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Open Letter to the Occupy Movement: Why We Need Agreements (from the ACT)

This is an open letter from The Association of Community Trainers that speaks to, among other things, the "diversity of tactics" discussion that has been ongoing here at Corrente and throughout the Occupy movement. Here's a summary of the advantages of what they call "strategic non-violent direct action":

Strategic nonviolent direct action has powerful advantages:

We make agreements about what types of action we will take, and hold one another accountable for keeping them. Making agreements is empowering. If I know what to expect in an action, I can make a choice about whether or not to participate. While we can never know nor control how the police will react, we can make choices about what types of action we stand behind personally and are willing to answer for. We don’t place unwilling people in the position of being held responsible for acts they did not commit and do not support.

In the process of coming to agreements, we listen to each other’s differing viewpoints. We don’t avoid disagreements within our group, but learn to debate freely, passionately, and respectfully.

We organize openly, without fear, because we stand behind our actions. We may break laws in service to the higher laws of conscience. We don’t seek punishment nor admit the right of the system to punish us, but we face the potential consequences for our actions with courage and pride.

Because we organize openly, we can invite new people into our movement and it can continue to grow. As soon as we institute a security culture in the midst of a mass movement, the movement begins to close in upon itself and to shrink.

Holding to a framework of nonviolent direct action does not make us ‘safe.’ We can’t control what the police do and they need no direct provocation to attack us. But it does let us make clear decisions about what kinds of actions we put ourselves at risk for.

Nonviolent direct action creates dilemmas for the opposition, and clearly dramatizes the difference between the corrupt values of the system and the values we stand for. Their institutions enshrine greed while we give away food, offer shelter, treat each person with generosity. They silence dissent while we value every voice. They employ violence to maintain their system while we counter it with the sheer courage of our presence.

Lack of agreements privileges the young over the old, the loud voices over the soft, the fast over the slow, the able-bodied over those with disabilities, the citizen over the immigrant, white folks over people of color, those who can do damage and flee the scene over those who are left to face the consequences.

Lack of agreements and lack of accountability leaves us wide open to provocateurs and agents. Not everyone who wears a mask or breaks a window is a provocateur. Many people clearly believe that property damage is a strong way to challenge the system. And masks have an honorable history from the anti-fascist movement in Germany and the Zapatista movement in Mexico, who said “We wear our masks to be seen.”

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending workshops conducted by two of their members, Lisa Fithian and Juniper, together with an East Austin activist (TK), on anti-opression and non-violent direct action. The workshops were well attended (40-50 people each day) and personally transformational. They were held in a location in East Austin to permit people previously arrested and banned from City Hall (the site of Occupy Austin) to attend.

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DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

violence is inherently authoritarian.

ChePasa's picture
Submitted by ChePasa on

that these kinds of discussions are too often cut off before they start, and the kind of workshop/training you're pointing to is too rarely available.

People who naturally gravitate toward authoritarian control (or who are conditioned to do so) -- as I'm sure there are some in Austin -- can't fathom or abide the kind of free and open discussion of tactics and agreements to use or not use certain tactics based on that open discussion.

To actually hear and respect a diversity of opinion on the topic of tactics is alien to many people. They are used to being told or telling people what is appropriate and what is not and used to having their way. Any deviation is seen as a threat.

Non-violence is a tactic that is very difficult in practice, in part because most of us never get any practice in doing it, and most Occupations have had no real training opportunities.

For many people where I am, the notion of Non-Violent Communication is brand new. They're just learning what it is, and they have only the vaguest notion how to use it (or how it has been used as a weapon against them). Many of them don't even know who Cesar Chavez was, nor how he used non-violence in the service of the United Farm Workers Union. His statue graces the Plaza where the local semi-occupation takes place.

Some of us are much more experienced in these things than others. It takes a while to learn non-violence. It can't be forced on people.

Simply cutting off any discussion of alternatives is a form of authoritarian coercion that will be met with resistance.

That's why ultimately it is so important to have the kinds of open discussion and agreement on tactics you're describing in your post.

Thank you.