Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement use a ladder to scale a chain link fence around a vacant lot owned by an Episcopal church in New York, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Stephanie Keith)
At a semi-secret meeting in the basement of a Greenwich Village church one Saturday night in February, a couple-dozen of the busiest Occupy Wall Street organizers sat in a circle of folding chairs. Calling the group to order was Yates Mckee, an art critic with aviator glasses and hair down past his shoulders, which seemed especially appropriate considering his choice to open the proceedings by reading from the Book of Matthew: turn the other cheek, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.
“A lot of people would agree that this movement is in crisis,” he said. “We’ve had these discussions about so-called diversity of tactics, which I think makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.” True. Just hearing those words put the room on edge. Since Occupy Oakland’s clash with police in late January, in just about every meeting and e-mail list OWS organizers had been arguing about tactics. Is this a nonviolent movement? What would it mean if it was? Or wasn’t?
“I think right now is the moment to look to great men of history,” Mckee continued imperiously, listing the men he had in mind: Jesus Christ, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. “They all show us that the way to build a popular revolutionary movement is through love, through harmony and through the strength of nonviolence.”
Natasha Singh, sitting on the other side of the circle, interrupted: “I don’t think this is the place to talk about diversity of tactics. Seriously.” She was furious.
His authority as facilitator challenged, Mckee scolded her back: “The way you’re talking right now is going to derail the movement.” Sandy Nurse, one of the original members of the Direct Action Working Group (DAWG), began to storm out.
“Clown check!” announced a voice in another room. “Clown check!” Out pranced Austin Guest, also part of DAWG, though barely recognizable in a full-body orange spandex suit, orange cape and a straw sombrero topped with two orange balloons and orange streamers. Behind him was a gang of clowns dancing and singing and shooting Silly String, with plus signs painted on their cheeks. Mckee wound up with three cream pies in his face. Andy Bichlbaum—one of The Yes Men, a duo of activist pranksters, wearing a red pigtailed wig—got me with one too. (Mckee and Singh were in on it; Nurse and I were not.) Then, with clown games and some direct-action-themed rounds of Scattergories, the meeting began in earnest. This was neither violence nor nonviolence, per se. This was fun.
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Let’s be clear: it’s not like the movement has considered stashing weapons, or making bombs, or anything close. Direct Action has never made a plan to harm anyone. Part of the problem is that talk of violence and nonviolence is still mainly in the abstract, pivoting on words that are hard to define and incidents of property destruction or in-the-moment reaction that most have only seen filtered through unreliable news reports.
The first time I heard this discussion in the Occupy movement was at a planning meeting in August, before the occupations began. “There is a danger of fetishizing nonviolence to the point that it becomes a dogma,” said a man in dark sunglasses. Others insisted that any whiff of violence would drive them away. Someone concluded, “This discussion is a complete waste of time,” and it was tabled. The meeting turned back to the logistics of websites and peanut butter sandwiches. What it does in the streets, after all, is only a part of what a movement has to do.