The Importance of Nonviolence in the Occupy Revolution

Violence is what the police use. It’s what the state uses. If we want a revolution, it’s because we want a better world, because we think we have a bigger imagination, a more beautiful vision. So we’re not violent; we’re not like them in crucial ways. When I see a New York City policeman pepper-spray already captive young women in the face, I am disgusted; I want things to be different. And that pepper-spraying incident, terrible though it was for the individuals, did not succeed in any larger way.

In fact, seen on Youtube (704,737 times for one posted version) and widely spread, it helped make Occupy Wall Street visible and sympathetic to mainstream viewers. The movement grew tremendously after that. The incident demonstrated the moral failure of the police and demonstrated that violence is also weak. It can injure, damage, destroy, kill, but it can’t coerce the will of the people, whether it’s a policeman assaulting unarmed young women or the US Army in Vietnam or Iraq.

Imagine that some Occupy activists had then beaten up the cop. That would have seemed to justify him in the eyes of many; it would’ve undermined the moral standing of our side. And then what? Moral authority was also that young Marine veteran, Shamar Thomas, chewing out thirty or so New York cops in what became a Youtube clip viewed 2,652,037 times so far. He didn’t fight them; he told them that what they were doing is wrong and dishonorable. And brought the nation along with him. Which violence wouldn’t do.

Violence Is Weak

As Jonathan Schell points out in his magnificent book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, violence is what the state uses when its other powers have failed, when it is already losing. In using violence the state often loses its moral authority and its popular support. That’s why sometimes their visible violence feeds our victory, tragic though the impact may be. It’s also telling that when the FBI or other government agencies infiltrate a movement or an activist group, they seek to undermine it by egging it on to more violence.

The state would like us to be violent. Violence as cooptation tries to make us more like them, and if we’re like them they win twice—once because being unlike them is our goal and again because then we’re then easier to imprison, brutalize, marginalize, etc. We have another kind of power, though the term nonviolence only defines what it is not; some call our power people power. It works. It’s powerful. It’s changed and it’s changing the world.

The government and mainstream-to-right media often create fictions of our violence, from the myth that protesters were violent (beyond property damage) in Seattle in 1999 to the myth of spitting in returning soldiers’ faces in the Vietnam era to generally smearing us as terrorists. If we were violent, we’d be conventionally dangerous and the authorities could justify repressing us. In fact, we’re unconventionally dangerous, because we’re not threatening physical violence but the transformation of the system (and its violence). That is so much more dangerous to them, which is why they have to lie about (or just cannot comprehend) the nature of our danger.

So when episodes of violence break out as part of our side in a demonstration, an uprising, a movement, I think of it as a sabotage, a corruption, a coercion, a misunderstanding, or a mistake, whether it’s a paid infiltrator or a clueless dude. Here I want to be clear that property damage is not necessarily violence. The firefighter breaks the door to get the people out of the building. But the husband breaks the dishes to demonstrate to his wife that he can and may also break her. It’s violence displaced onto the inanimate as a threat to the animate.

Quietly eradicating experimental GMO crops or pulling up mining claim stakes is generally like the firefighter. Breaking windows during a big demonstration is more like the husband. I saw the windows of a Starbucks  and a Niketown broken in downtown Seattle after nonviolent direct action had shut the central city and the World Trade Organization ministerial down. I saw scared-looking workers and knew that the CEOs and shareholders were not going to face that turbulence and they sure were not going to be the ones to clean it up. Economically it meant nothing to them.

We Are Already Winning

The powers that be are already scared of the Occupy movement and not because of tiny acts of violence. They are scared because right now we speak pretty well for the 99%. And because we set out to change the world and it’s working. The president of Russia warmed at the G20 Summit a week or so ago, ?”The reward system of shareholders and managers of financial institution should be changed step by step. Otherwise the ‘Occupy Wall street’ slogan will become fashionable in all developed countries.” That’s fear. And capitulation. And New York Times columnist Paul Krugman opened a recent column thus: “Inequality is back in the news, largely thanks to Occupy Wall Street….” We have set the agenda and framed the terms, and that’s already a huge victory.

This movement is winning. It’s winning by being broad and inclusive, by emphasizing what we have in common and bridging differences between the homeless, the poor, those in freefall, the fiscally thriving but outraged, between generations, races  and nationalities and between longtime activists and never-demonstrated-before newcomers. It’s winning by keeping its eyes on the prize, which is economic justice and direct democracy, and by living out that direct democracy through assemblies and other means right now.

It’s winning through people power direct-action tactics, from global marches to blockades to many hundreds of Occupations.  It’s winning through the creativity of the young, from the 22-year-old who launched Move Your Money Day to the 26-year-old who started the We Are the 99% website. And by tactics learned from Argentina’s 2001 revolution of general assemblies and politica afectiva, the politics of affection. It’s winning by becoming the space in which we are civil society: of human beings in the aggegate, living in public and with trust and love for one another. Violence is not going to be one of the tools that works in this movement.

Violence Is Authoritarian

Bodily violence is a means of coercing others against their will by causing pain, injury, or death. It steals another’s bodily integrity or very life as property to dispose of as the violator wishes. Since the majority in our movement would never consent to violent actions, such actions are also imposed on our body politic against our will. This is the very antithesis of anarchy as an ideal in which no one is coerced. If you wish to do something the great majority of us oppose, do it on your own. But these small violent bands attach themselves to large nonviolent movements, perhaps because there aren’t any large violent movements around.

As Peter Marshall writes in his history of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible, “Indeed the word violence comes from the Latin violareand etymologically means violation. Strictly speaking, to act violently means to treat others without respect….  A violent revolution is therefore unlikely to bring about any fundamental change in human relations. Given the anarchists’ respect for the sovereignty of the individual, in the long run it is non-violence and not violence which is implied by anarchist values.” Many of us anarchists are not ideological pacifists; I’m more than fine with the ways the Zapatistas rebels in southern Mexico have defended themselves and notice how sadly necessary it sometimes is, and I sure wouldn’t dictate what Syrians or Tibetans may or may not do. But petty violence in public in this country doesn’t achieve anything useful.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

In downtown Oakland, late on the evening of November 2 after a triumphant and mostly nonviolent day of mass actions, a building near Occupy Oakland’s encampment was seized, debris was piled up as if to make barricades that were only show barricades to set afire, not defend, trash cans were set on fire, windows broken, rocks thrown, and then there were altercations with the police. If the goal was to seize a building, one witness pointed out, then seize it secretly, not flamboyantly. The activity around the seizure seemed intended to bait the police into action. Which worked; police are not hard to bait. Activists and police were injured. What was achieved?

Many other activists yelled at the brawlers because they felt that the violence-tinged actions did not represent them or the Occupy movement and put them in danger. It was appalling that the city of Oakland began, a week earlier, by sending in stormtrooper police before dawn rather than negotiating about the fate of the Occupy Oakland encampment. But it was ridiculous that some people tried to get the police to be violent all over again. And it was tragic that others bore the brunt of that foray, including the grievously injured veteran Kayvan Sabeghi—another veteran, a week after Scott Olson.

Earlier this fall, the publishing group Crimethinc issued a screed in justification of violence that’s circulated widely in the Occupy movement. It’s titled “Dear Occupiers: A Letter from Anarchists,” though most anarchists I know would disagree with almost everything that follows. Midway through it declares, “Not everyone is resigned to legalistic pacifism; some people still remember how to stand up for themselves. Assuming that those at the front of clashes with the authorities are somehow in league with the authorities is not only illogical…. It is typical of privileged people who have been taught to trust the authorities and fear everyone who disobeys them.”

If nonviolence/people power is privilege, explain this eyewitness account from Oakland last Wednesday, posted on the Occupy Oakland site by Kallista Patridge: “By the time we got to the University building, a brave man was blocking the door screaming “Peaceful Protest! This is my city, and I don’t want to destroy it!” He cracked his knuckles, ready to take on an attack, his face splattered in paint from the Whole Foods fiasco [in which downtown Oakland’s branch of the chain store was spraypainted and smashed up based on a rumor that workers were told they’d be fired if they took the day off for the General Strike]. Behind the doors were men in badges. I was now watching a black man shield cops from a protest. The black flag group began pointing out those attempting to stop them, chanting ‘The peace police must be stopped,’ and I was, personally, rather disgusted by the strategy of comparing peacefully pissed people to police….”

This account is by a protestor who also noted in downtown Oakland that day a couple of men with military-style haircuts and brand new clothes put bandannas over their faces and began to smash stuff. She thinks that infiltrators were part of the property destruction and maybe instigated it, and Copwatch’s posted video seems to document police infiltrators at Occupy Oakland. One way to be impossible to sabotage is to be clearly committed to tactics that the state can’t coopt. If an infiltrator wants to nonviolently blockade or march or take out the garbage, well, that’s one more of us. If an infiltrator sabotages us by recruiting for mayhem, that’s a comment on what those tactics are good for.

What Actually Works

The language of Crimethinc is empty machismo peppered with insults. And just in this tiny snippet, incoherent. People who don’t like violence are not necessarily fearful or obedient; people power and nonviolence are strategies that are not the same as the ideology pacifism. To shut down the whole central city of Seattle and the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting on November 30, 1999,  or the business district of San Francisco for three days in March of 2003, or the Port of Oakland on November 2, 2011—through people power—is one hell of a great way to stand up. It works. And it brings great joy and sense of power to those who do it. It’s how the world gets changed these days.

Crimethinc, whose logo is its name inside a bullet, doesn’t actually cite examples of violence achieving anything in our recent history. Can you name any? The anonymous writers don’t seem prepared to act, just tell others to (as do the two most high-profile advocates of violence on the left). And despite the smear quoted above that privileged people oppose them, theirs is the language of privilege. White kids can do crazy shit and get slapped on the wrist or maybe slapped around for it; I have for a quarter century walked through police lines like they were tall grass; people of color face far more dire consequences. When white youth try to bring the police down on a racially diverse movement—well, it’s not exactly what the word solidarity means to most of us.

Another Occupy Oakland witness, a female street medic, wrote of the ill-conceived November 2 late-night antics, “watching black bloc-ers run from the cops and not protect the camp their actions had endangered, an action which ultimately left behind many mentally ill people, sick people, street kids, and homeless folks to defend themselves against the police onslaught was disturbing and disgusting in ways I can’t even articulate because I am still so angry at the empty bravado and cowardice that I saw.” She adds, “I want those kids to be held accountable to the damage that they did, damage made possible by their class and race privilege.” And physical fitness; Occupy Oakland’s camp includes children, older people, wheelchair users and a lot of other people less ready to run.

As Oakland Occupier Sunaura Taylor put it, “A few people making decisions that affect everyone else is not what revolution looks like; it’s what capitalism looks like.”

How We Defeated the Police

The euphemism for violence is “diversity of tactics,” perhaps because diversity has been a liberal-progressive buzzword these past decades. But diversity does not mean that anything goes and that democratic decisionmaking doesn’t apply. If you want to be part of a movement, treat the others with respect; don’t spring unwanted surprises on them, particularly surprises that sabotage their own tactics—and chase away the real diversity of the movement. Most of us don’t want to be part of an action that includes those tactics. If you want to fight the police, look at who’s succeeded in changing their behavior: lawyers, lawmakers, police watchdog groups like Copwatch, investigative journalists (including a friend of mine whose work just put several New Orleans policemen in prison for decades), neighborhood patrols, community organizers, grassroots movements, often two or more players working together. You have to build.

The night after the raid on Oakland, the police were massed to raid Occupy San Francisco. About two thousand of us stood in and around the Occupy encampment as helicoptors hovered. Nonviolence trainers helped people prepare to blockade. Because we had a little political revolt against the Democratic money machine ten years ago and began to elect progressives who actually represent us pretty well, five of our city supervisors, the public defender, and a state senator—all people of color, incidentally– stood with us all night, vowing they would not let this happen.

We stood up. We fought a nonviolent battle against four hundred riot police that was so effective the police didn’t even dare show up. That’s people power. The same day Occupy Oakland took its campsite back, with people power, and the black bloc kids were reportedly part of the whole: they dismantled the cyclone fencing panels and stacked them up neatly. That’s how Occupy San Francisco won. And that’s how Occupy Oakland won.

State troopers and city police police refused to break up the Occupy Albany (New York) encampment, despite the governor’s and mayor’s orders. Sometimes the police can be swayed. Not by violence, though. The master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house. And they sure won’t build a better house.

People Power Shapes the World

Left violence failed miserably in the 1970s: the squalid and futile violence in Germany and Italy, the delusional Symbionese Liberation Army murdering Marcus Foster, Oakland’s first black school superintendent, and later gunning down a bystander mother of four in a bank, the bumbling Weather Underground accidentally blowing three of its members up and turning the rest into fugitives for a decade; all of them giving us a bad name we’ve worked hard to escape.

Think of that excruciating footage in Sam Green’s Weather Underground documentary of the “days of rage,” when a handful of delusions-of-grandeur young white radicals thought they’d do literal battle with the Chicago police and thus inspire the working class to rise up. The police clobbered them; the working class was so not impressed. If you want to address a larger issue, getting overly entangled with local police is a great way to lose focus and support.

In fact, the powerful and effective movements of the past sixty years have been almost entirely nonviolent. The Civil Rights Movement included the Deacons for Defense, but the focus of that smaller group was actually defense—the prevention of violence against nonviolent activists and the movement, not offensive forays. Schell points out that even the French and Russian Revolutions were largely nonviolent when it came to overthrowing the old regime; seizing a monopoly of power to form a new regime is when the blood really began to flow.

I think of the Sandinista Revolution of 1979 as the last great armed revolution, and it succeeded because the guerrillas with guns who came down from the mountains had wide popular support. People power. People power overthrew the Shah of Iran that year, in a revolution that was hijacked by authoritarians fond of violence. In 1986 the Marcos regime of the Philippines was overthrown by nonviolent means, means so compelling the army switched sides and refused to support the Marcos regime.

Armies don’t do that if you shoot at them, generally (and if you really defeated the police in battle—all the police, nationwide?–you’d face the army). Since then dozens of regimes, from South Africa to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland to Nepal to Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Tunisia have been profoundly changed through largely nonviolent means. There was self-defense in the Deacons for Defense mode in the Egyptian uprising this year, but people power was the grand strategy that brought out the millions and changed the country. Armed struggle was  part of the ongoing resistance in South Africa, but in the end people power and international solidarity were the fulcrom of change. The Zapatistas used violence sparingly as a last resort, but “our word is our weapon,” they say, and they used other tools in preference, often and exquisitely.

The powerful and effective movements of the past sixty years have used the strategy of people power. It works. It changes the world. It’s changing the world now. Join us. Or don’t join us. But please don’t try to have it both ways.

Rebecca Solnit is an activist and the author of many books, including: Wanderlust: A History of Walking, The Battle of The Story of the Battle in Seattle (with her brother David), and Storming The Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Her most recent book is, A Paradise Built in Hell, is now available. She is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine.