Hot & Cool Resistance: Negotiating Past Window Breaking

There is a never-ending debate about “violence” in Oakland's Occupy movement that is wearing out the local Occupy movement. (“Violence” in quotes because usually the activities being talked about would be called minor vandalism, not violence, in other settings.) A vast amount of negotiating has gone on within Occupy, but there's been a real failure to find consensus around the “Diversity of Tactics” that includes occasional broken windows. So far, there has been no answer that creates inclusion: if small groups of people are welcome to break windows, then large groups of people feel like it's not their movement, and go home. The web is full of both sides arguing that they are right: this isn't working, so I want to explore a minimal solution, where each side for the moment sets aside convincing the other, and instead figures out how to build an Occupy movement that doesn't self-destruct. I'm going to start with an end vision and work backwards:

End Result Conversations:

When someone who doesn't believe in breaking windows as part of the Occupy movement comes home from a day of protest...

... And a nonparticipant friend says “Hey what do you think of the violence at Occupy?”

We could create the space
for the Nonviolent Occupier to say:

“Well, in my world, it's pretty strange that you look at a veteran lying on the sidewalk with a broken skull for nothing but peaceably expressing himself [details], and look at a broken window, and ask me about the window. Can we talk about that after I answer your question?

I personally am part of a movement that is both dreaming and building a better future, not part of a movement that breaks things. A small number of people believe we can't help the people being screwed by the financial system without breaking things. I disagree: and if you disagree, if you want peace and prosperity and no more kids living in poverty, come join me. Now explain to me why when you read the news, you get more upset about a broken window than a broken skull? I want to hear your perspective.

Nonviolence practitioners would like everyone to see things our way, because, you know, we're right. Ok -- even if it's true, it's not working. The fundamental need of Nonviolence practitioners is not to have everyone who believes in rebalancing our country more in favor of the 99% to agree with us -- Gandhi and King succeeded without this. Rather, it is to have our voice, together, allowed to ring clearly. For us, we need to heighten the contrast between the repression of the state and our tactics. We need a stage where Nonviolent discipline is allowed to speak. That doesn't mean we can tell everyone else how to protest, but when we protest we need to have discipline like Gandhi and King encouraged. There needs to be a place for people who idealize loving the "enemy," whether 2% or 98% of the people who stand up and show up join that contingent. It needs its own banner, name, events and voice.
[short version: skip to agreements]

Today the Nonviolent Occupier talks about windows instead of her values:

I'm part of Occupy, and I don't believe in breaking windows, but the General Assembly and the marches are not clearly declared as peaceful and Nonviolent so some people do it, but I wish we could all stand for our values together. You can't say: I disagree with breaking windows: and if you disagree too, if you want peace and prosperity and no more kids living in poverty, come join me ... because then together we'll be adding our names and bodies to a movement that also breaks windows.

Someone who believes in any variant of nonviolence: total pacifism through to the very widespread “this window breaking is dumb” is part of a movement that was started as a media event, whose strongest media image is shattered glass and face masks. The conversation can't be ended sanely and turns to a mire. People don't come back.

The Debate Today: Prissy Enforcement Squad vs Out-of-Town white Black Bloc

One of my favorite articles about Occupy is Rebecca Solnit's describing how "civil society awoke and fell in love with itself." She argues for the beautiful, rather than raw power, approach. But nonetheless struggles with the advocates for nonviolence:

Those who advocate for nonviolence at Occupy should remember that nonviolence is at best a great spirit of love and generosity, not a prissy enforcement squad. After all, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who gets invoked all the time when such issues come up, didn’t go around saying grumpy things about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

Exploring the Vocabulary

Windows are broken. It's not Nonviolence and it's not Violence. It's not exactly the Anarchists nor the Black Bloc that break windows. In general, discussions about broken windows are soon down a rabbit hole of confusing terms, and never reach real discussions.

It's called Diversity of Tactics. For the typical mildly-active progressive who loves MLK, "Diversity of Tactics" sounds good: you mean sit-ins and letter writing and moving your money and organic gardens and meditation in public places? But if you mean "breaking windows" can you just say it? Here are terms I suggest, that would help the discussions:

  • Violence: harming people or animals. Perhaps leaving someone so destitute that they can't get health care or don't have a safe home at the end of the day would be accurately termed economic violence. The Oakland police cracking a protestor's skull is a strong case of violence.
  • Threats of Violence: showing up at a protest with a gun, like the Tea Party often does. Breaking windows might be seen this way -- it matters what the watchers feel, not just your position paper.
  • Smashing. Displaying your power or rage, creating a rallying cry, with token acts of destruction. The smashing in Oakland has generally been far less than violent.
  • Nonviolent Resistance. Nonviolence has an amazing history that even apathetic TV watchers know enough to recognize. Capitalized "Nonviolence" is an opposite of violence, not merely the lack of violence.

Introducing New Terms and a New Metaphor

There has been a giant debate over terms, so I'm going to make up some new ones.

Hot Radicalism is people who want to defeat the status quo and are at least OK with smashing.
Love Radicalism, which I might sometimes call Cool Radicalism, wants to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi or King.

Both sides ought realize that the other will take it as an insult to be called "less radical." People trying to change our hearts and our society at it's deepest roots, or people trying to confront the police who are the cutting edge of the evictions.

[expansion] Terms I Don't Want to Use: Diversity of Tactics

What do people who want to include broken windows within the movement want that to be called? Nonviolence has over half a century of track record, lots of people recognize it as “that's what King and Gandhi did” if nothing else. Diversity of Tactics includes two main sets of tactics – Gandhian Nonviolence and something else -- that have us yelling at each other month after month and year after year. It's not right to call the non-Nonviolence parts of the movement Anarchists, nor Black Bloc. When we say “Nonviolence and not Nonviolence” it sounds like you're violent.

So what term should be used? Does anyone have something better than “Smashing” as a term to include tactics that are angrier and more destructive than King's, but not violent either?

What's happening now: The debates among activists now tend to go off-track, quickly arguing about Anarchists or Black Bloc. I believe the practitioners of Nonviolence have generally failed to stand up for what they really want: they want the chance to have their message heard by the public, with the numbers they can attract, talking from their hearts, without getting gummed up talking about tactics they don't believe in. Care in defining people who break windows with a word different than the word used for cracking skulls should go hand in hand with increased demands for space to have their own message.

[expansion] Consensus Failure

Oakland Occupy has turned Consensus on its head. Normally, if you join a movement that says there must be 90% consensus to do something – you know, we say we represent the 99%, so we should be doing things that almost everyone agrees with – you need consensus to do something. In Oakland, you need 90% consensus to not to do something: window breaking will be part of our movement, even “officially” acceptable just like peaceful protest, until 90% of the people at a general assembly agree to ask for it to stop. Oakland Occupy will occupy a building amongst diversity of tactics, drawing in a huge police response, whenever a group of people can gather a few percent of the participants from a larger rally: there was no consensus not to occupy that building, so it's a go. We're creating the opposite type of democracy from the goals of a consensus effort: very few people are heard, small minority voices (usually white and male, from what I've seen) can do what they want, in our name.

Historical Comparisons

King and the Black Panthers

The Civil Rights movement struggled with much the same problem, struggled without exploding.

Hot and Cool Metaphor

I like these terms (they're just my terms) because tepid mainstream Democratic liberalism looks the same to both, and a tepid temperature or tepid love works as an analogy. Sometimes I would call the noisier Hot Radicalism and calmer Cool Radicalism as in the Civil Rights movement, because the combination of hot and cold can shatter concrete. But you have to keep them separate to do that: you have to force conservatives to face, in series, Hot and Cool threats. This both lets those forces create radical, fundamental, long-lasting change; and lets the unleveraged liberals who sit near the fulcrum shift the fulcrum just a bit towards kids getting health care and education.

The agreements

Starting Points

Ground rules:

  • Don't call window breaking violence.
  • All activists should support the rights of the other to protest without repression. It would be helpful for people who believe in Nonviolence to nonetheless be good at describing levels of violence, making it educational. You can consider breaking windows to be terribly destructive to the movement's hopes for success, without needing to call it violent, which helps nothing.
  • Come to each other's educational events, read each other's articles. One of the problems today is that we have gotten sick of each other, so we don't listen anymore.
  • While breaking a few windows isn't really a very serious crime, taking away other peoples' voices is. People who break windows or participate in other forms of smashing have an obligation to be clear, and leave space for people who want to participate in Nonviolence.

More specific steps:

  • Clarity for new entrants. Declare events Nonviolent or not-specifically-Nonviolent with strong clarity, so that if 10,001 people show up, 10,001 know which it is.
  • Nonviolent, new-entry activists (and long-timers) must have a movement to call their own. To me, the ballerina on top of the Wall Street bull, the tactic of tents on a field, evoked a traditional Gandhian image. I expect that huge proportions of the participants thought they were joining such a movement. We never asked for our movement to go from tents to smashing windows, and felt like it wasn't our movement after that.

Believers in nonviolence don't need to be the "prissy enforcers." They need to transform from enforcers to teachers, and just like in a classroom, it's hard to do both at the same time. You can't force someone to do what you want and convince them at the same time. The conflict between people who break windows and the state should be left between people who think that is a good idea, and the state. Nonviolence citizens can more easily defend the basic rights of, say, a graffiti artist/vandal that we disagree with if we are in fact outside their movement, then if we're trying to protect someone inside. King could say that the Black Panthers are a separate group of people using tactics that were not his tactics, but that the state (and his supporters) still needed to treat them as human beings. By not trying to have tactical-solidarity, there is no longer a need to enforce or dehumanize.

I would not, I very strongly would not, do what we're doing now: have marches that do not have consensus to be peaceful, and have banners about nonviolence at those marches. It muddles the very message of Gandhi's nonviolence being powerful, even just making sense, and it entangles people who deeply believe in love and transforming your opponents into marchers in an incomprehensible amalgamation. It makes our large gatherings de-mobilizers that exhaust ordinary people from participating further. Stay home from Oakland's events that don't have a consensus not to smash, and plan other events: the St Paul Principles are very interesting because we're not meeting the separation in time and space requirement.

A Potential Nonviolent Position Within Occupy Oakland

A variation on the St Paul Principles:

Needs to and from Nonviolent Practitioners:

  • There will be an officially nonviolent organization to join. Many of us would like that to be named "Occupy Oakland." If we can't get consensus, then we will organize under another name. There can still be joint events, but there should always be a clear ability for people who believe in Nonviolence to say "it's not in my name" to tactics that are so deeply not their own. This is a fundamental step to reach the quote at the beginning of this article.
  • Events will be clearly labeled, in way that makes it easy for people who are not heavily active and used to the jargon, to tell whether the event is Diversity of Tactics [DOT] or Nonviolent. This does not need to become a separation of communities: people can choose to go to either or both events.
  • (In turn) Practitioners of Nonviolence are encouraged to recognize that calling the police so that the police can arrest or attack DOT activists can also be considered violence.
  • It's not our job -- and needs to be made "not our job" by having separate organizations -- to defend or agree with tactics such as breaking windows. In turn it is also not our job to intermediate between the police and corporations and not-violent but not Nonviolent protests.

When the agreement fails

  • The last thing we should be doing is wandering around protests where smashing is officially on the menu, carrying signs that we're a nonviolent caucus.
  • I vote for a general separation of Nonviolent protests and smashing: if an event isn't Nonviolent, I don't want to show, don't want to invite my friends. May Day or WTO Summit of course draw everyone, so physical separation is the best that can be done; but I'd prefer to see other events held under the Nonviolent banner solo.

Just Understanding

For people who haven't spent too much time staring at this debate, some footnotes that might make it more comprehensible:

Black Bloc shields

Black Bloc shields are saving peaceful protestors from violence, and melding the movement among people who stay on the street.

[Expansion] Nonviolence and Consensus Democracy for Occupy Wall Street National

Nationwide, Occupy has largely chosen nonviolence, and a form of consensus that means there should be widespread agreement before things are done in our name. In Oakland, we've reversed both of these.

OWS should either say that it encompasses nonviolence only, or only groups that have consensus to leave nonviolence: a minimum sanity- and democracy-check is that there should be local consensus before people go beyond King/Gandhi tactics under the Occupy name. Actions that do not have local consensus should not be done in our name.


Only quickly researched, but anti-fascists in Dresden seem to have worked out a decent compromise meeting the needs of both sides.