Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Toppling a Coup, Part III: Discipline Solves the Big Problems

Toppling a Coup, Part III: Discipline Solves the Big Problems


By Al Giordano

The Honduras civil resistance, August 8, in front of the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa.

(Photos by Tiros, Chiapas Indymedia.)

When members of the Honduran civil resistance solicited the counsel of Serbian resistance veteran Ivan Marovich from July 31 to August 2, a repeat question from various participants was:

Q. How do we avoid infiltration?

Marovich replied:

One thing I can't teach you is that. We spent half our time looking for infiltrators. When years later we opened the files, we discovered how wrong we were!

Another thing we learned was how bad the regime’s intelligence was. The main source of its information was gossip, people talking about each other, and most of it was not true.

I loved that answer, because it exactly describes my own discoveries in my pre-journalism years as a community organizer arrested 27 times in social movements in the United States. And it also matches every counsel on the topic of infiltration offered to me by my mentor of eight years during the 1980s, the US dissident Abbie Hoffman.

Before his death in 1989, Abbie's lawyers had unearthed more than 57,000 pages of FBI files that had documented both the espionage against him and the rumor campaigns fueled by government infiltrators aimed at discrediting his leadership in the anti-war and other movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It is possible that Abbie was the most spied upon North American dissident in history.

When, as a lad of 21, I first asked Abbie what he thought of the probability that his phones were tapped, his response was, “Good! That way, they at least know two things: What I am not doing – because they tend to fantasize all kinds of crazy things – and the poor agents assigned to me have to deal with the fact that I’m having more fun than they are.”

This, from an organizer that had just come aboveground from seven years as a fugitive who faced 15-years-to-life in prison: his distinct lack of paranoia was refreshing in an era when I had encountered many other movement leaders whose fear of infiltration, espionage and disinformation campaigns had crippled both their demeanors and their capacities to think and strategize clearly.

It was Abbie’s experience, and as echoed by Marovich from his own, that the great majority of the “information” government agents had gathered on their movements was so wrong that it only served to throw them more off the trail than on it.

Another factor I’ve observed over three decades and more of dealing with the matter is that men (sorry, guys) tend to be more overly obsessed and paranoid about infiltration and espionage than women in social movements, and for too many it has retarded their capacity for leadership.

Likewise, men, more than women (and of course there are notable exceptions in each gender) tend to be more vulnerable to the provocations of infiltrators, especially those that seek to involve movement participants in violent or felonious activities that quickly justify greater repression against all in the movement.

Abbie always taught best by doing, more so than by talking, so I’ll tell you a story that I found revealing and formative to my own practices ever since.

On Christmas Day 1982, Abbie and I arrived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, called in by a local environmental movement that had lost its many expensive court cases against a project to divert water from the Delaware River to the Limerick nuclear power plant 40 miles away on the Schuykill River. Construction was to begin on January 7, two weeks later.

Opposition to the pump brought a wide local coalition together from liberal environmentalists to wealthy Republicans concerned about their property values to what might stereotypically but affectionately be called “rednecks” driving pick-up trucks with gun racks on the back. And one of the first things we heard when interviewing the various sectors was lots of macho talk along the lines of “we’re going to blow up the pump,” or, “I’ll shoot those mother******* if they come here with their bulldozers.” Many spoke as if they meant it.

From our own perspective as organizers, any major violent act like that would have set back the movement and limited its mobility in organizing, as well as narrowing its public support. There were so many of these guys talking violent action against the pump that we feared that all it would take was some infiltrator-provocateur to spark some of them into shooting or blowing stuff up.

But Abbie said, and it struck me strange at first impression, that we shouldn’t worry ourselves about infiltrators, but, rather, about our own troops and inoculating them against being manipulated by them. “What does society do with men who were beaten as boys and thus have a greater tendency toward violence?” he asked me in his frequently Socratic teaching method. He then answered his own question: “They give them badges and make them cops!”

Abbie asked the movement’s leaders to gather every single individual that they had heard speaking of violent action, plus any of the “silent macho types” that might have that proclivity, and called a meeting in the attic of the local tavern where many of them drank at night.

There, Abbie began the meeting: “We need your help, men. You see, there are other people out there – not you, of course – who might be government infiltrators or with violent tendencies, and we need a way to keep them in line. Many of you guys have been in the Armed Forces. Some of you fought in Viet Nam. You know the importance of discipline. You’ve been trained in it. And what we need from you, should you be willing to accept this mission, is that you be the marshals of the movement and organize at all our actions and events to keep things from getting out of hand.”

The guys – who five minutes prior had been the leading advocates for violent action – ******* loved it! “Can we have our own tee shirts, just for marshalls?” asked one, to applause from the group. And from there grew a long discussion about different scenarios in which a provocateur or other participant might turn violent during our planned blockades at the construction site, just days away. Once they considered it their job to keep the peace, the violence talk within the movement simply rolled to a stop. The marshals met regularly, held training sessions, printed their tee shirts, set up a CB radio communications network in which we all had our own handles (Abbie’s was “River Rat,” and mine was “Captain America”) and the local tavern owner put the song “I Love a Man in Uniform” on the jukebox to which they would stand up and salute each time it was played.

“What if a cop or a provocateur spits at me, can I whoop his ass then?” asked one.

“No, you can’t."

“What if he spits a second time?”

“Nope, you gotta keep the peace.”

“Okay, but what if he spits a third time?”

“If he spits a third time,” answered Abbie, divining that such a scenario was very unlikely to happen to a disciplined movement, “go ahead and kick his ass.” Everybody laughed.

When the marshals printed their tee shirts they had the Latin words for “Three Spits and You’re Out” emblazoned on them.

The lesson of this tale – and, yes, that movement which had successfully blockaded the pump construction site for three weeks and eventually defeated it at referendum remained disciplined in its nonviolent practice – is that when a civil resistance organizes to make itself immune to outside or internal provocations, the matter of infiltrators will still exist but becomes a much smaller problem. The power is in that case, as in most, in the hands of the movement itself, whereas worrying too much about infiltrators or provocateurs leaves the power in the hands of the regime: a power to guide the movement’s own actions by making it reactive instead of proactive, not to mention the internal division such paranoia breeds.

Translation of sign at August 8 anti-coup protest: "Requirement #1 to be my husband: To the Army, You Must Not Belong."

There are other benefits to any civil resistance that come from adherence to nonviolent discipline, too.

A “state of siege mentality” serves those who, in the context of movements, seek power and control over others. Movements attract power-seekers like flies to dung. The greater the perceived urgency of secrecy and hiding, the more authoritarian in daily praxis the movement tends to become. A movement that is overly reactive to repression tends to promote leaders that thrive in such a state of siege, and they’re not usually your best strategic thinkers or organizers.

And there is another debilitating effect: Paranoia causes individuals and groups to wall themselves in and to shrink from the duty to organize to expand the movement and seek the counsel of a wider swath of participants from the grassroots level. And the more that a movement becomes its own echo chamber, reverberating only the information and opinions available to a few, typically shut off from the people by their own paranoia, the less strategically and tactically effective its actions turn out to be. A paranoid movement always loses its most powerful weapon: it’s connection to, and support from, the people.

I’ve frankly grown distrustful from experience of too much clandestinity among some political and social movements and actors. It too often walks hand in hand with personalities more concerned about their own turf or power over others than with what should properly be the only and most real goal: winning the battle at hand, and then the war or the revolution.

The wonderful solution provided for part of this problem by adherence to nonviolent strategies and tactics – and I say this as one who is not philosophically a pacifist (I don’t see nonviolence as a moral imperative, but, rather, as a strategic one) – is that nonviolent struggles have so much less to hide than violent ones, and therefore are less crippled by paranoia.

We must always keep in mind that a big part of the motive for infiltration, espionage and disinformation against any social movement or its participants is aimed at creating that “state of siege mentality,” which immediately limits the options and maneuvering room for any social actor.

Also, a shift from worrying about whether an individual is a regime agent or not to, instead, judging a person by his or her actions cleans up the process a lot. If a participant’s behavior is counter-productive to a cause, expelling or putting that person to the side of the movement’s organization is just so much cleaner and easier when not burdened with accusations of “infiltrator” or “regime agent.” Because, as was the experience of Marovich and Hoffman both, who had the luck to live long enough to read the regime’s espionage files against them, we learn that we are so often wrong in our presumptions about who is an infiltrator and who is not.

The great nonviolent practitioners – people always mention Gandhi, King, César Chávez, and, really, there have been hundreds of the same tendency that also won their battles, but who are lesser known – took great pains, in fact, to openly and publicly inform the enemy of exactly what they were doing. After a while, when it becomes clear that a movement walks its talk, and does precisely what it says it is going to do, regimes are disarmed of the power of their own tactics of infiltration, espionage and disinformation, or at very least, those counter-insurgency tactics become far less effective.

Marovich explained to Honduran organizers on the night of July 31 that when his movement in Serbia moved toward tactics that included informing the police agencies in advance of its plans for each action or demonstration, they succeeded in removing the uncertainty and fear among individual cops sent to contain those protests.

“The officer might still receive an order to attack you,” Marovich explained. “But if he’s not personally afraid or nervous – something that happens more when he doesn’t know in advance what the multitude marching toward him is going to do or not - he can think more clearly about how to comply with that order.” Uncertainty, paranoia and fear almost always generate a much more brutal and violent response from individual police or soldiers: Even with those ordered to attack protesters, there are degrees in how savagely that can happen.

What many consider the most compelling case for nonviolent discipline in a movement is that it more effectively peels away the layers of support for a regime – as outlined in Part II of this series in which we describe the coup regime as an onion – because it dramatizes the fundamental violence of the regime itself and the compelling moral authority of the resistance. I haven’t mentioned that much here because people either “get” it or they don’t.

There are simply many people in this world not aware of the concept of public relations, in part because advertising and media carefully cultivate such ignorance so that their own manipulative tricks on the crowd – whether to sell products or manufacture socio-political consent - will work better. And for those that don’t grasp that dynamic, the case is more effectively made as a pragmatic one: Discipline – one doesn’t have to overtly call it "nonviolent" to obtain it from collaborators - as an organizational principle that works so much better than the lack of it.

One need not be ideologically a pacifist to understand the power of group discipline, and truth is that most people are not pacifists by nature. But we are pragmatic, and that’s all it usually takes.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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