Tahrir Here

by Joseph R. Jones

The following selections are excerpted from a longer essay, “Fighting Together and Going it Alone,” which will shortly be posted here in its entirety

As the Occupy movement kicked off on the Gulf Coast, I visited Jackson, MS and New Orleans, LA, as well as the planning meetings in my hometown of Biloxi, MS. I received regular communications from an affinity group in Pensacola, FL, and browsed the Internet for reports of activity elsewhere. Everywhere I went there seemed to be a divide between professional activists and experienced radicals on what should and shouldn’t be the strategy, tactics, and final goals of the movement, with the minds of the previously apolitical attendants hanging in the balance.

In our lives there are two differing conceptions of democracy, both of which can be seen in every Occupy group across the United States. In one conception, a small group of people claims to know what is best everyone, and attempts to set the boundaries of debate and action around the goals that its small cadre has pre-decided.  They will attempt to depict themselves as reasonable or moderate, and paint others as being immature, irresponsible, unreasonable, or too impatient. Completely ignored by these small cadres is the idea that they conceived the objectives and rules of what is supposed to be a democratic movement without consulting any of the movement’s other participants.  Once that small group has established its rules, the rules are beyond question, and they set up an apparatus of enforcement to ensure that it is so. This method of democracy is similar to the one that governs our daily lives: a ruling elite sets the rules, and if the rest of us expect to participate, we must abide by them. Otherwise, we are “irresponsible, immature, unreasonable, or impatient,”  and as a consequence are jailed, shamed, or removed from the vicinity of the “reasonable” and “responsible” minority.

In another conception of democracy, that supposedly being represented by the Occupy Movement, everyone in a given community gathers together to decide as a large group what their desires are and how to achieve them.  They do away with the conventional wisdom of normal protest tactics and civil society, thinking not of what is “realistic,” but what we want and how to get to it. All rules made by these groups are subject to constant scrutiny and revision, while others are allowed to act and participate outside of the established framework.  Not only does this do away with the tyranny of minority rule by allowing groups and individuals participating in the greater assembly to act on their own ideas and power, but an apparatus of enforcement becomes unnecessary because the decisions of the group are arrived at through a process of negotiation that leaves everyone content to abide by the rules that they themselves created.

The Starting Place of Minority Contol: the Call to Action

Typically an occupation is initially called for by a small cadre of individuals. Many of these cadres are composed of professional activists, and many take it upon themselves to pre-emptively declare that the protest will be non-violent and will remain respectful towards police officers.  These organizers closely define the boundaries of what the occupation will be about and constantly encourage everyone on the camp site to “stick to the issues at hand.” In many cities, these initial organizers have also tightly retained non-democratic control of their city’s Occupy-related Facebook and Twitter accounts, ensuring only their narrow message is heard and others’ voices can be silenced. By taking this approach to organization, these cadres ensure that the energy of the protest remains fully under their rules and control.  The democratic principles they are supposedly protesting in favor of are almost completely forgotten.

Nowhere are the long term effects of this approach clearer than in the Occupy Denver encampment. The Occupy Denver encampment was called for by a small group who then pressured those in attendance to stay on the sidewalk during marches, not be rude to police officers, and not break any laws during marches. Having those principles is fine, but they tried to force the entire encampment to abide by them, going to so far as to use a megaphone to point out those breaking their rules and accuse them of being agents provocateurs.

Three weeks into their occupation, on October 13th, it was made clear to the occupants of the park that the police were being sent to remove them.  The initial cadre and their reformist partners were inclined to stay within the perimeter of the law and remove all of the things they had spent three weeks building with the more radical members of the occupation.

The majority of Occupy Denver’s group on the ground wanted to stay, but a few of the initial cadre of organizers insisted that this would force the police to get violent. To those initial organizers, not following laws was violent (or at least not nonviolent). The point made by the other occupiers was that there’s nothing violent about civil disobedience. They explained that everyone has a right to be on this land, that the group calls itself an occupation, and there was a need to stay and fight for Occupy Denver’s structures. Fearmongers stood up and warned participants they were certain to face time in prison, huge fines, and a record that would follow them around for their entire lives. Some responded by explaining that each person has a choice and that no one would need to stay if she or he didn’t want to, but that those who chose to stay should know the consequences.

In the end, the police stormed the park, tearing down sixty tents and making twenty-four arrests. The initial cadre that organized Occupy Denver was nowhere to be seen during the arrests or the legal process that followed; the Denver Anarchist Black Cross was the organization that came to the defense of the protesters. The rebuilt encampment is now divided between those who would obey the law at all times, no matter what the consequences, and those who will break it in order to defend the principles that they stand for.  This has left the movement in danger of a major split on a local level.  If the groups who make the initial calls to action are unwilling or unable to allow others in the occupation to decide the rules and conditions of occupations, then they should be similarly prepared to face opposition to their anti-democratic decision-making process by those who wish for more than what they offer.

Permits and Pacifism: a False History

Another disturbing trend in the movement thus far has been the tendency of those in the movement to insist upon getting permits for occupations and marches, and to insist that everyone within the Occupy Movement remain law-abiding. This is particularly troubling because the initial call to action cited the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt as its inspiration.  The occupation of Tahrir Square was not only illegal, it forcibly resisted all attempts at eviction.  The story of the revolution in Egypt has long since been whitewashed by the corporate media as being “non-violent.”  However, the facts and footage of the day fly in the face of this false historical reporting.

One particularly interesting piece of evidence is a protest pamphlet that was distributed in Egypt during the uprising entitled “How to Protest Intelligently.”  This pamphlet asked for protesters to bring a hoodie (to protect themselves from pepper spray and tear gas), a scarf (to block tear gas from entering passageways), insulated gloves (for throwing back tear gas canisters), goggles (for preventing the entry of pepper spray and tear gas into the eyes of protesters), the lid of a steel pot (for protection against rubber bullets), a pair of good running shoes, and a can of spray paint to be sprayed over the visors of riot police in order to take them out of the fight.  Protesters were also asked to carry a rose, to symbolize that they wished to accomplish their goals as peacefully as possible. All of these tools were necessary because the Egyptian government tried to end the occupations of public space with use of overwhelming force. If Tahrir Square is truly the inspiration behind these occupations, then why are occupiers asking for permits and accepting arrest with a calm, peaceful demeanor?

The effectiveness and purpose of permitted, law-abiding protests and lobbying can most easily be demonstrated by the Anti-War Movement in the United States from 2003-2006.  Liberal march organizers forbade illegal action including unpermitted marches and civil disobedience in this movement, keeping complete control of the movement from its birth to its death, even going so far as to call the police on radicals who were planning illegal actions. On February 13, 2003, they turned out in record numbers for protests worldwide, with millions marching against the Iraq war in major cities around the globe.  They continued this trend of marching, sign holding, and lobbying for politicians through to the Congressional elections of 2006.  The Democrats ran on a strong anti-war platform, taking advantage of discontent with the war to take control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Once elected, however, the Democrats immediately fell back into pro-war sentiment.  All funding cuts and troop withdrawals were opposed as unpatriotic, because they put the troops that were still occupying Iraq in more danger.

The United States must be strong, the war hawks said, because we could invite more terrorist attacks with a policy of appeasement. Soon the Democrats fell in, saying that war in Iraq was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States.  Three years of effort by the movement was lost as both parties refused to hear anti-war sentiments as realistic. The war has continued to the modern day, with declarations that the troops will soon withdraw.  What has not been as widely reported is that five thousand soldiers are necessary indefinitely to defend the new U.S. embassy in Iraq.  There are still talks of permanent military bases in country, and numbers of private mercenaries involved in the conflict are steadily increasing as U.S. troops withdraw.  On top of this, the State Department’s security detail now includes hundreds of soldiers as well as tanks and black hawk helicopters.  The war goes on under a new name, and the U.S. population is pacified with the television image of troop withdrawal.

Asking for a permit for an occupation poses other serious problems. The first is that a permit may allow for the space to be occupied for a certain period of time, but inevitably the permit will expire, leaving the occupation vulnerable to a legally sanctioned police attack. You cannot get a permit to occupy indefinitely. If you decide to reapply for a permit on a regular basis, then your occupation will be vulnerable every time the window between permits opens. If there is no window between permits, then your permit can still be denied based on sanitation and safety concerns, or by saying that other groups now wish to use your permitted space. Not only is this possible, it is completely legal. The police will then have a perfectly legal reason to evict you, and your ability to counter their logic in mass media will be limited as the police blast their reasons for the eviction through local and national news outlets before, during, and after their attempt at eviction.

The second permit-related concern is that a particular person’s name will go on the permit for the occupation. A name will also have to be placed on all marching permits. This means that the person whose name goes on the permit will be held legally liable for all incidents that involve breaking the law at the march or occupation during the duration of the permit. This may also result in that person’s trying to establish control over all behavior at the protest, possibly establishing his or her own policing apparatus for doing so. Making one person legally responsible for the behavior of dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of other people undermines the democratic decision-making process. If Tahrir Square is to be our inspiration, then we must become as aggressive and unmanageable as the people of Egypt against our own corrupt government system.

Realistic Revolution

The idea of revolution against big business and big government by the ninety-nine percent seems a bit far-fetched to most people.  “It will never happen,” they say, “and even if it does, there’s no way people are intelligent enough to determine their own destinies.  It would be chaos!”  Even a passing examination of this attitude shows that it is based purely on cynicism.  It is commonly said that behind every cynic is a disappointed dreamer.  So I ask you, dear reader, to see this attitude as what it is: the despair of the dreamer in you! We have shown our capacity to organize our own lives through these occupation and general assemblies.  We will continue to hammer out the process and become better organized with time, so long as we keep working on it. We aren’t doing this for some other people half a world away.  We are organizing to make our own lives better, and we should expect resistance. So, now I must ask, what would it mean for us to reject the life that has been offered to us by fate and make for the horizon?

Imagine our current society was created by an invading force.  If Nazis or other fascists invaded the United States, what would you do?  What would you do if they integrated Mussolini’s definition of Fascism?  “Fascism should be more accurately called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” What if this occupied country called itself a democracy, but almost everyone understood elections to be shams, with citizens being free to choose between two opponents from the same pro-corporate party?  What if anti-government activity was opposed by stormtroopers and secret police?  Would you fight back?  If there already existed a resistance movement, would you join it?  Would you resist if the fascists irradiated the country side, poisoned the food supplies with oil and other cancerous chemicals, and made the rivers unfit for swimming, so filthy that you wouldn’t even dream of drinking from them?  If fascists systematically gained control of the continent, would you join an underground army of resistance, to defend your neighborhood, and head from there to the boardrooms and the halls of their Reichstag to pick off the stormtroopers and most especially those who give them the marching orders?  Give me a point; give me a threshold where you will finally make a stand. Is there one? Aren’t we there?