Still Winning: Occupy Wall Street & the World We Want

A Brief Account: The Growth and Repression of OWS

Occupy Wall Street celebrated its two-month anniversary by taking the streets of New York City in a full day of mass direct action. We celebrated the hundreds of occupations that have sprung up across the country and around the world. We celebrated the hundreds of thousands who have participated by marching, carrying out civil disobedience, and putting their bodies in motion. We celebrated the millions of people across the globe united in their willingness to join this movement in whatever ways they can. We celebrated in the many thousands in cities all around the world.

At the same time, much of the status quo goes on. New austerity measures are being passed right under our noses, the homeless remain without homes and the jobless without jobs, the wars carried out in our name continue, wealth goes on being concentrated further and further into a few hands at the expense of the many. And in the face of this movement rising in opposition, the state and capital have responded with violence both physical and ideological, intended to suppress demoralize us &#151 camps being cleared out by riot police, organizers targeted for arrest, teeth and noses broken, kids and grandmothers pepper-sprayed.

It’s only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the violence experienced in marginalized communities or at the hands of American imperialism, but it represents a critical moment in the development of this movement. It is not a coincidence. We are being taken seriously. Maybe we should be flattered.

Reassurance: We Are Still Winning

We are building a global movement, and elites are beginning to mobilize the incredible power at their disposal to do it whatever damage they can &#151 media and scholarship to discredit us, laws and regulations to constrain us, and sheer violence to repress us. Yes, they are paying their think tanks to undermine us, collecting their mayors on conference calls to strategize about us, mobilizing their shock troops to beat and detain us, and whistling to their lap-dogs in the press to tell the stories they want heard.

This is what happens when genuine movements emerge with enough force and potential to be taken seriously by those with power and privilege. This is what happens when movements grow stronger and more diverse. This is what happens when movements take root in the public consciousness. Make no mistake about it: They are fighting us now because we are winning.

In moments like these &#151 when protest becomes resistance and power mobilizes to confront it &#151 it becomes important again to stop and remember why we started fighting in the first place, and what it is we want.

A Reminder: Why We Fight and How We Win

We each come to this movement with our many different scars and traumas, our many goals and dreams. We come from different places, with different needs. We are here together because we share an understanding that our different issues come together, that the systems of oppression we are challenging not only intertwine and coexist but actually produce and define each other, that we can only defeat them by having a deep, holistic analysis and by presenting one another with a real vision for what might be instead. We agree that we need to build something new in the here and now, while fighting those forces that keep us from doing so.

We fight because people’s needs really aren’t being met, because there are simple and systemic reasons for that, because it is unacceptable, and because there is an alternative. We fight because we oppose injustice intellectually, but also because injustice makes us sick to our stomachs. We fight because a system in which homeless people freeze outside of empty homes does not deserve to exist, because a system that allows for people to go hungry while there is an overabundance of food is unacceptable. We fight because the economic and social systems governing our lives have proven themselves to be totally incapable of meeting the minimum criteria for a just and humane society, and because we are sure as hell it doesn’t have to be this way. We fight for other people, but also for ourselves &#151 because none of us get to live out our full human potential within the institutions that dominate our lives today. We fight because another world really is possible, and because we demand it for the people around us, our friends, our kids, and ourselves.

The stakes are high. We have a responsibility not only to fight, but to win.

We win when we build diverse mass movements led by the most oppressed people in society. We win when that movement becomes a dual power &#151 a movement able to prefigure the values of a free society and laying the seeds for it, while fighting the institutions that oppress and exploit. We win when that movement becomes one where groups have the autonomy to carry out their own struggles while finding solidarity in a shared analysis, vision, and strategy. We win when we manage to transform the struggle from the symbolic to the real &#151 a struggle that reclaims land and space in order to truly create an alternative and meet peoples’ needs, one that truly disrupts business as usual and prevents the classes that dominate and exploit from continuing to do so.

Yes, this new world is being born &#151 slowly and painfully &#151 and in order to win it, we have to tell its story.

The Story: Another World is Possible

Perhaps the first story we must tell is about the world around us. These systems that encourage us to compete and exploit, that force us to make war and torture, that compel us to literally wipe ourselves off the planet by damaging it so thoroughly, have no future. They are not only unethical and unnecessary: they are simply and truly impossible.

But the most important story is one of possibility: Another world is possible.

A society that is ecologically sustainable, liberating, intimate, warm, and creative is possible. Not only is it possible, but it must be. We can have a political and economic system that we all control together, one that is equitable and humane, one that allows for people to self-manage and act in solidarity, one that is participatory and democratic to its very roots. We can live in a world where people have the right to their own identities, communities, and cultures, and the freedom and support to express them. We can have a society with institutions that take care of and nurture our youth, elderly, and families in ways that are liberating and consensual. We can have a world where we actually get to live out and express our full human potential. We can, and we must.

We tell a story that shatters the myth that there is no alternative, that people don’t fight back, that we can be bought off. We tell a story that smashes cynicism and identifies it as nothing more than a defense mechanism to protect us from following the rabbit hole that leads to rising up. We tell a story of autonomy within solidarity, equity alongside diversity, peace bound with justice, struggle intimately linked with beauty. We tell a story of how our scars give us the wisdom and courage to change the world.

We tell the story ourselves, tweet and tag it, film and sing it, write it with our arrests and our bruises. We tell it at work and in school, on the picket lines and during demonstrations, at our occupations and sit-ins, in the jail cells where they put us when they are truly afraid of the power we hold. We tell it by fighting in a way that reflects the values of the world we are dreaming of, and by creating as much of that world as we can while we fight.

We are not alone. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we stand among friends.

Conclusion: Hope

Throughout history, people have struggled, risen up, and succeeded. All over the world, there are people fighting, building, and dreaming. All around us, people are laying the seeds of the world we are fighting for &#151 from their bedrooms to their workplaces, from the ways we produce and consume to the ways we teach and learn. All around us, workers are going on strike or taking control of their workplaces, students are walking out or taking control of their schools, communities are rejecting the political and social institutions that oppress them and creating their own. People are taking control of their lives, their communities, and in some places, their governments. And it is only the beginning. A movement is being born, and there is so much beauty in that &#151 so much potential, so much hope.

Then, also, there is hope in you &#151 hope in us. The world is waiting.

Yotam Marom is a political organizer, educator, writer, and musician based in New York. He has been active in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and is a member of the Organization for a Free Society. Yotam can be reached at Yotam.marom@gmail.com  

The Power of the People to Stand and be Counted

We have been brought to this moment through the momentum of centuries of struggle and resistance, fighting to create alternatives to the accumulation of power and wealth by a minority who horde the resources of our finite planet for their personal profit and pleasure. Our so-called “modern” societies are intentionally structured to maintain deep imbalances of power in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, and our natural environment. We’ve marched, voted, petitioned for laws, maxed out our credit, and played the game. But its naive to think that a government and economic system built with the blood of genocide and slavery would ever hear our cry. So we rose up, again and again and now we rise once more to continue the liberation of our minds and lives. This current moment of resistance is growing into a global movement devoted to reclaiming and building free societies.

Occupy Wall Street has captivated the global imagination. It began with the literal occupation of the heart of global capital, and, just as the arteries and veins of the system stretch to every part of our lives, so must our occupation. Liberty Square is just the beginning. We need a Liberty Square in every neighborhood in America for things to change! And by a Liberty Square in every hood, we mean strategic occupations that fundamentally challenge existing structures of power and create a forum for the community to address its own concerns, free from the corruption of exclusionary economics and elite government systems.

I reject the notion that this is a leaderless movement, because i know that the opposite is true. In the so-called West, we are socialized to play our position, marginalized to lanes of professional specialization, as if we are only as good as our job. But in this movement we are all leaders, no longer defined merely by our education, “profession”, the things we can buy, or our contribution to the economy. This idea is given its greatest expression through the assembly process. The process of friends, neighbors and members of our broader community coming together in public space to engage in meaningful dialogue about the issues that matter most to us; this is what democracy looks like.

I have voted in every national and local election since I turned 18. I vote out of a deep sense of devotion to the ideals of democracy. Several years ago I was privileged with the opportunity to collect and produce stories as part of the largest oral history project of its kind dedicated to recording the stories and experiences of African-American’s for StoryCorps Griot, The Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. We traveled the country in the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston, and the Lomax family, creating a space for people to let their stories be heard for posterity. I heard some of the most devastating and awe inspiring stories of struggle, survival, and resistance I could ever imagine. Listening to Ms. Theresa Burroughs in Tuscaloosa, AL, remember having to guess the number of black jelly beans in a jar in order to vote, or Johnny L. Flowers (http://storycorps.org/blog/griot-booth/selma-alabama/the-right-to-be-counted/) telling his 13 year old grandson about what it was like to stand on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday, for the vicious attack on nonviolent protesters marching for their human rights, made me promise myself that I would continue to vote for all those who have fought and died for this fundamental right.

But despite all that, i have no illusion that my vote really counts for anything. At least I know it doesn’t count as much as the people and corporations that have the privilege to back their vote with money and the power to influence legislation that privileges profit over people, corporate person-hood over human rights. It is the checkbook of the 1% who is heard not the vote of the 99%. I’d even go as far as to say I feel my vote only counts for three-fifths of all other “corporate-persons.”

So, it is with this understanding that i believe that the power of this growing movement is in the practice of people gathered together in peaceful public assemblies and consensing on how to address our grievances, not least of which is through nonviolent civil disobedience targeted at strategic objectives. Creative radical direct action is integral to this phase of the movement.

Currently the movement is organized through General Assemblies (GA’s), which are public forums for people to gather together to address concerns and make decisions through collective agreement, also called consensus. Since we are socialized to understand leadership and power centers as decisions makers, there is a common misconception that this is some type of hierarchical governing body. On the contrary, this is simply a fluid process that attempts to create a forum for the inclusion of anyone who chooses to participate. As is the case with any community these forums have developed their own culture, in the form of hand gestures and other habits that emerge from group settings. But these are just subtleties of circumstance, that can and must change and adapt to reflect the cultural expressions of the community engaging the forum process. For thousands of years societies around the world have engaged in variations of democratic decision making. The beauty of this movement is it is implicit that these distinct histories and cultural ethos will evolve the General Assembly’s method of consensus building. The GAs are ours to make our own as we see fit.

Because our minds are not yet free, this space is also not free of the frictions and misunderstandings that result from inherent privileges associated with race, class, gender, able-ism, and sexuality. These are the growing pains of a new society. Of course these realities still exist, but now is a moment to stretch our imaginations with an open mind and an open heart, and dream new ways into the world through positive participation and active engagement.  

Two months into the occupation General Assemblies are spreading across the country. In New York City, GAs have sprung up or are on the verge in the Bronx (Borough-wide), Washington Heights, Central Harlem, East Harlem, Brooklyn (Borough-wide), Sunset Park and Bed-Stuy. I’m sure there are others that I just don’t know about.

The beauty of neighborhood GAs is that they provide a forum for a variety of local constituencies within a community to come together. And in the light of so-called anti-gang laws and State terrorism against black and brown communities the act, alone, of peaceably assembling in mass numbers can be an act of defiance. But communities have been divided as much through state terror as subtler forms of co-option. One of many forms of division is often supported by the proliferation of the non-profit organizing model that segregated organizations and community groups into issue silos, often excluding potential allies, as similar groups began to compete for limited funding, and similar members or resources. Now is the time for those silos to give way to renewed opportunities for mutual collaboration. There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work but since we still seem to be facing the same old problems, why not try something different?

One example of the spreading GAs is Occupy Sunset Park. The first meeting was a gathering of about 10 residents, activists and parents from the immediate and surrounding community captivated by the energy of the moment and interested in taking action to find creative solutions to stubborn problems. At the first planning meeting it was decided that the community would begin regular weekly General Assemblies, to establish continuity. In the spirit of each one, teach one, participants were encouraged to bring at least one friend to each meeting. The following week, at the first official Occupy Sunset Park General Assembly, participants discussed facilitation processes, alternative banking options, began to address local issues like gentrification and housing, and even made plans towards their first direct action. The sheer simplicity, inclusiveness, and adaptability of this process is what makes its potential energy so powerful. In America we believe that bigger is better, but all it takes is a small group of committed individuals working together to begin to change the world.

It would be amazing to see General Assemblies spread to every building, neighborhood, town and city evolving and adapting the collective agreement process as it grows. Liberty Square is just the beginning. The act of peacefully assembling to reclaim what has been taken, making decisions about our collective future through direct democracy and engaging in nonviolent direct actions of occupation and liberation must continue to spread until a new day dawns. This is a demonstration of the power of the people to stand and be counted.

Michael Premo lives in Brooklyn, NY. As an artist and cultural worker he has worked with the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, EarSay, Inc, The Foundry Theatre, Penny Arcade and NPR’s StoryCorps, among others. Michael is co-producer of Housing is a Human Right (www.housingisahumanaright.org), an associate artist with The Civilians and serves on the Board of Directors for The Network of Ensemble Theaters. Currently his is a member of Organizing for Occupation (www.o4onyc.org) a group of New York City residents from the activist, academic, religious, homeless, arts, and progressive legal communities who have come together to actualize the human right to housing through direct action and non-violent civil disobedience. His radio documentaries and photography have been distributed internationally.

The Tactic of Occupation & the Movement of the 99%

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If we are to launch from a moment to a movement, we will have to broaden the “us”. We must win in the arena of values, and not allow ourselves to be narrowly defined by our tactics.

A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol &#151 with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.

Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying “enough!” This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.

Occupation as tactic

It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.

On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.

But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”

By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular&#151even that they are common sense&#151and connected to a social base.

Occupy Wall Street as “floating signifier”

I want to suggest that the primary reason the tactic of occupation has resonated so far and wide is because it has served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To most people, the “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” essentially stands in for the F word! Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something &#151 became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we’d been waiting for.

Thus, Occupy Wall Street has served as something of a floating signifier &#151 amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and to see their values within the symbol. Such ambiguous symbols are characteristic of new populist alignments. Many objects can serve as the catalyzing symbol, including actions (e.g. the occupation of Tahrir Square or of the Wisconsin State Capitol this spring), individual politicians (quintessentially Perón in Argentina), or even constructed brands (e.g. the “Tea Party”). As the above examples suggest, this phenomenon can be seen in all kinds of broad political alignments, across the ideological spectrum. In all cases though, a degree of ambiguity is necessary if the symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular&#151too associated with any one current or group within the alignment&#151it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal.

It’s important to note that although the signifier is floating (i.e. not peg-able), it is not empty of content. It has to be meaningful enough to resonate. Moreover, different symbols tend to pull things in different directions. Candidate Barack Obama as floating signifier, for example, pulled a lot of grassroots energy into what has turned out to be an establishment-reinforcing direction. Occupy Wall Street as floating signifier, on the other hand, seems so far to be pulling a lot of establishment forces in the direction of the fired-up, social justice-oriented grassroots.

When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.

It becomes imperative then for the forces defending the status quo to tarnish the challenger movement and its symbols &#151 to destroy their popular appeal. This tarnishing strategy is accomplished by nailing down the floating signifier &#151 by fixing it to particular meanings, associating it with particular “kinds of people” and to narrower frameworks, so that it can no longer function as a popular symbol.

This is the phase we find ourselves in right now.

Expanding the “us”

We are engaged in a battle over values and ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people &#151 all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power. This idea has struck a chord and millions of Americans have quickly come to identify on some level with Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.

In this epic battle over values and ideas, our opponents have already mounted a sophisticated public relations offensive to nail down the floating signifier and negatively brand the emerging movement. They are attempting to caricaturize, stereotype and “otherize” the most visible actors&#151the occupiers&#151in order to inoculate more Americans from identifying with “the 99%” and keep them from joining the movement.

“Character assassination” is a primary tactic that the powerful wield against challengers. It’s about tarnishing a person’s reputation, so that no one will listen to anything they have to say. It can be used against groups and movements too. When Mayor Bloomberg attempted to “clean Zuccotti Park”, he was making the first move in an ongoing character assassination campaign that has not ceased. Bloomberg and others have thrown everything in the book at us.

In the face of a character assassination campaign, our task and challenge is to expand the “us”. Our opponents want to portray the movement as a particular kind of person doing a particular thing (e.g. “dirty hippies”). Thus, it’s critical that we continue to bring more kinds of people, visibly engaged in more kinds of things, into the movement. The 99% movement has to be more than a protest, more than an occupation, more than any given tactic, and more than any “type” of person. We must not allow ourselves to be typecast.

The good news is that there’s already a lot in motion to buck our opponents’ strategy. Since September 17 (the start of Occupy Wall Street), the “us” has expanded exponentially. The movement has become far broader than those who are able to participate in physical occupation. The 99% movement is Elora and Monte in rural West Virginia who sent hand-knit hats to occupiers at Liberty Square. It’s 69-year-old retired Iowa public school teacher Judy Lonning who comes out for Saturday marches in Des Moines. It’s Nellie Bailey, who helped to organize the Occupy Harlem Mobilization last week. It’s Selena Coppa and Joe Carter, who marched in formation to the New York Stock Exchange last week with 40 fellow ‘Veterans of the 99%’. The 99% movement is everyone who sends supplies, everyone who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process.

Tactic, message, movement

We are moving in the right direction, but we must keep moving. We can’t let this expansion of the “us” plateau.

In the past week and a half, we’ve seen more and more news stories focusing on the physical logistics of occupation, including the problems and challenges. News outlets are presenting the tactic of occupation as if the tactic were the message and the movement itself. And our opponents are making some headway in negatively branding occupation and occupiers.

To navigate this challenge, it is important that we recognize a few things about our relationship to the tactic of physical occupation:

  • It has already accomplished more than any of us imagined.
  • It is incredibly resource-intensive to maintain.
  • It will not serve us forever (indeed, it’s utility may already be waning).
  • We will have to come up with other popular expressions of the values of this movement.

We have to distinguish conceptually between our tactics, our message, and our movement. Of these three, our tactics should be the thing we are least attached to. In oppositional struggle, it is critical to maintain the initiative; to keep one’s opponents in a reactive state. This is not accomplished by growing overly attached to any particular tactic&#151no matter how well it worked the first time&#151and thereby doing exactly what our opponents expect us to do.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to conceptualize the need to be innovative and keep our opponents on their toes than to actually come up with the right thing at the right moment to make it so. Moreover, it’s wrongheaded to get caught up in the elusive search for the perfect silver bullet tactic. Movements are, more than anything else, about people. To build a movement is to listen to people, to read the moment well, and to navigate a course that over time inspires whole swaths of society to identify with the aims of the movement, to buy in, and to take collective action.

“Occupy Wall Street” is the tactic that has launched a movement for social justice and real democracy onto center stage. It has served as the initial catalyzing symbol. Hopefully ten or twenty years from now, when we look back at all we’ve accomplished together, we’ll credit Occupy Wall Street as a critical moment that helped to spark and then build a lasting movement.

However, if we fail to find other successful tactics&#151and other popular expressions of this movement’s values&#151we will be pronounced dead as soon as the tactic fades. Fortunately, Occupy Wall Street&#151and the tactic of occupation&#151is neither the primary message nor the movement itself.  And, fortunately, we don’t have to invent the message for the movement from scratch.

“We are the 99%” has become a core message of this burgeoning movement. It emerged in tandem with the deployment of the captivating tactic of occupation. The framework of the 99% accomplishes a number of important feats:

  • The 99% frames the consolidation of wealth and political power in our society &#151 the central grievance of this movement and a central crisis of our times.
  • The 99% frames a class struggle in a way that puts the 1% on the defensive (whereas the common accusation of “class warfare” has somehow tended to put a lot of people in the middle on the defensive).
  • The 99% casts an extraordinarily broad net for who is invited to join the movement. Most everyone is encouraged to see their hopes and dreams tied to a much bigger public. Thus it frames a nearly limitless growth trajectory for the movement.
  • The 99% even leaves room for the 1% to redeem itself. There are many striking cases of “1 percenters” speaking out as defectors who are as vocal as anyone that the system is broken and needs to serve the 100%!

The 99% meme is a real winner. Its message and framework may prove better at helping  us weather the winter, both literal and metaphorical, than any one tactic could. It points the way toward a necessary expansion. It encourages us to not just act on behalf of, but alongside of, the 99%; to look beyond the forces already in motion, to activate potential energy, to articulate a moral political narrative, and to claim and contest our culture.

No framework will automatically deliver &#151 not without a lot of hard work and smart decisions. Thankfully, there’s a whole new generation of leadership stepping up to do just that. Together we can turn this moment into a movement that’s here for the long haul.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a grassroots organizer, trainer and strategist. He directs Beyond the Choir. He has been active in Occupy Wall Street working groups for the past month. He posts at occupyWINNING.com and BeyondtheChoir.org.

Radicals & the 99%: Righteous Few or Moral Majority?

The Occupy Wall Street movement claims to be a movement of “the 99%”, challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is just a bunch of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America.

They’re not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Young radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement.

What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist. But clearly the radicals did something right here. They’ve flipped the script by framing the top one percent as the real extremists &#151 as the people who are truly out of touch. By striking at the root of the problem and naming the primary culprit in our economic and democratic crises &#151 by creating a defiant symbol on Wall Street’s doorstep &#151 a new generation of young radicals has struck a chord with mainstream America. A movement that started as an audacious act by a committed band of radicals is growing broader and more diverse by the day.

Radicals will continue to play a crucial role in this movement. Throughout history the “radicals” have tended to be among those who give the most of their time and energy to movements for change. They tend to make up a large part of the movement’s core. As such, their contributions are absolutely indispensible.

However, successful movements need a lot more than a radical core. For every core participant who gives nearly everything of herself or himself, you need at least a hundred people in the next tier of participation &#151 folks who are contributing something, while balancing other commitments in their lives. If we are to effectively challenge the most powerful institutions in the world, we will need the active involvement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people &#151 folks who are willing to give something. If the core fails to involve a big enough “next tier” of participants, it will certainly fail to effectively engage the broader society. These “next tier” participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to accomplish our aims.

If the kinds of changes we imagine are ever to be realized, it will be through the active participation of large numbers of teachers, nurses, factory workers, barbers, artists, service workers, students, military service members and veterans, religious communities, civic organizations, unions, and even allies within the existing power establishment. These participants come as they are, and the core must welcome them as such. The movement cannot afford to have a high bar for entry. The smallest of contributions must be encouraged and affirmed. If we are to keep building a popular movement, we must accommodate a continuum of levels of involvement, as well as levels of political analysis.

We’ve gotten an impressive start in a very short amount of time.

And our opponents have taken notice. They will do what they can to foment division between the radicalized core and the broader movement &#151 because they know well that the dynamic (and challenging) relationship between core and broader base is one of the biggest strengths and biggest vulnerabilities of our movement. The successful interplay between these tiers of movement participants is of critical importance. Unfortunately, our opponents tend to know this better than we do.

Too often, radicals play into our opponents divide-and-conquer strategies, by relishing in our radical identity more than we value connecting with a broader base. Too often we get stuck in a story of the righteous few.

Radicals tend to become radicals because we become disillusioned with aspects of the dominant culture. When you feel like you’re up against the culture, it’s easy then to develop an inclination to separate yourself from that culture. When we begin to become aware of the destructive impacts of racism, sexism, capitalism and whatever other social systems we encounter that we see perpetuating oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. We feel a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.

However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society more generally. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from the mainstream of society. With the mainstream seen as bad, we begin to look for ways to distinguish ourselves and our groups from anything mainstream. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate and develop distinctions between ourselves and the mainstream, because these distinctions reinforce our radical identity. The distinguishing features often go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive.

Radicals may start to adorn themselves with distinguishing features to express separation from society, and also to flag other radicals. In his book All the Power, author and community organizer Mark Anderson describes in tribal terms how this phenomenon plays out in punk subcultures:

The punk subculture has many of the hallmarks of a tribe … piercings, tattoos, more. These markers, also including hairstyle, dress, music form, even slang, help to demark the boundaries of the group, to set it off from the larger populace. In this way, appearance can even be a form of dissent, a strikingly visual way to say, “I am not a part of your corrupt world.”

Surely there are similar dynamics in play among radicals at Liberty Square and at other occupations across the country. The big danger is that radical subcultures caught in this pattern of emphasizing how different they are may over time start to even prize their own marginalization. If society is unjust, then our justice-oriented identity may be reaffirmed when we are rejected by society (or more accurately, by portions of society). If society is bad, then marginalization in society may be seen as good. We may tell each other stories of how we were ostracized in this or that group, how we’re the outcast in our family, how we were the only revolutionary in a group of liberal reformists, etc. We may start to swim in our own marginalization. This is the story of the righteous few.

In the story of the righteous few, success itself becomes suspect. If a group or individual is embraced by a significant enough portion of society, it must be because they are not truly revolutionary or because their message has been “watered down”. It seriously messes with radicals’ heads when some of our ideas start to become popular! We are so used to being the most radical kid on the block, and suddenly people we’ve never met are coming out of the woodwork spouting some of the lines we’ve been saying for years. It’s a bit of an identity crisis!

Here we see the importance of checking our narratives for faulty components. If we allow the story of the righteous few to hold a place in our narrative about social change, then our efforts are likely to be seriously hindered by a general mentality to separate and distinguish ourselves from society and to retreat from success. To organize effectively, this mentality has to turn 180 degrees to a mentality to connect with others, to notice commonalities, to “weave ourselves into the fabric of society” (quoting #OWS participant Beka Economopolous), and to embrace being embraced by society. For many radicals, this can be a big shift in our conceptualizations of ourselves and of our society.

The good news is, we are presently deep into the process of making that profound paradigmatic shift. The framing of the 99% itself asserts an alignment of our vision with the interests of a super-super majority of Americans. It encourages us to think of most everyone as an ally or potential ally. We even welcome “one percent defectors” who agree with our goals and stand with us.

The importance of this paradigm shift cannot be overstated. Over the past four decades radical social justice movements tended to feel like we were up against the whole culture. We began clustering into increasingly insular circles, looking to each other for support and connection, as if to hold onto our sanity in a world gone mad. In the face of “free trade” agreements, austerity, raging wars of aggression, attacks on the cultural gains made by earlier social justice movements, and many other set-backs, we often felt entirely impotent.

That’s part of what makes this moment so significant. The 99% movement has the potential to pull us out of a counter-cultural mentality and set us up to claim and contest the culture&#151our culture&#151rather than denounce, abandon, and distinguish ourselves from it. We are the 99%. We are the true moral majority.

But we have a long road ahead. The meme of the 99% can help to shift our thinking, but no meme is good enough to do all the work for us, without any conscious effort. While we continue to challenge the dominant storyline, we must also self-reflectively challenge some components of the narratives we tell ourselves about our relationship as “radicals” to society. If we want to win, we have to scrap the chapter of the righteous few, and replace it with a story about everyday Americans&#151about huge swaths of society&#151stepping into movement together.

The underlying economic conditions are politicizing more and more Americans by the day, creating greater potential for the emergence of a broader-based movement than we’ve seen in decades. And this moment needs the full participation and influence of radicals. Without radicals, this wave would lose its fire and settle too soon for too little.

It must be pointed out that some establishment forces in the emerging precarious alliances (all alliances are precarious!) will try to throw radicals under the bus first chance they get. But really it’s on radicals to make sure no one gets that chance. The way to do that is for radicals to get really good at making friends with a lot of people &#151 to be the life of the party. It must be abundantly clear to tentative allies and opponents alike that it would be difficult to isolate us; that there would be a broader backlash if they attacked radicals. One thing not to do is shrink away from engagement with broader constituencies and unwieldy alliances &#151 even including those who might betray us if they perceive they can get away with it. Such a retreat would make our fears self-fulfilling; would enable those who would screw us; would seal our fate as righteous martyrs whom the world was not ready for. Radicals have to ask themselves if their radical identity confines them to being eternally rejected, ostracized, and crucified &#151 that’s the story of the righteous few. The powerful are always ready to tell that story, and we must determine to not be a predictable character in their script. Serious radicals must decouple radicalism from such a martyr mentality. Serious radicals must aim to succeed. Fighting an advantaged opponent without a real intention and strategy for success is not so much fighting as it is coping. The tendency of the outgunned resister to run headlong kamikaze-style into enemy lines is the tendency of someone who wants to be righteous &#151 not of someone who seeks to affect real change.

We must ask ourselves if our intention is to bring about meaningful change, or if it is to act out righteous narratives (either as individuals or in small enlightened groups). At long last, we have an opening to build a serious broad-based movement to challenge egregious injustices and deeply entrenched power and privilege.

Ten or twenty years from now, will we look back on Occupy Wall Street and see it as a blip, as a righteous stand that was predictably short-lived? Or will we see this as the moment when America rediscovered collective action &#151 when a broad-based movement for social and economic justice was (re)born? Will we see it as little more than an interesting twist&#151a peculiar spike&#151in the otherwise predictable story of the righteous few? Or will we see it as a catalyst of a new moral majority that went on to change the course of history?

#OWS: We are ALL leaders!

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What is the difference between saying none of us is a leader and saying all of us are leaders?

At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying essentially the same thing. We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.

But the word leadership can mean a lot of things. There are things we associate with leadership that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward. It can mean looking for what is needed in a group, and stepping up to do that thing.

These positive group-serving associations with leadership are the reason why there’s an important difference between the idea of “no leaders” and the idea of “all leaders”.

If we are part of a group that talks about having no leaders, this phrase can inadvertently make us overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative. It can create a group culture where as individuals we become reluctant to be seen as moving something forward &#151 because our peers might see us as a “leader”, which would be a bad thing.

But if we really want to change the world, we will need a lot more people stepping up to take initiative. The more initiative we each take in our work together &#151 the more skills we learn and hone &#151 the greater our collective capacity will be. Building our capacity means increasing what we are capable of achieving together. It means building our collective power. And building up our collective power is one of the most important challenges of grassroots organizing.

We need to build a culture where we’re all invited to step up. That means stepping up in ways that also make space for others to step up &#151 where others feel invited to step up and take initiative too. Stepping up can mean actively listening and learning from others. Stepping up can mean taking time to reflect on how different people can be socialized differently around leadership. For reasons that often have something to do with socialization around our genders, “race”, age, economic class, or other aspects of our identities, some of us are predisposed to speak confidently and to take on more visible leadership roles. While others are often predisposed to speak less in the group, or to take on less visible roles. So, stepping up can also mean recognizing and valuing many different forms of leadership in the group. And it can mean looking for leadership potential &#151 for strengths within the group that are latent, waiting for the opportunity to become active.

If we’re all leaders, we can also take leadership by stepping up to support each other and hold each other accountable in our work together.

But if we stay in the framework of thinking we should have no leaders, why would we be inclined to seek to develop more leadership in our movement? If all leadership is viewed negatively, we may develop a “circular firing squad” group culture, where we tend to cut each other down and we hold back because we’re afraid to stick our heads up.

We need a movement where we are constantly encouraging each other to step into our full potential and to shine as individual leaders who are working together collectively for a better world.

So, let’s all be leaders. Let’s step up and do this.

#OccupyWallStreet & the Political Identity Paradox

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Strong group identity is essential for social movements. There can be no serious social movement&#151the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged&#151without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. This kind of group identity is clearly emerging right now among core participants in occupations across the country and around the world, and that’s a good thing.

However, strong group identity is also something of a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from the broader society.

The Political Identity Paradox states that while social change groups require a strong internal identity in order to foster the level of commitment needed for protracted struggle, this same cohesion tends over time to isolate the group; and isolated groups are hard-pressed to build the kind of broad-based power needed to achieve the big changes they imagine.  

Strong bonding within a group tends to create distinctions between groups &#151 that’s true to an extent for all kinds of groups. However, it tends to have particular consequences for groups involved in political struggle. Consider a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in challenging entrenched power, on the other hand&#151as the occupy movement is doing&#151has not only to foster a strong internal identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity, if it is to build the collective power it needs to accomplish its goals.

And, because of the nature of oppositional struggle, the tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in politicized groups. Oppositional struggle triggers an oppositional psychology, which can do a real number on a group.  Movements that meet the kind of brutal resistance that the Civil Rights movement endured, for example, have a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base. This is difficult to do even when leaders (we are all leaders) are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is so often the case.

Take, for example, Students for a Democratic Society (the original SDS that fell apart in dramatic fashion in 1969, not the contemporary SDS). At the center of the epic implosion of this massive student organization&#151underneath the rational arguments and accusations that leaders were slinging at each other&#151there was the political identity paradox. Key leaders had become encapsulated in their oppositional identity (or, rather, a few factionalizing identities) and they became more and more out of touch. They lost the ability and even the inclination to relate to their broader membership&#151a huge number of students at the moment of the implosion&#151let alone to broader society. Some of the most committed would-be leaders of that generation came to see more value in holing up with a few comrades to make bombs than in organizing masses of students to take coordinated action. This is the tendency toward isolation taken to the extreme. Dedicated radicals cut themselves off, like lone guerrilla fighters in enemy territory. It might have felt glorious, but it was a suicide mission.

The political identity paradox speaks to the need for political groups to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong within-group bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong beyond-group bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to be able to forge the broad alliances that are even more necessary for achieving big changes.

Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong sense of identity within their groups and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group. This balancing act will be more and more critical as the occupy movement grows, as the core develops its own culture, and as our opponents attempt to drive wedges between the movement’s most active participants and the broader society.

#occupyWINNING: what I’m up to at Occupy Wall Street

The past ten days have been amazing. I took the train down to NYC last Wednesday, to see if I might lend a hand to the Wall Street occupation for a few days. There is so much going on. I don’t even know how many working groups there are, but today I heard that there are at least a few dozen. There are so many moving parts. I feel like a pebble in a volcanic eruption, and it’s a wonderful feeling.

Before coming down, I had talked with some friends here on the ground who I used to work with back during the global justice movement days (aka “antiglobalization movement”). They encouraged me to get involved with the press working group and the training working group. Sh!t hit the fan the day after I arrived with Bloomberg’s backhanded eviction attempt, and so I’ve been doing much more press work than training. The press work has mostly been helping to write and edit press releases, helping to prepare folks for interviews (to get their message out through the filters of the mainstream corporate media), helping reporters find the folks they want to interview, and I’ve done a handful of interviews myself too. Here’s one from NY Daily News:

http://player.ooyala.com/player.js?height=272&embedCode=Y0ZXV3MjpC57ZS_v9MKQK8oG1KYssYdQ&video_pcode=twZWQ6S37y9LvtgiLHQv56JeyH7s&width=485&deepLinkEmbedCode=Y0ZXV3MjpC57ZS_v9MKQK8oG1KYssYdQ

A longer print version of the interview can be read here.

I’ve decided to stay a while longer &#151 probably at least a few more weeks. I’m hoping to stay involved in the press working group, but to concentrate more of my time on training and leadership development. It’s amazing how many new folks are pouring into this social change effort right now. It’s hard on the ground to not to get caught up in almost continuous crisis/triage mode, but it’s so important that we seize this moment to help some of these great young folks become long-term leaders.

I’m trying to carve out a little time each day to write up or adapt a new one-pager covering a particular #occupy-related skill or strategy concept. Two days ago I set up a basic WordPress site called #occupyWINNING (@occupyWINNING on Twitter), which will house this project. I plan to format most of the materials into PDFs too, so that people can easily print and distribute at occupations if they find any of the tools useful. I’ll be cross-posting everything here too.

In addition to what I post at #occupyWINNING, I’m hoping to soon start collaborating with other trainers.

I’m excited and grateful to be here.