critically about action, about the movement, and about struggle and liberation.
I do question nonviolence as a strategy, because I think the strategy is useful to attain legitimacy—American mainstream legitimacy. However, the Occupy Oakland movement does not need to ask for legitimacy from the mainstream. The movement is in fact already legitimate. It is the people who have been reaping the benefits of the capitalist system for so long who need to come to us to say, “How do we contribute to a legitimate, radical restructuring, and back this struggle?” And part of that has to be enforcing a diversity of tactics. Some of us are going to have to sit in. we’re going to have to teach in, and we’re going to have to babysit. Some of us are going to have to go to work. Some of us are going to have to sabotage trucks. Some of us are going to have to actually shut down Wells Fargo and not symbolically shut it down.
I want to really encourage those of you who for whom protesters’ smashing of a Whole Foods store window is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “violence” to reconsider, and think instead about the violence of the state. Think about the violence of the police. If you can get so mad about this theoretical “violence” against a window or against a newspaper stand, but you cannot actually muster enough energy to get that pissed off about the everyday systemic violence that occurs against my people, against your people, then you have no place talking about violence.
Remarks from Josh Shepherd
Josh Shepherd is a Navy veteran and Iraq Veterans Against the War activist. He was witness to the police violence last year that left fellow Veteran for Peace Scott Olsen in critical condition after police launched tear gas canisters at a crowd at close range.
Oakland is easily one of the most radical cities in our country, so we fall into this trap of preaching to the choir. The more we learn, the more we teach each other, the more difficult it is to relate to the rest of the country.
You know, I’ve got two working-class parents. My father didn’t graduate high school. I joined the military, I saw what we were doing there, and I turned down thousands of dollars in benefits to get out of there because I couldn’t stand for it. I joined the Occupy movement because I saw it as an extension of my existing activism against the government-corporate corruption of the defense industry.
I think we’ve got so much to agree on, but here we are, back and forth, talking about tactics, when we need to address what we want. I think we’ve got potential for a broad-based movement here, to work with what we do have in common. There’s only a very small contingency in this country that desires to start a revolution. Coming from my military background, I do not believe the civilian population is well suited to resist or to fare well if things got really violent. I’ve seen what the military can do. I’ve seen what we have at our disposal. I think about the children, the women, the families… if we start a violent revolution, it’s going to get ugly. And so I really want to avoid that at all costs.
So we have to go out there and march like we’re trying to communicate something to the public. That is our audience. We have to cater to them because otherwise we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and further isolating ourselves. My family and my nonpolitical friends are very much in support of the Occupy movement. So many people are suffering, and everybody is part of this 99 percent. So don’t alienate them!
Remarks from Paolo
Paolo is an anarchist organizer and Occupy Oakland participant.
Violence is when a mother is denied food stamps, and feels as though she has no option left but to shoot herself and her two children. Violence is when the police beat and kill youth of color in Oakland. It is when immigrant families work three jobs to sustain themselves and their relatives abroad, when the military spreads democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan with stealth bombers and drones. Violence is the modern-day slave labor facilitated by the prison system. It is the slow insidious havoc that the court system wreaks on the lives of those who have the wrong skin color or can’t afford a good lawyer.
But violence is also when we fight back. It is a tool to get what one wants or needs, one of the oldest and most effective tools. Violence can be an intense form of care and love, the material expression of our passion for freedom and each other. These days, what gets labeled violence is that which is outside of or against the law, when people take matters into their own hands. One example of this you can see just from the port blockade, which Jean Quan called economic violence against the city of Oakland. I think we all know what actually constitutes economic violence.
The Occupy movement is the beginning of a movement against austerity, and of course it will take the forms dictated by our material and social conditions. In postindustrial cities like Oakland, where many of us are essentially a surplus population, or work in forms of precarious, immaterial, or part-time labor, the struggle ends up taking the form of homeless people, students, the unemployed, activists, and workers coming together in the streets. We see a middle-class work force become dispossessed, proletarianized—and just like in Wisconsin, people are beginning to fight back. The Occupy movement is largely white and middle-class, and these upstanding citizens who often compose protest movements want to retain the privileges that have already been stripped from so many. This class composition manifests itself in the movement’s approach to violence, and its tendency to use constitutionalist language and declare the cops “part of the 99 percent.” It is an inherently privileged position to resist nonviolently, and even more so to claim the cops as one’s ally.
While so-called nonviolent tactics are important, and indeed mass collective struggle should be a focus, they’re most effective when paired with defensive and offensive violence against those who would stop us from reclaiming the commons, our homes, et cetera. Also, if you study moments of unrest throughout history, such as 1968 from Mexico to France and across the world, or 1977 in Italy when workers took over their factories and struggled in the streets alongside students, or Oaxaca in 2006, or even the Arab Spring, you’ll find all sorts of tactics being used in tandem with each other to great effect. A dogmatic nonviolence is not only ineffective, it is ahistorical.
It is wonderful if we can occupy an abandoned commercial space and establish a social center for the use of the people, but it is even more powerful if we can stop the sheriffs from evicting us. I’m not arguing for a symmetrical war or full-scale military conflict, but rather for the use of diffuse asymmetrical warfare as our situation warrants. We can and should use all of the means at our disposal in the creation of zones free from police control and outside the dictates of capital.
What was liberating and exciting about the Oakland Commune wasn't that we were sitting at yet another protest, in a cold, muddy park in the middle of a dirty city—rather, it was the creation of a space that at the same time served our own needs, allowed us to provide for one another, and was in direct conflict to capitalism and the forces of the state. Unlike other occupations around the country, we took a confrontational stance against the police from the very beginning, making a habit of chasing them out and chanting “pigs go home!” each time they came into the plaza. This allowed many people who would have been alienated by a police presence or collaboration with the cops to participate in the occupation. It also stopped the daily police harassment of the homeless folks who sleep in the plaza.
It is true that we need inclusive spaces where people can come together without fear of police violence, but in this society, no space can truly be called safe. Patriarchal and racist violence are always lurking in the shadows, and police can encroach on us at any moment. A better alternative to demanding that people adhere to a code of nonviolence to patronizingly “protect” women, children, and people of color is the self-organization of these groups for self-defense and to determine their needs for themselves. At Occupy Oakland we have seen and participated in groups of militant and revolutionary disabled people, feminists, queers and transgender people, and people of color who were working autonomously to decide what they needed. What marginalized groups do not need is the protection and blessing of white, middle-class reformists. One example of self-defense is the militant queer group Bash Back!, which formed in the Midwest and encouraged crews of queers to get together for collective and individual defense against queerbashers and homophobes by using pepper spray, fists, and bats.
Remarks from Starhawk
Starhawk has written numerous books and articles on earth-based spirituality, ecofeminism, and activism. Her projects range from leading Earth Activist trainings to filmmaking to organizing in the global justice movement.
I’m so happy we’re actually having this discussion, because during my ten years with the global justice (anti-globalization) movement, my experience was that once we accepted “diversity of tactics,” we actually stopped discussing both tactics and strategy.
For me, one of the most important words in a framework of strategic nonviolence is strategy. I don’t think we in the Occupy movement currently have a strategy.
If we have a strategy, then we can figure out what tactics make sense. In that way I think we do, certainly, need a diversity of tactics. But when diversity of tactics becomes a code word for “anything goes, let’s not talk about it, because we just don’t want to tell anyone what to do,” then we lose the ability to actually confront each other, challenge each other, and tangle with these issues, which are complex and not easy to solve.
A strategy has to begin with recognizing that violence is endemic in the system we live in. Poverty is a form of violence. Racism, gender violence—all of those things are immense forms of violence that do untold harm, cause untold suffering to people every single day of their lives. But, they’re also hidden. When you say “violence,” when you say to someone, “Who’s a violent person?” they might picture a anarchist in a black mask with a bomb, or they might picture someone of a different race with a gun, but they very rarely picture a white man in a business suit who is making decisions which are causing far more suffering than anybody else.
The strategy of nonviolent resistance, of what some have called the “people power” strategy, makes the hidden violence in the system visible by contesting it nonviolently. The system can continue to inflict that violence, because in some sense we all consent to it, we all comply with it. Our lives are so entwined with it that to eat and to feed our kids and to pursue our goals, we do what the system requires of us. When we stop doing that, then oftentimes the system responds with that violence, which then becomes visible.
When the system has to use violence to maintain itself, it’s very costly. It’s costly to the system in terms of money, in terms of effort, in terms of energy, and also in terms of legitimacy. Our strategy is not about asking for our legitimacy—I agree, we don’t need to do that—our strategy is to make visible the illegitimacy of the system that we’re in, to make that clear to people. At this stage of our struggle the goal cannot be about how most effectively to bring down the 1 percent (I think they’re actually doing a good job with that, themselves), but to bring together and empower the 99 percent, and for that, strategic nonviolence is the most effective path at the moment.
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