Sunday, February 26, 2012

Conflict and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive

Kevin Zeese, the would-be Chairman Mao of the Freedom Plaza Occupy camp in Washington, DC, has never found it within himself to say a nice word about the sister Occupy camp at McPherson Square. In listserv emails and general assembly rants, he and the other Old Left types who founded the Freedom Plaza camp (and grew bitter when it was superseded by their more vibrant, inclusive rivals) have repeatedly characterized their McPherson brethren as a bunch of naive, violent drug abusers.

Indeed, after I wrote about the assisted-living facility, more-nonviolent-than-thou vibe I picked up on after attending a general assembly at Freedom Plaza, Zeese sent me a note that, charitably, displayed a lack of self-awareness, countering my characterization of his group as generally smug and greying with -- god damn it, really? -- a long list of complaints about McPherson Square. People are openly smoking non-state-approved drugs there, I was told, as if they weren't long before the Occupy movement came around. One occupier had even asked if the noble Zeese could help "bring order" to the camp.

In sum: The damn kids. Now if I were in charge . . .

There were of course problems at McPherson that I witnessed during the time I spent there, including the same annoying fuck-those-other-guys attitude I noticed at Freedom Plaza. There were mentally unstable stable people. There were sexual harassers. I even heard one homeless guy use a "mic check" to try and find crack cocaine. But these were problems that beset many Occupy camps, and many of them were pre-existing, having more to do with DC's massive problem of homelessness than the relative inexperience of the young McPherson occupiers. And yet as I saw time and again in messages that were forwarded me from the Freedom Plaza listserv and in comments made to the press, Zeese & Friends' were willing to disseminate the absolute worst rumors about the McPherson camp with seemingly little concern that they were feeding rather than fact-checking disinformation.

Zeese and has cadre of aging activists, too timid to engage in anything confrontational, preferring Jackson Brown concerts to activism, were likewise critical of each and every McPherson-embraced action during my time back in DC. The kids at McPherson -- or "McOccupy," if you're a smug asshole -- are after all doing something, and doing something always brings with it the possibility of alienation. Block rush hour traffic? Why, that K Street lobbyist you inconvenienced is now going to go out and club an African child out of spite. Occupy an abandoned homeless shelter? Dunno, looks like vigilantism to me. Anything that entails any sort of threat of confrontation, particularly with the law, is to be condemned; after all, the police officers pepper spraying and evicting Occupy camps across the U.S. are "part of the 99%." And with just the right mix of folk music and deference to illegitimate authority, guys, they could become class conscious.

Such is the advantage of inaction, of being a critic: when the only time you and your friends are in the news is because a provocateur had the cojones to do more than just sing kumbaya, it's easy to wallow in your own perceived greater commitment to non-violence. And when you conflate saying a naughty word to a cop with "violence," it's easy to see yourself as Gandhi's lovechild.

Why am I writing about this now? Because Zeese and his partner, Margaret Flowers, have an article up at Truthdig recounting results of their personal survey of Occupy camps nationwide in which they, true to form, denounce "violence" -- i.e., conflict with the authorities -- and imply "infiltrators" are to blame for all the Occupy actions that exceeded their comfort level, which is to say any with which you're familiar. As they write about their survey, which they had the time to conduct because, well, I'll let you think on that:
Finally, the issue of escalation of tactics to include property damage and conflict with police was brought up. The euphemism for this is “diversity of tactics.” In fact, there is great diversity within nonviolent tactics. This is really a debate between those who favor strategic nonviolence and those who favor property destruction and police conflict [ed. note: can the latter not be "strategic" as well?]. In 11 of 15 occupations, there were reports of verbal attacks on police and/or escalation of tactics from nonviolence to property destruction or violence. In one occupation, an individual took over the direct action working group and escalated the tactics used beyond what the group had agreed upon. In another Occupy, the General Assembly approved putting up a structure but agreed that if the police wanted it taken down the protesters would promptly do so to prove that it was temporary. After the structure was put up, a handful of people refused to take it down causing a 10 hour police conflict and undermining public support for the Occupy. In another occupation, because a minority of the demonstrators refused to adopt nonviolent strategies, a protest with the teachers union was canceled preventing a major opportunity to expand the movement. When it comes to the issue of violence versus property damage, it is particularly hard to tell whether the differences are political or instigated by infiltrators.
While the attempt to draw a clear distinction between "property damage and conflict with police" and "nonviolence" is humorously Hedgesian, the two bolded lines about the structure -- which occupiers at McPherson Square put up in order to host meetings during the winter -- are particularly curious and characteristically condescending. First, there is no evidence to suggest the standoff with police over the building in anyway "undermin[ed] public support for the Occupy [sic]." It made national news and, while some at the McPherson camp didn't support occupying the building, the overall feeling I got was that the police response, complete with helicopters and armored vehicles, illustrated to many who were ignorant how the state operates: with overwhelming, disproportionate force to any perceived challenges to its authority. Generally speaking, enjoying good relations with law enforcement is a sign one's movement is not seen as a threat to the status quo.

But Zeese and Flowers aren't fond of anything confrontational, and claiming concern for "public support" as a way of blocking any action that may garner anything more than public indifference is their modus operandi. Second, the "handful of people" they deride for defending the building were actually more than 30, who decided to do what they did after an impromptu general assembly in which no consensus was reached on how to respond to a police demand the building be torn down. But it's cute seeing the organizers of a smaller, rival camp attempt to speak with authority on the internal deliberations of occupiers who had rejected their Old Left, hierarchical approach to activism.

There's something to these recent rash of articles bashing the idea that a social movement ought to involve, gosh, "conflict" with the powers that be: They are almost all coming from old-school activists and commentators whose tactics have been employed for decades now and found wanting. The Occupy movement, by contrast, represents the rise of a new generation of activists who, while not without fault, are when at their best at lleast trying something new. That might anger some (though certainly not all) of the older, professional activists who feel their influence waning, but passivity in the face of injustice has been tried, folks. And it has failed.


  1. Anonymous4:49 PM

    I think you are unfair to Zeese and Margaret Flowers. They are perfectly happy to be confrontational when they see a purpose to it, Hart Senate Building Protest, Dr. Margaret Flowers Confronts The Real Death Panels (Wall st. comes to DC Healthcare Conf. ), Healthcare Action at DC Marriott.

    I was at the DC Convention Center the night of the projection bombing. I was very put off when much of the McPherson crowd tried to drown out the projection bombing, which was the agreed on purpose of the action, and I certainly did not understand the purpose of sitting in the street, which strikes me as confrontation for confrontation's sake. Maybe because I am an aging 60's activist, but I always felt more comfortable at Freedom Plaza than McPherson. I wasn't there, so I don't know what happened at Freedom Plaza. My friends there tell me that they really don't want Zeese around, so something happened. But I think you are unfair to Zeese and underestimate the contribution he made to the peace movement.

    DC Blogger

  2. I'll pile on. Before Freedom Plaza (nee Stop the Machine), Zeese's project was Come Home America. Nice thought, but it was literally cartoonish, because the graphic design was a cartoon. Mark Twain's anti-imperialism is known to less than 1%.

  3. SeanLM5:18 PM

    @Anon 7:49 -

    Yes, sometimes there must be confrontation for its own sake, in order to draw the brutality of the state. Like Davis says in his post, in my experience it usually helps to wake middle of the road liberals up a little bit when they see kids being beat on by armored cops for no good reason.

  4. Anonymous9:49 AM

    My brief experience with the McPherson-Freedom rivalry was in January, so much after the events you have described. Though I was put off by the controlled chaos of McPherson (I was also incredibly high, so I can blame that on an increasingly agitated state of mind), I found that overall, the Freedom folks seemed very hesitant to engage in any activity that could lead to conflict with the police. We were reprimanded and essentially abandon on Jan 19 when we pulled back and trampled the barricades at the Supreme Court. The next morning, as we took the streets for a march, it was a hassle to rouse anyone from Freedom Plaza to join us. It is troubling as a young activist to see this sort of hesitancy to engage with police permeating not only the Occupy DC circuit, but my own stomping grounds in Iowa.

  5. Anonymous/DC Blogger,

    I had a good deal of respect for what Zeese was doing pre-Occupy, including the maligned Come Home America project. But I believe his bruised ego was a major reason why Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square were not able to better cooperate, and why he's not so welcome at FP these days.

    As for the Koch brothers protest at the convention center, you may be interested in my account of what happened.

    From my perspective, the "projection bombing" failed as it seemed 1) contrived and over-produced and 2) those participating in the protest were not adequately briefed on what the plan was. It seemed to many of those around me (and me) that it was being foisted upon us, with the prominent appearance of Liz Warren fueling my suspicions that I was participating in a thinly veiled rally for progressive Democrats.

    By contrast, blocking the streets seemed more in line with the reason the bulk of the protesters were there: not to dance, but to protest and make life a bit more difficult for the 1 percent. And instead of passively watching a video, it enabled us to interact with one another by way of mic-checking our own personal experiences and how they led us to come out that day.

  6. the pair7:39 AM

    Hedges really got to you anarchist types, didn't he? I read "black bloc" as a subtle dog whistle euphemism for "anarchist" and apparently so did half the whiners in the anarchoblogosphere. He was mostly right and, for the record, has been arrested for leaving the "free speech zone" of Zuccotti Park and protesting directly in front of the Goldman Sachs building (in addition to the many other times he's faced incarceration.) The whole flexing of proverbial nuts over who's the hardest anti-police OWS OG just proves his point.

    I don't really have a dog in this race - utopian anarchists vs. utopian "Free Market" fanatics - but as you yourself implied, the cops are not the 99% and will always have sheer brute force on their side. They will win any physical confrontation and, even if they are pushed back on their heels, have several other heavily armed instruments of the State backing them up. Normally that would make it a matter of time before a video of beating or pepper spraying inflamed public sentiment, but - like anarchism in general - that theory places an inordinate amount of faith in human nature and specifically that of the American public.

    Whatever. Just remember many revolutions treaded water until the bourgeoisie joined in. Frighten away the "norms" with your graffiti and "Fuck the Police" mic checks and see how far this little project goes.

  7. the pair,

    Did you read the post -- or even the headline? Nowhere I did I argue for pitched battles against the police, though I understand it's easier to rant assuming I did. Rather, I argued against conflating mere confrontations with the police -- blocking intersections, occupying the offices of lobbyists -- with the caricature of purposeless, molotov-throwing violence written about by the brave slayer of strawmen Chris Hedges.

    As for anarchism, if human nature is as nasty and brutish as you say, then I sure wouldn't put much faith in a doctrine that trusts such humans with power over others.

  8. Being somewhere between the 'assisted living' crowd and their 'vibrant, inclusive rivals' (cringe) and having spent a fair amount of time with both, I can say with a certain degree of confidence that all y'all are full of shit.

    Don't wish to comment beyond that. Like all overhyped cultural ephemera that I am obliged to love uncritically, Occupy bores the shit out of me.

  9. Tarzie,

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by and asserting your superiority.

  10. Oh Charles, are we going to fight again? Here I busily retweet your every musing, commenting at times on how good or hilarious it is and still it's not enough. Is that what it means to be young, inclusive and vibrant?

    Superior? Well, not telling fibs is superior to telling them and to the extent that I do not tell or believe fibs about Occupy, yes, I suppose I am asserting superiority.

    The oldsters are fibbing about how wild and unruly Occupy is while the young ones busily self-mythologize about how vibrant, new, superior-to-all-that-came-before, leaderless and generally peachy it is. I see self-serving fibbers on both sides. No surprise, really, since its people and America. When I see something else, I'll assert something else.

  11. Tarzie,

    Your feedback and retweeting is appreciated, your comment just struck me as a tad too misanthropic -- and it didn't help that I hadn't had any coffee yet.

    I'll readily concede there are just as many if not more obnoxious, this-is-a-revolution-man types as there are pretentious old-school activists. But I'll gladly side with the kids who are actually doing something and trying new tactics than with the self-styled Activist All-Stars who are too busy congratulating themselves on how non-violent they are to engage in any real activism.

  12. Joe Harris11:15 PM

    You know, as an old guy, I gotta admit the kid has a point there.