This “Occupy” movement has been an incredibly exciting and inspiring thing to see. In times like this, I am glad to be living in a place like Oakland, where Frank Ogawa Plaza has been transformed overnight into a permanent carnival for justice.
I’ve been thinking about everything that’s been going on nonstop, so this will just be a bunch of random thoughts that I have about and for this movement.
Manifest Our Vision
When you are organizing a protest or a demonstration, it is important to have a clear message, a clear goal, a clear demand, a clear issue. And that is one criticism this movement continues to receive.
But this is not just a protest.
I was talking to a woman who was saying that she felt that what we are doing is creating a small piece of the society we envision. And she’s right. We may not have articulated our demands on paper, but we are creating our vision on public parks across the country and across the world. We aren’t just talking about what we want, we are manifesting it.
Occupy Oakland currently has over 120 tents with wooden walkways in between them, are feeding hundreds of people every day for free, has a gas powered (donated by Lupe Fiasco) generator and a bicycle powered generator. There’s a kids tent, an arts and crafts tent, a library, a free school with constant workshops and trainings on all sorts of things, structured conversations, impromptu conversations, free concerts and performances, screen printing, free haircuts, homeless people serving food to working people, kids playing next to a workshop on direct action surrounded by people talking about justice.
People are coming together to take care of each other, and showing the world that we can have a society where everyone is taken care of. And that is all we are asking for.
Which brings us to….
(Don’t) Pick an Issue!
Even Representative Barney Frank has been telling this movement to narrow in on an issue or two. If anything, I believe we need to expand even bigger.
The strength of this movement right now is our “vague” message. People are naturally passionate about certain issues, and they know that this movement is a place that anyone can come together and talk about them.
Whether we are talking about environmental justice, economic justice, gender justice or youth justice, we are all talking about the same thing: Justice.
The media might not get that, many politicians might not get that, but the people do. Tell people that we are fighting for justice, period. Justice looks like many things, because there are so many forms of injustice. But at the end of the day, we are all fighting for the same thing.
So don’t cave into outside pressure to pick a single issue and have it diminish our ultimate goal. This should not be about any one issue. It should be about justice, fairness, and equality. It should be about us giving the status quo a time-out and work on creating the world where all people are taken care of.
It’s not just about an issue, it’s about justice.
As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
The third step in the six steps of Kingian Nonviolence is Personal Commitment, and this is a step that has to be practiced throughout the campaign. Keeping people committed through a tough struggle is critical to sustaining a movement. Without conscious efforts to keep people’s spirits up, people will burn out.
One of the greatest things I’ve seen in Occupy Oakland is the constant free music performances. Freedom Songs played a critical role in keeping people uplifted and unified during the Civil Rights Movement. It was not an accident that music played such a large role. It was strategy.
Music brings people together and creates community. Laughter, dance, sharing our cultures, celebrating together. Occupy Oakland feels like a big BBQ with 1,000 friends. So have fun, get to know each other, and keep committing to each other. (I actually have a dream of organizing a massive ping-pong contest or something similar)
Breaking bread, sharing knowledge, playing games, and other activities also serve to build community. And building community is what we are doing.
I have to be honest, “occupy” is not my favorite word. It makes me think of the occupation of Iraq or Palestine, as in a foreign force coming to take and occupy land. And that leaves a real bad taste in my mouth.
I know that at this point, it’s way too late to change what people are calling this movement. But I think it’s at least important for us to note and to think about.
For one thing, this land is already “occupied.” It was stolen from indigenous people. This conversation has already been happening in Oakland, and we have the Indigenous community here in the Bay Area to thank for starting that conversation.
Secondly, if this land belongs to Indigenous people first, next in line are the people. It is our tax dollars that paid for most of the land that these gatherings are currently being held (Occupy Wall Street in New York, ironically enough, is one of the ones that is not on public land).
When I head to Occupy Oakland, I don’t want to feel like I’m going to an “occupation.” I have heard people use terms like “Liberate Oakland” and “Decolonize Oakland.” I just like calling them gatherings.
Either way, I’m not suggesting changing the name of a movement that’s already flourished. I’m just sayin’.
Look for Allies & Negotiate!!!
Dr. King said that as we build movements, we should look at everyone as a potential ally first.
In the Kingian Nonviolence curriculum, we are taught a module called “Top-Down, Bottom Up.” We often times view “top-down” and “bottom-up” organizing/decision making as mutually exclusive. It’s one or the other.
Those often times viewed as being on the “top” of society often times criminalizes those on the bottom. The folks on the “bottom” are viewed us thugs, hippies, anarchists, criminals. And because they hold these views, they don’t even try to understand the concerns of the “bottom.” They believe that the “bottom” don’t deserve a voice in the decision-making.
But we on the “bottom” often times demonizes those on the “top,” seeing them as nothing more than racist, imperialist, capitalist pigs. And because we hold those views, we don’t even try to understand their perspective. And we believe that the “top” isn’t worth negotiating with.
There are police officers, politicians, corporate executives and trust fund babies that support our cause. And judging them based solely on their profession is no different than judging someone by the color of their skin.
We are losing potential allies when we get so caught up in our ideology that we view entire groups of people as “bad.” It is not fair to assume that someone is not worth trusting or reaching out to because you perceive them to be part of a group of people you don’t like.
I heard of one gathering that was offered a permit from their city and they refused. I hope that next time, they will accept whatever support the city – or anyone – offers. They may genuinely want to be supporting this movement. There are good and bad people who work everywhere, and this movement needs to be one where anyone can participate, anyone can offer their support.
Imagine how powerful it would be if the police were ordered to arrest people at these gatherings, and some of them refused to do so. That could be huge for this movement, and it becomes very unlikely when one of our messages is “fuck the cops.”
Winning “Them” Over
Even the people who don’t agree with us, even the people who don’t support us – our goal is to win them over. This is not a struggle against people, it is a struggle against injustice. It is against a culture, an attitude, and a set of values that tells people that it is okay to benefit from the suffering of others. We need to try to win those people over.
People often times think of social change like a sport, that there has to be a “loser” in order for their side to “win.” We think of ourselves as trying to defeat the enemy, to defeat those we think of as “the other.”
But what does that actually look like if you played it out in your mind? If the police are the enemy, what are we going to do with all the police officers? Lock them up? Kill them all? Send them off to a far off island?
Out struggle is against a culture and an attitude. People who commit acts of violence are caught up in that culture and attitude, and we need win them over.
Since the Vietnam anti-war movement, the Left has learned a big lesson in not demonizing soldiers. Anti-war movements have learned to embrace veterans, recognizing that many of them are good people caught up in an unjust system. The Left is also compassionate towards people in our communities who commit acts of violence and hurt many people, recognizing that political and social-economic factors often contribute to their behaviors.
Yet when it comes to the police and often to politicians, we cannot seem to extend that same understanding. Yes, there are many people who take unjust actions and hurt many people. Yes, we need to hold them accountable.
But our goal is to win them over and defeat the injustice, not to defeat them as people. We will have won when there is no longer a “them.”
Move with Love
I understand nonviolence as a way to move aggressively and forcefully with love and compassion.
Anger is normal, and all of us should be angry at the state of the world. But if we let anger be what drives this movement, it will ultimately drag us down.
Hate, fear, and anger are diseases. And like diseases, they are a normal, human reaction to problems. And like diseases, they hurt the host.
Dr. Lafayette talks about how hating someone is like “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” And having hate and anger in your messaging or public image can turn off potential supporters.
Communities like Oakland are filled with anger, and rightfully so. But we need to find safe ways to release it -whether through song, art, poetry, theater, meditation, spiritual practices, or working for change.
Anger can inspire people and jump start movements, but if we hold onto it and let it drive us, it will fester and ultimately destroy the movement. We have to move with love and compassion, but with as much force and as much aggression as we have moved in the past with anger.
In the words of Dr. King, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
The Beloved Community
Dr. King talked about the Beloved Community as a place where all people of all colors can come together in peace. And as we attempt to manifest our vision at these gatherings, we have to make diversity a priority.
I have struggled at times to understand the whole “Burning Man” thing, which is huge in the Bay Area. I will admit to having made fun of people who go to Burning Man. But I also realized that a lot of people that go to Burning Man and other similar events are experts at things like setting up mobile kitchens, cooking outdoors for large masses of people, and other skills that have been critical to this movement.
And one of the best things, to me, about Occupy Oakland is its diversity. You walk around and see all sorts of people there.
But from what I’ve seen and heard from others, not all of these gatherings have the same diversity. Every community has a story to share, and every community has skills and resources to bring to the table. None of us can do this on our own, and having diversity throughout this movement absolutely needs to be a priority.
And that brings me to this point, which I think some people are not going to like.
Is this truly a leaderless movement? Is that what we even want? What exactly do we mean when we say that we don’t have leaders?
In any organized, structured setting, leaders emerge one way or another. Whether it’s voted on, someone takes the position by force, or it organically emerges, communities have leaders. We may not call them leaders, but there are people in leadership positions.
I understand that decisions are made collectively at the general assemblies and various working groups. But I’m afraid that will make it easier for people who have the most time to emerge in leadership positions.
And I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. The people who have taken leadership roles in Occupy Oakland are clearly doing an incredible job.
But how can we ensure the voices of people who may have to work, take care of their kids/families, don’t have access to transportation, have health challenges, are incarcerated, and others who cannot make regular meetings? And how do we honor the voices of all people while recognizing and honoring the experience and expertise of our elders?
The Universe is On the Side of Justice
The sixth and final principle of Kingian Nonviolence is “the universe is on the side of justice.” And we cannot lose faith in that.
As hard as it may be, I believe that a world where everyone is taken care of is possible. Even if we know for a fact that it is not possible, that is still what we should strive for and build towards.
It may be hard to believe that we can win the 1% over. It may be hard to believe in a police force that is genuinely there to serve and protect the people. It may be hard to believe that we can get control back of our government.
But folks from Resource Generation have been at different events holding signs that read, “I was born into the 1%. I stand with the 99%.” I have seen police officers that are nonviolence trainers, or groups of people who are trained to patrol their own communities keeping people safe, out of love for their people. I saw the president of Bolivia campaign for the International Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth at the United Nations. And hell, Vermont has a socialist senator.
There are already examples that everything we need to do to make radical change is possible. We just need to pull it all together.
We Have Already Won
Critics are saying that if this movement doesn’t come together and pick an issue soon, we will not be victorious. But I believe that regardless of where this movement goes, we have already earned a huge victory.
The biggest victory, to me, is that it’s okay to talk now. People are waking up, and while the physical occupations definitely help, people are talking now. It’s no longer taboo to talk about corporate greed in the media. It’s okay for people to come out and say that something is seriously wrong with our society. It’s okay for people to come out and say that they are sick and tired of struggling every day. It’s okay for people to come out and say that they want, that they demand change.
This is an enormous opportunity, we still have a lot of potential to grow and we would be fools to not keep working at it harder and harder. We cannot rest.
But let’s not pretend like we haven’t already changed the world.
So to all people who have been part of this movement – congrads and a job well done.