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. (Rebecca Solnit)
As luck would have it, I’m visiting my sister in Philadelphia during the Occupy National Gathering, so I plan on going. The idea of a national gathering – an opportunity for occupiers all over the country to convene, share intel, and hopefully get on the same page - is one I think many in the movement felt a pull towards as soon as it was clear the Occupy idea had expanded well beyond the barricades of Zuccotti Park. I have no idea what to expect at this event and I’m not sure anyone does, which, in a way, is a fitting reflection of the strength and weakness of the movement. Great ideas, genius and energy abounds, yet few would argue with the assertion that this energy, up till now, has lacked the direction and foresight required to realize its full potential. Wonderful initiatives like Occupy Our Homes, Occupy the Farm, and Occupy Student Debt hint at what is possible, yet there is a sense that these initiatives are exceptions to the rule – islands of assertiveness in a sea of discombobulation, isolated and cut off from the larger movement. This view, like everything else in Occupy, is also up for debate. Many I suspect would disagree with the notion that Occupy should be better organized, and would insist the disorganized, fly by the seat of your pants way in which the movement currently operates is in fact a critical component of its identity and effectiveness, and that becoming more regimented would open it up to the same sort of corruption so pervasive in all the existing structures being protested.
While I’m personally not of the opinion that organization and structure is directly correlated with corruption, it’s not the purpose of this post to engage in this sort of existential debate. The purpose of this post, rather, is to simply do the most occupy-y thing I can do at this time, and offer up my suggestions for the movement to the National Gathering – fits of inspiration, idealism and hopefully a touch of realism which have amassed in my spiral notebook over the course of many GAs and Occupy actions over the last several months. By listing my ideas indiscriminately like this, I’m well aware of the possibility that I risk exposing my ignorance to the masses, but I can’t help but think that this, too, is indicative of yet another key asset of Occupy – the fact that it has invigorated the activism of so many who previously sat on the sidelines, assured in their knowledge of the inherent corruption of the system, yet equally assured of their inability to do anything about it. I fully acknowledge that many of these ideas, in addition to sounding preachy and pretentious, may be impractical, misguided, obvious, unsophisticated, overly generalized, or old news. But I’m less concerned with coming across as a Mr. Know It All, and more concerned with just “putting it all down on paper” in the hope that there may be a few isolated nuggets to be mined. So here they are in all their glory, in no particular order. This will be a very long post, so grab a McCafé Frappé and settle in. (Just kidding. Just take a deep conscious breath instead.)
Our movement is young, and it can only gain traction when others join in. Despite what truth we may be confident of being in possession of, it is of no consequence if others aren’t standing with us, so we must be fully conscious of our image to the public and how our actions come across to others. Sure, many will hold onto their negative preconceptions of occupiers no matter what we do, and the corporate media and police state are aligned against us, but we aren’t trying to reach any of those factions. We are trying to reach those who still retain even the slightest ability to form opinions for themselves who, while still unknowingly receiving the bulk of their worldview from corporations, are able to reconsider things if shown evidence of an alternate narrative. This is why one of the main focuses of Occupies all across the country should be to simply DO GOOD. Of course the corporate media will neglect coverage or seek to discredit a movement which posits that the very idea of a “corporate media” is an oxymoron. But if occupiers, say, feed the homeless once a week, it empowers those who see it in the flesh with the information needed to form their own opinions. Just like a food bank or free clinic, every Occupy should be a boon to its surrounding community, not only for the purpose of building the “better world,” but also to combat negative media stereotypes. Over time, these types of utterly non-controversial actions will go a long way in telling people the real story about not only Occupy, but of the inherently conflicted and self-serving motives of the corporate media.
Given the fact that the internet is what enabled Occupy to come into being, and remains the most potent consciousness raising tool we have at our disposal today, a well-thought-out online strategy is essential. Indeed, if one were to ever question the true grassroots nature of Occupy, he/she need only browse though a few of the hundreds of hastily thrown together local Occupy websites – most of which boast a front page that hasn’t been updated in months, a calendar that may or may not be current, and a contact link that may or may not be checked. If Occupy is for real, it is imperative that each local Occupy have a main website that is current, focused and responsive, with a clear avenue for people to get plugged-in and participate, and clear explanations of the various initiatives and actions currently taking place. Building on the “do good” theme, each site could also become known as a kind of one stop shop resource for those in the community in need of assistance. This assistance could be provided directly by occupiers when possible, by referrals to existing community organizations when not possible, as well as by peer-to-peer networks of citizens simply coming forward to either declare a need or offer to fulfill one. Think Freecycle, but for everything.
Of course, maintaining a comprehensive website such as this and adding new, relevant content is a full-time job and, despite what detractors would like to believe, most occupiers already have jobs which prevent them from taking on another one. I mean it when I say this is unfortunate, as the majority of our jobs today – far from being good in themselves and something we need “more of” – force us into subservience and suppress our individuality, yet our very livelihoods depend on this subservience. It is a great irony that most, even those of us who acknowledge the intrinsically flawed premise of the global economic system we live under, are unable to mount any serious opposition to this system precisely because of our perceived dependence on it. While I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs, I am saying there does come a point when some hard decisions will need to be made about how serious we are about this movement. Will it continue to be something we give ourselves to only when time permits, in between our regular activities, most of which concern doing the bidding of the skewed system and mentality which is the target of our protest? Or are we ready to make a full-on commitment, and offer ourselves fully to a movement which, unlike our jobs, is clamoring to take full advantage of each of our unique gifts? Are the patterns and comforts and promises of stability we cling to what give us true meaning and happiness in our lives? Or are we ready to set aside fear and finally take that bold step forward for an opportunity to do something truly and profoundly meaningful? Each of us will need to answer this question for ourselves, and depending on what our answer is, get creative in finding ways to allow us to take this next step.
Coming hand in hand with the concern about Occupy’s online presence is the question of raising money. Of course, we understand the sinister and life-debasing nature of the inevitable debt-producing scheme that is today’s monetary system. Many of us take it a step further and denounce capitalism itself, many further still in denouncing the very idea of money. While I do believe there will come a day when humanity will gain the maturity required to move beyond this invention, until then, we must play this game, which again begs the question – who in their right mind would donate money to a local Occupy whose website hasn’t been updated in months, and whose WePay account likely isn’t even current? The ability of any movement or organization to raise money will be matched only by the extent to which it is seen to have its act together and putting its stated values into practice consistently.
Once again, I realize that many of the suggestions above and below simply aren’t possible for most Occupies logistically. Most GAs consist of a mere handful of people, so expecting each Occupy to have a slick website and a healthy portfolio of community empowering initiatives isn’t fair, but this speaks to the interconnected and Catch-22 nature of all of Occupy’s concerns which, upon their identification, can also point to their solution. Raising money is only possible if people are confident their money will be put to good use with community empowering initiatives, rather than continuing to bail occupier after occupier out of jail. Community empowering initiatives, in turn, can only be realized by a large member base owning a wide range of complementary knowledge and skills. A large member base can only be achieved if a movement is, again, shown to be serious, aware, and welcoming of people with varying sensibilities. If we are earnest in our work and genuine in our desire to connect with people and heal our world, our current physical limitations will become less of an issue over time.
It is an extremely tricky and difficult task to assimilate the varying perspectives present in any movement, but especially this one. Some occupiers are focused solely on campaign finance reform or raising the minimum wage by a few dollars. Others see the movement as portending a larger shift in global collective consciousness, serving as the bridge to a more enlightened human existence. Some occupiers seem fully absorbed by protest, mic-checking and banging pots outside rich people’s homes. Others are more interested in positive and sustainable actions designed to bring about the better world. Despite what might seem implied here, and despite my own inclination, I actually do not feel that one approach is superior to the other. That’s the beauty of Occupy – there’s room for everyone, and we’re all needed. However, I do feel it’s important for the movement to have a unifying vision and some sense of where it’s going. Overall, I’ve noticed that many occupiers do tend to be fairly reactionary, without an attendant vision of what an alternative should be if the object of their scorn were indeed to be done away with. Again, I am not dismissing this aspect of Occupy – it is vital. But it should only be one aspect. Part of the larger picture, not THE picture.
Acknowledging Our Mistakes
Nobody’s perfect, including occupiers. So if an occupier does something stupid, let’s acknowledge it, and build up credibility with those on the outside looking in who are likely every bit as fed up with today’s dishonesty as we are. Denying culpability and reflexively demonizing our opposition are the old ways – hallmarks of the destructive mentality that brought us here in the first place. We seek a more honest, authentic world, which means we have no choice but to embody it ourselves at all times, and speak clearly, precisely, and determinedly in denouncing both those outside our ranks who seek to discredit us, and those within our ranks who act in ignorance. Why not stand on the side of truth and hold ourselves to a higher standard, all the time, whether it’s convenient or not, firm in our understanding that doing so is ultimately what will lead us to our destination.
This one is fairly obvious. I won’t go into detail here about why community gardens are a good thing, as I’m sure this is self-evident to most occupiers. I will say that the deeper inside the belly of the beast a community garden is, the more potential it has to do good and raise consciousness. A community garden in the middle of a financial center, or inner city, or across the street from City Hall as our local Occupy has begun to look into, can have a profound impact on the consciousness of the surrounding population and plant the seeds of an alternate story – a story not of mindless profit and consumption, but of community and contribution. Every local Occupy should put its name on a community garden, either by contributing to an existing one or starting its own. Occupy Vacant Lots and Occupy the Farm have taken the lead on this. Let’s follow them.
I’ve written a few posts on worker co-ops. Again, I’m sure most occupiers know why they’re a good thing and why they have enormous transformative potential. Anything Occupy can do to support existing worker co-ops, as well as the creation of new ones, should be looked at. This may involve raising money, or pressuring local government to enact measures designed to encourage a greater preponderance of worker co-ops in our economic landscape.
This is the only “negative” action in my notebook, but one that I feel can have a significant positive effect. Of course, only workers themselves can decide whether they are willing to take on the risks associated with striking, but Occupy can at least be there to help should they decide to do so. Imagine a website, say, occupystrike.com. If workers at Fast Food Stop A decide that 8 bucks an hour really isn’t cutting it when the corporate hierarchy whose profits they enable make hundreds of millions, they can visit this site, form their own discussion group, and decide on a day to take action. Assuming Occupy regains its credibility and ability to raise money (see above), the movement can cover employees’ lost wages and stand with them on their big day. Sporadic, unanticipated actions like this would be, I believe, far more effective than a one-off event planned and publicized months in advance like May 1st. They rattle the foundation of the 1%’s perch, forcing them to look their workers in the eye, acknowledge their essential worth, and make a tough choice. They can fire the entire offending crew if they want, but that’s a bit of a hassle, and eventually the stench would start to get pretty bad.
Much like community gardens and worker co-ops, this kind of action would also come bundled with the same very welcome “raising consciousness” side-effect. As Joe “The Plumber” Six-Pack strolls in for his daily GMO fix and slams his head on the sliding doors which usually open automatically, he is, at the very least, forced out of his routine. At best – and I believe this would be the case for many – a new thought process is introduced. “Oh yeah, I guess that is kind of messed up,” he might think. “They really should be getting paid more, and treated better. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll stop coming here until they are.”
I have no affiliation with Transition Towns, nor have I participated in one directly, but I think it’s a great idea and consistent with all the principles of Occupy, so check it out. Like the name implies, the goal is our transition to more connected, sustainable, resilient communities. Though I have to say, on first glance, most Transition Towns appear to be dormant and frankly uninspiring, with fortnightly meetings sharing gardening tips seeming to comprise the largest extent of their activities. But what Transition lacks in energy, it makes up in real-world practicality. Given that the exact reverse is the problem currently facing Occupy, every local Occupy would do well to get in touch and collaborate with its local Transition, if there is one.
Getting off the grid is hard work for just one person. It’s easier if your whole block does it. Easier still if your entire city invests in it. If our governments aren’t ready to forsake the oil economy – in all likelihood THE single greatest source of injustice and destruction in our world – in favor of what’s best for the planet and humanity at-large, let the people do it themselves. Let us educate ourselves on how we might build up the resilience of our communities, share knowledge, and come together for our own collective benefit. Let’s compile a database of people who are willing to put in the extra effort to eliminate their electricity bill and energize themselves, block by block. Let each Occupy do whatever it can to work with existing organizations and facilitate this process.
Yes, Occupy is apolitical, regarding our co-opted political system as one of the primary instigators of our predicament. However, focused engagement of local government can do good, and the possibility exists, even today, for local communities to join forces, make decisions for themselves, and override the heavy hand of our corporate-government hybrid – such as when Pittsburgh banned fracking or Barnstead kicked out corporate water miners. Obviously, many longstanding advocacy groups, community organizers, and Occupy, are already devoted to this kind of activity. The purpose of my including it here is to merely affirm the view that our rejection of the political system as a whole need not imply a wholesale rejection of the idea of engaging with it at all, and to suggest that our efforts on this front can be proactive as well as reactive. In addition to pushing back against corporate overreach, for example, we can also organize locally to confront more foundational root causes, such as issues related to copyright/patent reform, land ownership, community currencies, for-profit war/prisons/health care/education, increasingly militarized police forces, the drug war, etc.
No, you don’t have to be spiritually inclined or ingest peyote to latch onto this one. Fairly self-evident, isn’t it? Any political or social action we’d like to take is only made possible with the support of a large segment of the population, and this can only be acquired from an increasingly aware and conscious populace. The civil rights movement was hopeless, until the majority of people recognized why it is to all our benefit to have a more just and inclusive society. While our tendency is to demonize those at the top – ego-driven politicians, ruthless dictators – the fact is that these people are only granted their place at the helm by the grace of an unconscious population. Our activism against a corrupt system can only be successful if we are able to see its corruption for ourselves with our own refined consciousness, a process which I believe can be aided along most effectively with positive actions like the ones mentioned above, not to mention the hundreds of brilliant ideas I know the rest of us have been sitting on that are just waiting to see the light of day.
OK, those aren’t all the ideas in my notebook, but that’s enough for now. Again, the point of this exercise was not to lay out an exact prescription to be followed as if I have all the answers. I most certainly don’t. The point was to simply provide a general framework and snapshot of one humble occupier’s current thinking on Occupy, inspired by the reality of our budding movement’s first of hopefully many national gatherings, with the hope that some of us might glean whatever we glean from it. If you’re feeling inspired, pick one suggestion and commit to it. Don’t feel obligated to do every little thing, and please, don’t feel overwhelmed by the long road ahead – the very fact that we’re here and finally living out our most deeply held values is all we need to win ourselves a happy and fulfilling life, whether or not we actually get to see the realization of a fully just world in our lifetime. On the other hand, if you feel this whole display was just aimless claptrap, toss it in the garbage or close the browser, and continue to follow your own inner voice informing you of the most direct path to take in your work of cultivating good in the world.
In closing, it feels appropriate at this time to reflect on the nature of my own activism which, like I’m sure is the case for many of us, was almost nonexistent pre-Occupy. I remember one specific instance, about 5 years ago, when I was still working my corporate slave job – the bulk of my time and thoughts occupied with maintaining the profits of the “job providers” whom I’d never met and sat in an office somewhere halfway across the country. In those days, most of my free time, also, was occupied – spent in recovery mode, wallowing in and savoring the scant few hours I had to do absolutely nothing. It certainly wasn’t spent scanning the far reaches of the internet or my psyche, exposing my mind to alternative vistas that would ultimately lead to the prized acquisition of the ability to think independently – that only happened after I quit. Yet even then, as a corporate foot soldier, I understood intuitively what I believe the majority of occupiers understand – that individual well-being is dependent on collective well-being. So even then, I forced myself to contact a local education center, and started using my precious recovery time to tutor at-risk youth studying for their GED – but I didn’t stay long.
As I helped these kids with things like how to write a resume, or how to look and act presentable for a job interview – all things which would allow them to more effectively “compete” in the world and thus merely result in a different set of losers – I could no longer ignore my increasingly clear conviction that it was this faulty premise itself, not the inevitable fallout from it, which deserved my energy and dedication. Though I had always subscribed to and appreciated the message of the starfish parable, I decided then to cast it aside. Make no mistake, while organizations who help veterans or feed the hungry deserve our unequivocal admiration and support, there comes a time when throwing starfish back into the ocean is counterproductive if it comes at the expense of confronting the larger issue of quelling the tide. The fact that Occupy strikes at the root of our problems, rather than their symptoms, is the reason it has galvanized the activism of so many who, like myself, had all but abandoned the possibility of affecting positive fundamental change until now. Likewise, the fact that Occupy offers a place and a voice to these same people is the reason why this moment has so much potential. So if you’ve made the realization, as a growing number of people in the world have and are, that the global social and economic order governing this little planet hurtling through space is inherently compromised – that injustice is inevitable, and that this injustice affects you even if you have clothes on your back and a roof over your head - Occupy wants your contribution. It knows that your unique talent and brilliance has for the most part laid dormant until now, suppressed as a means of serving someone else’s end, suppressed to the point where maybe even you were beginning to doubt it. It recognizes your humanity whether or not you fit into the usual oppressive conventions used to box us in, divide us, and keep us on the pre-determined path – whether you have a job or not, your station in life, what your education level is, or how much money you have in your bank account. Occupy is interested in you, the real you. Who are you? What is your story? What can you teach us?