Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Agent provocateurs, diversity of tactics and struggle...

I found this article while I was looking up a term I heard someone use in conversation yesterday - "diversity of tactics".

Diversity of Tactics and Democracy

By George Lakey

Clamor magazine


Last fall while working with activists in Europe I had the chance to hang out more with young people from Otpor, the resistance movement that brought down dictator Slobadan Milosevic in Serbia in October00. These Otpor activists were ages 19-23, typical ages in the movement that catalyzed the downfall of Milosevic (pronounced "Milosevitch"). They taught people twice their age some powerful lessons about how to overthrow a dictatorship, including how to keep going despite years of arrests and beatings.

Some of the young people who started Otpor in 1999 had already been doing direct action in 1996 in the student pro-democracy movement. There they learned a hard fact: as the demonstrations grew the government paid infiltrators to pretend to be activists and do property destruction and street fighting.

The government's tactic was brilliant because it scared away the potentially hundreds of thousands who were getting ready to join the movement, and gave back to government the moral high ground.

Refusing to be discouraged, those who made a fresh start in 1999 made a critical decision: in order to win, Otpor would establish a policy of nonviolence. The stakes were too high, they reasoned, to have the luxury of everyone doing their thing. Milosovic was desperate, and surrounded with thugs who had no scruples. Only a policy of nonviolence could avoid the mistakes of 1996.

I was impressed by the fast learning curve. Most movements do have a learning curve that enables them to benefit from their experience, but Otpor confronted a very hard lesson and quickly changed their policy of tolerance for diversity of tactics. Maybe their youth gave them an advantage in flexibility.

Was Milosevic's tactic unusual?

So many powerholders have used the tactic of what the French call "agents provocateur" that it is virtually predictable. Not only the "bad guy" authoritarians like Milosevic do it; liberal democratic governments do it as well. The British did it to try to stop the anti-colonial struggle in India: paid agents worked to turn the movement violent. The U.S. government did it to try to stop the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement, just to name two occasions in my country.

Why do governments so much dislike nonviolent mass movements? What is it about people power that makes governments so eager to point the movement toward street fighting, attacks on police, or at least defensive violence and smashing property?

Governments have found over the years that it works for them. They know they need legitimacy to stay in power over time, and movement violence gives them that legitimacy, what is often called "the moral high ground." They also need fear to stay in power, and movement violence increases the fear in the body politic. They work overtime to divide the movement, and movement violence is a great divider. And, perhaps most important, they desperately want to prevent new allies from joining the movement, and a frequent outcome of movement violence -- even property destruction -- is that potential allies stay away in droves.

Pro-democracy feeling among Serbs had been building through the 1990s, but it was usually expressed in a cautious way, channeled by politicians who didn't move boldly enough for the radical students. The students who formed Otpor understood that they couldn't possibly bring down Milosevic by themselves. They chose a strategy that would catalyze more cautious mainstream elements into action.

Otpor strategy took into account the government's fear-mongering, by making fun. "ROLLING STONES COMING TO BELGRADE" screamed the headline of the flyers they illegally distributed; when people eagerly read the flyers they found a list of all the reasons the Rolling Stones wouldn't be coming to Belgrade, reasons that had to do with the dictatorship!

The police frequently raided the main Otpor office and took away boxes of leaflets and their computer. Sensing an opportunity, on one of these occasions Otpor put out the word publicly that it was moving back in. Otpor activists showed up with a bunch of moving boxes, and the alternative media. Police arrested them immediately, tore open the boxes, and found them . . . empty!

Otpor young people knew that fear freezes people rather than motivates them to act intelligently, so they refused to cooperate with the fear game. In fact, since police beatings were routine, both on the street and in the jails, Otpor coined the slogan, "It only hurts if you're scared." I asked one of my Otpor friends who had been beaten, "Is it true?" "Of course," he said, and smiled. "Well . . .it's true that it hurts more if you're scared."

One frequent Otpor tactic was to remember the badge number of an officer who beat them, find out his name and address, and then go to his house and sit in front of it with signs such as: "Why do you beat the children? Are you so weak that you beat up young people?"

The young activists signaled to potential and cautious allies a message of courage rather rather than fearfulness, by doing nonviolent direct action again and again and again. Their numbers grew; by the time of the election they claimed 80,000 members, and after the election young people literally stood in line to join the movement. They maintained their agreement not to use violence even in defense; they felt the stakes were too high. They very badly wanted to win, and for that they needed not only the young people, but also to move their more cautious pro-democracy elders. That was also their understanding of what democracy means: to get the maximum number of people standing up for themselves.

But isn't "diversity of tactics" more democratic?

Some very committed and courageous activists on this side of the Atlantic are arguing for a policy of diversity of tactics here, so that protesters with different styles can all come to the same city to do their actions. "Diversity of tactics" implies that some protesters may choose to do actions that will be interpreted by the majority of people as "violent," like property destruction, attacks on police vehicles, fighting back if provoked by the police, and so on, while other protesters are operating with clear nonviolent guidelines. Sometimes advocates of diversity of tactics propose outlining zones for different activities, so one style of action doesn't bring undue immediate risk to those pursuing another style.

Isn't a movement strategy that encourages diversity of tactics more democratic than a clear policy of strategic nonviolent direct action? Isn't it more democratic to encourage everyone to do their thing, rather than create an agreement that leaves some kinds of action out?

It's understandable that some activists are proposing this, because in North America we don't have dictatorship; diversity of tactics is not so life-threatening as in Yugoslavia under Milosevic. Unlike Otpor, we can afford to experiment with property destruction, street fighting and the like, and most of us don't really expect major governmental repression to result. If we had been living in Serbia, I suspect all of us would agree with Otpor's winning strategy except those of us who are suicidal or government agents.

But here we are in privileged North America! Immediately the contradiction hits us: not all of us are privileged. Some groups are much more at risk than others. Young white middle and owning class men may feel invulnerable -- so why not smash windows or throw molotov cocktails? -- but that's not the reality for most of us. Most people have deep life experience of repression: people of color, women, sexual minorities, blue collar workers. I'm personally in this majority: in the U.S. am openly gay man is more likely to be beaten up for our identity even than a person of color! We have good grounds for feeling less safe.

In light of that, all the more impressive that the mass movements in North America have been mostly composed of us, the oppressed, rather than the privileged, and we have in fact taken enormous risks.

What does it take to get us into sustained risk-taking through direct action?

Let's take the civil rights movement of the U.S. Deep South because it is best known. After lives full of suffering, black people were willing to risk pain and death from the Klan and the police in order to occupy what the public saw as the moral high ground, and win victories. They were not willing to get hurt and killed in order to occupy the perceived moral low ground and lose, which would have been the outcome of a violent civil rights movement.

I remember dialoguing with a student of mine in the 'sixties, a black middle class militant new to the cause, about the political uses of violence. She got a chance to do field work among poor African Americans in North Philadelphia, and after a few months came to see me. "I got turned around," she said. "What happened?" I asked. "Every time I brought up the possibility of a little tactical violence," she said, "the response I got was: 'Are you crazy? Are you trying to get us killed?'"

In Philadelphia the strategy chosen by the direct action leaders for protesting the Republican National Convention was diversity of tactics. The city government responded illegally and repressively. I talked with an organizer of a poor people's organization in Philadelphia, about the group's reaction. This is an organization largely of color which repeatedly uses "street heat" -- civil disobedience, occupations, and the like, in a disciplined way. The members, I learned, felt contempt for the protesters. Instead of experiencing solidarity, and sympathy with the bruises the young people were getting (which is what young protesters in the civil rights movement got), these potential allies were alienated. To these poor and working class people, very experienced in direct action and confrontation, diversity of tactics seemed senseless and self-indulgent.

What, then, does "democracy" mean in this North American context? Does it mean choosing a strategy that excludes most oppressed people because only the privileged can believe in it? Does democracy mean choosing a strategy of, by, and for the privileged?

To me, a strategy isn't democratic if it intrinsically alienates the majority of oppressed people and shuts the door to their participation. A strategy isn't democratic if it drives away the working class when they have every reason to participate and want to. A strategy isn't democratic if it urges people who are already belittled by the culture to take the perceived moral low ground.

How about democracy inside the movement, among the activists?

What excites me about democracy is dialogue and debate: the collective exploration of ideas and views without shutting people down. I'm hearing from various parts of North America a trend to use "diversity of tactics" to shut down debate and refuse to explore pros and cons of strategies and tactics!

I enjoyed the public debate between Ward Churchill and myself at the University of Colorado because we tried to model principled dialogue about important political differences. Ward Churchill is a writer, leader in the American Indian Movement and professor who has written "The Pathology of Pacifism."

That's when diversity serves democracy: when differences are actively explored. I'm disappointed when I hear of places where groupthink takes over, of circles of activists where conformity is enforced, where radical thought police prevent learning from successful direct action movements of our sisters and brothers.

When I look outside my immediate circle of comrades and take in this amazing project of changing the world, of saving the planet, of ending empire, I end up with this conclusion: Diversity of opinion serves democracy; "diversity of tactics" undermines democracy and our chance to win.

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