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Debate within Occupy about the Black Bloc

On February 6, journalist and activist Chris Hedges wrote a searing article on the Black Bloc. Occupy theorist David Graeber wrote an open letter in reply.

The Black Bloc first appeared in the 80s and has been with demonstrations across the world ever since. The Black Bloc is a tactic, whereby black-clad individuals wearing hoods and masks appear in the midst of a demonstration to trash stores, break windows, etc.

The events in Oakland have brought about more heated discussion about the Black Bloc. For background, see the article: The Occupy Movement and the Black Bloc.

Not involved with Occupy? It's still important. Occupy is a wild card which could break through the stalemate on energy, climate and politics which bedevils the United States. It could also fizzle out. Or it could take a dark direction, as did some of the radical politics in the 1970s.

Below are excerpts from the debate.


Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage.


The Cancer in Occupy

Chris Hedges, Truthdig
The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists—so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property—is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state. The Occupy encampments in various cities were shut down precisely because they were nonviolent. They were shut down because the state realized the potential of their broad appeal even to those within the systems of power. They were shut down because they articulated a truth about our economic and political system that cut across political and cultural lines. And they were shut down because they were places mothers and fathers with strollers felt safe.

Black Bloc adherents detest those of us on the organized left and seek, quite consciously, to take away our tools of empowerment. They confuse acts of petty vandalism and a repellent cynicism with revolution. The real enemies, they argue, are not the corporate capitalists, but their collaborators among the unions, workers’ movements, radical intellectuals, environmental activists and populist movements such as the Zapatistas. Any group that seeks to rebuild social structures, especially through nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, rather than physically destroy, becomes, in the eyes of Black Bloc anarchists, the enemy. Black Bloc anarchists spend most of their fury not on the architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or globalism, but on those, such as the Zapatistas, who respond to the problem. It is a grotesque inversion of value systems.

... “The Black Bloc can say they are attacking cops, but what they are really doing is destroying the Occupy movement,” the writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen told me when I reached him by phone in California. “If their real target actually was the cops and not the Occupy movement, the Black Bloc would make their actions completely separate from Occupy, instead of effectively using these others as a human shield. Their attacks on cops are simply a means to an end, which is to destroy a movement that doesn’t fit their ideological standard.”

“I don’t have a problem with escalating tactics to some sort of militant resistance if it is appropriate morally, strategically and tactically,” Jensen continued. “This is true if one is going to pick up a sign, a rock or a gun. But you need to have thought it through. The Black Bloc spends more time attempting to destroy movements than they do attacking those in power. They hate the left more than they hate capitalists.”
(6 February 2012)



An Open Letter to Chris Hedges

David Graeber, n+1
Concerning the Violent Peace-Police
---
In response to “The Cancer in Occupy,” by Chris Hedges.

I am writing this on the premise that you are a well-meaning person who wishes Occupy Wall Street to succeed. I am also writing as someone who was deeply involved in the early stages of planning Occupy in New York.

I am also an anarchist who has participated in many Black Blocs. While I have never personally engaged in acts of property destruction, I have on more than one occasion taken part in Blocs where property damage has occurred. (I have taken part in even more Blocs that did not engage in such tactics. It is a common fallacy that this is what Black Blocs are all about. It isn’t.)

I was hardly the only Black Bloc veteran who took part in planning the initial strategy for Occupy Wall Street. In fact, anarchists like myself were the real core of the group that came up with the idea of occupying Zuccotti Park, the “99%” slogan, the General Assembly process, and, in fact, who collectively decided that we would adopt a strategy of Gandhian non-violence and eschew acts of property damage. Many of us had taken part in Black Blocs. We just didn’t feel that was an appropriate tactic for the situation we were in.

This is why I feel compelled to respond to your statement “The Cancer in Occupy.” This statement is not only factually inaccurate, it is quite literally dangerous. This is the sort of misinformation that really can get people killed. In fact, it is far more likely to do so, in my estimation, than anything done by any black-clad teenager throwing rocks.
(9 February 2012)



Chris Hedges and Kristof Lopaur of Occupy Oakland debate black bloc, militancy and tactics.

KPFA

Audio at original.

Letters and Politics - February 8, 2012 at 10:00am

Click to listen (or download)

(8 February 2012)



Activists and Anarchists Speak for Themselves at Occupy Oakland

Susie Cagle, Truthout
This principle, this fight, appears to be at the heart of recent critiques of "anarchists," "Black Bloc" and the tactics some choose to employ in political protest, especially in Oakland. Chris Hedges' "Black Bloc" takedown is only the most recent in a series of critiques bashing anarchists and "diversity of tactics" within the national Occupy movement since January 28th's fog of tear gas has dissipated. While previous criticisms came from the right or center of the political spectrum, these perspectives are arising from the left and mainly from journalists who have not been in the field to witness these tactics in action and within context.

... Oakland's large, active, organized community of anarchists and other political radicals are just that: large; active; and, above all, organized. It is true that many are young, white and not Oakland natives, though they are residents. But many believe in community building and mutual aid. And many of those using black bloc at occupy protests are not necessarily anarchists.

Hedges "is really out of touch with anarchists today," says Simons, who dismisses John Zerzan, the anarchist ideologue Hedges points to as the Black Bloc forefather. "Anarchists were very important in creating Occupy Oakland. They were in some ways the initial glue that held the camp together" - the one Hedges applauds as having such "broad appeal" that cities were forced to shut them down using oppressive means. "Very quickly Occupy Oakland became much more than that, but you wouldn't have Occupy Oakland if it wasn't for those anarchists," says Simons.

The 99 percent is a poor class analysis, especially for troubled Oakland, but it does point to the broad coalition necessary to create change in America today. "In this situation, even to make the most modest gains, you have to bring about a force that's nearly a revolutionary force," says Simons. "We have to show that we can fully disrupt the system, even if we just want reforms."

Of course, many within Occupy Oakland do not just want reforms - they want revolution, insurrection, overthrow and smash. But there has been only one event where that group came out in a bloc and utilized the tactics that so trouble Hedges and other Occupy Oakland critics on the left and it happened in the middle of what is arguably still seen as one of the movement's greatest victories: the General Strike. ...
(8 February 2012)
Recommended by Kip of OPA. Also see A statement from Occupy Oakland's Move-In Assembly on the Jan 28 "Move-In Day to reclaim the unused Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center." -BA


Chris Hedges and the black bloc

Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist
Yesterday Chris Hedges wrote an attack on the black bloc on Truthdig.com that has gone “viral” in the sense that the Internet is all abuzz about it. Resonating with the sickness metaphor, the appropriately titled article “The Cancer in Occupy” begins:

The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists—so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property—is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

As most people realize, the people that Hedges is writing about are not really interested in defending themselves politically. From its inception back in the European autonomist movements of the 1980s, the black-clad activists refuse to answer anybody outside of their ranks. Within the “affinity group”, everything is cool. Outside of it, who gives a shit? Ironically, this kind of elitism is not that different from the “vanguard party” posture which puts the needs of the sect above that of the mass movement.
(7 February 2012)



A Bustle in Hedges’ Row

Randall Amster, ZNet
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone on the American Left who has not either benefited from or been influenced by the writings of Chris Hedges. His is a singular and potent voice of progressive journalism, combining the best virtues of diligent reporting and unabashed advocacy for a better world. Hedges has rightfully earned many accolades for his work, and he has been an effective chronicler of the rise of people-powered social movements in the U.S. and around the world. Undoubtedly like many others, I have personally been inspired by his writings, and have appreciated his willingness to dialogue with me on occasion. Hedges, in short, represents something of an ideal for those of us who deign to wax publicly on the issues of the day.

All of which makes his latest piece so disturbing in its full implications. Hedges calls out the anarchist-influenced Black Bloc as “the cancer of the Occupy movement,” and in the process vilifies with a broad brush an entire class of activists and anarchists as “not only deeply intolerant but stupid,” accusing them of “hijacking” and/or seeking to destroy Occupy and other progressive movements. The problems with his analysis are numerous, including that he points to a mere handful of sensationalized episodes of alleged “violence” without subjecting them to further scrutiny or engaging the voluminous literature in social movements discourse on what even constitutes violence, as well as the utility of potentially disruptive tactics in the annals of social change.
(9 February 2012)



Interview With Chris Hedges About Black Bloc

J.A. Myerson, Truthout
Chris Hedges' syndicated Truthdig column "Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy," printed Tuesday at Truthout and elsewhere, created quite a stir among members of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Some endorsed the sentiment. Among others, including some central organizers who helped plan the action over the summer, the column raised eyebrows and hackles. I compiled what I considered to be the best critiques of the piece that I came across (as well as my own questions) and interviewed Hedges over the phone.

I explained at the outset that I, too, had written in Truthout to urge doctrinal nonviolence and that I am enormously fond of Hedges' prodigious body of work. Nevertheless, I explained, there was a lot about the column that confounded me and many people I'd heard from, and I asked him to let me push for clarification on a number of points. Here is the transcript of that recorded interview, edited very minimally for clarity.
(9 February 2012)



How Not To Block The Black Bloc

George Lakey, Waging Nonviolence
The headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer told us last week that, on the other side of the country, a brick hit a police officer in Oakland and sent him to the hospital. Civil Rights organizer Jim Bevel predicted headlines like this in the ’60s when arguing about the then-current version of “diversity of tactics.” He said something like: “We want people to talk about our issues, about the suffering of our people from racism and poverty. When you throw the brick, people don’t talk about our issues, or the thousand black people on the streets that day, they talk about the police officer who was hit by the brick.”

The question for all those, whether using black bloc tactics or not, who consider adding to the Occupy movement tactics of either property destruction or violence: Do you want the issues of injustice to be talked about, or your bricks? In my own definition, property destruction is not the same as violence—there can be very significant differences between the two. But in this historical-political situation, the impact of either is similar; they give an easy out for people who don’t really want to talk about injustice.

I don’t, however, recommend Chris Hedges’ recent essay, “The Cancer in Occupy,” as a model for how to respond to the black blocs. Demonizing, calling people names, using the giveaway metaphor of “cancer” (I’ve had cancer) is about as far away from effectively opposing a tendency one disagrees with as it’s possible to get.

We have such good models in the tradition of nonviolence. Dr. King, James Lawson, John Lewis and so many others in the Civil Rights movement who had to respond to those willing to advocate violence showed us how to do it.
(9 February 2012)



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD8UohyYPWA&feature=youtu.be

Anonymous, YouTube

Greetings. We are Anonymous.

The response from fellow anons to Black Bloc has been overwhelming. Peacefully shutting down banks and locations has had a far greater economic impact than Black Bloc's pitiful acts of vandalism could ever dream of. If you truly want to protest in such a manner you should take it to the homes and websites of those you protest against. Replacing a window is nothing to them, you are not even a nuisance.

This issue has been discussed many times during the past several months, and there appears to be a popular consensus that your tactics of chilling and intimidating the citizen press, breaking the windows of small businesses, terrorizing innocent employees and bystanders, and sometimes outright assaulting occupy protesters are unacceptable. You are at best misguided, harmful, and idiotic in your actions. But more than anything it is your cowardice in hiding behind the banner of the Occupy movement, using Occupy protesters as shields, and attempting to pin your actions on Anonymous that will not be forgiven.

We suspect that many of you are agent provocateurs, as for the rest who behave in such a manner, your tactics demonize us in the eyes of the general public, robbing Occupy of much needed support, both in finances and approval. And worse, your activities provide the illusion of justified police brutality, robbing Occupy of the moral high ground and providing ammunition to the media.

Consider this an act of diplomacy before we start doxing your asses all over the internet and paying special attention to personally ruining your lives. You have a choice, abandon your pathetic ineffective and counter productive tactics and join us, or step aside, or risk the wrath of legion. As of now we are asking all citizen journalists to expose any Black Bloc using Occupy or Anonymous as a shield. If they attempt to chill your freedom as press, get up in their faces, call protesters around you for support. But do not respect the Anonymity of any Black Bloc who hide behind Occupy and Anonymous, they are not Anonymous, they are cancer and must be devoured for the good of the legion.

To any Black Bloc to whom this does not apply, we advise you to stay well away from citizen journalist and choose your targets wisely. If you harm Occupy or attempt to pin your thuggish crimes on Anonymous, we will not forgive.
(22 January 2012)



That Window at Starbucks

Bhaskar Sunkara, Dissent Magazine
Chris Hedges has the internet’s attention. In an article for Truthdig, he identifies Black Bloc anarchists as “the cancer of the Occupy movement.” Their confrontational ways, he argues, fly in the face of nonviolent principles, only further alienate the mainstream, and serve as justification for state repression.

Insurrectionists were angrier than usual. Other radicals joined in too. They accused Hedges of capitulating to the most timid elements in the movement. There were semi-literate blog posts, angry comment threads, and hateful tweets—the web at its finest. But there were also some considered replies. Most significantly, David Graeber responded in an open letter to Hedges.

I will spare readers a significant overview of the debate and keep myself to a short intervention. An intervention I only make because I feel that the debate’s crystallization around these two figures is unfortunate. As articulate as Graeber is, the Black Bloc tactic deserves little defense. It offers no way forward for the democratic Left. Neither does Hedges’s well-intentioned but inchoate liberalism.

Some background: The son of a Presbyterian minister, after receiving a Master of Divinity from Harvard, Hedges soon found himself in the New York Times’s hallowed pages. He didn’t play the mainstream journalism game very well. He condemned the Israeli occupation and earned rebuke from his employer for publicly damning the Iraq War.

... His goal, sustaining a vibrant movement for social justice, is the same as mine. And I share his opposition to the Black Bloc. But it’s clear he didn’t do his homework, preferring to fight a straw man of his own creation than the actual beast. Hedges presents the Black Bloc as far more organized and ideologically cohesive than it actually is. The Black Bloc “is a tactic, not a group,” as David Graeber writes. And while its members strike a paramilitary posture, they aren’t really that malevolent. When they decide to engage in petty vandalism, they look more like petty vandals than serious political actors.

Beyond personal acting out, it’s not clear what the tactic has actually done. That goes for political accomplishments as well as for violence. The cops are winning on that count. Protesters have been the repeated victims of police assaults. This has nothing to do with the Black Bloc and everything to do with the police.
(10 February 2012)



Graeber responds to Hedges

Andrew Pollack, Marxmail
Graeber's piece continues some of the predictable problematic arguments of other mainstream anarchists in defense of black blockers. But it also goes further and makes clearer how their moralistic arguments and poor tactics flow from rejecting any notion of strategy, which in turn comes from not having a class analysis nor a perspective of seizing power. Partly it does this by sins of omission; like other anarchist defenders of the BB, its argument revolves completely around the impact of "violence" on the movement's image, unity and diversity. Not a word about its impact on building a social base that can be at the center of a movement which will ultimately contend for power.

1. The repeated references to "peace police" are an explicit rejection of the right of protest organizers to provide security for actions or to maintain order. (He also claims such "peace police" have violently attacked
black blockers; this needs to be verified.)

2. He, like some others defending the BB, explicitly equate violence with "revolutionary" or "militant" politics, and nonviolence with reformism.
(9 February 2012)




Violence Begets Defeat or Too Much Pacifism?

Michael Albert, ZNet
Chris Hedges has written a very aggressive attack on what is called the black bloc element of the current occupy movements. There have been a number of replies and reactions. The issues are actually not new, but have a long lineage. How do we evaluate matters of violence and non violence? What even characterizes obstruction, property damage, or aggressive or violent options, and how might folks reasonably argue their preferences?

Pacifism often comes from a religious or a philosophical stance and says violence, or even property damage, is a bad personal choice - no exceptions. Many pacifists argue publicly on behalf of political nonviolence using evidence, values, and experience. They usually respect and interact positively with those holding different opinions. In my experience, perhaps the best exemple of this type of stance was by David Dellinger, someone whose work is worth revisiting today. There are some other pacifists, however, who don't primarily use evidence, logic, and experience to argue for nonviolence, but instead assert that to reject nonviolence is immoral. Their morality/religion trumps political debate.

When adherents of a political view assert that all other actors must agree or be irrelevant, it is often called sectarianism. Agree with me or you are a political infidel.

... The "black bloc" side of this debate claims that tactics "exceeding" nonviolence tend to be good in that they delegitimate authority; reduce tendencies to obedience; uproot accommodationist habits and culture; inspire participation among working people and minorities; enlarge courage; graphically pinpoint protestor's anger; promote increased media coverage that communicates the movement message more widely; and also raise social costs for elites, pressuring them to relent. In their view, “cannibals prefer those who have no spines.”

The "pacifist" side claims that tactics "exceeding" nonviolence tend to be bad in that they help authority rationalize its legitimacy; increase tendencies to thoughtless individualism, amorality, and paranoia; put off unorganized working people and minorities (not to mention those unable or unwilling to participate in violent settings); curtail open discussion and democratic decision-making; obscure the focus of protestor's anger; distort media coverage from substance to bricks and fighting thereby disrupting communication to broader audiences; and also give elites an excuse to change the rules of engagement to their advantage. In their view, violence is suicidal.

The point-by-point contrast highlights the complexity of judging tactics.

Is having teach-ins, marching, rallying, doing civil disobedience, and obstructing large numbers of people the best way, or is destroying draft card files, a missile nose cone, a war-making facility, or targeted windows, trespassing, rioting, resisting arrest, or even escalating to pro-active aggression against police, scabs, or other sectors, a better choice?

To know, we have to decide which claims by advocates of different stances are true and which false, and how we regard the overall tally.
(9 February 2012)
Suggested by Scott of OPA. Some other articles have turned up:
Will Occupy Spring Forward Or Meltdown? by Shamus Cooke (ZNet)
An Open Letter to the Broader Occupy Community Regarding Occupy Oakland From a Small Group of Oakland Radicals
-BA

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