In a few days the Occupy Wall Street movement arrives in my town, Oakland, and I am thinking a lot about what I want to do. As I reflect on what’s been happening in the last number of weeks, I feel quite uplifted and so, so relieved. For months I was watching with growing discomfort the absence of action in the US while nonviolent resistance was spreading like wildfire to more and more countries. Now, finally, the movement is spreading in this country which I have made my home since 1983. City after city now has its own occupy location, with a similar spirit in many of them. I am quite sure I am not alone in holding tremendous curiosity to see how things will unfold, and some hope that perhaps some shift could result, even a fundamental systemic change.
At the same time, I feel quite a bit of unease. Nonviolence, for me, is far from being simply the absence of overt physical violence. Nonviolence is a positive approach that requires tremendous courage. Nonviolence, if I listen carefully to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., rests on a deep love of all humans, including the ones the struggle and the resistance are mounted to topple. Nonviolence at its source emerges from clear vision, and is dramatically different from a purely oppositional movement. When Gandhi orchestrated the Salt March, he was at one and the same time violating the law as well as demonstrating with his actions the world he wanted to create. The same was true of the actions of young people during the Civil Rights Movement. A picket line outside segregated restaurants would have been pure protest. Boycotting the restaurants and blocking people from entering them would have been a disruption of business as usual. Actually sitting at the lunch counters, blacks and whites together, was what Sharif Abdullah calls “vision implementation.” Just like the Salt March, these actions were already part of the world being created, the transformation already taking place.
In what I hear about the Occupy Wall Street movement I see a lot of creativity and sophistication in the form of organization, a willingness to keep learning and adapting, including in response to critiques from people of color, and quite a bit of tenacity and resilience. I can’t imagine a movement succeeding without these qualities. I repeat again: I am delighted that this mobilization is happening, and rooting for its success. At the same time, many of the statements I have seen contain “us/them” statements, and I know much more about what organizers and participants don’t want than about what they do want. Where is the loving vision that’s going to win over people? Where are the clear goals that can galvanize mass popular support for the movement?
According to scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, in their recently published Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, which draws on research covering over 300 violent and nonviolent campaigns, the key to a successful nonviolent campaign is the ability “to recruit a robust, diverse, and broad-based membership that can erode the power base of the adversary and maintain resilience in the face of opposition.”
I have some wild hope that there can be a way for the many who gather and those who support them to articulate an inspiring vision. This is not about making demands. The people on the street as well as the organizers have been deliberately shying away from articulating demands (see Richard Eskow’ article on this point for an understanding of why this may be so). However, not having demands doesn’t mean not having a vision. If we don’t want corporate profit to rule the day, what is it that we want instead? I know what it is for me: A call to create structures and systems that put human needs at the center. What can it be for an entire movement that prides itself on self-organizing? How can a vision be articulated within such a movement? Which of us will go and attend the meetings to support that in happening?
Mass popular support will also require finding a way to address the profound divides that continue to cut through US society. I see this possibility as resting on having conversations across many divides – political, racial, and social. The kinds of conversations that have rarely happened; that seek to transcend rather than entrench the polarities; that aim to find the shared human needs and dreams that give rise to such opposing views and experiences. Combining a simple and clear vision with the capacity to engage lovingly with others may be key to the movement’s ability to gain the consistent support of many more people.
A third and last element that I would like to see is the capacity to mount multiple forms of actions beyond the current gatherings. With mass popular support and clear goals, what other steps could be taken that may increase the pressure and begin to undermine the sources of support of the existing institutions that the movement seeks to destabilize? Beyond pure protest, what actions could the movement generate that would demonstrate the vision? What would be the Salt March of this movement?
I want to imagine for a moment what might happen if the vision indeed rests on honoring human needs. If so, what actions could a mass popular movement generate that both disrupt the control of corporations as well as provide for basic human needs? One of the key elements of Gandhi’s campaign is what he called Constructive Program. The centerpiece of his program was spinning, which both materially and symbolically freed Indians from relying on the British Empire for their clothing. A similar approach was taken by the Black Panthers who operated many parallel institutions to the state, a move designed to empower and free people. If freedom from the rule of corporations and basic human needs were the goal of the Occupy Wall Street movement, what could masses of people do that would directly attend to human needs?
Before any specific action is contemplated, I want to emphasize that it’s critical that whatever the action, it has to be taken by a sufficiently large number of people so that they’re less vulnerable to possible consequences and repression.
What if masses of people took possession of goods produced by corporations and distributed them to those in need? What if large groups of people appropriated structures and buildings so that homeless people, including those created through the recent ongoing foreclosures, would have a place to live? What if a million people stopped paying taxes and invested that money in sustainable technologies or permaculture? Would such actions be the equivalent of the Salt March or the lunch counters? And what would be today’s equivalent of the spinning? Gandhi insisted that anyone who joined his movement would commit to spinning for 30 minutes a day. What if we all committed to 30 minutes a day of taking action, individually, in groups, and in communities, that would free us from the rule of large institutions in the areas of food, shelter, clothing, health, and education – the most basic of human needs? Can you imagine how much energy a movement could generate if every day masses of people engaged in popular education, grew and made food from scratch, learned again how to make home-based medicines, and supported each other in all these areas? I have more questions than answers, because I am only one person. I hope you join me – in responses to this post, in conversations with others, and in the general assemblies of the various occupations.
Despite immense material benefit for some at the expense of others, I don’t believe that the current social order truly works for anyone. Let us march together towards the radically simple goal that Sharif Abdullah envisioned: a world that works for all.