Is this the movement we’ve been waiting for?

Ever since Paul Hawken published Blessed Unrest (2007), it has been clear to many that the progressive world is a million projects in search of a movement. A movement, Hawken reminded us, has “leaders and ideologies; … people join movements study [their] tracts, and identify themselves with a group,” while the Occupy movement today seems to be just a continuation of the style that is “dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent.  It has no manifesto or doctrine, no overriding authority to check with.” Can #Occupy provide the framework that will pull these far-flung but inwardly resonant energies together—and in so doing become a force that could, in Gandhi’s terms, “o’ersweep the world”? I believe we can make that happen, and we should, because in any case, as Gandhi also said, a movement that is simply against something cannot sustain itself.

The 1,500-odd sites of #Occupy already have many hopeful things going for them. They are global, as Naomi Wolf has recently pointed out, which has not been seen since millions of people attempted to stop the war on Iraq in 2003, only to have President Bush dismiss them as a “focus group” (more on that later).  They are touching a nerve of widespread discontent: as one commentator said recently:

Whether we agree with them or not, I’m sure most of us support their right to speak their mind, and to challenge a system that each and every one of us knows is corrupt.

They have developed a kind of protest culture that is partly highly technological (as in the Occupy Café conferences in which the Metta Center recently participated) and partly very un-technological (as with the “human microphones” that propagate messages when loudspeakers are disallowed).  They are beginning for the first time since the gun-shy sixties to peek around the ideological stumbling block of leaderlessness to consider that some forms of authority might not be anti-democratic.  And most important of all, they are upholding a nearly constant refrain of nonviolence.

To capitalize on these advantages, several things need to happen:

  • We will have to realize—and many are beginning to—that our issue is not a particular piece of public real estate and our adversary is not the local police (nasty as they became in Oakland, Atlanta, and several non-U.S. cities, police have refused orders to arrest protestors in Albany, NY).  Right now the thing to do is not occupy physical space but form community among ourselves and come up with a long-term strategy; to focus our determination on a goal that goes far beyond symbolically “taking back” one place or another. At this stage it would be no weakness at all to withdraw from some contested sites to less confrontational spaces where we can build up our strength for the real confrontation that may well be coming.
  • While developing this long-term goal and strategy for reaching it—a strategy that includes the option of escalating to civil disobedience if our demands are brushed aside the way they were in 2003—we will surely do well to adopt Gandhi’s great model, which could be thought of as a bird with two wings and a brain: there was a wing called protest (or Satyagraha, or what I like to call “obstructive program”), and one that he called Constructive Program, or building what you want without waiting for others to give it to you (“Move Your Money” on Nov. 5th was a highly successful example), and some way to choose between them as one or the other becomes the best way forward—in other words, some kind of strategic direction or, dare I say it, leadership.
  • We will need an inspiring, positive message. The time has come to say that we believe life is not for endless consumption but for ever-expanding and deepening relationships, that life is sacred (even after you’re born!), that it is an interconnected whole such that exploiting another hurts oneself, and that security never comes from killing “enemies” or warehousing “criminals,” but turning former enemies into friends and rehabilitating offenders—not to mention learning to live in such a way that does not alienate and criminalize. In other words, the financial crisis is only a symptom of a deep flaw in our culture, for which we boldly assert a healthy alternative.  We may well lose some sympathizers, especially when we raise the specter of peace; but it is much better to have a solid community united behind a clear, bold message than a false consensus of the discontented majority.

Finally, back to the all-important refrain of nonviolence. As I write, the important Oakland site is being threatened by a minority—which is all it takes—who are advocating and committing property destruction and violence of spirit. A friend writes:

Given the open nature of Occupy Oakland (OO); its consensus decision structure; and the lack of endorsed “leaders,” it is unclear how OO will deal with an internal situation that is committed to an agenda … inherently contradictory to the aims of the #Occupy movement.  Unaddressed, this dilemma threatens the existence of at least Occupy Oakland itself.

Here again, as we search for a way to win over or, failing that, to isolate the disruptive element, two Gandhian parallels are available (there is little in the world of nonviolence that he did not deal with in his long career). When asked, could Communists be allowed to join the Congress Party, he replied that no one could be excluded from the Party on the basis of who they were; but the Party had a platform and a code of conduct and had every right to exclude those who did not accept those instruments. We badly need a code of conduct, and the confidence to enforce it. Remember—and here is the other parallel—on at least two occasions Gandhi actually called off a campaign at high tide when it could not exclude violence. When they could, he led them to final victory.

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