A short reply to Chris Hedges 'Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy' article.
It was a little weird to wake up today to an article by Chris Hedges on a website called “Truth-Out” when “truth” is in such short supply in the piece. Hedges was trained as a journalist and worked for years at such luminaries of lies like the New York Times, so it shouldn’t be a secret where he’s gotten his sensationalism, his tendency to lie, his hyperbole, and, most of all, his seeming inability to do rudimentary research. Nonetheless, when activist celebrities like Hedges (and his friend here, Derrick Jensen) write even complete nonsense like this, it tends to have a certain conceptual currency with people. And though I’d much rather be visiting with friends today (who promised me peanut butter cookies, no less!), I figured I’d take a few minutes to point out some of the more egregious distortions in Hedges’ terrible piece.
First, we need to clear up some definitional problems. Now, as a journalist, I really don’t expect Hedges to be able to “research,”—it does seem to go against the prime directives of the profession, but let’s be clear: There’s no such thing as “The Black Bloc movement.” The black bloc is a tactic. It’s also not just a tactic used by anarchists, so “black bloc anarchists” is a bit of a misnomer—particularly because Hedges doesn’t know the identities of the people under those sexy, black masks. In fact, it was autonomists in the 80s who came up with the (often quite brilliant) idea in Germany. Protecting themselves against the repression of what Hedges calls “the security and surveillance state,” squatters, protesters, and other rabble rousers would dress in all black, covering up tattoos, their faces, and any other identifying features so they could act against this miserable world and, with some smarts and a sharp style, not get pinched by the pigs. This was true of resisters who were protecting marches (because the state never needs an excuse to incite violence and police are wont to riot and attack people), destroying property, or sometimes just marching en masse. That is, the black bloc has all kinds of uses. And in Oakland, where Hedges seems particularly upset by people actually having the gall to defend themselves against insane violent police thugs instead of just sit there idly by getting beaten, on Move-In Day the bloc looked mostly defensive—shielding themselves and other protesters from flash grenades and police mob violence with make-shift shields (and even one armchair). So, to be clear: The black bloc is a tactic used by lots of people, not just anarchists, and it has all kinds of uses. It’s not a “movement.”
Who Is This Straw Fankenstein?
And, importantly, people in black blocs don’t have “unity” with one another about politics. This is another bizarre part of Hedges’ hatchet job. He goes on this long diatribe about what “The Black Bloc Movement” (this weird straw Frankenstein he’s created) believes. We learn in his piece that this Frankenstein is “against organization” when members of the black bloc, anarchists included, have all kinds of ideas about organization (none of which are “against organization”). If Chris did a little research, he’d find that “The Black Bloc Papers,” for example, were edited and compiled by two members of a formal political organization. And while many anarchists do reject formal political organizations, no anarchists oppose “organization” as such. Rather, we have disagreements over organizational form, duration, formality, purpose, and so on. Not to state the obvious, but considering our collective failure to smash capitalism, the state, and all other manifestations of coercive power over others, uh, shouldn’t we be building those kinds of critiques? If Hedges were interested in honesty, he might know that’s also why many anarchists are critical of the Left (I imagine dishonest and divisive hatchet jobs by Leftist celebrities like this one is another reason why more and more anarchists reject the Left—among its many other shortcomings and failures).
He goes on to state that this Frankenstein he’s created is universally under the influence of John Zerzan, then attacks Zerzan. Again, this just shows how out of touch Hedges is and how he’s fooled himself into believing he knows what he’s talking about when he doesn’t (a very common trait for celebrity journalists). Apparently it needs repeating, the black bloc is not a unified “movement”—it’s a bunch of folks dressed similarly so they can’t be identified by the popo. There are all kinds of thoughts on Zerzan in such a grouping, some supportive, some not, some who, no doubt, have no idea who he is. But Zerzan doesn’t speak for the bloc—no one does. And so there’s this weird “guilt-by-association” in this piece which ends in blaming criticisms of the Zapatistas on this “Black Bloc Movement” that he’s created.
Gender Essentialism! It’s Not Just For the 70s Anymore!
Hedges also critiques the black bloc for its supposed “hypermasculinity,” engaging in a gender essentialism that belies his inability to keep up with contemporary radicalism. In Oakland, part of the militant march on Move-In Day was the “Feminist and Queer Bloc.” I’m sure they would be quite surprised to learn that self-defense against violent police thugs and petty vandalism is actually a man’s activity! Why, those poor, beleaguered women and queers are probably alienated from such militancy, along with the befuddled masses that Hedges seems to be writing for! Rather than a lengthy critique of this already-disposed-of pseudo objection, I’ll let Harsha Walia enlighten Hedges on the problems of wealthy white, men like himself attempting to speak for the alienated and frightened “victims” of such “masculine” activities as building a confrontational and militant movement against capitalism and the state. Check it out:
The Personal Is Antipolitical
Some of this is personal to me, in the interest of full disclosure. I have friends in Oakland. They’re brave and awesome. Seeing them stand up to police repression and attempt to take an empty building while people sleep in the streets was exciting and invigorating for me. It was a welcome sight in today’s age of non-violent fundamentalism, where so many are beset with the crippling belief that if we just get beat up badly enough we’ll attract “the masses” with our moral superiority and somehow the wealthy and powerful will recognize the error of their ways and give us the world back that they’ve so successfully turned into their nightmarish, authoritarian, and wasted playground. My friends were gassed, beaten, given broken faces, broken dreams, and locked in cages for their bravery. And now they’re being denounced by a comfortable journalist who wasn’t there who refers to them as a “cancer”.
I don’t want to suggest that they shouldn’t be critiqued. Self-critique is important for any improvement of practice—if it’s honest.
But here I feel betrayed. When Hedges wrote about the Greeks, notorious for their black blocs, he praised them for “getting it.” Indeed, according to Hedges, they knew what to do. In Hedges own words:
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. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it.
Apparently for Hedges, that’s good enough for the Greeks. But, by God, don’t you dare bring this filthy resistance to his home! You might accidentally (horror of horrors!) break a window! Perhaps it might belong to Hedges! Well, I passed around his piece on Greece thinking that perhaps there was, in fact, a journalist that “gets it.” I was wrong and I feel betrayed.
So I am angry at Hedges. I know it shows and it will look ugly to some people, but at one point, I trusted his work. And now, I have broken and brave friends that he is denouncing in a movement that he is dividing and presuming to speak for.
After the Move-In Day, the Mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, asked the Occupy movement to “disown” Oakland because they were militant, uncompromising, and because they were willing to engage in the kinds of “class warfare” that Hedges once praised in Greece. Occupy groups quickly dismissed this as a divisive tactic, but Hedges and Derrick Jensen seem all too eager to help Mayor Quan out. We live in interesting times, but we need to see these kinds of attacks for what they are—forms of recuperating needed and justified rage. When rigid ideologues who think they have some kind of special access to “Truth” come in swinging like this, particularly right after being politely asked to by liberal Mayors like Quan to do so, it’s time to do some quick disowning. We should reject the attempts to divide us by the likes of Quan, Jensen, and Hedges and, more importantly, reject the lies and distortions embedded in these facile “critiques.” Shame on you, Chris. If you want to denounce “violence,” you might use your time to target the police and Mayor Quan instead of doing the work they’ve asked Occupy “leaders” to do for them.
[i]Originally posted: February 6, 2012 at spectres of the buried dead