Though the content below doesn’t deal expressly with the usual content of this blog (in its focus on power, oppression, and community), it does relate in that the #Occupy movement exists as a force to end the incredible economic inequality (and power and oppression therein) that exists in this country. I need a space in which to publish this piece, so I figured here is as good a place as any.
4 Things #OccupyDenver Must Do (Better) to Survive
“Non-violence is the constant awareness of the dignity and humanity of oneself and others; it seeks truth and justice; it renounces violence both in method and in attitude; it is a courageous acceptance of active love and goodwill as the instrument with which to overcome evil and transform both oneself and others. It is the willingness to undergo suffering rather than inflict it. It excludes retaliation and flight.”
— Wally Nelson, conscientious objector, civil rights activist, and tax resister
Having been closely watching and participating in the #Occupy movement in Denver and around the country, I understand that each iteration of the #Occupy movement is different. In my time at #OccupyDenver, I have come to realize that it faces some grave challenges that it must address in order not only to remain relevant but to survive as part of a sustained social movement. Obviously the list below is not comprehensive, but as an experienced activists with a Bachelor’s degree training in nonviolent movements and resistance, these are my humble suggestions, less so for how #OccupyDenver should respond but simply to begin (and continue) the conversation.
1. Train People in Tried and True Methods of Nonviolent Resistance
I’m not the first to say it, but it bears saying again. Undoubtedly some within the #OccupyDenver movement have been trained in methods and practices of nonviolent resistance. However, it is clear that not nearly enough of those participating have this training. To see a significant number of people reacting to police presence through screaming in the faces of cops, pushing over motorcycles, and resisting arrest makes sense. The actions of police made the protesters angry. Anger is an important emotion in any movement, but anger is only productive to the ends of a movement when channeled properly. As Barbara Deming says, “… Anger is in great part hidden – from others and even from ourselves – and when it is finally allowed to emerge into the open . . . it is shaking, unsure of itself, and so quick to be violent.”
It became evident that too small a group has been trained in non-violent resistance when watching the police move in a second time to dismantle the tents on 10/29. One small line of people sat arm in arm, and the police simply stepped over the protesters. While the right idea, this action was poorly orchestrated and, as such, had no effect on the police action.
When one watches the publicity from #OccupyWallStreet’s media team, there are constant Teach-Ins being advertised and orchestrated. Many of these offer basic to advanced training in non-violent resistance to ensure that those taking part in actions are prepared and (more importantly) that those who have to face arrest and possible police brutality are prepared to respond nonviolently.
Fortunately, #OccupyDenver has begun the process of responding to this need with the creation of a Nonviolence Committee and its recent publication of a handbill for deescalating tense situations. Now it’s time to take it one step further and begin hosting regular trainings to prepare those who are part of the movement to respond effectively and nonviolently – since nonviolence is not enough; effective nonviolence must be implemented.
Incredible resources exist in the scholarship of Gene Sharp and online through ActUpNY’s Civil Disobedience Training and Training for Change’s nonviolence training. #OccupyDenver must access these resources and start training anyone and everyone they can to ensure that the movement remains nonviolent and transforms to be more effectively nonviolent.
2. Construct the Biggest Tent Possible
One of the most powerful symbols of the #Occupy movement is the image of tents constructed in parks around the world to show the commitment of protesters to the movement. It also provides a powerful metaphor. We have the power to construct a tent big enough for everyone, whereby virtually anyone feels welcome and included in the movement. After all, “We are [supposedly] the 99%.”
Thus far, though, #OccupyDenver has failed to create such an environment on many fronts. At the most basic level, average folks who otherwise might identify with the movement do not feel like it is a movement for them. As a simple example, on a recent visit, I rode up on my bicycle and was immediately accused of having stolen the bicycle from another person the night before. Others have expressed simply feeling disconnected as they tried to participate. A simple fix for this problem? Make sure that all people have a place and are welcome. Perhaps create some greeting committees who try to welcome new folks and ensure that they are brought into the fold and made to feel welcome.
A larger and more troubling issue with #OccupyDenver’s proverbial tent as it exists currently, though, is its almost complete divorce from a discourse on and action around racial justice as vital to economic justice. While people of color are surely participating in #OccupyDenver, this speaks more to the reality that certain people of color relate to the movement than that the movement has worked to engage wider communities of color. This is particularly notable when one looks to who is given the privilege of “The People’s Mic.” Though the privilege is supposedly open to anyone, the “mic” seems to fall into some awfully white hands at #OccupyDenver.
There have been a tremendous number of legitimate criticisms of the #Occupy movement as being led by and for the benefit of White people and White Privilege. While other iterations (particularly #OccupyWallStreet, #OccupyOakland, and #OccupyDetroit) have done intentional work to change this, #OccupyDenver still has a great deal of work to do. (Stay tuned for my upcoming blog addressing this particular issue at #OccupyDenver.)
3. Build Coalitions
It’s fantastic to realize that #OccupyDenver has managed to attract thousands of people on numerous occasions to marches and rallies. This is an incredible success. Where this success falls short, though, is in the reality that most of those attending are sparsely-connected individuals who all care about the general movement.
Where #OccupyWallStreet and other iterations differ from #OccupyDenver, though, is in the coalition of groups that have put their name and reputation behind the movement. A tremendous coalition (http://progressivetoo.com/organizations-supporting-occupy-wall-street/) of Unions, community organizations, and respected activists/organizers have come forward in support of #OccupyWallStreet. Some #Occupy iterations have even managed to bring restaurants and grocery stores on board to ensure the long-term viability of their occupation with a sustained food source. This, however, did not happen by accident. It was achieved through active, sustained coalition building on the part of organizers in #OccupyWallStreet. It was also accomplished by responding responsibly to legitimate criticisms about racial justice. It is disgraceful to consider how few of the long-term activists and organizations in the Denver area that have been working for decades to combat racial and economic injustice have been approached directly (and not to say – “you should join” – but to say – “We need to learn from your expertise”).
#OccupyDenver has a responsibility to the community that surrounds it to actively build a strong coalition. This can only be done through active outreach to potential coalition partners in ways that are not tokenizing and that invite such organizations to have a stake in #OccupyDenver as a movement. This can only be done effectively, though, when #OccupyDenver expands the size of its tent to be more inclusive of difference, of the true 99%, something that cannot and will not be accomplished through Twitter and Facebook updates.
4. Flip (Don’t Antagonize) the Police
Whether or not we like to admit it, police officers are very much a part of the 99%. As such, we should be thinking of ways to entice the police into joining and supporting the movement. Around the country, this is happening. Recently in Albany, NY, state and local police officers refused a direct order to arrest #Occupy protesters, saying, “We don’t have those resources, and these people were not causing trouble.”
In Oakland, a city that has seen some of the worst police repression in the movement, there are tremendous growth points at which the police can be engaged. After all, their pensions are at risk as much as anyone’s, and they are already frustrated with Mayor Jean Quan’s response to the movement.
First, many (particularly the Anarchist contingent) of #OccupyDenver will flatly disagree with this possibility, but there is power and truth in the idea that all of the 99% should be brought into the movement. As satisfying as it may feel to yell “pig” in the faces of cops who are brutalizing and arresting protesters, it only antagonizes police who otherwise might refuse to follow Hickenlooper’s or Hancock’s orders to arrest #OccupyDenver protesters. It is much harder for police to haul away and arrest protesters who are surrounding the tent city in a nonviolent, organized, and effective show of solidarity than those who are resisting arrest and yelling in the faces of the officers.
At the very least, working to flip the police will lead to more positive and amicable interactions between police and protesters in the countless interactions they have every day.