You Can’t "Grow the Movement" by Dissing the Kids: On Chris Hedges and Occupy
You Can’t "Grow the Movement" by Dissing the Kids: On Chris Hedges and Occupy
By Katherine M Acosta; Friday, April 13, 2012 - Fire Dog Lake
Chris Hedges is on a mission. That mission is to save the Occupy movement from anarchists who employ any tactic of which Hedges does not approve. Apparently he never read, or gave credence to, anthropologist, anarchist, and sometime black bloc participant, David Graeber’s respectful and urgent open letter written in response to Hedges’ by now infamous article “The Cancer in Occupy.” Despite Graeber’s patient explanation that black bloc is a tactic, not a movement, and that anarchists like himself were centrally involved in organizing the occupation of Zuccotti park, creating the General Assembly process, and originating the 99% slogan, Hedges continues to refer to black bloc as a group of people and to assert that their “cynicism” and “feral” acts of violence will destroy Occupy from within.
Nor does it seem to matter to Hedges that his pronouncements do not reflect the spirit of a movement he claims to value and hopes to “grow.” That spirit is epitomized by the General Assembly, a remarkably democratic institution, where all voices are allowed a chance to be heard. Instead, the Harvard educated master of divinity continues to pound the pulpit, fulminating against what he describes as “black bloc anarchists,” and calling for the expulsion from Occupy of those who do not adhere to his extreme version of nonviolence.
In a video posted at Truthdig this week, of a question and answer period following a panel discussion at the April 2nd Control the Corporation conference, a self-identified anarchist asks Hedges how much he actually knows about Occupy, noting that many of the movement’s processes were authored by anarchists. Hedges responds that he, too, is an anarchist, a Christian anarchist, and that in his article he was not criticizing anarchy, but instead “stupidity.” Consider for a moment how it must feel to have someone not only telling you how the movement you helped to create ought to be run, but also demanding your expulsion from that movement, and calling your tactics “stupid.” I marveled, watching the video, at the restraint of the anarchists questioning Hedges. There was shouting at the end that I couldn’t make out, so perhaps they did ultimately respond with insults, but by then, who could blame them?
Central to the dispute between Hedges and the anarchists who helped to found Occupy is the issue of violence versus nonviolence – and how those are defined. In general terms, anarchism refers to the absence of rulers (hence, the “leaderless” Occupy movement). The idea is not lawlessness or general chaos, but rather, freedom from hierarchical authority and ruling power enforced by violence. Anarchism has a long history in the United States and many anarchists were involved in the early labor movement. Then, as now, anarchists sought to push back against police brutality. One contemporary method for doing so is the black bloc.
The black bloc tactic originated in Germany in the 1980s in response to police brutality against peaceful protesters. Participants dress in black and cover their faces to avoid identification and more easily evade police. American anarchist David Graeber describes the attire as:
...a gesture of anonymity, solidarity, and to indicate to others that they are prepared, if the situation calls for it, for militant action. The very nature of the tactic belies the accusation that they are trying to hijack a movement and endanger others. One of the ideas of having a Black Bloc is that everyone who comes to a protest should know where the people likely to engage in militant action are, and thus easily be able to avoid it if that’s what they wish to do.
Graeber also notes that anarchists are not the only activists who participate in black blocs.
Christian anarchism similarly rejects secular rulers, but embraces submission to god and the teachings of Jesus; in particular, the Sermon on the Mount. For the unchurched among us, these are the teachings that include the verses about the meek inheriting the earth, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, and calling peacemakers blessed. Nonviolence and pacifism are central tenets of Christian anarchism.
In the video cited above, Hedges calls for “a rigid adherence to nonviolence,” including “linguistic violence.” The “violence” that motivated Hedges’ original impassioned denunciation of “black bloc anarchists” was an action in Oakland on January 28th, during which, Hedges writes, some protesters “thr[ew] rocks, carried homemade shields and rolled barricades.” When protesters in New York took to the streets in solidarity with their comrades in Oakland, Hedges continues, “a few demonstrators” threw “bottles at police and dump[ed] garbage on the street. They chanted ‘Fuck the police’ and ‘Racist, sexist, anti-gay/NYPD go away.’”
Only in America would we see such hand-wringing and condemnation for such petty and isolated infractions – especially considering the length of the Occupy activity in the fall, the number of groups involved around the country, and the violence inflicted on peaceful protesters by the police. Hedges invokes Tahrir Square as an example Occupy should follow, yet some Egyptian protesters threw rocks and still considered themselves nonviolent. On March 29th, Spain saw a hugely successful general strike, (despite the union leadership), with nearly 80% of workers participating, and concurrent rioting in Barcelona, to protest privatization and austerity measures there. What happened in Oakland was child’s play in comparison. Oddly enough, Hedges himself praised Greek rioters in a May 2010 article in Truthdig:
Here’s to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their country. They know what to do when Goldman Sachs and international bankers collude with their power elite to falsify economic data and then make billions betting that the Greek economy will collapse. They know what to do when they are told their pensions, benefits and jobs have to be cut to pay corporate banks, which screwed them in the first place. Call a general strike. Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out. Do not be afraid of the language of class warfare — the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it. (Emphasis added.)
It is difficult to reconcile Hedges’ celebration of rioting in Greece with his angry screed against isolated incidents of rock and bottle throwing in response to police brutality in the United States. Hedges says his goal is to “grow the movement” and that the “violence” that occurred in Oakland alienates the mainstream. In other words, he wants middle-class Americans, including “parents with strollers,” to feel safe and comfortable in joining Occupy.
Who in their right mind would take a child in a stroller to places where police kettle, beat, and pepper spray peaceful protesters? That would be like taking a black child in a stroller to a lunch counter in Woolworths during the Civil Rights movement. Hedges himself says the Occupy strategy should follow that of the Civil Rights movement, of drawing out and exposing the violence that enforces an unjust system. By definition, that’s no place for a toddler – or for anyone expecting a risk-free day at the protest parade.
Then, as now, young people took the brunt of the violence. Certainly many people of all ages were involved in the Civil Rights movement and are participating in Occupy. But those at the forefront of the violence, at the lunch counters, on the Freedom rides, and at Occupy actions are primarily young people.
That’s why it’s so difficult to stomach Hedges’ arrogant attitude toward the anarchists and other young people who are the heart and soul of Occupy. At one point in the video, in response to a question from a young anarchist about diversity of tactics, Hedges reiterates that “nonviolence is the route” and asserts that “people in groups like Veterans for Peace or Code Pink, they’ve been doing this a really long time and we’d be very smart to listen to the lessons they’ve learned.”
Although Hedges did not speak harshly, in the context of the discussion, the comment reads as a sort of “sit down, shut up, and listen to your elders” type of response. Adding insult to injury, the moderator followed up by inviting Dorli Rainey, the 84 year old activist who was pepper sprayed in Seattle, on stage to voice probably the most ignorant opinion expressed in the video. “The anarchists are really not anarchists,” she declared. “They’re hoodlums!” The crowd of primarily white and middle to senior aged people gave her a standing ovation.
Hedges claims that “black bloc anarchism” is the “portal into the movement” by which agent provocateurs will undermine it; that “the goal is to sever the Occupy movement from the mainstream.” But black bloc or no black bloc, the movement has been and will be infiltrated – as have all social movements.
Hedges’ intransigent attitude and apparent unwillingness to engage in true dialogue with young activists at the center of the movement, whose views differ with his, constitutes a greater threat to the movement than any government infiltrator. Dismissing and alienating the brave and spirited young people who created Occupy will not “grow the movement” – though it may allow other entities to co-opt, and ultimately, kill it.
Hedges has written of the so-called “black bloc anarchists” that:
The Black Bloc movement bears the rigidity and dogmatism of all absolutism sects. Its adherents alone possess the truth. They alone understand. They alone arrogate the right, because they are enlightened and we are not, to dismiss and ignore competing points of view as infantile and irrelevant. They hear only their own voices. They heed only their own thoughts. They believe only their own clichés. And this makes them not only deeply intolerant but stupid.
Mr. Hedges, I respectfully suggest that you take a look in the mirror. Or, at the least, heed Matthew 7:5 and “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Katherine M Acosta is freelance writer currently based in Madison, Wisconsin. Contact her at kacosta at undisciplinedphd dot com. Her blog is UndisciplinedPhD.