It finally happened. After months of anarchists howling over journalist Chris Hedges’s controversial article “The Cancer Within Occupy,” the author debated the subject of non-violence and the diversity of tactics in the Occupy Wall Street movement with Brian Traven, representing CrimethInc, an anarchist group sympathetic to the Black Bloc tactics Hedges denounced in the article.
Both sides made good points in the exchange, which took place Sept. 12 in before a packed audience in Manhattan. Hedges reflected upon his years covering wars and revolutions for the New York Times, saying that violence can hinder progress, while Traven brought up relevant questions about how we as a society define what is violent or criminal. But the real star of the show was the Black Bloc supporters themselves, whose main goal, it seemed, was to discredit any and all scrutiny of themselves and smear their detractors with ad hominem attacks. Traven at one point suggested that the police were taking cues from Hedges, who laughed at the idea of security forces being inspired by his railings against corporate capitalism.
For people who raise their middle finger to the man and brag about their fights with the cops, these rabble-rousers are perhaps the most thin-skinned activists I have ever encountered, as they have still yet to recover from the fact that a writer turned a critical lens on them in one article seven months ago. They simply cannot tolerate any dissent against their tactics, and they fight back the only way they know how: by being whiny little brats.
Both presenters had their faults. Traven’s main tactic for ducking criticism was to employ a post-modernist obfuscation of any inconvenient questions. When asked if the Black Bloc had ever succeeded, he questioned what success meant. When asked if the Black Bloc was marred by hyper-masculinity, he dismissed Hedges’s definition of gender. But for the most part, Hedges responded to these things respectfully.
Hedges has a tendency to put people off with his ministerial style. Some people find him condescending with his repeated reminders that he covered the wars in El Salvador and the former Yugoslavia. Regardless, during the debate he was constantly met with childish hisses, laughter and cries of “liar,” not to mention one suggestion that his career as a war correspondent was a cover for his employment with the Central Intelligence Agency.
This whole act was not just disrespectful to the participants and the event’s organizers, but the hordes of people who wanted to listen, who maybe could have been swayed into seeing things Traven’s way (he didn’t seemed bothered by the disturbances). And so I decided to photograph the troublemakers, despite being told that I could only take photos of the panelists and not the audience. As far as I was concerned, this was a public space (City University of New York property, to be exact), and once these people decided to be disruptive they have made themselves a news event.
And so I was escorted outside by an event organizer and a uniformed security guard and urged to delete my photos, as they had received text messages that I had pointed my camera in the direction of the shouters. Despite the delicious irony of anarchists deferring to rules and security, I am always perturbed by anyone who feels they should be shielded from the press if they are, in fact, doing something newsworthy. Out of respect for the organizers I complied and erased the frames, which didn’t matter because they were too blurry to be used anyway.
But this kind of entitlement to be at once disruptive and immune from accountability is emblematic of the kind of dish-it-out-but-can’t-take-it attitude they have displayed in reaction to Hedges’s original article. If they’re still having a tantrum about Hedges’s article, how can we expect them to hold up against the 1 percent shock troops?
This is why I think it is ultimately wrong to classify this particular group as anarchists—that would sully the names of various movements past and present that have used and currently use non-hierarchical structures in anti-capitalist organizing. This particular clique is explicitly and actively against the left, and there’s a reason the CrimethInc book Days of War, Nights of Love reads like the ideological bastard child of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. It rails against corporate control, but replaces class struggle with libertarian individualism. Capitalism and the state are oppressing you, and their flavor of anarchism is your struggle to liberate yourself from the mediocrity of the bourgeois state. You have to do whatever you can to do to save yourself.
This is why Hedges and Traven couldn’t come to a consensus. Hedges wanted to know what kind of society Black Bloc anarchists wanted to create, but never got a real answer, and that’s because they’re currently living in it. They’ll roam the city streets, living in squats, riding on freight trains, mocking all the losers in suits and blue uniforms for squandering their days for paychecks and health insurance. They live off the waste of capitalist society (if they don’t already have trust funds), cocooned in their punk rock Neverland. Their utopia isn’t a liberation of oppressed society but their personal secession from it.
This is the kind of anti-social narcissism that Hedges wrote about in the article that kicked off this whole mess. The rage against the police, press and fellow anti-capitalists has everything to do with their inflated sense of self and precious little to do with solidarity.
I’ve encountered it recently. In Chicago, during the NATO protests in May, Black Bloc participants gathered with other activists in Grant Park, wearing masks, waving banners and angrily confronting anyone who took their photo. My response was that if you don’t want your photo taken don’t go to a public protest where you know there are going to be hundreds of journalists. Further, picking a fight with the police only endangers journalists and other activists. While covering the Eurozone crisis in Athens this summer, I was confronted by so-called anarchists for photographing them, and in fact, they routinely assault journalists in demonstrations while later celebrating television news footage of their street fighting. They want to have their dumpster-dived vegan cake and eat it, too.
I don’t fully side with Hedges on his take on the Black Bloc. During the debate, for example, I bristled when Hedges suggested that there was some common ground for both OWS and the police because they are working class (see my articles in the Indypendent and The Guardian on the subject). But it is certainly a win for Hedges when his critics live up to his description of them.
“The Black Bloc movement bears the rigidity and dogmatism of all absolutism sects,” Hedges wrote. “Its adherents alone possess the truth. They alone understand. They alone arrogate the right, because they are enlightened and we are not, to dismiss and ignore competing points of view as infantile and irrelevant. They hear only their own voices. They heed only their own thoughts. They believe only their own clichés. And this makes them not only deeply intolerant but stupid.”