I, like Chris Hedges, to name one of the liberal progressives I am referring to, and numerous members of the media that I’ve met at recent events in Oakland and San Francisco am white, greying and not dressed in black. I, like Chris Hedges, am deeply uncomfortable with violence as a protest tactic BUT unlike Chris Hedges, I am deeply sympathetic to those who feel their voices are not being heard and have never been heard and whose daily lives are impacted by an indifferent if not outright violent “peacekeeping force” we call the police.
I arrived about noon on May 1 to Oakland’s now infamous Oscar Grant Plaza to participate in the May 1st International Workers Day events. The streets around the plaza were cleared of traffic by the police until sometime around 2:30 pm when suddenly traffic was flowing through the streets demonstrators had been parading around for the duration of my time there. Instead of a few motorcycle police redirecting traffic about two or three blocks away from the square, there were now police two rows deep announcing all demonstrators had to get off the streets and stay on the sidewalks. A news van peeled out. Brave demonstrators faced the police line, tear gas canisters popped off, sirens could be heard and within minutes police were 6 deep all around the square. The air had become sharp from tear gas and the heightened sense of danger. Young men, in black from head to toe, calmly relayed the police dispersal order to those of us on the fringe and took extra time with parents who had kids in tow. I, along with others, headed for the 12th Street BART station. The gates were closed. It seemed there was no in or out. I walked in another direction even after organizers had earlier told us it was safer to stick together and because I was white and an obviously healthy woman, the police smiled, wished me a pleasant afternoon while giving me directions to the nearest open BART station just a few blocks away. One officer even moved the barricade aside so I could freely pass through.
I am not an experienced activist, I don’t want to get hurt and getting arrested is not a badge of honor for me. I know the fear of getting hurt is the reason put forth by many of my friends who stay away from the Occupy movement though I think their deeper reason is that they are comfortable so why fuss. But I, unlike many of my friends and maybe the seasoned mainstream liberal progressives like Chris Hedges who feel they have earned their stripes to say whatever they please about the Occupy movement’s “lack of focus” while blind to the awful reality of the oppressed in America and simultaneously glorifying the oppressed rising up in third world countries, feel heartache when I see police brutality enacted against our young people, against people of color, against those who were not born of privilege and against those who are sick– all of whom have been abandoned by those currently holding power in this country. I am sickened by the idea that this is the richest
country on earth and that our majority citizens feel no moral imperative to feed, house or provide decent heath care for all our people. I fear what the world and what this country will be like in another 30 years when my children will, most likely, be raising children of their own. I weep when I see what the establishment does to people exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. Occupy started out as a protest movement against Wall Street greed and because of oppression against the movement in the name of protecting property over people, it has had to also become a protest movement against the system that uses violence against those who speak out against the numerous injustices suffered by the 99%.
I direct my comments specifically to Chris Hedges because he wrote a piece denigrating the Black Bloc group who then attempted to enlighten Mr. Hedges of their deepest motivations to care for and protect themselves and their fellow protesters from the excessive violent tactics of the police. Some months later I heard Mr. Hedges speak at a conference in Washington wherein he repeated his deep dislike of the Black Bloc and anyone who resorted to violence during Occupy protests as if he had never read the comments from Black Bloc members or demonstrators who had been helped by Black Bloc members. Mr. Hedges may not condone violence as a tactic of social change but he does not have to live as far too many others do– facing a bleak future if facing any future at all. What’s perhaps worse is that he fails to share with his readers that not every non-violent social movement succeeds – assuming there has ever been a flawlessly non-violent social movement. If Chris Hedges were directing his organizing efforts for the benefit of communities like Newark, New Jersey or Baltimore or SouthCentral LA rather than Manhattan perhaps his views of the “proper” conduct of protesters would be transformed by a greater understanding of the terribly harsh realities many face in today’s “Gilded Age”.
I do not condone violence, ever, even though I fail daily in my efforts to purge violence from my thoughts and deeds. But America does condone violence. Every day America enacts war in our streets, at our borders and around the globe. Violence is a language America understands. If our poor, our tired, our scared, and our sick are not being heard, then maybe the only alternative is to use the language power understands so intimately well. Chris Hedges has no formula to guarantee the success of this or any other political or social movement. None of us do but by participating we will move forward.
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Police clashing with protesters, shattered bits of glass from broken street lamps and bus stops littering the sidewalks, disemboweled traffic lights idling on street corners; the charred remains of a bus, lit on fire in Macul. These are the pictures circulating through the public consciousness following the October two-day national strike in Chile, images of the violence and destruction – the fallout from almost six months of education protests that have yet to yield any sort of concrete result.
In the nascent days of the education movement, when spurts of violence were just starting to make their way onto the streets and into the headlines, I remember hearing the justifications for such acts. They went something like this: The clashes and public vandalism are necessary because they are the only certain way to grab and maintain public attention. They also show the seriousness of the protesters, who have to make it clear that they will refuse to be ignored or shunted aside by an intractable government bureaucracy.
How pallid and naïve those arguments seem now, after this six-month (and counting) war of attrition. The seemingly never-ending stream of street confrontations between the police and the hooded, rock-wielding, Molotov cocktail-hurling encapuchados or masked protesters have begun to alienate people, especially moderate Chileans fed up with the constant, sometimes dangerous disruption of their daily lives. Maybe at one point there was a justification for these acts. Violence was a useful little stimulant, able to rivet the country’s attention for short bursts. But like any harmful drug, habitual use has begun to lead to destructive side effects that are slowly wearing on the Chilean body and psyche.
Two important points need to be made here. First, the police and government response to the marches bears just as much, if not more blame for the current situation. And second, the perpetrators of these violent irruptions make up a minuscule portion of the people fighting for education reform.
To the first point: the aggressive tactics (tear gassing, water cannons, etc.) utilized by the police special forces unit since the early days of the protests have, far from restoring order, served only to escalate tension and engender more violent reaction. The police want to do their jobs: enforce the law, maintain order and keep the streets safe for ordinary citizens. Fair enough. But the events of the past half-year show that these tactics are having just the opposite effect. At first, the violence was unexpected. Now it seems inevitable. It’s almost as if the troublemakers are taking to the streets because they are expecting to clash with the police forces.
The street confrontations play out like an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Police trucks rumble up and down the streets, spraying water and tear gas at delighted protesters who duck for cover and then emerge again, a few moments later, chucking stones back at their pursuers. After getting riled up into a frenzy, the protesters retreat, and that’s when the real destruction begins.
During the Oct. 6 protests, generally agreed to be one of the most violent days of the education movement, police vehicles chased students down the streets. As they retreated, groups of people would swarm around streets signs and park benches, using their collective force to turn them out of their concrete foundations. Of course, there is no justification for this type of vandalism, but the police response certainly didn’t help. If anything, it created the hysterical, fear-laden atmosphere that made those acts possible.
To the second, and perhaps most essential point: the vandals, encapuchados and whoever else is taking advantage of the strange, uncertain environment brought on by the marches, represent a tiny portion of the protesters, the great majority of whom conduct themselves peacefully and with great dignity. On Oct. 19, the second day of the two-day national strike, nearly 200,000 people came out to march in Santiago. They marched peacefully and without incident for most of the afternoon, until a small percentage of troublemakers broke off from the group and started causing problems. But this is what people were talking about the next day.
And that is perhaps the greatest tragedy brought on by specter of continuous violence; it dominates the conversation and saps urgency from the student cause. When I went out to observe the Oct. 19 march, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the crowd and the air of passion and positivity that ran through this mass of people. Protesters came out in costume and groups of musicians and dancers performed in small pockets of space. People, young and old, marched together. They laughed and joked with each other, but there was also an underlying seriousness of purpose. It was a culture event, a parade of discontent but also an expression of joy, creativity and possibility.
The process of reform – lasting and systemic – can be messy and slow, full of setbacks and frustrations. But the art of change, something we are seeing not just in Chile but all over the world, from Wall Street to Tunisia, can be a beautiful, collaborative process that shows humanity at its best. Ultimately, violence is not a means to anything but more violence- a distraction that obscures the true potential of people searching for a better path.