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Occupy Wall Street should explicitly reject violence

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This is an editorial, not a news item.

There has been a lively (but not too loud) debate within the Occupy movement about the issue of violence. Prior to the winter hiatus, almost all Occupy-related violence has come from the police — the muscle arm of the State in these matters, the designated suppressors of the "outside" resistance to the Rule of the .01 Percent.
  • Side note: "Outside resistance" is sometimes called the "outside game" — the populist protests, the action in the streets — as opposed to more institutional responses like lobbying, law-making, and awareness writing. I'll be using the term "outside game" a lot in this context.

    Tahrir Square, for example, is an outside game. The Berkeley Free Speech movement is an outside game. Every rebellion needs one to complement its inside — institutional — game. It's the way this stuff works.
This one-sided violence has started to change, however. Police are no longer the only violent element at the protests. There are groups "within" the vaguely-structured Occupy movement that not only advocate violence, they seem to relish it (as a form of art perhaps, or frustration release). And so far, Occupy has not stepped up to reject violent solutions.

One of the aftermaths of the May Day demonstrations earlier this week are stories of violence.
I get that Occupy doesn't want to be a top-down movement. Outside games are always a mix of multi-headed leadership–organizing and broad bottom-up participation.

But by fetishizing "leaderlessness" the Occupy movement is doing two things wrong, in my view.

And if Occupy leaders (organizers) don't take on and reject violence, they will do lasting damage both to Occupy and to the broader movement of which Occupy is just one part.

What Occupy is doing wrong

In early stages, movements like Occupy are naturally amorphous; by definition they must spring up on their own. This bottom-up energy is what feeds and waters them; it's what allows them to reach "critical mass" if indeed they ever do.

But leaders always emerge, and leadership doesn't have to be all or nothing — absent or totally controlling. Mario Savio, for example, was clearly a leader (along with a number of others) in the Free Speech Movement. He didn't control it, but he guided it, and through his voice and mind the movement had focus.

There's a necessary symbiotic relationship between leaders and non-leaders in a truly populist movement. Dr. King (and others) had that relationship with the Civil Rights Movement of his era. There are many more examples.

By rejecting the place of leadership, Occupy risks rejecting two critical resources that leaders provide: education and guidance.

Education — Leaders don't just lead, they organize education. As I wrote just recently:
One of the most valuable and beneficial activities of the Vietnam War era were the teach-ins, where the Movement educated itself about what it was facing.

With that education, people understood how the U.S. replaced France in the fight against Ho Chi Minh, their former WWII ally, to whom they promised a free Southeast Asia after Japan, and later France, were defeated — that the "anti-Communist" frame, in other words, was a lie. Unity around a common understanding is both powerful and necessary.
I'll say that again — Unity around a common understanding is powerful and necessary.

Want a thought experiment to test that? Independent of strategy ideas (about which there can be differences), progressives who don't get that Obama is a corporatist cannot add positively to the Progressive Coalition for change and return to Rule of Law. Want to see the coalition that contains that confusion? Watch the Democratic Party.

This isn't a statement about how best to implement Progressive reform (Under Obama or Romney? Let's think about scenarios). It's a statement about how to understand what you see in front of your face.

Resistance movements that don't take self-teaching seriously are doomed to dilution. A cadre of leaders in a movement like Occupy (or in the Progressive movement of which Occupy is a part) is essential to guarantee that education. That's just a fact.

Moral and tactical guidance — I'll split these two in a minute. But it almost goes without saying, Not everyone with an idea has a good idea. Some ideas won't ever work, and some are immoral. For a great many of us, violence is immoral.

Seems obvious, right? Apparently not to Occupy. Care to split yourself into the OK-with-violence people and those who hate it? Go for it; those who hate violence will leave. From a morals standpoint, leaderlessness doesn't grow a movement; it reduces it to its least moral component.

As for tactical guidance, you need that to get good outcomes. In a resistance, it's not just about process. In a government, democratic process is critical, since running a nation or a city is all about the process. Think about that; the whole point of having a democracy as your government is the process.

But only part of the point of an outside game is the process; by definition an outside game also seeks an outcome. By fetishizing leaderlessness, Occupy could (perhaps very soon) surrender all ability to influence the outcome of its actions. All of your enemies are waiting for you to turn violent; I think they know what's good for them.

What happens if Occupy does not reject violence

Occupy is the tip the outside game resisting the Rule of the .01%. Police violence is the response.

You don't stop police violence with non-violence; but you justify it by violent acts of your own. Your violence guarantees escalation of violence on both sides, and guarantees that their violence (police beatings; pepper-swabbed eyeballs and throats; multiple strip searches; extended stays in urine-soaked solitary cells) will be sold as "necessary" by the entire troop of millionaire news-blond(e)s.

Dear Occupy — Is that the outcome you want?

Because if you don't develop leaders — and respect for leaders — who will teach and guide, that's the outcome you will get.

And not only you, friends in Occupy — the rest of us as well. Occupy is not the whole resistance movement, only a part. Does Occupy bear a responsibility to the resistance movement as a whole?

If it does not care about outcomes, it abandons all responsibility to achieve what it says it cares about, and it risks being seen by the ungenerous as indulgent — much the way "drum circles" are seen within Occupy itself.

What am I asking?

I'm asking for one thing — that leaders within the Occupy movement, as a group, publicly reject violence and promote non-violent resistance.

That's the whole of my request. I'm not asking you to control the violence; I'm asking you to make sure that Occupy embraces non-violence as a non-negotiable core value.

I'm not asking on moral grounds (though those exist). I'm asking because I care about outcomes, and we need you to succeed.

Don't let Occupy become the "drum circle" within the broader resistance movement. You not only risk yourselves; you risk the rest of us. Right now, you're a big part of the solution. We need you to stay that way; the battle will be even harder without you.
  • Side note: "We don't condone" and "We condemn" have two separate meanings. This is not the time for baby steps, in my estimation. Things could go very south very quickly.
Thanks for your ear; I appreciate it.

Singing in the key of Please Condemn,


(To follow on Twitter or to send links: @Gaius_Publius)

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