After the Occupy Oakland demonstration last Saturday, the debate about black bloc tactics has been resurrected in the blogosphere. Much of the discussion is about whether property damage is acceptable on principle; but this kind of argument omits the history of Occupy’s experience with the state.
Occupy Wall Street captured the political imagination of the American people by dramatizing the divide between the one percent super-rich and the 99 percent rest of us, bypassing the corrupted political system which straitjackets people into voting for the representatives of the elite and against their own interests.
By elaborating a strategy that refuses to be confined to accepted forms of protest that pose no challenge to the basis of the plutocrats’ power, OWS has broken the two-party monopoly of political discourse, restored communality among the dispossessed and rejected the selfishness of the elite. Its impact has been responsible for the Republican party’s split between an affluent establishment and its agitated base; and it’s also why Obama’s state of the union speech had to pretend to signal action against bank mortgage abuses.
Romney’s slip when he said he didn’t care about the poor expresses a truth: from an electoral campaigning point of view, the poor can be ignored because they are disenfranchised and have no political voice. Occupy Wall Street changed that.
The legitimacy of the state is threatened by this new movement, and it responded with an initial baffled violence which created a public backlash and propelled the occupiers to national attention. Local police were then quickly brought under the direction of federal Homeland Security agencies and more subtle strategies were used to politically isolate and evict the occupations with the legalistic justification of public health and security issues.
When the state uses its overwhelming weaponry to suppress OWS protests, individuals who provide them with political cover by initiating violence with pointless vandalism are playing a very reactionary role. Whatever one might think about the need to defend the movement against police attacks, it is tactically cowardly and provocative to throw a bottle and then duck into the crowd. And it is doubly questionable when livestreamers are attacked by masked individuals.
It’s important to understand that the police assault on Occupy Oakland is legitimized by a coordinated propaganda and legal offensive against the movement. Reuters reported Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley saying: “While we respect every citizen’s right to protest peacefully, we will not tolerate individuals who come to Oakland with an organized strategy to riot, clash with police officers, vandalize property and wreak havoc upon the city.” She was able to justify police violence simultaneously with a respect for citizens’ rights only by invoking the insurrectionist image cultivated by the black bloc.
The blame doesn’t lie with the “kids” on the Oakland march wearing “black bandannas and hoodies. … Some carried impressive movable barricades composed of rectangular sheets of strong corrugated steel, screwed to wooden frames to which handles had been attached so that three or four people could hunker behind them and push them into lines of police.” The blame lies with those who heroicize this form of defiance as somehow revolutionary, when it only makes it easy for the police and press to isolate the demonstration by defining it as a riotous mob.
Let’s look again at the chronology of events last Saturday. Susi Cagle, a comics journalist who was arrested that day, pointed out that: “The police kettled the marchers — contained them in one area with no way to leave — twice. The first time, they declared an unlawful assembly, but provided no escape route, and then shot tear gas into the crowd, sending people into a panic and forcing them to escape by tearing down fences around a lot, by the park, where they were contained.”
This is confirmed by yet another eyewitness statement: “… the march tried to track back toward downtown, only to be fenced in and blocked by chain link fencing and police lines. With nowhere to go the march stalled for a short while until, without provocation, Oakland’s finest began lobbing numerous (probably about 10) smoke/flash grenades into the dense crowd. People scattered briefly without any panicking and then reassembled. About 10 minutes after the smoke cleared, the police from a cruiser speaker declared an unlawful assembly and issued a disperse order. … From the way the crowd was blocked an uninvolved observer might well conclude that any confrontations were in response to the police decision to trap the march.”
It seems fairly clear that the police deliberately kettled the demonstrators in order to provoke predictably undisciplined confrontations that would justify mass arrests later in the day. They were following a combined police-legal strategy here. Mike King notes in CounterPunch: “For weeks the police have been raiding groups of people in Oscar Grant Plaza and giving them stay-away orders that prohibit them from being in the Plaza. This is the same type of technique the city has been using in North Oakland and the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland to harass communities of color (gang injunctions), and it is likely a civil rights violation.”
The criterion for judging appropriate strategy and tactics in this situation has to be the building of a mass movement against the corrupt political system, bank evictions, and state cooption by the ruling corporate elite. Individualistic black bloc provocations make it harder, not easier, to build such a movement.
In These Times writer Rebecca Burns notes: “Embracing a ‘diversity of tactics,’ as is being discussed in Oakland and in New York would mark a shift from the movement’s general stance of nonviolence—but it’s wrong to conflate this with advocating violence. … Thus far, Occupy’s non-hierarchical structure and embrace of ideological diversity has often meant that direct actions serve as a locus for popular anger rather than a means to develop and build agreement on strategy. At stake is not so much ‘nonviolence’ writ large, as autonomy, and the degree to which disparate groups are willing to make and keep agreements that could allow them to act in greater coordination.”
However OWS might decide to work with these groups, the important thing is that occupiers are conscious of the reactionary role the black bloc plays. Arguments about “diversity of tactics” confuse the issue: they are a cover for refusing to deal with the problem of how an open movement can protect itself from being broken up by misguided actions which aid the state in isolating and destroying it. These arguments use the pretext of the accommodation of diverse viewpoints in a broad movement – but the black bloc people want to impose their viewpoint and their strategy, which they won’t discuss with others, on everybody else. They certainly don’t propose street battles with the police on their own.
Those shouting the loudest about “diversity of tactics” are, in the concrete circumstances of the movement today, seeking to use other protestors who may not agree with them as cannon-fodder for their actions. They are the true authoritarians, not those occupiers seeking to restrain them from giving the police political cover for violent suppression of protests.