From the Alliance of Community Trainers, ACT

The Occupy movement has had enormous successes in the short time since September when activists took over a square near Wall Street. It has attracted hundreds of thousands of active participants, spawned occupations in cities and towns all over North America, changed the national dialogue and garnered enormous public support. It’s even, on occasion, gotten good press!

Now we are wrestling with the question that arises again and again in movements for social justice—how to struggle. Do we embrace nonviolence, or a ‘diversity of tactics?’ If we are a nonviolent movement, how do we define nonviolence? Is breaking a window violent?

We write as a trainers’ collective with decades of experience, from the anti-Vietnam protests of the sixties through the strictly nonviolent antinuclear blockades of the seventies, in feminist, environmental and anti-intervention movements and the global justice mobilizations of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. We embrace many labels, including feminist, anti-racist, eco-feminist and anarchist. We have many times stood shoulder to shoulder with black blocs in the face of the riot cops, and we’ve been tear-gassed, stun-gunned, pepper sprayed, clubbed, and arrested.

While we’ve participated in many actions organized with a diversity of tactics, we do not believe that framework is workable for the Occupy Movement. Setting aside questions of morality or definitions of ‘violence’ and ‘nonviolence’ – for no two people define ‘violence’ in the same way – we ask the question:

What framework can we organize in that will build on our strengths, allow us to grow, embrace a wide diversity of participants, and make a powerful impact on the world?

‘Diversity of tactics’ becomes an easy way to avoid wrestling with questions of strategy and accountability. It lets us off the hook from doing the hard work of debating our positions and coming to agreements about how we want to act together. It becomes a code for ‘anything goes,’ and makes it impossible for our movements to hold anyone accountable for their actions.

The Occupy movement includes people from a broad diversity of backgrounds, life experiences and political philosophies. Some of us want to reform the system and some of us want to tear it down and replace it with something better. Our one great point of agreement is our call for transparency and accountability. We stand against the corrupt institutions that broker power behind closed doors. We call to account the financial manipulators that have bilked billions out of the poor and the middle classes.

Just as we call for accountability and transparency, we ourselves must be accountable and transparent. Some tactics are incompatible with those goals, even if in other situations they might be useful, honorable or appropriate. We can’t be transparent behind masks. We can’t be accountable for actions we run away from. We can’t maintain the security culture necessary for planning and carrying out attacks on property and also maintain the openness that can continue to invite in a true diversity of new people. We can’t make alliances with groups from impacted communities, such as immigrants, if we can’t make agreements about what tactics we will employ in any given action.

The framework that might best serve the Occupy movement is one of strategic nonviolent direct action. Within that framework, Occupy groups would make clear agreements about which tactics to use for a given action. This frame is strategic—it makes no moral judgments about whether or not violence is ever appropriate, it does not demand we commit ourselves to a lifetime of Gandhian pacifism, but it says, ‘This is how we agree to act together at this time.’ It is active, not passive. It seeks to create a dilemma for the opposition, and to dramatize the difference between our values and theirs.

Strategic nonviolent direct action has powerful advantages:

We make agreements about what types of action we will take, and hold one another accountable for keeping them. Making agreements is empowering. If I know what to expect in an action, I can make a choice about whether or not to participate. While we can never know nor control how the police will react, we can make choices about what types of action we stand behind personally and are willing to answer for. We don’t place unwilling people in the position of being held responsible for acts they did not commit and do not support.

In the process of coming to agreements, we listen to each other’s differing viewpoints. We don’t avoid disagreements within our group, but learn to debate freely, passionately, and respectfully.

We organize openly, without fear, because we stand behind our actions. We may break laws in service to the higher laws of conscience. We don’t seek punishment nor admit the right of the system to punish us, but we face the potential consequences for our actions with courage and pride.

Because we organize openly, we can invite new people into our movement and it can continue to grow. As soon as we institute a security culture in the midst of a mass movement, the movement begins to close in upon itself and to shrink.

Holding to a framework of nonviolent direct action does not make us ‘safe.’ We can’t control what the police do and they need no direct provocation to attack us. But it does let us make clear decisions about what kinds of actions we put ourselves at risk for.

Nonviolent direct action creates dilemmas for the opposition, and clearly dramatizes the difference between the corrupt values of the system and the values we stand for. Their institutions enshrine greed while we give away food, offer shelter, treat each person with generosity. They silence dissent while we value every voice. They employ violence to maintain their system while we counter it with the sheer courage of our presence.

Lack of agreements privileges the young over the old, the loud voices over the soft, the fast over the slow, the able-bodied over those with disabilities, the citizen over the immigrant, white folks over people of color, those who can do damage and flee the scene over those who are left to face the consequences.

Lack of agreements and lack of accountability leaves us wide open to provocateurs and agents. Not everyone who wears a mask or breaks a window is a provocateur. Many people clearly believe that property damage is a strong way to challenge the system. And masks have an honorable history from the anti-fascist movement in Germany and the Zapatista movement in Mexico, who said “We wear our masks to be seen.”

But a mask and a lack of clear expectations create a perfect opening for those who do not have the best interests of the movement at heart, for agents and provocateurs who can never be held to account. As well, the fear of provocateurs itself sows suspicion and undercuts our ability to openly organize and grow.

A framework of strategic nonviolent direct action makes it easy to reject provocation. We know what we’ve agreed to—and anyone urging other courses of action can be reminded of those agreements or rejected.

We hold one another accountable not by force or control, ours or the systems, but by the power of our united opinion and our willingness to stand behind, speak for, and act to defend our agreements.

A framework of strategic nonviolent direct action agreements allows us to continue to invite in new people, and to let them make clear choices about what kinds of tactics and actions they are asked to support.

There’s plenty of room in this struggle for a diversity of movements and a diversity of organizing and actions. Some may choose strict Gandhian nonviolence, others may choose fight-back resistance. But for the Occupy movement, strategic nonviolent direct action is a framework that will allow us to grow in diversity and power.

From the Alliance of Community Trainers, ACT

Lisa Fithian

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Posted in Occupy
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  1. Leana Alba
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Well stated. I concur with holding agreements for nonviolent direct action whenever possible. This is suppose to be a movement about the 99% (this includes small and medium size business owners) most of whom will not want to associate with what they perceive as unorganized chaos with a high potential for uncontrolled violent outbursts. Therefore I believe the most effective strategies are those that unify
    1) consumers in directing their protests towards and removing their finances from the monoliths of corporate greed. People should put their money into community based responsive businesses.
    Go to small credit unions; refuse to use credit cards for a month; etc.
    2) Also broaden our focus and organize political action against lawmakers who have allowed our government to be hi-jacked. Why not Occupy Congress?

  2. Posted November 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Another thing ‘occupiers’ need to be asking themselves is what kind of relationship they want to have with the state. This has become of major concern in Toronto, Canada where some participants seem to be acting openly in collusion with police when responding to alleged illegal acts in camp (often related to alcohol or drugs – there are many homeless persons in the part of the city where the occupation site is, and addiction is a major concern among that demographic)along with aggressively assisting in enforcement of non-criminal statutes such as the Mental Health Act when someone is visibly acting out some form of emotional turmoil or merely being disruptive in their desire to be heard).

    I see acting as adjunct to the state in any matter as being an inherently violent act, especially in situations where innocent people stand to lose their freedom and sometimes meet serious harm (or even death – there have been two fatal encounters between Toronto cops and mentally/emotionally distressed people in the past three months).

    So it begs the question – how do we, as basically experimental communities, respond to potential violence in our midst( or people who are merely bothersome or make us uncomfortable) without steering them into situations where they are likely to meet with even more serious violence themselves, either from law enforcement or at the hands of so-called ‘helpers’?

    In my opinion the ultimate goal of a non-violent response is a strategic/tactical framework that to the best of its ability ensures that *no one* gets harmed; that a clear recourse for preventing harm to one’s self or others is in place, and that everyone’s inherent right to live and walk the earth in peace is vigorously upheld and defended while at the same time providing clear, effective, safe mechanisms of accountability for behavior (be it from agents of the state or from among our own ranks) that does not cause anyone to face the potential for further violence.

    the problem I have with rigid agreements is they lock people into a strict code of behavior that allows little slack for the emotions of the moment or even simple human error, and may go to the point of vigorously encouraging self-censorship or emotional repression. I cite the example of a friend who, after being repeatedly beaten, gassed and twice having guns pulled on him in Seattle in 1999 (once by a shotgun-toting deputy, and again in an encounter with a WTO delegate who was carrying a handgun), sought to let off a little steam by directing some mildly vulgar humor towards the police. From what he later told me, the response from his ‘comrades’ was as if *he’d* been the one to have pointed a firearm.

    So, as with all things, any such framework must be tempered with common sense, compassion, and flexibility. There is no place for ego trips or false moralizing in such situations as these are inherently violent acts in themselves.

  3. Kevin
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I agree that ‘Occupy Congress’ is a great idea. In fact, I read an interview the other day with a Wall Street banker who was sympathetic to the OO movement. He has been going down to the plaza and engaging protesters in conversation about the issues at hand, and his suggestion was that an “Occupy Congress” movement was needed, and Wall Street is just the tip of the iceberg. There are already laws in place that should be protecting us from the corruption of Wall Street, banks, etc., but they are simply not being enforced because our corrupt politicians are benefiting too much from the system.

  4. Posted November 9, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I fully endorse This letter. Many thanks to ACT. I will do what I can to get it and this discussion to the smaller Occupy groups springing up in small towns like here in Ft Myers. Much needed discussion.

  5. Frances Delahanty
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Leana Alba. Unless direct action tackles the source of power, it makes little impact. Our power is in our monetary power. We need to divest from the big banks, and not buy the things that support the banks and big oil companies, by buying local. And I love the idea of Occupy Congress. We need laws that stop the subsidies that oil companies get and fund the things we need for our families. Annie Leonard has a new video out that talks about all the ways we need to re-direct the spending of our tax money. Let’s focus on changing the spending priorities of our government by pressuring our congressional representatives!

  6. Sydney Vilen
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful letter. I agree. Non-violence all the way,
    I posted the letter to Daily Kos. Thanks for writing it.

  7. Steve Williams
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Great letter. If we do not embrace non violence the movement is dead and we are dealing with a violent revolution. If we do not embrace violent revolution we have not given up that option. If we choose non violence the movement has a very strong likelihood of succeeding and spinning off a great number of other benefits.

    Trying to be non violent but leaving the door open for others to be violent will simply begin a race to the bottom and the police are experts at dealing with violence. I for one will have nothing further to do with the movement if it does not embrace non violence in its actions.

  8. John Lindsay Poland
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Very well said. Part of the challenge is moving the discussion from only about tactics to one about strategy and what tactics will support that strategy. The view can be very limited to the specific where one is acting, without seeing the national forces any prospective transformation or revolution confronts. As in the 60s, many extrapolate from drmatic local experience to think that structural change is at hand and we have to just tip it with some militant tactics or some account withdrawals nad not do the long hard work of educating and organizing ourselves.

    Occupying Congress sounds great, but my conversations with people in DC policymaking leads me to believe that institutions there are so broken and ‘debate’ so irrational that such action is possibly secondary to addressing economic structures directly as the Occupy movement is doing.

    In any case, if we keep experimenting and paying attention, we’ll keep learning how to go forward and live.

  9. Peter Lambert
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    Nonviolence, meaning physical harm to no person and physical damage to no property, is the way.
    Also, there should be no disruption to the lives of work-a-day folks (who, rather than having time to protest or ‘occupy’, must be working, in an attempt to make ends meet). That means no blocking traffic nor preventing people from getting to or from their workplaces. To do otherwise is to make enemies, not supporters.
    Collections should be taken up among the protesters/occupiers to pay for janitorial services as required (and, e.g., call the media and a local politician to come by and be ceremoniously given the ‘check’ to cover the city’s expenses in that regard), and local business should be patronized rather than obstructed.
    The ‘occupation’ doesn’t have to be a 24/7. The return of protesters like clockwork every day would probably be just as effective, and less likely to bring about most of the ‘negatives’ that the 24/7 actions have wrought.

  10. Kara Harkins
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    I agree. The way for this movement to succeed is by embracing nonviolence. It may not be the exciting path for some, but do people want something fun or something that can work? There is no current playbook for how to deal with a nonviolent movement, the authorities are fully prepared for a violent one though (they know how to deal with it and public support will dry up).

    Nonviolent movements can be more effective than violent ones in achieving a result. The obvious example here is Gandhi. However another interesting one springs to mind: one used to urge the Americans with Disabilities Act to passage. People confined to wheelchairs crawled up the steps to congress. That was all. There was plenty of sympathetic film of them doing so on the evening news and everyone was powerless to stop them. It was a simple idea, it was nonviolent, and it worked.

  11. Philippe Duhamel
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I support his statement. Indeed, I have for over a decade!

  12. Posted November 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    “Strategic nonviolent direct action” is great mantra. I will disseminate it in my blog, tweets, website, conversations. Thank you.
    As to occupying Congress, and state capitals and city halls, we need to occupy them by replacing them with real people from the 99%. The 99% wins over the 1% every time!
    Latin America serves as a good example (not perfect) of how education, healthcare, democracy, and income equality can all improve when social movements combine with electoral movements. They took to the streets; they ran for office; they voted; they won; and they’re changing direction.

  13. Alka Arora
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree.

  14. Posted November 10, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Dear Trainers Alliance ~

    Thank you so much, I certainly support your message and have been for weeks raising this issue in discussions re: OWS/nvda wherever I can. Your message is a much needed statement, and I applaud you and your completely vital work.

    However, something I want to bring to your attention for further thought ~ I think you are idealistic when you says “We don’t place unwilling people in the position of being held responsible for acts they did not commit and do not support.” yes there are people who are nvda in heart and who are getting frustrated, who lack self control at times in the face of aggression, and who can respond meaningfully to your statement, and those who simply need further support to clarify & understand their commitments.

    You ARE accurately speaking of a large subset, but there are many people, those involved in the “all tactics possible” subset who DO think its fine to do exactly that, (place unwilling people in the position of being held responsible for acts they did not commit and do not support) and they do so fully intentionally. This is an entirely different ballgame.

    It IS , consciously and strategically, this groups intention to use the nvda demonstrator situation regardless of whether or not it puts nvda’ers in harms way. And this is another factor – that the movement needs to be realistic about, before it can begin to develop strategies to address this, rather than pretend. This is one of the movement’s vulnerability, and has been over and over – Not recognizing the full intentionality and counter commitments of this subset.

    Many of us have been in discussions on fb with folks from this camp. Its a very tough issue. In the past demonstrations have tried trained peacekeepers, but this has been an insufficient remedy in execution. Another area for exploration/pioneering new tactics, would be some kind of healthy collaboration with the police, and enlisting/awakening of the police as the 99%. But my guess is that those who’ve been involved in nvda trainings as trainers need to seriously brainstorm and help pioneer new creative tactics that might hold promise for neutralizing the damaging impact of this subset (anything goes tactics) of folks who will tenaciously persist and who will not voluntarily cooperate with a nvda commitment nor respect other’s rights to have a nvda only action. It would be tragic to keep doing the same old dance repetitively that results in further destructive escalation rather than find some evolution in nvda, that meets this dilemma. We need to wisely further evolve nvda.

    thank you so much for the sharing of your very wise statement as it is so needed and such a very important message and I will pass it along however I can, as I have OccupyMarines OWS 8 statement on non-violence.

    It would be wonderful if there were a forum for folks of committed nvda persuasion to problem solve & share wisdom on this in a focused way even from a distance – to develop and ferment ideas that may offer something new, creative and meaningful to offer as suggestions/hopeful guidance
    for addressing both forging alliances with police who have budding consciousness of their 99% status to bridge the “us” vs them false dichotomy that allows violence, and explore further how the movements can train nvda demonstrators to respond to those who consistently show up to mis-use the power of the gathering numbers for their own strategies and that escalate the potential for violence purposely.

    Namaste ~

  15. Posted November 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    This was very eloquent and good advice, but I have to admit your piece troubled me. The fact you’re presenting this as suggestions for “What Should Be Done” seems to imply you think #Occupy isn’t already doing this stuff. It makes me wonder 1) where you’re from and 2) what exactly your conception of #Occupy is.

    Despite being sound strategy, this read to me like you were addressing a strawman/caricature version of a very diverse, sophisticated and successful movement.

    That said, I’ll still be passing this along.

  16. Rosa Zubizarreta
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. This makes sense to me, and feels key to our success.

  17. Posted November 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing and engaging in this important discussion. At first, I was really drawn to the idea of agreements before each action about what tactic would be best, because it seems like that could help foster consent and trust while helping folks get better organized and think about what tactics are chosen for what situation and why.

    But I can’t support this letter. My main objection is that dynamics in the streets can change very quickly, and people have to make decisions in the moment. I have a friend who is a student organizer in New York City, and she told me about a rally a year and a half ago where students spontaneously pushed aside the metal police barricades that were penning them on the sidewalk. For the past decade (although Occupy Wall Street seems to be changing this, thank goodness!), the NYPD has used rigid metal barricades to trap large crowds into unmoving claustrophobic pens. Spontaneously, the students started pushing them aside, and my friend joined in, knowing the risk it meant to her personally, because she was an undocumented immigrant at the time.

    This proposal probably would have made that moment into a huge issue about broken agreements, instead of the inspiring, liberating, powerful experience it was for a young immigrant and many others.

    In Oakland, the occupiers surrounded Oscar Grant Park the night after they were violently kicked out by the police. They were having a General Assembly, and a few people started to tear down the fence keeping them from taking the park back. Some tried to stop them. What if the folks trying to stop the re-taking of the park had succeeded? Our movement everywhere would be much weaker without Oakland’s inspiration (and without the public art they made of the former fence!)

    Also, I think this movement needs to re-purpose abandoned buildings for housing this winter, which requires security culture, which this letter says is not compatible with honest engagement with the larger group. It is also considered an “attack on property.” But we desperately need to reclaim our buildings to serve our communities, even if we have to tell people about it after the initial opening has been made. This idea of security culture being incompatible will also prevent actions like the “Mic Check!” of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at a fancy fundraiser dinner in Chicago, a wildly popular action that has built our movement. Many actions require planning in advance by a small affinity group of people who know and trust each other.

    Also, sometimes, you really need to get away and not be arrested. This is very honorable! Especially if you are undocumented or have a police record or are on probation. Please run away and keep yourself safe and our movement strong. Running away is one of the few options the power of the police leaves us. Running away is also a form of strategic retreat. We do not need to give all our power in every situation to those who hold the monopoly on violence (the state).

    This letter also talks about people who smash things as possibly being provocateurs without even mentioning, let alone strongly condemning, the incidents of protesters collaborating with the police against their fellow activists who do things they disapprove of.

    I feel really worried about this sentence in particular: “We know what we’ve agreed to—and anyone urging other courses of action can be reminded of those agreements or rejected.” I immediately imagine myself in a situation where we didn’t expect tear gas, and myself getting thrown out of the movement for spontaneously throwing a tear gas canister back at the police because I felt that my life was being threatened…..

    This is definitely an important discussion. Thanks to everyone for all of your insight and wisdom.

  18. Posted November 11, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Actually I don’t see much of a ‘discussion’ happening here at all.

    A ‘discussion’ requires space where divergent views can be expressed safely and heard respectfully. A ‘discussion’ requires that all pros and cons be taken into due consideration and clearly factor into decisions (if any) that are being made. A ‘discussion’ requires suspension of judgment on other peoples’ charcters and abstract moralizing that is motivated by ego rather than genuine defense of any moral standard.

    Unfortunately I’m seeing none of these things here. I will go as far as to say that in this climate I feel like I’m going way out on a limb just to say what I’m saying here. But it needs to be said, which trumps my need to remain within my own zone of comfort.

    I’m finding most of the comments here to be unacceptably vague, incomplete, simplistic or presented out of context. This is a complex set of issues and philosophies we’re exploring here that, like all things human, cannot be placed beyond the range of intelligent, searching conversation, criticism or even outright reproach where warranted.

    There has never to my knowledge been any real discussion about what violence actually is (and how best to respond to it or avoid resorting to it ourselves), our own natural rights as living beings whether in the context of political action or simply living our own lives.

    Whenever I’ve attempted to start any such conversation the responses have either been wantonly evasive or on occasion I’ve even had to endure knee-jerk accusations that I was advocating or even attempting to incite violence myself. It has also been suggested that until I ‘resolve my doubts’ on this subject I should refrain from participating in political actions.

    I find this last to be especially unacceptable as it reflects someone’s wish to limit my right of meaningful participation merely on the basis of a subjective value judgment being made about a philosophical difference or uncertainty.

    It is always my intention when going into any kind of event or action to respect the agreed-upon strategic/tactical framework involved. However, this does not require that I accept either censorship (self-imposed or external) or emotional repression. It does not require that I sign or even give consent to any kind of narrow ‘agreement’ that leaves no room or tolerance for emotional expression ‘in the heat of the moment’ or even simple, unavoidable human error.

    I also reserve the right as an intelligent, responsible adult member of the community to autonomous decision making on matters related to my own safety and health The very simple reality is that it is virtually impossible to properly make decisions on such matters on anyone else’s behalf, and under most circumstances no one even has the right to attempt to do so.

  19. Monica
    Posted November 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to clarify a further issue: “You ARE accurately speaking of a large subset, but there are many people, those involved in the “all tactics possible” subset who DO think its fine to do exactly that, (place unwilling people in the position of being held responsible for acts they did not commit and do not support) and they do so fully intentionally. This is an entirely different ballgame.”

    So, what this actually DOES in effect – is that actually there is one kind of tactic that is NOT ALLOWED. And that is, attempts to do large NVDA event/demonstrations are almost never respected for the right to do just that – but are co-opted, hijacked and subverted.

    It seems the “all tactics” group, can’t or won’t do their own actions, but consistently go to actions that are planned as NVDA (which is what makes them large – as more people are actually willing to participate in this) ~ and embed themselves for their own separate purposes.

    It would be wonderful if a full range of demonstrations WAS allowed. Why is it that the “all tactics” folks can’t go and do one of theirs and see who comes ~ rather than stealing the NVDA out from under? As I recall the OWS was from the start a declared nonviolent demonstration, and OccupyMarines further emphasized this with their OWS 8 statement as their preference – for their code.

    Another issue and question I would have for those who are committed to “all means possible” ~ where there are folks who want to do an nvda action and are – if this is genuine, that you want to see “all methods used” and you are committed to “all” means – why not allow an nvda action to occur as nvda?

    ie – why can’t those who are “all means possible” at go hold their OWN “anything goes” demo, so that there really is a diversity of options ~ why hijack someone else’s organized nvda demonstration over their objections? ~ so that there can’t effectively be a truely nvda action? this is another issue that doesn’t get addressed – the feeling entitled to go and ruin/subvert/hijack an espoused nvda process rather than taking full responsibility for creating one’s own with a different process ~ and twisting this around disingenuously, to accuse the nvda demonstrators in their growing, successful demonstration ~ of not ‘allowing freedom of tactics’.

  20. Posted November 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  21. Posted November 12, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Quoting from another comment here: “Also, there should be no disruption to the lives of work-a-day folks (who, rather than having time to protest or ‘occupy’, must be working, in an attempt to make ends meet). That means no blocking traffic nor preventing people from getting to or from their workplaces.”

    I beg to differ. Protest, by its nature, is “inconvenient.” That’s the point. Don’t you think black people sitting at whites-only lunch counters “inconvenienced” some people? The Selma to Montgomery March (actually three marches) that blocked traffic? Rosa Parks (and the other women — she wasn’t the first) refusing to sit in the back of the bus? These things all “inconvenienced” people. Tough shit.

    Americans have exalted convenience as if it’s some sacred right. Forget freedom — of speech, from unwarranted search and seizure, from unlawful detention, from cruel and unusual punishment, etc. — “take away my rights, no problem, as long as you don’t inconvenience me!” (The grotesque violations going at airports bear this out in stark relief.)

    Blocking traffic isn’t the end of the world. It’s a temporary condition. And it happens all the time, with or without us.

    Nobody is urging anyone to go out of their way to inconvenience working stiffs. Many of us are working stiffs. But we acknowledge that our primary responsibility is to change the system, and that’s bound to be inconvenient for a lot of people.

  22. Posted November 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    “for no two people define ‘violence’ in the same way”

    I pointed out in a meeting in D.C. back in ’02 that there needs to be agreement on that very issue, or things would just get worse. When people think of a successful non-violent movement, they think of Gandhi, whose idea of non-violence – ahimsa – seems rather clear (setting aside the point that the UK had been losing money on India since before WWII, and would never have let India go if it were still a profit center.)

    If there cannot even be agreement about the meaning of “violence” or “non-violence”, then it makes no sense for people who believe that to use those terms – either in protests or in religious unity statements.

    And if people can’t agree on what “violence” means, then they certainly will not be able to reach consensus on the meaning of ” strategic nonviolent direct action”, because “nonviolent” is bad enough – now “strategic” and “direct action” have to be defined as well.

  23. Georgette Oppen
    Posted November 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    In response to ACTs Open Letter to Occupy Oakland on Nonviolence

    I’m responding to the Open Letter as an individual, and don’t of course speak for Occupy Oakland. I’m aware of your work and have studied nonviolence myself in the past. I’m specifically not going to weigh in on the nonviolence/diversity of tactics debate as this has been discussed in General Assemblies and in too many conversations to count in the camp. I do want to respond to the process rather than the content of your call.

    It’s clear you all have a commitment to the Occupy Oakland movement and many years of activist experience. So it’s surprising to me that you’ve chosen to write this letter without attention to the group process that has been going on around it. Emotions have been running high and many people are tired of exhortations and non-violence proclamations that seem to come at least partly from outside the community—including from the “Block by Block Organizing Network,” a collection of nonprofits and community organizations which are part of the Quan camp (see and want to see OO dissolved or moved.

    I don’t know what your personal levels of involvement have been and I’m not assuming. But your letter comes across to me as more of a monologue than a true wish for collective dialogue for the following reasons:

    1. Why do you not address and build on the hard work and hard conversations that have taken place on this topic in multiple General Assemblies and elsewhere in the camp? Your letter seems to assume, at least to my ears, that it is speaking to people who have done little thinking on their own about these things. I find that a little presumptuous, no matter what the merit of your position is.
    2. Why do you ignore the fact that mistrust has grown for this position in the camp because of the behavior and approach of some of the people espousing nonviolence? Are you not aware of this? When they aren’t direct representatives of a mayoral office which greenlighted attacks on the encampment, advocates of nonviolence have shoved facilitators, screamed over people, grabbed mics, tackled other protesters, and reproduced the language that the Oakland Police Department uses to justify its assaults. Still, the word “nonviolence” has become tainted for many due to the obviously aggressive presence of some of its advocates and to the almost complete absence at Occupy Oakland of any training in strategic non-violent, non-compliance strategies and techniques. Has any group attempted to organize and model disruptive yet non-violent political actions? Instead, people who disagree with pacifism as an ideology have been demonized and vilified. Many of these people who disagree have been integral to the camp since the beginning. I’m not one of these people, but I feel beleaguered and angry about this even from my perspective. Rigid fundamentalism, pious moralism, unowned racial privilege and disowned and projected anger are not approaches to nonviolent communication, and yet these have often been leveraged by advocates of this approach. It has obviously not built trust.
    3. Before you call on entire movement to embrace your approach, you need to clean your own house folks. If you are worried about being welcoming to others who want to join, please address what has already been destructive. Address people’s misunderstandings about nonviolence and their lack of training in what nonviolent resistance has been and could be. The behavior of many people would lead one to think that nonviolence means doing everything the police say, pointing shaming fingers at other protesters, threatening to hand people over, describing the Egyptian revolution (which defended Tahrir Square with stones and the burning of police stations) as “non-violent” etc. I don’t think, with all your commitment and your expertise, that’s what you mean by nonviolence. But perhaps you could take care to continue training others who want to resist nonviolently before you ask for a wider resolution. I believe you’ve offered trainings-clearly more are needed, specifically in how to be interpersonally nonviolent to other community members, to listen to others, to engage in actual collective dialogue without resorting to distorted media soundbytes and unquestioned prejudices.
    4. Someone at the GA this week articulated an extremely useful point: let’s hold off on any more proclamations, resolutions on this matter as these things will in effect divide people further right now. The camp is about to be raided by an army of police, blasted in the media, blamed for shootings and poverty and the business recession downtown, and being given ultimatums by the city council, all while it is feeding thousands and housing hundreds of people. It doesn’t need any more scoldings or exhortations to be one way or another. It needs your support as senior activists. I object to this letter because it does not constitute that support. What about instead an Open Letter in Support of the Fantastic Women Facilitators at GA? An Open Letter to the City Council in Support of OO? An Open Letter about Working Across Political and Strategic Orientations in a Movement? There are many fantastic aspects of OO that are going unnoticed while we engage in protracted hang-wringing about whose image OO will be made in. Or at least that is how it is starting to seem.

    And finally one point about content: If you are going to ask everyone at Occupy Oakland to embrace this position, I have some questions about the emotional and psychological stance it implies. How do you propose we deal with our authentic anger and righteous rage? We’ve been collectively and chronically violated and depleted. We’re angry and we should be. We need anger to move forward. We don’t need sadism or gratuitous destruction, but we need our anger as much as we need compassion. I say this as someone who works in the mental health field with trauma and PTSD. When someone is trying to recover from trauma and dispel internalized shame, anger is a great thing. We would never tell that person not to be angry at their aggressor, would we? We would not outlaw an emotion. Yet this is sometimes how nonviolent aspirations are used. Particularly when nonviolence as a kind of psychological stance is being proposed by white middle class people, or those with a certain amount of class privilege in general, this issue needs to be addressed directly and humbly.

    I am assuming since you wrote this as an Open Letter, you’re welcoming open responses. I hope that these challenges can be considered and responded to. I also hope that you will consider changing your own approach, let go of the polarization of this debate for now, and instead fully and unequivocally support OO as it goes through another series of raids.

    Thank you,

  24. Posted November 13, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Hey folks,

    What a disappointing post to read.

    I’ll start with the transparent piece: Starhawk is a friend of mine, and I have been with her in the streets many, many times over the past five years. The first time I was arrested, in an incredible act of violence by the police, she was there for me. So, I feel a loving obligation to stick up for someone I know as an amazing activist, trainer, and friend — which I would say is true not only about Starhawk but everyone in the Alliance of Community Trainers, which is a national organization (and more than just her). Beyond that, I think you’re mistaken in much about what you say the open letter states and the perception ACT is coming from.

    First of all, I think you are mistaken in thinking the letter is to Occupy Oakland and has anything to do with a specific course of action there. It’s not. The very first line is “An Open Letter to the Occupy MOVEMENT.” Lisa Fithian is active in New York and Juniper is active in Austin, Texas. Starhawk has been active in SF and Santa Cruz, with some involvement in Oakland as well. All four of us were in DC at Occupy DC for about a week. This letter is not specifically about Oakland – but Oakland feels very anxious these days in its conversations about Non-Violence and Diversity of Tactics, and some folks might automatically assume it’s about us. It’s not always about us, or at least, not just about us. This is one of those times.

    “Why do you not address and build on the hard work and hard conversations that have taken place on this topic in multiple General Assemblies and elsewhere in the camp? Your letter seems to assume, at least to my ears, that it is speaking to people who have done little thinking on their own about these things. I find that a little presumptuous, no matter what the merit of your position is.”

    I think your letter seems to assume, at least to my ears, that ACT and / or Starhawk don’t know how heavily discussed and debated these issues are here and everywhere else — but to my mind, that’s exactly why they wrote it, to be a part of this debate and offer what the see to be meaningful contributions. I’ve seen these folks at literally dozens of general assemblies as participants, facilitators, and on many different working groups as well. No, not so much in Oakland. But see my point above about how it’s not all about Oakland. There’s no presumption in having spent hundreds of hours in the occupy movement working through these issues, and thousands of hours around the world talking doing street activism, debating with folks, and then finally writing about what you’ve learned and how it might apply here. I think that it is YOU who is presuming much here, and not taking the time to check if your assumptions are true.

    “When they aren’t direct representatives of a mayoral office which greenlighted attacks on the encampment, advocates of nonviolence have shoved facilitators, screamed over people, grabbed mics, tackled other protesters, and reproduced the language that the Oakland Police Department uses to justify its assaults.”

    Okay, that’s not a great way to behave, but it’s also not ACT’s fault just like it’s not the fault of Occupy Oakland that someone threw a brick through the window of Tully’s. It’s that person’s fault for behaving that way, no one else’s. Not to mention that folks who are trying to create strategies for NV Action at Occupy Oakland say the exact same things about people who are arguing for a diversity of tactics agreement — how the DOT people villify NV folks and shove people and scream and make them feel bad about themselves. You are completely correct in saying that the process around this discussion has been bad… but it’s been bad on all sides, and everyone is stinging a bit from how bad it’s been. None of that, however, is the fault of ACT or Starhawk, because they haven’t been behaving that way. So why make it a part of a letter addressed to them?

    “Still, the word ‘nonviolence’ has become tainted for many due to the obviously aggressive presence of some of its advocates and to the almost complete absence at Occupy Oakland of any training in strategic non-violent, non-compliance strategies and techniques. Has any group attempted to organize and model disruptive yet non-violent political actions?”

    Well, I personally held two trainings at Occupy Oakland in NVDA, and I know there was at least one other one. It’s hard to get the word out about them happening, however, because OO is not organized as tightly as some other occupations. However, next weekend is going to be a huge NVDA training-for-trainers weekend for the Bay Area Occupations, so hopefully more trainings in Oakland will happen after that.

    Oh, and by the way, yes, there was a group that organized and modeled disruptive yet non-violent political actions: Occupy Oakland. They closed down the port without any violence whatsoever. On top of that, Occupy SF kept their camp from being raided one night with a very powerful display of organized NV tactics. Occupy Portland did the same thing last night. There are plenty of strong, beautiful examples of effective NVDA in the past month alone, not simply the historical ones.

    “Someone at the GA this week articulated an extremely useful point: let’s hold off on any more proclamations, resolutions on this matter as these things will in effect divide people further right now. The camp is about to be raided by an army of police, blasted in the media, blamed for shootings and poverty and the business recession downtown, and being given ultimatums by the city council, all while it is feeding thousands and housing hundreds of people. It doesn’t need any more scoldings or exhortations to be one way or another. It needs your support as senior activists. I object to this letter because it does not constitute that support.”

    This IS the way that elder activists are showing their support: by trying to offer tactics that they believe will help the camp stay alive — tactics that have come from decades of experience not only using them but having these exact same discussions the whole time.

    At least in my view, OO simply cannot live through another couple of violent nights such as the ones that we’ve witnessed. Already, I’ve seen OO go from a thriving, vibrant place with many different people from all walks of life coming and going to nearly a ghosttown. We’re losing our people – they are going home, even as other Occupations in MUCH colder places continue to grow in numbers and strength. We don’t need more scoldings or exhortations, but we do need a plan that will solidify our strength and empower us and get all those thousands of people who were at Occupy SF the night of the raid and at the Port March to come down and defend our camp. That’s the part of the Open Letter that ACT wrote that I see applying to Oakland now, and it couldn’t possibly be more timely.

  25. Posted November 14, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Occupy SF the night of the raid and at the Port March to come down and defend our camp. That’s the part of the Open Letter that ACT wrote that I see applying to Oakland now, and it couldn’t possibly be more timely.

  26. Posted November 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I would like to fully endose this open letter.

    The camps are important, perhaps the models for the times to come. They are worth some compromise-keeping the camps alive will require agreements. We have seen times like these in the history of the 30’s depression era camps – it was bad times, really bad. Self rule is desirable, participation in process is so challenging, yet so full of hope for a changing world. Another world IS possible. If we want a say in what that would looks like, then we must keep participating. peace, love, beauty, justice, and freedom – participate and create

    compromise? perhaps a diversity of camps? – different tactic? different camp? now that would surely divide us! how do we come together? oh we have come together, so how do we learn to stay together? the model for that is not so different than our family models. Perhaps we need some simple ( not that this stuff is ever “simple”) old fashioned family counseling available in the medic tents… or advocacy for self counseling techniques. I am currently rereading The Earth Path by Starhawk – I am finding a lot of good tools for creating the interpersonal skill building that this Occupy movement is going to need.

  27. sl
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    With all due respect, we don’t need to figure out how to ‘struggle.’ I find that word itself induces stress and a suggestion of failure. May I suggest we the people stop using ‘struggle’, when ‘change’, ‘succeed’ and ‘act’ are more powerful and motivating words.
    Thanks for your work in training non-violent communications!

  28. Brett
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    My open letter that both challenges and empowers Occupiers and all citizens.

    Most people are not happy with the way corporations have acted.

    In the following dialog I show people how they are part of the problem and how they can be part of the solution.

    So you are frustrated with corporations? Absolutely!

    Which is worse the employees of these companies that you don’t like or the owners?

    The owners of course.

    Do you or your spouse have any sort of retirement account or mutual fund?

    Almost all mutual funds and retirement accounts own these corporations.

    If you own one of these then you are one of the owners of these corporations!

    This means that you are responsible for the very ills that you complain about.

    So what can you do now?

    One of two things, either lobby as a shareholder for changes, there is a form and method for doing this.

    Or opt out of these corporations by making better investment choices.

    You say that my employer only offers certain investment choices in my retirement plan.

    I then ask,

    If there was a way to have a viable retirement plan without supporting things you despise would you do it?

    Of course you say.

    Well what if it took effort? What then? Would make the effort?

    Are you values important enough to do something about?

    If your values are important then do the following.

    Change your retirement account to a self directed one.

    Doing so allows you to decide to be an owner in companies that share your values!

    Take the time to read about self directed retirement accounts and then research socially conscious companies and mutual funds and you are on your way to investing in companies that make the world a better place.

    If you agree with this please forward/repost this messsage!

  29. Posted November 17, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Very well stated. Thank you, Starhawk, Lisa and Juniper.
    One historical correction:
    the line reading “strictly nonviolent antinuclear blockades of the seventies” should include “and eighties.” There were over 5,000 anti-nuclear arrests in more than 150 nonviolent direct actions each year in the USA in 1983, 1987 and 1989, and over 3,000 such arrests each year in between, at scores of sites each year.

  30. kw
    Posted November 19, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely concur that it is important to come to agreements regarding tactics. However, this letter is written as though the only possible way to have agreements is to be committed to “non-violence” together (though mentioning the disparity of viewpoints regarding definitions, the author still uses the term “non-violence” to refer to a set of tactics defined by people who clearly have not taken unto account other viewpoints on the term). People who engage in tactics like property destruction usually have agreements and draw lines together. The ALF and ELF are good examples. People aren’t just running around stabbing furriers in the name of the ALF. What would things look like if we had agreements to do things like separating tactics such as property destruction from other actions, or denouncing interpersonal violence but stopping short of denouncing property destruction? These things are possible and are, in fact, necessary because there will always be people in any movement large enough to make a difference who will disagree with a ban on property destruction. We cannot and should not attempt to push these people out, but rather need to figure out how to work strategically together for maximum possible impact.

  31. Jennifer Booth
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to draw your attention to the excellent book “How to Start a Revolution” by Gary Sharpe and the documentary of the same name that has been airing on Current TV recently. The work of toppling the Serbian regime in the 90’s is especially inspirational. In the book is laid out hundreds of non-violent protest tactics, many of which have been employed successfully in battling the vicious control crackdowns of autocratic regimes, both capitalist and so-called “socialist or communist”.

  32. Love Moore
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this wise council on strategic nonviolent direct action, it is very important information.

  33. Cameron
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I have been deeply involved in the Occupy Movement in Oregon and Washington, mostly in Seattle, since the beginning of October. In my past, I have thrown bricks through windows and gotten in physical altercations with police officers. I am not afraid to commit such acts. However, for reasons that seem obvious to me, tactics that employ such means could not possibly be effective in achieving the lofty goals the Occupy Movement aims for. I understand that some behaviors perceived as acts of “violence” may to some represent a symbol of “self-defense” against a system of oppression. Also, to others, resorting to physical acts of violence only continues a never-ending cycle of violence in the world; “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” as Ghandi once said. Neither of these philosophical arguments need be mentioned in a decision of what set of tactics to utilize in our movement. The benefits of Nonviolent tactics are conversion, coercion, and accommodation. Conversion means that an opponent (police, government official, high-ranking employees of corporations, media) has a change in heart or mind, and comes to agree with and work towards the activists’ goal; coercion means that the activists have it directly in their power to frustrate the opponents’ will (strike, boycott, system impedance); and accommodation means that the opponents give in, partly or completely, not because they have changed their minds, and not because they are completely powerless, but because it seems a lesser evil than any other alternative. Also, there is no argument that an agreement of nonviolent tactics creates a whole lot more troops to deploy. A so called “Diversity of Tactics” will do nothing more than divide and confuse both activists and bystanders, making us weaker and easier for our opponents to crush. It’s either dedication to tactics of war or dedication to tactics of nonviolence, we must choose. The answer is clear for me. I FULLY SUPPORT THIS LETTER.

  34. Chip Krug
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    I think this is an excellent statement and I’m writing just to offer my endorsement. I’m not an experienced activist, just a working stiff in the suburbs. I want to participate, but I can’t, at this point, be arrested, nor do I want to alienate those less informed around me, to be seen as a nut or a radical. This document offers a way forward for people like me, like most people, I’d say.

    Bully for the serious activist who can make the big statement. Thank you to ACT for providing a clear, consistent framework within which the rest of us can participate.

  35. Peace Elk
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this letter. I agree and have been having this discussion with other Occupiers since the beginning.

  36. Posted January 30, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Particularly in conjunction with the widespread moralistic condemnation of comrades in Oakland, I find this letter troubling. Insisting that everyone swear not to cause material damage or protect themselves performs a harmful exclusion and drains the movement of its revolutionary potential. If accountability and transparency mean uniformity, then I question whether those values deserves a central place in the struggle.

  37. Susan Partnow
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this well though out and wise statement. We are in a big struggle here in Seattle and I hope this will help. Nonviolence is essential. (BTW – I do not think of Gandhian nonviolence as pacifist in any way but as powerful, strategic and values based activism)

  38. Josh Trost
    Posted February 9, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I guess Chris Hedges didn’t read your excellent letter before writing his “The Cancer in Occupy” diatribe; sure wish he had! I’ve been trying to share this with those having a discussion about Hedges’ article. You folks speak with great clarity and care; thank you!

  39. Posted February 10, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    If I wanted to write an essay advocating non-violence, Chris Hedges would not have been my first choice, and his article is an “own goal.”

    It’s important for non-violence advocates to keep the focus on strategic non-violence, and not on the Hedges/Graeber pie fight, especially as people will often identify those they see as spokespersons for policies with those policies.

  40. Posted February 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Susan, see “Why Civil Resistance Works” by Erica Chenoweth. An excellent study. The odds, amazingly enough, are better with non-violence.

  41. Posted February 10, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    when can you come to a General Assembly ?

  42. Posted February 10, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I would like to thank you for taking the time to address this issue. Your guidance is much appreciated here in little Longview, WA as we have been discussing our concerns of recent events.

  43. Arianna
    Posted February 14, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    I certainly agree with a non-violent approach as the best way to accomplish the goals of the Occupy movement. I abhor violence in any form, and feel it can never justify a positive outcome in any
    situation. However, perhaps it is time for those of us who do participate in non-violence to take the matter of agents provacateur into our own hands. Not by responding to their violence with more violence, but perhaps by surrounding them and preventing them from committing any violent acts. I’m not sure how groups such as Black Bloc would react to this, but if they are
    pointed out and prevented from their actions, they may decide to either join the non-violence or become frustrated and just leave the demonstration. Don’t know if it would work, just throwing it out there.

  44. abster
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Anything less than radical nonviolence is doomed to failure. Hatred never ceases by hatred.