Random Thoughts: February 8, 2012

Diversity of Tactics Scapegoating:
Is Anything More Productive Than Finger-Pointing?
by Jasmine Sailing

(Obviously these are my opinions alone, and they are heavily based on what I have seen at Occupy Denver combined with what I have read via Twitter and personal accounts or seen via livestream and video clips. I have not seen an Occupy other than the Denver one in person. I have seen plenty of other protests that were not Occupy-related.)

I’ve been feeling a bit frustrated by the latest face of the diversity of tactics argument that chronically rears up in Occupy. This common occurrence strikes me as ironic at best. The primary argument against diversity of tactics has always been that people use it as an excuse for being violent or destructive in a movement that is generally considered to be a non-violent movement.

Silly little concept here: if those people didn’t have a catch-phrase excuse like “diversity of tactics” would they suddenly behave exactly as you want them to? No, they would use another excuse or no excuse at all.

It seems to me that the people who really care the most about this term are the ones who are frustrated about this or that going wrong with Occupy. Fingers start pointing, saying “these people (black bloc is the current popular scapegoat) who use diversity of tactics as an excuse are ruining Occupy!”. That brings out an opposing faction of anyone who takes any form of offense at any attempts to restrict individualism.

Where am I on this? I take some forms of offense at any attempts to restrict individualism. I am also opposed to using blanket stereotyping to target groups. I don’t even care what the stereotyping is. There are some good cops, Christians, Republicans, you name it.

I made the same arguments way back when I was teenager, prematurely (and briefly) married to a straight edge peace punk anarchist type (really, no one is as easy to label in one word as people want to believe they are... even that rambly label leaves plenty of significantly important information left unsaid, but it’s not relevant to the statement I’m going to make so I’ll go ahead and censor it). I once pointed out to him that if people make a blanket statement about “those damn yuppies”, it really is no different than the “those damn punks” statements they’re complaining about the “damn yuppies” making.

I was also opposed to calling all skinheads Nazis because I had known skinhead gangs that were, in fact, very ANTI-Nazi. In all of my life, the funniest moment I ever saw of stereotypes gone wrong was when I saw a band of peace punks persistently try to start a fight with a group of skinheads who weren’t interested in fighting with them.

People vary. They can surprise you. Labels don’t tell a story. It’s inaccurate to say “this one thing, or this one group, is hurting Occupy’s reputation” because there are far too many different types of people who could be doing that. And at least when it’s within a group that has been active with Occupy for a long time it’s not going to be the case that everyone (or even more than a very small fringe) in the accused group is doing whatever they’re being accused of.

Are all anarchists black bloc? Obviously not. Some are. A much greater majority aren’t. Are all black bloc anarchists? No. Black bloc is simply a tactic for anonymity and solidarity. People who come dressed as black bloc can be anything ranging from people who want anonymity (eg so they won’t lose their jobs or get their pictures on file as terrorists simply for peacefully protesting), to people who are coming prepared in case something happens (but who definitely would not start anything), to people who actively want to be violent or destructive. Out of all of those, I would definitely put the latter one in the minority (from what I have seen).

Yet that minority category, on its own, could be separated into many subcategories. All of these subcategories also exist within the broader Occupy populace of people who aren’t black bloc. They include people who couldn’t care less about the movement and just want to start trouble, people who do care about the movement and want to fight back against the forces that are trying to crush it, people who hate the movement and want it to look bad, and people who want to disrupt the movement for professional reasons. If you remove black bloc from the equation and only consider the general Occupy populace, you might be able to add “people who tweak out over large numbers of riot police surrounding them, aiming rubber pellet guns at them, and using pepper spray on them”.

You can also drift down toward anything as simple as “someone who had a few too many at a nearby bar and wants a fight” or “someone whose football team lost that day and wants to vent rage about it”.

We can easily say the problem with black bloc has always been that it can be infiltrated by people with bad intentions toward a movement (if there are enough of them that no one will notice eyes they can’t recognise). Just as we can easily say any good-sized march or rally can easily attract people who just want an excuse to run amok.

And, mind you, any complaints of black bloc being easy to infiltrate would apply to anything that provides mass anonymity. For instance, a crowd of people wearing Guy Fawkes masks would have the same issues.

Do people who smash in the windows of a small business and loot it care about a movement that tries to speak up for the needier and the non-corporate? Obviously not. They care about having an excuse to smash and loot, and any excuse will do. There was a post football game riot here where a window at a nice local independent bookstore was smashed. That wasn’t black bloc. It was Bronco bloc.

If I was going to scapegoat things for “what went wrong with Occupy” I would choose poor handling by city administrations and police, major media, and Occupy’s overall kind-heartedness. Probably in that order. And I would give misrepresentation in social media a runner-up position, but only with the qualifier that social media has also helped a lot.

My brain stockpiles random moments of kindness throughout my life, including times when I was a young kid. They seem too few and far between, and they have a healing power. That’s probably the main reason I don’t like the same blanket stereotypes as others of my general philsophical and political leanings. There’s too much of a range to the people I can attribute those rare moments of kindness to.

Obviously October 27, the first big snow day at Occupy Denver, was a collection of those nice moments for me, and definitely a day of healing portions of my, as I like to call it, foul black heart (her heart grew at least one size that day!). Which is good, because October 29 at Occupy Denver was a day of further darkening my heart... and not because of anyone who was there for the rally and march.

At the end of the October 29 march I was sitting with my teenage daughter, listening to peoples’ mic speeches. She was studying Civics in school. I wanted her to see a peaceful protest, and to hear people voicing their concerns. In my opinion that is an excellent learning experience. And it wasn’t the only excellent learning experience she had that day. She also saw a fine example of how peaceful protest can go completely wrong, for no good reason.

Unlike too much of the crowd, she was already aware that such a thing could happen. Before the march, I gave her a lecture about potential hazards and how to handle them as safely as possible. So there came the moment when, as we sat there listening to speakers, and the crowd around us was still mostly about as white and middle class looking as can be (ie the movement was exhibiting signs of dangerous popular appeal), she said “We’re being surrounded”.

Yes, we were. Every street around us was full of police cars. Riot police began walking up the lawn. People were notably excited (not in a good way). I told my daughter we weren’t doing anything wrong, she should remain calm and stay on the sidewalks. I heard some other people telling others the same general thing. I wasn’t actually calm, I only looked the part, and my daughter was flat out scared (to this day she describes the police surrounding us as “creepy”), but so far it was safe enough for her to experience just a little more of it before getting her out of there.

This was an instance of those much-coveted (and used as an excuse for targeting whatever scapegoat of the moment as people who scare off the mainstream from Occupy) “timid middle class liberals” being present... and being scared off. I don’t know how many were scared off by simply being surrounded and thereby intimidated. I do know that many were scared off before part 2 (and I later gave advice to quite a few people about simply leaving immediately after marches if they were too afraid of the possibility of police trouble).

The ostensible excuse for 200 riot police descending on Occupy Denver that day was that a few tents had gone up in Civic Center Park. Therefore huge amounts of tax $ (I am a Denver tax payer, and seeing multiple instances of this gratuitous waste was nothing short of hideous after all of the talk of how broke Denver is during the mayoral election earlier in the year... Feh, we don’t need schools, libraries, rec centers, and mass transit. All we need is to be sure we’re safe from tents and peaceful assembly!) were wasted to tackle a few tents.

Except in that the police aimed for the people instead of the tents. Before things got exciting at Civic Center Park I took my daughter to the library café and left her there with a drink and some food. She’s old enough to go to libraries herself. I wanted to see how bad it was getting, and to take pictures and shoot what little video I could on my dwindling battery charge.

That day, and the next Saturday afternoon to include masses of riot police, I did indeed see a lot of people being scared off (and others no doubt being formally radicalised by the experience) by diversity of tactics. Problem being, it was the police who were using diversity of tactics. Intimidating people by surrounding them with large numbers. Driving into a crowd with motorcycles and bicycles to separate them into multiple groups, using pepper spray and pepper balls. I’m sure many of us have seen video footage from it, there was so much that I didn’t bother making videos and only shared photos.

What people who weren’t there probably didn’t see a lot of was how peaceful and cheerful the crowd was before they were suddenly surrounded (initially at the Capitol, then the remnants were divided at Civic Center Park). And how suddenly the vibe changed to nervous fear when they were surrounded. They also likely wouldn’t have seen the change from nervous fear to stronger fear and anger after the pepper spray came out. I saw a lot of people yelling at police, ranging from “Shame on you!” to less polite language. And almost every single one of them were in their normal clothing. About the only difference is that there were more people wearing bandanas over their mouths and noses because the pepper spray fumes were heavy in the air and enough to choke anyone standing within range.

It’s not that there weren’t any people there in black bloc garb, it’s simply that they weren’t any different from the rest of the stressed out crowd. Nor had they been doing anything unusual during the march (not that I saw or saw reported anyway). The infamous pushing of the motorcycle, the infamous photo of a person in a cop’s stranglehold, etc, all involved completely un-anonymous people.

I wish I’d had a bandana on. I remember standing there filming and photographing in the pepper spray fumes, choking, wishing I hadn’t left my water bottle at the library and brought a coffee I’d bought there instead. The coffee helped a little, but I had a bad cough the next day. And I got sick.

Before my battery died I walked the perimeter and documented that the police and people were on one side of the square, and the tents were completely alone on the other side. You could wonder why spending so much money to send in 200 riot police to deal with a few tents was necessary, when they could have saved a lot of money by sending in less police later in the day after the extra crowds who came for the march dispersed. But then you would need to wonder why they were hassling the people and leaving the tents alone (until later).

The diversity of tactics, courtesy of the city’s administration and police, that continued to scare people away expanded to include encumbrance violations (nothing but your feet should be on the ground in a public park), ticketing people for stopping to let donations of warm clothing and food be taken out of their cars, even ticketing someone for honking in support as they drove by (even though honk and waves are a popular device for campaigning politicians and the current mayor used that exact device).

One of my “favourite” moments was the Sunday after the first encumbrance sweep, when there was an open forum about what had happened the night before (when fire extinguishers joined the police diversity of tactics list and everyone ultimately marched out of the park and got pursued downtown). There was one item on the sidewalk: a very small folding table that had political literature and food on it. Initially the police said it was okay. Then they changed their minds and tackled it. The literature was dumped on the ground, the table and food were taken away.

Next we have diversity of tactics courtesy of mass media and social media. There was plenty of coverage of the riot police, and of the few things that went at all mildly wrong on the Occupy end during the incident. Where was the equal amount of coverage of the good march that was without incident? Or of the crowds who were cheerful and listening to speakers afterward, right up until being surrounded scared them?

Blowing things out of proportion, misrepresenting, selective coverage, very creative interpretations, unprofessional carelessness, these are just a few of the tactics used. Take, for instance, my Thoughts entry from December 18. Occupy Denver was in their usual place, having a mainstream march and speakers forum for Migrants’ Rights. Over in Cherry Creek, two completely different groups had a collision with each other: the Elves Revolt and SantaCon. Read that entry for further info but, in essence, despite being elsewhere on the same afternoon, Occupy Denver took the mass media blame for events organised by two unrelated groups.

(And this sounds about as hearsay as can be, but someone I know is good friends with the SantaCon Santa who was arrested. He told me he was arrested because they thought he was an Occupy Denver person.)

Then there was the Homeless Vigil incident that I put up a video from. That was a big media smear for Occupy Denver, who had neither organised it nor endorsed it. They couldn’t have. It was the day after yet another encumbrance eviction. Barely anyone was there before the 7pm GA (the vigil was at 6), barring homeless people ranging from depressed to angry and a few other stragglers. People who had good reasons to be angry about the mayor, who had once again left them to freeze on the sidewalks, giving a speech about supporting homeless people that night. I overheard the anger while passing out coffee (and feeling very disturbed myself about seeing previously lively homeless people looking like they were waiting to die) and could automatically picture the chain of events.

The vigil was going to begin in about two hours. Some angry people would turn up there and, who knows, yell at the mayor or whatever (turned out to be a chant of “shame” for the most part... had it seriously been Occupy Denver it would’ve no doubt been a coordinated mic check instead). I could easily picture what the headlines were going to be: “Occupy Denver shamelessly disrupts vigil for dead homeless people!”. So I left to get my camcorder.

The only speaker disrupted was the mayor (and his announcer, upon introducing him), getting bombarded with shames and boos from a small crowd who didn’t appreciate it that he seemed to be trying to put them or people they cared about on the next list of deceased homeless people. Yet the media coverage was exactly how I pictured it, making it sound like Occupy Denver randomly trashed a memorial vigil because they don’t like the mayor.

Social media was a depressing frenzy of people linking articles about it and saying “Occupy Denver is disgusting!”, eating up every word without bothering to check the facts. Even though the video I put up should have made the facts reasonably clear, I got some hate over it (though I was silent and only filming and holding a candle during the vigil) and was told that I should work for Westboro Baptist Church. Er. They don’t hire people like me. They would probably rather burn people like me.

I spent so much time arguing over the whole thing, and about how the mayor wasn’t censored because that little group could hardly overpower the sound system (his own dramatic hesitance handled that), that at one point I tweeted “Won’t somebody think of the politicians? They never have a chance to speak!”.

But there it was. The middle class that Occupy wants to attract thought Occupy Denver was disgusting because of a small fringe group (that I personally agree with, and tried to protect because I couldn’t get those images of depressed homeless people waiting to die out of my head... I felt deeply haunted) and overly selective media coverage.

Which leads to my other “scapegoat”: the overall kind-heartedness of Occupy.

Many people can't seem to admit that what Occupy “did wrong” was a lot of good things. They tried to be all-inclusive, which allows any bad element to join in (yes, including rowdy football fans). They took care of homeless people, including mentally unstable ones who freak out about being suddenly surrounded by riot police. They set up systems for direct democracy, which means the majority who are bothering to be present and participate can decide what to do. They allowed for individualism.

No matter how much it tarnishes Occupy’s reputation, I can’t imagine feeling bad about any Occupies helping mentally unstable people and drug addicts. It’s absurd that a reputation can be tarnished by getting out there and directly helping people who need help. Yes, this is reality and reputations get tarnished because people are either misinformed or care more about having a pretty view of reality that doesn’t involve “unsightly” people.

Nothing like that ever scared me away from Occupy Denver in the least. The area it’s in has always been full of mentally unstable people and drug addicts. I wouldn’t be able to walk down Colfax if I was easily intimidated by such things. Bruce commented that, since Occupy Denver began, he hasn’t been hit up about drugs in Civic Center Park... but he used to be hit up at least a few times if he crossed the park. I’m not big on crowds of people, yet outside of times involving police I have always felt reasonably comfortable at Occupy Denver. I’ve even gone there at night wearing the same coat my Mom was wearing when she got mugged a couple of blocks from there several years ago.

Granted I lived in Capitol Hill for years, and I’m used to things that might bother people from the suburbs. But it’s also true that I’m uncomfortable with people, and the only people who ever made me feel downright anxious at Occupy Denver were the police.

I admit I’m not the sort who can lock into a meditative pose and breathe deeply while I’m waiting for pepper spray or perhaps a truncheon smashing my ribs. I’m not a pacifist. What I am is someone who fears violence because I was on the losing end of it for too long in my younger years. I don’t fault people for feeling the need to fight back when they are being attacked. It’s equally true that I don’t think fighting the police is anything more than a losing battle that I personally prefer to avoid. I have found myself ranging from calmly shooting video, to backing up anxiously, to joining singing lines and even a singing mini-march away from the police.

I’m unhealthy and unlikely to survive brutality or long waits for processing in police busses. If I’m arrested for anything, it will most likely be for something a person definitely shouldn’t be getting arrested for.

Rather sounds like I’m one of the people who could be scared off from Occupy by any number of things, right? Currently I’m a little scared off by the changes in the comfy routines of scheduling that I’d settled into. My mundaneness is disturbed, I must remember to pay attention (and unfortunately I’m a pre-occupied airhead).

I’ve had too much of a life to be easily scared off, though. Intimidated, sure, but I’m stubborn. Whereas I don’t personally want to get into a fight with police, I can very easily understand why some people (especially the people who, unlike me, are there getting harassed and evicted on a chronic 24-7 basis) feel pushed to the point of wanting to. I label that: not something I want to participate in, but likewise not something I want to judge.

And, seriously, is it the best bet for Occupy to alienate people who have stuck with it through all of the hardships in favour of people who were largely scared off a long time ago? I’m far more in favour of finding ways to give people with different motivations and comfort levels ways to do something without causing problems for each other.

There has been compromise on this issue at Occupy Denver. Recently there was a Friday Occupy the Courts march organised by MoveToAmend with assistance and support from Occupy Denver. I only watched the livestream, but I could see plenty of demographics that aren’t well-represented at Occupy Denver anymore being better represented there. The next day I was at an Occupy Denver Civil Liberties funeral and march. Considering the subject matter, it was understandably a particularly spirited and more militant-minded march. There wasn’t any trouble.

Not long before those marches there had been an Occupy Denver march that joined up with a mini-march and rally against Suncor, which was organised by The American Indian Movement and Deep Green Resistance. The theme completely changed between the 2 parts of the march, and I was being whipped mercilessly by my excess signs on a high wind day, but I was glad to be able to go to both (I am an environmentalist who was co-opted by Occupy after all, heh).

At this point in time it seems to me that people who are uncomfortable with the Occupy reputation, or anything about the atmosphere, or who would simply prefer focusing on other issues, should be able to look to Occupy both for feeling empowered to have their own rallies and marches or to outright ask Occupy for assistance. Those two fairly recent solidarity events were fine examples of this (MoveToAmend even brought their event proposal to the Occupy Denver GA for a vote!).

The Elves Revolt was a fine example of separate groups simply being empowered to have their own marches up different streets. That one was definitely a lot more radicalised. People who disapprove of anonymity would not only have been disappointed to see some people in black bloc attire, but even moreso at seeing green bandanas being handed out to everyone who wanted one. Yet, despite being followed through the streets by absurd numbers of police, there were no incidents. Not counting the completely unrelated SantaCon arrestee (SantaCon isn’t a political thing, it’s a “for the sake of fun disruption” kind of thing). It would be nice if the people who organised the Elves Revolt march could work with Occupy Denver without being accused of being agent provocateurs. But they can’t, for now, so they’re doing their own things.

Why not face it? City governments across the country, with the aid of police and media, did a fine job of radicalising Occupy and smearing its reputation. Yet Occupy has been successful in many ways – for instance, by solidly exposing the attempts at defeating the movement to anyone who is willing to pay attention. And don’t think there aren’t people who pay attention. I still see shocked gasps and comments ala “This is in AMERICA?” when people are watching crackdowns on Occupies via livestreams.

I’m proud of Occupy. It has gotten people talking about many important issues, brought people together and allowed them to educate each other, and done a great deal to expose our rapidly dwindling rights.

But, as noted, some people seem to get frustrated about head counts and strengths not being as high as they could be, and look around for who to blame it on.

There’s a lot of buzz about the Chris Hedges black bloc article right now. Setting him aside, because he was talking about things he hadn’t seen in person and (as far as I know) mostly running off of past experience with the known historical pitfalls of black bloc, and off of his own non-violent beliefs, his article is being joyously and rather thoroughly used in social media by people who dislike either black bloc or militant reactivism or both (including many people who blamed it all on the anarchists before).

The comment that triggered me into writing this was someone saying “Look at history” as a way of proving that only non-violent activism works. You know, I have to agree. They should look at history. If you see a successful non-violent movement in history, you are almost certain to see a more militant movement in its shadows. There was Malcolm X and the Black Panthers in the shadows of Martin Luther King Jr, there was Subhash Bose and the Indian National Army to the non-passive side of Gandhi.

History loves the pacifists because they make a much prettier picture (and easier Oscar win movies, for that matter). The seriously militant movements scare people, the people think the pacifist ones look appealing in comparison and as a result those ones often gain a lot of public support. And then in turn they’re the ones who are more feared by the government, because they can develop that popular support. Occupy threatened to develop that popular support and therefore was fated to being nearly beaten into the ground, with only the stubbornness of the people who were determined enough to stick it out saving it from annihilation.

Yet people act like 1. There can only be one movement and 2. It’s possible for an all-inclusive movement to not include militant or negative elements. What happens then? Police and press scare timid people away. People who want a clean big movement take it out on militants and run them off. And it doesn’t much matter, since the militants weren’t the ones who scared the masses off in the first place.

For anyone who seriously wants a solidly pacifist movement that looks pretty, here’s a thought: they can do what MLK did! They can have sit-ins that only pre-screened people are allowed at! They can even refuse to try to be all-inclusive like Occupy from the start, and make sure they only have the types of people they want. Why not do that instead of brewing desires to oust people who dug in their heels at Occupy? Well, sure, there’s the little problem that being a leader for a successful pacifist movement seems to come with a bad track record of being shot to death... but if it’s really that important to them, they should be willing to take that risk, right?

Much as the still smaller fringes of people at Occupy who are furious about themselves and their movement being attacked have the ability to decide for themselves if they want to risk being beaten, pepper-sprayed, uncomfortably detained, and possibly killed for standing up to the police.

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