Occupation Nation? Sí, Se Puede!

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Waging Nonviolence

Occupation Nation? Sí, Se Puede!

Bayard Rustin, long-time organizer and activist involved in the peace, civil rights, economic justice, gay rights, and African movements, envisioned a coalition of African-Americans and civil rights activists, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups, that could alter the social and political makeup of the country. This culminated in the March on Washington and was marked, shortly thereafter, by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965. Not without controversy, Rustin’s ideas of ensuring social justice—not just political rights—through a broad-based coalition enjoyed some significant success. The coalition’s success was not necessarily due to its organizational strength so much as its ability to turn out large numbers of people for protests and political actions.

As Waging Nonviolence has reported, there are a number calls out for “occupations” a la Arab Spring this autumn: Stop the Pipeline, #OCCUPYWALLSTREET and October 2011. While certainly interconnected, the likelihood of overlapping activist participation, with the exception of “career organizers” and “lifelong activists” in each of these three calls for action seems remote. Despite strides taken by activists and scholars to connect the dots across environmental justice, economic justice, and the peace movement, these movements remain somewhat separated for a variety of reasons: problems of focus, unique histories, and/or fatigue.

For instance, the environmental justice movement is arguably the most vibrant right now, garnering some national publicity with actions such as Appalachia Rising and Powershift. It is largely a young people’s movement with participation from Appalachians, journalists, and an increased presence of scientists. Tired of political rhetoric and institutional reform, the environmental justice movement has capitalized on the sense of urgency necessitated by impending climate change by becoming more proficient in direct action. Aside from the few fringe, hardcore environmental activists with groups like Earth First! and parts of Greenpeace, though, it remains unclear if all the college student activism will translate into the kind of long-term, serious commitment that social change requires. As Tim DeChristopher so eloquently put it, environmental injustice exists, in part, “because of the cowardice of the environmental movement.” But the movement has energy and is attracting people, which is not to be underestimated. Sociological research shows that one of the main reasons people join—and stay involved—in social movements is not simply its chance of success (also indisputably important), but because it also elicits a sense of belonging.

The Tar Sands Action seems to have been well-organized, exhibiting a certain savvy with social media and online presence. It will be interesting and exciting to see what kind of participation the action brings, how effective it is, as well as how many new participants it brings into the climate justice movement.

The movement for economic justice—defending workers’ rights to organize, protecting social welfare, and promoting community development—is poised for some potential action on a grand scale. Bolstered by people’s movements around the world (best characterized as economic justice and democratic movements) like Spain’s Indignant Movement and Egypt’s successful ousting of Hosni Mubarak among them, American labor unions, worker centers, and helping professions (teachers, social workers, etc.) have had their imaginations infused with possibilities of a new political and economic order—particularly with the inspirational, albeit limitedly successful, Wisconsin protests. As a mainstay in American social change, there is a tradition for labor movements and organizers in the U.S. that is rich and diverse: the Wobblies, the UFW, and the anti-globalization movement like the one gathered in Seattle 1999 all share a common heritage of collective action that includes strikes, boycotts, and interruption on behalf of workers’ rights and economic justice. More than anything, the movement for economic justice lacks teeth. With the exception of the very recent Verizon workers’ strike, American labor—organized and unorganized—has been unwilling to take much risky action. Even some of organized labor’s threat to boycott the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina lacks substantial backing from key unions, making it more of a play-it-safe symbolic action than anything economically damaging enough to force the Democrats to reconsider their tenuous stance toward the American worker.

The call for occupying Wall Street, which originally came from the “culture jamming” group Adbusters, is as follows:

On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat our one simple demand until Barack Obama capitulates.

Are Americans ready to shoulder such responsibility? Do they care? Is there a collective American experience of injustice and oppression—like dictatorship and general economic hardship—that is affecting enough people to mobilize a country? Is it bad enough—for middle class Americans—to participate in a general strike, and to what end? #OCCUPYWALLSTREET asks, “Is American Ripe for a Tahrir Moment?” Maybe, but the “ripe” timing depends not just on a well-calculated call for action but on tedious organizing at multiple societal levels, nonviolence training, resource mobilization, and, to some extent, luck. Even if only 10,000 occupy Wall Street for three days and are forcibly removed, it will be a success, if framed correctly and utilized to mobilize further action. #OCCUPYWALLSTREET is a stepping stone, not the final destination.

The peace movement, on the other hand, has recently suffered dwindling numbers and poor media coverage.  It does have some hardcore veteran organizers who’ve been at it a long time, including successful organizing campaigns during the 1980s Central American wars and the historically proven ability to turn out giant numbers for protests against the 2003 war in Iraq. The peace movement—including the 1970s anti-nuclear actions—has also consistently practiced civil resistance since the Vietnam war which reveals a courageous commitment to both nonviolence and a willingness to sacrifice. There is a wisdom and fluency for nonviolent action in the peace movement, although potentially antiquated, that gives it a legitimizing staying power in the social change landscape.

National calls for action on October 6th, the anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, highlight a huge swath of social justice issues, to “stop the machine” and “create a new world.” Painting with broad strokes, the October 2011 organizers are dreaming big. But what is the possibility for real change? What does “stop the machine” mean and, more importantly, what is the movement’s plan for making it happen? The American mainstream was already duped by Obama’s catchy slogans and hope-filled promises. Are the worthy dreams of dissatisfied American organizers too ambitious? Having not had much “success” in recent memory, the peace movement lacks the excitement and sense of possibility rooted in recent “wins” that other movements have had, however small. The October 2011 could be the facelift that the peace movement has needed, but again, only time will tell.

Peace activists, environmentalists, progressives and liberals, laborers (unionized and not) certainly share sympathies across each other's movements and cannot be expected to be involved in every social justice issue. There is a lot to learn from each others’ histories of success and failure, tactics and strategies, and current strengths and weaknesses. But perhaps most importantly, the virtues of solidarity and the common good need to be extolled in the public realm to affirm all the struggles for environmental, economic, and social justice—which needless to say includes human rights and equity across difference of all kinds. Paul Hawken, in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, informs us that never in the history of the world have there been so many groups and organizations working for social change. In fact, one-third of his book is filled with appendices with all the different organizations he has documented working for environmental justice, indigenous rights, and social justice. But does that make it a “movement”? October 2011 and #OCCUPYWALLSTREET endorse each other and share a handful of organizers. Does that unify them as a movement? I don’t think so.

Endorsement is positive for a number of reasons: it can add legitimacy to the public eye, share information with new networks, and increase visibility. It is more than tacit support, but short of the kind of vision and action all three of these movements—especially #OCCUPYWALLSTREET and October 2011—desire, and work for, so deeply. I don’t know what the answers are, but clearly these struggles are intertwined and the resistance’s opponent—empire, capitalism, the corporatocracy—is a behemoth. Maybe it means more of us being full-time activists, risking arrest and humiliation, quiting our jobs, living more communally and simply, learning to not comply. Nonviolence and resistance is necessarily creative. How can our support—our mutuality—go deeper? Are we willing to open our wallets, offices, listservs, files, telephones, resources for each other?

When environmentalists can find a way to struggle for climate justice and affirm the rights of workers, when peace activists can support the alternative vision that climate justice offers, when workers can rally to protest imperialist wars abroad, a comprehensive vision of change emerges that has staying power that national institutions—however corrupt or disappointing—cannot ignore. Public intellectuals, independent journalists, critical religious leaders, will reclaim this movement-backed vision and force the politicians and the capitalists to submit their grasp on power. Oligarchy is inevitable as long as we stay unorganized and separate. The unification of these movements is not a pipe dream but a surmountable challenge that can be met with intentionality, organization, and the crossing of imaginary boundaries. May Dr. King’s prophetic call be our rallying focal point: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Can these calls for occupation—either individually or collectively—move us closer toward equity, true democracy and justice? So long as they affirm and support each others’ struggles, in the words of Cesar Chavez: Sí, se puede; yes, it’s possible!

Jake Olzen


Jake Olzen is a farmer, activist/organizer and journalist. He lives and farms at the Lake City Catholic Worker in Southeast Minnesota. Follow him on twitter @jakeolzen

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