Saturday, October 08, 2011

Occupy Portland off to pretty good start

Occupy Wall Street is claiming to speak for the 99 percent of Americans who are not part of the rich elite. It began with an Adbusters call in July for a fall occupation of Wall Street and that is underway. Occupy Portland used similar social media organizing to create what has been billed as a leaderless movement, though it remains to be seen what that means.

It has been interesting to observe, interact, analyze and support this movement. I was recruited to help with Peacekeeper training, not an easy task when many refuse to acknowledge even the moral authority of nonviolence, but we have been scuffling along. I'll be joined by one of my outstanding graduate assistants, Danielle Filecia, as we co-train at the Occupation in just an hour or so, a workshop titled Conflict Transformation, based on a combination of Principled Negotiation and Intercultural Conflict Management.

I've been there for a couple of General Assemblies and it's a flawed process, but it may eventually work. Leaderlessness is an ersatz, illusory notion, idealized in the mind and abandoned on the ground. In fact, the loudest voice often leads, forcing the process toward their views. Some struggle against this, and many reject the idea of might makes right but still insist on no leadership, on no one telling them what to do, and thus on undisciplined anarchy.

I've also been impressed by the ongoing efforts to learn. I have seen many of my students there, salting down the movement and generally introducing many adaptive and helpful techniques, modeling a pretty good set of movement strategies. I am just one of many influences on them, though so far I haven't seen any other professors from any discipline there, except one (and I will note that he is also a former student of mine, something that oldsters note more often, of course, as our best ones take the field and surpass us) though many I don't know have no doubt been in the crowd.

Two nights before the Portland start up we met in a home and one of the young women who had been helping said she thought there might be 600 show up, tops. But about 3,500 or so showed up in the first two hours and by the time they marched up to Pioneer Square, they packed the square, which I've been told many times the police estimate holds 10,000, and about 1,000-2,000 spilled over into the streets or were still walking together up Broadway arriving at the square. So I believe 11,000-12,000 were on hand at that point, probably more of a turnout per capita than most, if not any of the other, American towns.

Someone challenged this occupation to stop looking so white or to stop calling themselves the 99 percent. Point taken, and let's walk back through it. If I am a white organizer for peace, for full employment, for an end to war profiteering, for a cessation of home foreclosures, for labor rights, etc., can I in good conscience recruit in communities of people who know that they are at greatest risk? Can I ask people who know they are marginalized and profiled to come join me in the front lines? This is a tough question. I think the ethical thing to do at some level is for those with privilege to take all the first risks and then, once it's established that there is a very low danger in involvement, then outreach and invite.

Of course, there is a path dependency problem with this. If the communities of more vulnerable people did not help with the initial decisions that shaped this movement, that isn't fair. It may be that the makeup of each occupation around the country is a function of the advantages and disadvantages of dropping the old face-to-face coalition-building in favor of the Facebook Revolutionary model. Is that inclusive? Looking at Tunisia and Egypt, one might say yes. Looking at Portland's occupation, I have to wonder.

So it's a model that isn't perfect. The best way forward is to remember the best of traditional community organizing and add those back in to the social media model. Each uprising has lessons. This is no different.


Ty Olson said...

Thanks for the post, Tom. I appreciate how you've articulated some of the weak spots in the movement, while still acknowledging the movement's positive potential. Personally, during the couple of days I've participated in and followed the protests, I only continually come up with more questions... For example, what are the winnable objectives and demands that we are putting forth? (There seems to be a lack of this. At least that is the sense I get. Which perhaps relates to the lack of organized leadership which you allude to.) As well, there is a sincere collective feeling anger being expressed--as there should be! and I concur, the feeling of impending impetus is superb--nevertheless, I continue to reflect on Kenneth Boulding's three faces of power: threat power, exchange power, and integrative power. Yes, we must harness and use our power, and that exchange power and ultimately integrative power is the ideal that may CR-ers might suggest we should seek... but even in this case, I think there are folks out there emnifying and appealing to threat power as a way of force (particularly with regard to the language and imagery that this being put to use... in many cases it is hyperbolic and emnifying… which is more often than not present in protests). And as much as I may agree, that these messages help depict and present motivating metaphors that people can rally behind, I'm not convinced it works in a sustainable sense. Mainly, I fear that the elitist will resort to an inordinate amount of violence (and maybe not just physical violence), and that an ever-deepening hatred will fester giving way to even less of a chance that the 1% will negotiate for any sustainable and fair deal without holding long-term hateful resentment toward the semi-organized and 99% majority.
Or maybe not… Perhaps I’m thinking about this overly critically. This to say, I completely support the movement even now, as I am a proud participant and advocate for most of what espouses. Still, I would love to see a process that invited the our opponents into the process, saying not that we are protesting to destroy them, but instead reframing the conversation, and letting them know that we are here to liberate them from the burden of autocrats and oppressors, just as much as we are working for our liberation.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Great notes, Ty. I agree. I admit to little patience for the entitlement of privileged youth defining it all, telling us what oppression is (high school, man!) and how to fix it all. I want to see much more integrative power and I still hope for that as this movement matures.