Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Leadership and a collective culture: How America polices against movements, even from within

I've been with the peacekeepers, witness for peace, vibeswatchers, march marshals, or whatever you might want to call us, in several movements for a few decades. I'm used to the abuse.

We are scornfully called "peace police." Well, if a movement wants to succeed, it had better police itself or the armed government police will do it for them. Those of us on peace teams are there to help movements keep from embarrassing themselves and from being misrepresented to mainstream America as favoring violence. Nota bene: I have never ever TOLD anyone to do anything when acting as a peace team member; we ask that movement participants respect the code of conduct to which the organizers (aka leaders) have committed.

Oh, that's right, in America, since we are such an individualistic culture, we are not supposed to respect leadership; in fact, we should deny that it ever exists in any proper movement. We should allow any and all behavior because we deeply respect the diversity of opinion and no one represents the movement; everyone speaks for himself or herself, in any moment.

Yelling? Great.

Cursing at others? Fine.

Tossing blocks through windows and looting? Free expression.

Punching a few folks out? Diversity of tactics.

In fact, if you want to chant loudly, "What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!" that is just tickety-boo.  Land of the free...who frankly are confusing freedom with license, but no one seems able to either stop them nor to effectively put them in a separate status as NOT part of the current movement against police murder of unarmed civilians, mostly African American.

Lucky thing it wasn't like that in Gandhi's struggle to liberate India or it might never have succeeded. Lucky thing that wasn't the way the (Dirty Word Alert!) leadership (gasp!) ran the Civil Rights movement from 1955-1965 or it would never have achieved so many gains. Good thing that Kwame Nkrumah and his friends led the Gold Coast out of colonial occupation to become Ghana using his nonviolent discipline. And Kenneth Kaunda and a few others certainly were in the leadership of the nonviolent decolonization and nation-creating movement that tore Zambia from Rhodesia. The list goes on and on and on. Show me a nonviolent struggle that won and I'll show you leadership.

So what happens when there is no leadership? Anything goes. Valiant efforts may be made to claim that a movement is really nonviolent, but that claim needs to be solid, steady, and made early and often. Just happening to mention it is not enough. Indeed, my very favorite Occupy was the one in Salem, Oregon, when each morning General Assembly began with a collective read-out of their Code of Nonviolence, stating what they would do and would not do. This reaffirmation is key if mainstream media, the public, and police and even judges are to get it. Every event should feature that in all publicity in writing, from the stage, podium, or megaphone, and police should be told in no uncertain terms that they should trust the group to patrol itself and that, in fact, it will go much better if the police stand down and stand back.

See the thing is, with absolute nonviolence, you can do a lot. Indeed, after causing many thousands of dollars of damage to a nuclear weapons command facility (and shutting it down for an unknown period of time), in an appearance before a quite hostile rightwing Republican judge, my co-felon and I explained nonviolence and why that act was nonviolent. The judge finally said, Oh stop telling us about nonviolence. We all know that your activities were nonviolent. Wow. We had caused a series of huge poles strung with thick cable antenna to come crashing to Earth, breaking the system. He understood it was nonviolent! It's in the transcript. We had explained that our actions were carefully planned for many months, involved no fire or explosives or anything that could have gotten out of our control, and that we knew no one would get hurt.

Movements have agents provocateurs, whether they are actual police members or sometimes will infiltrate as a part of the rat system, which brings street-cred criminals into the ranks of a movement in order to push and promote and provoke violence and violent imagery. Earth First! had them. Black Panthers had them. Animal rights groups have had them. Ferguson protests had them. We in the Honeywell Project in Minneapolis had them--they shut down our movement in the 60s and two smart young staffers FOIAed records that proved it and that movement won $30,000 in damages, helping to fund that movement again in the 1980s. It's something we can expect. The goals of such provocateurs (or their handlers):

  • get impressionable ones to also call for "self-defense" or "shut it down" or "burn it down" 
  • make the public more afraid of the protesters and grateful for the police
  • justify further police violence
  • create apathy amongst the public who begin to see the fight as violence v violence, not their fight

And so, in the end, if we want to destroy a movement, be sure to hang back and not criticize those who want to use violence and still call themselves part of the movement. The struggle for this frame is crucial. It is strategic. Reveal the gap between innocent unarmed nonthreatening people on one side and armed brutal ones on the other and you begin to win. Allow hijacking like those who call for tossing bottles or stones at the cops and you reverse all wins and head to loss. A culture that can produce the astonishing tech that we produce but which cannot manage to figure out these basic human emotional pieces will continue to feel the tragedy of police violence and other disasters for a long time.


Scott Wagner said...

There are many organizations that are supporting the effort to limit police brutality, but I haven't seen any organizations that make this explicit point yet prominently on their web site. Nor did we hear public official and civil rights leaders' explicit condemnations of the very common incitement to violence in street protests before the police deaths. And we're far from getting this kind of explicit focus on the challenging stance of nonviolence as the key to getting efficient activism to happen, from a practical and spiritual standpoint.

Thank you for the clarity and rare internal processing cycles spent on this subject.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Thank you, Scott, for your kind words. I was hoping to prove you incorrect with regard to Black Lives Matter, but their blog includes the justification for violent revolution with these words from one of their spokespeople: "under conditions of white supremacist terror, revolutionary violence can be an expression of Christian love." http://blacklivesmatter.com/strange-fruit-revolutionary-violence-and-a-love-on-fire/
I get that this can be justified under Just War doctrine, and I also know that everyone who takes up arms against the US will be crushed, at least those within the US. This struggle can either be cathartic and bloody or disciplined and victorious, but not both. I am fearful for black youth who are persuaded to take up violence; nonviolence is risky enough, but at least it can win.

Jake Donaldson said...

Sorry, not sure if this went through the first time...

Your article was great, and has generated an interesting discussion between myself and another person who generally advocates for diversity of tactics. He has one question I couldn't answer: "I would love to see examples of provocateurs actively seriously breaking the law as opposed to just advocating it in order to make arrests on more serious charges." Any leads?