Occupy Discusses Violence in Protests
With the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street approaching, an open discussion on movement tactics was held on Wednesday, Sept. 12. Daniel Plafker ’15 co-organized the event, which was open to all members of the Middletown community in addition to University students, faculty, and administrators.
The evening began with a live-streamed screening of the debate between Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges and B. Traven, a member of Crimethinc, a self-described decentralized anarchist collective also known as the Ex-Workers’ Collective. The event was officially titled “Violence and Legitimacy in the Occupy Movement and Beyond: A Debate on Tactics and Strategy, Reform and Revolution.”
“The Occupy Movement has spread across the country, and in its growth, protest tactics have come to vary from location to location,” Plafker said. “In the Northeast, practices mostly consist of civil disobedience, street protest, and occupations of public spaces. These non-violent techniques have a broad-based appeal, and many people view them as central to the occupy movement.”
Plafker went on to explain that in other areas, particularly Oakland, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay area, protest actions are more diverse. They may include black bloc tactics—when protestors dress in black and act as buffers between other protestors and the police—property destruction, and other actions that the media denounces as violent.
“Black bloc tactics can protect vulnerable individuals, de-arrest comrades, and are generally better equipped to actively resist state violence and repression,” Plafker said. “For people who lack privilege and cannot afford the luxury of risking arrest through Gandhian civil disobedience, black bloc tactics are often the only tenable option for effective resistance. ”
The debate between Hedges and Traven centered on whether such militant tactics have a place in the Occupy movement and, in general, what tools are effective and justified for social change.
After learning of the debate, Plafker decided to organize an on-campus screening and discussion of the topic.
“A year into the movement, people are wondering whether the tactics employed thus far are still the most effective or whether we need to diversify,” Plafker said. “For many people at the discussion, this issue is very real. Students will be participating in the one-year anniversary and other upcoming Occupy events. The question people are asking is, ‘When I am in the street, what tactics do I employ?’”
The conversation following the debate was composed of 30 students and three Middletown residents. Plafker said that while most discussion participants supported a diversity of tactics, the range of backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses represented by students and other Middletown residents led to varied opinions on legitimate protest actions.
“There are many factors that contribute to one’s position about movement tactics,” Plafker said. “Not everyone can afford to sit around and protest passively for long periods of time. Militant actions often minimize risk of arrest.”
According to Plafker, individuals’ positions on protest techniques may depend on their expectations of how police will perceive their actions given their race, level of education, and socioeconomic background.
“An affluent college student may be more willing to risk the consequences entailed in Gandhian nonviolence protests than someone from a lower class background who has previously been arrested,” Plafker said. “This is where people’s opinions on logical tactics vary.”
Some who had attended Wednesday’s event had not previously considered the question of justified protest tactics.
“Prior to the discussion, I did not realize two people who both support the Occupy movement could have such differing opinions on how best to achieve their goals,” said Lily Myers ’15. “The conversation allowed me to understand both sides of the debate and to question my own beliefs about what is ‘right’ when it comes to protest tactics.”