Tuesday, May 07, 2013 3:04 PM
After a modified, anti-fracking Smokey
the Bear went viral, the U.S.
Forest Service threatened legal action against
the activist who created it. The case now revolves around fair use, culture
jamming, and just whose side the Forest
Service is really on.
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
Smokey the Bear thought he smelled a fire in the woods. But as he approached
the clearing and saw a giant derrick jutting out into the sky, he realized that
what his nose had picked up was the scent of hydrocarbons. It was another piece
of evidence that the increasingly widespread method of oil and gas extraction
known as fracking was poisoning the environment that he and his human friends
depend on. He decided something must be done.
At least that’s the way that artist, Occupy Wall Street veteran and
environmental activist Lopi LaRoe
sees it. But last week she received a letter threatening her with jail time and
thousands of dollars in fines for enlisting Smokey to the anti-fracking cause.
In the fall, LaRoe created an image of Smokey that altered his famous
invective “Only you can prevent forest fires” to “Only you can prevent faucet
fires” — a reference to the phenomenon of flaming taps
that occasionally occur near where fracking takes place. The adjustment seemed
to her in line with the message of conservation Smokey has come to embody.
“This is the radicalization of Smokey the Bear,” said LaRoe. “This is Smokey
waking up and saying, ‘Oh you didn’t do that to my environment.’ Smokey wants
to fight the corporations and protect the air and the water and the plants and
the animals and the people.”
Her parody went viral. She began printing T-shirts at the insistence of
friends on Facebook, but demand quickly surpassed those in her immediate circle
of contacts. Soon she was packing Smokey in FedEx envelopes and sending him off
and other far-flung terrains. There are also tote bags and patches with the
Smokey meme available at LaRoe’s website.
(The tote bags, she advertises, are “great for dumpster diving.”) LaRoe says
she’s not out to become rich and the money she charges customers goes toward
covering her costs so that she can keep spreading the message of faucet-fire
prevention far and wide.
“It spread like wildfire,” she said, grinning ear to ear.
Not everyone is amused. LaRoe received a cease-and-desist letter from the
Metis Group, which serves as legal counsel for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Forest Service division. The letter informs LaRoe that Smokey,
his character and his slogan are property of the U.S. government and warns that she
has until May 2 to halt the use of Smokey on her “products” and to stop
distributing electronic copies of the meme. Otherwise, she faces up to six
months in prison and a penalty as high as $150,000.
“Any time anybody uses Smokey’s image for anything other than wildfire
prevention,” said Helene Cleveland, fire prevention program manager for the
Forest Service, “it confuses the public. What we’re trying to do is keep Smokey
on message.” Cleveland
added that the 1952 Smokey
the Bear Act takes the character out of the public domain and “any change
in that would have to go through Congress.”
Two other entities besides the Forest Service claim joint rights to Smokey.
The National Association of State Foresters — a non-profit organization
consisting of directors of U.S.
forestry agencies — and the Ad Council.
Remember “This is your brain on drugs”? Or the Indian
weeping over pollution? They were the Ad Council’s handiwork. A non-profit,
it describes itself as a promoter of “public service campaigns on behalf of
non-profit organizations and government agencies” with a focus on “improving
the quality of life for children, preventive health, education, community well
being and strengthening families.” Smokey the Bear was born at the Ad Council,
on the desk of abstract
expressionist and Marx-influenced art critic Harold Rosenberg, who had a
part time job there in the mid-1940s.
Council’s board of directors is a conflagration of representatives of the
world’s wealthiest corporations, including representatives of such companies as
General Electric, which announced
plans last month to spend $110 million on a research lab devoted to the
study of fracking, and finance giants such as Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. On
Citibank advertises an “extensive array of deposit, cash management and credit
products” for oil and gas drillers, while
a JPMorgan Chase subsidiary boasts its “Oil & Gas Investment Banking
group covers the complete oil and gas value chain, which includes exploration
and production, natural gas processing and transmission, refining and
marketing, and oilfield services.”
LaRoe believes that those who claim to own Smokey “don’t care that I’m
selling a few T-shirts. They’re out to crush the meme.”
Both the Ad Council and the Metis Group declined to comment for this story.
Despite the warnings in the cease-and-desist letter she received, the May 2
deadline to shut down her site and retire her anti-fracking Smokey came and
went; LaRoe has not ceased or desisted. Instead, she enlisted the help of her
own legal counsel, who fired back with a letter to the Metis Group on Friday.
In it, attorney Evan Sarzin argues that LaRoe ‘s culture-jam
appropriation of Smokey is permissible under the fair-use exemption to
exclusive copyright ownership and chides the the Forest Service for attempting
to infringe on LaRoe’s First Amendment rights.
Sarzin also points out that this is not the first time the Forest Service
has sought to silence environmentalists for appropriating Smokey’s image. In
the early 1990s, the Forest Service demanded reparations from the Sante
Fe-based conservation group LightHawk after it used Smokey’s likeness in ads
critical of the agency’s practice of auctioning off land to timber companies.
(The Forest Service, as part of the Department of Agriculture, makes its land
available for commercial use.) Unlike LaRoe’s Smokey, LightHawk’s black bear
appeared angry and wielded a chainsaw. “Say it ain’t so, Smokey,” read the ads.
With legal funds provided by the Sierra Club, LightHawk sued
the Forest Service in 1992 for infringing on its freedom of speech. The court
eventually sided with the plaintiffs, noting that “the satirical use of Smokey
the Bear to criticize Forest Service management techniques is unlikely to cause
confusion or to dilute the value of Smokey the Bear to help prevent forest
fires. Thus the Forest Service cannot have a compelling interest in prohibiting
Sarzin also calls attention to the fact the Forest Service’s own research
points to environmental degradation caused by fracking. A 2011 study
published in the Journal of Environmental Quality by Forest Service
frack fluid to the death of 150 trees in West Virginia’s
Monongahela National Forest. Despite their findings,
the Forest Service is considering approving fracking leases in the nearby George Washington
National Forest. The
Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes the plan, says
it represents a threat to local wildlife — including the black bear.
released last month by the the National Parks Conservation Association warns
that fracking for oil is decimating the ecosystem surrounding Theodore
Roosevelt National Park, named after the Republican president who founded the
Forest Service. “Unless we take quick action,” the report warns “air, water and
wildlife will experience permanent harm in other national parks as well.” Thus,
Sarzin writes, LaRoe’s Smokey meme “is a message that the Forest Service should
LaRoe hopes that by gaining publicity she can force the Forest Service to
take a stand against fracking. In order to continue the fight, however, she
says she needs the support of groups whose mission it is to defend civil
liberties or protect the environment to provide legal defense funds — just as
the Sierra Club did for LightHawk.
“This about more than me as an artist,” LaRoe said. “This is about
everybody’s right to freedom of speech and a healthy environment.”
Her childhood memories of Smokey, she explains, are compelling her to keep
raising faucet-fire prevention awareness despite the threat of jail time. “When
we were little kids we were taught that there is this bear out there that wants
to protect our forests. Smokey is our bear. He belongs to the people.”
Images of Smokey the Bear meme and
T-shirt by Lopi LaRoe/WePay.
Tuesday, April 02, 2013 3:23 PM
Months after Hurricane Sandy, many low-income New York neighborhoods are still struggling
for an economic foothold. But with the help of Occupy Sandy, many residents are organizing worker
cooperatives to take back control of their communities.
This article originally
appeared at Waging
Three and a half months ago, the walls
upstairs at the Church of the Prophecy in Far Rockaway, a low-income coastal
neighborhood of New York City,
were covered with maps of where help was most needed. The church was a hub for
the Occupy Sandy relief effort after Hurricane Sandy. Now, nearly five months
after the hurricane struck, the maps have been replaced by posters extolling
the virtues of collective struggle and art made by neighborhood children
enrolled in Occupy Sandy’s twice-weekly after-school program.
“The kids missed a month and a half of
school,” explained Luis Casco, a member of the church’s congregation who pulled
strings to help move Occupy into Far Rockaway. The after-school program was, in
part, his brainchild. “We figured we’d start helping the kids and we could win
over their parents. Then we could actually start bigger projects,” he said.
One of those bigger projects is a
worker-run cooperative initiative, organized by Occupy Sandy and supported by
the Working World, an organization that specializes in incubating collectively
The initiative is well suited to Far
Rockaway because worker-run enterprises have a history of flourishing in
environments of economic distress or political upheaval. In 2001, when Argentina
defaulted on its international loans and the country’s ownership class fled,
Argentines took over abandoned factories and established networks of producers
and distributors. In Venezuela,
worker-run cooperatives were at the heart of the vision for 21st-century
socialism, and Hugo Chavez’s administration helped create tens of thousands of
collectively owned businesses over the last 14 years. Most notably, Spanish
workers in the Basque region created the Mondragon Corporation, the world’s
largest federation of cooperatives, during the Franco dictatorship in the
1950s. Today more than 250 enterprises operate under the Mondragon banner, and
the federation, which spans 77 countries and employs 83,000 workers, has been
“Collective approach pays big dividends,”
read a headline
about Mondragon in The Financial Times last year, while the New York
Times noted the “use of workers’ share capital and loans” has enabled the
federation to remain stable through vacillations in global markets, including
the ongoing financial crisis.
While Mondragon shows what is possible
down the line, Far Rockaway residents are at the very beginning of the process.
At one of the crowded early meetings of the cooperative initiative, children
and adults buzzed about, fraternizing with disposable plates of food in their
hands as extra folding chairs were arranged. Several parents whose children
attended the after-school program arrived, bringing their friends and neighbors
along. Most were Spanish-speaking immigrants who, having spent their lives
working for someone else, were eager to learn more about cooperatives.
Many in Far Rockaway lost their jobs when
Hurricane Sandy rendered commutes impossible for flooded local businesses. For
those without U.S.
work papers, finding new employment has been difficult.
“It’s really hard to find a new job when
you don’t have papers,” Casco explained. “Their homes were destroyed, they
don’t have the resources to go to welfare and FEMA ain’t helping them.”
Others, such as Olga Lezama, managed to
keep their jobs after the storm, but the prospect of holding on to the profits
of their labor has piqued their interest. Lezama currently works as an
upholsterer for a high-end furniture company. By Lezama’s calculations, her
boss makes approximately $500 every hour off the furniture that she and her
co-workersupholster, while she earns roughly $100 a day.
“It hurts my feelings and my pockets,”
she said. “My job and my efforts and my everything goes to them.”
By her side was her husband, Carlos
Lezama, a carpenter who specialized in cabinets. The pair hope to work with
others in the community to form a home-design cooperative, a service in high
demand after the storm, which ruined the ground floors of most of the region’s
“We go to stores and buy cheap furniture,
cabinets and stuff, and we’re wasting our money,” Lezama said. “In two months,
the cabinet is no good. So we have go buy it again. Our people deserve good
Workers controlling capital
Occupy Sandy has allocated $60,000 of the
$900,000 it raised in the initial flood of generosity following the storm
toward forming cooperatives, an initiative they hope to spread across
storm-affected areas if it proves successful in Far Rockaway. The Working
World, an organization that provides zero-debt micro-finance loans to new
cooperatives, has offered to provide monetary support, but for now the
organization is mostly lending advice and training. At one of the early
meetings, Brandon Martin, The Working World’s founder, showed the crowd a
slideshow of other projects the organization has helped launch. Images of a
beekeepers’ cooperative in the countryside of Nicaragua
and a shoe factory in Buenos Aires
glowed on the wall behind Martin as he outlined the benefits of workers sharing
resources and making decisions democratically.
“A cooperative is workers controlling
capital, instead of capital controlling workers,” said Martin. “It’s about
reorganizing the economy around who’s really in control.”
The Working World finances itself by
collecting a small percentage of the profits that member collectives generate,
money that the organization reinvests in establishing new enterprises. Martin
explained that the idea originated in ancient Sumeria where the word for interest
was the same as the word for calf.
“If the cow I lent you has babies,”
explained Martin, “I loaned you my cow, so I can have some the babies. That would
be the interest.”
But if the cow was sterile, the Sumerians
didn’t collect interest. The same works for Working World’s loans today. The
organization only collects once a cooperative generates a steady profit, a
model that avoids forcing people into debt if their business fails.
The Sumerians, for their part, eventually
altered their lending practices such that they collected interest regardless of
the outcome. The legacy of that shift is still with us today; few in Far
Rockaway can call their surroundings their own. Walk through the neighborhood
in the middle of a business day and you’ll see iron grating pulled down over
storefronts and plywood covering the windows of large shopping complexes. Those
stores that are open often bear the insignias of chain outlets that carry money
out of the neighborhood and into the coffers of large corporations. Worker-run
cooperatives, in contrast, could offer a way for community members to sell the
products of their labor without selling their labor itself — a shift that would
keep capital within the community and cash in the pockets of workers.
At the following cooperative meeting a
week later, the crowd had grown. People discussed plans for a scrap metal
business and a cleaning-workers’ collective. One man pulled a citizens’ band
radio out of his winter coat, explaining that drivers in the taxi cooperative
he hoped to form could use it to communicate. He’d been doing research; nine
other drivers were needed to secure an operating license from the city.
There is obvious enthusiasm in the
neighborhood for worker-run enterprises. But are there limits to what these
businesses can achieve while embedded in a broader economic framework of
competition and exploitation? And does the focus on cooperatives represent a
shift in direction for Occupy, one that veers away from a direct fight for
“We can’t fight the city,” one Occupy
Sandy organizer confided. “But we can build co-ops.”
Building an alternative
Richard Wolff, professor of economics at
the New School and author of Democracy at
Work, a study of cooperative businesses, argues that forming cooperatives
can be the first step in enacting a sweeping social and economic shift. Wolff
envisions a transformation, similar to the social shift from feudalism to
capitalism, in which cooperatives replace corporations and goods are
distributed through a democratically planned economy.
The cooperatives that Wolff talks about,
and the ones that Occupy Sandy is aiming to establish, are more accurately known
as worker self-directed enterprises: businesses that organize democratically
collective ownership at the point of production.
“When the workers get together and decide
how to distribute the income in such an enterprise, would they give the CEO $25
million in stock bonuses while everybody else can barely get by?” Wolff asks
He stresses the difference between the
productive and distributive side of economies, explaining that worker-run
cooperatives are the often-overlooked prerequisite for achieving an egalitarian
distribution of wealth and resources. “There is the question of what exactly an
alternative to capitalism is,” he explains. “I’ve stressed worker-self-directed
enterprises as a different way of organizing production.” On the other hand are
markets, which distribute the fruits of production. Wolff believes that the
mistake of many 20th-century socialists was to imagine that the elimination of
markets would create social egalitarianism, even though production had not yet
been reorganized into a democratic model.
Given the pull between the productive and
distributive side of economies, cooperatives must form networks to survive.
Collaboration between networked enterprises allows these businesses to curb
market pressures and, if the network manages to spread, to gain political
As Brandon Martin emphasizes, also,
workers in new cooperatives must labor long hours to meet production quotas,
just like with any other business, since their enterprise still has to compete
for a market share. “Can one cooperative change that?” asks Martin. “No. But a
cooperative economy might.”
Olga Lazema, however, isn’t thinking
about the theoretical potential for cooperatives to challenge capitalism. She’s
imagining the positive possibilities for her own neighborhood.
“A lot of people, their houses went like
nothing,” she said, referring to Sandy’s
destruction. “They have nothing. We could go there, build a small kitchen or
whatever they need. Why not?”
Image of Far Rockaway
cooperative meeting by Peter Rugh.
Friday, March 22, 2013 3:53 PM
Faced with shrinking budgets and a test-centric reform agenda, high school students across the country
are fighting back. Risking expulsion and even arrest, students are confronting
broken policies with walkouts, boycotts, and other creative actions.
post originally appeared at Waging
“You’re going to be expelled,” an
administrator at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., just twenty minutes
away from the Washington, D.C., line, told the two boys sitting in her
office on March 1, 2012.
“What?” Ricardo Fuentes, then a junior,
asked, feigning ignorance.
Project Xbox was the code-name for the
walkout that Fuentes had helped plan with El Cambio, an activist student group
at Northwestern, for the National Day of Action for Education that day. Hours
before the walkout he and his friend had been pulled into the office and
confronted by the school’s administration. Administrators had pinpointed the
two boys as key organizers — though only Fuentes was actually involved — and
were determined to put a stop to it. They held the boys in the room for seven
hours, offering to let them out only to visit lunch periods to tell people to
stop the walkout. Fuentes, already resigned to his fate, refused to cooperate.
That afternoon, the sound of 400 students
walking out of class — nearly a third of the school’s population — flooded
Northwestern’s halls. Students were met at the door with teachers,
administrators, security and police officers. They could see canine units
waiting for them in the parking lot. Students turned back and started marching
through the halls, searching for another exit, when they were blocked off at
staircases. In the end, Fuentes and three of his friends were suspended for six
days for helping to organize the walkout.
The walkout was not an aimless excuse to
skip school, but a calculated response to a specific list of grievances. El
Cambio’s communiqué, which it circulated in advance of the walkout, named seven
grievances: disgusting bathroom conditions, enormous class sizes, teachers who
had been refused pay raises three years in a row, the denial of promised
funding for their band to go to nationals, cuts to funding for English-as-a-second-language
programs, exploited and deported Filipino teachers, and the lack of a
meaningful student role in the decision-making process. These grievances
describe the conditions of many of Prince
George’s County public schools. In a state that has
been ranked number one in education for five
consecutive years, Prince George’s County
has only a single school that performs at or above the Maryland average, with almost all other
schools falling well below it.
El Cambio found support among some
teachers, who privately coached and guided the first-time organizers or gave
their tacit approval. But others opposed the students’ activism altogether. One
teacher went as far as to admonish Fuentes for El Cambio’s inclusion of
teachers’ concerns among their grievances.
Though Northwestern’s walkout is
exceptional in the region, it is not altogether unique. In the past year, for
instance, there have been a series of walkouts in high schools in New York City, most notably the May 1,
2012, walkout of
students at Paul Roebson
High School in Brooklyn
organized with Occupy Wall Street.
High school organizing presents a
different kind of situation than college organizing. In public high schools,
students are closely tied to their neighborhoods and their homes. They are not
merely temporary residents, as many college students are, but members of their
communities. Most of them have grown up in the area or lived there for a long
time; many will continue to live there for most of their lives. They have a
long-term commitment to the quality of their schools and neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, high schoolers live under demanding, unyielding schedules determined
by administrators who routinely ignore and marginalize students’ voices.
“I think that high schoolers always get
forgotten,” Fuentes said. “They think that everything is easy for us, and it’s
“It is authoritarian. We don’t feel like
we have any power,” said Shane James, a senior at Northwestern who was
suspended for helping to organize the walkout with El Cambio. “When you have no
power over what dominates your life, you feel like you are powerless as a
person. How are you supposed to learn to be an individual with ideas and a
critical thinker if you don’t feel like you have control over your own ideas?”
Increasingly, public high schools are
inundated with standardized tests and regimented expectations, from which any
deviation is considered a chaotic interruption by the administration. In
response to this kind of environment, in early January, teachers at Garfield High School
voted to refuse to administer the Measure of Academic Progress tests and waged
a small war against their administration. Their boycott of the tests has
inspired similar boycotts among teachers and students in high
schools across the country, including in Portland
and Rhode Island.
“We’re opting out because we want to send
this greater message about not standardizing our education system,” Alexia
Garcia, the student representative of Portland Public Schools student union.
Her student union, which is sanctioned by the district, in conjunction with the
Portland Student Union, a student-run organization in Portland
high schools, launched an opt-out campaign just a couple weeks after the Seattle teachers did. In Portland, high school juniors must take the Oregon
Assessment of Skills and Knowledge exam, which is used to assess Portland public high
schools — and, starting next year, teachers. Based on this assessment, each
school is given a grade, and it must test at least 95 percent of students in
every demographic in order to get a passing grade. The goal of the opt-out is
to give every school a failing grade by lack of participation, and thus
compromise the whole process.
“We want to send the message that we’d
like to see a more holistic approach and holistic evaluation,” Garcia said.
“There is so much more to a student than how they perform on a test.”
Portland students have found support not only
from their community but from their teachers. The teachers’ union can’t
officially support the students or its members could risk losing their teaching
licenses, but teachers have privately voiced their approval of student’s
actions. Administrators, predictably, have not received the opt-out campaign so
kindly. They’ve sent letters to parents stressing the importance of
standardized testing. Administrators in Portland
have done everything they can to end the student protest.
“We need a new mentality about how
schools are supposed to function and how to educate kids,” James said. “You’re
not going to educate kids by telling them to shut up and be quiet. You’re going
to educate kids by letting them speak out and question authority — by letting
them challenge things and really act on their interests and their passions.”
of gravestone protest signs at John Muir High School
in Pasadena, California, by Jerome
T, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 08, 2013 10:01 AM
Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, an OWS offshoot called Occupy Sandy quickly made headlines through its rapid response relief efforts, often beating out official relief agencies, like FEMA. Organizers Leah Feder and Devin Balkind discuss how open-source technology can help organize communities, solve problems collectively, and build democratic movements.
This post originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
have been a lot of exhausting debates in recent years about the role of online
social media in resistance movements, about whether these technologies really
help or hurt, and how. Some commentators have even gone so far as to hand
credit for home-grown uprisings around the world to the wonder-kids of Silicon Valley, and it can be tempting to believe them.
Once there was Gandhi and King; now there is Facebook and Twitter.
just-so stories, of course, leave out the in-person, on-the-ground organizing
that is still at the heart and center of movements everywhere. But they also
cause us to miss what may be the most important questions to ask about
movements and new technology: Who made the technology, who controls it, and
and Twitter are only the most visible ways that technology is transforming how
ordinary people build power — a visibility aided by a media culture eager to
promote all things corporate. But perhaps even more important in the long run
is how free and open-source software can help create transformative
institutions. Such software — which much of the back-end of the Internet
already relies on, including Waging
Nonviolence — is produced through self-organized communities of
developers working in collaboration, rather than competition. These communities
rely on values like transparency, consensus-seeking, decentralization and broad
participation. Yet they’re hardly utopian; they do this because it works.
Occupy Sandy, Occupy Wall Street’s relief and recovery
effort after Hurricane Sandy last fall,
open-source software tools like WordPress, Sahana and CiviCRM
helped to mobilize thousands of volunteers in affected areas throughout New York City, and to do
so faster and more efficiently than official agencies could. Leah Feder and
Devin Balkind were among the organizers of this effort, and they have been
working to make open-source tools available to the Occupy movement ever since
the initial occupation of Zuccotti
Park. They are also
directors of Sarapis, a non-profit that promotes
free and open technologies for the public good.
Feder and Balkind, these tools are proof that a more collaborative and
sustainable world is possible; I spoke with them recently about why.
How did you become interested in
LF: When Occupy Wall Street first
started, I was going down to the park but not finding a way to get involved or
seeing the revolutionary potential in what was happening. I thought it was
exciting, and fun, but beyond that I didn’t see where it could go. It was
through being exposed to open source there that I was finally moved to engage
on a much deeper level in Occupy, because I saw that there was a theory of
change. I saw how continuing on a specific path could take us into a
fundamentally different paradigm. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? I was
in grad school in media, culture and communication at New York University
at the time, but thinking through ideas is fun only insofar as you can’t do
anything. Once I saw that there was a possibility of doing something, I dropped
DB: I started on that path in college.
Some friends and I put together a proposal to create a crowdfunding platform
called Beex for charity walks and things like that.
Did you have a software background
DB: I was a history and film major; we
definitely botched the development of the thing. But it brought me into contact
with large nonprofits, and I realized that the non-profit sector was a
disaster, primarily because organizations weren’t collaborating with each
other. They basically mirrored the corporate model. That made me curious about
good models for collaborative problem-solving. At the same time, I was dealing
with a software project that was proprietary, and I was finding that it was a
terrible, terrible way to go. So I was learning about the open-source software
movement while I was recognizing the need for it in the non-profit sector. That
led me down the path of developing a generalized understanding of open-source
software for community organizing.
LF: I’m not a techie, either, and as a
non-techie one can only get so deep into open-source software. I can’t really
contribute to open source projects, for instance. I can use open source tools,
though, and that increases my capacity as an individual tremendously. I can
spin up a WordPress site and make it look pretty nice, really, really quickly.
But then, once I learned more about the open-source model and realized that
it’s also an organizing model for doing a lot of other things that can increase
our capacity collectively, I saw more of an entry-point for myself in the
broader peer-to-peer revolution. What it’s really about is changing the way
that we organize ourselves, as individuals and as a society. Occupy could be
the overtly political manifestation of this phenomenon, whereas open-source
software is how the tech world takes on these same principles.
Devin, how did you first make the
connection between open source and Occupy?
DB: By the fall of 2011 I had
incorporated Sarapis and was writing a plan to bring open source to community
organizations in Brooklyn. I had already done
research on constituent-relationship
management systems, or CRMs, and on mailing lists. I had written guides for
the organizations about how to use open-source technology most effectively.
Then I thought I was going to have to raise tens of thousands of dollars to get
people excited about the program — until Occupy Wall Street happened. It was
basically free enthusiasm for deploying the ideas. Those of us in the Occupy
tech group have spent 18 months building infrastructure. And then moments like
the Hurricane Sandy relief effort give us the opportunity to see it work.
What in particular has worked especially
DB: The biggest victories are the ones
that no one sees. Occupy Wall Street was this huge movement, but no one was
collecting email addresses at first — which is insane. But for Occupy
Sandy, there was one email-collection system with one form for volunteers. It
all went into our CiviCRM system, which had already been configured, and which
a lot of people knew how to use. That became the basis for systematized
volunteer outreach, where people have been receiving mailings consistently to
see when they can come out to do volunteer work. Right now we’re looking at a
sustainable volunteer infrastructure that we never had for OWS.
Why does it matter that these tools are
free and open source?
DB: This is part of a revolution in what
I call, maybe wrongly, the means of production. That’s what open-source
software is. And not just open-source software, but also hardware, and data,
and knowledge, and how we collaborate. There are so many differences between
open-source and proprietary systems; it’s like how you used to be able to take
apart a car engine, and anyone who had basic mechanical skills could replace an
air filter. Now, though, there’s plastic sheeting over the whole thing. It has
been designed so that people can’t fix their own cars. In open-source systems,
the flow of data is of paramount importance. In a proprietary system, the flow
of data is something that you lose money on. Go to Facebook, for instance, and
try to export your friend network — not easy, because that means you could
LF: When we solve problems with
open-source tools, we deliver the solutions back to the global information
commons, and we build capacity for anybody who wants to do this in the future.
Any such group that wants to arise and start collecting contacts can do the
same, and it’s free. We have a whole bunch of tools to use, and we can grow
ever more quickly on tools that we own ourselves.
So it’s a matter of self-reliance and
DB: For the people in the open-source
movement who realize where this is going, the next step is to replicate what
the government does, but better. How do we out-compete the government using
open-source tools? I can tell you that with Occupy Sandy we already did it. We
had a better system up within a month — for managing work orders, inventory,
requests, workflows. What if we had had that during the occupation? How much
easier would life have been for managing the Zuccotti Park
experience if there had been people trained in such a system? We’d have had
vehicles, warehouses and kitchens all coordinated in a way that was sustainable
and easy to plug into. If we can do that, it’ll become competition between us
and other systems. Then we’re on the path to the type of changes that people in
the open-source world realize is coming.
We’re using the term “open source” now,
by the way, but usually I use the term “FLO,” which means “free/libre/open
source.” There’s a whole political dimension to these words.
What do you think it will take for more
people to recognize this potential?
DB: Open-source projects, as an
organizing endeavor, pose an integration challenge. The question is always how
to get one plugin to work with another. When we’ve conditioned ourselves to
think more in terms of plugin architecture, our projects will inevitably plug
into other projects, and when that happens we’re going to have a whole new set
of functionality that’s possible. Once we’re at a certain level of advancement,
we get to merge. I think that what’s going to happen is a wave. For instance,
when open-source technology merges with open-source ecology in order to produce
hardware locally, you’re going to see a tremendous sea-change. You’ll see, say,
a new type of open-source tractor that starts selling like hotcakes. That
convergence isn’t so far away, and when that happens it’s going to feel
different. It is going to feel like a flick of a switch for a lot of folks.
How important is it for people in the
Occupy movement to know about this broader process?
DB: Open-source software itself exists
because other models for software production didn’t meet the need. Similarly, I
think the Occupy movement’s effectiveness depends on how quickly it recognizes
that the best community-organizing practices are rooted in free/libre/open
source. In the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, the leaders tended to be people
in the Direct Action Working Group, which was organizing the actions and
marches. But it was never very effective. Protest loses to production any day
of the week. That’s why the Black Panthers had a breakfast program. Give people
what they want if you want to be an effective movement. With Occupy Sandy,
because there was such a strong demand for relief from the community, we saw
the effectiveness of open-source tools. Documentation became more important. A
shared Google Docs folder was the center of productivity within Occupy Sandy,
and lots of people were realizing, “If I don’t share my docs as widely as
possible, and if I don’t orient people to these docs, this falls apart.” That
But Google Docs isn’t open source. Where
are the lines to be drawn?
DB: I like to say “practically possible.”
Use freely-available, open-source solutions whenever practically possible.
Google Docs isn’t open source, but sharing data on spreadsheets is about as
open-source as you can get. Any absolutes about this stuff aren’t particularly
useful. What’s useful is recognizing the purpose of the activity as being new
forms of productivity, not merely creating a spectacle. But this takes a lot of
practice to do right. It’s hard. By the time of Occupy Sandy, there were a lot
more people who understood how to do this kind of thing than during the
original occupation, and they started out-performing the people who don’t work
Was your experience with free-software
communities in some ways preparatory for knowing how to participate in Occupy Wall Street’s
DB: Yes. Philosophically, for sure. The
media would say, “They communicate over Facebook and Twitter,” but if you’re
involved in organizing, you’re emailing all day. It’s emails, and it’s
listservs. I came in knowing how to have intense decision-making conversations
on email lists, while the vast majority of people did not. By now, the growth
of people’s aptitude for that type of communication has been stunning.
LF: Although we’re still not there!
DB: No. But we’re so much further along.
LF: Whatever the political intentions of
the open-source community, it models a different way of working together. Last
fall, a lot of people were down with the idea that “shit is fucked up and
bullshit.” But people will only go so far if you don’t show them something
better. There’s a portion of the population that will really be galvanized by
marches and occupations, but if you want many more people to get excited about
your political project, you need to provide an alternative — alternatives.
That’s what drives the politics forward, because there’s a limit to the horizon
of possibility when it’s a politics of protest. But once it’s a politics of
solutions and alternatives, you’re playing in a different field, and a lot more
Does that help you when you’re opposing a
system backed up by state violence?
DB: During the early months of Occupy, I
would have experiences where I’d be talking to a cop who didn’t look like he
was enjoying being a pawn to suppress protest, and I said to him, “Hey dude,
have you ever talked about getting some land and going to a farm? If you ever
need some help acquiring land, we’ve got a bunch of acres upstate, we have
training, and Occupy Farms can get you up there, and you don’t have to do this
anymore.” I’ve had cops say to me, “You show me that, and we can have a
conversation.” The existing system is just not that competitive. It’s more
competitive than chaos, or anarchy or protest, sure. But how good, really, is
our suburban lifestyle, or our urban-ish suburban existence? At some point, the
other option is going to look better, and then the air starts coming out of the
How close are we to that point, do you
DB: A lot of the software, for instance,
is still a disaster in terms of usability and other capacities. That’s just
where we are as a society. We’re using it at just about 5 percent capacity. But
what’s fun about this stuff — and I think this is really how good software gets
made — is that you cobble together solutions, and everything kind of sucks, and
you evaluate how each piece works, and then you roll it all into one. If our
movement worked like a big open-source software project, there would be an
extensive wiki and forums and trainings to on-board people. There would be an
issue-tracker and requests for help, for what you can do at various different
engagement levels. An assembly could be happening in some place like Trenton,
N.J., and someone there might say, “I work in case-tracking for a homeless
shelter, and it would be better if x happened,” and then bam, it
would be tagged in the minutes of the meeting, and the developers somewhere
else would have a filter for whatever code was used to keep the minutes, and
they’d implement the suggestion in the next update. That’s the type of
performance we’re going to be able to achieve.
We’re not that far away from being able
to allow people to unplug from the proprietary information ecosystem. And once
we get there, we’re talking about real political change. The best part of the
whole open-source thing is recognizing that we can see into the future and
recognizing that it’s not all crazy. It’s just going to require a lot of people
to work. And that makes it a lot easier to be an activist.
Image of Occupy Sandy volunteers by Erin O'Brien (Occupy Sandy Facebook page).
Thursday, January 24, 2013 12:05 PM
This story originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
are central to our existential job description: making sense of both the world
and ourselves. From creation myths to scientific explanations, from political
ideologies to the quirky narratives that knead our own amorphous lives into
some kind of distinctive shape, stories are essential — not only because they
nudge the disconnected bits of reality we face moment to moment into a
plausible and graspable form, but because they go to the heart of our identity
goes for navigating our lives. But it also goes for changing the world.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says that life poses two fundamental questions —What
are we willing to live for? What are we willing to die for? — he presupposes
a story that makes these questions intelligible. For Dr. King, this story
centered on a harrowing and improbable expedition to what he doggedly called
the Beloved Community, a world where all human beings will one day sit at the
same table, live together in The World House, and make good on the hunch that
the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. This story does not come
with a warranty or scientific proof. Instead its truthfulness depends on how
far we’re willing to go to embellish and inhabit it. This story’s power flows,
not from its lyrical metaphors, but from its ongoing, risky embodiment.
The monumental challenges we face
today — poverty and economic inequality, climate change, military intervention
and surveillance, unjust immigration policies, handgun violence, white
privilege and many others — resist transformation for many reasons, including
the stubbornly enduring frames that keep them in place. The monumental change
we need will hinge on a new way of looking at the world, and this in turn will
be spurred on by powerful stories that bring that new worldview alive.
draws life from the endless stories that push its power. But things can work
the other way too. Stories of the nonviolent option can unexpectedly seep into
our right brain, disturb the certitude of the violence operating system, and
open breathing space. We are living in a time when, despite the tsunami of
violence, we are hearing these counter-narratives more frequently. Part of the
reason for this is that there is more nonviolent action than ever. But another
is that we are on the lookout for these stories more than ever. When we put on
the nonviolence eyewear and start poking around — as this site does — we start
to see the power of nonviolent change everywhere.
of our most powerful alternative storytellers is Terry Messman. Messman is the
editor of Street Spirit, a
monthly newspaper published by the American Friends Service Committee that is
sold by 100 homeless vendors on the streets of Oakland, Calif. Reporting from
“the shelters, back alleys, soup kitchen lines and slum hotels where mainstream
reporters rarely or never visit,” the newspaper runs stories on homelessness,
poverty, economic inequality and the daily grind of human rights violations
that poor people face. But Street Spirit doesn’t simply deliver the grim
news of poverty. It also chronicles and raises the visibility of the movement
that is dramatically working for human and civil rights, challenging
inequality, and demanding — and winning — change. This month’s issue, for example, features stories
on the challenges and successes of the local anti-foreclosure
movement, a campaign countering the erosion of the human
rights of homeless people and on affordable
housing for the growing senior population. Month after month for the last
17 years Street Spirit has been getting the story out on the reality of
the structural violence and consequences of poverty, but also on campaigns that
are challenging this reality.
Street Spirit has highlighted the tools of powerful and audacious
nonviolent movement-building, with extensive coverage of the Occupy movement
and interviews with Erica
Chenoweth (on the ground-breaking research that she and Maria Stephan
published in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works demonstrating that
nonviolent strategies are twice as likely to succeed than violent ones) and
with nonviolent action campaigner and scholar George
Lakey. Last month the newspaper profiled the Positive
Peace Warrior Network and one of its key trainers, Kazu
Haga, who was trained by Bernard Lafayette and is organizing a growing
community of activists grounded in Kingian nonviolence. (Haga’s essay, “MLK’s
final marching orders,” was published this week by Waging Nonviolence.)
documenting injustice and building the capacity of the movement for justice, Street
Spirit not only spurs nonviolent action but also has become a form of
action itself. Its reporting was instrumental in shutting
down the East Bay
Hospital in Richmond, Calif.,
which was a dumping ground for homeless, poor and severely disabled people by
nine counties in the region and was responsible for widespread violations of
low-income psychiatric patients.
Messman has long integrated telling the story of nonviolent action with action
itself. In the late 1970s he was a reporter in Montana sent out to cover a civil
disobedience action at a U.S. Air Force base. A lone Lutheran minister had
crossed the line at the base and was sitting in the driveway, awaiting arrest.
Messman was so moved by this solitary witness that he dropped his reporter’s
notebook and sat down next to him. He netted six months in federal prison for
long after this I met Terry. He was leading nonviolence training at the
Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley,
where both of us were then studying. He and several other workshop facilitators
were preparing a group to risk arrest at Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory, a nearby facility that had designed 50 percent of the U.S. nuclear
arsenal. I was immediately struck by his vision of the power of nonviolence,
especially his stress on it being active, audacious, challenging and dramatic.
Struck by the picture he painted that morning, I shook off my hesitations about
engaging in civil disobedience and took part in the action at the lab, which
netted 30 of us a week in the county jail. For the next two years I essentially
put my studies on the shelf and took action with Terry and the action group he
had helped form named “Spirit Affinity Group” and, in effect, enrolled in
Nonviolence 101 with Terry as teacher. Terry vividly and actively shared with
me, and others, the story of nonviolent change, rooted in the vision of Gandhi,
Dr. King, Dorothy Day and a rebellious, law-breaking Jesus, whom the theologian
and activist John Dear would later characterize as a “one-person crime wave.”
But Terry’s story of the power of nonviolent transformation was rooted not only
in studying history but also in a series of actions he had taken throughout the
western United States.
This story — reinforced by the string of nonviolent actions that we organized
and participated in together — was gradually changing me.
years of anti-nuclear activism, Terry brought this spirit to his work
challenging poverty and homelessness in Oakland
in the late 1980s. He and others formed the Union of the Homeless that launched
an action campaign that included occupying — and winning — an unused federal
building and occupying a series of homes that the U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development had repossessed and was essentially turning over to real
estate speculators. They won these homes for poor and homeless families,
including a house that Terry and members of the movement (including myself)
occupied overnight one time. (I will never forget a large Oakland police officer at 4 a.m. kicking open
the room I was sleeping in and dragging me off with the others to jail.)
it all, Terry was telling the story. Two decades ago I interviewed Terry and
his colleagues about their campaign, which by then had mobilized government
support to build housing, a childcare center with a Head Start program and a
multi-service center supporting homeless people, all run by a nonprofit
organization whose board was predominantly homeless people. In one of the
interviews Terry said, “We did a four-year series of nonviolent direct actions.
And all we did in the early years was say, ‘We’re going to go to jail for two
or three years, and then we’re going to have housing.’ Which was a totally
magical prescription that we just said… And it was really something, that power
of belief. We just kept saying that all over the community.”
story — this magical prescription — was key to driving the dramatic actions
that created change. Now, all these years later, Terry is still at it as he
continues to call out the myriad of ways homeless people are dehumanized and
excluded, but also continues to report in a detailed and thoughtful way the
stories of the movement that is challenging this dehumanization and exclusion.
While Street Spirit is Oakland-based, all of us everywhere can all draw
new life every month from this
powerful platform that’s getting the story out for justice and nonviolent
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 4:35 PM
This post originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
week President Obama nominated his counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan, to
head the Central Intelligence Agency. Though some civil liberties groups and
other critics have raised questions about Brennan’s involvement in the CIA’s
practice of torture during the Bush administration, relatively less has been
said about his primarily responsibility during President Obama’s first term:
accelerating and institutionalizing the U.S. drones program and its “disposition
matrix” — as the government’s sanitizing parlance puts it — which has
included setting weekly drone kill lists.
and the mainstream press have generally reacted warmly to Brennan’s nomination,
especially in contrast to President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense,
former Senator Chuck Hagel, who is considered suspect by some in the foreign
policy establishment because he opposed the Iraq War and is said to harbor
anti-war sentiments rooted in his service during the Vietnam War.
While we will have to wait to see if
Hagel’s reluctance to take the U.S.
into war pans out, there is no doubt about Brennan’s trajectory. As a Washington
last October highlighted (which I commented on here),
Brennan has created a powerful new system that fuses drone technology,
satellite surveillance and massive databases to target and kill persons of
interest globally, with the capacity to cross borders at will. An international
law expert at the University of Notre Dame, Mary Ellen O’Connell, has urged the Senate to
vote against Brennan on the grounds that the drone program is among “the
most highly unlawful and immoral practices the United States has ever undertaken.”
By tapping Brennan to direct the CIA, President Obama has signaled his
commitment to an expanded role for remote warfare, targeted assassinations,
comprehensive surveillance and an even greater projection and reach of U.S. military
why what took place in a courtroom in California
the day after Brennan’s nomination is significant.
activists were arraigned
last week in federal court on charges stemming from a peaceful
demonstration at Beale Air Force Base north of Sacramento, Calif.,
protesting drone warfare last October. Rev. Sharon Delgado, Jan Hartsough,
David Hartsough, Jane Kesselman and Shirley Osgood were charged with unlawfully
entering the Beale facility to protest the base’s drone fleet and will be
headed to trial in April. (Four others were arrested but their charges were
small but significant action was part of a growing movement intent on alerting,
educating and mobilizing the public to take stock of — and reject — the new
world of remote control surveillance and control that is rapidly coming into
being. This movement recognizes that the United States has crossed a line by
institutionalizing drone-centric warfare and, even more ominously, is well on
its way to creating a global culture in which remote aircraft will be as
natural as the air we breathe. Brennan’s likely ascension to the job of the
nation’s top spymaster and covert operations czar — especially in a period when
the CIA has been fielding its own drones operation — makes this more likely
drone culture is a chilling prospect. It promises to dramatically escalate a
trend that the United States
has been pursuing since the inception of the national security state in the
late 1940s: military superiority through surveillance — beginning with U-2
flights, the SR-71 Blackbird and the NAV-STAR satellite system — and land-,
sea- and air-based weapons systems. Its logic is to establish a regime of
incontestable control and to create a comprehensive, remote and automated
has profound geopolitical implications. But it also threatens something even
more monumental: the increasing depersonalization and dehumanization not only
of warfare but, more generally, of social organization and interaction. The
terror of the Atomic Age was the potential for the annihilation of life in a
matter of hours or days after a nuclear exchange. The terror of the Drone Age
is living under systems of control over the course of one’s whole life. Such a
regime could operationalize — and give factual bite to — George W. Bush’s pithy
declaration, “You are either with us or against us.” The disposition matrix of
the near future will have the capacity to more and more finely divide us into
“us” and “them.” What is being worked out today over the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan
— with all of its attendant horror and bloodshed on the ground — will likely be
applied far and wide.
of this will be deemed “legal.” And, if allowed to proceed unhindered, will
eventually pass largely out of the hands of human minders. But that’s inherent
in its logic. Drones carry on the radical detachment between cause and effect
that high-altitude bombers introduced during the Spanish Civil War and World
War II. With the horror unseen, one could increasingly accelerate the age-old
tactic of dehumanizing the opponent. In the Drone Age, the ultimate dream is to
hand this task entirely off to software so that no human fingerprints are even
found on the human wreckage it leaves in its path.
there are still fingerprints — and that may be part of our salvation. My
colleague Friar Louie Vitale (one of those arrested but not charged at Beale)
has been part of the anti-drones movement for several years. He recently told
me about a time he was vigiling at a major drone base as the employees were
headed home for the day. While he stood there with a sign, a man on a
motorcycle pulled over to chat. He said he was a captain who had flown a lot of
missions, and now was “flying” drones sitting at a monitor with a joystick. He
spoke matter-of-factly about conducting these operations. Nothing unnerved him
about what he was doing, he said — except when what he called CIV CAVS
(“civilian casualties”) were involved. When that happens, he told Louie, he
as another younger pilot Louie met on another occasion simply said, “I can’t
stand what I’m doing!”
those who order these attacks sleep at night? For that matter, do we? The drone
system is designed to keep our sleep untroubled. But there are some among us
who have decided to wake up, like the five going to court in April, and to in
turn invite us to do the same.
if more of us wiped the sleep from our eyes and decided that we will do
everything in our power to pull back from the horrific terrain we have let our
policy-makers enter? It is time to deepen and broaden this movement for human
rights. We could become part of Drones Watch
or Code Pink. We could read Medea
Benjamin’s book, Drone
Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. We could put ending the
“disposition matrix” on the agenda of our organizations. We could ask our
religious communities to spend some of their moral capital in standing for a
more ethical future, including signing onto “A
Call from the Faith-Based Community to Stop Drone Killings.” We could take
action like the Beale Five — who will face a maximum sentence of six months in
jail and a $5,000 fine when they head to trial in April — or like Brian Terrell, who is currently
serving a prison sentence for nonviolently resisting drones.
could also investigate — and begin to resist — our local connections to the
drone system. In 1988, as part of the U.S. Central America Peace Movement, the
Pledge of Resistance organized the “Military Connections Campaign,” which
identified how local military facilities and corporations were supporting this
policy. We organized hundreds of coordinated actions with the slogan “Stopping
the war starts here.” It may be time to ask, “What’s our local connection to
the emerging drone culture?”
are likely many local connections, which could be the basis of a nationwide
campaign to help the nation make a decision for a world free of drones and the
dehumanizing culture they portend.
Image by World Can't Wait, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, December 20, 2012 10:51 AM
This post originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
year ago around this time, Occupy Wall Street was celebrating Advent — the
season when Christians anticipate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In front of
Trinity Church, right at the top of Wall Street along Broadway, Occupiers set
up a little model tent with the statuettes of a nativity scene inside: Mary,
Joseph and the Christ child in a manger, surrounded by animals. In the back, an
angel held a tiny cardboard sign with a verse from Luke’s Gospel: “There was no
room for them in the inn.” The reason for these activists’ interest in the
liturgical calendar, of course, was the movement’s ongoing effort to convince
Trinity to start acting less like a real estate corporation and more like a
church, and to let the movement use a vacant property that Trinity owns.
year later, even as a resilient few continue their 24-hour vigil on the
sidewalk outside Trinity, churches and Occupiers are having a very different
kind of Advent season together. Finding room in churches is no longer a problem
for the movement.
The day after Hurricane Sandy struck New York in late
October, Occupiers hustled to organize a massive popular relief effort, and
Occupy Sandy came into being. By circumstance and necessity, it has mostly
taken place in churches; they are the large public spaces available in affected
areas, and they were the people willing to open their doors. Two churches on
high ground in Brooklyn became organizing hubs, and others in the Rockaways,
Coney Island, Staten Island and Red Hook
became depots for getting supplies and support to devastated neighborhoods. To
make this possible, Occupiers have had to win the locals’ trust — by helping
clean up the damaged churches and by showing their determination to help those
whom the state-sponsored relief effort was leaving behind. When the time for
worship services came around, they’d cleared the supplies off the pews.
Sandy has been miraculous for us, really,” said Bob
Dennis, parish manager at St. Margaret Mary, a Catholic church in Staten Island. “They are doing exactly what Christ
preached.” Before this, the police and firemen living in his neighborhood
hadn’t had much good to say about Occupy Wall Street, but that has changed
leaders are organizing tours to show off the Occupy Sandy relief efforts of
which they’ve been a part, and they’re speaking out against the failures of
city, state and federal government. Congregations are getting to know Occupiers
one on one by working together in a relief effort that every day — as the
profiteering developers draw nearer — is growing into an act of resistance.
that’s only one part of it. Months before Sandy, organizers with the Occupy
Wall Street group Strike Debt made a concerted effort to reach out to religious
allies for help on a new project they were calling the Rolling Jubilee; by
buying up defaulted loans for pennies on the dollar, and then abolishing them,
organizers hoped to spread the spirit of jubilee — an ancient biblical practice
of debt forgiveness.
religious groups jumped at the chance to help. Occupy Faith organized an event
in New York
to celebrate the Rolling Jubilee’s launch. Occupy Catholics (of which I am a
part) took the opportunity to reclaim the Catholic concepts of jubilee and
usury for the present economic crisis and released a statement in support of
the Rolling Jubilee that has been signed by Catholics across the country.
Rolling Jubilee idea has been hugely successful, raising more money more
quickly than anyone anticipated — around $10 million in debt is poised to be
abolished. But now Strike Debt, too, has turned its attention to working with
those affected by the hurricane. On Dec. 2, the group published “Shouldering
the Costs,” a report on the proliferation of debt in the aftermath of Sandy. The document was
released with an event at — where else? — a church in Staten
newfound access to religious real estate is not merely a convenience for this
movement; it has implications that a lot of people probably aren’t even
thinking about yet. Occupy Wall Street has learned from the Egyptian Revolution
before, and now, even if by accident, it is doing so again.
Tahrir Square was still full of tents and tanks, and Hosni Mubarak was still in
power, the editors of Adbusters magazine were already imagining a “Million Man
March on Wall Street,” the idea that led to what would become their July 13,
2011, call to #occupywallstreet. More than a year after the occupation at Zuccotti Park began, though, and nearly two years
after crowds first filled Tahrir, neither revolt very much resembles its
origins. The Egyptian Revolution, first provoked by tech-savvy young activists,
has now been hijacked as a coup for the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative
religious party; its only viable challenger is none other than Mubarak’s ancien
regime, minus only Mubarak himself. Occupy, meanwhile, has lost its encampments
and, despite whatever evidence there is to the contrary, most of its enemies in
power deem it no longer a threat.
many U.S. activists even today, the dream of creating a Tahrir-sized rupture in
this country persists — of finally drawing enough people into the streets and
causing enough trouble to make Wall Street cower. But what if something on the
scale of Tahrir really were to happen in the United States? What would be the
was thinking of this question recently while on an unrelated reporting mission
at a massive evangelical Christian megachurch near the Rocky
Mountains. Several thousand (mostly white, upper-middle-class)
people were there that day, of all ages. They had come back after Sunday
morning services for an afternoon series of talks on philosophy — far more
people than attend your average Occupy action.
time I step foot in one of these places, it strikes me how they put radicals in
the United States
to shame. These churches organize real, life-giving mutual aid as the basis of
an independent political discourse and power base. Church membership is far
larger, for instance, than that of unions in this country.
there were a sudden, Tahrir-like popular uprising right now, with riots in all
the cities and so forth, I can’t help but think that it would be organizations
like the church I went to that would come out taking power in the end, even
more so than they already do — just as the Islamists have in Egypt.
the idea of occupying symbolic public space was the Egyptians’ first lesson for
Occupy Wall Street, this is the second: Win religion over before it beats you
religion, again and again, people in the United States have organized for
power. Religion is also the means by which many imagine and work for a world
more just than this one. Just about every successful popular movement in U.S. history
has had to recognize this, from the American Revolution to labor, and from
civil rights to today’s campaigners for marriage equality — and now Occupy.
I stop by the Occupy Sandy hub near my house — the Episcopal church of St. Luke
and St. Matthew — and join the mayhem of volunteers carrying boxes this way and
that, and poke my head into the upper room full of laptops and organizers
around a long table, and see Occupiers in line for communion at Sunday
services, I keep thinking of how Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program ends.
The 12th step is where you cap off all the self-involved inner work you’ve been
doing, and get over yourself for a bit, and heal yourself by helping someone
who has been around Occupy Wall
Street during the year since its eviction from Zuccotti Park knows it has been in need of
healing. Whether through flood-soaked churches, or on the debt market, this is
how the Occupy movement has always been at its best, and its most exciting, and
its most necessary: When it shows people how to build their own power, and to
strengthen their own communities, this movement finds itself.
Image by Poster Boy NYC,
licensed under Creative
Wednesday, December 05, 2012 11:49 AM
This post originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
Mahoma Lopez, a long-time restaurant worker in New York City, it came down to a decision
between fight and flight. Last fall, his boss at the cafe on the Upper East
Side where Lopez had worked for years began cutting hours and screaming at his
employees, withholding overtime pay and threatening to fire anyone who
complained. Being Mexican-born and with halting English, Lopez had been in this
position before. Time after time, he’d quit; to be a proud man in his industry
required a fair number of employment changes.
and Crusty —” Lopez said, smiling as he began the story of his most recent
employer, one in a chain of cheap, 24-hour eateries sprinkled across Manhattan. Lopez leaned
back in the flimsy chair of the pizzeria a few blocks from his Queens apartment. With his large stomach thrust forward
and his wide cheeks covered in a trimmed beard, the 34-year-old looked stately,
December, the campaign began underground,” he said.
Last month, Lopez and his co-workers
at the Hot and Crusty on 63rd St.
won a suspenseful and highly atypical 11-month labor campaign. The battle
pitted 23 foreign-born restaurant workers, supported by a volunteer organizing
center and members of Occupy Wall Street, against a corporate restaurant chain
backed by a multimillion dollar private equity investment firm. The campaign
itself was filled with enough twists, betrayals and finally triumphs to be the
subject of an upcoming documentary,Cafe Wars (check out the trailer, below). Yet the story of Mahoma Lopez’s own
year-long evolution from an employee to an organizer exemplifies the new,
dynamic direction of the U.S.
labor movement that appears to be on the brink of resurgence.
has a friendly disposition, which he employs in conversation to smooth over
whatever difficulties have come his way. Crossing the Mexican-American border
with a coyote — a smuggler of migrants — was no big deal, he says, even though
the coyote was detained and imprisoned at the border, leaving 18-year-old Lopez
in charge of the rest of the group once they reached Texas. Lopez also talks about his father’s
early death deftly, explaining that it left him a good job as a gas station
attendant, which Lopez assumed when he was 13. His relaxed demeanor didn’t
inure him to things like chaotic protests; as a boy growing up in Mexico City, he was
generally against marches.
thought: The people are crazy,” he remembered.
aversion to chanting crowds doesn’t mean that Lopez can’t be rash and impulsive
in his own life. “Me enojé” —
which means “I got angry” in Spanish — is frequently his answer for why he made
various life decisions, from quitting unpleasant jobs to immigrating to the
U.S. But what Lopez sees in himself as recklessness, labor organizer Virgilio
Aran sees as the type of pride and steadfast character that can make someone a
very disciplined, that’s one of the most important qualities,” said Aran, who
became involved in the Hot and Crusty campaign at the end of 2011. “He has been
developing throughout the campaign, but I think that quality came with him
before I met him.”
who co-founded the Laundry
along with his wife, Rosanna Rodriguez, first heard about Hot and Crusty when
he received a call from one of Lopez’s co-workers, a man named Omar. At that
point, the campaign was in its “super-secret” infancy. It consisted only of
Lopez and two others, Gretel Areco and Gonzalo Jimenez, encouraging trusted co-workers
to call the city Labor Board’s anonymous hotline. This, at first, was about as
radical an action as Lopez was willing to take against his boss’s threats and
frequent tirades. Omar hadn’t yet been vetted, and his unsolicited offer to
call Aran put Lopez in a panic.
moment was one of Lopez’s first brushes with the heart-racing anxiety that can
come with organizing. By the end of the campaign, it would become a frequent
it turned out, Omar was trustworthy, and Aran was one of the city’s best
unaffiliated labor organizers. The newly-formed Laundry Workers
Center was looking for
its first campaign — although, as the group’s name implies, Aran had been eying
the city’s notoriously exploitative laundry industry, not the low-wage
restaurant business. Aran began an eight-week political education crash-course
for the Hot and Crusty workers, and Lopez became his most curious and
determined pupil. As the New Year approached, few could expect what was on the
horizon — both for the Hot and Crusty campaign and on the national scene.
the labor movement, 2012 began with all the paralysis of an election year,
combined with the gloomy disappointment of the failed
Scott Walker recall campaign in Wisconsin
six months earlier. To many grassroots activists, organized labor was too
lumbering and bureaucratic; to nearly everyone else, it was a pension-hungry
special interest group that no longer belonged in today’s economic reality.
the end of the year, however, labor had re-established itself through the
strike in Chicago, the first
successful strikes at Walmart stores and warehouses in its 50-year history,
the world’s largest private employer, the airport workers’ Thanksgiving Day
walkouts at LAX, and the
beginnings of an ambitious campaign to unionize employees at McDonald’s,
Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains in New York City. The movement
seemed invigorated, bursting with new leaders — and nowhere was this rapid
transformation happening faster than at the fringes of the labor world, where
the organizing could be focused on worker empowerment rather than continually
being constrained by restrictive labor laws.
places I see [exciting organizing] happening most consistently are on what we
would call the margins of the former labor movement,” writes
Jane McAlevey, a labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the
Labor Movement. This, she explains, “is in a lot of the immigrant
a blistering cold day in late January, smack in the middle of Manhattan, Mahoma Lopez and his small cadre
of co-workers and volunteer organizers went public with a 50-person march to
his Hot and Crusty store, where Lopez delivered a list of demands to a stunned
me, that was one of the most incredible moments,” Lopez remembered. He
confessed to being so nervous that, nearly one year later, he couldn’t quite
believe that it had been he who delivered “la
carta de demandas.”
to the scale of the teachers’ strike or the snowballing Walmart walkouts that
would erupt less than six months later, the Hot and Crusty fight was minuscule.
Yet, the backdrop — the Manhattan
food-service industry — was a microcosm of today’s highly globalized and highly
unequal economic system.
the city’s tens of thousands of restaurants net an annual profit of more than
$12 billion, according to the New York State Restaurant Association. Inside the
sector’s hierarchy, however, this wealth hardly trickles down. The majority of
the jobs the industry produces are low-wage, no-benefit positions that are
overwhelmingly held by immigrants, about a third of whom are undocumented.
According to a 2005
study, 60 percent of surveyed workers reported their bosses violating
overtime laws, and one-third reported being verbally abused at work.
workers like Mahoma Lopez often endure the most exploitative conditions.
According to a 2010 New York Times investigation,
Mexican men are more likely to be employed in the restaurant industry than any
other ethnic group, including American-born workers, in part because fear of
deportation and desperate economic need makes them unlikely to report
below-minimum-wage pay or workplace abuse.
this addiction to cheap labor drives down wages throughout the industry,
investors and private equity firms end up accumulating much of the resulting
profits. The chain that includes Lopez’s Hot and Crusty is owned by Praesidian
Capital, a $700 million company with a white South African operating partner
named Mark Samson. To the Hot and Crusty workers and supporting organizers,
Samson — living in a high-rise around the corner from the restaurant — became
the symbol of the industry’s power imbalance. Rumors flew about his investing
practices and his numerous chains of restaurants. But the bottom line that
sparked the labor struggle wasn’t jealousy over Samson’s and other investors’
tax filings — it was their labor practices.
doesn’t matter how rich you are, it matters what type of situation you’re putting
the workers’ lives in,” said Diego Ibanez, a volunteer organizer who worked
with Lopez and Aran to plan actions throughout the Hot and Crusty struggle.
that first freezing march, the escalation on both sides was fierce. The employees
organized and won an independent workers’ association recognized by the
National Labor Relations Board in May. They received tens of thousands of
dollars in back pay, only to learn that the company decided to close the store
in retaliation against the newly formed workers’ association. At that point,
the legal handbook went out the window, and Lopez’s impulsiveness became
indispensable. Far from being against a noisy protest, Lopez now hungered for
like to joke about the most radical things we could do, and he always liked
those conversations,” said Ibanez. When we joked about occupying the workplace,
and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do that.’ He liked the possibilities of
August 31, the day the manager came to inform Lopez that the store was to be
closed — a decision made weeks earlier — Lopez, his co-workers and a handful of
community members rushed into the restaurant and prevented its closure by
holding a workers’ assembly. The action resulted in multiple arrests and kicked
off a picket line and a week-long sidewalk cafe that, fittingly enough, opened
for (free) business on Labor Day.
back-and-forth continued. Finally the company relented, only to reveal that
unpaid rent had soured the relationship with the landlord, who wouldn’t renew
the lease. The workers’ picket stretched into its second month, straining
finances and spreading fatigue. Still, Lopez remained a bedrock of the
one point, his financial situation had become so precarious that Virgilio Aran
found Lopez — who has a wife and two sons to support — a part-time job, which
kept him away from the picket line for the first time since it began.
first day that he went to the part-time job, one of his co-workers stayed at
the picket line himself,” said Aran. “Mahoma called me that night and he said,
‘I won’t take the job. That was my first and last day.
here in the struggle for the victory, and the picket line is more important
than getting some type of income,’” Aran remembered Lopez saying. “That’s his
in late October, the company ceded to the workers’ demands — agreeing to reopen
the store, recognize the workers’ association and sign a collective-bargaining
agreement that included paid vacation and sick time for the workers, required
wage increases, a grievance and arbitration procedure, and a union hiring hall
that gives the association the power to hire new employees. That night, after
Lopez learned that he had finally won, he sat down and called every single
organizer and thanked them.
next week, as he waited for the store to reopen, Lopez became the newest
volunteer organizer with Laundry Workers’ Center. According to Aran, Lopez is
now one of the lead organizers on another underground labor campaign.
like any seasoned organizer, if you ask Mahoma Lopez about the new campaign, he
won’t reveal a word.
Photo by Workers of Hot
and Crusty. Used with permission.
Cafe Wars Trailer from Robin Blotnick on Vimeo.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 2:32 PM
This post originally appeared at Waging
are standing up to live better,” say Walmart’s retail workers, playfully
twisting Walmart’s slogan of “live better” into a rallying
cry for better conditions and treatment. In a taste of what the nation’s
largest retailer can expect on Black Friday, frustrated Walmart workers have
again started walking off their jobs to protest their employer’s attempts to
silence outspoken workers.
from both the retail and warehouse sectors of Walmart’s supply chain have
called for nation-wide protests, strikes and actions on, and leading up to,
next Friday — the busiest shopping day of the year. In the past week, wildcat
strikes in Dallas, Seattle and the Bay Area saw dozens of retail workers — from
multiple store — walk away from their shifts, suggesting that the Black Friday
threats are to be taken seriously.
Dan Schlademan, Director of the Making Change at Walmart campaign,
said in a nation-wide conference call organized for media on Thursday that
Walmart can expect more than 1,000 different protests, including strikes and
rallies at Walmart stores between now and Black Friday.
to organizers working with the Walmart retail workers’ association, OUR Walmart, stores around the country —
including, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Washington D.C. and
others — can expect workers to go on strike. Specific dates have not been
announced yet out of concern to minimize chances for Walmart to preemptively
silence workers’ voices.
are expecting a wide variety of activity — strikers right in front of their
stores, demonstrations, flash mobs, rallies and people working to educate
customers — I think it’s going to be a very creative day.” said Schlademan.
“Brave strikers are seeing a huge amount of support from community allies.”
Waging Nonviolence has previously reported,
the historic wildcat strikes are invigorating a new form of labor organizing of
non-union labor. By drawing on the support of community allies — particularly
from religious and student groups — workers are finding it increasingly easier
to resist their employer’s abuses.
addition to joining striking workers at rallies at Walmart stores, supporters
are able to donate
to Making Change at Walmart to help the striking low-wage workers make up lost
wages. In the form of food gift cards, the community support organization
Making Change at Walmart is providing concrete ways for others to be in
solidarity with Walmart’s workers. Thus far, $25,000 has been raised.
this kind of grassroots support pales in comparison to the revenue and capital
at Walmart’s disposal. Some Walmart executives are making upwards of $10
million a year while full-time retail workers struggle to make ends meet. Sara
Gilbert, a customer service manager at a Seattle Walmart, makes only $14,000 a
year to support her family.
work full time for one of the richest companies in the world and yet my
children are on state healthcare and we get subsidized housing,” said Gilbert
who joined other OUR Walmart associates in Seattle’s walkout on Thursday. Walmart posted
almost $16 billion in profits last year and recently announced changes to
employee healthcare premiums that could raise the cost for workers as much as
back in the struggle against Walmart are its warehouse workers. On November 14,
the Inland Empire, Calif.,
warehouse workers — who are privately contracted through the logistics company
NFI but move 100 percent Walmart goods — resumed their strike due to
retaliations against outspoken workers. The workers were part of the 15-day
strike in mid-September that re-ignited workers’ efforts to change
Walmart’s treatment of its employees.
Garcia, a warehouse worker from Southern California who took part in the first
strike, was recently terminated for speaking out against unsafe working conditions
and broken equipment. According to Elizabeth Brennan, an organizer with
Warehouse Workers United with whom the NFI workers are affiliated, about three
dozen workers have had their hours cut while others have been demoted and
suspended in retaliatory efforts from Walmart’s contractor to curb organizing
been tough,” said
Garcia. “My kids need food, school supplies and an apartment to sleep in at
night, but right now it is difficult to provide them these basic things.”
Thursday, six community supporters were arrested for blocking a major
thoroughfare to the Walmart-contracted warehouse. The two dozen striking
warehouse workers returned to work on November 16.
Inland Empire strike, which still demands an
end to unsafe working conditions, retaliatory practices and poor wages, comes
during a crucial time when much of Walmart’s supply chain is moving into high
gear. It remains unclear whether the strikes and walkouts will generate enough
pressure to force Walmart to systematically change how it treats its 1.4
million employees, but the Walmart workers movement seems to be spreading and
Action Network is hosting online activism for supporters as well as
publicizing some of the events planned at Walmart stores for Black Friday.
While some activists for workers’ rights and just wages advocate boycotting
Walmart and shopping on Black Friday in general, Making Change at Walmart has
not called for boycotts but affirms all efforts that support workers’ rights to
assemble and speak out.
Fletcher, a Walmart employee in California
plans to go on strike to emphasize her message that Walmart is not listening to
its workers. Fletcher and her husband both have to work Thanksgiving Day for
Walmart and will miss spending the holiday with their two young children.
Complaints have alleged that Walmart’s scheduling practices have made it very
difficult for families to spend time with each other on holidays like Thanksgiving
when Walmart plans to open its doors to shoppers that evening. Fletcher wants
Walmart executives to know that Walmart’s employees are just as important as
are going to make the ultimate sacrifice,” said Fletcher who is also a part of
OUR Walmart. “By going on strike on the busiest shopping day of the year, we
hope to send a message out to Walmart that we are not a small percentage of
workers who are struggling and that we mean business.”
Image by Walmart Corporate, licensed under Creative Commons.
And check out this video from OUR Walmart, "Why Are We Standing Up to Live Better?"
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!