Post-Debate Debrief: Video and Libretto

postdebate

Just in time for the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, we have the video footage of last Wednesday’s debate with Chris Hedges, courtesy of our comrades at Global Uprisings. We’re also including a summary of the results of the debate and some of the points we set out to make in it.

To our surprise, Chris Hedges conceded many points. Though pressed, he did not admit to having used “criminal” as a pejorative in his widely circulated text “The Cancer in Occupy,” but neither did he persist in using this term, nor did he deny that bringing down global capitalism will demand illegal activity. He openly conceded that in the era of surveillance and repression, a completely transparent movement is bound to marginalize the most vulnerable, reversing his usual insistence on pure transparency. He began by endorsing “diversity of tactics,” paradoxically using this language to argue that militant struggle is a threat to such diversity—apparently self-defense anywhere is a threat to nonviolence everywhere. Yet by the end of the debate, he was simply entreating black bloc participants not to interrupt explicitly nonviolent actions, a position already endorsed by the vast majority of those who utilize such tactics.

At the same time, Hedges avoided engaging with the critique that his demonization of black bloc participants could be useful to the state. We are not the only ones to have expressed this concern—David Graeber and a great many others have done the same; it is unusual that Hedges continues to sidestep this, since he invited Graeber to debate him on the subject. Hedges’ own argument has been that the black bloc gives the government an excuse to use force against social movements, so it is stranger still that he would fail to understand how rhetoric proclaiming the black bloc an external threat to social movements would give the government an excuse to use force against it. In corporate news articles like “The Men in Black with a Violent Agenda” we see law enforcement agents repeating all his talking points, evoking “black bloc anarchists” as a distinct hyper-masculine social body intent on using the Occupy movement as a front for terror and chaos.

In any event, the crushing of the Occupy movement last fall showed that the government needs no excuse to use force against protesters. To place responsibility for this upon a few reactive incidents of black bloc tactics is blame-the-victim opportunism.

It also appears that Hedges simply does not grasp our argument that violence is a discursive category that shifts according to what is perceived as legitimate. At the end of the debate, he argued that violence can only be defined by those who experience it—a potentially coherent definition, but extremely ironic coming from someone who has refused to address the charge that he exposed others to danger.

The fundamental question on which we differ with Hedges is a matter of strategy. Hedges has reported on various wars and social upheavals, but he has not participated in an ongoing social movement over a long period of time. He imagines that it is possible to impose a unitary approach on such movements, compelling all participants to adopt a single set of tactics and goals. This is not how social movements work—neither the US civil rights movement nor the struggle for independence in India were unitary or uniformly nonviolent. And it is especially unrealistic to attempt to achieve a unitary movement by a strategy of division like the one Hedges has employed.

In our view, social movements are not unitary—not one single mass, acting in unison—but rather diverse, and must make a virtue of this. The way social change happens is that, over time, outliers legitimize new tactics and values, which spread to society at large. This is what happened in Greece and Montreal over a period of many years, giving rise to the protests that Hedges praised. This is what happened in the United States between 2009 and 2011, as an initially marginal student occupation movement slowly legitimized the tactic of occupation, thus laying the foundation for the Occupy movement; the slogan “occupy everything” was familiar to anarchists long before a broader social body was ready to take it up. And this process needs to happen once again, if we are to transcend the tactical impasse resulting from the eviction of last fall’s occupations.

We have made a point of standing up to those who would demonize the black bloc not because we are invested in that particular tactic, but because its essential components—the willingness to act illegally and anonymously, and to stand up to the force of the state—are precisely what it would take to sustain a movement beyond the impasse imposed by the Occupy evictions. This is borne out by the recent student strike in Québec, in which—prevented from occupying buildings as they had in 2005—students were forced to shift instead to a strategy of economic disruption, achieving momentum that persisted long after Occupy had died down in the United States.

In that regard, everyone invested in social change has a great deal to learn from the black bloc. This is not to say they must adopt this tactic, but rather that they must understand why others have adopted it, what makes it contemporary.

In our account, those who are willing to push the envelope are essential to social change, and it is up to the rest of us to defend them and extend their tactics and values. For Hedges, they represent a threat to the movement, for he believes a movement can only triumph by drawing the participation of an imagined mainstream—a social body Hedges repeatedly referenced during the debate, but refused to describe. That leaves us with only one identifying feature by which to recognize this mainstream: fear, fear of those who wear masks, fear of those who are willing to defend themselves, fear of standing up for oneself. Chasing such a timorous phantom—and demonizing all who don’t—is not a promising starting point for a revolutionary project.

All in all, however, the debate was a success. The most we had hoped to accomplish was to block the silencing and delegitimization of those who opt for militant tactics. We did not expect Hedges to revise his position or apologize, nor were we interested in defending the good name of “the black bloc” or persuading anyone to adopt a particular approach. Strategic discussions and decisions have to take place horizontally, in specific local contexts, not in university auditoriums in front of cameras. Now that this little hullabaloo is past, we can all return our attention to more important matters.

Further Reading

Othering Occupy: Against the Rhetoric of Fear

 

Appendix:

A Libretto of Our Points in the Debate

For those who don’t have time to watch a two-hour video

In the article, “The Cancer in Occupy,” Chris Hedges labeled “black bloc anarchists” as “a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.” Critics quickly countered that the black bloc is a tactic, not a group. The ensuing controversy failed to clarify the real strategic differences within the Occupy movement.
 
If the black bloc is a tactic, how do we evaluate its effectiveness? What are its origins? What does it attempt to do, and what is it good for? More importantly, how can these questions inform the ways we strategize for social change?

To get at the root of the differing perspectives, tonight we will separate the black bloc tactic into its constituent elements and discuss them one by one. We will address the roles of illegality, anonymity, and violence in social movements, and conclude by asking what our differing conceptions of these indicate about our visions of transformation.

1.) Do illegal tactics have a place in social movements in the United States? Whom do they alienate or exclude? Whom do they empower?

In my small, somewhat liberal town, we managed to maintain our occupation through January. After it finally came down, we intercepted a memo from the town manager asking for go-ahead from the city council to resume enforcing the laws. It turned out that everything we’d done—not just the encampment and the protests, but the assemblies too—had been against town ordinances. In effect, we had been participating in an illegal organization, a criminal conspiracy to violate the law.

This was shocking for many of the participants in our occupation, who thought of themselves as good, honest, law-abiding citizens, but also felt entitled to hold gatherings of more than 12 people without applying for a permit, et cetera. Many of them might not have joined in this occupation that they retroactively felt entitled to carry out had they known from the beginning it was illegal. A great deal of confusion can result from conflating legal and illegal with right and wrong.

Now, we could have mounted a campaign to get them to change the laws—and if we’d waited until we succeeded, we would never have had a movement at all. Instead, we would have had a little campaign run by middle-class professionals. Working within the logic of the system always prioritizes the agency of those who tend to hold power within it already. Our occupation was diverse for the same reason it was illegal: it was based on participation and direct action, not bureaucracy and supplication.

In Hedges’ “Cancer in Occupy” piece, he uses the word “criminal” as a pejorative. When you use “criminal” as a delegitimizing word, you’re equipping the state with a weapon they can use against anybody who gets out of line—especially the most disenfranchised. Delegitimizing “criminal activity” constructs a narrative that justifies repression, which will always disproportionately target people of color, the poor, and others on the wrong side of hierarchy. It also makes people feel less entitled to participate in occupations like the one in my town.

Whether an action is illegal or not is the wrong question—that permits the state to frame the terms of discussion, even if we endorse illegal activity. The question is whether the action gives us power over our own lives and the environments we live in. Advocates of civil disobedience call for illegal activity as a way of “drawing attention to an issue” or “putting pressure on officials,” but this is not the same thing as using our capabilities to transform society.

Civil disobedience is based on a logic of supplication—whether you’re appealing to government officials or the general public, all you can do is express yourself powerlessly, one ineffectual opinion among many. In this view, even illegal action is really just a way to “speak truth to power,” though power has always shown itself to be deaf.

The alternative is to act directly to bring about the world we want to see. In the process, we get a sense of our own strength and connect with others who also want to act, not just to petition.

Hedges argues that the black bloc will scare away the mainstream, driving away the numbers we need to win—he always cites the revolutions in Eastern Europe, which toppled oppressive regimes but didn’t actually equip the movements there to ensure that something better replaced them, as is becoming clear now.

First, as to whether militant tactics are really what kills the movement, let me cite the Oakland Tribune poll that came out in February 2012—long after the controversial “black bloc” actions in the Bay—reporting that 94% of over 10,000 readers surveyed supported Occupy Oakland. The problem is not that the militant fringe drove off supporters so much as that naysayers like Hedges collaborated with corporate media in popularizing a narrative declaring the movement defeated.

Second, about numbers—on February 15, 2003, something like 10 million people worldwide participated in protests against the invasion of Iraq that had precisely zero effect. That’s because they were simply beseeching, not using their strength to prevent the war from happening. The 10 million of us could certainly have made that war impossible if we had set out to do so, and you can be sure that if we succeeded somebody would have called us violent. It’s not just about numbers, it’s also about legitimizing action.

2.) One of the controversial aspects of the black bloc is that it enables people to act anonymously in a group. What are the benefits and drawbacks of participants in social movements being able to preserve their anonymity? What are the effects of a movement based around public figures and transparent organizing?

We always hear this: “Why wear a mask? Be man enough to show your face!” That’s easy to say when you’re a cop—or a reporter—but it makes a lot less sense when you’re in a position of greater vulnerability. It’s akin to how prosecutors always call our political prisoners cowards.

Anonymity has been an important part of almost every powerful social movement. The participants in the Boston Tea Party concealed their identities. The Zapatistas made a point of demystifying the balaclava. One of the primary steps the government took to crack down on the recent student strike in Québec, which Hedges has praised, was to pass an anti-mask law. And masks became associated with the image of Occupy—in the Livestream era, if you call in sick to work to go to Zuccotti Park, you better be wearing a mask. That goes double if you have immigration issues or have to answer to a probation officer.

In the age of Facebook, when everything we do is immediately visible to not only to law enforcement agencies but also our landlords, bosses, potential future bosses, and in-laws, policing isn’t just what the police do; it’s diffused throughout society, a million different rewards and punishments to keep people from stepping out of line.

A movement that only legitimizes transparency is a movement that marginalizes the poor and vulnerable, granting disproportionate power to middle-class participants and centralizing the role of spokespersons who have no real interest in overturning the status quo. It’s also a movement that can’t win—that can’t even win the concessions sought by the middle class.

Does wearing masks alienate the middle class? Journalists like Hedges have the power to legitimize or delegitimize those who wear masks to others of their class—the middle class. They have a responsibility to explain why people have to conceal themselves from the cameras of the police, rather than spinning fabrications about those who do. When professional journalists attack all who must wear masks, painting them with the same broad brush of disingenuous innuendo, they are doing their best to force the less privileged to become antisocial.

You’d be surprised who wears a mask from time to time. These are your comrades, people you have worked with—people you depend on, people you need to accomplish your goals.

Hedges and his ilk will protest: be how can we trust those who wear masks to be accountable? I presume he doesn’t ask this question of the Zapatistas. The fact is, we know each other—we are part of these movements, we depend on each other, we have to be accountable to each other even if we must sometimes conceal our faces from our oppressors. This is more important to those who engage in high-risk activity than those who face comparatively little risk.

As for the charge that masking opens up movements to agents provocateurs—we have plenty of experience with agents provocateurs, surely more firsthand experience than Hedges, and we have seen that they do the greatest harm when they are not wearing masks. The idea that agents provocateurs only appear in a masked crowd is utterly baseless.

 
3.) What is violence and non-violence, and who gets to define them in the context of social movements?

This is not abstract an abstract question for Hedges or for myself. Hedges is a war correspondent, as he frequently reminds us—he sees ethnic cleansing everywhere he looks, even if it’s just a kid with a can of spray paint. Myself, as a participant in the anti-globalization movement, when I hear this question, I think of the FTAA protests in Quebec in 2001, when the police filled the entire city center with so much tear gas it even entered the ventilation system of the building where the heads of state were meeting. The only reason we could breathe at all—the only reason we weren’t cleared out like so many of the occupations last fall—was that courageous people in black were throwing back the tear gas canisters. They were the only thing protecting us from hospitalization or worse.

The next day, one newspaper article read “Violence erupted when protesters began hurling tear gas canisters at the police.” In practice, “violence” is code for illegitimate use of force: anything that interrupts or escapes the control of the authorities.

That explains why slumlords forcing rent increases on tenants isn’t violence, but defending yourself when the sheriff comes to evict you is. Pouring carcinogens into a river isn’t violence, but disabling the factory that produces them is. Imprisoning people isn’t violence, but rescuing people from officers who are trying to arrest them is.

Defining people or actions as violent is a way to exclude them from legitimate discourse and justify the use of force against them. It’s often possible to anticipate exactly how aggressively the police will treat a demonstration by how violent the previous night’s news reports describe the demonstrators to be. In this regard, pundits and even rival organizers can participate in policing alongside the police, determining who is a legitimate target by the way they frame the narrative.

Asking the question of violence forces us to pose the question of legitimacy. What do we want to legitimize, human beings acting together to assert their interests, or the apparatus and rhetoric of a top-down system of control?

When a broad enough part of the population engages in resistance, as in Egypt, the authorities have to redefine it as nonviolent, even if it would previously have been considered violent. Otherwise, the dichotomy between violence and legitimacy might erode—and without that dichotomy, it would be much harder to justify the use of force against those who stand up for themselves. By the same token, the more ground is ceded in what the authorities are able to define as violent, the more they will sweep into that category, and the greater risk everyone will face.

One consequence of the past several decades of self-described nonviolent civil disobedience is that some people regard merely raising one’s voice as violent; this makes it possible to portray those who take even the most tentative steps to protect themselves from police violence as violent thugs. One police captain recently described a group of students as “violent” because they linked arms when ordered to step aside.

Regarding the charge that the authorities want us to get violent—that is imprecise. They want us to pick fights we can’t win, fights that keep us isolated. They would be thrilled for us to adopt clandestine armed struggle of the sort Hedges’ friend Derrick Jensen advocates, because it is a terrain on which they can defeat us. But they’d be even happier if we would stick to legalistic pacifism so they don’t have to fight us in the first place. This explains the effort to polarize us into pacifists and terrorists. What they fear most is a broad-based social movement capable of acting on its own terms to break out of the controls imposed by those who benefit from inequality. Such a movement would surely be branded “violent” by those in power.

To repeat: neither clandestine armed struggle nor legalistic pacifism can achieve meaningful social change. That’s why those who don’t want real change—police, liberals, and also Maoists—try to confine us to one of those two approaches, which are bound either to strengthen the existing system or at most to replace it with an identical one.

In an increasingly desperate society, people are going to revolt, regardless of what pundits say. If there’s no participatory movement to welcome them, they are likely to escalate on their own, adopting antisocial and defeatist tactics. If they are forced to adopt armed struggle, they will play into the hands of the government. The effect of Hedges’ fear-mongering about the black bloc as a catchall term of abuse for those who go too far is to demonize those who revolt, increasing the likelihood that they will become disconnected from social movements, to everyone’s misfortune.

4.) Violence is sometimes associated with hyper-masculinity and machismo. How would you respond to these claims? Is non-violence any less hyper-masculine? Why or why not?

This language—“hyper-masculinity”—is the language Hedges has used to delegitimize black bloc tactics.

My own experience has been that militant anarchist organizing, while frequently male-dominated, is less male-dominated than many other organizing venues. Many people around the country who have participated in black blocs were alienated by the male domination of the Occupy movement.

Hedges admits he has no experience in black blocs, so what we are seeing here is his own gendering of so-called violence as “hyper-masculine.” The mask is a reflective surface onto which critics project their assumptions. There is a lot to be said about the gendering of violence, how it reproduces essentialism while obscuring the capacity of women to defend themselves. The recent publication “Who Is Oakland?” offers excellent insights into the ways privilege discourse can be mobilized according to repressive and reactionary agendas.

Indeed, it’s poor taste for white men to use privilege discourse to compete for legitimacy among themselves, treating disempowered people as chess pieces to be represented or invisibilized. So rather than foreground my own opinion, I’d like to read something by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, a young woman who can’t be here tonight because she is serving a year in prison, accused of being the “leader” of the black bloc at the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto.

“Patriarchal society in general is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity! Patriarchy and prejudice against people with disabilities are deeply connected, and both pressure people to believe their worth depends on whether their body is “attractive,” “useful,” “normal” and non-threatening according to dominant standards. Many of the things that people vandalized during the G20 were symbols of patriarchy, like window ads with emaciated, underage-looking girls in hyper-sexualized poses. Being constantly bombarded with these unhealthy images is hurtful and violating to people of all

“Global capitalism is also inextricably linked to kinds violence and exploitation that disproportionately affect women and girls, so in that sense any form of opposition to the G20, multinational corporations or trade blocs is also an opposition to patriarchy. There are many documented cases of female workers in sweatshops being systematically raped because they protested their work conditions, and the colonial history and ongoing economic exploitation of the Congo is what has caused the civil strife and pandemic of gang rapes that Congolese women are suffering right now. If Chris Hedges wants to speak out about the prevalence of hyper-masculinized violence in the world, he should rail against governments and multinational corporations, not a scraggly bunch of protesters who opposes them.”

Hedges may say he is doing that, but his rhetoric about “hyper-masculinity” equips the government to marginalize, invisibilize, and imprison women like Kelly Rose Pflug-Back.

5.) How do these individual issues relate to our greater visions of social change—how it comes about, and where we’re trying to go? How can our tactics distinguish and free us from the institutions we oppose? How can our tactics embody the world we hope to create?

The fundamental question on which we differ with Hedges is a matter of strategy. Hedges has reported on various wars and social upheavals, but he has not participated in an ongoing social movement over a long period of time. He imagines that it is possible to impose a unitary approach on such movements, compelling all participants to adopt a single set of tactics and goals. This is not how social movements work—neither the US civil rights movement nor the struggle for independence in India were unitary or uniformly nonviolent. And it is especially unrealistic to attempt to achieve a unitary movement by a strategy of division like the one Hedges has employed.

In our view, social movements are not unitary—not one single mass, acting in unison—but rather diverse, and must make a virtue of this. The way social change happens is that, over time, outliers legitimize new tactics and values, which spread to society at large. This is what happened in Greece and Montreal over a period of many years, giving rise to the protests that Hedges praised. This is what happened in the United States between 2009 and 2011, as an initially marginal student occupation movement slowly legitimized the tactic of occupation, thus laying the foundation for the Occupy movement; the slogan “occupy everything” was familiar to anarchists long before a broader social body was ready to take it up. And this process needs to happen once again, if we are to transcend the tactical impasse resulting from the eviction of last fall’s occupations.

We have made a point of standing up to those who would demonize the black bloc not because we are invested in that particular tactic, but because its essential components—the willingness to act illegally and anonymously, and to stand up to the force of the state—are precisely what it would take to sustain a movement beyond the impasse imposed by the Occupy evictions. This is borne out by the recent student strike in Québec, in which—prevented from occupying buildings as they had in 2005—students were forced to shift instead to a strategy of economic disruption, achieving momentum that persisted long after Occupy had died down in the United States.

In that regard, everyone invested in social change has a great deal to learn from the black bloc. This is not to say they must adopt this tactic, but rather that they must understand why others have adopted it, what makes it contemporary.

In our account, those who are willing to push the envelope are essential to social change, and it is up to the rest of us to defend them and extend their tactics and values. For Hedges, they represent a threat to the movement, for he believes a movement can only triumph by drawing the participation of an imagined mainstream—a social body Hedges repeatedly referenced during the debate, but refused to describe. That leaves us with only one identifying feature by which to recognize this mainstream: fear, fear of those who wear masks, fear of those who are willing to defend themselves, fear of standing up for oneself. Chasing such a timorous phantom—and demonizing all who don’t—is not a promising starting point for a revolutionary project.

Instead, we must humbly, resolutely set about the project of legitimizing new tactics and values that can spread to the general public, so people can act on their own strength to transform society. This is a thankless task, and we will encounter over and over the recriminations and obfuscations of those who should be our comrades. In the coming years, it will be especially important not to daunted, as many who would like to think of themselves as revolutionaries will be tempted, whether out of cowardice or self-interest, to sell out those who undertake the hard work of revolution. In response to this, we can always stand by each other, embodying the solidarity and diversity we hope to see in the world.

Thank you.

“We cannibals must help these Christians.”

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

4 thoughts on “Post-Debate Debrief: Video and Libretto

  1. All the people yelling throughout (actually, only when Chris Hedges was speaking) annoy me to no fucking end. It smacks of an incredibly petulant & close-minded attitude that needs to shout down anyone who doesn’t agree with you. It makes me sick. This event was billed as a conversation between these two individuals, and it is them I want to hear speak, not some idiots in the back that think it’s totally awesomely Anarcho to not follow a simple request to shut up for a few minutes.

  2. Also, the debriefing states that Hedges “conceded” many points, but I think that just shows an ignorance of his beliefs. His stance, as I understand it, isn’t that Black Bloc is somehow “wrong”, but that it isn’t at all effective at bringing in the sizable chunk of the population needed to effect real societal change. “Violence” alienates these idiots, but, galling as it may be, we need them. For evidence of this, I need only point out that change hasn’t yet happened.

  3. Twentyarms–

    The debriefing lists the points that Hedges conceded. Read closer. At 39:58 in the video, he says “I’m willing to concede many of these points.” He may not have conceded every single point, but his original stance was that he opposed anything but fully transparent movements, that he used the word “criminal” as a weapon of delegitimization against other activists, etc. It’s all there–no one should have to spell it out.

    The above text also critiques Hedges’ account of how change takes place, and advances another account instead. It’s worth reading, or reading again, if you’re interested in the subject.

    Incidentally, calling people “idiots” the way you do may alienate them more than “violence” could. Most people support the right to self-defense, and only fear or misunderstand forms of self-defense like the black bloc because of the fear and misunderstanding spread about them by police, corporate media, and journalists like Hedges.

    As for your argument that we can write off certain tactics because “change hasn’t yet happened”… we can use that critique against just about anything, but especially against the kind of nonviolent passive registering of dissent Hedges endorses, which has been tried a great deal more than active self-defense.

    But I think the critique itself is flawed. Imagine I’m gathering kindling to start a fire, and you walk up and ask what I’m doing. “Making a fire,” I say.

    “That won’t work,” you say.

    “I believe it will,” I insist.

    “No,” you say, “if it would work, you’d have a fire by now.”

    Anyway, people can cherry-pick all sorts of lessons from history to argue whatever points they want. We cite Egypt as an uprising that involved self-defense and even the burning of police stations, while Obama calls it “nonviolent” (a lie often parroted by people like Hedges). The best thing is to work from your immediate lived experience, and build up as wide a range of experiences as you can. Don’t make any assumptions. If Hedges had talked to anyone who participated in black blocs before he wrote that “Cancer” article–which he admits he never did–we wouldn’t be having to spend so much time on this subject.

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