Something rather unusual is happening today: all around the country, people are getting trained to do nonviolent direct action. The 99% Spring — see Jake Olzen’s recent report for background — is an effort put on by a wide range of left and progressive and issue-based groups, from SEIU to the Ruckus Society and more, to train 100,000 people this week in the tactics of protest. Meanwhile, however, there’s a lot of anxiety running around the Occupy movement’s organizer email lists and in articles being published about the trainings in Occupy-friendly outlets, from CounerPunch to Adbusters. The fear is of course that the movement and its “99%” meme are being co-opted.
This is not the first time co-option has been an issue. I’ve warned about it myself here, here and here. Remember when Jay-Z started an Occupy fashion line? Or when Occupiers had to shut down the filming of a Law and Order episode that used actors to depict them? The 99% Spring, though, is a little different. Who’s co-opting whom, here? And what’s at stake?
The logic of a civil resistance movement is always to co-opt the existing structures of the society around it, to radicalize them, to drive them away from the status quo and into doing something truly revolutionary. And it is precisely by co-opting these institutions that the movement is generally able to build enough capacity to make real change. One could find examples in any such movement, but in the spirit of spring, let’s consider Egypt.
Mubarak didn’t fall just because thousands of people were camped out in Tahrir Square; he fell because those thousands of people inspired Egyptian unions to stop working, to grind the economy to a halt. These were organizations that for years had been more or less loyal to the regime, raising their grievances cautiously so as to continue existing under Mubarak’s rule. But the movement threw them over the edge, and they turned a mere protest into a crisis.
At the same time, Egypt also offers an example of much more one-sided co-option: the people’s overwhelming trust of their military in the streets and during the eventual coup has meant that democracy and an end to the police state is still over the horizon. But are MoveOn.org and its allies more like the Egyptian military, or the unions? I’d wager that they can be co-opted. They are already starting to be. From what I gather, there are those in their leadership who want this to happen.
In plenty of situations, the Occupy movement has known to stay on the offensive when it comes to co-option, not the defensive. The planning process for May Day in New York is a great example of that. By getting labor and community organizers in on the ground floor, and demanding that they follow Occupy rules, Occupiers have managed to draw these rigidly hierarchical institutions into an anarchist-style spokescouncil meeting format, and they’ve ensured that a massive march of labor and immigrant groups will coincide with the movement’s agitation for a general strike.
As for the 99% Spring. Of course these organizations and their Democratic Party allies would love to take advantage of the movement for their own ends — which include everything from reelecting Barack Obama to victories on environmental and labor issues. Who can blame them for trying? But it’s not like they were training 100,000 in nonviolent direct action last year, or in 2008, or on behalf of John Kerry. They’re doing it because the Wisconsin Uprising, and Tar Sands Action, and Occupy Wall Street all changed their sense of what is politically possible in this country, and they want to get in on it however they can.
Maybe it would be different if the Occupy movement itself were training 100,000 people in direct action right now, too. But it’s not. Tens of thousands of people who’ve never done activism or civil disobedience are taking baby steps toward doing so, and Occupy can count that as a big victory — which it needs right now, since many of the occupations themselves have dwindled and most Americans seem to think that the movement is over.
Rather than arguing about whether the 99% Spring is co-option or not — spoiler alert: it is — Occupiers can be strategizing about how to co-opt it back even more. How can all these newly-trained troops be mobilized into Occupying? What specific actions can they be drawn into to practice what they’ve learned? How can people in the movement further turn these people’s attention to structures of oppression, rather than to stump speeches and delegates?
These are questions that call for creativity — which fortunately the movement, if it still in fact has its mojo, shouldn’t have a problem delivering. If the movement really does have something better to offer than the liberal and reformist bloc, now’s the time to prove it.
The British climate movement’s ‘Big One’ brought out record numbers, but ran into a wall of silence. XR’s new strategy could turn this setback into a new lease on life.
Many are celebrating the recent convictions against the Proud Boys, but they will only strengthen the state’s ability to target the left.
A new book explores how Miss Major has persevered over six inspiring decades on the frontlines of the queer and trans liberation movement.
Co-opting the co-opters is perfectly brilliant. Do we know what kind of training the 99% Spring folks are doing? Is it really good training in nonviolent resistance? I hope so. Not that it couldn’t still be reverse co-opted, regardless of how good a job the organizers are doing.
Part of the reason the Civil Rights Movement had so much success is that many of its leaders were well trained in nonviolent resistance at the Highlander Folk School (founded by Myles Horton) in Tennessee. Those were lessons in finding your voice, building strong community among resisters, learning how not to collude with those in power, and cultivating compassion for the oppressors, and finding and exercising your own considerable power to resist oppression. Those are lessons we need to keep learning and absorbing more deeply.
I was all-in with Occupy from the day I heard about it. I am also totally in favor of a wider movement, a coalition that is inclusive and allows variations in expression and style. Some of us appear to forget that no one is in charge. It is a groundswell, and can’t be co-opted or controlled, not by Occupy, not by any one group. So what if other groups that already exist, or are newly-formed coalitions, do similar things in different ways. There are big issues at stake, and larger goals. Occupy is the vanguard; what follows, you put in motion, and it’s all good. Trust me on this; the movement is happening, and won’t follow a vision as un-specific as Occupy has been to date.
It’s possible that I would have to coopt the entire town where I live!! This town has been controlled through its mayor who is a member of the Masonic Order. I hope many are familiar with the cultic, secret power of the Masons. But my own close relatives who also live here think they are good people. These relatives refuse to acknowledge that secrecy is NEVER good and the presence of a so-called Masonic hospital and residence area occupies the best real estate with villas built for its better members it represents the Masonic Order and nothing more. Our Mayor is repeatedly voted into his office by these thousands of people (guess who) so he hs no qualms about being photographed in his regalia.
I came to town 16 years ago and it didn’t take long to recognize its problems. I was being persecuted by the police which comes under the direct control of the Mayor because of my questions. One such questions was directly to the Mayor asking him if he was a Mason and of course he lied and said “No.” I also had a sign on my door which graphically said, “STOP sending tax dollars to Israel.” And of course this didn’t win the Masons over. That alone was enough to have police continually at my door.
I am also a Christian convert to Islam and all this trouble started well before the so-called 9/11 event. I am highly educated and have prevailed but who knows what the future holds for me. Being a Muslim has become a candidate for trouble and that is in direct contradiction to our Constitutional rights.
Friend, You might consider the possibility that your behavior is counter-productive and therefore just attracting experiences that confirm your sense of outrage. You know, the old “you can attract more flies to honey than vinegar.” For instance, your need to tell your story is so strong that you didn’t stop to think whether it was germane to this discussion. Learning to know what is a contribution and what is irrelevant and choosing to refrain from topics that don’t contribute to the group is a sign of maturity.
I think there is an effort to co-opt the 99% declaration (which is an effort not born of a general assembly or a #OWS-related process) and the idea of gathering in Philly for a national GA over July 4th. A few people from Occupy Philly have told me that there might be a parallel gathering over July 4th, which WOULD be organized by Occupy-related processes and channels, and essentially co-opt the un-Occupy related event, and ride on its publicity to create a true Occupy event… 🙂
FYI to anyone who actually wants to be trained in NVDA!
The Direct Action Working Group of OWS will be hosting Non-violent Direct Action Trainings leading up to May Day.
Intro to NVDA: Monday the 16th, the 23rd and the 30th, 6-9pm, 220 E 23rd St, 7tn Floor
Intro to NVDA: Thursday the 19th and the 26t,: 1-4pm, @ both Union Square & Washington Square
Affinity Groups and Mobile Tactics: Saturday the 21st, all day in a park TBA
Affinity Groups and Mobile Tactics: Sunday the 29th, all day in a park TBA
Email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org
I was at one of the 99% trainings on Saturday and NS is absolutely right. It’s all about how Occupy is “co-opting” actually radicalizing the mainstream liberal/progressive political establishment. The one exception is the Democratic Party which is incapable of being anything other than a self-serving lackey of the 1%. Unlike many writers, I’m not going to generalize about the 99% Spring but only the training I attended in affluent and educated Arlington, VA. There were a couple of dozen or so people at the training, predominantly older folks. Most seemed fairly new to direct action and pretty dissatisfied with mainstream liberal/progressive reformist politics. It’s probably safe to say that I was the only anarchist in attendance because when I mentioned the “A” word there was a noticeable oohs & ahs reaction.
Those conducting the training, a volunteer from Move-On and several from a climate-action NGO have their hearts in the right place but it was clear from the highly scripted and structured activities that they didn’t have a lot of experience in anything other than conventional, humbly petition for a redress of your grievances mainstream advocacy. Fortunately, I didn’t have many expectations for the “training” so I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve been involved for more than 40 years in the struggle, from May Day 71, to Earth First! to a focus in my old age on constructive rather obstructive programs. When I think of where Move-On and many in that room were in 2008, I’m just glad that they are at least talking about direct action and CD rather than re-electing Obama (there was NO mention of electoral politics during the training).
To think that the 99% Spring is going to co-opt Occupy is patently absurd. Bless their hearts but from what I could see at this one “training,” the 99% Spring is pretty clueless about transformative social change. Like much of the non-Occupy U.S. political scene they don’t really see that it is about process (why Occupy was so successful) and not just the strategy and tactics of political action. While Gandhi understood that political action is needed for social transformation, he also knew that the constructive program was the key to social change. And, that is why it is Occupy that is doing the co-opting.
Thanks for this, Ed. Occupy Arlington!
I disagree that the Democratic Party will never be anything but a self-serving lackey of the 1%. The Repugnicans, yes, absolutely. But unless we can start an alternative political party that could be based on our ideals, the Dems are the only game in town for progressive and liberal political causes, and may be the best hope of the Occupy and 99% Movement to effect some real changes. The more we influence them, the better off we are, and I believe they DO listen to us, even if they will never radicalize sufficiently to satisfy those of us too disgusted with the establishment to ever trust them to get anything right. I concede the point that too many Dem politicians have been bought by the 1% but hey, we’ve got Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and some others who are right with us. It’s not something you want to count on, I get that. If there’s a plan that makes sense and can be successful WITHOUT the Democrats, I’d love to hear it. But let’s take our allies where we can find them. Just sayin’…
Thanks for this post, Nathan. I hadn’t seen it yet when I wrote this: http://lambswar.blogspot.com/2012/04/occupy-zombie.html Your essay serves as a good response to my own questions about the direction of the movement at this time. Your post is quite a bit more optimistic than my own, which I am glad to see!
I do wonder whether Occupy is equipped for the long haul, since we have been a totally volunteer effort. It’s hard to keep up momentum when our best and brightest need to tend to their day jobs.
Thanks Micah — good to hear from you. That’s why people have to Occupy their day jobs. I have:) So have (to varying extents) a lot of people in organizations involved in the 99% Spring.