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Martin Luther King Jr. was an extremely committed proponent of nonviolent and nondestructive methods of protest. In his private strategic manifesto inside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, A New Sense of Direction,* he advocated “militant” and “defiant” action to dislocate the function of American cities and enforce a popular demand for economic redistribution, but he did not deviate on this tactical direction. He even declared, “I, Martin Luther King, take thee, Non-violence, to be my wedded wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer—this isn’t a bargaining experience—for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Still, the King of 1967 and 1968 would hardly be at home among some of the critics of property destruction who often revere him. First, he draws a strong moral distinction between “violence against property” and “violence against persons.” And second, rather than prioritizing rooting out property destroyers for obscuring his message, he tries to explain their message. Third, he is careful to emphasize police responsibility for most violence against people during the riots. I quote him here at length describing the Black urban riots of summer 1967, the third consecutive summer of riot waves, largely touched off by local police violence. The following was first published in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967).
This bloodlust interpretation ignores one of the most striking features of the city riots. Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people. The much publicized “death toll” that marked the riots, and the many injuries, were overwhelmingly inflicted on the rioters by the military. It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even to kill people. As for the snipers, no account of the riots claims that more than one or two dozen people were involved in sniping. From the facts, and unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target—property.
I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons—who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.
The focus on property in the 1967 riots is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.
If hostility to whites were ever going to dominate a Negro’s attitude and reach murderous proportions, surely it would be during a riot. But this rare opportunity for bloodletting was sublimated into arson, or turned into a kind of stormy carnival of free-merchandise distribution. Why did the rioters avoid personal attacks? The explanation cannot be fear of retribution, because the physical risks incurred in the attacks on property were no less than for personal assaults. The military forces were treating acts of petty larceny as equal to murder. Far more rioters took chances with their own lives, in their attacks on property, than threatened the life of anyone else. Why were they so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy. A curious proof of the symbolic aspect of the looting for some who took part in it is the fact that, after the riots, police received hundreds of calls from Negroes trying to return merchandise they had taken. Those people wanted the experience of taking, of redressing the power imbalance that property represents. Possession, afterward, was secondary.
A deeper level of hostility came out in arson, which was far more dangerous than the looting. But it, too, was a demonstration and a warning. It was designed to express the depth of anger in the community.
King was not an proponent of these tactics, but he was a prominent voice (at times, the most prominent voice) of his community when they were carried out. Rather than devote attention to their ”obscuring the message,” he sought to analyze their message, even as he argued such tactics would not prove victorious. I wish those who follow in his strategic footsteps on these tactical choices, would also follow him in prioritizing such explanations.
* “A New Sense of Direction” was one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. It should be required reading for people seeking to understand King’s strategic vision. For more on King’s late political evolution, see Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You.
An article by George Lakey is circulating around the Internet* under the headline, “The More Violence, The Less Revolution.” While title is a quotation from 1930s radical Bart de Ligt, the thrust of the piece is to read Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s large-scale study Why Civil Resistance Works (website) under this headline. Chenoweth and Stephan do make a serious and wide-ranging attempt to measure the outcomes of tactical choices made by movements, and both their data and conclusions should be read widely among people interested in changing their societies. Chenoweth and Stephan’s expansive category of civil resistance is actually one that spans across existing internal debates in the Occupy Movement (and earlier generations of tactical debates in the global justice movement and elsewhere). Vitally, their analysis of what conditions make civil resistance successful can help us focus our tactical conversations in a very productive direction.**
George Lakey, while an opponent of both violent tactics and property destruction, issued a strong rejoinder to Chris Hedges’ The Cancer in Occupy, arguing: “The issue of the appropriateness of property destruction and/or violence is, like any other aspect of community organizing, not settled by blanket statements or posturing but by getting in there and dialoguing, over and over again. Advocates of nonviolent action need to learn from the Civil Rights movement and the field of community organizing in this way—there really aren’t any shortcuts.” Lakey has developed a nuanced, historically informed position on nonviolence. His strategic approach to thinking about nonviolence that has been surprisingly contagious internationally. And Lakey is willing to have difficult conversations with people who profoundly disagree with him, to his credit.
However, Lakey’s headline and overall argument are a misreading of Chenoweth and Stephan. This rankles me both as a social scientist (quibble ahead) and as a student of/participant in freedom struggles. First, the quibble: Why Civil Resistance Works and related studies divide all struggles into “nonviolent” (like the first Intifada, Lavalas against the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the Defiance Campaign in South Africa) and “violent” (like the Mexican, Chinese, Algerian, and Iranian Revolutions). 0 for “nonviolent,” 1 for “violent.” (Incidentally, I think my four examples on each side of the “nonviolent”/”violent” categorization is a fairly good representation of successful cases, biased towards things anyone reading this blog would probably recognize. A complete list is in the Methodological Appendix [pdf] they posted online.) A dichotomous variable (definition) cannot be used to produce the more x, the less y statements. Ever.
Okay, so the real problem here is the made plain by the wide, wide variety of things crammed into the nonviolent category,‡ including nearly all of the tactical patterns Lakey and those citing this study through him are most likely to rail against inside of movements: confronting police with bricks and stones (Intifada), building burning barricades in the streets (Defiance campaign), yielding the moral high ground by defending against violence rather than showcasing differences in suffering. Both such militant, but ultimately civil revolutions and nearly pacifist mobilizations like Solidarity in Poland or the Velvet Revolution have much to teach us about how to resist.
Our tactical debates should solve protesters’ problems, instead of dividing movements
In the midst of Yet Another Tactical Debrief, this time on the recent Move-In-Day–turned—street-semibattle—then—mass-arrest at Occupy Oakland, I ended up tossing out on Twitter a cluster of successful movement moments, some of which involved fighting back against cops—Stonewall, Cochabamba Water War, anti-apartheid defiance campaign, Tahrir Square 2011—and others of which involved a calculated refusal to fight back, even to the point of enduring direct state violence: anti-nuclear demos, the 1980s Central America solidarity movement, Gandhian salt march. In my estimation, every single one of these was successful, which raises the question of what they had in common.
What these moments do not share in common is their achievement of a universally correct balance of nonviolence and forcefulness, self-sacrifice and safety, or daring and accessibility, but rather their solution to an immediate and tangible tactical problem which had been totally disabling to their movements. Without these solutions, the trajectories of their movements were towards frustration with the possibilities of action, and thereby to spirals of apathy and spurts of ineffective outrage. With them in mind, the trajectories shifted to hopeful emulation, contagious optimism, and surges in new participation, leading to a whole new scale for participation.
(very long post follows the break)
Note: I started writing this weeks ago, but wanted to share its content now, since plans are being laid for Monday and beyond. Ultimately, as a speaker said at yesterday’s opening rally: “Monday is a work day; and that’s when we have to get to work.”
There is Internet buzz and face-to-face planning going on around a September 17 occupation of Wall Street. With a pitch in the August Adbusters as a grain of sand, this proposal is crystallizing energy around a common action:
- On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.
Internet forums have been setup, and in-person general assemblies are taking place in New York City (next one: August 9). The vision and politics behind the event reflect 20 years of Euro-American activism against corporate rule, but the plan and the courage are coming from the success at Tahrir Square. Or as Adbusters puts it:
- A worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now that bodes well for the future. The spirit of this fresh tactic, a fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain, is captured in this quote: The antiglobalization movement was the first step on the road. Back then our model was to attack the system like a pack of wolves. There was an alpha male, a wolf who led the pack, and those who followed behind. Now the model has evolved. Today we are one big swarm of people.
And at the center of this swarm are places for people to assembly, to debate plans, to envision their futures.
In the coming weeks, key preparations will help to decide the fate of this effort. Aside from enthusiasm, I want to offer some past experiences, all of them from the United States to help people who are making plans. The advice below is almost entirely about tactics, and not about old debates about which tactics are morally acceptable or politically enticing. Rather, this is to open a conversation about what works and doesn’t work on the ground for gathering, holding space, and taking over a place where hostile decisionmakers meet.
1. 2011 Capitol occupation in Madison, Wisconsin
I was a hemisphere away from this when it happened, but the basic structure has so much that could be replicated on Wall Street. Wisconsinites who followed this protest the whole way through should be hosted at least one night in the next six weeks in every community that plans to participate on September 17. One key idea:
- Interplay of mass marches with more disruptive actions. Taking the Capitol inspired the whole state; bringing tens of thousands to the capitol justified the more confrontational action. Each effort should think about how it can best be a love letter to the other.
2. January 2002 World Economic Forum Protests in New York City
The buzz about #OCCUPYWALLSTREET that isn’t enthusiasm is basically about one thing: NYPD Lockdown. These protests, held four months after 9/11, saw the worst of times for mass deployments of cops and demonization of protesters. The key tool? Not some fancy weapon shooting rubber bullets or piercing sounds, but linkable security fences. NYPD circulated the idea that any legitimate protester needed to put him- or herself inside of a ring of these, or on street blocks enclosed by them at front or back. Then they arbitrarily closed protesters in and pushed them around using them. Options for resistance: It turns out these cages open with a good upward shove and are quite movable, if a crowd isn’t intimidated by the letters N,Y,P, and D in metal on the side.
Despite the clampdown, actions took place across the city. It turns out that Manhattan is a long island with lots of centers for corporate power stretched out along it. Police have to drive up and down it to get to your protest. Overly concentrating makes their life easier; a variety of locations makes your life easier. Also, pop-up actions in public places like forced security forces to play catch-up while locating their actions in view of the general public. Non-participating witnesses are a major deterrent.
Know the NYPD: Thanks to lawsuits, we now have a view of how the police saw their tactics in 2002. Some key elements:
- “It should be noted that a large part of the success in policing the major demonstration on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2002, was due in part to the proactive arrest policy that was instituted at the start of the march at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, and directed toward demonstrators who were obviously potential rioters.”
- In another report, a police inspector praised the “staging of massive amounts” of armored vehicles, prisoner wagons and jail buses in the view of the demonstrators, writing that the sight “would cause them to be alarmed.”
- Indeed, one of the documents — a draft report from the department’s Disorder Control Unit — proposed in blunt terms the resumption of a covert tactic that had been disavowed by the city and the federal government 30 years earlier. Under the heading of recommendations, the draft suggested, “Utilize undercover officers to distribute misinformation within the crowds.”
Extra reading: People with time may find useful information in these reportbacks on the tactical situation from the protesters’ perspective: 1.
3. March 2003 Financial District Shut-down in San Francisco
This large-scale mobilization paralyzed the city’s financial district on the first two days of the invasion of Iraq. In summary,
- In San Francisco, the Bay Area Direct Action to Stop the War called for a next-day shutdown of the city’s financial district if the United States invaded Iraq. The well-publicized goals of the shutdown said in part, “We will impose real economic, social, and political costs and stop business as usual until the war stops…” (David Solnit and Aimee Allison, Army of None, p. 140)
- Thousands of anti-war protesters poured into San Francisco on Thursday, fulfilling their promise to disrupt life in the city as they occupied intersections, blocked buildings and tried to shut down the Bay Bridge in protests that occasionally turned violent.Sirens wailed throughout downtown and helicopters whirred overhead most of the day as police in riot gear hustled to keep up with bands of demonstrators. Often they were unsuccessful, as small groups of protesters scurried into place in intersections or dodged around corners to elude police. (SF Chronicle, March 20, 2003)
- Up to 1,400 had been arrested before the protests finally began to wind down after 11 p.m., and about 1,000 remained in custody. Most face citations for blocking traffic and failing to follow police orders, but at least 18 face felony charges.”This is the largest number of arrests we’ve made in one day and the largest demonstration in terms of disruption that I’ve seen,” said Assistant Police Chief Alex Fagan Sr., a 30-year department veteran. (SF Chronicle, March 21, 2003)
- A more detailed view here, and on video in We Interrupt this Empire.
Tactics for organizing: David Solnit and Aimee Allison assign the success of this movement to four factors that make up what they call a “common-strategy framework”:
- Clear What-and-Why Logic: Shut down the Financial District in order to impose a cost on war.
- Broadly Publicized: Repeated lead-up actions and press conferences, street art, tens of thousands of fliers, a widely utilized Web site and broad community mobilizing made sure a huge portion of the Bay Area knew what was planned and why.
- Mass Training and Mass Organization: A few thousand people received civil-disobedience trainings at schools, churches, and rallies, and well over a thousand people were directly involved in the organizing via affinity groups, working groups, and public meetings.
- Decentralization: Many allied groups who had minimal contact with the initiating organization understood and supported the strategy, and participated in the action without coming to an organizing meeting or bothering to identify as part of the organizing nucleus, “Direct Action to Stop the War.”
From my experience in this mobilization, it’s clear that all of these things were crucial. But so too was the nature of the overall plan, traditions of taking the streets, methods of responding, and sheer numbers. And one more thing helped incredibly:
- The civil disobedience pick and roll: Those of us who have gone through conventional nonviolence training usually learned to plan an action around arrests. Maybe not everyone gets arrested, but people who are willing to use that willingness to hold space, shut down an office, or simply make a point (recent example: the Tar Sands protests at the White House). Most normal people, on the other hand, tend to get out of arrestable situations while the getting is good. With an aggressive police force, this results in a very boring game of cat and mouse where people are swept all over town.
What San Franciscans accomplished in 2003, however, combined the best of both worlds. Committed activists, with our without lockdown equipment sat down in roadways, linked up across the fronts of corporate offices, and surged through semi-private spaces like lobbies and malls, in potentially arrestable actions. They took their places as if ready to get arrested, and they worked together with larger gathering crowds. But when the arrests came, nearly all of them melted back into the crowd. Meanwhile, the larger mass took advantage of the police concentration on one corner, including the really massive effort it takes to lock people up and cart them off to jail, to start taking over the next. Like the basketball move the pick and roll, this let people hold space in one place while setting up the next. It kept San Francisco protest rolling all day, while shutting down the financial district.
There’s much more experience to feed in, but all of this is a good start.
As we cheer on Egypt’s anti-regime uprising, we should also be learning as much as possible how it worked. Some things, of course, are only important in a society that has lived under decades of emergency rule. But most, I think, apply just about everywhere. Since we’ve seen government spying and storm trooper-style riot cops deployed in just about every country, it’s great when we can learn things that stop them.
Here are some of my favorites so far.
Open source protesting: Making its round in Egypt during the last days of January was a brilliant little pamphlet called “How to Protest Intelligently.” This easily reproducible, forwardable, xeroxable pamphlet brought together an open-ended set of tactics and strategies and widely distributed them. San Francisco bikers will be familiar with the well-distributed xeroxes that circulate at Critical Mass (some mockingly call this form of leadership “xerocracy”), but its relatively rare that protesters aim for mass distribution of their plans to the rest of society. When enough people are fed up, but might remain inactive without a plan, this can be strikingly effective.
By the way, open source is a metaphor here, that has relatively little to do with actual computers. It seems that e-mail and pdfs did actually help in Egypt, but mimeographs, printing presses, fax machines, or copiers would have functioned just as well in another era. (Non-blog-oriented hat-tip to the European collectives circulating open source windmill designs to put renewable energy into grassroots hands.)
Gather where you is, Converge on where you ain’t:* One piece of simple advice from the pamphlet is this universally applicable tactical plan. Apparently, it actually happened this way. Ahdaf Soueif, for example, reports:
This is the scene that took place in every district of every city in Egypt today. The one I saw: we started off as about 20 activists, after Friday prayers in a small mosque in the interior of the popular Cairo district of Imbaba. “The people – demand – the fall of this regime!” Again and again the call went out. We started to walk: “Your security. Your police –killed our brothers in Suez.”
The numbers grew. Every balcony was full of people: women smiling, waving, dangling babies to the tune of the chants: “Bread! Freedom! Social justice!” Old women called: “God give you victory.”
For more than an hour the protest wound through the narrow lanes. Kids ran alongside. A woman picking through garbage and loading scraps into plastic bags paused and raised her hand in a salute. By the time we wound on to a flyover to head for downtown we were easily 3,000 people. (“An eyewitness account of the Egypt protests,” Guardian, January 28)
* “If you can’t organize where you is, you can’t organize where you ain’t” — received Saul Alinsky-style wisdom
Missing step, How to Defend a Public Plaza from Cops and Mobs of Hired Thugs: Seriously, I’m curious. And a lot of experience has been generated.
How to make demands from a giant crowd: Now that Tahrir Square has proclaimed itself an “autonomous republic,” and demands are flying from every corner of Egyptian society, not to mention every foreign government, the crowds whose effort has made change possible are trying to articulate their demands. Here’s how:
In Tahrir, the square that has become the focal point for the nationwide struggle against Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship, groups of protesters have been debating what their precise goals should be in the face of their president’s continuing refusal to stand down.
The Guardian has learned that delegates from these mini-gatherings then come together to discuss the prevailing mood, before potential demands are read out over the square’s makeshift speaker system. The adoption of each proposal is based on the proportion of cheers or boos it receives from the crowd at large.
Delegates have arrived in Tahrir from other parts of the country that have declared themselves liberated from Mubarak’s rule, including the major cities of Alexandria and Suez, and are also providing input into the decisions.
“When the government shut down the web, politics moved on to the street, and that’s where it has stayed,” said one youth involved in the process. “It’s impossible to construct a perfect decision-making mechanism in such a fast-moving environment, but this is as democratic as we can possibly be.” (“Cairo’s biggest protest yet demands Mubarak’s immediate departure,” Guardian, February 5)
Responding to an open call circulating in the city, some 300 protesters against the bailout plan gathered in New York’s financial district and marched to the New York Stock Exchange at Wall St. and Broad yesterday afternoon. The crowd was loud, diverse and fed up. Video coverage of the rally is part of today’s Democracy Now! The Indypendent has a live blog archive of the protest. Click on the picture below for more Indymedia photos.
Being on the streets, there was a happy thrill to be back in force, in a protest taking over Wall Street for my first time since the J18 protest against the G8,* when a Reclaim the Streets protest flooded that intersection for nearly an hour. Of course, this time, our connection to most Americans was much more organic, as everyone from New York anarchists to Montana’s governor are raising big questions about this handover of government loans for junk securities.
What was strange, though, was to look so many Wall Street traders in the eyes. While many waded into the crowd to snap photos with their IPhones, others were visibly unnerved at the display of public opposition. And is the unfortunate nature of public protests we weren’t being the most articulate in our chants (see Tom Tomorrow from 1992 below), even if we were some times hillarious saying things like: “You break it, you bought it” and “You fucked up. Suck it up.” Above all, we needed to be loud and unequivocal in just the right physical space. Thankfully the media was the outlet for my desire to be articulate, and apparently for others desire if you listen to Democracy Now!
*Some of you may remember I worked on another more recent protest there, but I spent the morning working phones off-site.
The video collective Guerrilla News Network’s recent documentary on the Tibetan exile drive for independence asks some provocative questions, especially now that fighting back against the police has emerged as a tactic in recent days.
September 11th was a tragedy for the American people, but it was a boon for totalitarian regimes around the world. In the pursuit of its so-called “war on terror,” the United States has forged military alliances and inked trade deals with some of the world’s most repressive regimes. On September 13, 2001 China was quietly admitted to the World Trade Organization, and given Most Favored Nation status by U.S., despite the fact the country is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
With its economy booming, China has become desperate to exploit Tibet’s vast mineral and fuel reserves – and that has meant keeping a tight grip on any moves towards Tibetan autonomy. Arrests, torture and destruction of local culture continue despite the tireless work of Tibetan exiles and their high-profile western allies. In fact, the situation grows more dire by the day. Yet unlike an increasing number of indigenous liberation movements, Tibetans have not resorted to violence to achieve their goals.
In Faith in Exile, GNN asks, “Does the non-violent resistance of the Tibetan people provide a valuable lesson for a world in turmoil?”