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Debating Tactics: Remember to Ask, "What Works?"

[Shields protect and protest against police brutality, Occupy Oakland, October 2011. Photo by Soozarty1.] [Shields protect and protest against police brutality, Occupy Oakland, October 2011. Photo by Soozarty1.]

Our tactical debates should solve protesters’ problems, instead of dividing movements.

In the midst of Yet Another Tactical Debrief, this time on the recent Move-In-Day-turned-street-semi-battle-then-mass-arrest at Occupy Oakland, I ended up tossing out on Twitter a cluster of successful movement moments, some of which involved fighting back against cops—Stonewall, Cochabamba Water War, anti-apartheid defiance campaign, Tahrir Square 2011—and others of which involved a calculated refusal to fight back, even to the point of enduring direct state violence: anti-nuclear demos, the 1980s Central America solidarity movement, the Gandhian salt march. In my estimation, every single one of these was successful, which raises the question of what they had in common.

What these moments do not share in common is their achievement of a universally correct balance of nonviolence and forcefulness, self-sacrifice and safety, or daring and accessibility, but rather their solution to an immediate and tangible tactical problem that had been totally disabling to their movements. Without these solutions, the trajectories of their movements were towards frustration with the possibilities of action, and thereby to spirals of apathy and spurts of ineffective outrage. With them in mind, the trajectories shifted to hopeful emulation, contagious optimism, and surges in new participation, leading to a whole new scale for participation.

Let’s take a violent example first: the Stonewall Riot. Here the disabling problem was this: police forces, including the NYPD, had both the ability and the clearly-enjoyed tradition of violently raiding and breaking up the festivities of queer people. This was a standard scenario to shut down a gay bar, even if the Stonewall Inn was a bit more loved than some others, and the criminalization of transpeople and police beating and rough treatment of arrestees was standard practice. But the moment became politicized: “Gay Power” was shouted and “We Shall Overcome” sung. Submission to police violence, however, would have replicated the pre-existing situation, not disrupted it. The out-and-out confrontation against police raiding and looting the Stonewall Inn was destructive to property and an act of violent self-defense. It was the end of an impasse, changing participants’ attitudes to authority and themselves. And the insurrectionary mood spread through the local community, amplifying into several days of confrontations. The anniversary of the riots became the Gay Pride parade tradition, and gay rights groups spread continent-wide within months. In short, collective violent self-defense interrupted a cycle of submission that had functioned through frequent nonviolent arrests.

Switching to a nonviolent example, we could consider the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the SNCC-affiliated wave of sit-in protests. These stories are now classed within “the Civil Rights movement” as overall super-example for nonviolence whose history is familiar to most (US) Americans. But it’s worth noting that for every such spark that we remember in this history, there were many that failed to catch ablaze. Rosa Parks was but one of a long string of black people who refused to give her seat on a Montgomery Bus; only the seemingly-within-reach prospect of public desegregation and the tireless efforts of Parks and her community in organizing the boycott campaign made it a national story. In short, a solitary act of dignified nonviolence, followed by collective boycott, broke the situation open. It should be added, however, that Claudette Colvin’s arrest on the same charges, which she forcibly resisted, directly inspired Parks.

A third classic example comes in the form of the 1930s sit-down strike waves. Workers occupied their factories during strikes, a choice that brought all kinds of benefits: the sit-down strike provides a clear-cut place for organizing, eliminates employers’ option of hiring replacement workers, and keep striking workers (and often their community) actively involved in the strike. Workers’ control of the factory itself and the capital equipment within it provide security against a violent assault (during which this equipment might be damaged) and leverage for negotiation, since further profit is impossible while the plant remains in workers’ hands. As compared with an outdoor picket, the interior of the workplace is shielded from the weather, more tactically secure against police and strikebreakers’ violence, and better suited for sustained campaigns. After a wave of strikes at GM, begun by the Flint Sit-Down, the UAW became the US’s largest industrial union and a wave of sit-downs unionized various other sectors, until they were criminalized by the National Labor Relations Board in 1939.

Quick question: Were the sit-downs a triumph of “violent” or “nonviolent” tactics? Answer: Both. The leverage of sit-down strikers depends in large part on the implicit or explicit threat to destroy factory property should a raid occur. From Flint in 1936 to the May 1968 general strike in France to the 1980 Solidarity strike in Poland, this threat has been prepared carefully. Further, the GM strike wave triumphed in part by defeating a police intervention when workers fought back, an incident that became known as the Battle of the Running Bulls (“bulls” was an old-style term for cops).

More recently and dramatically, I argue, the Egyptian uprising used first nonviolent then physically confrontational tactics to solve a very disabling problem: the complete lack of reliable safe space for public dissent. (My narrative here draws on the detailed ethnographic work of Dimitris Soudias, on my panel at AAA last November.) Several narrow formulas for dealing with the national police’s systematic policy of breaking up protest gatherings and arresting all their participants had been worked out in the decade before: generally, these consisted of using one or two prominent spots for protests organized by lawyers, or turning Friday prayers at prestigious mosques into the gathering places for rallies. Focusing on “foreign” issues that might be endorsed by the government (like Palestinian rights) was also a popular strategy for making mass demonstrations possible. All of these, though, had their obvious limits, and the question of where, when, and how to directly challenge a decades-old dictatorship for its own misrule weighed upon would-be organizers.

Between the inspirational success of Tunisia’s revolt and social media-spread calls for #Jan25, the when question was resolved. And the next key element was a combination of nonviolent marching and locational diversity. Small marches across Cairo, in the neighborhoods instead of the most prominent downtown locations, were not immediately dispersed or surrounded by police like previous actions. For the police, there was uncertainty about whether such spaces needed to be controlled, while their refusal to crack down gave more participants hope to join in. As I covered earlier, photocopiable protester media encouraged a strategy of gathering in neighborhoods and generating large groups that could converge downtown, as well as a packet of suggestions on directly deterring police suppression, many of which were confrontational (spray painting their riot shields, for example) if not directly violent.

Once numbers grew and protests concentrated on symbolically important spots, permanent occupation became a strategy for answering the when question: the answer was right now, and whenever you come we’ll be here. Around the same time, protesters combatively refused to be dislodged from spaces of value to them. They held them, and indeed gained them in the first place, by violently resisting police control. This was not a contest of equals: protesters were unarmed, but numerous, while police were essentially the opposite. And protesters prevailing generated the space of possibility for (one) more people to join them and (two) people to realistically hope that the regime would not be able to shut this movement down.

Back to Occupy: Occupy Wall Street quickly managed to solve two problems that had made protesting the economic crisis/growing economic inequality/corporate rule of the political system extremely difficult. The mobilizing problem was how to get a critical mass of people actively protesting at once, when most protest calls attract only a small number. The solution was camping in a central, symbolically important square, a solution OWS imported wholesale from elsewhere, most visibly the indignados protest in the Spain. Bloombergville protesters against city budget cuts had discovered a legal loophole in camping on sidewalks; OWS people copied this and extended it to privately owned public spaces like Zuccotti Park.

The tactical problem was how to deal with the New York Police Department’s aggressive, persistent tactics of protest response: surrounding, caging with barricades, deploying outsized numbers of police, etc. The response was a mix of persistence (we’ll be here all day, all week), assertive nonviolence, and a balance between holding whatever space was permitted and repeatedly claiming more space whenever the opportunity arose. Protesters were neither allergic to being inside the barricades (a predilection I developed after just weeks of dealing with the NYPD strategy), nor comfortable remaining inside police control. Over time, they also learned to pick up barricades and use them as their own tool for controlling space, particularly on the 17 November day of action.

However, the large-scale policing problem posed by the NYPD is not the only one US activists face. They also face the uglier problem of militarized police assault. Tear gas, concussion grenades, and rubber bullets from the police can quickly displace protesters using the OWS strategy, a fact that has made evictions from Occupy encampments commonplace. Patient milling about is insufficient to solve this problem. Here are few things that do better:

Flashback to Seattle’s 1999 World Trade Organization protests, the first time I had to deal with this problem. Two things really worked once Seattle police turned to tear gas: A) Outlasting tear gas with orchestrated lockdowns and sit-ins. That is exactly what it sounds like: handfuls, dozens, or hundreds of people, informed that they would be tear-gassed, organized, prepared as best they could (mostly vinegar-soaked bandanas), and willed themselves to wait it out. I saw this happen again and again, and participated through several rounds. Police who wanted to clear the streets with tear gas (and they wanted to use tear gas because they had no plans to arrest thousands that day) often failed. Moreover, the commitment shown by people who heard that tear gas was coming and sat down in defiance was electrifying. B) Improvised barricades and throwing back tear gas canisters. The other main option is clearing out a large neutral space between the mass of protesters and defending it by throwing back the chemical weapons police are throwing your way. A small number of committed people, ideally with baseball gloves and dumpsters, can hold space for quite a while this way. This was my first encounter as a civil disobedience activist with masked Black Bloc protesters, and by and large their relationship with me was one of useful protection. It is a simple but effective tactic.

Now, both of these strategies have weaknesses. (A) can fail when the police escalate to projectiles; our movement simply doesn’t have thousands willing to use their bodies (and eyes and internal organs) as less-lethal projectile absorbers. Nor does standing before concussion grenades and wooden bullets attract new participants in the same way that bravely outlasting tear gas does. (B) can and did fail in the absence of solid space-claiming tactics that hold particular spaces. Most dramatically, it failed in Miami during the November 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) protests, where hours of police assault pushed several thousand of us out of downtown. There’s a thin line between being mobile and being chased, and the faster the pace is, the harder it is for a large group to function cohesively. The combination of tear gas, mass arrests, mass police deployments, and projectile weapons became known as the Miami model, but it remains (along with the NYPD barricade bullying) the other key tactical conundrum activists face today.

For help with these problems, we can be thankful for the Bay Area as a place of experimentation. Eight months before Miami, Bay Area activists deployed a combination of strategy (A) and #OWS-style milling around, with a sprinkling of (B) for good measure, in a first-day-of-the-war shutdown on the San Francisco financial district. Police busy dealing with arresting people sitting down in intersections, militant and/or flamboyant blockading devices, and relentlessly recombining crowds and marches failed to get a handle on the overall situation through two business days. Nor, however, did the SFPD turn to projectile weapons.

So can seizing and claiming space, and holding it by refusal to move, be continued when the police add a projectile assault to the mix? This is precisely the tactical problem faced by Occupy Oakland since the 25 October 2011 police raid. Solving this problem would keep alive occupations even when the police turn to the formidable “less lethal” arsenals they’ve been building up and training with since 1999. The key element added to the tactical mix by Occupy Oakland protesters has been the organized use of shields as an element of crowd defense. The shields are being used both as physical defense and political symbols. On the 28 January Move-In Day, an publicly announced effort to occupy an abandoned public building as a community social center, shields were upgraded and used as part of a mass effort of over 1,000 people.

It seems apparent that they made police weapons less effective, but not less effective enough. The assembly that met afterward made it clear that holding the streets more effectively is at the center of their own reflections on the day’s events: “We have to learn how to move cohesively through the streets, to take offensive and defensive initiatives, to improve communication in highly charged situations. Critiques are important but we want everyone to understand the difficulty in undertaking such an initiative in the face of such forceful police response. The state fears that one successful building takeover will lead to another.”

Critics of Move-In Day’s tactics as self-defeating violence will surely argue that tactical effectiveness is irrelevant because a rigidly nonviolent strategy is The Only Way To Win politically. There are serious problems with this argument, one that no careful observer of Egypt 2011, twenty-first-century Bolivia, or 1930s America could take at face value. However, there is an implicit core that should be listened to: movements must balance the development of a tactical ability to hold the streets with a strategic ability to bring in ever-increasing numbers of people. In the somewhat de-mobilized political climate of the United States (by world standards, not historical ones), the easiest entry points to political activism are mass demonstrations (primary tactics: marching and milling about) or mass nonviolent civil disobedience (primary tactic: holding space by sitting in). Making these kinds of participation unlikely is a good way to cut off a movement from its base, and just as threatening to continued turnout as the likelihood that police will shut down your protest.

The biggest challenge for thinking strategically about such moments, I think, is that most (US) American heads in the strategy game are actually committed not to examining the strategic import of tactics in context, but to winning The Tactical Argument of our time: whether nonviolent action can/is better at/is necessary for/could never/is counterproductive to bringing about revolutionary change. This Argument has generated some important and prominent statements, and has encouraged genuine reflection, but its existence has polarized many people’s positions by implying that there is a Right Answer lying on one side of the debate. Particular positions on this question have been fundamental to whole schools of thought, including Peace and Conflict Studies and Insurrectionary Anarchism, each of which have their own internal momentum, but neither of which has powered any comprehensive social transformation on its own. Frustratingly, these positions have also shown a remarkable capacity to discount evidence and factual examples which contradict their, at this point, pre-conceived ideas of what is tactically effective and what is not.

A few other takeaway points from this latest round of controversy:

1. Opponents of violence who followed up on Move-In Day by critiquing Occupy Oakland’s tactics rather than those of the Oakland Police Department are just plain not consistent opponents of violence. Both OO and OPD acted in the name of the public, but one was far more aggressively violent than the other. The one-sidedness of the accusations against Occupy Oakland only convinces listeners that you are more concerned about insubordination than violence. And when people go out of their way to deploy defensive tactics that protect against injury, it hardly seems like the time to attack them as, say, “a cancer.”

2. Drawing serious attention to police violence, and challenging both the criminalization of whole communities and the militarization of police response to protest, is a full-time job. Move-In Day was a potential opportunity to talk about long-term problems of police violence, something that seems to have happened more effectively in the foreign press than here in the United States. It also is a task best connected to long-term community campaigns dealing with the locking up of massive numbers of youth and adults of color. Building (and repairing) those bridges (as the Move-In Assembly itself puts it) cannot be done in a day. It is particularly hard to do in the wake of a day-long battle. It requires showing up (and milling about) at many, many moments where people are already struggling against police brutality, prisons, and criminalization, making those struggles your own.

However, during confrontational protest, alliances can be built too. In the 2003 San Francisco financial district shutdown, many (but not all!) working-class youth of color organized autonomously and took a different balance of risks of civil disobedience arrest (generally less, from where I stood), and of risks of directly confronting police when they had the tactical advantage (generally more). Multiple crowd scenarios could help with this when everyone is on the streets together.

3. Successful solutions to tactical problems are those that are contagious; for now, we have yet to solve the police projectile assault as a tactical problem, but I’m looking forward to such a solution, and join those urging restraint in attacking people who are trying to work out a solution.

Meanwhile, the following pieces have been a joy to read.

This uninformed but viral piece unfortunately is a required bit of the debate:

And these are thoughtful responses to it:


[This article originally appeared on Carwil without Borders]

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6 comments for "Debating Tactics: Remember to Ask, "What Works?""


Professor Bjork-James writes about Seattle 1999:

This was my first encounter as a civil disobedience activist with masked Black Bloc protesters, and by and large their relationship with me was one of useful protection. It is a simple but effective tactic.


I found reports to the contrary:

A small group of men, dressed in black clothing and masks and ignoring cries of “Shame on you!” from other protesters, smashed windows and spray-painted graffiti at downtown stores like Nordstrom, Niketown, Starbucks and the Gap. Both were jarring sights in a city that prides itself on its laid-back image.

“We are here peacefully; we just want our message to be heard,” said Gloria Haselwander, a 21-year-old clerk in a Seattle music store who said she believes that the world trade group’s rulings contributed to environmental destruction and ever-greater gaps between the world’s richest people and its poorest. “We kept saying, ‘No violence, no violence,’ ” she added, “but there was just this mass of gas. My throat hurts, my lungs still hurt.”

Most of the demonstrators were clearly opposed to the window-smashing and other destructive acts by a small knot of protesters, most of whom were young men wearing masks and declining to give their names when asked by reporters.

“Anarchy rules!” said one, carrying a trash can down the street and then using it to smash a window of a Starbucks coffee shop.


Louis Proyect wrote on February 25, 2012 at 09:59 AM

Just in case it isn't crystal clear in the article, the "useful and effective tactic" being described here is "improvised barricades and throwing back tear gas canisters."

This was in fact most of what I saw protesters in the Black Bloc doing on November 30, 1999. It must be remembered that the day involved a four- to six-hour-long effort by police to dislodge people sitting in or locking down in a ring of sites surrounding the Seattle Convention Center. This was followed by several-hour-long push of protesters from downtown to Capitol Hill. Engaging with, responding to, and evading, police efforts to retake the space of downtown is most of what activists of all kinds did that day. I merely note that Black Bloc members were often engaging in protective barricade running and tear-gas canister returning between me and the police. Which was completely useful.

The Black Bloc also quite intentionally destroyed corporate property on November 30, 1999, sometimes despite the objections of fellow protesters. A communique from them is quite clear on both these points:

Does, as they argue, breaking windows "destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights," as they argue? Often not. For physical destruction to have such an impact, those destroying property must have amassed greater political legitimacy than those whose property they destroy, something that was surely the case at the Berlin Wall, the Egyptian Interior Ministry, the Boston Tea Party, the Cochabamba Water War's defacing of Semapa's headquarters, and the White Night riots. That is why few people spend time debating these events' legitimacy. In Seattle, first impressions from uninvolved people ranged from horror at the tactic of property destruction, to jubilation that someone was fighting openly (I observed this range among apolitical members of my own family).

I doubt that anything useful can be added to the long and extensive debates that have surrounded window-breaking as a tactic in the North American mass action context. The objections raised are clear, and most have some validity. (One that does not is the idea that police will not initiate violence if property is not destroyed; counterexamples include Seattle, numerous Occupy Wall Street events; the 2000 DNC protests in LA; and the 2003 NYC February 15 antiwar march, to name a few.)

All of that said, it would be more helpful to talk about the dilemmas of crowd defense rather than the polemics around property destruction, especially when the former is the bulk of actions like the recent ones in Oakland. People with differing ideological orientations can have a shared conversation on these issues by returning to practical questions of common strategy. I stand by my statement that "movements must balance the development of a tactical ability to hold the streets with a strategic ability to bring in ever-increasing numbers of people," and look forward to approaches to each type of tactic that consider and advance these goals.

Carwil Bjork-James wrote on February 25, 2012 at 04:32 PM

Hey, this is really thoughtful and one of the smarter things I've read about OO tactics so far. It definitely shifts my thinking about this stuff a bit. So thanks for sharing it.

An overlapping/related question re: tactics is what the long-term outcome is. Did you see this presentation re: violent vs. non-violent revolutions? I found it to make pretty persuasive case for non-violence - although is is apparently focused on the use of violence in the unambiguous sense - not window breaking or whatnot.

Felix wrote on February 26, 2012 at 02:45 AM

Hey, this is really thoughtful and one of the smarter things I've read about OO tactics so far. It definitely shifts my thinking about this stuff a bit. So thanks for sharing it.

An overlapping/related question re: tactics is what the long-term outcome is. Did you see this presentation re: violent vs. non-violent revolutions? I found it to make pretty persuasive case for non-violence - although is is apparently focused on the use of violence in the unambiguous sense - not window breaking or whatnot.

Felix wrote on February 26, 2012 at 09:54 AM

Mr. Bjork-James. Thank you for the very thoughtful piece. This kind of comparative analysis of protest tactics is oft-neglected and very necessary.

Yahya wrote on February 26, 2012 at 09:44 PM

A really good analysis. Thanks for providing some rational thought, which has sometimes been lacking, on these series of problems.

zeroref wrote on February 27, 2012 at 03:46 PM

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