Counter-Insurgency as Insurgency
As the Occupy movement begins to come into full bloom across the country this Spring – with plans for massive days of action and demonstrations on May 1st, new campaigns for transit justice on both coasts, continued organizing against foreclosures and police violence, and a slight chance of a bank protest or two – there are several weeds sprouting in the prefigurative garden. Not least of which is the “99% Spring” campaign, led and funded by every corner of the modern Democratic Party machine. One might ask themselves “What is wrong with non-violent direct action?” or “How effective could the ‘Democratic Party machine’ actually be, anyway?” There is nothing inherently wrong with civil disobedience and it surely remains to be seen if this campaign can train 10,000 people let alone the 100,000 they plan to. The campaign director at MoveOn.org, Ilyse Hogue, an organization that seems to be the key player in the 99% Spring, has recently written in the Nation that “Occupy is Dead” and that the 99% Spring will succeed where Occupy has failed – while mimicking their slogans. What they lack in actual knowledge of Occupy’s health, they certainly make up for in co-optive obviousness. Fertilized by decades of expanding inequality, Occupy needs to bloom and transform in the coming months, without getting mired in conflict with the various failed institutions of the organizational Left. However, those flowers of resistance will have to rise above the weeds of a dying order, including the 99% Spring dandelions.
The organizations comprising this effort are a litany of individual trade unions, both trade federations, environmental groups, and a range of non-profits, including groups who have done very respectable work, such as Jobs with Justice. There likely isn’t unified intent on behalf of every actor in this campaign. In Oakland, I have heard of some local participants in the training having serious reservations about the effort, but are participating in it nonetheless. The (potential) intent of these organizations, or the people they will train who will choose to lie down and get arrested, over some other tactics, isn’t the issue. What matters is the effect of this effort in the existing political context of counter-insurgency, the dismissive, patronizing and divisive terms in which this is being put, and the timing – right before the presidential election. If successful, this will undoubtedly serve as a wedge over tactics, exacerbating the “good protester / bad protester” trope that is always used, and that we have heard in the last few months already – from liberal Mayors to Fox News and everywhere in between. This attempts to bring organizations with sordid histories into Occupy, who will invariably try to wrestle legitimacy from a popular, radical movement, into political groups that are reformist at best, wholly complicit with the current order at worst. Hogue has stated that the plans for this effort pre-dated the formation of the Occupy movement in the U.S. The original goal, likely, to generate systemically non-threatening actions to draw attention to inequality and injustice – not to stop it, but to gather votes for Democrats, who, ostensibly, address those issues. Now that the Occupy movement has already done that, inadvertently, they seek to employ the same campaign to contain and defang that movement while preserving their positions as mostly poverty pimps and lazy labor bureaucrats that think strikes have lost their usefulness.
The existing powers, who some of these same progressives have consistently stood against (from their political position), deeply need to weld a safety valve on Occupy. Homeland Security, who has been “advising” police and city governments nationally and who coordinated the mid-November 18-city raid on the Occupy movement, released an article this week entitled “The Occupy Movement: Rising Anarchy” which states:
“So far, Occupy protests in the United States exhibit a mostly peaceful nature. However, certain elements within Occupy that have been seen both here and abroad have the potential to inflict major damage to governments, people and the private sector. If not carefully monitored and mitigated, these elements pose a significant threat to modern democracies.”
The existing order needs an institutionalized, liberal super-hero-on-a-leash to be used (whether the organizations involved all intend to or not) disrupt, discredit and destroy, from the inside, those elements who organized the November 2nd General Strike in Oakland, the militant demonstrations against police violence in New York in recent weeks, or community-led, anti-capitalist efforts against foreclosures in Chicago, or those that set barricades aflame in Seattle on December 12, 2011, or the scores of lesser-reported militant action that have taken place in the last half-year, out of nowhere. They also want to suck the tens of thousands of young people all over the country, hoping to be able to do the same thing in their cities, into a more palatable strategy. Those in power would like to see nothing more than for 100,000 people to be trained to chain themselves to local bank branches for 6-9 months, hooting about their “greedy side,” get disillusioned at how fruitless that is, and go back to playing video games and downloading pirated music after Obama’s re-election.
Counter-Insurgency by any other name
This is not primarily about tactics, it is about politics. MoveOn.org and reactionary unions are not spearheading this for no reason. Are we to believe that the same unions that discourage their members from taking non-violent direct action during labor disputes, have found both the time and the energy to do a solid favor for the radical Left, by resuscitating a movement they have mistakenly diagnosed as dead? This is primarily about co-option and division, about sucking a large cross-section of Occupy into Obama’s reelection campaign, watering down it’s radical politics, and using these mass trainings as a groundwork to put forward 100,000 “good protesters” to overshadow the “bad protesters” (who actual take personal risks and/or have radical politics), to ease the State’s ongoing campaign to pick us off one by one. In the words of MoveOn.org’s own campaign director, it is unabashedly and overtly a campaign of clear co-optation. This is not a riding of the coattails of a hip social movement; this will be a form of counter-insurgency. This will be used to disrupt, divide, discredit and destroy the Occupy movement. The parameters of acceptable protest will be imposed, not by some local non-profit starving for funding or wanting to remain relevant, but by city officials, the police, the major media, Homeland Security, Chambers of Commerce, police front groups like “Stand for Oakland,” and on down the line.
The Occupy movement has broken with the Left’s long-standing, self-defeating tendencies of meaningless, police-choreographed marches, 1-day pageant strikes, movement discourse that thinks the logic of the lowest common denominator that wins elections will win social justice (99% frames not withstanding), and non-violent civil disobedience designed to curry favorable media attention that gets de-contextualized and buried in the sea on nonsense entertainment that is the media. This scares the hell out of capital and the State. 99% Spring is not part of some nefarious conspiracy theory with Homeland Security or “the illuminati.” 99% Spring is not Wall Street. But they sure as hell are doing their work, whether some of them want to realize that or not.
“Just Say, No” (to government-sponsored co-optation)
A New York lawyer and some folks from OWS have made an attempt to turn the direct democracy of Occupy into a representation democracy of elected “Occupy politicians” who would have a new-Constitutional Convention this July 4th weekend in Philadelphia, comprised of elected officials from the Occupy Movement (“rising anarchy,” be damned). In short time Occupy Wall Street, from which these charlatans emerged, publicly denounced this attempted event at a General Assembly, along with Occupy Philadelphia. We have (imperfect) emerging direct, democratic institutions in our cities that reflect the will of the movement. We should use them. We should address the Operation 99% Spring Co-optation initiative the same way that New York and Philadelphia dealt with the “new founding fathers.” It is time to weed out our garden, so that real, social justice efforts can bloom.
My knowledge of the Occupy movement is derived primarily from my experience in Oakland. We have seen counter-insurgent efforts of this type before: when Mayor Quan’s Block-by-Block campaign organization tried to set up a “peace camp” right before the raid of the second Occupy Oakland encampment; when the one singular thing reporters wanted to know from press contacts before the December 12th Port Shutdown was “How can we get the protesters to obey police orders?” or their myopic fixation on the property destruction that they consider “violence;” to Quan’s unheeded call for the “leaders of the Occupy movement” to condemn said “violence” (by which she means people carrying shields who were hit with projectiles and beaten, while groups of children were tear-gassed): or how permits, taken out behind Occupy Oakland’s back, were used to arrest people for possession of blankets in Oscar Grant Plaza – some of whom are facing prison time; to Quan’s use of non-profits as a palatable alternative to a violent, discredited, and costly movement in a press-release and subsequent “volunteer fair.” All of this counter-insurgent misrepresentation, baiting, discreditation, and divisiveness is wearying and something we need to get better at combating. It has also only been partially effective. An Oakland Tribune poll found that 94% of Oaklanders support Occupy Oakland, even after all of the efforts I outlined above. We shouldn’t find a false complacency in this. It should be noted that even though most of these were attempts at co-optation, most came from clearly demarcated enemies.
99% Spring is attempting to graft itself to Occupy and hollow it out from the inside out, imposing rigid norms of non-violence and deference to police authority, while watering down our politics and introducing well-funded and trained institutions that are either fully invested in, or dependent upon, the exist power structure – and have the resources, connections and will of self-preservation to navigate the Occupy ship into a doldrums from which it will never emerge. Despite the undemocratic and self-defeating norm of consensus, we, as an Occupy movement, still have a sense of what we came here to do. We didn’t come here to sign petitions or to get Obama reelected. We didn’t come here to “have a voice in the system”; we came here to flip it on its head. We will not be co-opted. We should not have our tactics determined by the Democratic Party. We should not let ourselves be undermined from within. We have the capacity to call the 99% Spring out for what it is – a deluded attempt by the Obama campaign to kill two birds with one stone, to take the hundreds of thousands in the street demanding real democracy (laying bare the utter failure of the Obama administration and the American State) and turn it into a vehicle to re-elect him. So that he can bomb Iran with impunity, or continue to deport more undocumented immigrants than any other president, or cover-up more massacres in Afghanistan, or think that half-baked rhetoric about inequality coupled with more tax breaks for businesses represents “Change we can believe in.”
The Occupy movement may not have the power to change the talking points of duplicitous, liberal Mayors. It may not have the capacity to change the preoccupations of the mainstream media. It certainly doesn’t have much say in the manner in which the police try to suppress it. But we do have control over what goes on in our own house. These people only become part of the Occupy movement if we let them continue to say that they are out of one side of their mouth, while the other side says we are directionless, un-strategic and “dead.” Every single Occupation that doesn’t want to turn into nothing more than an ample pool of chumps registering people to vote for the same Obama administration that has declared an all-out war against us, should bring forward a resolution at their General Assembly to condemn this clear attempt to destroy our movement. This isn’t about violence versus non-violence; this is about autonomy versus co-optation. History will not forgive us if we let the 99% Spring Trojan horse into out movement so that the injustices we rose up against can be perpetuated with our own sanction, in our own name.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu.