Occupiers sow the seeds of a ‘Spring Awakening’

This Saturday, April 14, Occupy Wall Street groups and assemblies from neighborhoods around New York City will join with allies in labor unions and community-based organizations for a “Spring Awakening.” Discussions about this citywide assembly began in December. Now, it is being billed as the kickoff for upcoming actions — especially May Day — and an opportunity for collaboration between Occupiers, older organizations and the public.

“We hope to pull new people in,” says Colby Hopkins, one of the organizers, “by creating a welcoming environment for families and interested people who have not yet taken up activism as a lifestyle.” The second half of the day, Hopkins adds, will be a facilitated assembly that helps organizers and activists “foster and strengthen networks.”

Far from just a day in the park, planners hope to plant the seeds of something new — a democratic mechanism through which disparate organizations can come together to strategize about how to combine their campaigns to attack the root causes of shared problems, including corruption and the unchecked political influence of the 1 percent.

In preparation for this event, Occupiers are also thinking about how to grow the grassroots. At the request of Spring Awakening organizer and eviction-defense activist Michael Premo, on March 27 and April 3, Paul Getsos led two trainings on “how to build a participatory, base-building and effective work group/organizing committee.” About 60 people attended the first training, and about 40 attended the second.

Getsos joined Occupy Wall Street last fall. He is a veteran of ACT UP and the gay rights movement, and a co-founder of Community Voices Heard, which is primarily made up of women on welfare. In the trainings, Getsos praised Occupy for changing the national narrative. Quickly and cheaply, it did something that unions and community organizations have failed to do for decades. However, since the fall, Getsos has been pressing his younger, less-experienced colleagues to answer some tough questions.

How will Occupy be able to get 100,000 people in the streets and shut down the New York Stock Exchange? How will it become an outward-looking movement that draws in new people, instead of one with ever-shrinking numbers? How can it build transparent accountability structures and organize people to meet their own needs?

Premo says that he asked Getsos to lead the trainings because “so many people in Occupy have talked about the need to create structures that can do movement work.” Community Voices Heard has able to grow and serve its base by constantly bringing in new people. As one of its documents explains:

An organization or a campaign builds a large base in order to have enough power to win. Numbers matter! The more people we can mobilize to show our power, the more people we will have to make policy changes to improve our members’ lives.

Even if OWS is not exactly an organization or a single campaign, it too must draw more people into its orbit and enable them reach meaningful goals if it is to continue to shape public conversation, deliver policy changes and compellingly model alternative cultures.

It’s difficult to know if Gestos’ trainings (or the Spring Awakening) will affect the direction of the movement. Yet, in the midst of the one-on-one exercises and other tool-sharing sessions, several participants reflected on Occupy meetings and expressed frustration. Some talked about the need for new kinds of structures. Many seemed enthusiastic about the idea getting “directly affected” people into campaigns with “intentionality.” And everyone appreciated the importance of interlinking the efforts of different groups — in theory, at least.

If there were, say, 20 committees with a committed core of 50 organizers each, and if these could mobilize thousands for campaigns, perhaps these committees could get 100,000 people into the streets for one shared action. Moreover, under the banner of the 99 percent, these committees could do base-building — be it by neighborhood or by issue — in a way that would enable the committees to be simultaneously local and global, focusing their attention on the ways in which key issues, like housing, relate to corporate power.

It also remains unclear what the movement’s current capacity is for mobilizing in the first place. The overriding focus right now is May Day — which includes calls for both a general strike and a more modest “day without the 99%” — and that will be an important test of OWS’ strength and its ability to support those who join with it in turn. If the base isn’t strong enough, however, a major call to action like May Day could also present serious dangers.

One of the most significant general strikes in South Africa, for instance, suggests that protests organized by people who are not accountable to one another — people who have not planned their campaign together or agreed in advance about goals and tactics — can leave participants vulnerable to the unexpected and the ugly.

When approximately 2,000 coal miners struck in northern Natal, a prominent Indian politician rushed to the scene and convinced the men to use civil disobedience by marching across the Transvaal border and breaking their contracts. The government would then have to arrest them all or negotiate. In the meantime, indentured sugar workers on southern Natal plantations spontaneously stopped working as well. Railway workers, domestic servants and hotel staff joined the strike — making it “general,” at least among Indians.

The strike’s leader, M. K. Gandhi, was blamed for the violence that occurred during the weeks-long action. According to Joseph Lelyveld’s biography, Durban newspapers frothed about “coolies run amuck” and mobs of men brandishing sticks, wielding cane knives and urging fellow indentured workers to join them. Cane fields were set on fire. One murderously angry planter said he wanted to “teach the whole tribe a lesson.” Workers were sentenced to hard labor without pay for six months. Mine owners imprisoned workers underground. Protesters were whipped. Indians won relief from a tax on ex-indentured workers who wanted to remain in the country (as well as legal recognition of traditional marriages), but the indentured workers won nothing.

When Gandhi’s 20-year sojourn in South Africa ended, he did not forget these experiences. In fact, he would later call off some satyagraha campaigns after months of hard work out of fear of similar disruptions.

One must be exceedingly careful when comparing the United States in 2012 to South Africa in 1911. Some basic points can be made, however. In order to avoid a situation in which OWS organizers find themselves at the helm of actions that turn into a lot of mayhem with little rewards, they need to focus not just on calling people to protests, but on organizing structures through which people can work toward self-interested goals — structures that can withstand disruptions and provocations and give the protesters lasting power.

Events in French West Africa offer a related lesson about base-building. African leaders took advantage of new opportunities to reframe their relationship with France and their employers after the Second World War. Ex-servicemen spoke of “equal sacrifices, equal rights.” African unions, which had been repressed under Vichy rule, resurfaced and found ways to transcend tactics used in the past. They remembered one poorly-planned strike by temporary railway workers in 1938 that led to violent confrontations, eight deaths and few gains.

African unions grew after a general strike in the port city of Dakar in late 1945. Dockworkers shut down the port for 12 days and were joined by civil servants, literate clerks and market sellers. Railway workers did not join the protest in hopes of being rewarded for their loyalty (which they were not).

The Dakar general strike showed that workers were willing to band together as “workers,” despite French attempts to divorce a few relatively wealthy “citizens” from millions of “subjects.” Unskilled workers won large pay raises and civil servants won family allowances, although the protesters did not secure equality with the French. But the commonplace colonial argument, heard in South Africa as well, that African families were too traditional (and too large) for men to receive European-style breadwinner wages had to be scrapped.

The Dakar port shutdown was followed by a much larger strike two years later. During the 1947–48 railway workers’ strike from Dakar to Bamako, 20,000 train workers participated. The action lasted five months in some areas and relied on longstanding relationships and trans-regional networks. The movement’s leader, Ibrahim Sarr, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. According to interviews, Muslim leaders supported the strikers in private, as did women, who provided food, composed songs praising the union and made life difficult for strike-breakers.

The strikers were able to hold out for so long, ultimately, because they weren’t isolated. Rather, the railway men had networks that enabled them to grow their own food or return to rural villages.

After two years of negotiations, the railway workers won the right to unionize and to strike, along with a universal labor code complete with family allowances. They were not transported into a new world of freedom, however. Paradoxically, their victory brought them deeper into French legal structures and the politics of nationalism by allowing a few of the union’s supporters to become successful politicians. The protesters built a movement based on rural-urban, trans-class and trans-cultural networks of solidarity, but soon found themselves vulnerable to being divided once again, now by nationalist politicians oriented towards their own short-term goals.

It doesn’t just matter that there is an organized base, therefore, but what kind of organization, and what kind of leadership structures, unites that base.

The lessons here are simple. First, protests organized by people who are not in two-way relationships, and are not accountable to each other, are protests with a high degree of uncertainty. Who knows who’s coming? Who knows what they will do? This is a problem that many Occupiers know well.

Second, campaigns that pursue only short-term goals can be easily exploited by opportunistic politicians in the long term. This is why the base must have its own forms of decision making.

Third, organizing that does not look at the roots of problems is particularly brittle. Once an immediate solution to an urgent problem is won, the thread between the present and the possible can get cut. Solidarity only for the sake of a short-term goal can leave people vulnerable to co-option and unable to see how immediate problems are part of larger systems.

How can Occupy win recognizable victories against foreclosure, debt, crony-capitalism, militarism, mass incarceration and climate change while also drawing people into transparent structures that serve their interests and enable them to amass lasting power? How can the movement increase and strengthen its base? As Occupiers look toward May Day and a busy summer, they have an opportunity before them now to answer these questions for themselves, in their own ways. The Spring Awakening and Paul Gestos’ trainings are signs that people in some sectors of the movement are already thinking very much in these terms.

To plant to the seed of people-power, organizers need to look honestly at the obstacles before them, including the challenges involved in building a base of support. The words of one historian and war-theorist seem pertinent here. Said Thucydides, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet not withstanding, go out to meet it.”

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