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A Reply to Chris Hedges’ ‘The Cancer in Occupy’: Stop Scapegoating Black Bloc, Look Within


Chris Hedges

The interweb is abuzz on Chris Hedges latest column, “The Cancer in Occupy.” While employing hyperbole and non sequitur’s to take digs at Black Bloc (not to mention the hypocrisy which was quickly pointed out when referring to a May 2010 article where he wrote that, “The Greeks Get It“), Hedges has managed to alienate himself from, and piss off, many non-Black Blocers. In his column he writes that, “The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement.” A lot of people who admire Hedges—myself included—think his piece is wrong on many levels.

My first impression was that Hedges is sensing the death of Occupy, and is looking for a scapegoat. But rather than address the elephant in the room (which I will get to), he chose instead to employ a non sequitur. It does not follow that since many of the criticisms of Black Bloc are valid that it is “the cancer in Occupy.”

Initially I was very excited about Occupy, but the romance quickly wore itself out. Speaking in mid-October, Noam Chomsky told occupiers in Boston something that resembled my thoughts: “It’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to go on and form structures that will be sustained through hard times and can win major victories. There are a lot of things that can be done.” [emphasis added]

It was these “structures” I have been concerned with. I have often written on the need to develop a “culture of democratic thought”—in that we must overcome the passive, fatalist, atomized, and selfish culture that plagues us today (thanks to the efficacy of corporate propaganda)—and of the importance of organizing communities and workplaces. The idea behind General Assemblies is good but who can afford the luxury of camping out in city parks, and be committed and participative on a regular schedule? The fact is that the GA’s are largely removed from our personal lives, and in effect alienating the working poor—the very people who should be involved and leading the movement!

So when my local Occupy camp put out a call for writers I quickly responded. I never heard back, even though afterwards they continued to put out the same call. I was troubled. What was it the invisible leadership found objectionable about saying we should organize communities and workplaces into self-managed councils?

Two months later Chomsky returned, and it was reported by Lance Tapley of The Boston Phoenix that,

Noam Chomsky has advice for the Occupy movement, whose encampments all over the country are being swept away by police. The occupations were a “brilliant” idea, he says, but now it’s time to “move on to the next stage” in tactics. He suggests political organizing in the neighborhoods.

The Occupy camps have shown people how “to break out of this conception that we’re isolated.” But “just occupying” has “lived its life,” says the man who is the most revered radical critic of American politics and capitalist economics.

Tapley went on to quote Chomsky as saying “Don’t be obsessed with tactics but with purpose,” and that, “Tactics have a half life.” I couldn’t have said it better. It is as if there is a romanticization of “occupying” a camp and droning on about “the one percent.” Simply put, hanging out in city parks and holding signs with vague language about “the one percent,” or the “99percent” is not nearly enough, and is no substitute for the “long hard struggle” that Noam spoke of.

A friend pointed out to me that the Occupy camps which have been the most successful (e.g. New York, Oakland, Boston) are those with a preceding history of organizing. I agree that the tactic of taking over a public space to draw attention to the power and influence that money has over politics was a “brilliant” idea, as Chomsky noted. I also liked that it was, to a considerable degree, decentralized. There was a lot of promise. However, that is dissipating quickly. Chris Hedges recent column gives me the feeling that he is sensing this, and is looking in the wrong place in order to explain it.

So when Hedges quotes Derick Jensen at the end in saying that,

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. We can’t short-circuit the process. There is a maturation process we have to go through, as individuals and as a movement.

—I get and accept the criticism levied at Black Bloc (I made a similar argument in my review of Ted Rall’s The Anti-American Manifesto, where I thought Rall was jumping the gun in calling for violence), but I can’t help but wonder why Hedges doesn’t say something similar about Occupy. The hyperbole of calling Black Bloc “the cancer,” the non sequitur of trying to link their shortcomings to Occupy, and the hypocrisy of saying that “The Greeks” who “riot,” and so on, “get it,” but not their American counterparts leaves me with a lot of questions on what Hedges hoped to achieve with his article. Does he really think Black Bloc is the reason Occupy is fizzing out? In a society that routinely has no problem with violence are we really to believe that burning cloth and breaking glass offends our sensibilities so much as to be “the cancer”?

According to one of the latest polls (USA Today/Gallup Poll. Nov. 19-20, 2011), 24% said they were a “supporter” of Occupy Wall Street, with only 19% saying they were an “opponent.” An amazing 53% said they were “neither,” and the same poll found that 59% didn’t know enough to form an opinion. With polls showing Americans opposing the power and influence that money has on politics, and favoring increasing taxes on the rich, and so on, the biggest problem of Occupy is that it is not reaching the public. If anything, “the cancer in Occupy” is the avoiding of the “long hard struggle”; the attempt to reap the harvest without first tilling the soil. It’s hard to believe that if Occupy was focusing on such efforts that young people clad in black would be holding them back.

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