Two and a half years ago, anarchists pushed their Trojan horses into city parks for Occupy Wall Street. Now they are piling back into the horse, once again hoping to be pulled through the gates of popular credibility. Can we be surprised twice? Or do we liberals so yearn for urgency and passion that we want to flirt with anarchist dreams again?
Martin Luther King Jr. was much quoted throughout Occupy, which the anarchist movement hopes to revive with Worldwide Wave of Action, launched on Dr. King’s assassination anniversary, April 4. Since November, apocalyptic Occupy graphics and Anonymous videos have enlisted Dr. King’s powerful oratory as an endorsement of “autonomous nonviolent direct action.”
Internet users and celebrities stirred by pulsing propaganda may not know Dr. King wrote this about Little Rock: “I believe firmly in nonviolence, but, at the same time, I am not an anarchist.” His next sentence leaves no doubt. “I believe in the intelligent use of police force,” wrote a man who understood both police brutality and provocation.
Dr. King also agreed with other civil rights leaders when concealed identities were discussed and rejected as childish in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Like all good leaders he sought and nurtured leadership qualities in others. Most importantly, Dr. King knew how to work with other leaders and supporters to craft practical demands that grew a power base.
These are only the handiest indications of anarchism’s tragi-comic divergence from the civil rights movement. Organized, unwaveringly emphasized nonviolence is different from the libertarian “diversity of tactics” embraced by today’s anarchists, a nonviolent nod to property destruction and riots. Just to be sure.
Wave of Action has far less in common with Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery or Birmingham than Abbie Hoffman in Chicago; less I Have A Dream than Revolution for the Hell of It, the title of Hoffman’s first book. There can be no push for major new legislation, and certainly no revolution resulting from Wave of Action, we can be sure. There will be dispersed but not wholly disorganized provocations of police.
Wave of Action may appear to be fizzling, but keep in mind it lasts three months, running through Earth Day on April 22 and the annual apocalypse of May 1. Any mismanaged police force or tragic mistake made by cops during this period gives anarchists a chance to whip up anti-police sentiment.
Dr. King has been enlisted by Wave of Action to provide a virulent anti-police, anti-government mentality with some space to operate. Anarchists are aware that most people, given the opportunity to examine the ideas informing their creative graphic displays, will find them lacking. Only they rationalize their unpopularity as a sad case of the masses not being ready for the heavy insurrectionist truth.
Thus, they invoke Dr. King’s name with no small amount of cynicism. The inspiration he offers is useful because it is familiar to the sorry statist slaves that constitute civil society. Our reluctance to surrender voting as a democratic tool makes us a chore, but only in the short run. Talk of nonviolence implied to be that of the civil rights tradition will give way to the “diversity of tactics” model, which marginalizes directed nonviolence as just one option and provides an escape clause for Black Blocs and other anarchist antics.
“Join us as we celebrate his life,” said one advertisement for the MLK death-anniversary launch of Wave of Action. Even more awkwardly, we are then enjoined, “Commemorate the moment and change the world!” This is perhaps a telling slip, suggesting the writer really does want to rally around MLK’s assassination, rather than his deeds and doctrine.
I detect here not poorly considered words, but conflicting impulses, recalling how the Yippies first advertised a “Convention of Death” for the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. As the date neared, the Yippies decided “Festival of Life” would be more inviting to the hippie throngs they wished to lure to Chicago in what became a police riot.
Anarchists reach for Dr. King over Abbie Hoffman for obvious reasons. Jokes like running a pig for president might have once seemed fresh, but this is not an act that inspires. The transcripts of the Chicago 7 trial reveal too much about anarchist narcissism, elitism, and scorn for government process to build a new movement. Few want to hear from Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin anymore, the true antecedents of Wave of Action. Thus, the anarchist is forced to appropriate stand-ins to generate support.
My favorite Wave of Action video was “Spirit of MLK Launches Wave of Action.” We hear the opening to Dr. King’s most famous speech, inviting us to imagine that Anonymous is rekindling the crowing moment of the March on Washington, a moment achieved through eight years of strategizing and providing organization and leadership to ordinary people.
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom,” says the doctored Dr. King. Each time, we hear a DJ squiggle that repeats the words, “greatest demonstration for freedom.” The editors reveal their anti-statist fundamentalism by omitting the last words of Dr. King’s opening sentence, “…in the history of our nation.”
A real anarchist buzz kill, that nation talk.