What We Talk About When We Talk About Solidarity

photo via Wikipedia

by Natasha Stoudt

Over the past couple of weeks, the internet has exploded with responses to Chris Hedges’ article “The Cancer in Occupy.” I’m going to sidestep the issue of what was wrong or right with Hedges’ article or the many responses to it, and focus on the deeper subject of the debate it spawned: the debate about tactics.

This debate is a heated one, and I’ve seen a lot of folks talking at cross-purposes and getting frustrated (myself included) I think a large part of the reason for this is that people are trying to discuss several different questions at once, and conflating the answers to one with the answers to another. Here, I’m trying to pull these different questions apart and discuss some factors that may assist us in seeking answers to these questions – partially for my own understanding, and partially because I have not read anyone else attempting to do this and I’m hoping to add some depth and nuance to the debate.

I am not seeking to provide the answer.

In fact, I believe that the more we get away from the idea that there is an answer to these questions – the more we are willing to Occupy the area of murky complexity and uncertainty in between – the better off we will be, and the more we will be living into the kinds of values that will improve the world.

What Is Violence and When Is It Justified?

This is one subject that folks seem particularly eager to nail down. Is property destruction violence? “Yes,” some people insist. “No – it never is,” others say, and demand to move on. Someone pulls out the dictionary, a particularly useless document when it comes to taking action in the world.

Let’s get real. To those who say that property destruction is never violent: ask someone who has been abused by having something of value destroyed whether or not it was a violent experience. The use of physical force against an object often carries the implication that force may subsequently be used against the person’s body; it can also carry the implication of uncontrollable rage, a force that harms humans if they happen to get in the way.

And to those who say that property destruction is inherently violent: if someone quietly disables construction equipment that will soon be used to cut down an old-growth forest, would you call that violence? (I’m going to go ahead and assume the answer is “No” here.)

Whether property destruction is violent depends on the power, energy, and intent fueling it. This is not a yes or no question. We do ourselves and the movement a disservice when we try to close the book on this subject by pretending otherwise.

Another gray area is the question of acting in self-defense, or defense of others, when confronted with violence oneself. On one end of the spectrum, there are situations of life-or-death, or with the potential for grave injury, in which the vast majority of us would agree self- or other-defense is justified. Beyond those particular scenarios, the waters become muddier. When does “defense” cross the line into escalation, or even vengeance? Many horrible acts have been committed throughout history using the justification of self-defense, up to and including genocides. Tread carefully here, comrades.

Navigating the Diversity of Tactics

There are three questions I’ve noticed emerging in the debates I’ve witnessed about how we decide on tactics. Before we endorse or engage in a particular tactic, I think the answer to all three questions should be “yes.” (Of course, it’s not as simple as all that – finding the “yes” answer involves a process of communication, learning, and deep introspection.)

1. Is it understandable?

This is one question that I think a lot of the writing out there has been trying to address. Someone suggests that we shouldn’t chant “fuck the police” or indiscriminately destroy property; another person launches into an explanation of why it makes sense that folks who have been oppressed and abused by police and the state would want to express their anger in that way. This is true, and important. We should not condemn anyone for reacting in a very human way to oppression and abuse. However, a reaction being understandable does not follow that it is useful, productive, or right.

2. Is it strategic?

A strategic action serves a specific goal as well as taking into account its impact on our long-term goals. It considers the potential impact on allies and communities associated with the movement, including public opinion in all its diversity and heterogeneity. It considers the possibility of retaliation (violent or otherwise), including against those who may not be consenting to involvement in the action. It considers our cultural and temporal context. Strategy is where we look outside of ourselves, beyond the present moment, outside of our feelings and our personal experience.

3. It is right/ethical/moral?

This is the sticky one, of course – where we will find out whether and how our values diverge in significant ways. Our deeply held philosophies, spiritual beliefs, and moral-ethical codes will likely clash at certain points. However, in our mutual investigation of this question, I believe there is a deeper question around which we can coalesce: that of whether, and at what point, our movement will become like what we are fighting in the first place.

This question is not merely theoretical. It has happened to many, many movements in the past: in the event of their success, formerly idealistic revolutionaries become the enforcing arms of bloody, repressive regimes. This possibility is one that we must keep in mind and continually guard against. We cannot afford to put it off until we are have achieved success.

How do we do it? One way is by evolving the vision of what we want to become: of how we, as a movement, as a community, and as individuals, want to be different from those who advocate and uphold the current system. Not just in values and beliefs – even capitalist beliefs can look good with the right spin on them – but in our actions.

Many of us say we value redemption and transformative justice over vengeance and punishment. What does that look like, in practice? How does this affect the actions we take in our relationships with the police and with the 1%?

What kind of people do we want to be? What does that look like on the street? How does that change depending on the scenario? At what point does power become the only difference between us and those who oppress us? How can we avoid reaching that point?

The Part About How It Feels Good

Comrades, let’s admit something to ourselves and each other: part of the reason we want to engage in militant tactics is because doing so feels good. Most of us long-term activists have experienced the adrenaline rush or high that comes from experiencing an intense confrontation with the police, or from successfully evading them and engaging in a strong direct action. Acting out our rage and rebellion feels good. Doing so in concert with others makes us feel powerful, and that feels even better. We’re human. We’re animals. It’s in our blood.

I have had fellow activists confess experiencing this high to me in sheepishness or even shame, but there is no shame in this feeling. It can be an important part of what motivates us to keep taking to the streets, to have courage and keep taking powerful public action even under the threat of abuse and violence. It can forge deep emotional bonds between us and our comrades.

On the other hand, the desire for this feeling can lead us to throw strategy out the window and take on confrontation merely for the rush. It can lead us to commit acts that are harmful, damaging to each other and ourselves, acts that alienate us from each other and the community, instead of bringing us together. And its greatest potential to do this comes when we deny that this feeling is part of our motivation.

Whatever you do, don’t discount this feeling. It has toppled oppressive regimes. It has caused unnecessary war and millions of deaths. It has led people to commit genocide. It has led people to rise up and fight for their freedom. It can always go either way, and it can turn on a dime from one to the other.

We will have our best chance to harness this feeling and use it for good if we acknowledge and if we talk about it. If we don’t, all bets are off.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Solidarity

As I have followed this debate, I have seen many calls for us to be “in solidarity” with each other. People saying that we are on the same side, fighting for the same cause, so we shouldn’t argue with each other about the different tactics we choose – i.e., the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Frankly, this feels like a cop-out. It also doesn’t feel like a call for solidarity: it feels like a call for loyalty.

I don’t put much stock in loyalty. I have seen loyalty destroy the integrity of communities and individuals. It has fueled business as usual throughout human history: citizens are loyal to their nation, so they unquestioningly support its actions; they are loyal to their friends, so they don’t speak up when they witness a friend doing something morally wrong; they are loyal to an ideological system, so they refuse to question whether aspects of that system do not serve the greater good. Every day, people who know better allow others to commit atrocities in the name of loyalty.

Solidarity is different. Solidarity requires an acknowledgment of our interdependence, that our actions affect one another deeply, that we are by our very nature beholden to and responsible for one another.

Solidarity means lovingly holding each other accountable to our shared values. It means having the courage to ask each other hard questions, and the fortitude to withstand being asked those questions ourselves. It means supporting each person’s autonomy, and yet also calling people to account for behavior that harms other individuals or the community. This is not “policing”: it is what we should expect from those who love us. True solidarity, community, and love mean caring enough about a person to want them to be their best self, and willingness to help them achieve that.

I don’t want to be part of a mutual admiration society in which people validate my poor choices – be they well-intentioned or not – in the name of “solidarity.” There is nothing new, visionary, courageous, or revolutionary about that. I want to be part of a truly revolutionary movement, one where my I am challenged to be my best possible self, so that I can serve our vision of creating our best possible society.

Comrades, I invite you all to compassionately, thoughtfully challenge me, teach me, push me, raise my consciousness, constructively criticize me, and encourage me to be my best – as many of you have already begun to do in a powerful way.

And I promise that, in solidarity, I will do the same for you.

  14 comments for “What We Talk About When We Talk About Solidarity

  1. Elaine Ryan
    February 23, 2012 at 10:13 AM

    Thank you for your inspiring article. I will share it, use it in my thougts, in my own writings, speaking and actions. In Solidarity…Thank You….Elaine Ryan Occupy Reno

  2. Ron
    February 23, 2012 at 10:18 AM

    In the begining of Occupy…the majority, if not all, of the actions were done with the consensus of General Assemblies. The process was created and adhered to as best we could to create solidarity and unity in action while managing ideological disagreements.

    As time went on, in many places, Occupy groups have split into disctinct factions of reformists versus revolutionaries. The reformists continue to promote and participate in GA consensus, in the formation of working groups, their actions, and their declarations of goals and values. The revolutionaries for their part, have been very unapologetic in the large scale abandonment of the GA processes and are reluctant to adhere to the (do no harm) non-violence principles that Occupy was founded on. The revolutionaries abandoned GA processes, mostly because they could not get consensus for divisive actions (like flag burning, spray painting buildings, and smashing windows). In being marginalized by the GA processes, many revolutionary minded people came to the conclusion that the GA process itself was becoming a “power structure”.

    Now this is not a simple ideological divide that can be cleared up by promoting an acceptance of “diversity of tactics”. This is an intrinsic disctinction being created automatically; as people voice their support or opposition for what they believe is acceptable action on behalf of the “Occupy” brand. Unless the revolutionaries can set aside their ego’s and return to the GA processes, and abide by the concensus created therein, then the divide will ultimately result in one of two things….

    1) The end of the Occupy movement.
    2) Competition within Occupy, to reclaim the Occupy brand on behalf of one of these two ideologies.

    It should be undertsood that autonomous actions, especially those that are divisive to the movement, are an abandonment of solidarity with the movement itself.

    • lester
      February 23, 2012 at 6:31 PM

      Ron, your whole post was nonsense. The “reformists” are the people that, at every turn, shackle others with GA decisions while freeing themselves from that responsibility. Did the “reformists” consult GA when they hired a snitch to get in the tents of the poor and act as an informant? Did they consult GA when they conspired to shut down the kitchen to attempt to break up the camp? Did they consult GA to ask for permission to send reams of insider info to the police department? Did they ask for permission when they publicly pulled support from the camp?

      The answer to all the above is- fuck no.

      And while the “reformists” are doing all those things, their little cheerleaders spend the time blaming the “revolutionaries” for the fracturing of the movement. You need to get a clue.

      • Ron
        February 23, 2012 at 8:40 PM

        If you’re not using a GA process that includes everyone, then you are acting autonomously. The Philly conference is a perfect example. Except, that is an example of a group of reformists who didn’t include their revolutionary counterparts, or anyone else for that matter. So, in what you just said, you prove my point quite well. If people do those things you just mentioned without consensus then they are not acting in solidarity either. A GA is not a “shackle” it is a process. Complete abandonment of the process is an abandonment of solidarity people speak so often about. However, the only people I see who are openly abandoning organizing and GA processes are the revolutionaries, who by their own philosophy…believe they can unilaterally force change with their “diversity of tactics” nonsense. Go get approval from the GA to burn the American flag and smash windows at Bank of America, …then you can feel free to call it an Occupy (insert region) sponsored action.

        • rothstei
          February 23, 2012 at 10:09 PM

          Diversity of tactics is not nonsense. It was passed by the OWS GA, passed by the Occupy Chicago GA, and is up the GA in Portland this Sunday.

          It seems like you are misrepresenting what diversity of tactics means. Diversity of tactics does not mean smashing windows. It means respecting that different people want different things, and they come to consensus anyway.

          • Ron
            February 24, 2012 at 8:00 AM

            I was referring to the diversity of tactics argument, that has been used to promote the acceptance of black bloc tactics specifically; which does include those things and have never been agreed upon by any GA I’m aware of.

            Different people do want different things, and that is exactly what the GA is for, so in that we are on the same page.

          • rothstei
            February 24, 2012 at 12:19 PM

            Diversity of tactics means the understanding and acceptance that many allied activists will plan different tactics that we may not all agree with, but that we won’t openly condemn or sabotage each other. It doesn’t mean that you must accept or use Black Bloc tactics, but that you accept that others will be using Black Bloc tactics. That is what has been agreed upon by many GAs.

            St. Paul Principles
            Occupy Chicago Principles
            David Graeber article, mentioning that the original OWS GA approved Diversity of Tactics approach.
            Portland’s Proposed Principles of Diversity of Tactics.

    • Lumen
      February 24, 2012 at 7:24 AM


      I agree that there is a split between the ‘reformists’ and the ‘revolutionaries’ in OP but I totally disagree about that relationship and the GA. There is so much I could say but I will defer to OWS. From their website.

      This #ows movement empowers real people to create real change from the bottom up. We want to see a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner because we don’t need Wall Street and we don’t need politicians to build a better society. The only solution is world revolution.

      This doesn’t sound particularly reformist to me. Actually, this sounds completely non-reformist.

      From what I can tell far fewer people attend the GA then when there was an illegal protest camp. There was nothing ‘reformist’ about the concept of Occupy initially. It was primarily a statement that all was not acceptable or okay in the world.

      Maybe Occupy Portland has lost GA attendance, energy, and dare I say relevance because it has become so reformist. Maybe the emphasis on electoral politics is unattractive to people because on some level people know the system is unacceptable. Maybe what attracted thousands of people to occupy was the potential of finding alternatives.

      BTW, Revolution is NOT about breaking windows nor is it violent.

      • Ron
        February 25, 2012 at 6:38 AM

        So, from what I’m getting from most of these responses, …is that we should accept that ‘black bloc tactics’ fall under the ‘diversity of tactics’ premise, but what they are attempting to do in Philly via the 99 percent declaration group….should not be accepted and disavowed completely.

        Well if I’m the only one who sees the blatant contradiction then I think Occupy is in a sad state of affairs.

        BTW- REAL reform is a revolution in itself. We can spend a lot of wasted time debating the symantics of ‘words’ like revolution, but at the end of the day we should be focusing on issues and what we can actually do to change things for the better. I never said revolution has to mean violence or breaking windows, in fact I think that ‘tactic’ is completely unnacceptable and is an abandonment of solidarity. Just because ‘diversity of tactics’ phrase was used and accepted in various GA’s, that is not a blank check to do whatever you want under that premise. Especially when other people who aren’t resorting to vandalism and violent police confrontation are being “disavowed” without respect to that premise.

        I see many contradictions and hypocrisies being created lately and it’s very discouraging.

        • rothstei
          February 25, 2012 at 1:26 PM

          You are totally mis-representing the issue. If the Declaration group comes to a GA to get approval, and that approval is denied, then obviously there is no consensus on the issue. In fact, consensus was made on the fact that Occupy Philly wanted nothing to do with the Declaration group.

          On the other hand, various GAs have approved a Diversity of Tactics statement. This means that individuals can do their own tactics, and it is acceptable under the diversity model. As I previously said, DoT was not a statement that said the GA approves of property destruction… it says that it understands that a certain amount of people do.

          The Declaration is a positive statement: X = A. The GA responded with a contrary statement. X is not A.

          Diversity of Tactics is an open statement. Y = B, C, D, E, or possibly other things. The GA approved this. No where does it say that Y is only C, but it allows for Y to be a number of things. It also says specifically, that no one can claim that Y is NOT any one of those listed variables. DoT is about inclusion, not about a specific action.

          If you can’t grasp the difference here, then I’m not sure we can keep talking about this.

          But if you get that, you might also think about this: The Portland GA has specifically made a statement that it will not endorse any political candidates. But, the GA has blocked, on a number of occasions, proposals that would have defined property-destruction as being against the code of conduct.

  3. Jess E. Hadden
    February 23, 2012 at 2:12 PM

    Excellent article! I am glad you called attention to the way the word “solidarity” has been so misused of late, by those attempting to manufacture consent. It has been a truly incredible thing to witness.

    Occupy Portland, we need to be present at these “movement building” meetings on Tuesday. People need to see what is going on. Livestream is being censored by facilitators at these meetings. Something foul is afoot.

    • StJason
      February 23, 2012 at 5:48 PM

      Agreed. I’ve been quite shocked the number of times I’ve heard words to the extent of “Occupy: Love it or leave it!”
      This is the bad part of not having an encampment. When everyone was in the same park, then people talked. Face to face. Ideas flowed around the camp. The extremists were moderated and the moderates were energized. Since then, the physical breaking up of the camp has lead to a cultural breaking up of the different groups. If we are serious about Occupy, we need to come together. The GAs may be a messy process, but it does one job really well. It brings everyone together. This, more then any other reason is a reason to push the GAs. The fact that we are all human and there is plenty of human things going on here, just means that we need more people. Eyes are the cure for abuses. The more eyes on you the less likely you’ll be to do anything questionable.

      Get involved. Occupy the GA. Occupy yourself.

  4. Tom Cummins
    February 23, 2012 at 4:17 PM

    I agree, this is a beautifully written article dealing with the core issue of how we proceed with the Occupy movement. We are having “faction” problems in Colorado. Frankly, I’m not sure some people involved in the movement can even understand some of the things being discussed here. Not so much from a lack of education, but because some folks have had to endure some truly awful situations, which have in turn brought them to Occupy as their “last resort”, and they are frustrated by what winter has done, or appeared to have done to the movement as a whole. I truly believe we are about to enter the period of the “American Spring” – hopefully a non-violent revolution like the world has never seen, but in order for that to happen effectively, many of us believe that we must adopt a more “spiritual” approach (not religious), but individual core beliefs that will guide us and unite us and grow us into force that will actually have to be reckoned with by those currently in power. These core beliefs will act as the backbone of the movement, a reason to get out of bed every morning to keep fighting, but our only chance to be successful in this endeavor is to grow the movement to such an enormous size that we cannot be marginalized, or man-handled out of existence, and to grow to that size we need a simple and consistent message that almost everyone can identify with – an umbrella statement that is so “strong” and so “true” that everyone can understand it’s meaning. Will have to continue this later.

  5. Lumen
    February 24, 2012 at 7:30 AM

    Natasha, thank you for your great piece. Thank you for acknowledging the human adrenaline rush of direct action and for teasing out differences in understandable vs. strategic. I have fears about the divergence of values in the issues of ‘right’ but I have more fears about issues of respect in the movement.

    Thank you for calling for real solidarity.

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