Three weeks after the Occupy Wall Street protests began in New York, I finally got to participate in my first Occupy experience. After hearing about it for weeks and seeing it grow, I got home to Oakland days before the first day of Occupy Oakland.
I’m inspired. This was not typical “protest.” There wasn’t a speakers list of big names, just whoever wanted to get up and say something. Seasoned speakers and people who seemed like it may have been their first time speaking in front of a crowd. It wasn’t endorsed or sponsored by any organizations, it wasn’t led by any organizations. It was just the people, coming together in our common living room to recognize that something is not right and start to figure out a solution to make change.
Over 500 people came together under the rain. They served free food, and had an open “meeting” with all 500 people. People sang, played music, met new neighbors, listened to Ohlone songs, chanted, laughed, and came together in the Beloved Community that King spoke of.
I’m often critical of direct actions, feeling like people often rush right into doing a direct action without a clear strategy or understanding it’s role within a larger movement-building framework. In general, I believe that forms of direct action are only a means to an end, a tactic used to get to a larger goal. I’ve seen many times when it seemed that the direct action was the goal itself.
The Occupy movement feels very different, and I think the gatherings themselves are a huge victory in and of themselves.
This was an incredibly diverse group of people (and dogs), coming together on public land to figure out a solution to our problems. And in three weeks, these impromptu gatherings have spread from New York to Boston, Honolulu, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Berkeley, Washington DC, Des Moines, Portland, Knoxville, Chicago, Indianapolis, Austin, Philadelphia, Columbus, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Oakland, and hundreds of other cities.
This movement has taken a lot of criticisms for not having a clear message or articulated demands. And again, typically that is a criticism I agree with in a lot of movements. And again, this time it felt a little different.
I was having a conversation with my friend Globe the other day, and he was saying that our focus shouldn’t be on having clear demands, but on trying to build the base. This movement has grown quickly, but its still young and we still need to expand.
But I also don’t see the level of “confusion” in the messaging that some media pundits have been criticizing. No, the issues can’t be framed in four words. But there is a common theme underlying all of the issues on this table.
As Congressman Alan Grayson says, 24 million people can’t find full time employment, 50 million people can’t afford a doctor if they get sick, 47 million people need public assistance to eat, 15 million people owe more on their mortgages than the value of their homes. Close to 2 million children have a parent in prison, 6 million kids drop out of High School every year, 40 million people live in poverty, and on and on and on.
Something is wrong. Everyone is getting screwed. Communities are struggling. We can do better. We need change.
Whatever four-word sound bite you want to put that into, the core of the message is the same. And if you’ve been to one of these gatherings, you’ll understand what we are all saying.
For right now, I have three thoughts, hopes, requests for this movement as we move forward.
1) Commitment to Nonviolence
People can, and will believe what they want about nonviolence. But the fact is that if there is violence at any of these events, regardless of who started it, it will be spun in the media and will make it easier to criminalize these gatherings. Right or wrong, fair or not, it will scare people off and hurt our cause.
Many people won’t feel safe to continue to come to these gatherings, and you cannot blame them for not wanting to get pepper sprayed and arrested. Many people have kids, commitments, health challenges, etc. But right now, we need to focus on creating a space where everyone feels comfortable coming together.
When the police attacked young protesters on the streets of Montgomery and images of unarmed youth being attacked by police dogs andnot fighting back went out into the world, it created a momentum of support that created change. Committing to nonviolence and committing to the highest moral standards paints a very clear picture of who’s right and who’s wrong.
Gandhi once said that nonviolence was a way to make your oppressor see the injustice of their ways through your suffering. I’m not saying that I hope people get beat by the police, and the police are too well trained these days to let anything get that out of control in public anyways.
But there is definitely the real threat of “agent provocateurs.” I have participated in movements that have been hugely hurt by them. They may be part of a larger conspiracy or it may just be one person. Either way, inciting violence – and inciting others in the gathering to participate in that violence – is a great way to discredit this movement.
And if we respond with violence, the media will paint us as “rioters” and the police will only respond with more violence. It could shut down something that this country desperately needs right now.
We need to be disciplined, and a common commitment to the principles of nonviolence will give us that discipline.
2) (Don’t) Pick an Issue!
The first, as Globe said, is to not cave into the outside pressure to pick one single issue or one quick demand. The issues we are talking about are diverse, and that is our strength and that is what is bringing so many people together. It’s not about the issue, it’s about injustice, and we can all relate to that. And our solution is going to take so much more than one quick demand.
In Kingian Nonviolence, we learn about the Six Steps of Kingian Nonviolence: 1) Information Gathering, 2) Education, 3) Personal Commitment, 4), Negotiation, 5) Direct Action, 6) Reconciliation.
In applying those steps in a campaign, it’s important to note that these steps don’t always happen in that order, sometimes you go back to do a step again, or one event or action can serve multiple steps.
Typically, a protest is a form of direct action, often with a component of education. And in those settings, it is critical to have a clear message, a clear target, a clear demand.
But these gatherings are more than that. We are gathering information by talking to each other and sharing our stories. We are educating each other by speaking truth to these issues. We are all committing to each other and committing to change. All of this is encompassed within a form of direct action.
These aren’t just demonstrations, they are gatherings. We are not just protesting, we are building community.
So tell the media, kindly, that we are just talking and building amongst each other, and we will get back to them when we have something to tell them.
3) A Message to Obama
Finally, we need to take this message to the top. Obama campaigned on change. No, he campaigned on Change. In his acceptance speech, he said that the election alone is “not the change we seek — it is only the chance for us to make that change.” He told the people to organize and created Organize for America. He told people to come together and dialogue, come up with solutions, hold him and others in DC accountable, and he will listen to us. He said that he would have our backs, that we will make change together.
And now these gatherings are happening in every corner of the country, from Boston to Honolulu, from San Antonio to Anchorage, from New York City to Kalamazoo to his doorsteps in Washington DC.
So Obama: Can we have our Change now?
Another thing we learn in Kingian Nonviolence is the Top-Down Bottom-Up approach. We learn that we need to facilitate dialogue between those considered at the “top” and those considered at the “bottom.” Too often in our society, the “top” criminalizes the bottom (you criminals, rioters, looters, etc.) while the “bottom” demonizes the top (you racist, capitalist, imperialists). And as a result, there is never any actual dialogue or negotiation.
While I don’t think Obama is technically in the 1%, you don’t get much more “top” then President of the US. And while many of us, myself included, has been disappointed with Obama (to put it lightly), we have to remember that he’s not a racist, capitalist imperialist demon.
If we, as the people can come up with the solutions and hold him accountable to it, I believe he will listen. But it’s not on him. It’s on us. It’s on the movement to continue to put pressure on him and other elected officials to act. It’s not enough for us to say, “Obama’s backed by corporate interests and he will never listen to us.” We need to make him listen to us. And up until these gatherings started taking place, I didn’t think that would be possible.
Now, who knows?