Meeting Violence with Nonviolence: Why the Occupy Movement Will Succeed
The Occupy movement is under attack. It is facing aggressive police action in cities all over the country while arrests continue over the enforcement of mundane laws that prevent the establishment of permanent encampments. Police attacked Occupy Oakland with rubber bullets and tear gas in the wee hours of Tuesday morning; there were at least a hundred arrests. 130 activists with Occupy Chicago were arrested on Saturday during their second attempt at setting up a camp in Grant Park. Atlanta’s Mayor, Kasim Reed, conducting what appears to have been negotiations in bad faith, ordered Occupy Atlanta cleared of Warren Park last night; 52 were arrested. Occupy Orlando has repeatedly been harassed by changing city policy regarding their camp in Senator Elizabeth Johnson Park, forcing them to vacate the park and their belongings between 11pm and 6am. The Occupy movement may not have it easy right now, but they are being noticed!
The course of social change has often been boiled down to poetic mantras-of-sorts. Utah Phillips and the Wobblies—paraphrasing Joe Hill—were found of saying “Don’t Mourn. Organize!” Margaret Mead made it onto the backs of college service trip t-shirts: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I repeated to a college class last night a quote about nonviolent social change that I remember a teacher telling me: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” The quote, often attributed to Gandhi, most likely originated with the trade unionist Nicholas Klein, of the Amalgamated Clothing Works of America at their Third Biennial Convention in 1918. As is often the case with such misattributions (including the Mead quote), savvy organizers and activists still recognize the grain of truth such folkloric wisdom has had over the decades; Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement are no different.
First, Occupy Wall Street was ignored. The call from Adbusters in July 2011 for 20,000 people to camp out in Wall Street was barely noticed by the mainstream media—if at all. Waging Nonviolence editor Nathan Schneider was one of the few journalists dedicated to reporting on the burgeoning movement, but it wasn’t until well after September 17—the first day of the occupation—that people outside the progressive newswire took notice. Then, Occupy Wall Street was laughed at. The usual suspects dished out the usual slander—including The Daily Show—casting the movement in any number of simplistic, idealistic, and dismissive ways. Whether for entertainment reasons or to discredit its legitimacy, making fun of Occupy Wall Street is good business for the mainstream media.
Now, Occupy Wall Street is being violently resisted. And expect more of it to come, especially if folks keep at it as they try to assert their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble. Before demands come, before protracted struggles and campaigns over specific political, economic or environmental policies begin, before the Occupy movement succeeds in turning the tide of the corporate state back toward communities and the common good, it needs a home. A place to put down roots and grow the movement. A place to reclaim the commons – and not just in theory but in actual, physically-manifested ways that say: “Hey, we are here to stay. No more business and politics as usual. Now it’s our turn to have self-determination and self-governance. Let the General Assembly begin (spirit fingers up in the air)!”
As I wrote in my article #OccupyWallStreet: We Make the Road by Walking, this movement is about a new way of being:
#OccupyWallStreet is an experiment in direct democracy and people power that does not have to stop once demands are made and some of them are met. Rather, what #OccupyWallStreet represents is the kind of community we can have in place of Empire.
The crackdown on Occupy movements by mayors and police forces around the country means only one thing: its getting somewhere. The powers that be—and the mayors who represent them—want this movement to go away. And they will not hesitate, as we’ve witnessed, to use violence, arrests, and likely imprisonment, if it gets to that, to make that happen. For the Occupy movement to succeed in making the substantial, lasting change needed, it will need to establish the kind of permanent space it envisions so that the teach-ins, community building, organizing, action-planning and General Assemblies flourish. Meet violence with nonviolence. Respond to police action and arrests with more civil disobedience and vigorous protest via the courts, petitions, sit-ins, and/or walk-outs. As the mainstream media tries to demonize the movement, do more outreach to labor, universities, churches and the ordinary citizens you now represent. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never has and it never will.” And then finally – after that struggle – Occupy Wall Street will succeed.