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You would be hard-pressed to find anyone on the American Left who has not either benefited from or been influenced by the writings of Chris Hedges. His is a singular and potent voice of progressive journalism, combining the best virtues of diligent reporting and unabashed advocacy for a better world. Hedges has rightfully earned many accolades for his work, and he has been an effective chronicler of the rise of people-powered social movements in the U.S. and around the world. Undoubtedly like many others, I have personally been inspired by his writings, and have appreciated his willingness to dialogue with me on occasion. Hedges, in short, represents something of an ideal for those of us who deign to wax publicly on the issues of the day.
All of which makes his latest piece so disturbing in its full implications. Hedges calls out the anarchist-influenced Black Bloc as “the cancer of the Occupy movement,” and in the process vilifies with a broad brush an entire class of activists and anarchists as “not only deeply intolerant but stupid,” accusing them of “hijacking” and/or seeking to destroy Occupy and other progressive movements. The problems with his analysis are numerous, including that he points to a mere handful of sensationalized episodes of alleged “violence” without subjecting them to further scrutiny or engaging the voluminous literature in social movements discourse on what even constitutes violence, as well as the utility of potentially disruptive tactics in the annals of social change. Indeed, Hedges himself seems to comprehend this, and has written favorably about it in other contexts:
“Here’s to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their country. They know what to do when they are told their pensions, benefits and jobs have to be cut to pay corporate banks, which screwed them in the first place. Call a general strike. Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out. Do not be afraid of the language of class warfare – the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it.”
So what gives? How is it that someone of his stature, influence, and insight has seemingly “drank the Kool-Aid” of divisiveness and internal finger-pointing that the power elite so obviously want to inculcate within our movements? Does Hedges really believe that a relatively small subset of the larger movement is somehow responsible for scuttling Occupy nationwide? Never mind the coordinated and militaristic assaults on the camps, media smear campaigns, unjustified mass arrests, or police-instigated violence in many locales – better to blame those black-clad anarchists in our otherwise-equanimous midst who broke a few windows and tried to actually occupy a couple of buildings for the use of the movement and houseless people alike. Seriously? It’s Greek to me.
Now, don’t get me wrong: the tactics and strategies deployed within a movement are fair game for critical intervention and even open contestation if we believe them to be dangerous or misguided. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking the hard questions and calling people to account for the consequences of their actions. In fact, Occupy itself possesses mechanisms for precisely this sort of internal reflection, through the use of consensus-based processes and the workings of the participatory General Assembly model. Anyone is free to advance a vision, air grievances, urge a course of action, engage a debate, or offer alternatives for the group’s consideration. The task is to reinvigorate our collective capacities to reach agreement, rather than excise those who disagree.
A few months ago, when similar arguments about the “destruction of Occupy” were being raised by others in the milieu, I wrote a piece urging inclusivity rather than cashiering out conflicting actors:
“To reject someone from the open spaces of a movement that is purporting to represent the 99 percent is to consign them to where, exactly? Since they are presumably not part of the 1 percent (hired provocateurs aside), if they are banished from the 99 percent what options does that leave them? When a movement decides to ‘self-police,’ that shouldn’t be confused with adopting the same punitive and illogical methods of the state. We can forge agreements and work by consensus, but that cannot be used as a wedge to weed out and expunge those who contravene our best-laid plans. Rather, the aim should be to create processes based on the best practices of restorative justice, peacekeeping, and personal healing in order to promote points of contact and ongoing dialogue among all who find their way to the movement. We won’t all agree on everything, but surely we can at least maintain a perspective in which our interests are seen as broadly aligned and our common humanity remains intact…. Rather than seeing the presence of divergent elements as a threat to movement cohesion or as an exploitable image that the media will seize upon to denigrate us further, Occupy encampments can become models of communities that don’t simply warehouse unpopular or difficult elements, but instead work with them to promote the creation of a society based on mutual respect and the utilization of the productive capacities of all of its members.”
The issue for Hedges, as far as I can tell, seems to be a genuine concern that dangerous factions are hijacking the movement – and thus, not to call for their excision is somehow cowardly. He cites the example of Martin Luther King remaining steadfastly nonviolent in the face of official repression as the key to delegitimizing official power, and potentially as creating a pathway to “win the hearts and minds of the wider public” and even perhaps “some within the structures of power.” Yet King took great pains not to publicly oppose the more militant wings of the Civil Rights movement, focusing instead on developing an empathetic and healing posture toward those who would resort to tactics that he deemed unwise, immoral, or ineffective in the context of the larger movement, as reflected in this statement from Stanford University’s King Papers Project:
“Although King was hesitant to criticize Black Power openly, he told his staff on 14 November 1966 that Black Power ‘was born from the wombs of despair and disappointment. Black Power is a cry of pain. It is in fact a reaction to the failure of White Power to deliver the promises and to do it in a hurry.… The cry of Black Power is really a cry of hurt.’’’
In many ways this is the essence of nonviolence, as longtime advocate and practitioner George Lakey observed in an email message discussing the implications of Hedges’ recent piece:
“Let’s decide now not to use Chris Hedges as a model for how to respond to the Black Bloc. Demonizing, calling them names, using the giveaway metaphor ‘cancer’ (I’ve had cancer) is about as far away from effectively opposing a tendency one disagrees with as it’s possible to get. We have such good models in our tradition. Dr. King, James Lawson, John Lewis, and so many others in the civil rights movement who had to respond to pro-violence activists showed us how to do it. They were themselves mentored by people like A. J. Muste whose largeness of spirit in dealing with pro-violence forces went all the way back to the 1919 Lawrence, MA, textile strike…. Reducing a group of people who are not monolithic and are themselves frightened and trying to learn how to express their deep convictions in effective ways to a demonic force is beneath us. Hedges writes like someone badly frightened, and is way over the line…. We get enough of the ‘Be very afraid’ stuff from the Right Wing.”
As one commenter (“swaneagle”) on Truthout similarly observed in response to Hedges:
“The situation with the black bloc is indeed very serious. How we deal with it will decide the course of our current international struggle. We are all so deeply interconnected now. We cannot afford to throw all those involved with the misguided DOT [diversity of tactics] away as cancerous. Rather, we must proceed with deep love, care and intelligence in shaping something that more precisely represents the goals and dreams we all can share in. This is not just the vision of people engaging in more domineering bully behaviors, but the joint efforts of each one of us. Please reconsider what you deem cancerous Chris Hedges, for it may rise out of this current turmoil as key to [a] solution for us all. It is our challenge and our sacred duty to face this with all we know with all our hearts and all the voices still excluded.”
Going forward, I believe we should heed these calls to embrace the actor while critically engaging the action. As difficult as this practice may be, we might consider applying its teachings not only to the challenging cadres within our movements, but even toward the 1 percent and their agents as well. Isn’t it possible that their inner fears and human failings are driving them, too? Every great peacemaker throughout history has counseled us to strive to see the essential humanity of those appearing as adversaries or even antagonists. We don’t have to accept their divisive and destructive actions, yet the task of refusing to replicate them is incumbent upon us as we forge a new society.
We can surmise that someone of Hedges’ caliber is aware of this. Despite ruffling some feathers with his caustic words, he has provided us with an object lesson in the need for renewed empathy.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor forNew Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).