Grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory – solidarity does not equal un-critical

The state and capitalism are the greatest purveyors of violence, i.e. killing people and using force rather than discussion to obtain goals. To the contrary, anarchists are working to build a world based on consent and voluntary cooperation, rather than coercion, arbitrary authority and violence. It is therefore ironic that when a handful of people broke a few windows early on November 3 after the 10,000-strong November 2 general strike in Oakland, mainstream discussion concentrated on blaming anarchists for violence and sought to make the term “anarchist” synonymous with “violent.”

Some people claimed that anarchists had tried to “take over” Occupy Oakland and the general strike, when in fact the foundation of the occupy movement rests on anarchist principals such as horizontal decision making, mutual aid and participatory democracy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that anarchists organized and founded Occupy Oakland.

Anarchists are not, however, a homogenous group with a single party-line. Many of us felt that the unfocused property damage late at night after most people involved in the general strike had left was a tactical blunder — grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. Just because property destruction is not violence against human beings and pales in comparison to the violence of the state does not mean that breaking windows of local businesses, needlessly burning barricades, and trashing the streets around the occupation with spray paint was a good idea. You do not have to engage in or support inappropriate tactics in a particular situation to prove that you have a right of self-defense, that the state is more violent than activists, or that property-destruction tactics might be appropriate at certain points.

The most militant street tactic is not always “better” or more radical. Street tactics aren’t just photo-ops to dress in black and look cool. Street tactics can help shine light on social contradictions, build movement or serve other purposes. Militant tactics that appear random shrink the movement and alienate people who could otherwise be radicalized and join.

One of the worst results of the November 3 middle of the night fire and smashing was how it trapped most of us in endless and ritualized debates over property destruction vs non-violence which crowded out almost all other discussion for a couple of weeks after the general strike. At a time when we urgently needed to be figuring out what the movement should do next, what new tactics we could adopt, and what new targets we could tackle, people on both sides of the debate recited rhetorical points. It didn’t seem like either side honestly felt they could convince the other side or particularly cared — but neither side could let go, either. The stalemate just went on and on — and continues still.

The late night fire on November 3 eclipsed everything else that happened on November 2. In particular, at 11 pm that night, people seized a vacant building a block from the occupation — a logical and timely extension of the occupy movement. Had the building occupation not been followed by lighting barricades on fire and trashing the area, there might have been exciting dialogue about the building seizure — even if it got busted by the police. The media and politicians would have criticized the seizure of private property, but such seizure would be easy for most people to understand, easy to defend, and thought-provoking.

After November 3, some people argued that lighting the barricades on fire was a justified act of self-defense after police began gathering to raid the occupied building, or that it was just an attempt to blow away tear gas that had not yet been fired. This makes no sense — if anything, the burning barricades made police action more likely. Are those who lit the barricades seriously arguing that they could militarily win an engagement with a couple of hundred armed police, when they were unarmed? If so, why didn’t setting the barricades on fire protect the building occupation? If the police were able to take back the occupied building whether or not we built barricades, why build them?

It is dangerous to be tone deaf as to how actions may be perceived and dismiss anyone critical of a particular action as a stupid liberal. The concept of solidarity between radicals is important — we need to stand together when attacked. But it isn’t helpful solidarity to unquestioningly support militant tactics that go awry. Treating these questions like academic debates where we try to advocate purely ideological points misses the point. Actions have consequences. We should focus on radicalizing ever expanding numbers of people. Tactical mistakes that isolate us take us in the wrong direction.