If you haven't seen evidence of Occupy Seattle around town recently, it's not just that the grassy plaza where tents used to stand at Seattle Central Community College is now an empty mud field. Since protesters were evicted on December 6, the activists themselves have become introverted and distracted from an agenda to reform Wall Street. Many supporters, including church leaders, have taken a step back to wait out divisive internal conflict. Others have fled the community entirely, saying it's too toxic to touch.
The rift results from a vote taken on December 20, when protesters at a general assembly rejected a proposal that would "commit to using methods of nonviolent civil disobedience at all of our demonstrations..."
According to the minutes of the conversation that led up to the vote, several activists argued that Seattle's protest was akin to the revolution in Egypt (and thus required violent clashes), while others said protesters must be free to use a diversity of tactics, if they choose. A man named Forrest warned that when martial law is declared (in Seattle, martial law?), "How many of us are prepared to stand before rifles, to subvert the police, to do everything possible to bring down the state as necessary?" Another man, named Greg, called the nonviolence pledge a "social fascist position" and a "domestic colonialist view."
Those voices won in a particularly heated 16-to-54 vote, thereby rejecting Occupy Seattle's attempt to declare itself a peaceful movement.
While those loony voices prevailed, cooler heads fled.
"I would never consider putting my name on a document of an organization that would not disavow violence," says Jim Goettler, a member of the Occupy Seattle legal team. He's obtained permits for WTO protest rallies and other demonstrations over two decades and had joined the Occupy movement to extend his expertise. After the vote, though, he says, "I've stepped back, as have many individuals. This is real serious."
Votes like this prevail after some activists "pack the room," Goettler explains. "If there are people of mixed feeling and the bullies take the floor with a really good rap, they may prevail."
The vote to reject nonviolence alarmed local church groups that had been working closely with the Occupy movement. "We are concerned that for many in the Faith communities, this rejection will impact standing in solidarity with you," wrote Reverend Mike Jackson, the Occupy Seattle liaison from St. Mark's Cathedral, in an open letter sent in late December. Although Jackson remains an ardent supporter of the Occupy vision, he told me on the phone this week, "I think that for most of the faith community—not just Christians, but Muslim and Jewish groups—it presents a bit of a barrier to working more closely with them." He says many like him are "waiting to see this challenge get resolved."
Occupy Seattle had struggled with violence issues for months—the arguments are too numerous to unpack in these few column inches. However, it came to a head in December: A couple weeks before the vote, Occupy Seattle protesters trying to shut down the Port of Seattle were caught on video throwing plywood at police officers.
Since then, the movement has splintered: Some are occupying foreclosed homes, some support budget reforms in Olympia, and others have produced a declaration to oppose corporate personhood. There have been few, if any, of the protests aimed at banks that defined Occupy's autumnal incarnation.
"Instead of having the energy going into actually organizing, all the energy is going into the squabble," Goettler laments, citing general assemblies that continue to dwell on the violence versus nonviolence issue. "People are not participating until this is resolved."