Chris Hedges has written some of the most insightful analysis of the U.S. war machine in recent years. His 2009 book The Empire of Illusion was an exploration of how exhibition has eclipsed truth and meaningful connection in American society. His acknowledgment of the ease in which one can buy into such spectacles is a small part of why it was so odd to read his article on Truthdig attacking both anarchists and black bloc tactics entitled “The Cancer in Occupy.”
It is patently clear that Hedges’ statements on anarchist theory and tactics of organizing are either false, unsubstantiated, or directly misleading. He has bought into the American Empire’s fallacy that direct action and organization in our communities is unfavorable and that submission to elected authorities is the only way to enact permanent change. But any legitimate critique of the black bloc that he manages to brush up against is quickly obfuscated by basing his conclusions on problematic assumptions and faulty definitions. It should be no surprise that Hedges, a proponent of statist solutions, should slander anarchism as a philosophy. But, for some reason, it was a surprise to many on the Left who follow his work. Here’s why:
Hedges’ Truthdig column titled, simply, “The Greeks Get It” (24 May 2010) showed a man then unafraid to take on rampant fascism, the insidious nature of capitalism, and the heavy hand of the police state.“Here’s to the Greeks… 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.”
His recent demonization of the black bloc, therefore, is apparently more of the same “not in my back yard” brand of knee-jerk liberalism. This attitude is all too common among self-described members of the Left who celebrate certain tactics in other parts of the world or other points in history, but seem to place their own context in a place of American exceptionalism.
Rioting against austerity measures in Greece? Shutting down the city in Athens? It’s “liberation”. In Oakland, it’s “criminal” and “a cancer”.
Hedges continues in his article to lavish praise on Greek resistance but warns his readers of continued hardship in America and every other nation where economies are as rotten.
“…the corporate overlords will demand that we too impose draconian controls and cuts … the corporate state, despite this suffering, will continue to plunge us deeper into debt to make war. It will use fear to keep us passive.”
Nothing could be truer. The city of Oakland has long struggled with urban blight and high rates of crime and its residents, especially the roughly 35% of Black people that make up their population, are often the victims of not only violence by outsiders, but by the Oakland Police Department itself.
African Americans living in the East Bay are twice as likely to live in poverty, twice as likely to become victims of violent crime and twice as likely to be unemployed compared to other metropolitan cities on the West Coast. Latest census figures show Black people make up the biggest single ethnic group in Oakland at 27.3%, with white people at 25.9% and Hispanics at 25.4%.
Yet despite having almost the same size populations in the city, white people account for only 16% of OPD vehicle stops, and 6.7% of motorists searched. Black people in Oakland, by contrast, account for a whopping 48% of vehicle stops, and 65.8% of motorists searched. Oakland’s minority and poor populations didn’t begin this war.
Hedges firmly states in his column on Greece that ”there has to be a point when even the American public—which still believes the fairy tale that personal will power and positive thinking will lead to success—will realize it has been had.”
Oakland has been had, time and time again. But her residents have risen like lions from their slumber.
Chris Hedges’ straw-dog argument that some “Black Bloc Movement” is responsible for tainting the message of Occupy is either plain ignorance—which is unlikely, given his otherwise informed reporting on American fascism—or intellectual dishonesty. Given the inaccurate assumptions and implications propagated by Hedges, it is necessary to clarify a few terms.
The black bloc is a tactic, not a group nor a movement. Its origins can be found in the Autonomism movement of 1970s Germany, where activists wore heavy black clothing, masks, and helmets to provide protection from the watchful eye of the authoritarian police state. Given the continued illegal actions of the Oakland Police Department—dealings deemed by the government as heinous enough to place the department under the oversight of a federal judge—it is no surprise that the residents of Oakland would want to protect themselves in this manner.
Hedges says that activists using black bloc techniques actively seek to destroy all forms of collective organization and engage in petty vandalism as a means of bringing on “the revolution.” This is a blatant falsehood. He quotes an anarchist writer using the pseudonym “Venomous Butterfly” as an example of how anarchists supposedly seek to obstruct progress, painting her dislike of Zapatista organization as characteristic of the whole of anarchist theory. But if Hedges had done any investigation worthy of being called “journalism,” he would find the following from Venomous Butterfly’s “Open Letter to the Black Bloc.”
“The purpose for wearing black has been anonymity and a visual statement of solidarity, not the formation of an anarchist army. […] As I see it, the questions those involved with the black bloc need to be asking is: how do we carry out this specific method of struggle in such a way that it reflects our aims? […] I reject the sad and desperate slogan, ‘By any means necessary’, in favor of the principle, ‘Only by those means that can create the world I desire, those means that carry it in their very practice as I carry it in my heart.’”
Indeed, activists using black bloc—who are not all anarchists, mind you—realize the strength that lies within mutual aid and collective organization. Without a structure to transfer ideas into action, one is paralyzed and cut off from potential.
Hedges makes a surprising choice in his recent article by interviewing Derrick Jensen, an author who claims to wake up each morning with the heartbreaking decision between continuing to write or blowing up a dam. In his book “Endgame,” Jensen asks: ”Do you believe that this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” His next question is: ”How would this understanding—that this culture will not voluntarily stop destroying the natural world, eliminating indigenous cultures, exploiting the poor, and killing those who resist—shift our strategy and tactics? The answer? Nobody knows, because we never talk about it: we’re too busy pretending the culture will undergo a magical transformation.” Endgame, he says, is ”about that shift in strategy, and in tactics.”
Making a central part of your column opposing violence a discussion with a man who says that “violence can be like sex: a sacramental, beautiful, and sometimes bittersweet interaction” is an interesting selection.
Hedges continues that the “Black Bloc movement is infected with hypermasculinity.” In using such gendered terms, he furthers the notion that people—in particular, males—are inherently violent and damaged beings. He describes the notion of masculinity as one that drives the black bloc to fulfill the “lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings.” He ignores the participation of feminists and queers who are often participants in the bloc, rather than choosing to view individuals as members of a homogenous mass. Nonwhite, non-male participants are categorized as victims of “white, masculine aggression,” not recognizing the contributions of marginalized groups against rampant corporatism. There is also no acknowledgement of the fact that the bloc has been used primarily as a defensive technique against the violence of the State and not as an offensive measure against people. Hedges ‘ insipid sexism is not lost on the diverse crowds utilizing this tactic in recent marches, who were found chanting “Racist, sexist, anti-gay / NYPD go away.”
While individual members of the bloc have indeed done damage to multinational banks and other predatory businesses, Hedges, like many members of the mainstream media establishment, ignores the fact that strategic property damage is part and parcel of a long history of nonviolent struggle. From the Suffragettes attempting to gain the right to vote, to environmental activists protecting the rights of nature, property damages inflicts financial costs upon entities that only care about their bottom dollar. Martin Luther King Jr. had this to say about the struggle for human rights against the corrupt system of his time:
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Anarchists don’t oppose nonviolent methods of organizing. Hedges is engaging in binary thinking that has him convinced that participants in the black bloc don’t do anything else. He ignores years of alternative structures like Food Not Bombs, hundreds of Infoshops that provide literature, bike collectives, food cooperatives, and groups that provide services for marginalized groups. Anarchists, like many others, believe in a diversity of tactics. It is this diversity that is our strength. We cannot allow slander and fear to separate us; sectarianism is the real cancer of Occupy. The enemies that we face—fascism, authoritarianism, militarism, and the like—are legion in their attacks; our response should be equally multifaceted.
At one point, Hedges blames the black bloc in Oakland for overreaction by law enforcement and frames the police violence as something caused by militant action. He ignores weeks of self-sufficient organizing in Oscar Grant Plaza, complete nonviolence resistance by Scott Olsen—a veteran marine who was critically injured by police projectiles, and months of attacks on other Occupations nationwide.
He says that this police violence will ”frighten the wider population away from Occupy” and follows, in his next paragraph, by saying that the explosive rise of the movement was the result of pepperspraying of two young women in New York.
So, his position is that violence by police will both scare people away and win them over to you? This thinking is indicative of the slippery argument put out by ideological pacifists who have no grasp of history. It is typical flaccid liberal double-think; the fault lies not with the ruling class for establishing and directing a police state, nor with the police themselves for acting like thugs and fascists—no, the fault lies solely with protesters who defied authority and therefore brought down the violence of the state. “Look what you made them do.” This is the thinking of the beaten wife, the mindset of the victim. We are not victims of brutality on behalf of the State, but survivors of it.
The article ends with a quote by Derrick Jensen, a man who has written so eloquently of the dangers of industrial civilization and the need for immediate action:
“…we have to go through the process of trying to work with the system and getting screwed. It is only then that we get to move beyond it.”
The abuses of fascist government, capitalist feudalism, and paramilitary police forces have shown us that the system is not broken, but built to serve someone other than us. Hedges was correct when he said they would use fear to keep us passive. We are not afraid anymore.