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An Open Letter to the Occupy Movement: Why We Need Agreements

Alliance of Community Trainers is the
training collective I work with. Here's our statement to the Occupy
movement on questions of violence, nonviolence and strategy:

From the Alliance of Community
Trainers, ACT

The Occupy movement has had enormous
successes in the short time since September when activists took over a square
near Wall Street. It has attracted hundreds of thousands of active
participants, spawned occupations in cities and towns all over North America,
changed the national dialogue and garnered enormous public support. It's even,
on occasion, gotten good press!

Now we are wrestling with the question
that arises again and again in movements for social justice — how to struggle. Do
we embrace nonviolence, or a 'diversity of tactics?' If we are a nonviolent
movement, how do we define nonviolence? Is breaking a window violent?

We write as a trainers' collective with
decades of experience, from the anti-Vietnam protests of the sixties through
the strictly nonviolent antinuclear blockades of the seventies, in feminist,
environmental and anti-intervention movements and the global justice
mobilizations of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. We embrace many labels,
including feminist, anti-racist, eco-feminist and anarchist. We have many times
stood shoulder to shoulder with black blocs in the face of the riot cops, and
we've been tear-gassed, stun-gunned, pepper sprayed, clubbed, and arrested.

While we've participated in many
actions organized with a diversity of tactics, we do not believe that framework
is workable for the Occupy Movement. Setting aside questions of morality or
definitions of 'violence' and 'nonviolence' — for no two people define
‘violence' in the same way – we ask the question:

What framework can we organize in
that will build on our strengths, allow us to grow, embrace a wide diversity of
participants, and make a powerful impact on the world?

'Diversity of tactics' becomes an easy
way to avoid wrestling with questions of strategy and accountability. It lets
us off the hook from doing the hard work of debating our positions and coming
to agreements about how we want to act together. It becomes a code for
‘anything goes,' and makes it impossible for our movements to hold anyone
accountable for their actions.

The Occupy movement includes people
from a broad diversity of backgrounds, life experiences and political
philosophies. Some of us want to reform the system and some of us want to tear
it down and replace it with something better. Our one great point of agreement
is our call for transparency and accountability. We stand against the corrupt
institutions that broker power behind closed doors. We call to account the
financial manipulators that have bilked billions out of the poor and the middle

Just as we call for accountability and
transparency, we ourselves must be accountable and transparent. Some tactics
are incompatible with those goals, even if in other situations they might be
useful, honorable or appropriate. We can't be transparent behind masks. We can't
be accountable for actions we run away from. We can't maintain the security
culture necessary for planning and carrying out attacks on property and also
maintain the openness that can continue to invite in a true diversity of new
people. We can't make alliances with groups from impacted communities, such as
immigrants, if we can't make agreements about what tactics we will employ in
any given action.

The framework that might best serve the
Occupy movement is one of strategic nonviolent direct action. Within that
framework, Occupy groups would make clear agreements about which tactics to use
for a given action. This frame is strategic — it makes no moral judgments about
whether or not violence is ever appropriate, it does not demand we commit
ourselves to a lifetime of Gandhian pacifism, but it says, 'This is how we
agree to act together at this time.' It is active, not passive. It seeks to
create a dilemma for the opposition, and to dramatize the difference between
our values and theirs.

nonviolent direct action has powerful advantages:

make agreements about what types of action we will take, and hold one another
accountable for keeping them.
Making agreements is
empowering. If I know what to expect in an action, I can make a choice about
whether or not to participate. While we can never know nor control how the
police will react, we can make choices about what types of action we stand
behind personally and are willing to answer for. We don't place unwilling
people in the position of being held responsible for acts they did not commit
and do not support.

the process of coming to agreements, we listen to each other's differing
We don't avoid disagreements within
our group, but learn to debate freely, passionately, and respectfully.

organize openly, without fear, because we stand behind our actions.

We may break laws in service to the higher laws of conscience. We don't seek
punishment nor admit the right of the system to punish us, but we face the
potential consequences for our actions with courage and pride.

we organize openly, we can invite new people into our movement and it can
continue to grow.
As soon as we institute a security
culture in the midst of a mass movement, the movement begins to close in upon
itself and to shrink.

to a framework of nonviolent direct action does not make us 'safe.' We can't
control what the police do and they need no direct provocation to attack us.
But it does let us make clear decisions about what kinds of actions we put
ourselves at risk for.

direct action creates dilemmas for the opposition, and clearly dramatizes the
difference between the corrupt values of the system and the values we stand
Their institutions enshrine greed while we give away food,
offer shelter, treat each person with generosity. They silence dissent while we
value every voice. They employ violence to maintain their system while we
counter it with the sheer courage of our presence.

of agreements privileges the young over the old, the loud voices over the soft,
the fast over the slow, the able-bodied over those with disabilities, the
citizen over the immigrant, white folks over people of color, those who can do
damage and flee the scene over those who are left to face the consequences.

of agreements and lack of accountability leaves us wide open to provocateurs
and agents.
Not everyone who wears a mask or
breaks a window is a provocateur. Many people clearly believe that property
damage is a strong way to challenge the system. And masks have an honorable
history from the anti-fascist movement in Germany and the Zapatista movement in
Mexico, who said "We wear our masks to be seen."

But a mask and a lack of clear
expectations create a perfect opening for those who do not have the best interests
of the movement at heart, for agents and provocateurs who can never be held to
account. As well, the fear of provocateurs itself sows suspicion and undercuts
our ability to openly organize and grow.

A framework of strategic nonviolent
direct action makes it easy to reject provocation. We know what we've agreed
to-and anyone urging other courses of action can be reminded of those
agreements or rejected.

We hold one another accountable not by
force or control, ours or the systems, but by the power of our united opinion
and our willingness to stand behind, speak for, and act to defend our

A framework of strategic nonviolent
direct action agreements allows us to continue to invite in new people, and to
let them make clear choices about what kinds of tactics and actions they are
asked to support.

There's plenty of room in this struggle
for a diversity of movements and a diversity of organizing and actions. Some
may choose strict Gandhian nonviolence, others may choose fight-back
resistance. But for the Occupy movement, strategic nonviolent direct action is
a framework that will allow us to grow in diversity and power.

From the Alliance of Community
Trainers, ACT


Lisa Fithian

Lauren Ross (or Juniper)

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Image by David Shankbone, courtesy of Creative Commons license.  

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