I got invited to speak at a conference in which i did not pay enough attention to the program. It turns out to be very new agey, and it might be too exotic/woo woo for me. I did like the intro presentations about polarities though.
During one of the speeches a presenter said, “The reason that Occupy Wall Street failed is they rejected the idea of leadership.” This struck me as wrong for two very different reasons.
The first is Occupy did not fall, it was pushed. Dozens of police raids across the US displaced occupiers from their parks. Remove the freedom to assemble and you eliminate free speech protests.
The second reason is that Occupy did not fail. Oh, it did not succeed in getting banksters thrown in jail and it did not end income inequity in the US. But it did change the conversation about these topics. In New York itself, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio vowed to tackle the “Tale of Two Cities” income disparity issue and won, in part, on this issue. Similarly, one could argue Obama’s efforts to raise the minimum wage may well have been emboldened by this movement.
More importantly, Occupy gave birth to a whole collection of initiatives including Occupy Sandy, which outperformed both FEMA and the Red Cross after the superstorm hit the East Coast. In many cities Occupy morphed into anti-evictions groups. In Eugene, Occupy Medical still provides free medical services to populations that would otherwise have no access. And these are just initiatives i know of because i work in these cities.
You should only hope that when you are dead, you have this much going on.
You almost certainly heard about the Climate March last weekend in NYC. It was a big colorful event.
And while this was important (because it was large – 400K participants, because it was diverse, because it was timely – just before the UN meeting on climate disruption – which did have some accomplishments of its own), it was not as important in my mind as the much smaller protest in NYC on the same issue the next day.
Flood Wall Street tried to mimic some of the simplicity of Occupy Wall Street – wear blue and come prepared to stay. And then a funny thing happened. The NYC police did not come in and beat up and disperse these street blocking protests. It could not have hurt that newly elected NYC mayor Bill De Blasio instructing the police to back off the protest.
When asked about his participation in the action which blocked the streets around the nations most critical financial district,. De Blasio somewhat amazingly said “I think the First Amendment is a little more important than traffic.”
If you know the NYPD, you know they hate unpermitted persons taking over the street. They will generally quickly disperse and often attack any unpermitted march or action, if they can.
The police apparently were not excited by the mayor’s orders to not beat up the civil disobedience actions. Perhaps change is possible.
The most vexing and important question for the next generation of Occupy is what do we think about violence as a part of protest.
There is a philosophical framing of this argument as the acceptance or rejection of the strategy of a diversity of tactics. The unofficial spokes persons for the black block are the CrimethInc Kids who have a tight case for the activist right to violence
What is violence? Who gets to define it? Does it have a place in the pursuit of liberation? These age-old questions have returned to the fore during the Occupy movement. But this discussion never takes place on a level playing field; while some delegitimize violence, the language of legitimacy itself paves the way for the authorities to employ it.
The case against violence in the context of Occupy’s daughter movements is one of parasitism and culture. The black block attends events in which the principal organizers have declared that the philosophy of the event is a non-violent one. The event maybe family friendly, it might even be a permitted protest (something i would not recommend, but happens). So hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people show up expecting to have a certain type of experience. They come planning to express their political descent with a certain personal risk.
The black block is often seeking confrontation with the police. They are generally a small fraction of these larger events. By fighting with the police, they are basically using the other protesters who signed on to a different set of agreements as there shields and foils. Children might get tear gassed, grannies might get beat up by the cops, pacifists might end up in jail unexpectedly.
Of course if the black block wants to organize an action where the agenda of fighting with the police is explicate and is known to the participants, i have no problem with this. i might not choose to attend, or might choose to support it in some indirect way (i’ve done plenty of fighting with the police, i am currently retired from this sport), but i would not feel like a larger group of non-violent protesters was being used.
The real problem with the black block at Occupy and other non-violent identified events is that they damage the movement. It is often a stretch for people to come out and protest, they are taking personal risks to do this type of activity. Generally movements succeed by being persistent, by growing and by being clever in their tactics. If a minority of protesters, violating the spirit of the events agreements causes other protesters not to return to future events, they are setting the cause backwards.
I spoke with many revolutionaries in Egypt, and heard several fascinating tales. But the ones which haunt me I heard for Gihan. They were the tales of her experience in Tahrir square and afterward. Of the extraordinary temporary community which was created and how the act of revolution changed peoples lives. And very specifically hers.
She recalls when she was first in Tahrir Square she held up a sign so it was in front of her face, so she would not have to be seen. And with time she dropped the sign lower, chatted with the people passing by and the media, inviting them in – to be part of what was become more inevitably their revolution as well.
Gihan tells of her experience of cat calling [this is the verbal harassment many people – mostly women – get from men they dont know on the street. Frequently, but not exclusively about their appearance]. Before Tahrir Square she would just walk away from this type of harassment, feeling it was ubiquitous and hopeless to change.
After the revolution she found herself doing something else. When someone cat called her, she would turn and face them and ask “Were we together in Tahrir Square?” Millions of people from Cairo and other places participated in this popular revolution at least for part of it. Everyone she asks says “yes”
“What you just did hurt me and I know you would have never done that in Tahrir Square.” And then she turns to walk away – but every cat caller, asks her to stop and apologizes. And I think more importantly, they likely retire from this type of harassment.
The courage it takes to tear down a dictatorship not only changes the political landscape of the country, it empowers and emboldens the people who make it happen to take on other cultural injustices which surround them.