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Hedging Our Bets on the Black Bloc: the Impotence of Mere Liberalism
by Zakk Flash
Tuesday Feb 7th, 2012 12:23 PM
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.”

Hedging Our Bets on the Black Bloc: The Impotence of Mere Liberalism

By Zakk Flash

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 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 ascribes 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 choosing to view individuals as members of a homogenous mass. Nonwhite, nonmale 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 business, 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.

(This article is reprinted with permission of Zakk Flash and was originally published here.)

Dr. Zakk Flash is an anarchist political writer, radical community activist, and editor of the Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance (COBRA). He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

Find more about the Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance at:

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by Mark
Wednesday Feb 8th, 2012 1:48 AM
The Tactical Actions Committee of Occupy Oakland is accepting donations online.

I saw it on my Twitter feed, but so far I seem to be the only donor and I'm feeling lonely. A diversity of tactics requires a diversity of funding. The people Jensen & Hedges approve of are getting lots of support from the Progressive Democrats (or is that payment for registering voters?). Balaclavas are necessities!
by Mitchel Cohen
(mitchelcohen [at] Wednesday Feb 8th, 2012 10:07 AM
I attended Chris Hedges' talk last night in Manhattan. In my view, 3/4 of his speech was absolutely fantastic. And then he talked about Occupy Oakland and the black bloc.

Seth, Bill K (from Manhattan Greens list), and I talked with Hedges afterwards. Chris Hedges agreed with Bill K. who challenged McKibben's fawning support for Obama and misinformation McKibben promotes on Obama's position on the tar sands pipeline. Hedges had publicly skewered Obama's policies so we wondered why he did not also criticize McK. We did not get a clear answer.

Seth asked him about why Global Warming has now been allowed to "fall off the table". And I questioned Hedges' on his position on Occupy Oakland. I pointed out two things:

1) he's using (mis)information garnered from the same news sources he lambasted in the main part of his talk without at least supplementing it -- let alone checking its accuracy over the extent of so-called "violence" -- with actual participants at Occupy Oakland.

2) he's setting up a flawed framework in which the poles of debate are either Black Bloc "violence" or Non-Violent Civil Disobedience, which Hedges seems to have elevated into a moral principle. (Note that there are two parts to that and both require deconstruction: a) non-violence, and b) civil disobedience).

This second point about the weakness of presenting these as the two poles to the debate is one of my main concerns within the Left. I've long argued against that false way of framing our options in my organizing work with the Red Balloon Collective and in the Brooklyn Greens.

To sum: Leftists need to reframe our strategic choices and begin to reclaim, occupy, and "open up" property that has been stolen from us (as a class). We do this through direct action. We convert that occupied property to the uses needed by the communities in which it resides. We need to take over and open up hospitals, libraries, schools that have been shut down.

I pointed out to Hedges the issue around the absolutely essential St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. The Bloomberg administration has shuttered the hospital with the support of the Democrats. Christine Quinn is the chair of the NYC City Council, and has received large campaign contributions from Scott Rudin, a "developer" for the one percent. Quinn gave her approval to allow Rudin to convert the hospital into luxury co-ops. We should reclaim that hospital and re-open it. Similarly, the Occupy Oakland movement has the right to seize abandoned property and use it for the community's needs.

I also believe that those communities have not only the right but the responsibility to defend those occupations by any means necessary.

Let me be clear: "By any means necessary" is not a code-word for acting stupidly or individualistically. But those strategic occupations and our physical defense of them galvanize the community around what Marxists and anarchists term "the property question". Such occupations and organizing defense of them are fundamentally different than Hedges' promotion of moralistic civil disobedience, which accepts the authority of those in power and appeals to them to "do the right thing" through our self-sacrifice as a moral force -- the primary and self-defeating strategy that Hedges proposes.

Mitchel Cohen
Brooklyn Greens/Green Party

Here's more that I'd written on the matter:

> The OPD and the city claim that we are outsiders and that we are not from Oakland (even as 93% of OPD officers live outside Oakland).<

Very nicely put!

The statement is fine; if anything, it's too defensive.

Remember, some folks accused the occupyers of the same thing in 1967, when people from all over the region converged on what was to become People's Park in Berkeley, to defend it from UC Berkeley's so-called "development" bulldozer. James Rector was shot and killed by police; tear-gassing went on for weeks. Years later, Rosebud was murdered by a cop for sneaking into the Chancellor's house to discuss with him about her friends being evicted from People's Park. The struggle went on for decades.

The violence from the state was over-the-top; it exposed the lengths to which it would go when property is threatened by peaceful activists. The assumption some are making that, therefore, property seizures should stop because they cause the police to react violently is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen. It needs to expand, seizing back the municipal and private properties that the 1 percent had stolen from us, and made to serve the needs of the 99 percent.

Keep focused on who is the real enemy, and who is committing the real violence.
by Konsider
Thursday Feb 9th, 2012 3:00 AM
I actually used to respect Hedges and was taken aback when I read his article. Anyway, I see this getting a lot of attention, and I think we can use our energy more usefully. The discrepancy between what's really going on in places like Occupy Oakland, and the Chris Hedges like, ongoing stereotyping, and distortions of popular media are apparent to anyone actually paying attention, and looking at the facts.