Note: Nothing contained within here is meant to spur anyone to commit acts of violence. While I am a defender of violence and threats thereof as a tactic, I do not necessarily believe that our movement is in a place to begin committing these acts (though I think we should stand in solidarity with those who choose to do so, such as some in Oakland and elsewhere). It seems to me that, at this stage, it might be most important to build linkages with others outside of our movement, and if violence alienates those individuals, then perhaps it is a tactic best not used in the name of Occupy at this point in time (though I think we should leave that open to debate rather than assuming from the outset that violence is an illegitimate tactic). Instead, this article is meant to challenge the notion that violence is never acceptable and that only non-violent means serve legitimate purposes in a movement. I also do not intend this article to fetishize violence—I believe that both tactics have merit, and that both have a time and place.
Note 2: The first few paragraphs of this article involve some “theory” before moving on to pragmatics. I hope you’ll work through it!
Tonight, Occupy Philly will be holding a candlelight vigil for non-violence. The Facebook page for this even reads, “We invite our allies and friends to join us in expressing our earnest desire for continued nonviolence and an ongoing, peaceful dialogue with the City of Philadelphia.” It is unclear to me what use this language serves in light of recent events. While a candlelight vigil against the physical assaults on our comrades in New York, Oakland and elsewhere makes sense, the simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of violence that has been committed at Occupy protests nationally has been committed not by Occupiers, but by authorities such as the police, in apparent collusion with the federal government. So why is the candlelight vigil directed primarily at us? What use does it serve?
It seems to me that throughout the Occupies nationally, there has been a dogmatic Fetishization of non-violence; there has practically emerged a religious cult of the non-violent who are hijacking any other messages and denouncing the “sinners” of “a diversity of tactics” (seen above: are those who might consider using violence not your friends and allies? Are they not the 1%? Are we not the proletariat?). When I use the term “fetishization,” I mean it in its’ philosophical rather than sexual articulation (though it would be a mistake to construct these as wholly separate conceptual categories). When something, such as an object or other man-made construct, is fetishized it is endowed with supernatural powers and is believed to have an inherent value unto itself and independent of any other existential reality of the object. In the work of Karl Marx, the idea of fetishes in relation to commodity fetishism is used to describe something that people obsess over or concentrate on that prevents them from seeing the truth of the object or system in place. To move Marx’s analysis away from economics, we could say that the symbolic value of something is transformed into an inherent and objective value that the object has unto itself, which the fetishizer may treat as an axiom of the object.
In short, it is my opinion that we have seen such a value attributed to the concept of non-violence. Non-violence as a tactic has been treated by many in the Occupies as the starting point of dialogue rather than something to be debated. Non-violence is treated with a value inherent to itself that does not require dialogue, debate, or dialectical reasoning—in short, it is treated as if its value is axiomatic. When violent acts occur, even if those acts are of violence against something as arbitrary and unethical as private property—which is only itself every created and protected by the violence of the state, the capitalists, and alienated labor—those who have broken windows or some other such thing are immediately denounced (I would say that they are thrown under the bus, but I suspect that many on the side of pacifism would reject the violent metaphor). Often these individuals are assumed to be anarchists—and perhaps they are—but so what? There are both violent and non-violent anarchists. Must you homogenize and represent the group for us? And is our Occupation solidarity so weak that it breaks as easily as the glass on a storefront window the minute the religion of non-violence is confronted with an act that might be interpreted as violent? Are the pacifists so certain that their method is not only best, but that it actually works, that the very possibility of some other form of action need be removed from the table, necessarily?
The simple fact of the matter is that radical social change has never taken place without either violence or at least the threat thereof. Even the saints of the church of non-violence would often have not been successful if violence had not at least been on the table: Martin Luther King Jr. was successful in part because groups such as the Black Panthers, armed and ready, scared the white establishment so much that King’s non-violent methods seemed more acceptable. Gandhi’s movement in India was in part successful because of the horrors of World War II, which bankrupted England. In addition, there were violent activists in India at this time too, who are not often heard from in history texts.
However, if the dogmatic fetishization of non-violence is going to be enforced by the Occupying Powers That Be, then I encourage the following: either at tonight’s candlelight vigil, or at a future General Assembly, denounce the following, even if retrospectively: The Boston Tea Party, The American Revolution, The French Revolution, Native Americans fighting against colonization, slave uprisings against their masters and the racist American government, non-pacifist uprisings of poor people against the bourgeois ruling elite in America and the rest of the world, race riots in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, sabotage on behalf of workers in the 1930s or slaves in the American south, the events of May 1968, the Spanish Civil War, the acts of the Zapatistas in Mexico, the acts of the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Arab Spring, the Greek insurrectionists, the Weathermen, John Brown, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X… the list, of course, goes on… in short, denounce many of our radical forebrothers and foresisters who gave their freedom, blood and lives for a cause greater than themselves, who recognized that at times violence was a necessary tool. History teaches us repeatedly that the state will use violence, and that the state is only ever—EVER—threatened when violence is at least a possibility on behalf of the people.
Non-violence is one tool among many, and it is a legitimate tool with man wonderful and beautiful uses, and I encourage everyone to participate in non-violent acts, and I respect individuals who for personal or religious reasons will never be able to bring themselves to engage in acts of violence. But to engage in the dogmatic fetishization of non-violence, to become an adherent to the church of non-violence, will only work to separate us. Historically, the state has worked hard to separate movements. We see examples of this at least as early as 1636 when the state of Virginia passed laws granting advantages to the White indentured servants while placing all Black servants in permanent slavery. The state of Virginia was scared because a united working class was rising up and using acts of sabotage and violence against them. We see many such examples of historical splitting of movements, of ways of keeping us looking at each other rather than at the “1%” who are entirely willing to use violence against us as well as against our brothers and sisters in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else that the neo-liberal power structure is challenged.
We in Philadelphia have so far been left alone, more or less, by the police. This will inevitably not last. However, our brothers and sisters around the country and the world have not been so lucky, and they have been fighting back. Who are any of we to judge what they need to do to continue this movement?
When they kick out your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun? ~The Clash~