Debate for the Ages
One cold, dry evening last month, hundreds of Occupy Seattle protesters lined the gates of the Port of Seattle to rail against working conditions of the port’s truck drivers. One of the protesters launched a lit red police flare into the air.
In video released by the Seattle Police Department, the glowing cylinder sails above the heads of protesters and police, landing on the ground behind a line of police officers, away from the crowd.
Some saw the Dec. 12 action as an act of violence against the police. Others contend the protester—who has not been identified— simply wanted to move the flare so no one would get hurt by it.
Now, long after its flame has been extinguished, the flare incident has ignited a philosophical debate that could have real-world implications for a generation of activists: Should Occupy Seattle declare itself a nonviolent protest? Or should it remain open to what some in the movement call a “diversity of tactics” that does not preclude violent action?
In answering this question, those in Occupy Seattle tend to divide themselves into two categories: revolutionaries or reformers.
Lawyers and paralegals are largely the latter.
“I don’t think there’s any legal professional worth their salt that will join a group that says we’re okay with violence,” said occupier and paralegal Chaim Eliyah.
Occupy Seattle’s legal working group includes lawyers and paralegals who do pro bono work for the movement. They offer legal advice
and often represent occupiers who have been arrested. Losing them could be a blow to Occupy Seattle, which has often clashed with police.
Losing mainstream support
After the action at the Port of Seattle, occupier Aliana Bazara saw that a perception of pro-violence within the group would alienate more mainstream supporters, causing a public relations problem.
“It’s kind of this mental picture I had that we would get more support if we were nonviolent,” Bazara said.
Following the Port of Seattle incident, she proposed Occupy Seattle endorse nonviolence, figuring her proposal would pass easily.
She was wrong. After heated debate, the General Assembly rejected her one-sentence statement asking the group to “commit to using methods of nonviolent civil disobedience at all demonstrations.”
Since then, Bazara said, the group has lost some outside support.
Jam for Justice—a civil rights organization that supports Nickelsville—offered to help with Occupy Seattle’s finances but has withdrawn its support pending the resolution of the violence question, Bazara said. And she and others were in talks with St. Mark’s Cathedral as a possible encampment location, but that’s now on hold, too.
Occupier Shon Meck said the debate over violence is “an encapsulation of all our differences.”
He sees it as strength, not a liability. “The whole power of the movement is we have these differences and common concerns,” he said.
Meck doesn’t think the nonviolence question is necessarily a stumbling block, but Bazara believes Occupy Seattle’s failure to endorse nonviolence is hurting its cause.
Among those who consider themselves radicals, however, declining to endorse nonviolence has bolstered Occupy Seattle’s credibility.
According to Gregory Lewis, revolutionaries make up the majority of the Occupy movement. Without a nonviolence clause, occupiers have nonetheless managed to be nonviolent from the beginning, he said.
Lewis runs an activist podcast at allpowertothepositive.info and is a member of Occupy Seattle’s People of Color Caucus. He said if lawyers require a nonviolence statement, the movement doesn’t need them.
“We need folks who are unafraid and unapologetic,” he said.
Middle-class, white occupiers have an easier time taking a nonviolence stance, Lewis said, while minorities live in fear of police violence every day. He pointed to the Department of Justice report released in December that showed that Seattle police have a history of excessive force, half of which is targeted at minorities.
“You can’t really preach nonviolence to us when you are not a sitting duck target,” Lewis said.
Reform, or revolution?
Bazara didn’t anticipate the stir her resolution would cause. She thought it was a no-brainer that would pass easily.
The fact that it hasn’t has affirmed her belief that a clear, public commitment to nonviolence is the very thing Occupy Seattle needs.
“The movement can’t grow without it,” she said.
Still, she wonders if she hasn’t thrown a wrench into the gears of a machine that was just beginning to gain momentum.
“I felt like if I never discussed nonviolence, I feel like we could go about our business as if it never happened,” she said.
But it happened, and now attorney Braden Pence is waiting to see whether he can occupy the same ground as his more radical peers.
“They think the revolution is coming, and that makes me uncomfortable,” Pence said. “I’m more of a reformer than a revolutionary.”
Dear friends at Real Change,
I laud you for devoting an issue to the important topic of nonviolence in movements for social change, and for your focus on the debate within Occupy Seattle (
how non violence protects the state
Thanks for a well written article. I just wanted to clear up something, and that is that as a paralegal and a long-time member of various social justice causes, I am most definitely a revolutionary.
The problem, as I see it, is that there have been some self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” recently who, without taking into account the perspectives and the contributions of the rest of us in the movement, have taken it upon themselves to believe that they are the only ones capable of making “radical” decisions and performing “radical” actions in the interests of promoting their own self-aggrandizing model of revolution. This has caused an unnecessary and unprecedented level of disruption in our movement for a free and equitable society.
The “diversity of tactics” debate is only a symptom of a deeper problem. We face a system that has perfected its use of repressive methods, and there are those among us who would publicly advocate for violent resistance. This leaves our movement open to police infiltration and creates the potential for violent repression of our organizations. At this time, when so many of us are working so hard to garner the support of the poor and working classes, this is unacceptable.
It is time for us to listen to one another, and to recognize the contributions and the wisdom of our peers, and most especially of our elders in the movement. We are not the first ones to have these discussions or to deal with these problems. Those who are self-righteously calling themselves “revolutionaries” for the sake of agitation would do well to consider the effects that their speech and actions are having on the movement as a whole.
Just to clarify the record, the “victory” in Tahrir Square wasn’t won by nonviolent means. This is a myth promoted by the New York Times and other mainstream media. See this report compiled from reports from actual participants by Boston Indy Media:
Interesting the comment by one nonviolent protestors about his life being saved by “violent” comrades when they retaliated against non-uniformed police thugs hurling stones and bricks at him.
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