I’ve often heard it stated flatly at Occupy Wall Street meetings, sometimes with a touch of exasperation, that “occupation is just a tactic.” This can be a hard idea to come to terms with in a movement called “Occupy.” But, to get technical about it, “nonviolent occupation” is #173 on Gene Sharp’s 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, just before “establishing new social patterns.” As the + Brigades and the Singing Foreclosure Auction Blockades have been showing with aplomb, a whole litany of interesting tactics are available to the movement beyond the now-familiar one of occupying space.
On Wednesday, members of the group Occupy Faith unfurled their first “Parable of an Immoral Budget” in an action that combined a “pray-in” (Sharp’s #167) with “nonviolent obstruction” (Sharp’s #172).
Outside of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in midtown Manhattan, Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy used the human microphone to decry homelessness. They called for higher taxes on rich corporations, the closing of tax loopholes and respect among decision makers for the value of human life. Next, as this video shows, Michael Ellick of Judson Church led protestors across the street. (It is illegal to protest directly outside the Governor’s office.) At that point, lay and ordained people obstructed the building’s entrance with cots symbolizing the basic right to shelter, which for so many is not being met. They sang and prayed over their neatly-made beds before the police took them away in handcuffs. Meanwhile, a crowd gathered on the street to watch and office workers peered out.
There are seeds of something big in Occupy Wall Street’s early spring actions. To be sure, occupying space can be a useful method. It gives protestors public visibility and a central location from which to plan other actions. In my view, however, a push to retake public spaces, while perhaps offering some benefits, carries a surplus of risks in the form of confrontational showdowns with police, negative media attention and the loss of public sympathy. If there is a need for outdoor places where people could wander in, pick up some materials, talk to protesters and begin to get involved, then weekly Sunday afternoon assemblies in Central Park, or regular gatherings in parks around the country, would more than meet that need without the tents or the threat of arrests.
Rather than more encampments, what now seems to be needed most are purposeful actions, like Wednesday’s pray-in, that have a well-researched message and the capacity to recruit and retain newcomers into organized units. Actions like Occupy Faith’s “Parable” cost the movement little, while making a compelling moral argument. Faith leaders — whose dress added to their credibility — presented clear policy demands and used symbols and rhetoric onlookers could easily understand.
Let me offer a cautionary tale from South Africa to illustrate my point. In the drought-stricken Eastern Cape in 1921, a few thousand Xhosa-speaking Christians occupied land in expectation of deliverance. They were called the “Israelites” because they particularly identified with the Old Testament. After their annual Passover gathering, they refused to leave the site. Instead, they built a new state there reflective of their beliefs. Their leader was Enoch Mgijima, a preacher recently excommunicated from the U.S.-based Church of God and Saints of Christ for refusing to renounce his prophetic visions. In what were desperate times for black South Africans, Mgijima’s breakaway group found peace and hope in their encampment. They could escape punishing laws and look forward to the apocalypse that would be the prelude to a wholesale restoration of society.
The Israelites toiled to become self-sufficient. They built sturdy brick structures. They had their own craftsmen and builders. They organized a nursing brigade, a police force, and a judiciary. According to historian Robert R. Edgar, “Church elders governed village life with a court to try people for religious violations.” Children went to a special Bible school. Members prayed together four times a day and sang hymns such as Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon … We cannot sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” In this place, the poor became rich and the marginalized sanctified. Simultaneously, the Israelites withheld taxes and refused to heed government orders. Convinced that the end of the world was coming and it was the only way they would be saved, they clung to what had become their sacred ground.
Several factors contributed to the violence that followed. A fast-growing black labor movement was throwing the state’s control into question. Editorialists urged the government to make an example of this lunatic fringe by air-bombing the encampment, if necessary, to show that flouting the government’s rules would not tolerated. For their part, the Israelites declared they were following God’s law. Both sides dug in. At his wit’s end, a white official asked Mgijima to provide the names of all the occupiers. The preacher refused, saying, “Our names are written in God’s book.” Africans had recently been stripped of major land rights. Only a few Africans could vote. Still, government supporters saw the Israelites not as victims of precariousness and exclusion, but the embodiment of all that was wrong with the “native mind.” Unable to see the other side, the state felt compelled to use force.
After several failed attempts at negotiation, including one attempt by African clergy, armed troops were deployed. Israelite men shielded their women and children. After a standoff subsequently reported on in conflicting accounts, government forces killed at least 183 Israelites by machine gun fire. Another hundred were wounded. All the casualties were on the Israelite side, except for one policeman who received a stab wound. The group’s prophet-leader was arrested and the occupiers were evicted.
The end of the physical violence did not quell the psychological frustrations that motivated this movement, though. A prominent white politician admitted that a new “spirit” had arisen in the people. “By ignoring that spirit they would not kill it; they would merely strengthen it,” said National Party leader J.B.M. Hertzog. “The native had come to a consciousness of independence … to a consciousness of himself that no authority would ever be able to suppress.” Moreover, like other religious movements, the “Bulhoek Massacre” had powerful aftereffects. When weighing matters of tactics, African National Congress leaders in future generations remembered the state’s brutal reaction to poorly-armed men praying to be free. They took that lesson to heart and looked to other tactics.
Occupy is a movement about an idea — valuing people over profits — not any one place. By keeping this vision in view, by maximizing pressure on lawmakers standing in the way of a society that puts people over profits, and by minimizing the blows dealt to the movement, Occupy can win meaningful gains. As Judith Butler writes in the recent issue of the movement journal Tidal, Occupy can advance episodically and retain the trans-issue coherence that has distinguished it from other movements. By appearing here and there, by shedding light on the student debt crisis one week and mass incarceration the next, Occupy can continue to question the legitimacy of the existing social and governmental order. It can keep pressing forward with the claim that today’s urgent social ills are connected at the nodes where money corrupts democracy, human life is violated and greed goes unchecked. And, it can keep awakening people’s imaginations by insisting that equality and freedom are not outlandish formulations but possible states of being.
All of this can be attempted without claiming spaces at a high cost to the movement.
If peaceful resisters do manage to occupy new public spaces this spring, and if their legal rights to assembly are violated by government repression, over-reaction by the state may give Americans the distinct impression that their government relies on violence to silence dissent. Perhaps some spectators will feel an increased sympathy with the movement. However, the O-tactic could easily backfire, especially if protesters get into more skirmishes with the police and the movement begins to look like a smattering of pointless street battles. I’m not the first to make this point. But the point is worth repeating. The stakes are high. There are at least 197 other methods of nonviolent resistance to choose from. Why look back to September? It’s time for Occupy to spring forward.
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