Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The sinking Occupy movement

The Occupy movement is submerging faster than it's growing. There are two manifestations of an underlying primary problem causing this in my town, Portland OR, and I suspect it's not entirely dissimilar elsewhere.

Symptom #1: Street people magnet
As one of my students and a devoted Occupy worker put it, "What street person WOULDN'T be attracted to free food, no serious rules and protection from police?" That sums up a situation that may seem delightful to those who romanticize street folk but the reports are coming in from many Occupy encampments of police starting to raid tents and find meth, other drugs, inevitable incidents of schizophrenic breaks, fist-fighting and so forth. Street people suffer the hardest, but they also spread their suffering around. This is not their fault, but a movement that cannot handle this influx cannot pass muster with the general public.

Symptom #2: Violent 'radical' flank
The so-called anarchists, or black bloc, or whatever they call themselves, are a mixture of ultraleftists, romantically confused adventurers, spoiled brats, immature teen rebels without serious analysis, dedicated but underinformed activists who genuinely believe violence is best, and testosterone-addled young males. They are never in the majority, or even the sizable minority, of any mass movement, but they are loud and kinetic. They are often conflated with the street people though they are quite different in almost all cases. Again, any movement that cannot handle this general grouping will falter and slide in the view of the 99 percent the movement claims to speak for.

The underlying problem in both cases? It's lack of analysis and the spine to do something about it. The problems both involve achieving a modified consensus about a behavior code and then growing the backbone required to implement it. If Occupy is meant to be a social service refugee camp it will also not be a serious movement at this time in our history. If Occupy embraces a diversity of tactics that includes violence it will lose any chance for a diversity of people that includes most of the 99 percent. If Occupy realizes this and cannot understand that it needs to evict anyone failing to sign on to a nonviolent code of conduct for all actions associated with the movement, including an alcohol-and-drug-free encampment, it will sink.

OK, I am writing categorically and I could be proven wrong. I am an academic and should know better than to make those sweeping statements. I admit I am worked up about this because I am tired of watching mass movements get hijacked by fringe elements who enjoy the rumble and really don't care about public policy change or corporate policy change. I take hits all the time, usually behind my back, for making these unpopular assertions. But I've seen it all again and again and again and it's sad that so many in so many movements fail to learn that if we don't discipline ourselves, here comes the police to do it instead. Is that a happy result? And when the armed agents of the state come, they will do so with the full approval of most of the citizens because most of the citizens firmly reject rape, sex offenders, meth use, stabbings, and violent threat (including threatening one of my students with a gun), all of which have occurred recently in Occupy Portland.

The best aspect of all this may be that activists start to learn how to avoid or, when necessary, deal with these presenting and inevitable challenges. They are all surmountable. My hope is in the young activists, learning bitter but valuable lessons. When they come out next time they will do so with a strategic plan ahead of time and, I hope, they will teach us all some new ways to make gains toward peace and justice.


Laurie Childers said...

You express my concerns and hopes precisely, Tom. I wish both of us could be more optimistic. Non-violence is critical to the success of Occupy in getting the corruption of Gov't and Wall St exposed and corrected. How fast can people learn the techniques AND the importance of non-violence? It's being talked about and taught more than ever, and we shall see if it's enough, and fast enough. Some things take time to understand profoundly enough. I'm heartened by all the people that "get it."

Tom H. Hastings said...

Thanks, Laurie. We'll see what they do with all this energy in Portland. Something creative and attractive, I hope. Last night I went down and by 8 p.m. or so most of the tents and virtually all the infrastructure (info tent, food tent, etc.) were all gone. Bless the First Unitarians, they are storing the valuable stuff for them. But the speeches were being broadcast by youngsters in bandanas, pretend revolutionaries, and it was just more of the same tired rhetoric, so I suspect the really creative activists were long gone.

CMsquared said...

Hello Tom (and Laurie),

Thank you for your discussion and efforts.
Tom you bring up a great definition for all of us to focus on …"lack of analysis and the spine to do something about it." and I agree this has not been substantiated in this movement yet. I also believe it is actively being discussed and "learned."
After the events seen over the weekend, I suppose you now know that the potential of the provocatively violent element has definitively been rejected.
I have not yet seen any definitive response from OPDX assemblies to the other symptom of "street people" you mention, and like you, I hope to see this very quickly acted upon.
I share a similar disappointment that this was not studied and focused into a mindset prior to this movement setting it's foot down, per say. Yet it seems to me, and I would wonder to you with your personal history, that with any significant socio-political movement these "lessons" are naturally imperitive in process in order to provide perspective on our overwhelming social condition; i.e. - We need to know what's out there in order to have any potentially positive impact on it.

I realize we're in a discussion on your personal blog and not an open, easily found, public forum so I do not necessarily, expect you to withhold from personal "sweeping statements" as that is your place and right. I do, though, notice you also speak of hope in regards to "the young activists, learning bitter but valuable lessons" and "...teach us all…".
As an educator I would expect to understand your strong desire to step beyond hope, especially as we all may have learned a political campaign platform (or social movement) cannot run on that alone, and possibly share a deeper experiential knowledge as to the methods and/or practicalities of surmounting these inevitable challenges.
We are not all young, unlearned, activists. I think you'd find some individuals with a personal history similar to yours.
Simply, I ask that you show your ideas during the event on Wednesday 11-16 http://portlandwiki.org/Occupy_Portland_-_Events#PSU_Walkout and hopefully come participate in Tomorrow's (Tuesday) spokescouncil meeting: First Congregational Church (1126 SW Park Ave), 7 PM.

Thank you for your efforts! I look forward to meeting you at these events.
Chris Meldrum