Are you a pacifist?

“Are you a pacifist?” begins the leaflet passed out at Occupy Oakland, “YOU hold the cock of the Empire in your supple hands.”  Definitely an attention grabbing introduction to a screed that goes on to criticize non-violence and seeks the “total annihilation of capitalism.”  There is much to comment on here, not least the sexual allusion. But I can’t help but feel a certain ennui reading the puerile diatribe.  It takes me back to 1999-2000, when the same sorts of arguments promoted by a small group at the anti-WTO “Battle in Seattle,”  and the subsequent demonstrations the next year in Washington, D.C. and Prague.  Having seen these sorts of tactics up close and personal, and having thought about it quite a bit, I have a few comments.

Police know how to respond with force, and they have the unfortunate propensity to respond to every problem with what they know best.  In addition, they have the means to escalate that force well beyond what most people are willing to engage in.  So, all the bold talk of “taking on the police” is just that: talk.  However, pushing for violent interactions plays into the hands of police because violence is their strong suit.  Thus for peaceful revolutionaries, violence and property destruction is tactically a dumb approach.  Why else would a “law enforcement” agency field agents provocateurs to incite it?  Duh!

A revolution is a systemic change; it’s axiomatic that a revolution is illegal!  It is a radical restructuring of the existing order of things, particularly power relationships.  It’s not unreasonable to assume the power elite will resist the new order, and will resist movement toward that state of flux, of social anarchy, which precedes it.  Will they use physical violence to suppress it?  My magic 8-ball says, yes, if it appears violence would be effective.  Violence is what you use, what you need to use, when you are in danger of losing, for instance when you are outnumbered…  When you are 1% dominating the rest of the planet.  Now, if the power elite (and by that I mean to include the government they control) retains for itself the exclusive right to use force, up to and including physical violence, to keep themselves in power… what then?  I would suggest that the best strategy is to choose a different battlefield.  However, if push comes to shove, I do think there is an argument to be made that defending oneself from violence using whatever means are at your disposal is perfectly legitimate.

“I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”  
— Thomas Jefferson

Anyway, the main problem comes because the “wild ones,” as they call themselves, who want to incite violent confrontations with police are essentially taking advantage of the presence of the much larger presence of those who do not.  They argue for a “diversity of tactics,” while ignoring the fact that they are imposing their tactic on the rest of the demonstrators.  Among the negative side effects of this are that it 1) enables media to portray demonstrations as violent, 2) discourages people who eschew violence, for whatever reason, from participating, 3) endangers other demonstrators by provoking police retaliation.  No doubt they would like to think of themselves as the valiant vanguard of the revolution, but in fact their tactic validates the existing structure of power, and impedes efforts at change.  Our goal should be to demonstrate the impotence of police brutality, not to provide excuses for its use.

Some would draw dividing lines between “us” and “them,”  between demonstrators and police.  But as we rethink the way society is structured, I think this is something we might redesign.  In some spiritual sense we may “all be one,” but a social utopia that reflects that ideal is a distant dream.  Pragmatically, it’s more useful to redraw those lines of demarcation.  Could we think of “us” as people who eschew violence as a means of political expression and “them” as those who resort to it?  I’m willing to believe there are police who are also part of the 99%, and who resent being used as pawns of the power elite — and that there are demonstrators whose personal rage blinds them to how to they are damaging the prospect of a real revolution.

When I was in Prague for the IMF/WorldBank meeting and protest I finally concluded that if we expected to do anything about changing exploitative economic policies, we would have to first have to deal with the schisms in our own ranks.  The protest itself was moderately disastrous.  Suffice it to say that it’s hard to call people’s attention to the intricacies of economic policy when the newspapers lead with a picture of a cop in flames from a Molotov cocktail.  All the efforts of the event’s organizers and the thousands of other protesters, were vitiated by those who attacked the police.  So I would really not want the same thing to happen with the Occupy movement.

OccupyTogether is our revolution.  May we all be guided by feelings of deep love.