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Saturday, November 05, 2011

Tatiana Makovkin's "Letter to the People in Black Masks"

Speaking Truth to Sour! Follow the link to read the whole thing, but here's the last few marvelous grafs:
I squatted in the Lower East Side in the early 90s. Evictions are not a game. The cops rolled a tank onto 13th street when they wanted the squatters out. A TANK. Were these "protestors" actually intending to defend [a vacant building downtown they briefly and dramatically occupied] militarily? Did they think they had a chance? What is the point of barricades? What is the point of burning trash cans? Do you think that will make it possible for you to keep the building? Of course not. You know you can't win against their military might. We can only win against their limp morality, their shriveled integrity, and their flaccid principles. And we win by being morally strong, impeccable in our integrity and holding fast to wise and courageous principles of service and compassion. Service to the community. We win by expressing our morality, integrity and principles with clarity and grace.

The people who raged in the street last night were not motivated by an impulse to serve the community, that is clear. What did motivate them, really? Maybe they will do some introspection, look into themselves and ask of themselves what is true. Were they looking to have a good time? Craving excitement and adrenaline? Infatuated with their own egos and sense of identity? Were they swept up in the euphoric feeling that comes with being part of something, part of a group, a club? This movement is not about being in a club. This is the 99%. This is for everyone. We show our faces. And when I say this movement is for everyone, I want to feel that this movement is for you too.

The people who were part of the drama that played out late last night need to look into their hearts. They need to ask themselves who they serve. If they are seeking to serve their own selfish needs, they don't hold a place of honor in this movement. They are the troublesome relation and we are all wondering how they will reconcile with the rest of the family. Maturity is expressed in a willingness to take responsibility. They should apologize. Publicly. They should work to mend the damage that they have caused to the spirit and reputation of this movement, a movement awash in beauty and humility. The people in this movement are so humble, none of them will claim to have the authority to lead or to speak for the other members. We represent ourselves, and we are all in leadership positions. Decentralized structure means that we are all responsible. You be responsible too, "anarchists". Be responsible on a spiritual level. Be responsible on an emotional level to the good, trusting people in this movement whom you have hurt. Be responsible on an intellectual level by thinking carefully about your goals and strategy and acting for the good of the whole.

Taking this building and starting a library and center of operations would have been an action that served the good of the whole. But that is not what you did. You didn't take a building. You just took a lot of attention and made the conversation center around yourselves. The people in the movement deserve better. The 99% deserve better. They deserve an apology.

7 comments:

ian @ paul said...

While tactically the action may have been unsound, to blame them for the extremely militarized police response and characterize them as “… looking to have a good time? Craving excitement and adrenaline? Infatuated with their own egos and sense of identity?” is intellectually lazy. Almost all of the criticisms of the black bloc (or other militant) actions during the general strike draw their rhetorical force from rendering those resisting the police as adolescents unaware of what they’re doing.

In reality, the people that planned and participated in these actions have been deeply involved in the occupations from day one, organizing the kitchens/bathrooms/libraries/general assemblies of the occupations and then also decided to attempt to occupy a building. These people have sophisticated and developed political analysis (whether you agree with or not), and shouldn’t be written off. The barricades were burned not “for fun”, but because the smoke counteracts the teargas that police were raining down on the crowd. People cover their faces not as a fashion statement, but so the police don’t target them. To say that they were asking for police repression is to justify the police’s behavior and role.

Social movements certainly need their popular/public components, but they also need to be able to deal with the police when they show up (as they inevitably will when power is challenged, or in this case, when property rights are). I’ve found this to be a large part of north american exeptionalism when thinking about social movements: Nobody condemned the resistance in Oaxaca when they burned barricades, and nobody wagged their finger at the Egyptians when they turned over water cannons and burned down police stations.

If people think it the building occupation was tactically/strategically ineffective, then that’s a disagreement and argument worth having. However, simply writing these people off as a thoughtless mob that needs to “need to look into their hearts” and insinuating that they need to grow up isn’t helping at all.

Dale Carrico said...

There is definitely something in what you say, Ian, but there is also more than you are admitting to in the piece to which you are taking exception, I think.

to blame them for the extremely militarized police response

Do you think that is happening in the letter I have quoted? I must say, I don't see that either literally or even in the spirit of the response. Given that crazily disproportionate militarized police responses have repeatedly occurred before this action (and in ways that have always been to the ultimate benefit of the Occupy Movement, since they viscerally expose the violence of elite-incumbency against everyday people, much of the point of the Movement), it would obviously be a straightforward factual mistake to assign causality for police violence in that direction. It doesn't make sense.

to... characterize them as '…looking to have a good time? Craving excitement and adrenaline? Infatuated with their own egos and sense of identity?' is intellectually lazy.

I think it would be profoundly dishonest to pretend that these pleasures are not central to those forms of demonstration and resistance I approve of, let alone the ones that I might regard as "unsound" as you put it. I also think it is dishonest to pretend that sometimes these pleasures skew our political conduct. I remember too well the intoxication of direct action in my own twenties, in Queer Nation sit-ins and Act-Up demonstrations in Atlanta. This open letter demands soul-searching. I think that makes perfect sense, indeed I think it is vital.

Dale Carrico said...

The barricades were burned not “for fun”, but because the smoke counteracts the teargas that police were raining down on the crowd.

Introducing that facet into the discussion is important, I agree. Do you really think it is the whole story?

People cover their faces not as a fashion statement, but so the police don’t target them.

This point is trickier. There are trade-offs here. I do think it is especially important that a middle aged white make academic like me not be the one to declare what the tradeoffs authoritatively "are" when it comes to being identified by authoritative surveillance or about why activists should be willing to go to jail and so on -- precisely because it doesn't mean the same thing for me to go to jail or to be recognized on a panoptic sort security profile as it does for, say, a young male person of color in Oakland. Nevertheless, neither is pointing this out the end of the story. There are real costs and risks to a movement claiming to represent the 99% and soliciting their identification and participation if they mean to force and facilitate changes that benefit everybody if/when masked figures insufficiently attentive to issues of Establishment mediation assume center stage. Again, soul searching is what is being declared needful in the open letter I quoted, and that still seems right to me even if you are also right to worry about exhortations to such soul-searching sometimes facilitating glibly dismissive scapegoating.

also need to be able to deal with the police when they show up... as they inevitably will when power is challenged, or in this case, when property rights are

When police violence shows up but gets showed up by constitutionally protected nonviolent resistance police get bad press and reprimands and sensitivity training and compulsory community outreach. Of course, that's not always how it goes down, but it's easily as true as the contrary blanket assertions of the kind that get mouthed by anarchists of the right or left who see nothing but violence everywhere.

Believe me, I see plenty of structural and literal violence, too, and plenty of danger of assimilation and complacency in any exclusive or even primary focus on legislative processes, my point isn't to deny that (even while I concede dangers to that in my own customary critique and recommendations), but just to insist there really is a deep reality nonviolent and civic-minded reform-based-radicalisms also tap into that should not be lightly undermined or ignored.

nobody wagged their finger at the Egyptians when they turned over water cannons and burned down police stations

I think this is a dangerous form of kidding yourself. Too many people are unaware or willfully forgetful of the extent to which the Egyptian protests (which of course weren't monolithic) succeeded (which is a verdict not yet entirely in) precisely because of the unprecedented levels of nonviolence training and discipline brought to bear in those protests -- about which I wrote at the time here.

Dale Carrico said...

If people think it the building occupation was tactically/strategically ineffective, then that’s a disagreement and argument worth having. However, simply writing these people off as a thoughtless mob that needs to “need to look into their hearts” and insinuating that they need to grow up isn’t helping at all.

It's funny -- given the history of the building as a site for support for homeless and precarious folks, I think the occupation of the building was potentially enormously effective. I still think it can be. And to the extent that it wasn't as effective as it could be or is being taken up in ways that are outright unproductive because it wasn't well-organized or was caught up in emotions of the moment I think soul searching is a very suitable recommendation. I would note that one doesn't recommend soul searching to people one thinks are a "thoughtless mob" because thoughtless mobs don't have souls to search. I know nobody likes to be told to "grow up" and so even those who feel that is an appropriate charge should probably refrain from making it if what they want are practical results rather than smug satisfactions. But it seems to me you are reducing a productive and in places frankly inspiring piece of critique and exhortation to collaboration as nothing but scattershot insults while refusing to grant the force of observations about emotions impacting judgments any activist knows always to be at least part of the picture in resistance. I don't know how "helpful" that is either.

But, Ian, hey, I am so glad to hear from you and I know that whatever you are doing you are doing from a place of righteousness in the service of good and thoughtful ends. I salute you -- and since tonalities don't translate well in this medium and I am so known for ironical assertions, believe me when I say that I mean it. Stay safe and be good.

ian @ paul said...

[I think it would be profoundly dishonest to pretend that these pleasures are not central to those forms of demonstration and resistance I approve of, let alone the ones that I might regard as "unsound" as you put it.]

I would agree fully that resistance projects need to incorporate profound moments of joy and even play if they are to be successful, but in this text the author suggests that both this encounter with the police was one of selfish joy that “were not motivated by an impulse to serve the community”. I find this irresponsible because it erases the real differences certainly present within the crowd. Confrontations with the police are often filled with fear and panic, and people choose to participate in these confrontations despite that fact because they feel it is an important part of the #occupy movement. Were some excited by the police arrival? Sure. Does this make them not motivated by the needs of the community? No, not necessarily.

[When police violence shows up but gets showed up by constitutionally protected nonviolent resistance police get bad press and reprimands and sensitivity training and compulsory community outreach. Of course, that's not always how it goes down, but it's easily as true as the contrary blanket assertions of the kind that get mouthed by anarchists of the right or left who see nothing but violence everywhere.] & [think this is a dangerous form of kidding yourself. Too many people are unaware or willfully forgetful of the extent to which the Egyptian protests (which of course weren't monolithic) succeeded (which is a verdict not yet entirely in) precisely because of the unprecedented levels of nonviolence training and discipline brought to bear in those protests -- about which I wrote at the time here.]

Certainly nonviolent resistance is incredibly important as a part of any social movement. However, as I’ve ranted before, I feel a diversity of approaches is always necessary (in the U.S., Egypt, or anywhere else). What I find lazy about critiques like those found in this article is that the exact same thing could be said of the ‘peaceful marches’ earlier in the day. Just replace “black bloc” and “anarchist” with “liberal” and “pacifist” who march to “have a good time … Infatuated with their own egos and sense of identity?” and “were not motivated by an impulse to serve the community”. This is why I find this critique lacking. It isn’t a tactical or strategic critique, but rather simply tries to write it off. I feel like there’s plenty of room to criticize the black bloc, and we should do this actively and critically. I agree that we ALL must be soul searching. Nothing about the black bloc action makes them a special case in this regard.

[But, Ian, hey, I am so glad to hear from you and I know that whatever you are doing you are doing from a place of righteousness in the service of good and thoughtful ends. I salute you -- and since tonalities don't translate well in this medium and I am so known for ironical assertions, believe me when I say that I mean it. Stay safe and be good.]

I hope you’re doing wonderful as well Dale and it’s always a pleasure reading your blog. Here’s to living in interesting times.

Dale Carrico said...

A couple of quick points, since it seems to me you are now dialoguing in terms conversant with those of the open letter rather than just getting triggered by it, which is all I could want, actually.

First: resistance projects need to incorporate profound moments of joy and even play if they are to be successful... This is a different point from recognizing the dimensions of pleasure and passion (not always joyful) always present in demonstrations and resistance, and the need for deliberateness in the face of them.

And second, of course, nonviolent resistance is already a "diversity of approaches" and an open-ended one the substance and stories of some of which are being written by the Occupy Movement right now.

Chad Lott said...

Probably not that important to this great conversation, but smoke from fires does not disperse tear gas. Claiming that as a reason to start fires is either misinformed or disingenuous.

The gas is designed to be used in worst case scenarios where things will probably be burning and is often used in conjunction with smoke grenades.

Also, smoke inhalation can be fatal where tear gas is not.