Paint the Other Cheek

Paint the Other Cheek

Debates about violence threaten to break apart the Occupy movement.


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.

* * *

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.

In the first days of the occupation at Zuccotti Park, the newly formed DAWG approved guidelines for the movement’s public protests. “Don’t instigate cops or pedestrians with physical violence,” it urged. “We respect a diversity of tactics, but consider how our actions may affect the entire group.”

That phrase, “diversity of tactics,” can have a hair-raising effect in activist circles. It emerged during the anti-globalization movement as a sort of détente between those using tactics like marches and street blockades and those wanting to do more aggressive things like breaking windows and fighting back against police. But it’s not always a happy compromise; when a day of thousands peacefully marching is punctuated by a broken window, guess what makes the evening news.

Apart from violence or nonviolence, “diversity of tactics” also bespeaks a whole philosophy of resistance, one rooted in principles of autonomy and decentralization, as well as coordination and mutual responsibility. Rather than organizing demonstrations from the top down, with “peacekeepers” keeping participants in line, a diversity-of-tactics framework encourages small, self-governing groups using a variety of methods to achieve common goals. Expect the unexpected.

The unexpected, for instance, was what made Occupy Wall Street’s early public actions so effective. 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 away from the Direct Action Working Group’s original plan. The NYPD, caught unprepared, overreacted in front of cameras, and public sympathy flooded to the protesters.

This is the way a diversity of tactics has mainly been practiced in the Occupy movement. Only very rarely have there been real black blocs—squads of demonstrators dressing indistinguishably in black to conceal their identities from police while they do something illegal. Protesters have generally refrained from violence in the streets—even when they’re not exactly nonviolent, in the sense of exuding love for one’s opponent.

As winter came and the encampments were systematically destroyed, the movement’s outdoor presence hit a lull. The conventional wisdom came to be that Occupy might be dying out for good. The exception—which, for some, proved the rule—was what happened in Oakland on January 28, when Occupiers tried to turn a vacant convention center into a community center, resulting in a massive crackdown as police subjected protesters to tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and hundreds of arrests. Some protesters, in return, broke into and vandalized Oakland’s City Hall. At the “solidarity march” in New York the following night, bottles were thrown at police officers.

This seemed new. Among OWS insiders, you could feel the difference; you could feel the anxiety. On a nationwide conference call, one concerned voice said, “The diversity-of-tactics message in New York City is spreading very, very quickly—and it’s a sexy message, and we need to counter it.”

Enter Chris Hedges, the battle-worn war reporter turned apocalyptic polemicist, a supporter of Occupy since the beginning, with far more expertise in violence than most. On February 6, at the website Truthdig, he published an article called “The Cancer in Occupy,” which immediately began making the rounds on organizers’ e-mail lists. “Chris Hedges nails it,” said the subject line of one long-running thread. The article was a broadside against “Black Bloc anarchists,” whom Hedges perceived to be a disease at the fringes of the movement, threatening to destroy it with an anti-agenda of adolescent violence and criminality. His article resonated with a lot of people in the movement, who echoed his denunciations to their comrades.

The effect in OWS’s Direct Action Working Group, one of the movement’s most vibrant quarters, was catastrophic. “Chris Hedges really screwed us,” says Chris Longenecker, who has been with DAWG since day one. “It’s anarchists that are driving this movement.” So many of OWS’s most cherished institutions—the general assemblies, the leaderless structure, the diversity of tactics—have roots in anarchism, and have been maintained by anarchists who’d been practicing them long before the movement began. They include both self-described pacifists and members of black blocs. Within a few days of Hedges’s article, there was a proposal at the General Assembly to create an anarchist caucus, a measure usually reserved for marginalized identity groups. It failed to reach consensus. Some people quit the movement in frustration, others in tears. To Sandy Nurse, it felt like a “witch hunt” against her friends.

Suzahn Ebrahimian, who has been one of the most vocal defenders of the diversity-of-tactics framework in Direct Action and one of that group’s most respected organizers, now thinks seriously about leaving OWS for good. “I woke up the morning of September 18 and felt so invested and got right to work. I literally changed my entire life—like almost everybody else who was there that day. To feel pushed out like this is so crappy,” she says.

But Chris Hedges isn’t apologizing for his article. “It did what I wanted it to do, which is trigger the discussion,” he told me. “I’m not trying to make friends.”

* * *

As heated as this debate became, the whole fracas also seemed to be about a lot more than what violence or nonviolence the movement has practiced. From its inception, OWS has included people with competing long-tended visions of what resistance is supposed to look like—orderly or chaotic, inclusive or insurrectionary—and as the talk about violence continued, these underlying tensions bubbled over into it.

For example, most of the General Assembly’s pronouncements have made some hopeful nod to nonviolence. Yet during Occupy marches, one often hears a frustration muttered under breaths, with newsreels of Gandhi or King seemingly in mind. Amid all the shouting and anger, there’s a longing for more discipline, more grace. The logic of nonviolent action is to heighten the contrast between the decorum of the protesters and the violence of the state, to force a dilemma upon those in power by winning public support and causing defections. But ruckus protests won’t play well in Peoria. Fox News could get away with calling what happened in Oakland on January 28 a “riot,” presumably inclining the couch potatoes at home to side with the cops.

Mixed in with calls for nonviolence, too, have been concerns about safety, especially for children and those who can’t afford a run-in with the police. These must be addressed for the movement to grow, but they’re really a separate matter. Nonviolence doesn’t equal safety. Perhaps the movement’s most Gandhian moment so far, for instance, was the arrest of Pancho Ramos Stierle—as he sat in silent meditation, smiling—during the November 14 raid on Occupy Oakland. An undocumented Bay Area resident from Mexico, he knowingly faced deportation, at least until tens of thousands of people successfully petitioned for his release. Nonviolence doesn’t equal safety. But hopefully it does mean facing arrest, or worse, on one’s own terms.

Those who’ve been articulating the diversity-of-tactics framework tend to be less concerned with what plays in Peoria than, say, in Malcolm X’s Harlem—in communities suffering most from abuses of the system. They’re tired of hearing the Egyptian revolution being talked about as “nonviolent” when protesters there burned police stations and cleared Mubarak’s goons from the streets of Cairo by hurling rocks. Some tell stories of being assaulted by self-appointed “peace police” at past protests and argue that people in the movement should care more about being nonviolent toward one another than toward the police or a Starbucks window. They also say that too much focus on whether a tactic is nonviolent is losing sight of strategy, sanitizing the movement and keeping it from truly endangering the power of the wealthy. In any case, most of them agree that black blocs don’t make sense for now.

It has often been the defenders of the diversity of tactics, meanwhile, who are training fellow Occupiers in nonviolent action. For them, the whole opposition between violence and nonviolence seems contrived to divide the movement—especially ever since Oakland Mayor Jean Quan demanded that Occupy Wall Street denounce Occupy Oakland’s behavior. “This is a really common tactic: bash the anarchists, or blame outside agitators,” says Ebrahimian. “It just takes a very cursory look at the history of social justice movements that have been totally cleaved apart by the state to understand what’s happening now.” This is part of why diversity of tactics first arose as a strategy for holding disparate segments of a movement together.

What people on all sides seem to fear most is not being able to trust one another—trust that a violent black bloc won’t come swooping in on a silent vigil, or that nobody will be turned in for breaking the lock on a foreclosed home. Trust means planning, and relying on one another’s strengths. When there’s even a little bit of coordination, you get scenes like what I saw on November 19 in Oakland. A black-clad group led a massive march from a rally for public education to a closed-off vacant park and—nonviolently, in an orderly way—cut through the chain-link fence. Within minutes the entire fence had been neatly rolled up. Despite well-armed police watching from its edges, the empty park became a festival.

* * *

There’s no better display of what diversity of tactics means for Occupy Wall Street than what happened after the events in Oakland in late January. Every OWS meeting one went to started becoming a debate about violence and nonviolence and Chris Hedges. I sent out a flurry of e-mails to organizers to see what they thought might be done. Several of them were already up to something, each confronting the problem in a different way.

InterOccupy, the movement’s conference call system, launched a series of national strategy conversations. Civil rights movement organizers were being invited to hold teach-ins. A group of unions and political organizations, from SEIU to MoveOn, soon promised that “100,000 Americans will train for nonviolent direct action” in a “99% Spring.”

Even while the Internet was still fanning Hedges’s flame, members of DAWG hosted a cathartic open discussion about what “solidarity” and “diversity of tactics” really mean to them and their fellow Occupiers. Face to face, the Gandhians and the insurrectionists found they had more in common than they thought; they might not have the same fantasies, but they could at least agree on strategies, and they could listen. “We have to learn how to talk to each other,” concluded one person in the meeting. “It probably isn’t the debate about violence or nonviolence that will break up the movement, it’s how we talk to each other.” A new community agreement for Direct Action was already in the works, a set of guidelines for how those in the movement expect one another to behave during actions. Added someone else, “The problem is not whether or not someone will throw a bottle—because somebody’s gonna do that—but how you deal with it.”

The response to my inquiries that really caught my attention, though, was the one about a clown army. The urge for this first came from a frustration with the same old tactics that Natasha Singh had been feeling for a while. “The marches were pointless,” she says. Then, just after the incident in Oakland, her friend and artistic collaborator Amin Husain returned from a World Social Forum meeting in Brazil, where he learned about the Chilean student movement’s creative tactics. He wanted to bring some of that home. The two of them recruited others and settled on a name: “+ Brigades.” They scoured photographs of movements through history at the New York Public Library. The goal, says Husain, is “addition and supplement rather than negation, opposition and subtraction.” Thus their answer to all the worry about black blocs: create blocs of your own.

Husain, who with Singh was one of the earliest OWS organizers, took part in the first intifada as a teenager in the West Bank. But he identifies neither with principled nonviolence nor, for instance, anarchism. The movement’s problem, he and Singh thought, wasn’t a matter of violence or not; it was a lack of imagination. There was too small a repertoire.

“Don’t negate the things you don’t like,” said Austin Guest at that inaugural + Brigades meeting in the church basement. “Add the things you do, so we can get a real diversity of tactics.” People started pitching ideas like a Song & Dance Brigade, a Naked Bike Bloc, a Male Prostitution on Wall Street Brigade (“We will do anything for money!”) and more. A group of military veterans planned to plug in with teams of their own. Each brigade is meant to be radical, well-rehearsed and sensational, providing new ways for new people to get involved in the movement and, as Singh likes to say, “to do a ninja on the media.”

The + Brigades debuted on Leap Day, February 29, during a rainy Midtown protest against several choice corporate skyscrapers. The Brigadiers gave reporters pictures of men in pants-less business suits and a dancing clown in handcuffs. But they also created the brigades for themselves.

One night a few weeks earlier, after running through the rain on Fourteenth Street, then seeking cover under the awning of Party City and ogling the aisles of clown supplies, I sat down for big bowls of pho with Husain, Singh, Guest and Mckee. The conversation turned subdued, as if tinged with post-traumatic stress. Guest talked about spending hours sitting in a jail cell, and then having to organize a major demonstration the next day. Husain watched his father die in December and has had little time to mourn. None of them seemed to have come up for air since the movement began. “We all need to do some healing,” said Guest. If that means wearing orange spandex and face paint while blockading a bank, so be it.

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