Which Way for the Occupy Protests?

The Occupy movement is at a divide, with the initial encampments mostly disbanded but with new plans for marches and civil disobedience this spring. There are also schisms between non-violent activists and some anarchists who favor more aggressive action, a split that Stephanie Van Hook addresses.

By Stephanie Van Hook

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, he spoke passionately in a sermon at Riverside Church in New York about the war in Vietnam.

In this gripping speech about the hypocrisy of bringing democracy through napalm and the audacity of fostering a brotherhood through war and killing, he made a daring confession: “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”

Police — some in Hazmat suits — clear away Occupy DC on Feb. 4 (Photo credit: OccupyWallStreet.org)

Likely, the most significant social movement in the U.S. in the coming months will be the Occupy movement, as it returns in some numbers to the street. Yet, as the Occupy movement grows more polarized over the strategies of its upcoming spring activities, it might do well to reflect on the logic of Dr. King’s brave statement.

Contrary to what Peter Gelderloos and others have claimed, it is violence and the stasis of a dysfunctional system of oppression that protects the state, not nonviolence. How does violence protect the state? Do a few general Internet searches on the Occupy movement in images to see how that movement is visually narrated (not to mention how it feels to see the portrayed reduction of a promising national movement into a series of police confrontations).

Examining these images with some detachment, we might wonder how this civil war with police began. This examination might also give us some clues about the general population’s confusion about “what Occupy wants,” and the U.S. citizenry’s preference for political candidates who do not create violence on the streets, even if those elected officials ultimately maintain systems of greater violence within our society and between it and other nations.

If the choice is between unruly demonstrations and elections, Occupy risks becoming a reason to turn to politics as usual.

Paradoxically, while the public will be fascinated by police/Occupy confrontations, and while the media will mock activists’ lack of moral character and strength for accepting violence as an effective strategy, it will only make the way safer and clearer for greater state violence to be perpetrated in the name of national security.

Who knows, we may be pulled into a new war with Iran in the coming year, what better way to stifle a movement: delegitimize it (through violence), and then unite Americans against a common enemy!


Violence in opposition to the State relieves the State and the citizenry of any guilt for a brutal response to all protesters, and it refocuses from the nominal issue to the issue of violence by protesters. Thus any violence by protesters serves the state well (just ask anyone employed by the government who has hired an agent provocateur).

It is a weapon of mass distraction. Stop worrying about the uptick in home foreclosures, the dead being shipped back from Afghanistan, and the new increases in the Pentagon’s proposed budget, look at the violent window-breakers from Occupy who threaten us all!

Just a few weeks ago, I was in dialogue with an official from the Pentagon’s weapons acquisitions team. The conversation was about the present year’s National Defense Authorization Act and our Metta Center advocacy of alternatives to killing.

His final assessment of our organization’s proposal of a nonviolent policy, a new U.S. policy of deep reconciliation to combat terrorism, was that it “creates guilt, which is not good.” In other words, by repressing guilt, we can continue killing people.

Keep in mind that soldiers are committing suicide in higher numbers than ever before, and therefore we should pay attention to what this guilt is telling us. This mindset of denial echoed by the Pentagon official, integral to waging war, is rooted in a belief about ourselves as separate from one another, in other words, that we should be able to kill one another without remorse, which is the supreme superstition of a violent system.

On the level of the Occupy movement, we might formulate it as a principle: activists cannot harm the actors of the State without harming our movement. The more we fight against the police, the more we are allowing ourselves to be seen as accepting violent tactics, the stronger we make the system we want to change, the deeper that system digs in its heels.

The more we entertain the use of violence, or even create occasions where it can break out, the more violence is justified. Why? Because as Max Weber’s definition of the State suggests, it “upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.”

Violence is the modus operandi of the State. To build a free society, we will have to use different means. Nonviolence is not just protest, it is not simply occupying space and it is not just about adversarial confrontations; it’s about our humanity.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan document the power of civil resistance when it uses nonviolence as its means to replace leaders. We should read their work and others, but we should not be afraid of going deeper either; more than changing a certain regime at this time, we need to transform a culture.

In short, in order to delegitimize a violent system, we have to delegitimize violence. This change requires us to adopt a principle about human beings and human dignity: we will not use violence against others because we want to create a vibrant culture, a merciful culture, a generous culture because we as human beings have the potential to nurture these qualities within ourselves and each other.

We will not degrade human dignity because it is not worthy of ourselves as people; let this be the motivation for our long-term struggle. The power of the violent State system would stand much less chance against a movement committed to this nonviolent, compassionate spirit of unity.

Stephanie Van Hook is Executive Director of Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, California.  Contact: [email protected].

7 comments for “Which Way for the Occupy Protests?

  1. February 18, 2012 at 19:36

    Money talks and bullshit walks. Great concept! I like what F. G. Sanford had to say . What better way of showing the power of the 99% than bankrupting or at least putting a big hurt on a major corporation. Pick one. anyone will do. Demonstrate the power of the people.

    I was involved in the occupy the caucus protests in Desmoines Iowa over 100 arrests and no violence on the either aside of the fence. The relationship between the city officials, police and the occupy folks could not have been better. We are all in this together and the police seemed to have a feel for this . They have friends and relatives in wars as well as losing their homes to wall street greed.

    When the demonstrations continue this year non violence and nation or better yet worldwide boycotts would be a good way to start it out. Change can happen it always has.

  2. charles sereno
    February 18, 2012 at 13:13

    A ray of hope. From precarious and contentious beginnings, SOMETIMES mighty oaks arise.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    February 17, 2012 at 15:42

    The problem with “Occupy” today is the same problem with “Peace” in the 70’s. Somebody back then said it best: “Money talks, and bullshit walks.” Now, before you blow me off as a naysayer, listen for a minute. The economic reality that makes the 1% viable is the same economic reality that keeps the 99% in slavery. But the hand to mouth existence they perpetuate by playing along keeps them in the trap. The trap is mainly composed of minimum wage jobs and insurmountable debt.

    Pick ONE economic enterprise and totally boycott it, and see how fast you get results. I’d start with a nationwide enterprise famous for minimum wages or outsourcing. Catchy slogans are easy to come up with, like: “100% beef includes lips and assholes!” Or, “Buy from BigBox and Support Red China, Commies need your jobs!” “Vote Republican! Support the Peoples Republic….of China!”

    Or, with a little help from wealthy public figures we can trust, hit them where it really hurts: open a private bank. No-interest mortgages for working people would crush them. Let them foreclose, They’ll have to put those properties back on the market sooner or later. Buy them up and sell them on a “rent to own” basis. There are plenty of carpenters, painters, electricians and plumbers who could be enlisted to work off rent and actually make it profitable. I would like to see people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Robert Redford and Michael Moore embrace a concept like that. They could come up with the initial capital. End usury now.

    A new product could be launched. Anything would work. How about “Occu-Pies”? 100% nutritious ingredients. “This product contains no lungs, liver, guts or gizzards.” They could be made of ground barley and lentils, nuts and fruits, whole-grain, wheat or white, and spiced up or made sweet, in dozens of varieties. That and a glass of water would be an adequate meal. The Romans conquered the known world on a diet like that.

    But the first thrust MUST be to bankrupt a nationwide chain. Or take a walk, because anything else is bullshit. If you can’t get anyone to go along, then give up. They haven’t suffered enough yet. And I suspect they’ll have to do a lot more suffering before they wise up.

  4. EMC
    February 17, 2012 at 07:28

    Wow. Another one of these articles? The reaffirmation of the liberal pacifist logic that has worked so well for the past century. Thanks. You’re right, I mean it did manage to help so many become partners in globalization and the destruction of the planet.

  5. February 17, 2012 at 02:19

    If the masses knew the whole truth, there would be millions in the streets. They don’t know because the corporate media ignores the most important stories.

    Occupy Wall St. could take a page out of Egypt/Greece and protest at the tv stations. Getting the truth on the public airwaves ought to be a top priority. But Occupiers seem to be little better than the rest of the sheeple out there, as the cointelpro minders continually steer the crowd toward climbing fences and other actions that will do nothing more than provide a convenient ‘protesters arrested’ soundbite.

    Please help OWS ask the question: How do we get the whole truth to the masses?

    And for heaven’s sake, don’t believe the Occupy ‘leaders’. Think for yourself and encourage a rational debate on the subject. There will be several minders, probably dozens at the largest occupy groups… think that’s ridiculous? That’s how they’ve been getting away with it- so many minders, and they all agree climbing that fence on private property is the best action to take.

  6. Michael
    February 17, 2012 at 01:30

    Thank You for this well written and thought out article!
    One might also read Chris Hedges recent articles on the same issue.

    We gotta “stick to our guns” on redressing our grievances in a non-violent manner. As soon as we cross the line into violent confrontation Occupy risks becoming a grease spot on the road.

    Fervently wishing Occupy success.

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