On leaderless resistance & Occupy Wall Street

[Reposted from Kasama Project. – ed.]

by sks

I will go out and say it outright:

The “occupy” movement in itself is a snowclone, viral movement with a lot of promise – regardless of the many valid critiques others have engaged regarding its many short-comings.

I do not intend to add to the chorus, but provide a fresh perspective, hopefully thought-provoking, on a key aspect of the movement: the claim of “leaderless resistance”. (While I am cognizant of the fascist origins of the strategy and tactic, in particular Louis Beam was a voice of the far-Right, I am ignoring this for the time being: the truth is that in practice in the last 20 or so years it has become widely used in the left and in the animal rights and ecological movements, and hence as a practice, divorced from the right – however, the theoretical underpinnings are indeed elitist).

My intent, in this note, is to raise context and observations on the nature of “leaderless resistance” as a strategic outlook, and as a tactic.

I am particularly motivated by the counter-intelligence coup the NYPD achieved in the Brooklyn Bridge kettle (which echoes a similar one in London nearly a year ago). That is, my intent is a strategic and tactical observation of the “leaderless resistance” concept as applied to “Occupy Wall St.”, its problems, its roots, and more importantly, alternatives that increase the effectiveness, security, accountability, and survivability of this movement.

I do so as a veteran of the anti-colonial struggle in Puerto Rico, and in particular both the relative victory against the US Navy in Vieques Island in 1999-2003, and the relative defeat of the 1998 anti-privatization strikes – as well as the student and community struggles there. Also, as a red diaper grandchild, having the dubious honor of being exposed to the worse excesses of counter-intelligence and State repression since before birth. As an active student of these matters, I do not claim authority, but I do not claim ignorance either.

I. Starting from the end

Whiteshirts: the new Brownshirts.

The Brooklyn Bridge kettle is a historic event: it represents both the first time in living memory that a mass disruptive action has happened in New York City that was pro-active in form: there is no RNC convention, there is no WTO meeting, there is nothing to fight for other than the atrocious malfeasance of the State and Wall St.

It is also historic in that in represents a conscious shift in police tactics.

For those who remember the “Guantanamo-on-the-Hudson” during the RNC protests in 2004, it is clear: While mass arrests did happen, they were the usual random snatching operations in a large scale street isolation. As such, violent tactics, such as the use of pepper guns and baton charges were the norm.

Perhaps the most recent example in a mass movement of this set of tactics was the Pittsburgh G-20 protests in 2009 in which even sonic weapons were used. However, in those protest, already the first change of tactics was visible: two of the most dramatic events of the protest were the identification of passive plainclothes police among the protesters (not active provocateurs) and the preemptive dismantling of a media center, including the arrest of those behind one of the main twitter accounts used for organizing (which was part of a months long intelligence operation).

This “kinder and gentler” approach has its roots in contemporary policing theory, and had its first essay in the London kettles in fall of 2010. Some of the same tactics first used there were clear in the Brooklyn Bridge kettle.

Lets give a short overview of the ones I find significant:

1) Tactical assumption of a lack of leadership in the protest –

While politically and even on terms of prosecution they wouldn’t admit this, the police didn’t try to snatch particular leaders from the protest as they would normally; this pragmatic approach to dealing with the situation is novel and proved very effective to their ends. In London, this allowed easier kettling by tricking naive and idealistic people into moving in the direction the cops wanted, to then kettle them. In the Brooklyn Bridge incident, this was semi-successful: apparently the majority of the people saw the obvious trap and side-stepped the police. Still, hundreds fell for it. In effect, since there are no leaders, the police become the leadership, de facto.

2) Use of high-ranking officers in the front-lines –

One of the origins of the Police Riot, which is what often leads to the most violent actions on the part of the Police in mass situations. In the Brooklyn Bridge kettle, nearly all the front-line officers present were “white shirts” or officers of Lieutenant rank and above. While Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna provided a one-man Police Riot, he is indeed a rotten apple: white shirts are often the cooler heads under pressure, and in the videos you can see open chastising on the part of these white shirts to even lower rank white shirts. This also a pragmatic recognition on the part of the Police of the non-violent, yet provocative, nature of the protest: they do not expect violent actions on the part of the mass – they do expect a few cops to lose their cool and riot, with the consequential spectacle in the media. This robs the mass action of the provocative intent of civil disobedience: since the State’s reaction is pedestrian and “acceptable”, there is no message transmitted. The medium of mass civil disobedience is robbed of its only effect.  The cops win, not the movement.

3) The measured proportionality of action –

Until recently, the tactics of mass policing in the western world were based on intimidation and control via overwhelming force. The use of non-lethal weaponry, the massed deployment of physically imposing riot police on exotic steroids, the use of provocateurs and active counter-intelligence. This has given way to a more proportional and surgical utilization of what they call “the quiver”: all of the options previously available are still available, but not deployed. In the recent English riots, this perspective gave way to much criticism on the part of right wing elements who sustained that the police intervention was ineffective. However, a careful look at the arrest and convictions show they dost prostest too much. All of the people allegedly involved in murders during the riots have been indicted. Nearly all active participants, including those in minor crimes, have been arrested, indicted, and for the most part convicted. Turns out that the Police was not asleep at the wheel, or even overwhelmed: they switched from a tactic of direct control and intimidation to one of post-facto enforcement: essentially hitting participants when they least expected it. Rather than street fighting and running battles, the police chose CCTV video, and intelligence operations to get the participants. The result is even more effective than that of a running street battle from the perspective of the state.

Purposes of counter-intelligence

The Bridge to Nowhere: OWS Edition.

With all this in mind, and with some further elaboration below, I think it safe to conclude that the Brooklyn Bridge kettle had a particular intent, all related to counter-intelligence:

1) De-articulation of the main base of the “Occupy Wall St.” camp –

By successfully depopulating the main base, the police was able to isolate the committed participants in the infrastructure of the camp, the unaccountable true leadership of the movement. Like sifting sands for gold, the identification of the logistical leadership is priceless to future intervention.

Those targeted should be very vigilant: they are no longer Anonymous.

Leaderless resistance claims to solve this by allowing any compromise member to be taken over by another anonymous member, but the false egalitarianism promoted that we are all willing, able, and equally effective in any capacity is a lie. If this were true, we wouldn’t need surgeons or pilots because we would all be able to do it, without a need for skill, talent or willingness. If, say, Lorenzo, gets arrested, who will take over him? A model of leadership that identifies, protects, and prepares people for accountable leadership is less vulnerable in this respect.

2) The de facto Red Squad needed to update the databases –

This movement has attracted lots of people who are new activists, unknown to the State. They needed to round them up and identify them, and in particular those willing to be arrested for the movement. Rounding them up in a diffuse open plan like that of the camp, or tediously using CCTV and on foot video for no crime cannot be justified. However, the process of booking is an intelligence coup.

Not only are the databases updated, but new items added, biometric data collected, network analysis made. In effect, 700 arrests mean, 70,000 data routes for the average person, who knows 100 people or so. There is overlap, so obviously the number made vulnerable is not 70,000, but it will still be in the five figures.

This is a counter-intelligence coup.

Yes, we are Anonymous, we never forgive, we never forget. Neither does the State – and its power is underestimated. One of the claims of leaderless resistance is that since people do not actively conspire in cells or pyramids, it protects the independent cells. But as the Federal de-articulation of the North-west USA eco-cells (the Elves of the ELF), there is no need for active conspiracy to connect the dots via social network analysis (and I do not mean Facebook: social networks are not a technology, it is how humans connect socially everywhere). In effect, the movement has provided the State with an intelligence head-start of great value – and did so because the leaderless resistance’s directionless approach failed to notify people of this consequence.

3) Separate the “hard-core” from “soft-core” and from “no-core” activists – 

A key goal of counter-intelligence is to de-cohere movements so they implode. One of the methods used in the past is to take advantage of the inherent wedges within movements. The leaderless resistance model claims to solve this by eliminating hierarchy – but this is also a lie. The elimination of formal hierarchy doesn’t eliminate informal hierarchy of will, charisma, economic/racial/gender privilege and other such background hierarchies. In effect, counter-intelligence hoists the movement by its own petard in a pragmatic approach. This wedging is formally addressed in “leaderless resistance” theory as “weeding out the weak”, a sort of social-Darwinist process – but this is anathema to a true mass movement. The inherent elitism of “leaderless resistance” with the onus of dedication and self-sacrifice is exploited effectively by the state.

4) Criminalization –

This is the most political of the goals. By criminalizing the movement, in other words, by equating active participation with the possibility of being processed criminally, the same “preventative” logic of policing is imposed on political speech. The idea, however, is not to prevent gang violence or other crimes, but to prevent political speech that questions the groundwork of the State. Leaderless resistance in this sense doesn’t figure at all: no matter what strategic and tactical method is uses, this response will happen. However, leaderless resistance has a specific weakness in this respect: the inability to protect participants from State criminalization.

No team of lawyers, no bail fund, no clarity to participants on what can criminalize you or not.

The kettling exploits this: by criminalizing behavior that normal citizens assume to be legal, and because leaderless resistance is unable to provide clarity to participants that kettling can happen, participation is limited to those willing and able to be subjected to criminalization. This has concrete effects: in many jobs, even a misdemeanor can get you fired, and definitely having to serve time and pay a fine is an economic hardship to the bulk of people.

II.  The Law of Unintended Consequences

The path to hell is paved with good intentions

Another problem is that even the strategy and tactic of leaderless resistance is not actually being followed as prescribed by its creators. One of the most important aspects of the leaderless resistance concept is the aspect of direction: it is “leaderless” in so far as it puts the onus on acting on the principles, rather than organizing anything around them, but it is not “directionless”.

So, one of the fundamental problems of “leaderless resistance” as carried out by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, is not the concept itself, but a lack of clarity and education on what the concept means, and furthermore, an irresponsible assumption that not having leaders means that a decision is a good idea by the sheer power of numbers. As those in the Brooklyn Bridge kettle will now find out, a lack of leadership that devolves into a lack of direction.

There is a difference between wanting a non-bureaucratic, open, transparent, participatory, decentralized, and accountable leadership, which can provide direction to the movement and not having leadership and direction at all.

One of the unintended consequences is that in the context of a lack of leadership and direction is that the State, and their enforce, the Police, become the leaders and directors of the mass. As happened in the Brooklyn Bridge, by all accounts.

The abandonment of any pretense of leadership also signified the abandonment of any pretense of direction, with nefarious unintended consequences.

III. Mass movements require mass leaderships

Over nine thousand leaders needed.

All of this means that the concept of “leaderless resistance” needs to be reformulated to the actual mass movement as it exists.

As we see, “leaderless resistance” is a theory that applies to vanguardist, elitist struggle: it is perhaps a viable alternative to direct resistance (that is, defensive) politico-military situations, such occupation by a foreign power, or as a way to mobilize direct action around narrow, single issue campaigns, such as ecology or animal rights. It is, at heart, a politico-military theory that requires each member to become a soldier. This is anathema to any mass movement: not even in hunter-gatherer societies do all members of the group engage directly in warfare or even military affairs. In effect, leaderless resistance theory is elitist: it calls only upon the most dedicated, the most “clear”, the most capable – all while seemingly advocating egalitarian participation.

However, it is not applicable to a movement that aspires to be a mass movement: the mass movement needs a mass leadership, a mass direction.

Personally, I view the development of a broad united front of the different affinities is needed: far from the NGO model of bureaucracy, it needs to be based on actual active participation, not simply endorsing a proclamation. This will of course accept and respect the existence of multi-polar and pluralist politics: false unity is always false. Differences of opinion and of direction are healthy if they are in good faith. Recognizing the need for poles of leadership to emerge is not to be feared, but embraced: let only those forces and affinities willing to be accountable and responsible emerge. We shouldn’t be little children hedonistically acting upon our whims: real action in real life has real consequences, only those willing to grapple with those consequences, to protect the movement, to advance the movement, and to engage the movement with wider society should take leadership, but leadership shouldn’t be a bad word. With leadership also comes direction: in particular, is this movement for true revolutionary political and economic change, or simply aimed at extracting reforms that “return” to a mythical “better” past. These are questions other address, but the fact is they need to be addressed by the mass itself: the “leaderless resistance” claim is in itself a leadership and direction that seeks to exclude, implicitly, the addressing of these questions.

The alternative, quite frankly, is to continue to let the cops be the de facto leaders of the movement, surely a way to de-articulate any potentiality it has to effect actual change – and surely a way to cause more harm than good to future movements of resistance. The struggle for peace, justice, jobs, equality is not a short or direct one. We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking there won’t be bends in the road, or one in which leadership is irrelevant. Those defending the status quo certainly recognize the immense value of leadership, and have effectively used that against the movement.

Participants in Occupy Wall St, and the other viral snowclones that emerge for it, would be doing themselves a service by critically approaching this central question: there are no shortcuts, there are no easy victories. The Financial-Industrial complex that rules the USA, the crumbling Empire that feeds it, the Nuclear deterrent that holds the world hostage is not easy to beat. And it cannot be beaten, no matter how hard you will it to be, without leadership and direction. Leaderless resistance is a self-kettle, a straigh-jacket that will keep the movement from acquiring the true mass, political, basis that can enable actual change to happen.

Those who want a wide-tent should understand that a free-for-all is not the answer: the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend. This a strategic and tactical consideration, a politico-military one, if you will: the ability of the movement to resist, grow, and triumph against the present odds require that it doesn’t straight-jacket itself into what doesn’t work anymore. Be realistic, do the impossible…

2 thoughts on “On leaderless resistance & Occupy Wall Street

  1. That is really wonderful. Instead of understanding the importance of the rebellion ongoing in the imperialist countries (USA, Italy; Spain) and in others (Greece) we are criticizing them because they are leaderless! Let us criticize ourselves because we have not yet been able to lead them!

    Paolo Babini
    CARC Party – Italy

  2. One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”


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