Friday, February 24, 2012

The Health of Occupy

The backdrop for this afternoon's teach in on the sidewalk at UNM in Albuquerque where the police had pushed the (Un)Occupy participants so as not to sully the campus with their taint.

While I've been in New Mexico this trip, I've been writing a lot about Occupy while trying to catch up on the some of the Occupy events in this area (I plan to attend at least some of today's [Un]Occupy activities in Albuquerque) and checking in with some of the Occupys I've been following.

Wednesday's post included some comments on the events at last Saturday's OWS GA in New York during which there were apparently two assaults by participants on other participants. It was disturbing to read, though I have read and witnessed on livestream any number of incidents of high tension and drama associated with the NYCGA, as well as been embroiled in some of them at the local Occupy. It's just the way things go, especially when the effort is as open as Occupy has always been, and Crazy-makers are everywhere. The wonder really is that there have been so few incidents of that kind. The drama and the emotion is frequently encountered, but inner-Occupy assaults are really very rare.

But I watched the Wednesday night live stream of the NYCGA, and it was as if nothing untoward had happened at the previous GA. This is one of the strengths of the Occupy Movement. It is so resilient that pretty much no matter what happens -- whether it is a police assault or an internal assault -- the Movement continues on, typically stronger than before.

I attended an Occupy teach-in at UNM this afternoon, arriving shortly after the campus police had pushed the Occupiers out of the park that they had been using since the morning and onto the sidewalk. There was a phalanx of police guarding the hill from the taint of Occupy. When I arrived, most of the activists had left on a march to the UNM president's house to protest the police action. When they returned, the teach in got under way. Still on the sidewalk though.

The presenters were Dana Millen and Mark Rudd; Eleanor Chavez, state legislator for District 13 of Albuquerque was also in attendance and spoke.

I wasn't familiar with Dana Millen, but she's done some very interesting research on the topic of what impels people to participate in movements, what keeps them involved and how they interact with others in movements; one of her unanswered questions was how important those interactions and relationships were in maintaining participation in movements, and how they affected people's decisions not to continue participation. She touched on issues of social justice and righteous anger as motivations for participation, and such issues as frustration and burnout for limiting or ending participation. I wasn't taking notes, so I don't remember everything she said she'd learned, but after the teach in, she said she would make her research available to me via email -- if it works.

The research she's been doing on movement building is, in my view, important for understanding how and why Occupy -- for example -- grew so quickly and why so many of the early participants no are no longer involved, either to the extent they once were, or involved at all. What her research indicated was that participants' involvement and lack of involvement was a deeply personal matter, not necessarily driven by events connected with the movement. This suggested to me that the whole 'violence vs nonviolence' debate within Occupy is something of a distraction from learning what is really motivating people to be involved or not be involved at any given time.

I took a break, for example, from day-to-day involvement in Occupy in part because I was nearing burnout, and in part because I thought I had done pretty much all I could on behalf of the local Occupy and it was up to those mostly younger than me to carry on. And they did.

But then what of Movement Building if I and people like me stand aside or step back from the day-to-day? It looks like the Movement has shrunk -- and to see the few dozen assembled in Albuquerque today or the hundred or so assembled for the New York City GA on Wednesday is testament to the shrinkage in Occupy participation.

The shrinkage is attributed to "violence" in the Movement by many of those participating in the 'violence vs nonviolence' debate. And yet I tend to doubt that is really the case, given the fact that violence as such is really very rare in the context of the enormity of the Movement in the United States, let alone around the world. More likely reasons for less participation now than previously are the issues mentioned in Millen's research: burnout, frustration at apparent lack of progress, personal reasons -- life and work, for example -- and interpersonal relationship issues, such as developing enmity toward one or more of the other Occupiers.

But in the next segment of the teach in, Mark Rudd spoke about his experiences in radical movements back in the day (SDS, Weather Underground, etc) and how he believed that engaging in violence literally destroyed them. Of course the kind of violence that took place in those days was bombing and sabotage in pursuit of the overthrow of the US Government. And from his matured (or perhaps "reconstructed") perspective, any kind of violence at all, including wearing bandanas and hostile speech toward the police would kill the Occupy Movement. He said he'd heard something on the radio from Oakland that mentioned 'diversity of tactics' which he understood was code for 'violence' and he urged -- came close to demanding -- that Occupy renounce it in no uncertain terms. No property destruction, no sassing the cops, no bandanas or black clothing, nothing the police can point to to justify their crack-downs on Occupy. I half expected him to say "No Occupy!" but he didn't go quite that far.

He has his reasons for his point of view. As he said, because of the way the law was in those days, the charges against him were dropped at trial, and basically he was able to skate on some very serious crimes. And he pointed out correctly that if he were engaged in those things now, he would likely be held in custody indefinitely as a terrorist.

He claimed the violence he engaged in during his radical era essentially "killed" the anti-Vietnam War Movement that until the outbreak of the kind of violence he had engaged in had been very popular and growing. I think a very strong case can be made to the contrary, but in the context of Occupy, that argument is essentially moot because no one (that I know of or have ever heard) has seriously proposed any sort of armed insurrection (which Mark Rudd and others were engaged in back in the day) in connection with Occupy. At all. Under any circumstances. Not as part of "diversity of tactics," and not as part of anything whatsoever to do with Occupy.

As I've said many times, Occupy is by nature and by definition a Nonviolent Resistance Campaign. (pdf) The few incidents of broken windows and thrown objects cannot and do not change that fact. And I assert that once that fact is internalized, most or all of the sturm und drang over broken windows in Oakland last November vanishes.

But we aren't there yet.

Today, Mark Rudd's absolutist pacifism was astutely challenged by a young-ish Arab man and a not quite so young woman dressed all in black -- including gloves and hat -- as well as by a number of the other participants in the teach in, including yours truly. Basically, he was saying that anything -- any action, any statement, and mode of dress or behavior -- that can be interpreted as a challenge to authority is seen by the police and by the public as "violent," and engaging in any sort of "violence" -- as perceived by the police and the public -- has the effect of destroying the Movement; therefore, do not engage in any sort of action or behavior or wear any clothing or speak of anything that the police and the public might consider to be "violent." Ever. Don't do it. No Black Bloc, no talk of Diversity of Tactics, no verbal confrontations with police or other authority, certainly no bricks through windows, no bottles thrown at the cops or anyone else. If your goal is to "change the system", the strategy in this country must be absolutely nonviolent, in every conceivable way, otherwise the police will have justification to crack down and the public will have an excuse to deny their support and participation.

Rudd was challenged on a philosophical level in that his absolutism doesn't allow for or take into account any alternatives, and is fundamentally immoral, given, for example, the situation in Syria. Rudd's absolute pacifism would essentially require that the rebels in Syria accept their slaughter without fighting back in any way. Or, contrariwise, that they not rebel at all. The excuse when this matter is brought up is always the same: this isn't Syria, and therefore what the rebels are doing in Syria isn't germane to Occupy or any other movement in this country. True enough, but as I and others point out, repeatedly, but seemingly to concrete walls of passive indifference, there is no hint of engaging in armed insurrection anywhere within the Occupy Movement, there is no discussion of it, and there is no such action. No, this is not Syria; there isn't an armed insurrection, nor is the government using fully lethal ammunition against Occupiers.

From a strategic and tactical point of view, Americans involved with Occupy are not adopting nor are they even thinking about adopting a Syrian type of insurrection; what the Government is thinking, who knows? But the point is that absolutist pacifism has no moral standing in the face of a Government that is engaged in the systematic slaughter of the People.

Rudd was challenged on his belief that any form of confrontation with police or authority, or anything they might perceive as a challenge is perforce "violence," based on how police and the public see these things. Thus bandanas are "violent." Self defense is "violent." Wearing black is "violent." Talking about Diversity of Tactics is "violent." And so on. This was a much greater tightening down of the definition of "violence" than I'd encountered in the many arguments I've had about this topic heretofore. Basically, Rudd was saying don't do or say or wear anything that might trigger a violent response by the police or authority -- or you will "kill" the Movement. As was repeatedly pointed out, authority needs no trigger or excuse from the dress or actions or statements from those involved in Movements to react violently. They do it no matter what the Movement does or says or wears. The fact is that the existence of a Movement of any kind that isn't authorized by the State is sufficient to trigger a violent response from Authority. There is no level of Movement Saintliness that can thwart the violent response -- that is to say, if the Movement isn't just going to evaporate and go home to watch teevee. Movements that include more militant components -- that don't have to engage in armed insurrection to be effective -- actually work better than purist nonviolent movements.

The discussion continued at length, and I think very productively as both Rudd and his challengers made their points firmly and clearly. But there was another layer to this whole debate that has to do with where we are. This is Indian country. New Mexico has the second highest percentage of Native American population in the country (Alaska is first). There is no dealing with these topics without also recognizing and dealing with Native American experience with 500 years of colonial oppression and occupation. (Which is why Albuquerque's Occupy is called (Un)Occupy 'Burque and its motto is "Decolonize New Mexico.")

And at the end of the discussion, a Native American woman spoke up, somewhat harshly, too.

She took the discussion from the intellectual and abstract wrangle over whether wearing a bandana over one's face was "violent" into the realm of real violence that her people had known for centuries and she had known personally all her life. Wearing a bandana is not "violent" in any rational sense of the word. The very idea that it would be discussed in this manner reeks of White Privilege. She said, "Don't blame the Movement for the violence." Don't blame the People for fighting back.

Put the focus on violence where it belongs. She wasn't particularly nice about it, either. I videoed some of what she had to say, but the video is not very good and I didn't capture the reaction, but it was basically stunned silence on Mark Rudd's part, followed by an attempt to turn the discussion back to where he wanted it. "Does violence build the Movement?" At that point, she just told him to stop. "Can you?" she asked as she might ask a child. He went on with his point, and she said, "I guess not."

After a pause, she said that if Rudd or anybody else really wanted to do Movement Building, they'd follow the example of the Civil Rights Movement (I thought this was brilliant) and recruit from among the least of us, from among the dispossessed, the marginalized, the poorest, the most oppressed, the disabled, the demonized, and they would become the Movement's guiding lights. Women of color and their children, for example, know much better what the real situation is for those who suffer in this country, and they know something of what to do about it. It's past time for the white men who think they know so much better than anyone else to step back, because there are others who know better than they do. And some of them were right there, right now.

On that note, the teach in concluded. It was remarkable in every way. What happened, and the people who were involved are products of this place, and it could not be duplicated elsewhere. Part of the health and the nearly boundless strength of Occupy is that every Occupy is specific to its place and draws on the breadth and depth of the People(s) of that particular place for its wisdom and flexibility and energy.

What happens here in New Mexico is not going to be what happens everywhere; it can't be.

But the insights gained here, through its People(s) can have profound impact everywhere.

It was a remarkable afternoon.

Remember who you are. Remember where you are.


  1. Amazing site and wonderful writing and reporting. Sam Smith at has been writing about localism or devolution for quite a while. Check him out. Especially his article "The issue that's killing the left".

  2. It's quite a frustrating situation...