Nothing could assist the state more in its aim of denigrating the Occupy movement than black bloc tactics, which encourage anonymous provocateurs to create havoc and tarnish the rest of the movement. The debate over “diversity of tactics” taking place among occupiers confuses the issue. What needs to be clarified is whether the aim of direct action is to build a mass movement, or allow a small group of activists to substitute themselves for the people they claim to represent.
Looking at the state itself, it’s clear that the police have refined their tactics in order to control their media representation, following the political consequences of earlier attacks on occupations. Online videos of police pepper-spraying women in New York and firing rubber bullets at protesters in Oakland evoked a huge public reaction and gave the Occupy movement a national following.
In Washington DC last Saturday, in contrast, police were careful to avoid violent confrontations, saying they were not evicting protesters but were merely enforcing an existing ban on camping. The occupiers, however, were in no doubt what was happening. “This is a slow, media-friendly eviction,” Melissa Byrne told the Guardian. “We’re on federal property, so they have to make it look good.”
The Washington eviction followed a carefully planned protocol where police claimed to be merely enforcing regulations, held bad-faith negotiations with protesters, then declared the area “closed” and used metal fences and shields to physically force occupiers out of the park. The police were well prepared for the eviction: the Washington Post noted “dozens of officers, a patrol wagon, an arrest-processing tent and a cherry-picker truck used to remove the Guy Fawkes mask that had been placed over the face of Civil War general James B. McPherson’s statue.”
According to the same article: “Protesters and police at first interacted in good humor Saturday as they negotiated taking down the big, blue ‘Tent of Dreams,’ which protesters had unfurled over a Civil War statue Monday. But relations grew tense as the day wore on and police began clearing the park of several truckloads of bedding and trash. At one point, dozens of officers pushed back the crowd with riot shields so they could erect more barricades.”
Much was made of the presence of rats and unsanitary conditions, reinforced by the image of park workers in yellow or white hazmat suits dumping bedding. In other words, part of the operation was to depict the protesters as unclean, lazy scroungers, as a rabble without purpose or constitutional rights of assembly.
The police are now ultra-careful because control of images by the mainstream media has been undercut by activists livestreaming police actions and posting YouTube videos. So it’s disturbing that a livestreamer was attached by a masked individual on the Occupy Oakland support march held in Manhattan the previous week.
The Gothamist reported: “From the march’s beginning at Washington Square Park, an unusual amount of masked protesters along with the heavy scent of booze contributed to a heightened state of volatility. The instances of projectiles being thrown were met with scorn, outrage and chants of ‘This is a peaceful protest’ by a majority of the protesters. When a can and a bottle were thrown on 14th Street, the crowd was stunned into silence, as New York’s Occupy Wall Street protesters have largely shied away from the more aggressive tactics used by their mask-donning West Coast counterparts. When a masked man began punching the camera of a livestreamer, other protesters urged the police to arrest him.”
And it’s more disturbing that spokespeople for OWS wouldn’t defend the livestreaming journalist. According to the Gothamist, “That man is Tim Pool, a well-known if extremely divisive documenter of Occupy Wall Street. Pool records everything he sees—including protesters releasing the air out of the tires of NYPD squad cars during the eviction of Zuccotti Park. … Patrick Bruner, Occupy Wall Street’s former ‘official’ press spokesman, told the Voice that he was ‘very uncomfortable’ with Pool’s actions, and shines his light into Pool’s lens whenever he trains it on him.”
The Guardian reported Bruner as claiming: “It wasn’t a random individual attacking Tim Pool. It was an individual attempting to make it so that he could no longer film someone who didn’t want to be filmed. [Occupy] never filed for a permit. Nearly every action that we do, on some level, is illegal and when you have someone documenting it in a way that doesn’t respect an individual’s privacy or their right to choose whether or not they want to be filmed, that puts people in danger.”
Bruner’s remarks are specious: there is a big difference between the illegality of asserting the right to protest, where permits are an arbitrary police restriction, and attacking property, which is a clear violation of laws most people accept. Pool vigorously defended himself in the Gothamist: “… it does offend me when people say I’m putting them at risk. If you throw a bottle at the police, you’re putting people at risk. When two innocent people who were doing nothing get arrested because you threw the bottle, that’s putting people at risk. I’m going to hold those people accountable.”
The Indypendent commented: “Those who had been at the afternoon’s Occupy Town Square beforehand might have seen this coming. Members of OWS’s Direct Action Working Group—which oversees the planning of most marches and other actions—gave an impromptu teach-in about the idea of ‘diversity of tactics,’ which was in many respects insightful, but ultimately became an apologia for undertaking, or at least tolerating, what might be construed as violent actions. The villains of the presentation, perhaps even more so than police, were those within the movement who denounce or try to stop others who want to do such things. They were described as likely to be sexist and racist for trying to insist on nonviolent discipline.”
It seems that the eviction at Zuccotti Park has changed the dynamic within the activists of Occupy Wall Street, and that protesters’ frustration with continuous police harassment has encouraged some of them to adopt the tactics of the black bloc.
Michael Greenberg observed in a recent essay: “The [police] crackdowns scare away less hard-core supporters. Actions now routinely involve a diminishing group of three hundred to five hundred demonstrators or less. Some activists I spoke with preferred the smaller, more concentrated quality of the actions, partly, I suspect, because it gave them the elevated feeling of being the street fighters, the incorruptible ones, the keepers of what is pure. Skirmishes with police could be seen as proof that they were a bona fide threat to the system.”
The Village Voice also noted: “Last night’s episode speaks to an ongoing tension within Occupy Wall Street, as many protesters and organizers embrace radical transparency, while others — especially those involved in planning direct actions — see a need for secrecy and strict security culture to protect the movement from the government infiltrators almost everyone agrees must be within the movement. Bruner warned that the ongoing police crackdowns against occupations from Oakland to New York only serve to encourage protesters to protect themselves with increasing secrecy and Black Bloc tactics.”
Patrick Bruner may only be speaking for one group of activists. Other occupiers would differ, like Ted Hall who told the Guardian he believes Pool is helping Occupy face facts: “We have people within our movement who are doing things that the vast majority of people in this movement would not agree with. The vast majority of us are not going to agree that releasing the air out of the tires of the cops is going to do anything but agitate them, and they have guns.” Occupy should focus its energy on playful, creative actions planned and executed with transparency, Hall contends. … “Our strengths are not in secrecy. Our strengths are in transparency,” he adds. “Anything that’s secretive is going to attract instigators and undercovers like a moth to a flame.”