Saturday, November 12, 2011

St. Paul Principles and Occupy Denver

While I don't believe in non-violence as an absolute moral principle, I still have a tremendous admiration for the work of Ghandhi, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, and Marshall Rosenberg, and I share the belief of many Occupy Denver members about the need to promote non-violent resistance within our particular movement. And it's because I share the values of non-violence that I think it's absolutely essential that we commit to the St. Paul Principles, which, in my interpretation, not only aren't in contradiction to non-violent strategies but offer the only means of sincerely putting those strategies into action. The St. Paul Principles, as I interpret them, do not say that everyone has to agree with the actions of other people in the group; they don't say that you have to approve of actions you might define as violent. They merely state that “our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups”, which is to say that you have every right to disagree with and even resist other people's actions as long as you don't do it through the use of force. You can gently try to discourage someone within our group to not use violence but you can't use violence or the threat of violence to ensure compliance. If someone throws a water bottle at police, you might, in the name of non-violence, respectfully express your disagreement with the person's actions or even stand in front of the police and take the hit yourself. The St Paul Principles say that you can do that. But you can't forcibly try to take the water bottle away, you can't wrestle the culprit to the ground and remove him or her from the situation, you can't verbally threaten the person with violent retaliatory action, and you can't turn him or her over to the police so that they can administer the violence you sought to avoid. The St. Paul Principles, in other words, allow people with different ideologies to remain in disagreement while simultaneously remaining in solidarity against corporate exploitation. Put another way, the St. Paul Principles allow us to use the same non-violent strategies within our group that non-violent advocates would like us to use in response to the forces of the corporate state. If we can ask that our members respond to the violence of the police with acts of non-violent resistance—that we respond respectfully to their disrespect—then we ought to insist that we treat acts of violence by our own comrades the same way. If we're asking our members to not dehumanize the police (the only group we can unanimously agree has acted violently), to not, as recommended by the Eight Rules of Non-Violence, see them as enemies but as potential recruits, and to not respond to their violence with violence of our own, then we ought to be able to respond to our own comrades, even when they disagree with us, with the same measure of respect and decency.

Not only that, but repealing the St. Paul Principles without a plan for enforcement won't actually accomplish anything besides a further division within our movement. Even if we repeal the St. Paul Principles, people are still going to act in ways that some people define as violent. People will show up on Saturdays who have never been to a General Assembly and who know nothing about its decisions, or who have been to GA but don't care about its decisions, or who have been to GA and care about abiding by its decisions but, in the heat of the moment, out of fear or anger, do something in violation of GA policy—people within the movement will still act in contradiction to GA decisions whether you endorse the St. Paul Principles or not. On the other hand, if we're serious about enforcing non-violence—if we're serious about policing ourselves in respect to the principles of non-violence, then, one, we have to be a much more organized and more hierarchical and more centralized entity than we currently are, and, two, we'll have to use force, violence and/or the threat of violence, to guarantee that everyone acts in accordance with our principles. And we'll then no longer be a non-violent movement. If you mean to take Ghandi's and MLK's ideas seriously and literally, and if you mean to model a real democratic community and process, then you can't use violence in the name of non-violence and you can't advocate top-down enforcement of General Assembly decisions. The danger here is in re-shaping the concepts of non-violence and democracy into commodity fetishes that are completely void of significant moral and practical meaning.

In my view, the St. Paul Principles offer a way out of the ethical conundrum. The issue of enforcement doesn't have to be altogether avoided, because a top-down, coercive, and centralized program of enforcement isn't the only option. We can enforce the majority of our primary values democratically, through social interaction, which is mainly what we've been doing and precisely what the St. Paul Principles encourage, but no set of principles, be they democratic or non-violent, can be expected to account for every situation we might encounter and to rule over our every behavior. Neither the St. Paul Principles or the principles of non-violence or democracy should be looked upon as absolute and infallible moral commands. Obviously, if a fellow protestor attempts to rape or murder another fellow protestor, then the St. Paul Principles as well as the principles of non-violence and democracy need to be overlooked in order to end the abuse as abruptly and efficiently as possible. The St. Paul Principles, or any principles, shouldn't be seen as mandates for behavior, nor were they intended as such. The St. Paul Principles specifically mean to challenge top-down decision-making and organizing and to empower everyone involved to take direct action in the world around them. They DO NOT advocate violence. True, they allow affinity groups to choose their own courses of action, but not without some form of consensus or direct democracy to decide on goals and tactics. The St. Paul Principles aren't dictates; they are guidelines, however, for continuing the discussion, for existing in unity and camaraderie with each other in spite of our ideological differences, and for allowing those of us who prize non-violence to continue to practice and promote our values without moral contradiction and without demonizing comrades who think and act differently, which isn't just a more honest and committed non-violent practice but also a much more effective strategy for convincing others to share our values. We need the St. Paul Principles, that is, to prevent the precise kinds of divisions we've seen from recent efforts to have the principles repealed.

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