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What Progressive Criticisms of Anarchists in Occupy Don't Understand: A Response to Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges' "Black Bloc" takedown is only the most recent in a series of critiques bashing anarchists within the national Occupy movement. Here's why they're not helpful.

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Of course, when Hedges and other critics pointed to Occupy Oakland's failures on January 28, they were not talking about black bloc - those torn fences and an autonomous and unfocused city hall melee were the only property destruction Oakland saw that day. No, they mean Occupy protesters who choose to stand up to the police. And for Hedges and others on the left hoping Occupy makes strides toward national change, standing up to the police is a public relations liability and those who do it should be "purged" from the movement - an arguably violent claim in and of itself.

"People want a boogeyman," says occupier Laura Long. "They want to know what's failing. And they want to blame it on someone." Mayor Jean Quan repeatedly points to Occupy Oakland's lack of a nonviolence resolution as justification for repeated crackdowns and arrests. As one Oakland occupier said recently, "Even if we had a non-violence proposal, they'd still shoot us." And people would still throw things, as they do at Occupy Wall Street, which has a stated nonviolent mission.

The "diversity of tactics" Occupy Oakland embraces are ostensibly meant to promote a range of protest. "There is nothing preventing those who want to from organizing non-violent direct actions autonomously with clear guidelines as such," wrote the January 28 move-in committee. "This is what we mean by diversity of tactics."

Those who promote the necessity at times for property destruction in protest point to the history of violent revolution worldwide. "Even Gandhi wasn't in a bubble," one occupier said. "Others were being violent around him. That revolution took all tactics."

Hedges writes that the "cliché of 'diversity of tactics' in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans. The state could not be happier."

At least so long as they can squash those hooligans. "I think it was tactically embarrassing," says occupier Steven Angell of January 28. "Luckily there was little to no framing to it, except for, 'Fuck you, we're the Oakland Commune.' Which I don't know if that constitutes framing."

Hedges goes on to criticize black bloc protesters as using pacifists as "human shields." While Occupy Oakland has not passed a resolution stating as much, demonstrations have followed the St. Paul's Principles, which arose from protests at the Republican National Convention in 2008 - "a separation of time and place," according to Simons. This has held true since the November 2 General Strike devolved into a confusing mess of those diverse tactics, as some occupiers tried to take and hold a building, while others were more focused on lighting barricades on fire.

The much-covered weekly "Fuck the Police" marches, autonomous actions "in solidarity" with Occupy Oakland, explicitly acknowledge if not condone targeted property destruction and dissuade "peace police." Families with children broke off from the march to the building on January 28, before the brief street battle.

"There was no black bloc. The front lines of the street battle that captured all the images were peace signs. No one even mentions it: that was the image of clashing with the police," says Angell. "If that's what a black bloc is, that's depressing to me. I personally am not going to throw a brick through a window, but I have some investment in the black bloc as a tactic and if that's what it is, if that's it at its most threatening, then that's just really sad."

Angell promotes community organizing and substantive outreach as a way of growing the movement, but does not rule out the necessity of more militant tactics. Others who were shot at that day, including Simons, contend that "shield bloc" moved as one, and "really saved our asses" from further injury. "People were more aware and there was more communication that day than in past conflicts with police," says Simons. "In that way, it was a success."
To say, as Hedges does, that Occupy protesters across the country who threw bottles last week were "imitating" Oakland, were taken by that black bloc cancer, is to ignore a long history of destruction in protest by which activists are inspired, whether one might perceive that destruction to be tactical or not.

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