Paint the Other Cheek

When The Nation assigned me to do a story about questions of violence and nonviolence at Occupy Wall Street early last month, I had no idea how much the subject would explode. Occupy Oakland’s “Move-In Day” on January 28 and a subsequent article by Chris Hedges (as well as some heated discussions on my articles at Waging Nonviolence in between) triggered a national identity crisis in the movement. I followed the controversy as it played out in the OWS Direct Action Working Group, one of the movement’s most active and radical corners during the relatively quiet winter. Over the course of the month, I found yet another example of what “diversity of tactics” really means for Occupy Wall Street — the overcoming of challenges through raw creativity. In particular, I wrote about the birth of a new undertaking called the + Brigades:

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.”

Read the rest of the article at The Nation.





One response to “Paint the Other Cheek”

  1. Keith Nakatani


    Glad to see you addressed nonviolence versus “diversity of tactics” in Occupy (“Paint the other cheek”), however, I believe that the article misses the mark. Its perspectives are the same ones I heard in Occupy Oakland (OO) and point to Occupy’s biggest problem: not adequately engaging participants in in-depth discussions about why adopting nonviolence is critical.

    Occupy can only become a transformative force is if it grows exponentially. More than other factors, failure to adopt nonviolence and working to minimize destructive behavior will undermine Occupy’s ability to adequately increase numbers of participants and supporters. Yet, in (Oakland) General Assemblies and online pieces, the link between nonviolence and movement building is under-addressed.

    Chris Hedges’ “The cancer in Occupy” is an exception. His main message is correct: violent activity by protesters “is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.” Unfortunately, he used heated and polarizing language.

    OO is a great example of both the powerful garnering of widespread support when the authorities inevitably use excessive force and the repercussions of the short-sighted failure to champion nonviolence. OO had little visibility beyond the Bay Area before October 25, 2011, but the heavy-handed camp eviction by police that day, the tragic shooting of Scott Olsen, and the widespread condemnation of the authorities catapulted it into the international limelight.

    Just a week later on November 2nd, OO audaciously organized a general strike, march, and Port of Oakland shutdown. The shutdown was perhaps the largest Occupy action thus far. The official figure of 7,000 protesters was laughable, there were at least 20,000 to 30,000, perhaps more. People streamed into the Port area for over two hours. It was a great action: huge, diverse, peaceful, and festive.

    Yet sadly, only hours after the shutdown, OO began unraveling when a handful of people took over a vacant downtown building for a couple of hours and battled the police by setting fires and throwing rocks and bottles. In just a few hours, a few people turned a victory into a black-eye, demoralized and angered the majority who had participated in the shutdown, and alienated would be supporters. OO has regressed ever since.

    Short-sighted strategic blunders continued with the attempted takeover of a vacant downtown lot on November 19th, the brief takeover and eviction from a West Oakland residential lot in late December, and the attempted takeover of the Henry Kaiser Convention Center on January 28th. It was clear these would be hurtful actions because there was no chance of occupation and would result in counterproductive confrontations with the police (as opposed to UC Davis and Berkeley students being pepper-sprayed and brutalized without striking back, which resulted in tremendous public sympathy and anger directed at authorities). OO also conducted small, weekly “fuck the police” marches for awhile, whose purpose seemed to be venting anger. All this caused many OO participants to disengage and turned increasing numbers of the general public against it.

    It also demonstrated how sidetracked and unrealistic the supporters of those actions are: turning the tactic of occupation into a goal, wasting much time and energy on planning the actions (including dragging furniture to the sites), and keeping the location of the Jan 28th action “secret” so that the authorities “wouldn’t know”. Of course the police knew, they surrounded the convention center before the marchers showed up.

    I’m not familiar with GA’s at other Occupy’s, but if they’re like Oakland’s, then a problem is the inability to have in-depth discussion on key issues. Proposals are presented, clarifying questions are asked and answered, brief statements of pros and cons are made, and votes are cast. In Oakland, when GAs were at their strongest, the result was votes that were more easily influenced by the constant shouts of the regular and angry contingent opposed to nonviolence, votes being made without hearing in-depth debates, and bad decisions that have significantly decreased participation and support.

    You say diversity of tactics supporters believe “the whole opposition between violence and nonviolence seems contrived to divide the movement.” The divide isn’t contrived and isn’t mostly driven by the state. No doubt there are provocateurs, but the divisions are mostly genuinely internal. The Oakland evidence is significant majorities have supported the adoption of nonviolence, but the 90 percent approval criteria (which is too high) wasn’t achieved and most of those folks no longer participate. GA attendance was regularly close to one thousand in November. More recently, it’s been a struggle to get a quorum of one hundred.

    Thus far, Occupy has had an amazing short-term impact, but the struggle is a marathon. Occupy sprinted out of the gates catching everyone off-guard, but it must strategically prepare for the long-run. The most important strategic element is adopting nonviolence, diligently working to minimize destructive behavior, and strongly disavowing when it happens. If that doesn’t happen, the movement won’t secure the huge amount of support needed to be transformative, and the financial system and environment will continue to rush headlong towards collapse.

    Keith Nakatani
    Oakland, CA