Pacifism and the Coma of Occupy

Banksy improved

(an informed polemic from an OWS veteran)

Be true to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, ‘Always do what you are afraid to do.’
-Emerson, “Heroism” (1841)

Watching the heart wrenching scenes of resistance, repression, and mass rebellion in both Turkey and Brazil this month is a bittersweet, and in some ways shameful, experience.  For an American, it can only bring to mind the Occupy moment of two years ago – the moment that was torn away from us, and that we failed to muster any similar courage to defend.

In Turkey, a comfortable and industrialized country like our own, the protesters’ winning efforts have ranged from sit-ins, to street fighting, to blissfully daring tactics like commandeering mechanical diggers to overpower police vehicles.1 This is the epitome of a diversity of tactics that goes beyond dogmatic nonviolence.

Diversity of tactics was a founding principle of Occupy Wall Street, which was one of the things that set the movement apart from the established political party/NGO left. 2 To be sure, the principle was controversial around the camp, but that was because many occupiers were confused about the history of the anti-authoritarian wave that was sweeping the globe in 2011.  A host of pundits had told them that the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships were accomplished without substantial civilian violence: “…Hosni Mubarak took such great pains to use armed thugs to try to provoke the Egyptian demonstrators into using violence…” wrote Erica Chenoweth in a typical New York Times op-ed.  “Mr. Mubarak failed.”  (Adbuster’s originally promoted OWS as America’s “Tahrir moment”)

Mubarak’s real failure, of course, was underestimating how ferocious the masses could be.  On January 25, the first day of the revolution, the Guardian reported “thousands [in] running battles with armed police…”  Street fighting was kicked off by gangs of soccer fans, known as “Ultras” (similar groups play a crucial role in the Turkish rebellion today). 3  It soon spread throughout much of the population: “There were a great number of women that were on the front line hurling stones at the police and pro-Mubarak thugs,” Egyptian feminist Sama El Tarzi told Al Jazeera. 4

Little by little, more and more occupiers became aware of this history of resistance, and they also noticed that it was the most militant encampments that were advancing the movement.  Occupy Oakland embraced diversity of tactics the most ardently, and simultaneously it re-introduced the weapon of the general strike (familiar in other countries, but anathema to the timid American left) for the first time in decades.

As the concept gained ground across the country, due both to education and activists’ own experiences with the limits of nonviolence (some encampments like Occupy Albany were cozy with the police, but the cops still ended up pepper-spraying them out of their park like all the rest), pacifying left media figures vilified the militants and re-instituted a culture of doctrinaire nonviolence – although one now haunted by a bad conscience.  Some of these left celebrities were well-intentioned people whose passion for change had been perverted by cowardice and privilege; others were authoritarian socialists – or in the case of Derrick Jensen, authoritarian environmentalists – who would rather see working people run circles in helplessness than break free without the leadership of a bureaucratic vanguard.

The most notorious of these neo-pacifists, of course, is Chris Hedges, with his “Cancer in Occupy” libels. David Graeber, in his new book The Democracy Project, makes short work of Hedges so I won’t even bother with him. 5 Instead I’d like to examine a few arguments from established left figures who retain greater vestiges of credibility, and whose influence is therefore more insidious.

The tendency I’m dubbing “neo-pacifist” here is marked by token statements that force is appropriate…at some place and time far, far from the here and now  (similar to a liberal’s attitude towards socialism, really).  One of the more lengthy neo-pacifist arguments last year came from Michael Albert, co-founder of Znet and Z  Magazine“Sometimes self defense is essential,” Albert wrote, “Sometimes even aggression is desirable. But for the most part, and certainly in the large, violence is the turf of the status quo, not of change, and certainly not of a new world.”  Albert then claimed some unspecified critical mass of people would have to be achieved before a movement deviated from strict Gandhism – ignoring the fact that Occupy had already drawn hundreds of thousands into the streets (as we will see below, the civil rights movement was no larger when it made use of violence).  Needless to say, tactics endlessly deferred are tactics endlessly denied; and the strange migration of self-defense from “essential” to “certainly not of a new world” in Albert’s statement reveals his position as self-negating sophistry.

A larger problem with neo-pacifist arguments is that they distort history in ways that are genuinely Orwellian.  For instance, Albert presented the World Trade Organization shutdown of 1999 as an example of nonviolent victory undermined (almost!) by rabble militancy: “The anti-corporate globalization uprising that took place in Seattle, Washington, in the U.S. – which is just one among a great many similar cases – had, before any trashing occurred, already hamstrung the WTO.” 6

But the reality is the black bloc-ers got up just as early as the blockaders did on the day the WTO was crippled.   At 8:45am, “About 20 protesters dressed in black throw eight metal newspaper boxes into 5th Avenue, but are chased away by other protesters,” – so reads the University of Washington’s WTO History Project Timeline for November 30, 1999  7 (The Seattle City Council’s timeline puts “Crowd breaking Niketown windows” even earlier, at 8:04am).  By late morning, protesters had not only shattered windows at Bank of America and a dozen other commercial locations, they had thrown “cans, bottles, and barricades at the police.”  Then and only then did the WTO cancel its opening ceremony at noon, and the Secret Service sequester Secretary of State Albright in her hotel.

The left media largely relies on David Solnit of the Direct Action Network for their understanding of Seattle.  Solnit too is fond of denigrating the smashy kids, 8 but in unguarded moments he’s admitted that DAN had no confidence that nonviolence alone – even nonviolence involving thousands of people – would shut down the meeting:

“I think we were all surprised when we completely disrupted them and shut them down to the point where they couldn’t even have their opening ceremonies, and when that happened all day, most of us thought that we would disrupt them in the morning and the police would start regaining control in the late morning…” [“David Solnit interviewed by Jeremy Simer, March 23, 2000”  WTO History Project, University of Washington]  9

The reason why the police couldn’t regain control until the morning of the next day – and the reason a state of emergency was declared which made the WTO protests a prime-time story – was precisely because of the chaotic rebellion that Solnit and Albert are so eager to demonize.

A secondary complaint of both men is that the rioting distracted from the real issues.  There are at least two peer-reviewed studies – Deluca and Peeples 2002, 10 and Owens and Palmer 2003 11 – that say the complete opposite.  The former concluded that, “In Seattle…symbolic violence and uncivil disobedience in concert produced compelling images that functioned as the dramatic leads for substantive discussions of the issues provoking the protests… On NBC, for example, dramatic images of violence yielded to a female protester declaring, ‘We’re just normal people who are tired of the exploitation of the multi-national corporations throughout the world.’”  And Albert’s contention that the spectacular coverage “replaced substance about globalization with an endless litany of noise” is really bizarre; Z Magazine expended thousands of words at the time documenting the lack of substantial mainstream commentary about globalization until the riot.

While Seattle benefitted from a de facto diversity of tactics, Occupy in its earliest days benefitted from having them de jure.  The founding guidelines of the Direct Action Working Group of Occupy Wall Street stated “We respect a diversity of tactics, but consider how our actions may affect the entire group.”  As Nathan Schneider noted in The Nation, this flexibility led directly to spontaneous confrontations that brought OWS global attention.  “The two incidents of police excess that catapulted the movement into the mainstream—the pepper-spraying of young women and the mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge—both happened after protesters moved from the sidewalk to the road during marches, improvising…The NYPD, caught unprepared, overreacted in front of cameras, and public sympathy flooded to the protesters”

There was a lot of improvising – and a fair amount of aggression – in those heady September days before Big Labor and the left celebs started piggybacking in the wake of the headlines.  In the minutes leading up to the great pepper-spray massacre, I recall seeing 19-year old Brandon Watts scuffling with the cops.  Brandon was later famously bloodied by the police the week of the Zuccotti Park eviction.  He was charged with assault – throwing batteries at them to be exact. 12 Watts was generally agreed to be a loose cannon by occupiers, but then again, he’s also generally agreed to be the first kid to “face the cops down” and assert his right to put up a tent.  “After that, tents started popping up everywhere,” one occupier told the New York Daily News.  “That kid was a fighter.”  13 Some considered him crazy, some considered him a hero, but either way, we needed people like that.  If there were a few more fighters, the movement might be, well, moving – instead it’s in traction.  Projects like Occupy Sandy are admirable, but they look an awful lot like America before the rupture of 2011.  Eight years ago, the Common Ground Collective of New Orleans fostered an impressive amount mutual aid as well – but it wasn’t the beginning of an insurrection, just the beginning of a non-profit corporation (albeit one better than average).  And let’s not mince words: insurrection is what this rotten country desperately, desperately needs.

If one studies the history of American social movements with open eyes, it becomes clear that it’s always been this way.  In 1962, the civil rights movement was at a low-ebb; Martin Luther King’s star in particular was fading, 14 so the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to go into Birmingham in 1963 looking for confrontation as well as nonviolent witness.  King’s chief of staff, Wyatt Tee Walker developed a strategy that relied on the rowdiness of black “onlookers” to their demonstrations – that is, angry people who hadn’t been trained in, nor agreed to, nonviolence. 15 Even as the iconic pictures of crowds bombarded with fire hoses were being taken, Life magazine photographer Charles Moore was injured by a brick thrown by a protester, intended for a fireman.16  “A duel of rocks and fire hoses escalated” through the second week of May until Birmingham’s elite agreed to negotiations with King. 17 The Ku Klux Klan then bombed the movement’s local headquarters, and in retaliation 2,500 blacks rioted and burned a nine-block area of the city. 18 White House tapes show this to be the direct impetus for Kennedy’s belated backing of civil rights legislation.  19 “President Kennedy feared that black Southerners might become ‘uncontrollable’ if reforms were not negotiated,” writes award-winning historian Timothy Tyson.  “It was one of the enduring ironies of the civil rights movement that the threat of violence was so critical to the success of nonviolence.” 20

“Predominantly nonviolent” is a phrase that appears over and over again in the movement case studies put forward by pacifist theorist Gene Sharp (including his whitewashed history of the Black Freedom Movement). 21 It’s clear on inspection, however, that “predominantly nonviolent” is just another way of saying “partly violent” – a part that’s usually indispensable.  From Birmingham, to Seattle, to Turkey, to Brazil, any autonomous movement that hopes to seize and hold public space – and seize and hold the public imagination – must manifest a diversity of tactics.

by Lorenzo Raymond


1. Jacob Resneck, “Demonstrations rock Istanbul”, June 3, 2013 –

2. Nathan Schneider, The Nation, April 20, 2012 –

3.  Sherif Tarek, Ahram Online, April 13, 2011 –

4. Fatma Naib, “Women of the Revolution” Al Jazeera, Feb 19, 2011 –

5.  David Graeber, “Ask me anything chat”, Jan 28, 2013

6.  Michael Albert, “Violence Begets Defeat or Too Much Pacifism?” Znet, Feb 10, 2012 –

7. “Day 2- November 30, 1999” WTO History Project, University of Washington –

8. David Solnit, “Seattle WTO Shutdown to Occupy” The Indypendent, December 5, 2011 –

9.  “David Solnit interviewed by Jeremy Simer, March 23, 2000”  WTO History Project, University of Washington –

10. Kevin Michael Deluca and Jennifer Peeples, “From Public Sphere to Public Screen”  Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 19,  Number 2, June 2002, pp. 125-151 –

11.  Lynn Owens and L. Kendall Palmer, “Making the News: Anarchists Counter-Public Relations on the World Wide Web”  Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 20, No. 4, December 2003 pp. 335 – 361 –

12. Jillian Dunham, “A Protester’s Uneasy Presence at Occupy Wall Street” New  York Times, City Room blog, December 2, 2011 –

13. Joe Kemp, et al, “Protester Brandon Watts, who was first to pitch a tent at Zuccotti Park, is now the bloody face of ‘Day of Action’” New York Daily News, November 18, 2011 –

14.  “The Limits of Nonviolence”, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Era 1954-1985 website –

16. David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Harper Collins, 2004), p239 –

17. Foster Hailey, “Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham” New York Times, May 4, 1963

18.  Branch, Parting the Waters, p760 –

19. Glenn T. Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Struggles in the Civil Rights Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p301 –

20. Jonathan Rosenberg, ed., Kennedy, Johnson and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapes (W. W. Norton & Company, 2003), p97-99 –,+Johnson+and+the+Quest+for+Justice:+The+Civil+Rights+Tapes&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wcfDUaPQFM7j4AP3loHACw&ved=0CDcQuwUwAA#v=onepage&q=black%20muslims&f=false

21.  Timothy B. Tyson, “Civil Rights Movement” in The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, eds. William L. Andrews, et al (Oxford University Press, 1996), p149 –

22.  Glenn T. Eskew, “Filling the Jail in Birmingham” Nonviolent Sanctions Vol. 5, nos. 2 & 3, Fall 1993/Winter 1994 .  Note that in this account of the Birmingham campaign, published in Gene Sharp’s newsletter, all mention of rioting is suppressed, even though it’s written by a historian who had considered the rioting significant in his other scholarship on the campaign.  (compare with note 19 for instance)