“You can’t demand purity out of anyone”

My wife said this in reaction to the Chris Hedges piece on “The Cancer in Occupy”. It captures the issue so well, that I shouldn’t have to explain it, but I will. The non violent advocates are demanding that the movement remain pure in action, pure in thought. Purity has its place, but it is an individual effort. Muslims call that effort the greater form of jihad. When purity becomes a matter of evangelicalism, it becomes the lesser form of jihad. I probably can stop there.

The definition of non violence at work in this piece, and more recently, in this piece by Barry Eidlin, is strict. It demands a purity of action. In this practical framework, a violent action certainly covers what Black Bloc does (burning down stores, throwing rocks and bottles, graffiti), but it’s not entirely clear where it ends.

In order to figure this out, let’s start with the premise that breaking windows with thrown rocks is a violent act. The destruction of private property deprives the owner of that property. They cannot get back what was destroyed.

With that in mind, let’s turn to a statement by some Episcopal NY Bishops:

Trinity Church, Wall Street, has provided extensive practical and pastoral support to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Trinity congregation has decided that the property known as Duarte Park is not appropriate for use by the Occupy movement, and that property remains closed. Other facilities of Trinity continue to be open to support the Occupy movement, for which I give great thanks. It is regrettable that Occupy members feel it necessary to provoke potential legal and police action by attempting to trespass on other parish property. Seekers after justice have more often achieved success through non-violent action, rather than acts of force or arms.  I would urge all concerned to stand down and seek justice in ways that do not further alienate potential allies.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori,
Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church

Here, violence is being defined as the practice of force that provokes legal action. Non violence, I suppose, would be non forceful action that avoids breaking the law. The problem is obvious: private property protection means that mere trespassing is considered a forceful, violent action. The rationale here is that a person who trespasses is forcefully depriving someone else of their property rights. If it’s a privately owned but publicly operated park, the trespasser is depriving the owner of the right to do with that place as they please. That’s why Occupy Philadelphia was trampled by horses despite the fact that there were no Black Blocs operating there, as far as I know. Violence, in the eyes of the laws, extends to all private property, not just things that can be destroyed.

Non-violent thinkers seem to have created a binary opposition, when violence is really a continuum. We should be careful to proceed with these arguments about non violence, because the definition is fuzzier than some would like it to be, particularly when the law is factored in.

Returning to my wife’s thought on this, the demand for purity inherent in Hedge’s working definition of non violent action is in denial of what non violent action has looked like in the past. It was interesting to see Graeber quote the April 6th movement’s assertion that they weren’t acting violent in last year’s revolution because, hey, we weren’t using guns!

Rather than demanding purity out of an entire movement of people who mean well, let’s admit that you cannot have Martin Luther King Jr. without Malcolm X.


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