Kevin Zeese, the would-be Chairman Mao of the Freedom Plaza Occupy camp in Washington, DC, has never found it within himself to say a nice word about the sister Occupy camp at McPherson Square. In listserv emails and general assembly rants, he and the other Old Left types who founded the Freedom Plaza camp (and grew bitter when it was superseded by their more vibrant, inclusive rivals) have repeatedly characterized their McPherson brethren as a bunch of naive, violent drug abusers.
Indeed, after I wrote about the assisted-living facility, more-nonviolent-than-thou vibe I picked up on after attending a general assembly at Freedom Plaza, Zeese sent me a note that, charitably, displayed a lack of self-awareness, countering my characterization of his group as generally smug and greying with — god damn it, really? — a long list of complaints about McPherson Square. People are openly smoking non-state-approved drugs there, I was told, as if they weren’t long before the Occupy movement came around. One occupier had even asked if the noble Zeese could help “bring order” to the camp.
In sum: The damn kids. Now if I were in charge . . .
There were of course problems at McPherson that I witnessed during the time I spent there, including the same annoying fuck-those-other-guys attitude I noticed at Freedom Plaza. There were mentally unstable stable people. There were sexual harassers. I even heard one homeless guy use a “mic check” to try and find crack cocaine. But these were problems that beset many Occupy camps, and many of them were pre-existing, having more to do with DC’s massive problem of homelessness than the relative inexperience of the young McPherson occupiers. And yet as I saw time and again in messages that were forwarded me from the Freedom Plaza listserv and in comments made to the press, Zeese & Friends’ were willing to disseminate the absolute worst rumors about the McPherson camp with seemingly little concern that they were feeding rather than fact-checking disinformation.
Zeese and has cadre of aging activists, too timid to engage in anything confrontational, preferring Jackson Brown concerts to activism, were likewise critical of each and every McPherson-embraced action during my time back in DC. The kids at McPherson — or “McOccupy,” if you’re a smug asshole — are after all doing something, and doing something always brings with it the possibility of alienation. Block rush hour traffic? Why, that K Street lobbyist you inconvenienced is now going to go out and club an African child out of spite. Occupy an abandoned homeless shelter? Dunno, looks like vigilantism to me. Anything that entails any sort of threat of confrontation, particularly with the law, is to be condemned; after all, the police officers pepper spraying and evicting Occupy camps across the U.S. are “part of the 99%.” And with just the right mix of folk music and deference to illegitimate authority, guys, they could become class conscious.
Such is the advantage of inaction, of being a critic: when the only time you and your friends are in the news is because a provocateur had the cojones to do more than just sing kumbaya, it’s easy to wallow in your own perceived greater commitment to non-violence. And when you conflate saying a naughty word to a cop with “violence,” it’s easy to see yourself as Gandhi’s lovechild.
Why am I writing about this now? Because Zeese and his partner, Margaret Flowers, have an article up at Truthdig recounting results of their personal survey of Occupy camps nationwide in which they, true to form, denounce “violence” — i.e., conflict with the authorities — and imply “infiltrators” are to blame for all the Occupy actions that exceeded their comfort level, which is to say any with which you’re familiar. As they write about their survey, which they had the time to conduct because, well, I’ll let you think on that:
Finally, the issue of escalation of tactics to include property damage and conflict with police was brought up. The euphemism for this is “diversity of tactics.” In fact, there is great diversity within nonviolent tactics. This is really a debate between those who favor strategic nonviolence and those who favor property destruction and police conflict [ed. note: can the latter not be “strategic” as well?]. In 11 of 15 occupations, there were reports of verbal attacks on police and/or escalation of tactics from nonviolence to property destruction or violence. In one occupation, an individual took over the direct action working group and escalated the tactics used beyond what the group had agreed upon. In another Occupy, the General Assembly approved putting up a structure but agreed that if the police wanted it taken down the protesters would promptly do so to prove that it was temporary. After the structure was put up, a handful of people refused to take it down causing a 10 hour police conflict and undermining public support for the Occupy. In another occupation, because a minority of the demonstrators refused to adopt nonviolent strategies, a protest with the teachers union was canceled preventing a major opportunity to expand the movement. When it comes to the issue of violence versus property damage, it is particularly hard to tell whether the differences are political or instigated by infiltrators.
While the attempt to draw a clear distinction between “property damage and conflict with police” and “nonviolence” is humorously Hedgesian, the two bolded lines about the structure — which occupiers at McPherson Square put up in order to host meetings during the winter — are particularly curious and characteristically condescending. First, there is no evidence to suggest the standoff with police over the building in anyway “undermin[ed] public support for the Occupy [sic].” It made national news and, while some at the McPherson camp didn’t support occupying the building, the overall feeling I got was that the police response, complete with helicopters and armored vehicles, illustrated to many who were ignorant how the state operates: with overwhelming, disproportionate force to any perceived challenges to its authority. Generally speaking, enjoying good relations with law enforcement is a sign one’s movement is not seen as a threat to the status quo.
But Zeese and Flowers aren’t fond of anything confrontational, and claiming concern for “public support” as a way of blocking any action that may garner anything more than public indifference is their modus operandi. Second, the “handful of people” they deride for defending the building were actually more than 30, who decided to do what they did after an impromptu general assembly in which no consensus was reached on how to respond to a police demand the building be torn down. But it’s cute seeing the organizers of a smaller, rival camp attempt to speak with authority on the internal deliberations of occupiers who had rejected their Old Left, hierarchical approach to activism.
There’s something to these recent rash of articles bashing the idea that a social movement ought to involve, gosh, “conflict” with the powers that be: They are almost all coming from old-school activists and commentators whose tactics have been employed for decades now and found wanting. The Occupy movement, by contrast, represents the rise of a new generation of activists who, while not without fault, are when at their best at lleast trying something new. That might anger some (though certainly not all) of the older, professional activists who feel their influence waning, but passivity in the face of injustice has been tried, folks. And it has failed.