What Violence Isn't

First Full Moon Over Occupy Oakland

First, let’s make sure that we begin talking about Occupy Oakland not merely as the local chapter of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t a local phenomenon, it was organized by people in Canada, had buy in from people around the nation and found New York supporters along the way to becoming a national phenomenon.

Whatever the organizers of Occupy Oakland meant it to be on Day 1, the camp has become a fluid and organic phenomenon that defies definitions of physical space, economic class, gender and race. What this means is that Occupy Oakland is, almost single-handedly, redefining the meaning of protest and the question of who is allowed to speak for the poor and disenfranchised. It’s broached the question of whether the OWS movement should restrict itself to broad discourse about financial institutions, or add a more specific and three-dimensional analysis that calls local actors to answer for their institutional failures in leadership. Where other Occupations speak for a monolithic 99%, while keeping homeless and other socially marginalized people at bay, Occupy Oakland has chosen the harder route, inviting all in, regardless of their appearance or social baggage, to participate in building a new kind of social and political movement.

While a few feet away from the camp, institutional actors in City Hall are more than happy to support the ethereal discourse of the OWS movement, they understandably hesitate to have their own management called into question. That’s their real problem with the organization; liberal mayors like the discourse just fine so long as it pegs its hopes to the stratosphere, and looks beyond the horizon to strictly national goals. Oakland residents know, however, that solves only one piece of the puzzle for a city where many have no bank accounts at all, and live paycheck to paycheck, one step away from homelessness in rental units.

Occupy Oakland has no walls and thus, no gates, or gatekeepers. When an organization pulls down its doors, there are naturally people who, for whatever reason will participate in dangerous and destructive ways. There are people who approach the camp with the intent of taking advantage of its open nature, by selling things both legal and illicit, theft and etcetera. Some of those people become members of the camp regardless, leaving behind their initial idea of targeting it for something larger. Others don’t, but they soon become aware that individuals in a loose-knit organization can also come together spontaneously for a greater good, and repel their attempts to abuse the camp’s open nature. So too, there are people who approach the camp who are mentally ill; some of those people are homeless, some aren’t. In some cases, the problems associated with their mental illness are obvious, and in others they don’t became apparent until later. Some of these people nevertheless become valuable members of the society of the camp, and of course, others can’t or won’t.

Regardless, one difficult conversation that has emerged time after time at Occupy Oakland is how to maintain the safety of the people who become part of the camp, including those who live there; and also their families, allies, friends and neutral visitors, tourists and inadvertent bystanders who may not. This conversation ranges far and wide, from police brutality, to actions that some believe are not inherently violent or dangerous—such as graffiti—but can draw real violence from police.

At its heart, this is a discussion about what violence is. Its a term bastardized by media over the last few weeks but which many of us believe retains some inherent borders and contextual meanings.

Perhaps the murder of young Alex at the foot of the entrance of Frank Ogawa Plaza BART—a transit system that also became forever identified with the tragic murder of Oscar Grant by transit police some three years ago—can refocus the attention of the city and nation on the true nature of violence, what it is and what we know it isn’t.

Violence is not the breaking of windows; anyone looking at coverage of the Penn State riots over the past two days, with its noticeable lack of the V word to describe incidents that just a week ago were characterized as violent in Oakland, must know that by now. Violence is a monolithic term and it encompasses a territory so vast, that I think most people are at a loss to properly define it.

Violence is the murder of men and women by people who use guns as answers to their rage or confusion. Violence is the use by police of projectiles to destroy flesh and bone, and even kill. Such violence by police sent two men associated with Occupy Oakland to the ICU at Highland over the past month, while no one in the city or police department answer for the crimes.

Violence is a system that tells people that when they become homeless, they are welcome to sleep alone and vulnerable in the street, or temporarily in shelters; but that they are not allowed to unify and solve their own problems of habitation, feed themselves and others, or take political and constitutionally guaranteed means to address their problems to the city, county and nation.

Violence is a populace that turns its back when its members are attacked, or when difficult problems arise that require risk or sacrifice to solve, hoping that someone else will solve the problem for them, or that they can put it behind them by walking away quickly. Violence is a system that arrests and badgers the poor and working class with overwhelming fines for quality of life crimes, harassing people based on the way they look and how much money they have daily–so that every time they leave the safety of their home, if they indeed have one to escape it, they rarely know peace. And, of course, violence is the raining down of bombs on the world’s brown and poor whenever our nation needs something contained in their homelands. Its the funding of brutal police states; military occupations and dictatorship for our own ends; the manipulation of the world’s resources and money to maintain a standard of living for one segment of an increasingly poor nation.

And the list goes on and on, in infinity. That list can contain many things that we’re still learning about, that still challenge us. But at Occupy Oakland, its easy to see what violence isn’t. It isn’t feeding people in a dark, cold camp surrounded by hostile police, as many did last night. It isn’t ignoring the presence of hostile media and creating a spontaneous candle-light vigil to remember a young man forgotten by the rest of the city. It isn’t giving tents to people trying to get out of the rain, or providing people with the opportunity to be of use to themselves and others. Violence isn’t building a community based on real, not imagined bonds, through hard work and dialogue.

This definition of “what isn’t violence” may not give us any immediate inroads to stopping real violence in our communities in Oakland and Occupy Oakland. But it may make it obvious that a massive raid by police on the people who’ve created a unique social and political movement in front of City Hall certainly won’t do anything to stop real violence in Oakland.

This writing I’ve been doing is part of a larger project with the goal of documenting the history of this unique and unprecedented movement. If you’d like to support this project  feel free to visit and contribute to my kickstarter campaign


9 thoughts on “What Violence Isn't

  1. I’m on board with the list of things that are violent, but it begins in a very peculiar way by claiming that window breaking is not violent. The reason is given that we should simply look at the media coverage of the Penn State riot as a kind of evidence because they “V word” is not mentioned. Then the arguments goes on to say that violence is a ‘monolithic term’. I’m confused to say the least.

    It seems that the Penn State riot is a qualitatively more violent disruption than the one from Oakland on November 2nd, if only for the moral depravity it stands for: a riot advocating the innocence of a man complicit in the rape of a young girl. The media’s lack-luster sensationalizing of the riot may be irresponsible but there is at least some grey area here, perhaps it was a reflexive move realizing they could not properly moralize the story. Maybe they foresaw the consequences as engendering more violence against women.

    If you’re a pessimist like me, however, you believe the real motives behind the coverage are probably not so rosy. Nevertheless, I think we can agree that this kind of violence overshadows the minute amount of vandalism in Oakland during the general strike.

    Returning to the subject of window smashing, without getting deep into the metaphysics of private property, it seems fair to characterize destruction of property as violence against others, though maybe it’s fair to say it causes categorically different harm from the systemic violence you mentioned. Nonetheless, a systematic implementation of something as simple as window breaking could have devastating ramifications for individuals. Consider, for example, that petty acts of vandalism were the beginnings of many pogroms against the European jewry a century ago. Or, a more recent example, the targeted destruction of Korean owned markets during the the 1992 L.A. riots. Of course, these are on a wholly other scale than what has occurred in Oakland’s protests, but it is worth being attentive to the topic of violence and all its uses.

    One might respond that the broader systematic violence is all that really matters and what occurs at a protest is only at a micro scale, but this might be underestimating your own powers or ignoring that the acts occur on predetermined systematic terrain. Regarding the latter case, property damage is typically seen (at least by radicals) as both a negative economic incentive and a form of retribution for injustices. However, that it already so easily fits the explanation suggests that there might be something more monolithic at work.

    Denying that certain acts are violent, when in fact they are, obfuscates the issue of violence itself. It is worth taking our violence into account, to call a spade a spade and own up to it, rather than hide behind rhetorical redefinitions. If you are camouflaging violent acts because you feel they are socially unacceptable insofar as they are considered violent, perhaps it is worth reevaluating your reasons for defending them. If you have no problem defending them, then let us call it violence and discuss the real positive and negative relations we have to violence.

    The ‘violence is not’ defense may work in certain circles, but with the elevated aspirations of the occupy movement something more resolute will have to be worked out.

    • As I wrote, violence is a monolithic term. That’s why this essay is called what violence isn’t. The ‘violence’ you’re speaking of represents one tiny moment in this entire movement, and yet you just wrote a manifesto about it, wasting time that can be used to discuss the accomplishments of Occupy Oakland. By your definition is also the tearing down of the fence that allowed the camp to regenerate and subsequently mount one of the largest expressions of discontent in modern history during the general strike. You don’t complain about that violence; in fact, no one has, not even the city. It could have been construed as just as threatening to the people assembled in the amphitheatre, as the breaking of windows was at Whole Foods. But people for the most part CHOSE not to define it that way.

      Indeed, the idea of violence is contextual, and the complaints about property damage are almost to a one selective, as yours certainly is. For example, I have no idea what you’re doing in my comments section, and not that of the dozens of newspaper outlets that failed to properly qualify the Penn State riots as violence, since you’re so concerned with property damage. I’m at a loss to understand your “grey area” here.

      I will give you that the paragraph you’re speaking of isn’t as clear as it could have been, and the word violence there should have been modified. My point was that if one instance of an act in the same context is violence, then so should another instance of the same act in the same context be, and people should notice the difference if their treated differently, reacting just as strongly. The two instances and contexts couldn’t be more similar, and yet violence has yet to be used in the Penn State riots by mainstream media, while it continues to be used in the context of Occupy Oakland and Occupy Cal. There’s been little or no commentary on this publicly. If the word violence makes perfect sense when its used for one, and not for another, the conclusion is that the word itself is not useful.

      More importantly: this broad term that includes some acts sometimes, and NOT the exact same acts in the same context, with the same effect, at other times. That’s problematic, in one sense. But its disastrous when you think that the term “violence” in all these myriad forms, serves to legitimize physical force and incarceration on the part of city, state and federal in response.

      I wrote a previous version of this response that I feel wasn’t as fair as it could have been to your point of view, which I’ve deleted. Apologies.

  2. My comment isn’t strictly about this particular post, but about your blog as whole and how I’ve come to rely on it. After watching the tweets & livestream this Monday morning, I’ve been heartsick. Been back at this site every few hours to see if you’ve posted anything about the second raid. Just to say, in the meantime, thank you for being a window into OO, a voice about and for the best of the Occupy movement. Solidarity from Boston. My thoughts are with Oakland and OO. Those communities have opened to me through your voice and several others’, opened full of other voices and collective possibility. Stay strong; rebuild; I hope to continue to learn from what you write.

  3. This movement exists in the context of public perceptions – hopes, fears, and assumptions. We’re not going to convince the vast majority of people in the US to accept property destruction as a legitimate form of political expression. If we use tactics that alienate the folks we need to build this movement, we will fail – and the state will use those same tactics to justify repression and sell their narrative: “violent protesters”, displacing ours: “the 99% challenging the 1%”. This is not a battle for the streets, it’s a battle for the public’s imagination, to redefine our values as a culture. Tactics (images/memes) that don’t help us tell that new story are counterproductive.

    • Keep using a word like violence, which can mean breaking windows or skulls both, to describe simple destruction of property and you’ll help end this movement yourself with police rubber, and perhaps other kinds, of bullets.

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