The St. Paul Principles
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3. Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4. We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.
The recent wave of protests sweeping the United States under the banner of Occupy Wall Street—and elsewhere around the world under other monikers, like the Indignant Citizens Movement, ¡Democracia Real YA!, and the various blossoms of Arab Spring—has captured the imagination of millions on the egalitarian Left and libertarian Right. Inevitably, thankfully, it has also ignited fierce debate about the nature of sociopolitical and economic inequality and of democracy itself. But as the cogs of corporate media seek to bewitch us with the specter of political gameplay, they also scheme to pacify the lonely rage of societies under fascist colonization by using an ancient tactic: divide and conquer. We are left to feed on one another like jackals.
Our strength—as the surveillance state well knows—lies in our solidarity. The IWW slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” is apt; the people of Tunisia, frustrated by widespread poverty, political corruption, and poor living conditions, rose to defeat the iron fist of their dictator after the self-immolation of vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was ousted, in part, because of outcry over the brutal police murder of Khaled Saeed. Pictures of his viciously battered face, when added to growing social and political unrest, launched a wave of revolutionary fury.
It is no wonder, then, that the Occupy Movement gained its initial support when members of the New York City Police Department were caught on amateur video dousing peaceful protesters with pepper spray and beating others with truncheons. In Oakland, the community rallied behind protesters when Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was critically injured by a police projectile. The City of Oakland, long known for the kind of illegal actions that gets one placed into federal receivership, turned a nonviolent gathering of its people into a war zone, complete with rubber-coated steel bullets, rifle-launched CS gas canisters, and explosive flashbang grenades. The Reich-wing assaults on liberty have united an erstwhile estranged citizenry; the American proletariat, like other people globally, is beginning to shake off useless notions of the intrinsic goodness of government.
Worldwide, people were sold on the idea that elections equal freedom, that representation was self-determination. We looked toward politicians to solve our problems and when they failed, we replaced them with other politicians. Regime change meant nothing.
The hollow promise of capitalist advancement has been revealed to be a pyramid scheme and the men behind the curtain are scrambling to use the mechanisms of authoritarianism in a last ditch effort to “restore order.”
Their order is, of course, unwinnable war, ecological disaster, and grievous imbalance of wealth and power. They use their established cultural dominance to justify their status quo as inevitable and beneficial to all, instead of as a social construct beneficial only to a handful of oligarchs. Futhermore, they maintain that false construct by painting their opponents as the bastard children of Chaos, violent and unorganized outsiders who have come to disrupt the natural state of things. They did it in Egypt, they’re doing it in Bahrain, and they’re doing it here.
That the people want violent upheaval is a lie equivalent to the neoconservative statement that “they hate us for our freedom.” There are no people on Earth who desire a permanent state of war—unless you buy the propaganda proclaiming that corporations are people and have equal rights, including the pursuit of happiness. Their happiness lies at the feet of the fascist state’s false god—terror in the name of national security.
Overcoming our fear doesn’t require a movement; it requires us to move. While Howard Zinn, author of You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train makes impassioned calls for “nonviolent direct action, which involve[s] organizing large numbers of people” he reminds us that those who question the war machine are often called “unrealistic” and advises his readers to keep all options on the table.
“To be “realistic” in dealing with a problem is to work only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society put forth. It is as if we are all confined to ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, or ‘d’ in the multiple choice test, when we know there is another possible answer. American society, although it has more freedom of expression than most societies in the world, thus sets limits beyond which respectable people are not supposed to think or speak.”
To be “respectable” is all too often to sit on the sidelines of history, remaining neutral or moving at a marginally useful pace. However, if resistance movements are to avoid violence and bloodshed, they must work out ways in which the radical and the respectable can work, hand-in-hand, to both mobilize the greatest amount of people and, at the same time, remain an effective force for change. Power concedes nothing without a demand.
The Saint Paul Principles provide a clear way to maintain that solidarity within the diversity of the movement.
When our movements split on sectarian lines, we save the enemy the trouble of dividing before they conquer us. In every resistance movement, the story becomes the same: the defenders of the status quo placate some of their adversaries, and then stop at nothing to crush those who won’t compromise. The opposition is divided in two by a mixture of seduction and violence. Energy is wasted in dispute and recriminations, each faction insisting the others are messing things up by “not getting with the program.”
Our task is to do away with exploitation and oppression, not reconcile ourselves with lesser versions of them. By supporting a diversity of tactics, activists gain the freedom to adapt to quickly changing situations; each tactic accomplishes a particular goal, contributing toward the larger goal. Diversity of tactic is truly an experiment in democracy, the process of solidarity spelled out with regard for the contributions of each of the people involved. By avoiding needless arguments on the merits of a particular tactic, resistance movements are free to focus on strategy—the culmination of tactical achievements towards to broader objective.
However, without general agreed-upon principles of unity, there is no movement—just collection of individuals in close proximity. Shared purpose is essential to community, however disagreed upon particular tactics are. Here we should keep in mind the words of English writer G.K. Chesterton: “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Direct action gets the goods and accomplishes that shared purpose. Utilizing the St. Paul Principles as a compass, different groups apply different tactics according to what they believe in and feel comfortable doing, with an eye to complimenting other efforts. Activists codified them in 2008 during demonstrations at the Republican National Convention as a way to have a concrete declaration of standards in the context of a broad spectrum of activists and to actively extinguish divisiveness from respective groups. They allow for organization to maximize our potential, without the paralyzing bureaucracy of hierarchical leadership. They work.
Tactics are not religion; everyone would be better off without treating them as if they are.
It behooves each individual to determine whether a particular action is a tactic that furthers the goal of the movement or particular grievance or whether such tactic acts as mere symbol. Acts that rely on symbolism are only effective if they bring inspiring attention to the cause; the occupation of Alcatraz by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) brought the attention of the nation when it highlighted economic disparity on tribal reservations and the refusal of the US government to honor treaties it had signed with indigenous people. Effective resistance focuses on that sort of long-term strategy over ceaseless debate on tactic, allowing links to form between autonomous resistance groups to create larger coalitions within the working class.
Generally, violence on behalf of the State is not as open in the United States as it is many other places; sociopolitical hegemony ensures it isn’t often necessary. Therefore, it is often needless to blockade neighborhoods against paramilitary police forces, for instance. This is not the case in places like Syria, where harsh measures by the government silence dissent and a commitment to passive resistance could mean death. Diversity of tactic means flexibility in the face of inflexible violence. The specific context, time, and nature of the struggle dictate whether defensive measures such as the shields carried in Oakland to protect from riot police assault are necessary or not.
Coupled with respect for diversity of tactic is a separation of space. This seems to be the most misunderstood of the St. Paul Principles and, as such, it is the most important. Separation of both time and space ensures that peaceful marches, boycotts, and pickets remain peaceful—unless, as all too often happens—agents of the police state find it necessary to escalate towards violence, as they have in New York, Oakland, Bahrain, Tahrir Square, and elsewhere.
Keeping actions that may be deemed radical by reactionaries—like the appropriation of abandoned buildings for free social collectives like Infoshops and community organizing—separate from uncontroversial marches and pickets makes it less likely that the police will escalate their use of force. Unfortunately, it is no guarantee. The revolutions sweeping the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa have rulers quick to suppress any dissent, peaceful or otherwise. There is no such thing as American exceptionalism.
The Occupy Movement is an alliance of sovereign peoples coming together for a common cause. The individualism of its members, in the midst of a movement, must be recognized and respected. We gather under a common name, with similar goals, but with individual backgrounds, needs, and visions of the future. To achieve real and lasting peace, however, the branches of the Occupy Movement and its many members must stand in solidarity. Discussion is a necessary component of healthy democracy and should be encouraged. However, it behooves us to remember that the health of democratic movements is also impacted by the cancer of sectarianism. Internal divisions and rivalries will rip any movement apart at the seams.
Mahatma Gandhi named some of the roots of violence as wealth without work, commerce without morality, and politics without principles. The capitalist state uses violence to perpetuate itself and calls those who oppose it the perpetrators of violence. To guard against state repression of dissent, a certain security culture must be cultivated. Tactics such as the black bloc, which was developed by the Autonomist movement to combat fascism, are wonderful tools that can be used to protect protesters from governments who devoured George Orwell’s 1984 thinking it was a training manual. The surveillance state hasn’t been content to place CCTVs on every street corner; at every rally or protest, one is sure to find police officers filming the people gathered. It is not paranoia to think that dossiers are being assembled on “persons of interest.”
On the other hand, care must be taken to not succumb to an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. Assume that infiltrators are among you already and act accordingly. It is counterproductive to avoid addressing injustice. John F. Kennedy was correct in his assertion that “there are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”
To conquer what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” we must recognize human rights as our ultimate goal. We face a Leviathan that pits us against each other, eliminates us by co-opting our movements or brutally suppressing them, and does it by manipulating societal beliefs, explanations, perceptions, and values. To address the needs of the people, pacifism as pathology must be abandoned and a less dogmatic critique needs to be adopted and put into practice. A diversity of tactics, with the St. Paul Principles as a foundation to stand on, provides the freedom for that critique. And freedom is what we’re all about.
Dr. Zakk Flash is an anarchist political writer, radical community activist, and editor of the Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance (COBRA). He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.