Tuesday, May 21, 2013 4:40 PM
Rebecca Solnit on
injustice, struggle, and the hope that pushes us to action. “Everything is in
motion,” she writes, “and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.”
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall.
Solnit’s latest book,
The Faraway Nearby
will be published in June. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010.
This post originally appeared at Tom
Ten years ago,
my part of the world was full of valiant opposition to the new wars being launched
far away and at home -- and of despair. And like despairing people everywhere,
whether in a personal depression or a political tailspin, these activists
believed the future would look more or less like the present. If there was
nothing else they were confident about, at least they were confident about
that. Ten years ago, as a contrarian and a person who prefers not to see others
suffer, I tried to undermine despair with the case for hope.
A decade later,
the present is still contaminated by the crimes of that era, but so much has
changed. Not necessarily for the better -- a decade ago, most spoke of climate
change as a distant problem, and then it caught up with us in 10,000 ways. But
not entirely for the worse either -- the vigorous climate movement we needed
arose in that decade and is growing now. If there is one thing we can draw from
where we are now and where we were then, it’s that the unimaginable is
ordinary, and the way forward is almost never a straight path you can glance
down, but a labyrinth of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by
accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.
The despairing of May 2003 were convinced of one true thing, that we had
the invasion of Iraq, but they extrapolated from that a series of false
assumptions about our failures and our powerlessness across time and space.
They assumed -- like the neoconservatives themselves -- that those neocons
would be atop the world for a long time to come. Instead, the neocon and neoliberal ideologies have been widely reviled and
renounced around the world; the Republicans’ demographic hemorrhage has weakened them in this country;
the failures of their wars are evident to everyone; and though they still grasp
fearsome power, everything has indeed changed. Everything changes: there lies
most of our hope and some of our fear.
extraordinary change in my lifetime, some of it in the last decade. I was born
in a country that had been galvanized and unsettled by the civil rights
movement, but still lacked a meaningful environmental movement, women’s movement, or queer rights
movement (beyond a couple of small organizations founded in California in the 1950s).
Half a century ago, to be gay or lesbian was to live in hiding or be treated as
mentally ill or criminal. That 12 states and several countries would legalize same-sex marriage was beyond imaginable then. It wasn’t
even on the table in 2003. San Francisco’s spring run of same-sex weddings in
2004 flung open the doors through which so many have passed since.
If you take the
long view, you’ll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things
change. Not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of
courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve
new landscapes, and sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world
suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end
regardless. I’m just telling you that everything is in motion, and sometimes we
are ourselves that movement.
history are sisters: one looks forward and one looks back, and they make the
world spacious enough to move through freely. Obliviousness to the past and to
the mutability of all things imprisons you in a shrunken present. Hopelessness
often comes out of that amnesia, out of forgetting that everything is in
motion, everything changes. We have a great deal of history of defeat,
suffering, cruelty, and loss, and everyone should know it. But that’s not all
There’s the people’s history, the counterhistory
that you didn’t necessarily get in school and don’t usually get on the news:
the history of the battles we’ve won, of the rights we’ve gained, of the
differences between then and now that those who live in forgetfulness lack.
This is often the history of how individuals came together to produce that
behemoth civil society, which stands astride nations and topples regimes -- and
mostly does it without weapons or armies. It’s a history that undermines most
of what you’ve been told about authority and violence and your own
is our power, our joy, and our possibility, and it has written a lot of the
history in the last few years, as well as the last half century. If you doubt
our power, see how it terrifies those at the top, and remember that they fight
it best by convincing us it doesn’t exist. It does exist, though, like lava
beneath the earth, and when it erupts, the surface of the earth is remade.
And people sometimes have the power to make that happen, if and when they come
together and act (and occasionally act alone, as did writers Rachel Carson and
Harriet Beecher Stowe -- or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose suicide triggered
the Arab Spring).
If you fix your
eye on where we started out, you’ll see that we’ve come a long way by those
means. If you look forward, you’ll see that we have a long way to go -- and
that sometimes we go backward when we forget that we fought for the eight-hour workday or workplace safety or women’s rights or voting rights or
affordable education, forget that we won them, that they’re precious, and that
we can lose them again. There’s much to be proud of, there’s much to mourn,
there’s much yet to do, and the job of doing it is ours, a heavy gift to carry.
And it’s made to be carried, by people who are unstoppable, who are movements,
who are change itself.
Too Soon to Tell
Ten years ago I
began writing about hope and speaking about it. My online essay “Acts of Hope,”
posted on May 19, 2003, was my first encounter with Tomdispatch.com, which
would change my work and my life. It gave me room for another kind of voice and
another kind of writing. It showed me how the Internet could give wings to
words. What I wrote then and subsequently for the site spread around the world
in remarkable ways, putting me in touch with people and movements, and deeper
into conversations about the possible and the impossible (and into a cherished
friendship with the site’s founder and editor, Tom Engelhardt).
For a few
years, I spoke about hope around this country and in Europe.
I repeatedly ran into comfortably situated people who were hostile to the idea
of hope: they thought that hope somehow betrayed the desperate and downtrodden,
as if the desperate wanted the solidarity of misery from the privileged, rather
than action. Hopelessness for people in extreme situations means resignation to
one’s own deprivation or destruction. Hope can be a survival strategy. For
comfortably situated people, hopelessness means cynicism and letting oneself
off the hook. If everything is doomed, then nothing is required (and vice
Despair is often premature: it’s a form of impatience as
well as certainty. My favorite comment about political change comes from Zhou
En-Lai, the premier of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao. Asked in
the early 1970s about his opinion of the French Revolution, he reportedly
answered, “Too soon to tell.” Some say that he was talking about the revolutions of 1968, not 1789, but even then it provides a
generous and expansive perspective. To hold onto uncertainty and possibility
and a sense that even four years later, no less nearly two centuries after the
fact, the verdict still isn’t in is more than most people I know are prepared
to offer. A lot of them will hardly give an event a month to complete its
effects, and many movements and endeavors are ruled failures well before
Not long ago, I
ran into a guy who’d been involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, that great
upwelling in southern Manhattan
in the fall of 2011 that catalyzed a global conversation and a series of
actions and occupations nationwide and globally. He offered a tailspin of a
description of how Occupy was over and had failed.
But I wonder:
How could he possibly know? It really is too soon to tell. First of all, maybe
the kid who will lead the movement that will save the world was catalyzed by
what she lived through or stumbled upon in Occupy Fresno or Occupy Memphis, and
we won’t reap what she sows until 2023 or 2043. Maybe the seeds of something
more were sown, as they were in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968
and Charter 77, for the great and unforeseen harvest that was the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the nonviolent overthrow of the
Soviet totalitarian state in that country.
began to say what needed to be said about greed and capitalism, exposing a
brutality that had long been hushed up, revealing both the victims of debt and
the rigged economy that created it. This country changed because those things
were said out loud. I can’t say exactly how, but I know it mattered. So much
that matters is immeasurable, unquantifiable, and beyond price. Laws around
banking, foreclosure, and student loans are changing -- not enough, not
everywhere, but some people will benefit, and they matter. Occupy didn’t cause
those changes directly, but it did much to make the voice of the people audible
and the sheer wrongness of our debt system visible -- and gave momentum to the
ongoing endeavors to overturn Citizens
United and abolish corporate personhood.
Third, I only
know a little of what the thousands of local gatherings and networks we mean by
“Occupy” are now doing, but I know that Occupy Sandy is still doing vital work
in the destruction zone of that hurricane and was about the best grassroots
disaster relief endeavor this nation has ever seen. I know that Strike Debt, a direct offshoot of Occupy
Wall Street, has relieved millions
of dollars in medical debt, not with the sense that we can fix all debt
this way, but that we can demonstrate the malleability, the artifice, and the
immorality of the student, medical, and housing debt that is destroying so many
lives. I know that the Occupy Homes foreclosure defenders have been doing
amazing things, often one home at a time, from Atlanta
(Last Friday, Occupy Our Homes organized a “showdown at the Department of
Justice” in Washington, D.C.; that Saturday, Strike Debt Bay Area held their
second Debtors' Assembly: undead from coast to coast.)
Fourth, I know
people personally whose lives were changed, and who are doing work they never
imagined they would be involved in, and I’m friends with remarkable people who,
but for Occupy, I would not know existed. People connected across class,
racial, and cultural lines in the flowering of that movement. Like Freedom
Summer, whose consequences were to be felt so far beyond Mississippi in 1964, this will have reach
beyond the moment in which I write and you read.
was great joy at the time,
the joy of liberation and of solidarity, and joy is worth something in itself.
In a sense, it’s worth everything, even if it’s always fleeting, though not
always as scarce as we imagine.
Climates of Hope and Fear
I had lunch
with Middle East and nonviolence scholar Stephen Zunes the other day
and asked him what he would say about the Arab Spring now. He had, he told me,
been in Egypt
several months ago watching television with an activist. Formerly, the news was
always about what the leaders did, decided, ordained, inflicted. But the news
they were watching was surprisingly focused on civil society, on what ordinary
people initiated or resisted, on how they responded, what they thought. He
spoke of how so many in the Middle East had
lost their fatalism and sense of powerlessness and awoken to their own
society remains awake in Egypt
and the other countries. What will it achieve? Maybe it’s too soon to tell. Syria is a
turbulent version of hell now, but it could be leaving the dynasty of the
Assads in the past; its future remains to be written. Perhaps its people will
indeed write the next chapter in its story, and not only with explosives.
You can tell
the arc of the past few years as, first, the Arab Spring, then extraordinary
civil society actions in Chile,
Quebec, Spain, and elsewhere, followed by
Occupy. But don't stop there.
came Idle No More, the
Canada-based explosion of indigenous power and resistance (to a Canadian
government that has gone over to the far right and to environmental destruction
on a grand scale). It was founded by four women in November of 2012 and it’s spread across North
America, sparking new environmental actions and new coalitions around
environmental and climate issues, with flash-mob-style powwows in shopping
malls and other places, with a thousand-mile walk (and snowshoe) by seven Cree
youth this winter. (There were 400 people with them by the time they arrived at Canada’s
Parliament in Ottawa.)
Idle No More
activists have vowed to block the construction of any pipeline that tries to
transport the particularly dirty crude oil from the Alberta
tar sands, whether it heads north, east, or west from northern Alberta.
Each of those directions takes it over native land. This is part of the reason
why tar sands supporters are pushing so hard to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
push back is also strong. Our fate may depend on it. As climate scientist James
Hansen wrote a year ago, “Canada’s tar sands, deposits of
sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted
by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new
oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas, and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more
than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it
The news just
came in that we reached 400
parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the highest level in more than five million years. This is
terrible news on a scale that eclipses everything else, because it encompasses
everything else. We are wrecking our world, for everyone for all time, or at
least the next several thousand years. But “we” is a tricky word here. Some of
the people I most love and admire are doing extraordinary things to save the
world, for you, for us, for generations unborn, for species yet to be named,
for the oceans and sub-Saharan Africans and Arctic dwellers and everyone
in-between, for the whole unbearably beautiful symphony of life on Earth that
Part of what
sustains me in the face of this potential cataclysm is remembering that, in
2003, there hardly was a climate movement. It was small, polite, mostly
believed the troubles were decades away, and was populated with people who
thought that lifestyle changes could save the planet -- rather than that you
have to get out there and fight the power. And they were the good ones. Too
many of us didn’t think about it at all.
Only a few
years later, things have changed. There’s a vibrant climate movement in North America. If you haven’t quite taken that in, it
might be because it’s working on so many disparate fronts that are often
treated separately: mountaintop coal removal, coal-fired power
plants (closing 145 existing ones to date and preventing more than 150
planned ones from opening), fracking, oil exploration in the Arctic, the Tar
Sands pipeline, and 350.org’s juggernaut of a campus campaign to promote disinvestment from oil, gas, and
coal companies. Only started in November 2012, there are already divestment
movements underway on more than 380 college and university campuses, and now
cities are getting on board. It has significant victories; it will have more.
-- notably Germany, with Denmark not far
behind -- have done remarkable things when it comes to promoting
non-fossil-fuel renewable energy. Copenhagen,
for example, in the cold gray north, is on track to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025 (and in the meantime reduced
its carbon emissions 25% between 2005 and 2011). The United States has a host of
promising smaller projects. To offer just two examples, Los Angeles has committed to being coal-free by 2025, while
San Francisco will offer its citizens electricity from 100% renewable and
carbon-neutral sources and its supervisors just voted to divest the city’s fossil-fuel stocks.
There are so
many pieces of the potential solution to this puzzle, and some of them are for
you to put together. Whether they will multiply or ever add up to enough we
don’t yet know. We need more: more people, more transformations, more ways to
conquer and dismantle the oil companies, more of a vision of what is at stake,
more of the great force that is civil society. Will we get it? I don’t know.
Neither do you. Anything could happen.
But here’s what
I’m saying: you should wake up amazed every day of your life, because if I had
told you in 1988 that, within three years, the Soviet satellite states would
liberate themselves nonviolently and the Soviet Union
would cease to exist, you would have thought I was crazy. If I had told you in
1990 that South America was on its way to liberating itself and becoming a continent of
progressive and democratic experiments, you would have considered me
delusional. If, in November 2010, I had told you that, within months, the
autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had dominated Egypt
since 1981, would be overthrown by 18 days of popular uprisings, or that the
dictators of Tunisia
would be ousted, all in the same year, you would have institutionalized me. If
I told you on September 16, 2011, that a bunch of kids sitting in a park in lower Manhattan would rock the country, you’d say I
was beyond delusional. You would have, if you believed as the despairing do,
that the future is invariably going to look like the present, only more so. It
I still value
hope, but I see it as only part of what’s required, a starting point. Think of
it as the match but not the tinder or the blaze. To matter, to change the
world, you also need devotion and will and you need to act. Hope is only where
it begins, though I’ve also seen people toil on without regard to hope, to what
they believe is possible. They live on principle and they gamble, and sometimes
they even win, or sometimes the goal they were aiming for is reached long after
their deaths. Still, it’s action that gets you there. When what was once hoped
for is realized, it falls into the background, becomes the new normal; and we
hope for or carp about something else.
The future is
bigger than our imaginations. It’s unimaginable, and then it comes anyway. To
meet it we need to keep going, to walk past what we can imagine. We need to be
unstoppable. And here’s what it takes: you don’t stop walking to congratulate
yourself; you don’t stop walking to wallow in despair; you don’t stop because
your own life got too comfortable or too rough; you don’t stop because you won;
you don’t stop because you lost. There’s more to win, more to lose, others who
You don’t stop
walking because there is no way forward. Of course there is no way. You walk
the path into being, you make the way, and if you do it well, others can follow
the route. You look backward to grasp the long history you’re moving forward
from, the paths others have made, the road you came in on. You look forward to
possibility. That’s what we mean by hope, and you look past it into the
impossible and that doesn’t stop you either. But mostly you just walk, right
foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. That’s what makes you unstoppable.
Rebecca Solnit’s first essay for Tomdispatch.com turned into the book
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
, since translated into eight languages. Portions
of this essay began life as the keynote speech at the National Lawyers' Guild
gala in honor of attorney and human rights activist Walter Riley, whose own
life is a beautiful example of unstoppability.
Image by David Shankbone,
licensed under Creative
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, 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, October 30, 2012 11:22 AM
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
In ancient China,
the arrival of a new dynasty was accompanied by “the rectification of names,” a
ceremony in which the sloppiness and erosion of meaning that had taken place
under the previous dynasty were cleared up and language and its subjects
correlated again. It was like a debt jubilee, only for meaning rather than
This was part of what made Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign so
electrifying: he seemed like a man who spoke our language and called many if
not all things by their true names. Whatever caused that season of clarity,
once elected, Obama promptly sank into the stale, muffled, parallel-universe
language wielded by most politicians, and has remained there ever since.
Meanwhile, the far right has gotten as far as it has by mislabeling just about
everything in our world -- a phenomenon which went supernova in this year of
“legitimate rape,” “the apology tour,” and “job creators.” Meanwhile,
their fantasy version of economics keeps getting more fantastic. (Maybe there
should be a rectification of numbers, too.)
Let’s rectify some names ourselves. We often speak as though the source of
so many of our problems is complex and even mysterious. I'm not sure it is. You
can blame it all on greed: the refusal to do anything about climate change, the
attempts by the .01% to destroy our democracy, the constant robbing of the poor,
the resultant starving children, the war against most of what is beautiful on
Calling lies "lies" and theft "theft"
and violence "violence," loudly, clearly, and consistently, until
truth becomes more than a bump in the road, is a powerful aspect of political
activism. Much of the work around human rights begins with accurately and
aggressively reframing the status quo as an outrage, whether it’s misogyny or
racism or poisoning the environment. What protects an outrage are disguises,
circumlocutions, and euphemisms -- “enhanced interrogation techniques” for
torture, “collateral damage” for killing civilians, “the war on terror” for the
war against you and me and our Bill of Rights.
Change the language and you’ve begun to change the reality or at least to
open the status quo to question. Here is Confucius on the rectification of
“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what
is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this
remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the
people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no
arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”
So let’s start calling manifestations of greed by their true name. By greed,
I mean the attempt of those who have plenty to get more, not the attempts of
the rest of us to survive or lead a decent life. Look at the Waltons of
Wal-Mart fame: the four main heirs are among the dozen richest people on the planet,
each holding about $24 billion. Their wealth is equivalent to that of the bottom 40% of Americans. The corporation Sam Walton
founded now employs 2.2 million workers, two-thirds of them in the U.S., and
the great majority are poorly paid, intimidated, often underemployed people who
routinely depend on government benefits to survive. You could call that Walton
Family welfare -- a taxpayers' subsidy to their system. Strikes launched against Wal-Mart this summer and fall protested
working conditions of astonishing barbarity -- warehouses that reach 120
degrees, a woman eight months pregnant forced to work at a brutal pace, commonplace exposure to
pollutants, and the intimidation of those who attempted to organize or
You would think that $24,000,000,000 apiece would be enough, but the Walton
family sits atop a machine intent upon brutalizing tens of millions of people
-- the suppliers of Wal-Mart notorious for their abysmal working conditions, as
well as the employees of the stores -- only to add to piles of wealth already
obscenely vast. Of course, what we call corporations are, in fact, perpetual motion
machines, set up to endlessly extract wealth (and leave slagheaps of poverty
behind) no matter what.
They are generally organized in such a way that the brutality that leads to
wealth extraction is committed by subcontractors at a distance or described in
euphemisms, so that the stockholders, board members, and senior executives
never really have to know what’s being done in their names. And yet it is their
job to know -- just as it is each of our jobs to know what systems feed us and
exploit or defend us, and the job of writers, historians, and journalists to
rectify the names for all these things.
The most terrifying passage in whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s gripping book
A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is not about his
time in Vietnam,
or his life as a fugitive after he released the Pentagon Papers. It’s about a
1969 dinnertime conversation with a co-worker in a swanky house in Pacific
Palisades, California. It took place right after Ellsberg and five of his
colleagues had written a letter to the New York Times arguing for
immediate withdrawal from the unwinnable, brutal war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg’s
host said, “If I were willing to give up all this... if I were willing to
renege on... my commitment to send my son to Groton... I would have signed the
In other words, his unnamed co-worker had weighed trying to
prevent the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people against the
upper-middle-class perk of having his kid in a fancy prep school, and chosen
the latter. The man who opted for Groton
was, at least, someone who worked for what he had and who could imagine having
painfully less. This is not true of the ultra-rich shaping the future of our
They could send tens of thousands to Groton,
buy more Renoirs and ranches, and still not exploit the poor or destroy the
environment, but they’re as insatiable as they are ruthless. They are often
celebrated in their aesthetic side effects: imposing mansions, cultural patronage, jewels, yachts. But in many, maybe most, cases they got rich
through something a lot uglier, and that ugliness is still ongoing. Rectifying
the names would mean revealing the ugliness of the sources of their fortunes
and the grotesque scale on which they contrive to amass them, rather than the
gaudiness of the trinkets they buy with them. It would mean seeing and naming
the destruction that is the corollary of most of this wealth creation.
A Storm Surge of Selfishness
Where this matters most is climate change. Why have we done almost nothing
over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present
catastrophe? Because it was bad for quarterly returns and fossil-fuel
portfolios. When posterity indicts our era, this will be the feeble answer for
why we did so little -- that the rich and powerful with ties to the
carbon-emitting industries have done everything in their power to prevent
action on, or even recognition of, the problem. In this country in particular,
they spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change and
punishing politicians who brought the subject up. In this way have we gone
through four “debates” and nearly a full election cycle with climate change
unmentioned and unmentionable.
These three decades of refusing to respond have wasted crucial time. It’s as
though you were prevented from putting out a fire until it was raging: now the
tundra is thawing and Greenland’s ice shield
is melting and nearly every natural system is disrupted, from
the acidifying oceans to the erratic seasons to droughts, floods, heat waves,
and wildfires, and the failure of crops. We can still respond, but the climate
is changed; the damage we all spoke of, only a few years ago, as being in the
future is here, now.
You can look at the chief executive officers of the oil corporations --
Chevron’s John Watson, for example, who received almost $25 million ($1.57 million in salary and the rest in
“compensation”) in 2011 -- or their major shareholders. They can want for
nothing. They’re so rich they could quit the game at any moment. When it comes
to climate change, some of the wealthiest people in the world have weighed the
fate of the Earth and every living thing on it for untold generations to come,
the seasons and the harvests, this whole exquisite planet we evolved on, and
they have come down on the side of more profit for themselves, the least needy
people the world has ever seen.
Take those billionaire energy tycoons Charles and David Koch, who are all
over American politics these days. They are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama, partly because
he offends their conservative sensibilities, but also because he is less likely
to be a completely devoted servant of their profit margins. He might, if we
shout loud enough, rectify a few names. Under pressure, he might even
listen to the public or environmental groups, while Romney poses no such
problem (and under a Romney administration they will probably make more back in
tax cuts than they are gambling on his election).
Two years ago, the Koch brothers spent $1 million on California’s
Proposition 23, an initiative written and put on the ballot by out-of-state oil
companies to overturn our 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. It lost by a
landslide, but the Koch brothers have also invested a small fortune in
spreading climate-change denial and sponsoring the Tea Party (which they can
count on to oppose climate change regulation as big government or interference
with free enterprise). This year they’re backing a California
initiative to silence unions. They want nothing to stand in the way of
corporate power and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Think of it as another
kind of war, and consider the early casualties.
As the Irish Timesput it in an editorial this summer:
"Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America,
hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the
last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa,
and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa
face starvation. Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the
Global Humanitarian Forum, headed up by former U.N. secretary general Kofi
Annan, climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affects 300
million people annually. By 2030, the annual death toll related to climate
change is expected to rise to 500,000 and the economic cost to rocket to $600
This coming year may see a dramatic increase in hunger due to rising food
prices from crop failures, including this summer’s in the U.S. Midwest after a
scorching drought in which the Mississippi River
nearly ran dry and crops withered.
We need to talk about climate change as a war against nature, against the
poor (especially the poor of Africa), and
against the rest of us. There are casualties, there are deaths, and there is
destruction, and it’s all mounting. Rectify the name, call it war. While we’re
at it, take back the term “pro-life” to talk about those who are trying to save
the lives of all the creatures suffering from the collapse of the complex
systems on which plant and animal as well as human lives depend. The other
The complex array of effects from climate change and their global
distribution, as well as their scale and the science behind them makes it
harder to talk about than almost anything else on Earth, but we should talk
about it all the more because of that. And yes, the rest of us should do more,
but what is the great obstacle those who have already tried to do so much
invariably come up against? The oil corporations, the coal companies, the
energy industry, its staggering financial clout, its swarms of lobbyists, and the politicians in its clutches. Those who
benefit most from the status quo, I learned in studying disasters, are always
the least willing to change.
The Doublespeak on Taxes
I’m a Californian so I faced the current version of American greed early.
Proposition 13, the initiative that froze property taxes and made it nearly
impossible to raise taxes in our state, went into effect in 1978, two years
former governor Ronald Reagan won the presidency, in part by catering to greed.
Prop 13, as it came to be known, went into effect when California was still an
affluent state with the best educational system in the world, including some of
the top universities around, nearly free to in-staters all the way through
graduate school. Tax cuts have trashed the state and that education system, and they are now doing the same to
our country. The public sphere is to society what the biosphere is to life on
earth: the space we live in together, and the attacks on them have parallels.
What are taxes? They are that portion of your income that you contribute to
the common good. Most of us are unhappy with how they’re allocated -- though
few outside the left talk about the fact that more than half of federal discretionary expenditures go to our gargantuan military, more money than is spent on the next 14 militaries combined. Ever since Reagan, the right
has complained unceasingly about fantasy expenditures -- from that president’s “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird and
PBS (which consumes .001% of federal expenditures).
As part of its religion of greed, the right invented a series of myths about
where those taxes went, how paying them was the ultimate form of oppression,
and what boons tax cuts were to bring us. They then delivered the biggest
tax cuts of all to those who already had a superfluity of money and weren’t
going to pump the extra they got back into the economy. What they really were
saying was that they wanted to hang onto every nickel, no matter how the public
sphere was devastated, and that they really served the ultra-rich, over and
over again, not the suckers who voted them into office.
Despite decades of cutting to the bone, they continue to promote tax cuts as
if they had yet to happen. Their constant refrain is that we are too poor to
feed the poor or educate the young or heal the sick, but the poverty isn’t
monetary: it’s moral and emotional. Let’s rectify some more language: even at
this moment, the United States
remains the richest nation the world has ever seen, and California
-- with the richest agricultural regions on the planet and a colossal high-tech
boom still ongoing in Silicon Valley -- is
loaded, too. Whatever its problems, the U.S. is still swimming in
abundance, even if that abundance is divided up ever more unequally.
Really, there’s more than enough to feed every child well, to treat every
sick person, to educate everyone well without saddling them with hideous debt,
to support the arts, to protect the environment -- to produce, in short, a
glorious society. The obstacle is greed. We could still make the sorts of
changes climate change requires of us and become a very different nation
without overwhelming pain. We would then lead somewhat different lives -- richer, not poorer, for most of us (in meaning, community,
power, and hope). Because this culture of greed impoverishes all of us, it is,
to call it by its true name, destruction.
Occupy the Names
One of the great accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street was this
rectification of names. Those who came together under that rubric named the
greed, inequality, and injustice in our system; they made the brutality of debt
and the subjugation of the debtors visible; they called out Wall Street’s
crimes; they labeled the wealthiest among us the “1%,” those who have made a
profession out of pumping great sums of our wealth upwards (quite a different
kind of tax). It was a label that made instant sense across much of the
political spectrum. It was a good beginning. But there’s so much more to do.
Naming is only part of the work, but it’s a crucial first step. A doctor
initially diagnoses, then treats; an activist or citizen must begin by
describing what is wrong before acting. To do that well is to call things by
their true names. Merely calling out these names is a beam of light powerful
enough to send the destroyers it shines upon scurrying for cover like roaches.
After that, you still need to name your vision, your plan, your hope, your
dream of something better.
Names matter; language matters; truth matters. In this era when the
mainstream media serve obfuscation and evasion more than anything else (except
distraction), alternative media, social media, demonstrations in the streets,
and conversations between friends are the refuges of truth, the places where we
can begin to rectify the names. So start talking.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by David Shankbone,
licensed under Creative
Monday, October 15, 2012 3:03 PM
Occupying Zuccotti Park was nothing if not a long-shot, but
it was also the kind of long-shot David Graeber was used to taking. For more
than ten years, Graeber has juggled global justice activism with a
distinguished career in anthropology, work that has kept him bouncing across
continents, facing down riot police and tenure committees with equal poise and
determination. One of a handful of activists who imagined and planned the early
Occupy actions, Graeber has lent his considerable experience to the burgeoning
movement. In 2012, Graeber was named an Utne Visionary. Check out the video and links below to learn more about David
Graeber, his work with Occupy and Alter-Globalization, and his latest book on
the history of debt.
Below: Democracy Now! interview with David
Graeber on the beginnings and mechanics of Occupy Wall Street and the moral power of
debt (September 19, 2011).
David Graeber gives a short teach-in at Occupy Wall Street’s Free University on
democracy, sovereignty, and constituent power.
Debt Spark A Revolution?” The Nation,
September 5, 2012.
Liberation From Liberalism: The Real Meaning of May Day,” The Guardian, May 7, 2012.
“Of Flying Cars and
the Declining Rate of Profit,” The
Baffler, No. 19.
Position,” The New Inquiry,
October 8, 2012.
Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street,” Businessweek, October 26, 2011.
Direct Action: An
, AK Press, 2009.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
, Melville House,
Image by David Graeber, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 14, 2012 4:25 PM
This post originally appeared on Shareable.net.
Last year, on September 17, a
group of about 1000 people gathered in Bowling
Green to attempt to Occupy
Wall Street, whatever that meant. For those of us who’d been participating
in the planning assemblies all August, well, it went a little better than any
of us imagined it would. 2012 has seen less world-changing protest than 2011,
with Arab Spring, Walkerville in Wisconsin, the Indignados
movement in Spain, the uprisings in Greece and Israel, the London riots, the
Wukan commune and of course, Occupy. Still, 2012 has seen Occupy Nigeria, huge student movements in Chile and Quebec,
Mayday, corruption protests in India,
organizing around Trayvon Martin, and, with the escalating teachers’ strike in Chicago and a potential
East and West coast port shutdown, a still developing but potentially powerful
chain of strikes. The world is changed, changed utterly, and there is no doubt
in my mind that the next decade will see increasingly wild and escalating
peoples’ movements throughout the globe.
But as Occupy Wall Street ‘turns one year old’,
the vision for the movement is shakier. This weekend, leading up to a mass
day of action for September 17, Occupy organizers have planned a series of
events: an open ended educational
rally at Washington Square Park and an anti-capitalist
march uptown on September 15th, a march and party at Foley Square and Zuccotti on the 16th,
and an “anarchists against capitalism” march and rally on the big day,
Monday, 9/17, at Zuccotti park, including an attempted shut down of Wall
Street. Not to be flanked or caught off-guard again, the NYPD have already installed
cement barriers around Zuccotti, making it look more like a security checkpoint
in the Middle East than a public park in downtown Manhattan.
As we move towards OWS’ first
big day since the lukewarm success of Mayday, it seems like there’s a lot at
stake, and it's hard to imagine how we can turn it into something lasting. For
one thing, it’s clear that the militarized, misanthropic police forces of
America (perhaps even the world) will never let people establish another
occupation in a public park—from the spring’s attempted re-occupations of a
series of parks in Manhattan to the Gill Tract farm occupation in Berkeley,
police and owners have shown an absolute unwillingness to allow another
occupation to take hold. Even building occupations, like the 888 Turk
occupation in San Francisco,
have been responded to with immediate crackdown.
And while this behavior of the
police’s is vile and authoritarian, they’re strategically right not to allow an
inch. OWS produced a rupture in the ‘post-political’ ‘after-history’ narrative
that Neoliberalism loves to tell itself, and proved that resistance to
austerity and marketization is a real force, both here and abroad. And Occupy
opened up new communities of resistance and new territories for struggle across
the country while radicalizing thousands. The media narrative that “OWS changed
the dialogue” is a purposefully miniscule claim. The real effects of Occupy are
harder to nail down but much more meaningful.
Still, what of September 17th?
It’s hard to say. In some ways, the feeling is similar to that we were
experiencing this time last year: how many people will show up? Will we be
immediately shut down by the NYPD? What will it end up meaning? But there’s a
lack now too: an original energy, an excitement that marked last summer is
missing. We want a new rupture to explode, but no one agrees on how to make it
Until the 17th, it seems, there
will be more questions than answers. What does it mean to ‘celebrate’ a year
since Occupy’s appearance? Is Occupy still a meaningful force in people’s
lives? In America?
Can September 17th lead to a new phase of struggle in New York, or will it be the end to a
movement that was always hard to capture under a single rubric anyway? Even the
impulse towards prognostication seems to portend an unhappy result.
But this pessimism of the
intellect also hides something fundamental about Occupy. While we may never
have a camp in downtown Manhattan
again (or, at least, not until we’re much more powerful) the downstream effects
and inspiration of Occupy are everywhere. The militancy of the Chicago
Teacher’s Strike, the biggest such strike in generations, reflects a new
capacity for grassroots struggle inspired by Walkerville in Wisconsin and by Occupy. (Of course, it also
reflects a tremendous amount of hard work and organization within the union by
its new leading coalition, which should not be overlooked). Occupy has helped
open up a space for radical action in America, and that space still has
not closed. Whatever the future holds for Occupy Wall Street, whatever the
results of September 17 (and, if you’re in New York, I hope to see you there!) we live
in a new phase of grassroots action and social struggle.
A few more
Occupy articles to read: Solidarity During Wartime in the Streets of Chicago, Occupy Main Street: Reports from the Front-Lines, From Foreclosure to Occupation, The Park and the Protests
Image by DoctorTongs, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 09, 2012 12:22 PM
Peter Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is an Emmy Award-winning composer, NY Times best-selling author and noted philanthropist. Currently, he is releasing socially-conscious music and touring his “Concert & Conversation” series in support of his book Life Is What You Make It.
Since “Independence Day” just passed, I thought I’d offer up
aspects of that story that we sometimes forget in all the celebratory activity.
When a business wants to show that they’ve been around
awhile they, quite naturally, display how long they’ve been established. You’ve
seen the signage: Est. 1897… Est. 1974… whatever
the number is that will give the business some heft. And, of course, the date
chosen is the very earliest they could possibly make the claim. Longevity
translates to stability, and you can trust stability.
So July 4, 1776 is America’s date of establishment (even though
most historians agree that the Declaration of Independence was signed August
2 of that year - a month is not such a big deal). However, a
declaration is just a declaration, much the same as me declaring that my crush
in junior high was my girlfriend. If the other party disagrees, does it still
make it so?
So when were we actually free from Great Britain’s rule?
Well, the war ended in October 1781 and the “formal abandonment of claims”
happened with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Governance issues were finally settled on with the ratification of the
Constitution in 1788 and the Bill of Rights in 1791.
On the other hand, historians pin the revolutionary era
beginning when the French no longer had a hold on the country. This happened in 1763 after British victories in the French and Indian War. Or perhaps
the date should be when fighting broke out by colonists under the yoke of
British rule on April 19, 1775.
My favorite Mark Twain quote is, “history does not repeat
itself, but it does rhyme.”
All agree that the revolution started because of a series of
provocative laws (Citizens United, anyone?). One of the first was the Navigation Acts. As
you might expect, it was all about the money; specifically that the colonies
could only do business with Britain. This led to open ended search warrants
(hmm...) and when a Boston lawyer, James Otis, argued against this in 1761, he
lost. But James Madison is quoted as saying, “Then and there the child of
Independence was born.”
My real point to all this history is that few things happen
on a particular day. Of course, we need a specific date to celebrate. But we
can’t forget that things develop over periods of time, and it takes time to
settle back into a new paradigm. Even a birth started with conception, and
before that some sort of attraction. And anyone that’s changed a diaper knows
that it takes awhile to conform to the new reality.
I wonder if we’ll look back at the Supreme Court’s decision
in the 2000 election ... the multiple wars that are sapping this country of its
common wealth ... the Citizens United decision that corporations are people ... Occupy Wall Street; so many indicators that something is off track.
Maybe some new Thomas Paine will write an update—Common Cents—because there are so many
in poverty in this land of opportunity.
One of the most curious things about the American Revolution
is that it’s the only revolution that was fought so that things could
essentially stay the same. Generally
speaking, things were going very well in the colonies.
Only now are things feeling unjust for the majority. What’s
becoming exceptional about America is its silence in the face of slow decline; its complacency in the face of the dissolution of so many things that are
critical to a strong, vibrant community of people. What’s the story?
Visit www.peterbuffett.com andChange Our Storyto learn more.
Image courtesy ofJimBowen0306, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 28, 2012 12:28 PM
Dr. David Korten (livingeconomiesforum.org)
is the author of Agenda
for a New Economy, The
Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international
best seller When
Corporations Rule the World.
He was recognized as an Utne Reader
Visionary in 2011.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published by YES! Magazine, and is licensed under Creative Commons.
The tell-all defection of Greg Smith, a former Goldman Sachs executive, provided an insider’s view of the moral corruption of the Wall Street banks that control of much of America’s economy and politics. Smith confirms what insightful observers have known for years: the business purpose of Wall Street bankers is to maximize their personal financial take without regard to the consequences for others.
Wall Street’s World of Illusion
Why has the public for so long tolerated Wall Street’s reckless abuses of power and accepted the resulting devastation? The answer lies in a cultural trance induced by deceptive language and misleading indicators backed by flawed economic theory and accounting sleight-of-hand. To shatter the trance we need to recognize that the deception that Wall Street promotes through its well-funded PR machine rests on three false premises.
- We best fulfill our individual moral obligation to society by maximizing our personal financial gain.
- Money is wealth and making money increases the wealth of the society.
- Making money is the proper purpose of the individual enterprise and is the proper measure of prosperity and economic performance.
Wall Street aggressively promotes these fallacies as guiding moral principles. Their embrace by Wall Street insiders helps to explain how they are able to reward themselves with obscene bonuses for their successful use of deception, fraud, speculation, and usury to steal wealth they have had no part in creating and yet still believe, as Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein famously proclaimed, that they are “doing God’s work.”
The devastation created by Wall Street’s failure affirms three truths that are the foundation on which millions of people are at work building a New Economy:
- Our individual and collective well-being depends on acting with concern for the well-being of others. We all do better when we look out for one another.
- Money is not wealth. It is just numbers. Sacrificing the health and happiness of billions of people to grow numbers on computer hard drives to improve one’s score on the Forbes Magazine list of the world’s richest people is immoral. Managing a society’s economy to facilitate this immoral competition at the expense of people and nature is an act of collective insanity.
- The proper purpose of the economy and the enterprises that comprise it is to provide good jobs and quality goods and services beneficial to the health and happiness of people, community and nature. A modest financial profit is essential to a firm’s viability, but is not its proper purpose.
The critical distinction between making money and creating wealth is the key to seeing through Wall Street’s illusions.
Real wealth includes healthful food, fertile land, pure water, clean air, caring relationships, quality education and health care, fulfilling opportunities for service, healthy and happy children, peace, time for meditation and spiritual reflection. These are among the many forms of real wealth to which we properly expect a sound economy to contribute.
Wall Street has so corrupted our language, however, that it is difficult even to express the crucial distinction between money (a facilitator of economic activity), and real wealth (the purpose of economic activity).
Financial commentators routinely use terms like wealth, capital, resources, and assets when referring to phantom wealth financial assets, which makes them sound like something real and substantial—whether or not they are backed by anything of real value. Similarly, they identify folks engaged in market speculation and manipulation as investors, thus glossing over the distinction between those who game the system to expropriate wealth and those who contribute to its creation.
The same confusion plays out in the use of financial indicators, particularly stock price indices, to evaluate economic performance. The daily rise and fall of stock prices tells us only how fast the current stock bubble is inflating or deflating and thus how Wall Street speculators are doing relative to the rest of us.
Once we are conditioned to embrace measures of Wall Street success as measures of our own well-being, we are easily recruited as foot soldiers in Wall Street’s relentless campaign to advance policies that support its control of money and thus its hold on nearly every aspect of our lives.
In a modern society in which our access to most essential of life from food and water to shelter and health care depends on money, control of money is the ultimate instrument of social control.
Fortunately, with the help of Occupy Wall Street, Americans are waking up to an important truth. It is a very, very bad idea to yield control of the issuance and allocation of credit (money) to Wall Street banks run by con artists who operate beyond the reach of public accountability and who Greg Smith tells us in his New York Times op-ed view the rest of us as simple-minded marks ripe for the exploiting.
By going along with its deceptions, we the people empowered Wall Street to convert America from a middle class society of entrepreneurs, investors, and skilled workers into a nation of debt slaves. Buying into Wall Street lies and illusions, Americans have been lured into accepting, even aggressively promoting, “tax relief” for the very rich and the “regulatory relief” and “free trade” agreements for corporations that allowed Wall Street to suppress wages and benefits for working people through union busting, automation, and outsourcing jobs to foreign sweatshops.
Once working people were unable to make ends meet with current income, Wall Street lured them into making up the difference by taking on credit card and mortgage debt they had no means to repay. They were soon borrowing to pay not only for current consumption, but as well to pay the interest on prior unpaid debt.
This is the classic downward spiral of debt slavery that assures an ever-growing divide between the power and luxury of a creditor class and the powerless desperation of a debtor class.
Bust the Trusts, Liberate America
Before Wall Street dismantled it, America had a system of transparent, well-regulated, community-based, locally owned, Main Street financial institutions empowered to put local savings to work investing in building real community wealth through the creation and allocation of credit to finance local home buyers and entrepreneurs.
Although dismissed by Wall Street players as small, quaint, provincial, and inefficient, this locally rooted financial system created the credit that financed our victory in World War II, the Main Street economies that unleashed America’s entrepreneurial talents, the investments that made us the world leader in manufacturing and technology, and the family-wage jobs that built the American middle class. It is a proven model with important lessons relevant for current efforts to restore financial integrity and build an economy that serves all Americans.
Two recent reports from the New Economy Working Group—How to Liberate America from Wall Street Rule and Jobs: A Main Street Fix for Wall Street’s Failure—draw on these lessons to outline a practical program to shift power from Wall Street to Main Street, focus economic policy on real wealth creation, create a true ownership society, unleash Main Street’s entrepreneurial potential, bring ourselves into balance with the biosphere, meet the needs of all, and strengthen democracy in the process.
For far too long, we have allowed Wall Street to play us as marks in a confidence scam of audacious proportion. Then we wonder at our seeming powerlessness to deal with job loss, depressed wages, mortgage foreclosures, political corruption and the plight of our children as they graduate into debt bondage.
Let us be clear. We will no longer play the sucker for Wall Street con artists and we will no longer tolerate public bailouts to save failed Wall Street banks.
Henceforth, when a Wall Street financial institution fails to maintain adequate equity reserves to withstand a major financial shock or is found guilty of systematic violation of the law and/or defrauding the public, we must demand that federal authorities take it over and break it up into strictly regulated, community-accountable, cooperative member-owned financial services institutions.
Occupy Wall Street has focused national and global attention on the source of the problem. Now it’s time for action to bust the Wall Street banking trusts, replace the current Wall Street banking system with a Main Street banking system, and take back America from rule by Wall Street bankers.
Dr. David Korten
is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of
the New Economy Working Group, a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living
Economies, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a member of
the Club of Rome. He holds
MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business
and served on the faculty of the Harvard
Business School. Learn more about him
at Living Economies Forum.
Image by Manu_H, licensed under Creative Commons
Friday, May 18, 2012 9:18 AM
“Most lucky reporters get
to see one major movement in their lifetime,” Chris Faraone wrote in early
October 2011. “Occupy is shaping up to be the most intense beast I’ve ever
witnessed.” At that time, Faraone was in southern Florida, seeing the earliest days of Occupy
Miami, and coming to terms with his initial skepticism. “I’m becoming convinced
that of all the mass movements I’ve covered,” he says, “this one will grow the
quickest, and become the biggest.”
In his new account of the Occupy movement, 99 Nights With the 99 Percent, it’s fair to say that
Faraone approaches his subject from a unique angle. Like many veteran
activists, he has deep roots in the precursors to Occupy. 99 Nights’ first two chapters cover this world of high morale and
low turnout, from spirited actions in front of Bank of America branches to
anti-foreclosure neighborhood barbecues. If this portion of the book is gritty
and loose, it is also infused with the same tough spirit that Faraone encounters
throughout the next three months. It is this spirit that allows him to overcome
his early reservations about Occupy’s procedural tedium and its tendency to
overshadow other ongoing struggles.
Faraone’s book, like the
movement itself, is diverse and challenging. The structure is strictly
chronological, but swings wildly between a number of different occupations,
personalities, and events. During the first three months of Occupy, Faraone
crisscrossed the country at a dizzying pace, and his writing manages to capture
at least some of that madness. In between working groups and flash-bang grenades,
the book overflows with interviews, photos, and blistering first-hand
At the same time, there is
little that Faraone romanticizes about the movement. Though it’s clear he is
energized by what he sees, the book maintains a critical tone that gives his
narrative a good deal of authority. Faraone pulls no punches in describing
camps’ lack of diversity, internal violence, and complicated relationships with
police and other movements. Faraone’s furious attention to detail presents an
absorbing, immediate account infused with red-eyed sincerity.
It’s that sincerity in
fact that makes 99 Nights a less than
complete history. But if we don’t get a full picture of a disparate and complex
movement, we do get a vivid sense of the passion and energy that pervaded
Read an excerpt of 99 Nights With the 99 Percent, right here.
Image by Katie Moore. Used with permission.
Friday, May 04, 2012 3:08 PM
Getting the full picture
of what happened on May Day is difficult from afar. Here in Kansas, things were quiet on May 1. The
Media Consortium’s live-action
map of demonstrations and arrests across the country showed little activity
within a day’s drive. Occupy KC’s indomitable rally in front of the Board of
Trade in Kansas City turned some heads, but fizzled within an hour.
The heartland, big and beautiful, is not known for its radical organizing—at
least not lately.
And for the most part, mainstream
media sources didn’t help much, as Allison Kilkenny points out in The Nation. There were no Occupy images
on NYT front pages like there were in the fall (maybe it didn’t help that
marchers picketed the Times’ offices
and sources like Reuters and CNN were quick to declare the day’s events a
failure. After all, despite the nationwide call to action, most places saw
business-as-usual continue. Zuccotti was conspicuously unoccupied, and traders
on Wall Street had a pretty normal day. Conclusions like this aren’t too
surprising, Kilkenny says. Occupy is a complex, ever-changing movement that
consciously resists media categorization, and wire services aren’t too good
Fortunately, there were
alternatives. On the day itself, sites like OccupyWallSt.org offered frequent
updates and live video from New York, Oakland, and other
flashpoints. The Guardian put big
American outlets to shame with its extensive live coverage. Occupy websites
were awash in Twitter feeds and live video streams, from CourtneyOccupy’s dramatic live video
from Oakland, to @allisonkilkenny’s
updates and photos from lower Manhattan.
The pictures that emerge
from these sources don’t easily fit into binary narratives like success/failure
or win/lose. Mostly what the pictures show is movement. Video cameras shake
with a strident march, glass shatters against a thrown rock, police shields
press against a frozen crowd. Even the rapid-fire Twitter feeds and blurry (still)
images capture dramatic volatility. And while this immediacy can easily be lost
in writing, there has been a flurry of powerful on-the-ground coverage from a
number of alternative print sources.
Writing in Yes! Magazine, Nathan Schneider
captures much of that intensity in a
critical moment from New York:
As dark came,
occupiers' plans to hold an after-party in Battery Park were foiled by police
blockades. Text-message alerts guided those who wished to stay to a Vietnam veterans' memorial tucked along the East River waterfront between buildings that house Morgan
Stanley and Standard & Poor’s. The memorial includes a space that served as
a perfect amphitheater for a thousand-strong "people's assembly"—so
named because OWS' General Assembly is currently defunct—and it became one of those
moments of collective effervescence and speaking-in-one-voice that won so many
discursively-inclined hearts to the movement in the fall. People of other
inclinations danced to the familiar sound of the drum circle on the far side of
The topic of the
assembly was whether to stay, to try and occupy. At first it seemed that maybe
people would. (What better place to spend the summer than by the water?)
Members of the Veterans Peace Team, a uniformed bloc of military veterans and
allies, volunteered to stand at the front lines. So did two clergymen from
Occupy Faith. They received cheers, but as the discussion wore on, the assembly
seemed less and less inclined to stay after the park closed at 10 p.m. and
repeat another sequence of beatings and arrests. Even after being told that the
Occupiers would retreat back to the streets, though, the Veterans Peace Team
members and the clergymen—including Episcopal Bishop George Packard,
veteran—stayed at the memorial as an act of disobedience and were apprehended
That veterans and church
officials—not students or global justice activists—would be the last holdouts in
a would-be New York
occupation says a lot about how expansive Occupy has become.
Elsewhere in New York, the situation
was tenser. After stepping into a convenience store following a night of
violence, activist Michael Harris was surprised to see a police officer waiting
in line. Writing in The New Inquiry,
Harris recounts a
telling exchange with the cashier after the officer leaves:
He hands me my
change and tells me to stay safe out there, a standard piece of advice that I’m
not sure how to follow, since it’s the danger that makes it “out there.” I nod
my thanks before quickly reconsidering the strange circumstances that lead a
young black man in lower Manhattan
to tell me to stay safe from the cops. I look back at him and say, “You too,
man. You too.” He gets it, quickly enough that I wonder what exactly he thinks
about when he thinks of the police. We share a small laugh.
But of course, May Day
wasn’t all confrontations and violence. In Washington, the situation was very
different. “As New York
swelled with up to 30,000 May Day demonstrators on Broadway, and as parts of
the West Coast exploded with tear gas and broken windows,” writes In These Times’ Emily Crockett, “Washington, D.C.,
held a carnival.”
On a holiday that draws attention to workers’ rights in the industrial era,
D.C.’s event was downright medieval. On a sunny day in Meridian Hill
Park, protesters danced
around a maypole (held aloft manually when the cops said it couldn’t be planted
in the soil), sang ancient labor ballads, hung out in the shade of trees, and
erected a massive “sun dragon” puppet for the later march to the White House.
The atmosphere was festive and often whimsical. A game of “inequality pong”
(with water, not beer) enticed players to aim for the 1 percent wine glass and
avoid the 99 percent red Solo cups—and for an extra challenge, stand further
back on the line for “poor dad” instead of the close-up “rich dad.” There was
T-shirt silk-screening and purple glitter body paint. There were leaflets and
models of foreclosed homes. One anarchist held his 5-week-old baby, and another
anarchist gave a lecture on how chaos and disorder are actually the opposite of
what anarchism seeks to achieve.
But fun and games aside, the central focus was on labor issues. One
teach-in took attendees through the fraught history of organized labor and the
bane of the Taft-Hartley Act. Numerous community and labor organizers took the
stage, and several Metro employees in uniform could be seen around the park
pushing for fairer deals.
Washington’s Occupy movement has a history of being much more
peaceful than those of other cities, says Crockett, despite the city’s violent rap.
Until an eviction in February, the encampment there was one of the longest
lasting in the country. On May Day, Occupy
D.C. lived up to its
One irony about
mainstream coverage of activism is that it tends to define even what it
ignores. Unfortunately for activists, whether an American Spring can repeat the
significance of last fall depends in large part on how media respond to it, and
by extension, how it appears to those at a far distance. The internet may level
the playing field a little, but exactly how much difference this makes is yet
to be seen. For now, getting the full picture may be tricky.
Image by Katie Moore, used with permission.
Sources: Media Consortium, The
Nation, OccupyWallSt.org, The
Magazine, The New
Tuesday, May 01, 2012 4:14 PM
Live Coverage: May Day Protests Nationwide
Journalists from over 25 leading independent media outlets report on May Day actions nationwide. Welcome to media for the 99%.
Storified by The Media Consortium · Mon, Apr 30 2012 03:41:24
On May 1, immigration, labor, and occupy activists across the country will take to the streets to attempt a general strike in protest of anti-immigration legislation, economic inequality, and unfair labor practices.
Occupy Prepares for May Day: No Work, No School, No Banking | The NationOccupy Prepares for May Day: No Work, No School, No Banking | The Nation
Why This May Day MattersThis year, the day is about occupying the space and the time to create a different world. If the mainstream media was confused about Occu…
What actions have these activists planned?
On May Day, Expect Scores of Rallies, Marches, Creative Actions | Activism | AlterNetAn Occupy Wall Street organizer I know – one of the original ones, from the planning meetings before the occupation began last September …
How do these many different activists, each with their own visions, plan to coordinate together?
How to Change a System: Occupy and the Question of Non-Violence | National Radio ProjectThere’s a raging debate within the Occupy movement over what tactics should be used. On this edition, a debate from Oakland, California b…
Scott Tucker: May Day 2012: The Call for a General Strike – TruthdigIn the winter of 2011, discussion about calling a general strike had already begun within Occupy Los Angeles. At the end of January 2012,…
”On the first of May, the Occupy Wall Street movement hopes to leverage the labor holiday known as May Day and muster enough people power to blockade the Golden Gate Bridge—assuming, that is, that striking bridge workers take the lead. ‘We can’t do an action for them; we have to do the action with them,’ says Lauren Smith, a spokeswoman for Occupy Oakland.” – Mother Jones
Occupy Aching for a May Day ComebackOn the first of May, the Occupy Wall Street movement hopes to leverage the labor holiday known as May Day and muster enough people power …
The fight for labor rights and income equality has reentered mainstream awareness after the Occupy Wall Street movement started last fall, but the origin of the 99 percent’s struggle goes back to the 18th century:
Behind May Day, a centuries-long struggle for worker rights | Free Speech Radio NewsWhether among New York City’s car washers or workers in cities across the country, the gap between labor and bosses, workers and those wh…
Tuesday, May 01, 2012 11:23 AM
Today may be the biggest
event on the Occupy calendar, with protests planned in over 100 cities across
the country—not to mention the massive
marches and actions in places as far flung as Moscow and Manila.
Historically, May Day has been a European affair, despite its very American
origins. But Occupy plans to bring it all back home today with marches, dance-offs,
and of course the occasional bike cavalry ride.
So far today big outlets
like the New York Times have been
pretty silent on what’s happening, but that doesn’t mean things are quiet.
There are plenty of places to get the latest on happenings on Wall Street, Frank Ogawa
Plaza, and the dozens of
other flashpoints erupting today. Here are some of our favorites:
A lot of sources are
touting up-to-the-minute coverage of Occupy events, but Adbusters has taken it one step further. The site offers live streaming video
from Wall Street, London, Barcelona, and other international hotspots.
R88R, the creator of Utne
AltWire, has launched an aggregator site devoted
exclusively to Occupy. Here you can see the Occupy stories tweeted by
Influencers like Democracy Now! and @OccupyWallSt. The site also features
live feeds from groups like the Media
Consortium and pages featuring trending topics like pepper spray and
surveillance. But be warned: it’s addictive.
From Chicago, In
These Times has been all over today’s events. The magazine’s Uprising page
has had extensive coverage in the
lead-up to May 1, including articles on Occupy’s Spanish connection and a
growing student movement. A story published today by Rebecca Burns explores Occupy
Chicago’s Chicano roots and exactly what a general strike means nowadays.
And for those who haven’t yet
seen it, Occupy Wall Street’s official page has rapid-fire live updates
from around New York City.
The latest: Brooklyn Occupiers are crossing the Williamsburg
Bridge into Manhattan to begin a march to Wall Street. On
the West Coast, protesters and strikers have formed picket lines at LAX that
will likely delay travelers. Students in Portland
have gathered outside public schools. The site also has a number of links to
live sources like Occupied Wall Street
Journal and the Village Voice.
On Twitter, hashtags to follow are #M1GS and #GeneralStrike.
For a little context, ZNet has a number of new articles and essays
by Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, and other scholars and thinkers. Amy Goodman’s
interview with historian David Harvey, published this morning, explores the
shifting meaning of public space, from Haymarket to Occupy. In another
essay, Rachel Leone reflects on mutual
aid possibilities in a corporate society.
And from our friends at
the Media Consortium, Media for the 99% features an
interactive map of stories, events, and arrests across the country and a live
OWS stream from Free Speech TV. The site also boasts its own live coverage of
Occupy happenings, from media partners nationwide.
Image above by RMajouji, licensed under Creative Commons.
Check out Free Speech's live feed right here, and check back at Utne.com for updates later on.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012 10:25 AM
This article originally appeared on
When you fall in love, it’s all about what you have in common, and you can hardly imagine that there are differences, let alone that you will quarrel over them, or weep about them, or be torn apart by them—or if all goes well, struggle, learn, and bond more strongly because of, rather than despite, them. The Occupy movement had its glorious honeymoon when old and young, liberal and radical, comfortable and desperate, homeless and tenured all found that what they had in common was so compelling the differences hardly seemed to matter.
Until they did.
Revolutions are always like this: at first all men are brothers and anything is possible, and then, if you’re lucky, the romance of that heady moment ripens into a relationship, instead of a breakup, an abusive marriage, or a murder-suicide. Occupy had its golden age, when those who never before imagined living side-by-side with homeless people found themselves in adjoining tents in public squares.
All sorts of other equalizing forces were present, not least the police brutality that battered the privileged the way that inner-city kids are used to being battered all the time. Part of what we had in common was what we were against: the current economy and the principle of insatiable greed that made it run, as well as the emotional and economic privatization that accompanied it.
This is a system that damages people, and its devastation was on display as never before in the early months of Occupy and related phenomena like the “We are the 99%” website. When it was people facing foreclosure, or who’d lost their jobs, or were thrashing around under avalanches of college or medical debt, they weren’t hard to accept as us, and not them.
And then came the people who’d been damaged far more, the psychologically fragile, the marginal, and the homeless—some of them endlessly needy and with a huge capacity for disruption. People who had come to fight the power found themselves staying on to figure out available mental-health resources, while others who had wanted to experience a democratic society on a grand scale found themselves trying to solve sanitation problems.
And then there was the violence.
The Faces of Violence
The most important direct violence Occupy faced was, of course, from the state, in the form of the police using maximum sub-lethal force on sleepers in tents, mothers with children, unarmed pedestrians, young women already penned up, unresisting seated students, poets, professors, pregnant women, wheelchair-bound occupiers, and octogenarians. It has been a sustained campaign of police brutality from Wall Street to Washington State the likes of which we haven’t seen in 40 years.
On the part of activists, there were also a few notable incidents of violence in the hundreds of camps, especially violence against women. The mainstream media seemed to think this damned the Occupy movement, though it made the camps, at worst, a whole lot like the rest of the planet, which, in case you hadn’t noticed, seethes with violence against women. But these were isolated incidents.
That old line of songster Woody Guthrie is always handy in situations like this: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” The police have been going after occupiers with projectile weapons, clubs, and tear gas, sending some of them to the hospital and leaving more than a few others traumatized and fearful. That’s the six-gun here.
But it all began with the fountain pens, slashing through peoples’ lives, through national and international economies, through the global markets. These were wielded by the banksters, the “vampire squid,” the deregulators in D.C., the men—and with the rarest of exceptions they were men—who stole the world.
That’s what Occupy came together to oppose, the grandest violence by scale, the least obvious by impact. No one on Wall Street ever had to get his suit besmirched by carrying out a foreclosure eviction himself. Cities provided that service for free to the banks (thereby further impoverishing themselves as they created new paupers out of old taxpayers). And the police clubbed their opponents for them, over and over, everywhere across the United States.
The grand thieves invented ever more ingenious methods, including those sliced and diced derivatives, to crush the hopes and livelihoods of the many. This is the terrible violence that Occupy was formed to oppose. Don’t ever lose sight of that.
’s Beautiful Nonviolence
Now that we’re done remembering the major violence, let’s talk about Occupy Oakland. A great deal of fuss has been made about two incidents in which mostly young people affiliated with Occupy Oakland damaged some property and raised some hell.
The mainstream media and some faraway pundits weighed in on those Bay Area incidents as though they determined the meaning and future of the transnational Occupy phenomenon. Perhaps some of them even hoped, consciously or otherwise, that harped on enough these might divide or destroy the movement. So it’s important to recall that the initial impact of Occupy Oakland was the very opposite of violent, stunningly so, in ways that were intentionally suppressed.
Occupy Oakland began in early October as a vibrant, multiracial gathering. A camp was built at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza, and thousands received much-needed meals and healthcare for free from well-organized volunteers. Sometimes called the Oakland Commune, it was consciously descended from some of the finer aspects of an earlier movement born in Oakland, the Black Panthers, whose free breakfast programs should perhaps be as well-remembered and more admired than their macho posturing.
A compelling and generous-spirited General Assembly took place nightly and then biweekly in which the most important things on Earth were discussed by wildly different participants. Once, for instance, I was in a breakout discussion group that included Native American, white, Latino, and able-bodied and disabled Occupiers, and in which I was likely the eldest participant; another time, a bunch of peacenik grandmothers dominated my group.
This country is segregated in so many terrible ways—and then it wasn’t for those glorious weeks when civil society awoke and fell in love with itself. Everyone showed up; everyone talked to everyone else; and in little tastes, in fleeting moments, the old divides no longer divided us and we felt like we could imagine ourselves as one society. This was the dream of the promised land—this land, that is, without its bitter divides. Honey never tasted sweeter, and power never felt better.
Now here’s something astonishing. While the camp was in existence, crime went down 19% in Oakland, a statistic the city was careful to conceal. “It may be counter to our statement that the Occupy movement is negatively impacting crime in Oakland,” the police chief wrote to the mayor in an email that local news station KTVU later obtained and released to little fanfare. Pay attention: Occupy was so powerful a force for nonviolence that it was already solving Oakland’s chronic crime and violence problems just by giving people hope and meals and solidarity and conversation.
The police attacking the camp knew what the rest of us didn’t: Occupy was abating crime, including violent crime, in this gritty, crime-ridden city. “You gotta give them hope,” said an elected official across the bay once upon a time—a city supervisor named Harvey Milk. Occupy was hope we gave ourselves, the dream come true. The city did its best to take the hope away violently at 5 a.m. on October 25th. The sleepers were assaulted; their belongings confiscated and trashed. Then, Occupy Oakland rose again. Many thousands of nonviolent marchers shut down the Port of Oakland in a stunning display of popular power on November 2nd.
That night, some kids did the smashy-smashy stuff that everyone gets really excited about. (They even spray-painted “smashy” on a Rite Aid drugstore in giant letters.) When we talk about people who spray-paint and break windows and start bonfires in the street and shove people and scream and run around, making a demonstration into something way too much like the punk rock shows of my youth, let’s keep one thing in mind: they didn’t send anyone to the hospital, drive any seniors from their homes, spread despair and debt among the young, snatch food and medicine from the desperate, or destroy the global economy.
That said, they are still a problem. They are the bait the police take and the media go to town with. They create a situation a whole lot of us don’t like and that drives away many who might otherwise participate or sympathize. They are, that is, incredibly bad for a movement, and represent a form of segregation by intimidation.
But don’t confuse the pro-vandalism Occupiers with the vampire squid or the up-armored robocops who have gone after us almost everywhere. Though their means are deeply flawed, their ends are not so different than yours. There’s no question that they should improve their tactics or maybe just act tactically, let alone strategically, and there’s no question that a lot of other people should stop being so apocalyptic about it.
Those who advocate for nonviolence at Occupy should remember that nonviolence is at best a great spirit of love and generosity, not a prissy enforcement squad. After all, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who gets invoked all the time when such issues come up, didn’t go around saying grumpy things about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
Violence Against the Truth
Of course, a lot of people responding to these incidents in Oakland are actually responding to fictional versions of them. In such cases, you could even say that some journalists were doing violence against the truth of what happened in Oakland on November 2nd and January 28th.
The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, reported on the day’s events this way:
“Among the most violent incidents that occurred Saturday night was in front of the YMCA at 23rd Street and Broadway. Police corralled protesters in front of the building and several dozen protesters stormed into the Y, apparently to escape from the police, city officials and protesters said. Protesters damaged a door and a few fixtures, and frightened those inside the gym working out, said Robert Wilkins, president of the YMCA of the East Bay.”
Wilkins was apparently not in the building, and first-person testimony recounts that a YMCA staff member welcomed the surrounded and battered protesters, and once inside, some were so terrified they pretended to work out on exercise machines to blend in.
I wrote this to the journalists who described the incident so peculiarly: “What was violent about [activists] fleeing police engaging in wholesale arrests and aggressive behavior? Even the YMCA official who complains about it adds, ‘The damage appears pretty minimal.’ And you call it violence? That's sloppy.”
The reporter who responded apologized for what she called her “poor word choice” and said the phrase was meant to convey police violence as well.
When the police are violent against activists, journalists tend to frame it as though there were violence in some vaguely unascribable sense that implicates the clobbered as well as the clobberers. In, for example, the build-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, the mainstream media kept portraying the right of the people peaceably to assemble as tantamount to terrorism and describing all the terrible things that the government or the media themselves speculated we might want to do (but never did).
Some of this was based on the fiction of tremendous activist violence in Seattle in 1999 that the New York Times in particular devoted itself to promulgating. That the police smashed up nonviolent demonstrators and constitutional rights pretty badly in both Seattle and New York didn’t excite them nearly as much. Don’t forget that before the obsession with violence arose, the smearing of Occupy was focused on the idea that people weren’t washing very much, and before that the framework for marginalization was that Occupy had “no demands.” There’s always something.
Keep in mind as well that Oakland’s police department is on the brink of federal receivership for not having made real amends for old and well-documented problems of violence, corruption, and mismanagement, and that it was the police department, not the Occupy Oakland demonstrators, which used tear gas, clubs, smoke grenades, and rubber bullets on January 28th. It’s true that a small group vandalized City Hall after the considerable police violence, but that’s hardly what the plans were at the outset of the day.
The action on January 28th that resulted in 400 arrests and a media conflagration was calledMove-In Day. There was a handmade patchwork banner that proclaimed “Another Oakland Is Possible” and a children’s contingent with pennants, balloons, and strollers. Occupy Oakland was seeking to take over an abandoned building so that it could reestablish the community, the food programs, and the medical clinic it had set up last fall. It may not have been well planned or well executed, but it was idealistic.
Despite this, many people who had no firsthand contact with Occupy Oakland inveighed against it or even against the whole Occupy movement. If only that intensity of fury were to be directed at the root cause of it all, the colossal economic violence that surrounds us.
All of which is to say, for anyone who hadn’t noticed, that the honeymoon is over.
Now for the Real Work
The honeymoon is, of course, the period when you’re so in love you don’t notice differences that will eventually have to be worked out one way or another. Most relationships begin as though you were coasting downhill. Then come the flatlands, followed by the hills where you’re going to have to pedal hard, if you don’t just abandon the bike.
Occupy might just be the name we’ve put on a great groundswell of popular outrage and a rebirth of civil society too deep, too broad, to be a movement. A movement is an ocean wave: this is the whole tide turning from Cairo to Moscow to Athens to Santiago to Chicago. Nevertheless, the American swell in this tide involves a delicate alliance between liberals and radicals, people who want to reform the government and campaign for particular gains, and people who wish the government didn’t exist and mostly want to work outside the system. If the radicals should frighten the liberals as little as possible, surely the liberals have an equal obligation to get fiercer and more willing to confront—and to remember that nonviolence, even in its purest form, is not the same as being nice.
Surely the only possible answer to the tired question of where Occupy should go from here (as though a few public figures got to decide) is: everywhere. I keep being asked what Occupy should do next, but it’s already doing it. It is everywhere.
In many cities, outside the limelight, people are still occupying public space in tents and holding General Assemblies. February 20th, for instance, was a national day of Occupy solidarity with prisoners; Occupiers are organizing on many fronts and planning for May Day, and a great many foreclosure defenses from Nashville to San Francisco have kept people in their homes and made banks renegotiate. Campus activism is reinvigorated, and creative and fierce discussions about college costs and student debt are underway, as is a deeper conversation about economics and ethics that rejects conventional wisdom about what is fair and possible.
Occupy is one catalyst or facet of the populist will you can see in a host of recent victories. The campaign against corporate personhood seems to be gaining momentum. A popular environmental campaign made President Obama reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada, despite immense Republican and corporate pressure. In response to widespread outrage, the Susan B. Komen Foundation reversed its decision to defund cancer detection at Planned Parenthood. Online campaigns have forced Apple to address its hideous labor issues, and the ever-heroic Coalition of Immokalee Workers at last brought Trader Joes into line with its fair wages for farmworkers campaign.
These genuine gains come thanks to relatively modest exercises of popular power. They should act as reminders that we do have power and that its exercise can be popular. Some of last fall’s exhilarating conversations have faltered, but the great conversation that is civil society awake and arisen hasn’t stopped.
What happens now depends on vigorous participation, including yours, in thinking aloud together about who we are, what we want, and how we get there, and then acting upon it. Go occupy the possibilities and don’t stop pedaling. And remember, it started with mad, passionate love.
TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit is the author of 13 (or so) books, including
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
Hope in the Dark
. She lives in and occupies from San Francisco.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by Newtown graffiti, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, December 15, 2011 4:10 PM
By Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch/The Nation.
“Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”
-- E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
The “other men” (and of course women) in the current American class alignment are those in the top 1% of the wealth distribution -- the bankers, hedge-fund managers, and CEOs targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they only began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the “super-rich,” in recent years.
Extravagant levels of consumption helped draw attention to them: private jets, multiple 50,000 square-foot mansions, $25,000 chocolate desserts embellished with gold dust. But as long as the middle class could still muster the credit for college tuition and occasional home improvements, it seemed churlish to complain. Then came the financial crash of 2007-2008, followed by the Great Recession, and the 1% to whom we had entrusted our pensions, our economy, and our political system stood revealed as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths.
Still, until a few months ago, the 99% was hardly a group capable of (as Thompson says) articulating “the identity of their interests.” It contained, and still contains, most “ordinary” rich people, along with middle-class professionals, factory workers, truck drivers, and miners, as well as the much poorer people who clean the houses, manicure the fingernails, and maintain the lawns of the affluent.
It was divided not only by these class differences, but most visibly by race and ethnicity -- a division that has actually deepened since 2008. African-Americans and Latinos of all income levels disproportionately lost their homes to foreclosure in 2007 and 2008, and then disproportionately lost their jobs in the wave of layoffs that followed. On the eve of the Occupy movement, the black middle class had been devastated. In fact, the only political movements to have come out of the 99% before Occupy emerged were the Tea Party movement and, on the other side of the political spectrum, the resistance to restrictions on collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
But Occupy could not have happened if large swaths of the 99% had not begun to discover some common interests, or at least to put aside some of the divisions among themselves. For decades, the most stridently promoted division within the 99% was the one between what the right calls the “liberal elite” -- composed of academics, journalists, media figures, etc. -- and pretty much everyone else.
As Harper’s Magazine columnist Tom Frank has brilliantly explained, the right earned its spurious claim to populism by targeting that “liberal elite,” which supposedly favors reckless government spending that requires oppressive levels of taxes, supports “redistributive” social policies and programs that reduce opportunity for the white middle class, creates ever more regulations (to, for instance, protect the environment) that reduce jobs for the working class, and promotes kinky countercultural innovations like gay marriage. The liberal elite, insisted conservative intellectuals, looked down on “ordinary” middle- and working-class Americans, finding them tasteless and politically incorrect. The “elite” was the enemy, while the super-rich were just like everyone else, only more “focused” and perhaps a bit better connected.
Of course, the “liberal elite” never made any sociological sense. Not all academics or media figures are liberal (Newt Gingrich, George Will, Rupert Murdoch). Many well-educated middle managers and highly trained engineers may favor latte over Red Bull, but they were never targets of the right. And how could trial lawyers be members of the nefarious elite, while their spouses in corporate law firms were not?
A Greased Chute, Not a Safety Net
“Liberal elite” was always a political category masquerading as a sociological one. What gave the idea of a liberal elite some traction, though, at least for a while, was that the great majority of us have never knowingly encountered a member of the actual elite, the 1% who are, for the most part, sealed off in their own bubble of private planes, gated communities, and walled estates.
The authority figures most people are likely to encounter in their daily lives are teachers, doctors, social workers, and professors. These groups (along with middle managers and other white-collar corporate employees) occupy a much lower position in the class hierarchy. They made up what we described in a 1976 essay as the “professional managerial class.” As we wrote at the time, on the basis of our experience of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, there have been real, longstanding resentments between the working-class and middle-class professionals. These resentments, which the populist right cleverly deflected toward “liberals,” contributed significantly to that previous era of rebellion’s failure to build a lasting progressive movement.
As it happened, the idea of the “liberal elite” could not survive the depredations of the 1% in the late 2000s. For one thing, it was summarily eclipsed by the discovery of the actual Wall Street-based elite and their crimes. Compared to them, professionals and managers, no matter how annoying, were pikers. The doctor or school principal might be overbearing, the professor and the social worker might be condescending, but only the 1% took your house away.
There was, as well, another inescapable problem embedded in the right-wing populist strategy: even by 2000, and certainly by 2010, the class of people who might qualify as part of the “liberal elite” was in increasingly bad repair. Public-sector budget cuts and corporate-inspired reorganizations were decimating the ranks of decently paid academics, who were being replaced by adjunct professors working on bare subsistence incomes. Media firms were shrinking their newsrooms and editorial budgets. Law firms had started outsourcing their more routine tasks to India. Hospitals beamed X-rays to cheap foreign radiologists. Funding had dried up for nonprofit ventures in the arts and public service. Hence the iconic figure of the Occupy movement: the college graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts and a job paying about $10 a hour, or no job at all.
These trends were in place even before the financial crash hit, but it took the crash and its grim economic aftermath to awaken the 99% to a widespread awareness of shared danger. In 2008, “Joe the Plumber’s” intention to earn a quarter-million dollars a year still had some faint sense of plausibility. A couple of years into the recession, however, sudden downward mobility had become the mainstream American experience, and even some of the most reliably neoliberal media pundits were beginning to announce that something had gone awry with the American dream.
Once-affluent people lost their nest eggs as housing prices dropped off cliffs. Laid-off middle-aged managers and professionals were staggered to find that their age made them repulsive to potential employers. Medical debts plunged middle-class households into bankruptcy. The old conservative dictum -- that it was unwise to criticize (or tax) the rich because you might yourself be one of them someday -- gave way to a new realization that the class you were most likely to migrate into wasn’t the rich, but the poor.
And here was another thing many in the middle class were discovering: the downward plunge into poverty could occur with dizzying speed. One reason the concept of an economic 99% first took root in America rather than, say, Ireland or Spain is that Americans are particularly vulnerable to economic dislocation. We have little in the way of a welfare state to stop a family or an individual in free-fall. Unemployment benefits do not last more than six months or a year, though in a recession they are sometimes extended by Congress. At present, even with such an extension, they reach only about half the jobless. Welfare was all but abolished 15 years ago, and health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment.
In fact, once an American starts to slip downward, a variety of forces kick in to help accelerate the slide. An estimated 60% of American firms now check applicants' credit ratings, and discrimination against the unemployed is widespread enough to have begun to warrant Congressional concern. Even bankruptcy is a prohibitively expensive, often crushingly difficult status to achieve. Failure to pay government-imposed fines or fees can even lead, through a concatenation of unlucky breaks, to an arrest warrant or a criminal record. Where other once-wealthy nations have a safety net, America offers a greased chute, leading down to destitution with alarming speed.
Making Sense of the 99%
The Occupation encampments that enlivened approximately 1,400 cities this fall provided a vivid template for the 99%’s growing sense of unity. Here were thousands of people -- we may never know the exact numbers -- from all walks of life, living outdoors in the streets and parks, very much as the poorest of the poor have always lived: without electricity, heat, water, or toilets. In the process, they managed to create self-governing communities.
General assembly meetings brought together an unprecedented mix of recent college graduates, young professionals, elderly people, laid-off blue-collar workers, and plenty of the chronically homeless for what were, for the most part, constructive and civil exchanges. What started as a diffuse protest against economic injustice became a vast experiment in class building. The 99%, which might have seemed to be a purely aspirational category just a few months ago, began to will itself into existence.
Can the unity cultivated in the encampments survive as the Occupy movement evolves into a more decentralized phase? All sorts of class, racial, and cultural divisions persist within that 99%, including distrust between members of the former “liberal elite” and those less privileged. It would be surprising if they didn’t. The life experience of a young lawyer or a social worker is very different from that of a blue-collar worker whose work may rarely allow for biological necessities like meal or bathroom breaks. Drum circles, consensus decision-making, and masks remain exotic to at least the 90%. “Middle class” prejudice against the homeless, fanned by decades of right-wing demonization of the poor, retains much of its grip.
Sometimes these differences led to conflict in Occupy encampments -- for example, over the role of the chronically homeless in Portland or the use of marijuana in Los Angeles -- but amazingly, despite all the official warnings about health and safety threats, there was no “Altamont moment”: no major fires and hardly any violence. In fact, the encampments engendered almost unthinkable convergences: people from comfortable backgrounds learning about street survival from the homeless, a distinguished professor of political science discussing horizontal versus vertical decision-making with a postal worker, military men in dress uniforms showing up to defend the occupiers from the police.
Class happens, as Thompson said, but it happens most decisively when people are prepared to nourish and build it. If the “99%” is to become more than a stylish meme, if it’s to become a force to change the world, eventually we will undoubtedly have to confront some of the class and racial divisions that lie within it. But we need to do so patiently, respectfully, and always with an eye to the next big action -- the next march, or building occupation, or foreclosure fight, as the situation demands.
Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch regular
, is the author of
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
(now in a 10th anniversary edition with a
John Ehrenreich is p
rofessor of psychology at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He wrote
The Humanitarian Companion: A Guide for International Aid, Development, and Human Rights Workers
This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print at the Nation magazine.
Copyright 2011 Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich
Thursday, December 15, 2011 2:05 PM
The year was 1988. Japan’s Olympic Games went off without a hitch, astronomers found an ocean beneath the crust of one of Jupiter’s moons, and a small gangsta rap collective released one of the most memorable, most inflammatory songs of all time. “Fuck tha Police”—which was featured on N.W.A.’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton—prophetically criticized police brutality and racial inequality. The album dropped four short years before the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles.
Police brutality is in the news again, but this time it’s being levied against Occupy Wall Street protestors. The social atmosphere that led to the ’92 riots is different in many ways from our current distraught times, so it only makes sense to update the anthem for the new generation of disenfranchised protestors. Rappers Sage Francis, B. Dolan, Toki Wright, and Jasiri X recently recorded “Film the Police,” a call to arms—er, well, phones—reminding young protestors that police brutality is unacceptable. Twenty-three years of telecommunications technology advances have given ordinary citizens an instrument to document egregious abuses by law enforcement officers: Smartphones. Before I go any further, watch the video below:
The new version borrows many elements from Ice Cube and Co.’s version, borrowing its original beat and rhyme scheme, as well as lyrical themes. When B. Dolan says, “You got a weapon in you pocket whether you know it or not”—referring to a handheld video camera—it echoes N.W.A.’s aggressive, dissenting, we’ve-had-it-up-to-here attitude. Jasiri X raps about how wealth inequality and violence disproportionately affect black Americans, which is the same thing Eazy-E was saying in the late ’80s.
The emcees make clever use of violent language which, in my opinion, works far more constructively than N.W.A.’s pissed-off rhetoric. “Now tell me what you gonna do, next time you see the boys in blue,” rhymes Toki Wright. “You cock your camera back and point and shoot.” Although the lyrics seem to advocate the assassination of police officers, it’s clear that “shooting” is an act of non-violent resistance when juxtaposed with video footage of riot police mowing down protestors with rubber bullets.
I’ll save the larger discussion about hip hop’s de-politicization for another time, but it seems that the genre’s musicians seem to be taking a stronger political stance lately. If I could recommend one recent (and excellent) (and free) politically-driven hip hop album to check out, it would be Immortal Technique’s mixtape The Martyr. It’s, as they say in the industry, quite dope.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011 3:08 PM
This post originally appeared at
Last Tuesday, I awoke in lower Manhattan to the whirring of helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and then started up again that Thursday morning, the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and a big day of demonstrations in New York City. It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities take Occupy Wall Street seriously, even if they profoundly mistake what kind of danger it poses. If you ever doubted whether you were powerful or you mattered, just look at the reaction to people like you (or your children) camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland, Tucson to Manhattan.
Of course, “camped out” doesn’t quite catch the spirit of the moment, because those campsites are the way people have come together to bear witness to their hopes and fears, to begin to gather their power and discuss what is possible in our disturbingly unhinged world, to make clear how wrong our economic system is, how corrupt the powers that support it are, and to begin the search for a better way. Consider it an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but symbols of the way we have awoken.
When civil society sleeps, we’re just a bunch of individuals absorbed in our private lives. When we awaken, on campgrounds or elsewhere, when we come together in public and find our power, the authorities are terrified. They often reveal their ugly side, their penchant for violence and for hypocrisy.
Consider the liberal mayor of Oakland, who speaks with outrage of people camping without a permit but has nothing to say about the police she dispatched to tear-gas a woman in a wheelchair, shoot a young Iraq war veteran in the head, and assault people while they slept. Consider the billionaire mayor of New York who dispatched the NYPD on a similar middle-of-the-night raid on November 15th. Recall this item included in a bald list of events that night: “tear-gassing the kitchen tent.” Ask yourself when did kitchens really need to be attacked with chemical weapons?
Does an 84-year-old woman need to be tear-gassed in Seattle? Does a three-tours-of-duty veteran need to be beaten until his spleen ruptures in Oakland? Does our former poet laureate need to be bashed in the ribs after his poet wife is thrown to the ground at UC Berkeley? Admittedly, this is a system that regards people as disposable, but not usually so literally.
Two months ago, the latest protests against that system began. The response only confirms our vision of how it all works. They are fighting fire with gasoline. Perhaps being frightened makes them foolish. After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart they’d try to soothe it back to sleep.) “Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can’t arrest an idea!” said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in reoccupied Zuccotti Park last Thursday.
Last Wednesday in San Francisco, 100 activists occupied the Bank of America, even erecting a symbolic tent inside it in which a dozen activists immediately took refuge. At the Berkeley campus of the University of California, setting up tents on any grounds was forbidden, so the brilliant young occupiers used clusters of helium balloons to float tents overhead, a smart image of defiance and sky-high ambition. And the valiant UC Davis students, after several of them were pepper-sprayed in the face while sitting peacefully on the ground, evicted the police, chanting, “You can go! You can go!” They went.
Occupy Oakland has been busted up three times and still it thrives. To say nothing of the other 1,600 occupations in the growing movement.
Alexander Dubcek, the government official turned hero of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, once said, “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.”
The busting of Zuccotti Park and the effervescent, ingenious demonstrations elsewhere are a reminder that, despite the literal “occupations” on which this protean movement has been built, it can soar as high as those Berkeley balloons and take many unexpected forms. Another OWS sign, “The beginning is near,” caught the mood of the moment. Flowers seem like the right image for this uprising led by the young, those who have been most crushed by the new economic order, and who bloom by rebelling and rebel by blooming.
The Best and the Worst
Now world-famous Zuccotti Park is just a small concrete and brown marble-paved scrap of land surrounded by tall buildings. Despite the “Occupy Wall Street” label, it’s actually two blocks north of that iconic place. It’s rarely noted that the park is within sight of, and kitty-corner to, Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers crumbled.
What was born and what died that day a decade ago has everything to do with what’s going on in and around the park, the country, and the world now. For this, al-Qaeda is remarkably irrelevant, except as the outfit that long ago triggered an incident that instantly released both the best and the worst in our society.
The best was civil society. As I wandered in the Zuccotti Park area last week, I was struck again by how much what really happened on the morning of September 11th has been willfully misremembered. It can be found nowhere in the plaques and monuments. Firemen more than deserve their commemorations, but mostly they acted in vain, on bad orders from above, and with fatally flawed communications equipment. The fact is: the people in the towers and the neighborhood -- think of them as civil society coming together in crisis -- largely rescued themselves, and some of them told the firefighters to head down, not up.
We need memorials to the coworkers who carried their paraplegic accountant colleague down 69 flights of stairs while in peril themselves; to Ada Rosario-Dolch, the principal who got all of the High School for Leadership, a block away, safely evacuated, while knowing her sister had probably been killed in one of those towers; to the female executives who walked the blind newspaper seller to safety in Greenwich Village; to the unarmed passengers of United Flight 93, who were the only ones to combat terrorism effectively that day; and to countless, nameless others. We need monuments to ourselves, to civil society.
Ordinary people shone that morning. They were not terrorized; they were galvanized into action, and they were heroic. And it didn’t stop with that morning either. That day, that week they began to talk about what the events of 9/11 actually meant for them, and they acted to put their world back together, practically and philosophically. All of which terrified the Bush administration, which soon launched not only its “global war on terror” and its invasion of Afghanistan, but a campaign against civil society. It was aimed at convincing each of us that we should stay home, go shopping, fear everything except the government, and spy on each other.
The only monument civil society ever gets is itself, and the satisfaction of continuing to do the work that matters, the work that has no bosses and no paychecks, the work of connecting, caring, understanding, exploring, and transforming. So much about Occupy Wall Street resonates with what came in that brief moment a decade before and then was shut down for years.
That little park that became “occupied” territory brought to mind the way New York’s Union Square became a great public forum in the weeks after 9/11, where everyone could gather to mourn, connect, discuss, debate, bear witness, share food, donate or raise money, write on banners, and simply live in public. (Until the city shut that beautiful forum down in the name of sanitation -- that sacred cow which by now must be mating with the Wall Street Bull somewhere in the vicinity of Zuccotti Park.)
It was remarkable how many New Yorkers lived in public in those weeks after 9/11. Numerous people have since told me nostalgically of how the normal boundaries came down, how everyone made eye contact, how almost anyone could talk to almost anyone else. Zuccotti Park and the other Occupies I’ve visited -- Oakland, San Francisco, Tucson, New Orleans -- have been like that, too. You can talk to strangers. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to, so much do people want to talk, to tell their stories, to hear yours, to discuss our mutual plight and what solutions to it might look like.
It’s as though the great New York-centric moment of openness after 9/11, when we were ready to reexamine our basic assumptions and look each other in the eye, has returned, and this time it’s not confined to New York City, and we’re not ready to let anyone shut it down with rubbish about patriotism and peril, safety and sanitation.
It’s as if the best of the spirit of the Obama presidential campaign of 2008 was back -- without the foolish belief that one man could do it all for civil society. In other words, this is a revolt, among other things, against the confinement of decision-making to a thoroughly corrupted and corporate-money-laced electoral sphere and against the pitfalls of leaders. And it represents the return in a new form of the best of the post-9/11 moment.
As for the worst after 9/11 -- you already know the worst. You’ve lived it. The worst was two treasury-draining wars that helped cave in the American dream, a loss of civil liberties, privacy, and governmental accountability. The worst was the rise of a national security state to almost unimaginable proportions, a rogue state that is our own government, and that doesn’t hesitate to violate with impunity the Geneva Convention, the Bill of Rights, and anything else it cares to trash in the name of American "safety" and "security." The worst was blind fealty to an administration that finished off making this into a country that serves the 1% at the expense, or even the survival, of significant parts of the 99%. More recently, it has returned as another kind of worst: police brutality (speaking of blind fealty to the 1%).
Civil Society Gets a Divorce
You can think of civil society and the state as a marriage of convenience. You already know who the wife is, the one who is supposed to love, cherish, and obey: that’s us. Think of the state as the domineering husband who expects to have a monopoly on power, on violence, on planning and policymaking.
Of course, he long ago abandoned his actual wedding vows, which means he is no longer accountable, no longer a partner, no longer bound by the usual laws, treaties, conventions. He left home a long time ago to have a sordid affair with the Fortune 500, but with the firm conviction that we should continue to remain faithful -- or else. The post-9/11 era was when we began to feel the consequences of all this and the 2008 economic meltdown brought it home to roost.
Think of Occupy as the signal that the wife, Ms. Civil Society, has finally acknowledged that those vows no longer bind her either. Perhaps this is one reason why the Occupy movement seems remarkably uninterested in electoral politics while being political in every possible way. It is no longer appealing to that violent, errant husband. It has turned its back on him -- thus the much-decried lack of “demands” early on, except for the obvious demand the pundits pretended not to see: the demand for economic justice.
Still, Ms. Civil Society is not asking for any favors: she is setting out on her own, to make policy on a small scale through the model of the general assembly and on a larger scale by withdrawing deference from the institutions of power. (In one symbolic act of divorce, at least three quarters of a million Americans have moved their money from big banks to credit unions since Occupy began.) The philandering husband doesn’t think the once-cowed wife has the right to do any of this -- and he’s ready to strike back. Literally.
The Occupy movement has decided, on the other hand, that it doesn’t matter what he thinks. It -- they -- she -- we soon might realize as well that he’s actually the dependent one, the one who rules at civil society’s will, the one who lives off her labor, her taxes, her productivity. Mr. Unaccountable isn’t anywhere near as independent as he imagines. The corporations give him his little treats and big campaign donations, but they, too, depend on consumers, workers, and ultimately citizens who may yet succeed in reining them in.
In the meantime, a domestic-violence-prone government is squandering a fortune on a little-mentioned extravagance in financially strapped American cities: police brutality, wrongful arrest, and lawsuits over civil-rights violations. New York City -- recall those pepper-sprayedcaptive young women, that legal observer with a police scooter parked on top of him, and all the rest -- you’re going to have a giant bill due in court, just as you did after the 2004 Republican convention fiasco: New York has spent almost a billion dollars paying for the collateral damage already done by its police force over the past dozen years.
The desperately impoverished city of Oakland paid out more than $2 million in recompense for the behavior of the Oakland Police at a nonviolent blockade at the Oakland Docks after the invasion of Iraq broke out in 2003, but seems to have learned nothing from it. Surely payouts in similar or larger quantities are due to be handed out again, money that could have gone to schools, community clinics, parks, libraries, to civilization instead of brutalization.
Out of the Ruins
Maybe the teardown of Zuccotti Park last Wednesday should be seen as a faint echo of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Structures, admittedly far more flimsy, were destroyed, violently, by surprise attack, and yet resolve was only strengthened -- and what was lost?
The encampment had become crowded and a little chaotic. There was the admirable bustle of a village -- bicycle-powered generators on which someone was often pedaling; information, media, and medic sites whose staff worked devotedly; a kitchen dispensing meals to whoever came; and of course, the wonderful library dumpstered by the agents of the law. There were also a lot of people who had been drawn in by the free food and community, including homeless people and some disruptive characters, all increasingly surrounded by vendors of t-shirts, buttons, and other knick-knacks trying to make a quick buck.
One of the complicating factors in the Occupy movement is that so many of the thrown-away people of our society -- the homeless, the marginal, the mentally ill, the addicted -- have come to Occupy encampments for safe sleeping space, food, and medical care. And these economic refugees were generously taken in by the new civil society, having been thrown out by the old uncivil one.
Complicating everything further was the fact that the politicians and the mainstream media were more than happy to blame the occupiers for taking in what society as a whole created, and for the complications that then ensued. (No mayor, no paper now complains about the unsanitariness of throwing the homeless and others back onto the streets of our cities as winter approaches.)
Civil society contains all kinds of people, and all kinds have shown up at the Occupy encampments. The inclusiveness of such places is one of the great achievements of this movement. (Occupy Memphis, for instance, has even reached out to Tea Party members.) Veterans, students, their grandparents, hitherto apolitical people, the employed and unemployed, the housed and the homeless, and people of all ages and colors have been drawn in along with the unions. And yes, there are also a lot of young white activists, who can be thanked for taking on the hard work and heat. We can only hope that this broad coalition will hang together a while longer.
It Gets Better
And of course just as civil society is all of us, so some of us have crossed over to become that force known as the state, and even there, the response has been more varied than might be imagined. New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez got scraped up and arrested by the NYPD when he tried to walk past a barricade two blocks from Wall Street while the camp was being cleared. And retired New York Supreme Court judge Karen Smith got shoved around a little and threatened with arrest while acting as a legal observer.
A councilwoman in Tucson, Regina Romero, has become a dedicated advocate for the Occupy encampment there, and when the San Francisco police massed on the night of November 3rd, five supervisors, the public defender, and a state senator all came to stand with us.
I got home at 2 a.m. that night and wrote, “Their vows to us felt like true representative democracy for the first time ever, brought to us by the power of direct democracy: the Occupy Movement. I thought of the Oath of the Horatii, David's great painting in the spirit of the French Revolution. The spirit in the plaza was gallant, joyous, and ready for anything. A little exalted and full of tenderness for each other. Helicopters hovered overhead, and people sent back reports of buses and massed police in other parts of town. But they never arrived.”
Former Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis actually came to Wall Street to get arrested last week. "They complained about the park being dirty," he said. "Here they are worrying about dirty parks when people are starving to death, where people are freezing, where people are sleeping in subways, and they’re concerned about a dirty park. That’s obnoxious, it’s arrogant, it’s ignorant, it’s disgusting.”
And the Army, or some of its most honorable veterans, are with the occupiers, too. In the Bay Area, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War have been regular participants, and Occupy Wall Street has had its larger-than-life ex-marine, Shamar Thomas, clad in worn fatigues and medals. He famously told off the NYPD early on: “This is not a war zone. These are unarmed people. It doesn’t make you tough to hurt these people. It doesn’t. Stop hurting these people!”
To my delight, at Occupy Wall Street I ran into him, almost literally, still wearing his fatigues and medals and carrying a sign that said, “There’s no honor in police brutality” on one side and “NO WAR” on the other. Which war -- the ones in the Greater Middle East or on the streets of the U.S.A. -- hardly seemed to matter: they’re one war now, the war of the 1% against the rest of us. I told him that his tirade was the first time I ever felt like the U.S. military had actually defended me.
Right now everyone is trying to figure out what happens next and quite a few self-appointed outside advisors are telling the Occupy movement exactly what to do (without all the bother of attending general assemblies and engaging in the process of working out ideas together). So far, the Occupy instigators and Occupy insiders have been doing a brilliant job of improvising a way that civil society can move forward into the unimaginable.
As for me, the grounds of my hope have always been that history is wilder than our imagination of it and that the unexpected shows up far more regularly than we ever dream. A year ago, no one imagined an Arab Spring, and no one imagined this American Fall -- even the people who began planning for it this summer. We don’t know what’s coming next, and that’s the good news. My advice is just of the most general sort: Dream big. Occupy your hopes. Talk to strangers. Live in public. Don’t stop now.
I’m sure of one thing: there are a lot more flowers coming.
The first sign
regular TomDispatch contributor
and Utne Reader visionary Rebecca Solnit carried at an OWS protest said “99% hope. 1% fury.” The author of
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, she is working, mostly from San Francisco, on her 14th book. And marching, occupying, and wondering.
Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit
Photo of Rebecca Solnit by Jim Herrington.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011 2:44 PM
Is there still a rap against the OWS movement for being ill-defined? It seems I’m still hearing this, even though the fact that one could pretty much paste all the sections of The New York Times to a wall and play “Pin the Tail on the OWS Concern” and a majority of the time you’d stick the pin right on a story the 99 percenters would take issue with. Just because there are unending problems within this country and across the globe doesn’t mean a movement’s attempt to address many of them is misguided or should be dismissed for a lack of clarity.
Anyway, The Nation’s collected a few of the ideas from the 99 percent in a nice forum. Here’s what the editors had to say:
The astonishing growth of Occupy Wall Street reflects a widespread understanding that our political system has failed to address the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. As William Greider
in this issue, the housing foreclosure crisis continues to smother the economy, and yet both parties are, for the most part, standing with the banks in denying adequate relief for millions of underwater homeowners. There’s no shortage of smart policy proposals to address the crises that beset us, on everything from housing to fair taxation to corporate governance, student loans and racial justice. The problem is that our politicians are primarily answerable to the 1 percent, who fund their campaigns. The OWS movement is already a success for having raised all these issues—explored in the articles presented here.
There it is again: The OWS movement has already succeeded, because just a few short months ago much of the press wasn’t talking about all of the things they’re talking about now. Check out
The Nation’s forum
, including Sam Pizzigati’s “OWS Revives the Struggle for Economic Equality,” Rinku Sen: “Race and Occupy Wall Street,” and much more.
Source: The Nation
Image by Jagz Mario, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011 12:21 PM
Some of the best stuff from the Twitter feeds we follow...
The Nation (@
Robert Reich eviscerates the Supercommittee's skewed priorities, draws a cartoon.
See more at The Nation
Mother Jones (@
Chart of the Day: How Not to Create Jobs mojo.ly/vy6C5e
Chuck Marr of CBPP notes that the CBO recently studied a laundry list of job creation proposals and concluded that higher unemployment benefits had the biggest bang for the buck. "That’s not surprising," he says, "given that jobless people are severely cash constrained and would quickly spend most of any incremental increase in cash and that, in turn, would lead to higher demand and job creation."
But which proposal came in last?
See Kevin Drum’s Chart of the Day at MoJo
The American Prospect (@
Despite what you've heard from many pundits, Mitt Romney isn't the kid who gets picked last in gym class. ampro.me/u6m2We
Mitt Romney is just as popular as Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich, his problem—in part—is that he has too many competitors, and Republican voters are indulging the extent to which they have a fair amount of choice. When the field begins to winnow in January, odds are very good that Romney will pick up a lot more support from Republican voters.
Read more about a Gallup poll about the Republican presidential candidates at The American Prospect
In These Times (@
Library in the slammer, roughed up. Librarians surveying the damage. bit.ly/sxUK22 @melissagira livetweeting from the garage.
OWS librarians attempted to reclaim their collection and found it decimated, according to the Maddow Blog. The librarians told Maddow that they only found 25 boxes of books in storage, many of which were damaged or desroyed. Laptop computers were recovered, damanged beyond repair.
Read more at In These Times
Bill McKibben (@billmckibben)
If you want to see someone looking nervous on Colbert, tonite is your big chance
Oxford American (@
Musician Chris Isaak likes Oxford American
“I was reading the ‘Oxford American,’ a great, great music magazine,” he said. “It’s like getting four years of ‘Rolling Stone’ all in the same magazine.”
Read the rest of the article about Chris Isaak in The Kansas City Star
Tuesday, November 08, 2011 4:03 PM
America has become a cruel country. There are clear examples of this, which Jonathan Schell points to in an article for The Nation. Cheering for execution numbers, as happened in a recent Republican presidential campaign debate; celebrations in the streets following the killing of Osama bin Laden; the Bush administration’s torture, followed by the “brazenness” of both Bush and Cheney, who “publicly embraced their wrongdoing” on recent tours for their memoirs; Obama’s unwillingness to impose legal accountability on any in the Bush administration; and our country’s criminal justice system, including its use of the death penalty and solitary confinement. And though cruelty cannot be legislated, it “can be manifested in legislation,” Schell argues, pointing to a number of cuts “on the right-wing agenda.” Of that long list he writes, “It appears that no one is so unfortunate that he or she is exempt from spending cuts, while at the same time no one is so fortunate as to be ineligible for a tax cut.”
“Cruelty is a close cousin to injustice, yet it is different,” Schell writes:
Injustice and its opposite, justice—perhaps the most commonly used standards for judging the health of the body politic—are political criteria par excellence, and apply above all to systems and their institutions. Cruelty and its opposites, kindness, compassion and decency, are more personal. They are apolitical qualities that nevertheless have political consequences. A country’s sense of decency stands outside and above its politics, checking and setting limits on abuses. An unjust society must reform its laws and institutions. A cruel society must reform itself.
Schell’s piece taken along side a post at utne.com today from Tom Engelhardt on the sad reality of what’s become of George W. Bush’s American Dream, paint a picture of a country that has lost its way. And while both pieces find cause for hope—the protesting of Troy Davis’ killing in the former and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the latter—it’s hard to see past the similar descriptions in both of a country so enamored with its own brute strength that it’s created a monster out of it. “Bush’s American Dream,” Engelhardt writes, “was a kind of apotheosis of this country’s global power as well as its crowning catastrophe, thanks to a crew of mad visionaries who mistook military might for global strength and acted accordingly.” While Shell describes the U.S. as “a country that seems to know of no remedy for social ills but punishment.”
Source: The Nation, TomDispatch
Image by Robert Couse-Baker, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011 11:30 AM
Why did Congress reaffirm our bland, meaningless national motto?
If you’re having trouble finding the right words to say something colossally stupid, you can always lean on The Week’s “Bad Opinion Generator.”
Forget China: the $10 trillion global black market is the world’s fastest growing economy—and its future.
Amos Oz, the author of “Fanatics Attack” (Nov-Dec issue of Utne Reader) talks to The New Republic about the commingling of politics and literature.
What would New York—or, rather, Neu York—look like if Germany had won World War II?
The nighttime light of cities could be a new target in the search for extra-terrestrial life.
The literature of Occupy Wall Street includes visiting writers and a People’s Library.
On election day, Mississippians will vote on whether “personhood” starts at the moment of fertilization. If passed, the amendment will outlaw abortion as well as IUDs and other forms of birth control.
The 10 best illustrated children’s books of 2011.
Can’t wait for your next box of Thin Mints? “Girls Scouts Release Lip Balms to Torture Cookie Fans,” reports
Linger on, your pale, laser-enhanced blue eyes. A new medical treatment can permanently turn brown eyes to blue.
A bicycle with records on its wheels lets you spin your favorite vinyl while you pedal.
Earl “Fatha” Hines—perhaps the greatest jazz pianist of all time—gives 11 priceless piano lessons in this video gem.
Image by janoma.cl, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 27, 2011 2:38 PM
Inspired by an image of an Occupy Wall Street protester with a dollar bill covering his mouth, sketch artist Gary Bedard decided to draw his own versions of the image, calling the project “Ten Occupy Wall Street Demonstrators in Ten Days.” “The dollar bill speaks to ending silence on corporate greed, tax breaks for millionaires, and social injustice,” he said. “When I saw it, I thought—oh my god, that means everything. It says it all.”
See more images at Turnstyle and Gary Bedard's website.
Source: Turnstyle, Gary Bedard
Images courtesy of Gary Bedard.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011 11:43 AM
This post originally appeared at
As intense protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street continue to grow, it is worth asking: Why now? The answer is not obvious. After all, severe income and wealth inequality have long plagued the United States. In fact, it could reasonably be claimed that this form of inequality is part of the design of the American founding -- indeed, an integral part of it.
Income inequality has worsened over the past several years and is at its highest level since the Great Depression. This is not, however, a new trend. Income inequality has been growing at rapid rates for three decades. As journalist Tim Noah describedthe process:
“During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth -- the ‘seven fat years’ and the ‘long boom.’ Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80%of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1%. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20%. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads.”
The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the trend, but not radically: the top 1% of earners in America have been feeding ever more greedily at the trough for decades.
In addition, substantial wealth inequality is so embedded in American political culture that, standing alone, it would not be sufficient to trigger citizen rage of the type we are finally witnessing. The American Founders were clear that they viewed inequality in wealth, power, and prestige as not merely inevitable, but desirable and, for some, even divinely ordained. Jefferson praised “the natural aristocracy” as “the most precious gift of nature” for the “government of society.” John Adams concurred: “It already appears, that there must be in every society of men superiors and inferiors, because God has laid in the… course of nature the foundation of the distinction.”
Not only have the overwhelming majority of Americans long acquiesced to vast income and wealth disparities, but some of those most oppressed by these outcomes have cheered it loudly. Americans have been inculcated not only to accept, but to revere those who are the greatest beneficiaries of this inequality.
In the 1980s, this paradox -- whereby even those most trampled upon come to cheer those responsible for their state -- became more firmly entrenched. That’s because it found a folksy, friendly face, Ronald Reagan, adept at feeding the populace a slew of Orwellian clichés that induced them to defend the interests of the wealthiest. “A rising tide,” as President Reagan put it, “lifts all boats.” The sum of his wisdom being: it is in your interest when the rich get richer.
Implicit in this framework was the claim that inequality was justified and legitimate. The core propagandistic premise was that the rich were rich because they deserved to be. They innovated in industry, invented technologies, discovered cures, created jobs, took risks, and boldly found ways to improve our lives. In other words, they deserved to be enriched. Indeed, it was in our common interest to allow them to fly as high as possible because that would increase their motivation to produce more, bestowing on us ever greater life-improving gifts.
We should not, so the thinking went, begrudge the multimillionaire living behind his 15-foot walls for his success; we should admire him. Corporate bosses deserved not our resentment but our gratitude. It was in our own interest not to demand more in taxes from the wealthiest but less, as their enhanced wealth -- their pocket change -- would trickle down in various ways to all of us.
This is the mentality that enabled massive growth in income and wealth inequality over the past several decades without much at all in the way of citizen protest. And yet something has indeed changed. It’s not that Americans suddenly woke up one day and decided that substantial income and wealth inequality are themselves unfair or intolerable. What changed was the perception of how that wealth was gotten and so of the ensuing inequality as legitimate.
Many Americans who once accepted or even cheered such inequality now see the gains of the richest as ill-gotten, as undeserved, as cheating. Most of all, the legal system that once served as the legitimizing anchor for outcome inequality, the rule of law -- that most basic of American ideals, that a common set of rules are equally applied to all -- has now become irrevocably corrupted and is seen as such.
While the Founders accepted outcome inequality, they emphasized -- over and over -- that its legitimacy hinged on subjecting everyone to the law’s mandates on an equal basis. Jefferson wrote that the essence of America would be that “the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire, and generally on a more favored one whenever their rights seem to jar.” Benjamin Franklin warned that creating a privileged legal class would produce “total separation of affections, interests, political obligations, and all manner of connections” between rulers and those they ruled. Tom Paine repeatedly railed against “counterfeit nobles,” those whose superior status was grounded not in merit but in unearned legal privilege.
After all, one of their principal grievances against the British King was his power to exempt his cronies from legal obligations. Almost every Founder repeatedly warned that a failure to apply the law equally to the politically powerful and the rich would ensure a warped and unjust society. In many ways, that was their definition of tyranny.
Americans understand this implicitly. If you watch a competition among sprinters, you can accept that whoever crosses the finish line first is the superior runner. But only if all the competitors are bound by the same rules: everyone begins at the same starting line, is penalized for invading the lane of another runner, is barred from making physical contact or using performance-enhancing substances, and so on.
If some of the runners start ahead of others and have relationships with the judges that enable them to receive dispensation for violating the rules as they wish, then viewers understand that the outcome can no longer be considered legitimate. Once the process is seen as not only unfair but utterly corrupted, once it’s obvious that a common set of rules no longer binds all the competitors, the winner will be resented, not heralded.
That catches the mood of America in 2011. It may not explain the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it helps explain why it has spread like wildfire and why so many Americans seem instantly to accept and support it. As was not true in recent decades, the American relationship with wealth inequality is in a state of rapid transformation.
It is now clearly understood that, rather than apply the law equally to all, Wall Street tycoons have engaged in egregious criminality -- acts which destroyed the economic security of millions of people around the world -- without experiencing the slightest legal repercussions. Giant financial institutions were caught red-handedengaging in massive, systematic fraud to foreclose on people’s homes and the reaction of the political class, led by the Obama administration, was to shield them from meaningful consequences. Rather than submit on an equal basis to the rules, through an oligarchical, democracy-subverting control of the political process, they now control the process of writing those rules and how they are applied.
Today, it is glaringly obvious to a wide range of Americans that the wealth of the top 1% is the byproduct not of risk-taking entrepreneurship, but of corrupted control of our legal and political systems. Thanks to this control, they can write laws that have no purpose than to abolish the few limits that still constrain them, as happened during the Wall Street deregulation orgy of the 1990s. They can retroactively immunize themselves for crimes they deliberately committed for profit, as happened when the 2008 Congress shielded the nation’s telecom giants for their role in Bush’s domestic warrantless eavesdropping program.
It is equally obvious that they are using that power not to lift the boats of ordinary Americans but to sink them. In short, Americans are now well aware of what the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, blurted out in 2009 about the body in which he serves: the banks “frankly own the place.”
If you were to assess the state of the union in 2011, you might sum it up this way: rather than being subjected to the rule of law, the nation’s most powerful oligarchs control the law and are so exempt from it; and increasing numbers of Americans understand that and are outraged. At exactly the same time that the nation’s elites enjoy legal immunity even for egregious crimes, ordinary Americans are being subjected to the world's largest and one of its harshest penal states, under which they are unable to secure competent legal counsel and are harshly punished with lengthy prison terms for even trivial infractions.
In lieu of the rule of law -- the equal application of rules to everyone -- what we have now is a two-tiered justice system in which the powerful are immunized while the powerless are punished with increasing mercilessness. As a guarantor of outcomes, the law has, by now, been so completely perverted that it is an incomparably potent weapon for entrenching inequality further, controlling the powerless, and ensuring corrupted outcomes.
The tide that was supposed to lift all ships has, in fact, left startling numbers of Americans underwater. In the process, we lost any sense that a common set of rules applies to everyone, and so there is no longer a legitimizing anchor for the vast income and wealth inequalities that plague the nation.
That is what has changed, and a growing recognition of what it means is fueling rising citizen anger and protest. The inequality under which so many suffer is not only vast, but illegitimate, rooted as it is in lawlessness and corruption. Obscuring that fact has long been the linchpin for inducing Americans to accept vast and growing inequalities. That fact is now too glaring to obscure any longer.
Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional and civil rights litigator and a current contributing writer at Salon.com. He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books on the Bush administration's executive power and foreign policy abuses. His just-released book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful(Metropolitan Books), is a scathing indictment of America's two-tiered system of justice. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.
Copyright 2011 Glenn Greenwald
Image by david_shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, October 17, 2011 10:35 AM
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
These last weeks, there have been two “occupations” in lower Manhattan, one of which has been getting almost all the coverage -- that of the demonstrators camping out in Zuccotti Park. The other, in the shadows, has been hardly less massive, sustained, or in its own way impressive -- the police occupation of the Wall Street area.
On a recent visit to the park, I found the streets around the Stock Exchange barricaded and blocked off to traffic, and police everywhere in every form (in and out of uniform) -- on foot, on scooters, on motorcycles, in squad cars with lights flashing, on horses, in paddy wagons or minivans, you name it. At the park’s edge, there is a police observation tower capable of being raised and lowered hydraulically and literally hundreds of police are stationed in the vicinity. I counted more than 50 of them on just one of its sides at a moment when next to nothing was going on -- and many more can be seen almost anywhere in the Wall Street area, lolling in doorways, idling in the subway, ambling on the plazas of banks, and chatting in the middle of traffic-less streets.
This might be seen as massive overkill. After all, the New York police have already shelled out an extra $1.9 million, largely in overtime pay at a budget-cutting moment in the city. When, as on Thursday, 100 to 150 marchers suddenly headed out from Zuccotti Park to circle Chase Bank several blocks away, close to the same number of police -- some with ominous clumps of flexi-cuffs dangling from their belts -- calved off with them. It’s as if the Occupy Wall Street movement has an eternal dark shadow that follows it everywhere.
At one level, this is all mystifying. The daily crowds in the park remain remarkably, even startlingly, peaceable. (Any violence has generally been the product of police action.) On an everyday basis, a squad of 10 or 15 friendly police officers could easily handle the situation. There is, of course, another possibility suggested to me by one of the policemen loitering at the Park’s edge doing nothing in particular: “Maybe they’re peaceable because we’re here.” And here's a second possibility: as my friend Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, said to me, “This is the most important piece of real estate on the planet and they’re scared. Look how amazed we are. Imagine how they feel, especially after so many decades of seeing nothing like it.”
And then there’s a third possibility: that two quite separate universes are simply located in the vicinity of each other and of what, since September 12, 2001, we’ve been calling Ground Zero. Think of it as Ground Zero Doubled, or think of it as the militarized recent American past and the unknown, potentially inspiring American future occupying something like the same space. (You can, of course, come up with your own pairings, some far less optimistic.) In their present state, New York’s finest represent a local version of the way this country has been militarized to its bones in these last years and, since 9/11, transformed into a full-scale surveillance-intelligence-homeland-security state.
Their stakeout in Zuccotti Park is geared to extreme acts, suicide bombers, and terrorism, as well as to a conception of protest and opposition as alien and enemy-like. They are trying to herd, lock in, and possibly strangle a phenomenon that bears no relation to any of this. They are, that is, policing the wrong thing, which is why every act of pepper spraying or swing of the truncheon, every aggressive act (as in the recent eviction threat to “clean” the park) blows back on them and only increases the size and coverage of the movement.
Though much of the time they are just a few feet apart, the armed state backing that famed 1%, or Wall Street, and the unarmed protesters claiming the other 99% might as well be in two different times in two different universes connected by a Star-Trekkian wormhole and meeting only where pepper spray hits eyes.
Which means anyone visiting the Occupy Wall Street site is also watching a strange dance of phantoms. Still, we do know one thing. This massive semi-militarized force we continue to call “the police” will, in the coming years, only grow more so. After all, they know but one way to operate.
Right now, for instance, over crowds of protesters the police hover in helicopters with high-tech cameras and sensors, but in the future there can be little question that in the skies of cities like New York, the police will be operating advanced drone aircraft. Already, as Nick Turse indicates in his groundbreaking report [at TomDispatch], the U.S. military and the CIA are filling the global skies with missile-armed drones and the clamor for domestic drones is growing. The first attack on an American neighborhood, not one in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, or Libya, surely lurks somewhere in our future. Empires, after all, have a way of coming home to roost.
Read Nick Turse's essay, “America's Secret Empire of Drone Bases” at TomDispatch.com >>
Image by WarmSleepy, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 06, 2011 5:06 PM
It’s true: We’re covering the Occupy Wall Street movement to death over here (and yes, there’s more to come), perhaps because it was granted so little coverage in the first days of its contentious life. Need a primer-cum-rallying-cry? Read Tom Engelhardt’s essay on the movement’s importance. Pointing to a counter argument by political activist and cartoonist Ted Rall, our editor-in-chief David Schimke asks us to consider if Occupy Wall Street is pushing hard enough. Also, we’re trying keeping you up to date on our Twitter and Tumblr feeds.
Occupy Wall Street is straight up the most vocal, progressively populist demonstration in years—yet from the get-go has suffered from poor media portrayal and position articulation issues. OccupyMN’s April Lukes-Streich, answering via e-mail, tries to clear up a few things before the protest occupies the Minneapolis Government Center Plaza on Friday, October 7, and turns it into the People’s Plaza.
Utne Reader: The participants in the Occupy movement often come from either a background in local activism or a background in Anonymous, the hacktivist group. What is your activism background?
April Lukes-Streich: I’m unaffiliated with any activist group or organization, but have been a longtime political activist and blogger.
:What personally draws you to the Occupy movement? What are your personal motivations?
ALS: I was inspired by the recent occupation of the Madison, Wisc., Capitol building, and realized at that point that with the erosion of our voting rights by way of gerrymandering congressional districts, changing electoral college procedures, and voter ID laws—not to mention the corporate and moneyed influence in politics on both sides of the political aisle—that being present together is really the only chance we have to reclaim our voices to ensure meaningful participation in our political and economic system and the democratic process. I am continually personally inspired by a desire to reform our economic system in a way that ensures fairness for all participants. I cannot speak for all participants and know many to disagree with me, as we come from varied political philosophies, but I am strongly critical of the capitalist economic system and wish to see reform.
: The media has portrayed the Occupy Wall Street movement as somewhat directionless, lacking a central message. In your words, what is the central message of Occupy Wall Street?
ALS: That our movement is seen as directionless or lacking a central message is something that confuses a lot of participants, and I believe rightly so. As many have noted, if it’s unclear to anyone why we’re protesting, they’re not paying attention. Our economic system is in shambles, people are out of work and deep in debt with no discernible solution in the foreseeable future. The unified message of OccupyMN is “People Before Profits,” and we are continually working on lists of common goals. But because we wish to give voice to the 99 percent of Americans who do not currently have a meaningful voice in politics and economics in America, we are unable to present a list of cohesive demands in the way that many people seem to think we should. Ordinary people of all political persuasions are part of the 99 percent; what we want is not to all agree on policy or legislative issues, but to bring voice to the people to engage in meaningful, constructive debate about these issues without moneyed interests influencing the process and manipulating ordinary citizens.
This is a different kind of movement than any other we’ve seen. The process is new to everyone, participants and observers alike.
: Another criticism of the Occupy movement is that it has largely been the pursuit of well-educated, middle-class, white people. Has OccupyMN reached out to groups with cause for concern—minority, unemployed, disabled, etc.—to engage them with the movement/issues?
ALS: OccupyMN is very aware of these issues that are all too often present in activism and of the criticism. We are making every effort to reach out to all minority communities and ensure that folks from privileged backgrounds—namely white, middle-class men—are not dominating the conversation and direction of the movement. Our group is unified in this attempt and we expect to achieve the goal of making sure that everyone has a chance to speak and be a part of the decision-making process through our daily General Assemblies that we will have on the Plaza.
: What are some specific reforms that you’d like to see come about as a result of the Occupy movement?
ALS: I can’t speak for the entire group, but I would personally like to see election financing reform, an end to corporate personhood, and an overhaul of our tax system, including fairly taxing capital gains and instituting a nationwide corporate income tax. I would also like to see an honest conversation about the effectiveness and fairness of the capitalist system.
: Downtown Minneapolis is home to many corporate headquarters and business campuses of large banks—Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, etc.—as well as a Federal Reserve building. Why is OccupyMN demonstrating in Government Plaza with all of these symbolic institutions around?
ALS: Our group voted during our first public forum at Stevens Square Park to move the occupation from the Federal Reserve to the Government Center Plaza for mainly logistical reasons. While occupying the area surrounding the Federal Reserve would be appropriately symbolic, we do not expect that we would have been allowed to remain there. The Government Center Plaza is public property, does not require a permit, and is in the heart of the financial district. We are not protesting at a bank because, beside being private property that we’d surely be arrested for occupying, rendering the movement effectively worthless, we are not protesting any one bank. We’re protesting the entire system, which leaves us without a meaningful voice. We believe that public, taxpayer-funded property is the most realistic place to achieve this goal.
: Is non-violent protesting the only course of action that OccupyMN is taking in the movement, or are there any plans for behind-scenes-work like lobbying and community outreach?
ALS: Many members of our organizational team, as well as countless other participants, are individually involved in lobbying and community outreach, but as a group/movement, we have not yet made plans for behind-the-scenes action. We are compelled to occupy primarily because our exhaustive efforts to lobby and outreach are not working. We need to be heard before we are able to change policies.
: What does success—either immediate or long-term—look like for you?
ALS: I will see success when I see meaningful reform to our economic and political structure. How this will happen, we have yet to know. First, we simply demand to be heard. I believe that, because of this widespread movement, we will be.
Thursday, October 06, 2011 10:29 AM
This post originally appeared at
In some ways, Zuccotti Park, the campsite, the Ground Zero, for the Occupy Wall Street protests couldn’t be more modest. It’s no Tahrir Square, but a postage-stamp-sized plaza at the bottom of Manhattan only blocks from Wall Street. And if you arrive before noon, you’re greeted not by vast crowds, but by air mattresses, a sea of blue and green tarps, a couple of information tables, some enthusiastic drummers, enough signs with slogans for anything you care to support (“Too big to fail is too big to allow,” “The American Dream: You have to be asleep to believe it,” “There’s no state like no state,” etc.), and small groups of polite, eager, well-organized young people, wandering, cleaning, doling out contributed food, dealing with the press, or sitting in circles on the concrete, backpacks strewn about, discussing. If it were the 1960s, it might easily be a hippie encampment.
But don’t be fooled. Not only does the park begin to fill fast and the conversation become ever more animated, but this movement already spreading across the country (and even globally) looks like the real McCoy, something new and hopeful in degraded times. Of the demonstrators I spoke with, several had hitchhiked to New York -- one had simply quit her job -- to be present. Inspired by Tunisians, Egyptians, Spaniards, and Wisconsinites, in a country largely demobilized these last years, they recognized what matters when they saw it. As one young woman told me, “A lot of people in my generation felt we were going to witness something really big -- and I think this is it!”
It may be. The last time we saw a moment like this globally was 1968. (Other dates, like 1848 in Europe and 1919 in China, when the young took the lead in a previously dead world, also come to mind.) It’s the moment when the blood stirs and the young, unable to bear the state of their country or the world, hit the streets with the urge to take the fate of humankind in their own hands.
It’s always unexpected. No one predicted Tahrir Square. No one imagined tens of thousands of young Syrians, weaponless, facing the military might of the state. No one expected the protests in Wisconsin. No one, myself included, imagined that young Americans, so seemingly somnolent as things went from bad to worse, would launch such a spreading movement, and -- most important of all -- decide not to go home. (At the last demonstration I attended in New York City in the spring, the median age was probably 55.)
The Tea Party movement has, until now, gotten the headlines for its anger, in part because the well-funded right wing poured money into the Tea Party name, but it’s an aging movement. Whatever it does, in pure actuarial terms it's likely to represent an ending, not a beginning. Occupy Wall Street could, on the other hand, be the beginning of something, even if no one in it knows what the future has in store or perhaps what their movement is all about -- a strength of theirs, by the way, not their weakness.
It’s true, as many have pointed out, that they don’t have a list of well thought out demands, but the demand to have such a list is just their elders trying to bring them to heel. The fact is, they don’t have to know just what they’re doing, any more than a writer or filmmaker has to understand the book being written or the film shot. It’s not a necessity. It’s not the price of admission. If there’s one thing that’s obvious and heartening, as my friend, the novelist Beverly Gologorsky, said to me while we oldsters circumnavigated the park, “The overwhelming feeling I have is that no one here is planning to go home any time soon.”
Never have they been more needed. Theirs is certainly a movement, like the ones in the Middle East, inspired in part by economic disaster and aimed at an airless political as well as corporate/financial system controlled by the 1% left out of the signs in the park hailing the 99% of Americans whom Occupy Wall Street hopes to represent. It’s a world set on screwing just about everyone in that vast cohort of Americans without compunction, shame, or even, these days, plausible deniability.
The young face a failing world -- and if you want the proof of just how thoroughly it's failed all of us in recent years, check out TomDispatch Associate Editor Andy Kroll’s post today [at TomDispatch.com, “Flat-Lining the Middle Class: Economic Numbers to Die For”]. Nowhere else can you find assembled such a range of evidence of an American world on the decline, one which doesn’t work and shows no sign of being capable of righting itself.
If, on a planet in crisis, their government has repeatedly failed them, the Wall Street demonstrators deserve a small, hopeful cheer for their efforts. They may not be the perfect size and shape for the movement of everyone’s dreams, but they’re here and, right now, that says the world.
Image by _PaulS_,licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011 5:09 PM
Given the corruption that crashed the American economy (again), and the current administration’s unwillingness to seriously address class issues or corporate greed, it’s hard to find fault with Occupy Wall Street.
The “leaderless resistance movement,” which started in New York City on September 17 and continues to attract protesters to Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, is viewed by many, including Noam Chomsky, as courageous and honorable.
“Anyone with eyes open knows that the gangsterism of Wall Street—financial institutions generally—has caused severe damage to the people of the United States and the world. And should also know that it has been doing so increasingly for over 30 years, as their power in the economy has radically increased, and with it their political power,” Chomsky says. “[The protests] should serve to bring this calamity to public attention, and to lead to dedicated efforts to overcome it and set the society on a more healthy course.”
On the Washington Post’s editorial page, staffer James Downie concludes that “as long as the sluggish economy continues to hit Americans—and especially young Americans—hard, expect more and bigger demonstrations like Occupy Wall Street—unfocused, sometimes excessive, but fundamentally justifiable.”
Not everyone who agrees with the protesters’ principles is impressed, however. In an essay posted on Ted Rall’s website on September 26, the political cartoonist, commentator, and author says that “for me and other older, jaded veterans of leftist struggle, [Occupy Wall Street’s] failure was a foregone conclusion”—and that “yet another opportunity to agitate for real change was being wasted by well-meant wankers.”
This is not to say Rall doesn’t believe in the cause. The author of Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back from the Right, acknowledges in the first sentence of his critique that Occupy Wall Street “is and was important.” If only because it represents the first major repudiation of the Obama administration by the American left. But, he argues, good intentions are not enough, especially when the stakes are so high.
“Michael Moore complained about insufficient media coverage, but this non-movement movement was doomed before it began by its refusal to coalesce around a powerful message, its failure to organize and involve the actual victims of Wall Street’s perfidy (people of color, the poor, the evicted, the unemployed, those sick from pollution, etc.), and its refusal to argue and appeal on behalf of a beleaguered working class against an arrogant, violent and unaccountable ruling elite—in other words, to settle for nothing less than the eradication of capitalism.”
Rall desperately wants the protesters to be better organized, and points out that a number of those who did get interviewed by the mainstream media lacked a central message and the ability to articulately unpack key issues. To hammer home his point, he implores the kids in the park to “lose the clown clothes.”
“It’s not the early 1960s; you don’t have to wear a suit like the civil rights marchers did,” he writes. “But how about showing up on national TV looking decent, like it’s Casual Friday?”
Rall is a provocateur, and a few progressives have already taken him to task both for his hyperbolic prose and for his failure to support the troops. Fair enough. There’s a lot to chew on in this tirade, however, and when everyone goes back to their lives and Wall Street continues its run toward ruin, it demands a dispassionate revisitation.
Sources: Occupy Wall Street, Ted Rall, Washington Post
Image by Carwil, licensed under Creative Commons.
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