VII. “Seattle to Oakland, we ain’t the Joker….”: Dealing with the limits of autonomy, and diversity of tactics
When people talk about this being a leaderless movement, they often emphasize the autonomy of small groups to determine their own tactics. I agree that this autonomy is a strength of the movement, but at times it can also become a weakness. What follows is an example of that.
While Latino workers in Anaheim were putting their lives on the line to challenge the police, activists associated with Decolonize/ Occupy called for a solidarity demonstration in Seattle the night of Friday July 27th. For the most part, it went well. We marched through the historically Black but gentrified Central District, and talked to many of the neighbors who were coming out of their homes to see what was happening. Nearly everyone, of all ages, were down with what we were doing and were outraged at both the Anaheim and the Seattle police.
The problem was that we didn’t have enough signs, so a lot of people could not figure out what the march was about and were confused until we went up and talked to them. Because of the lack of signs and banners, the most visible visual representation of the march were the clowns. When I say clowns, I mean that literally – people who put on clown make up at protests: presumably from the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army
Now, I don’t have a problem with clowns, and I love rebels. The problem is, this was happening a few days after the Aurora shootings in Colorado, where a white man wearing Joker-style clown makeup murdered people in a movie theater. This kind of sociopathic behavior has more to do with how fucked up late capitalist culture has become, and less to do with anything remotely related to clowns or rebellion. But as I was passing out flyers in both the Central District and Capitol Hill, people watching the march were telling me they were really scared of the rebel clowns, and at first they were thinking we were marching in solidarity with the Aurora shooter. Apparently the media had been playing up this confusion by reporting that an “Occupy Seattle clown” had imitated shooting police and pedestrians with an umbrella prop gun at another rally earlier that week:
“As details emerge from the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the nation grieves and remains on edge towards sensitive topics relating to the crime. Knowing that the main Aurora-shooting suspect James Holmes allegedly behaved and disguised himself like “The Joker”clown villain from “The Dark Knight,” troubling new video has emerged of an apparent protester at Occupy Seattle dressed in clown garb pointing an umbrella at police and bystanders, and “shooting” them as if the umbrella were a gun.
Gateway Pundit, where the video is posted, reports that video was filmed Friday at the “Bring the Fight to the Banks” rally and march. In the video the clown is seen hurling the usually Occupy Wall Street “one percent” accusations at police and pedestrians, before aiming the umbrella at those he taunts while yelling “ba-bam, ba-bam!” When one police officier who the clown taunts appears to be getting unhinged by the shooting imitation, the clown brags to protesters “I’m getting to him. I really am.“ At one point a Seattle woman who was heckled by the clown while running to catch a bus yells back ”get a job.”
Certainly the media might be sensationalizing what they themselves acknowledge to be simply some Theater of the Oppressed style protest tactics. These kinds of media reports may not be completely accurate, but they have a real effect on people which we need to be aware 0f.
Isn’t it reasonable to ask whether the use of these clown tactics right now might be playing right into our opponents hands? We need to be paying more attention to the right wing’s attempts to link our movement to the Aurora shooter, suggesting he was an anarchist and part of Occupy. Could these right wing arguments be used as part of a counterinsurgency campaign that could justify more grand juries and raids against revolutionaries by turning the rest of the working class against us, criminalizing our rebellious political activity as “terrorism”?. Why would we do anything that helps them develop that narrative against us?
Also, when people express criticisms, fears, or frustrations with our movement, we need to reach out to them, not dismiss them. The people I talked to on the march that night could not easily be dismissed as reactionaries or yuppies – many of them told me they hate the police, but they were also really frightened by the clowns because of the recent shooting.
Now, to add to that problem, when Friday’s protest got to Capitol Hill, I heard that some people allegedly started escalating tactics in ways that were confrontational against people who felt inconvenienced by the protest. I was really worried that some people might respond by attacking the crowd, thinking that we are wannabe Aurora killers about to attack them. I mean, some of these folks really looked terrified and on edge, and since this is an area full of bars on a Fri night, a lot of people were drunk. This was one of many situations during the past 9 months that I’ve worried that someone in the movement was going to get hurt because of poor tactical choices and lack of awareness of the social context of their actions.
Should people generally have the autonomy to wear clown make up to protests? Of course. Should we hold back militancy in a crowd? In most cases, no. Our first priority should be to avoid falling into the “Good protestor vs. bad protestor” dichotomy that the police try to create to neutralize the ruptures the movement has opened. But in this particular situation, autonomy needed to be balanced with basic political effectiveness.
I am all for diversity of tactics. I firmly argued against the people who wanted to impose mandatory pacifism on the movement. People should have the autonomy to develop and choose a variety of tactics that can advance the overall struggle. When we were organizing for the port shutdown, none of us collectively planned to build a barricade; some folks autonomously did that, and it helped solidify the overall strategy on that day that we had collectively planned. However, not every example of autonomy advances the overall strategy of an action or struggle in such a graceful way. During the port shutdown we explicitly asked folks not to climb on top of the port truckers’ vehicles because this could cause us to loose their support, and also not to block longshoremen inside the port. People respected both of these requests (it was the police, not the crowd, that blocked the exit from Terminal 18; protestors were routing the exit traffic around the barricade that was blocking the entrance). This is an example of balancing autonomy with strategically chosen limits.
[This is part of a 10-part essay from the blog of our comrades in the Black Orchid Collective. More parts to follow. You can post comments here or to the discussion here: http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/between-the-leninists-and-the-clowns-avoiding-recklessness-and-professionalism-in-revolutionary-struggle/ -a.]