The following is a contribution to the debates on violence, property damage and militancy unfolding in the aftermath of the Oakland general strike. Written by a comrade in the Bay Area, the piece was originally published on CounterPunch.
On "Violence" at Occupy Oakland
by Emily Brissette
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children….”
These were Father Daniel Berrigan’s words when he was on trial in 1969 for a draft board raid in Catonsville, Maryland. He and eight others had entered the draft board office during business hours, removed draft files (against some resistance from the staff) and then burned them out front with homemade napalm. At the time, there were many who construed this as an act of violence and, given the denunciations of property destruction emerging out of Oakland today, there are many in our current day who would undoubtedly agree. But Berrigan and many of the others who carried out draft board raids were principled pacifists and did not understand the destruction of draft files as an act of violence. Disruptive, disturbing, provocative? Without a doubt. Shot through with incivility? Perhaps, if you insist. But the point was that when the forces of order and “civility” wreak havoc—destroying homes, livelihoods, and lives—the “fracture of good order” is not only warranted, but necessary and indeed a moral obligation.
There are no easy or simple parallels between the destruction of draft files in the 1960s and the breaking of bank windows today. It is, however, worth thinking through the commonalities—both are largely symbolic actions targeting the physical manifestations of a system that causes harm to people—and pausing a moment on that logic. This means restraining the urge to react with hostility to the idea of property destruction, reining in the urge to simply denounce it as violence and thus close off reflection and debate (since all “good” people are necessarily opposed to violence). And it means setting aside for the moment—but only for the moment—the question of whether tactics involving property destruction makes sense in this particular time and place.
The question that first needs to be addressed is: what is violence? what defines an act as violent? This seemingly simple question is anything but. This has been a point of contention—and yes, division—in progressive social movements for at least the past half century. For those who see property destruction as a legitimate tactic under certain circumstances, including Catholic pacifists in the 1960s who saw little disjunction between their avowed pacifism and acts of restrained destruction, violence above all denotes harm to human beings (and other living things). This is the touchstone for determining whether an act constitutes violence: are people being injured or killed?
When the definition of violence is expanded to include acts that are directed at property only, in which no person is at risk of injury, property is treated as on par with (and in practice often more valuable than) human life. We live in a system characterized by deep stratification and inequality. In this context in which some human lives are accorded very little worth, to treat property destruction as a form of violence minimizes the daily experience of real violence—harm to human beings—in many communities. It also makes it hard to see systemic, structural forms of violence—the harm of under-resourced schools, shuttered libraries, inadequate and labyrinth mental health services; the harm of foreclosure, unemployment, and hunger—as violence, because we are so accustomed to thinking of violence as a great outburst or a spectacle instead.
That so many react with horror and outrage at broken bank windows is not, however, surprising. The capitalist system in which we live sanctifies property and personalizes corporations, while dehumanizing millions of people in the US and billions worldwide. To a very large degree these ideas suffuse our common sense; they are the taken-for-granted assumptions out of which our moral and affective reactions emerge. But if we are serious about transforming our society to put human need at the center of our politics and economic practices, then we need to attend to the way unexamined assumptions shape our interpretations of this moment, its pitfalls and possibilities, and the way forward. We must deny the existing system the power to define the situation for us. We must root out the ways it shapes our interpretations and reactions, by thinking deeply, probing our assumptions, questioning the origins of our gut reactions and the allegiances these express. We must have the courage to pursue personal transformation alongside, in conjunction with, and as mutually constitutive of the social transformations we seek.
And we must have the courage to embrace disruption. As scholars and many participants of social movements have long pointed out, movements have transformative potential when they disrupt the status quo, when they interrupt or make difficult the smooth functioning of daily routines, when they unsettle a passive acceptance of social norms, values, or ideals. The Occupy Wall Street movement knows this intuitively, and on November 2nd Occupy Oakland pulled off the movement’s boldest act of disruption to date, with mass convergences and the forced closure of the Port of Oakland.
But a lingering fear remains within many, a fear of disruption that echoes in frantic calls for “peaceful protest.” To be clear: a fear of disruption does not usually inhere in calls for peaceful or nonviolent protest that issue from a deeply held and principled pacifism. Indeed, many committed pacifists have assumed great risks and stepped beyond the bounds of prevailing social norms in their efforts to transform society. A fear of disruption—and particularly of the consequences it might unleash—does however circulate among many today who insist on peaceful protest. Here peace is not equated with justice but with pacification. A desire for order, for predictability, for security.
This comes out most clearly in some of the proposals circulating for how to deal with those who engage in property destruction. Discursively expelling the “black-clad anarchists” from the fold of the 99%, either by insisting that they are another 1% who usurp or destroy the good of the many or by irresponsibly painting all as agents provocateurs, is perhaps the most benign—while at the same time fraught with all the dangers that divisiveness invites. Some proposals have gone further, suggesting the creation of an internal police force within the Occupy movement or active collaboration with the police. The irony, if these proposals and the sentiments they express were not so worrying, is that this vigilantism itself harbors the threat of violence—real violence, directed at people who have been cast out and made targets.
The unacknowledged assimilation of peace with pacification will only fetter the movement’s potential, by keeping us bound to and within the bounds of the dictates of order. This is not to celebrate an equally unthinking embrace of property destruction or overly confrontational tactics. But we must create space for a diversity of tactics—not, as some have suggested, as code for the legitimation of violence—but as a necessary corollary to the diversity of this movement itself. We must find a way to harmonize our myriad voices—not by silencing some, but by giving each its range of expression. We must accept that social transformation will entail conflict, that we won’t always be embraced by our audiences (even those in whose name we speak), and welcome the personal and collective growth that conflict can engender. We must, in short, recognize the power we wield in our capacity for disruption, and let go of our fear.
Emily Brissette is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley, where she is completing a dissertation on the effects of deeply held cultural beliefs within the movements against the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. She can be reached at ebrisset (at) berkeley.edu