Violence and Vandalism Don't Threaten the System, Occupy's Positive Image Does
Occupy is unique in a lot of ways, but it descends from a lineage, too. A number of those of us who helped to start Occupy Wall Street (who exchanged planning emails over the summer and assisted in establishing its earliest functions) were present this spring for a meeting with Egyptian revolutionaries Ahmed Maher and Waleed Rashed, of the April 6th movement. In the first calls for a Wall Street occupation, Tahrir Square was often cited as an inspiration.
Well, the Egyptian revolution was a nonviolent one and the young people of the April 6 Movement, who provided much of the energy behind the revolution, were doctrinally committed to nonviolence. Maher and Rashed repeatedly, over the course of their meeting with us, mentioned Otpor!, the nonviolent Serbian student group that helped to overthrow Slobadan Miloševic, members of which have also met with Occupy Wall Street. It is, of course, also worth recalling that the year in democratic revolution started with Mohamed Bouazizi's decision in the final days of 2010 not to set fire to anyone but himself. Our actions obviously do not have to be governed by our predecessors - as a democratic movement, our actions have only to be governed by ourselves and as essentially a federalist movement, no one occupation can govern any other - but it is worth taking them into account by way of culling best practices and noting courses worth avoiding....
That gets to a central feature of the Occupy movement: image is everything. More specifically, the ability to attract broad swaths of the American population to the cause is everything. The lack of demands; the 99 percent meme; the movement's sense of humor; the willingness to claim and own anarchists, hippies, trade unionists, sympathetic rich people etc. - these have all helped the movement grow to a national force in early November from a few hundred activists in mid-September. The exertion of pressure on the system to change requires huge numbers of supporters, occupiers, protesters, sympathetic organizations and favorable polls. Vandalism and violence alienate the public just as successfully as nonviolent civil disobedience (of the sort that goes punished by authoritarian violence) attracts it.
Bouazizi attacked no one and nothing and that sparked the Tunisian fuse. The Tunisian people attacked no one and nothing and that sparked the Egyptian fuse. The Egyptian people attacked no one and nothing and that sparked the European and American fuses. Everywhere this year, a commitment to nonviolence has attracted solidarity and enlisted camaraderie. When that commitment has lapsed (as in Greece and parts of England), the chief results have been 1) fear on the part of average people who might otherwise be sympathetic; and 2) a burden on those nonviolent protesters among us to explain away violence and vandalism as lamentable results of injustice and inequality, even when they do not appear to further the cause.
In nonviolent civil disobedience, there is a picture of fearlessness - once the fear of a system's violence is gone (and that really is what a prison system is, what authoritarian law is, what an institution of dominance is - violence that survives on fear), the portent is its collapse. This was expressed by myriad Egyptians; shedding fear was a prerequisite for toppling a dictatorship there. By contrast, images of destruction on behalf of protesters show a deep fear, a terror even, a panic, among people whose centers are not quiet with bravery and righteousness, but loud with chaos and confusion, who so lack the courage of their convictions that they cover their faces while smashing, spraying or igniting.
That is why Indian hunger strikes engender more global support than Palestinian suicide bombings. The willingness to give ones freedom to jailers, to give ones well-being to batons, to give ones life to the oppressors, all in the service of the cause - this is how the movement expands. We who have nothing but our own bodies to contribute can only win by contributing them.