In this article, guest author ZAINAB AMADAHY explores the power of positivity as a force of transformation in the world. Here at Occupy Love, we are always looking for love in all the wrong places, and finding it. This is an era of unimaginable crisis, and unimagined possibility. It’s time to start creating the new world, that we know is possible. A world that works for everyone and all life. Nothing less will do. Be sure to check out Zainab’s brand new book, Wielding the Force: The Science of Social Justice, which explores emerging science and its relevance to social justice, activism and community organizing. Thank you, Zainab, for articulating and exploring this important subject with such clarity. Big love, Velcrow Ripper
On a panel discussing the relationship between “Love and Decolonization” I once spoke about protocols and ceremonies that are used by Indigenous communities in struggle. These are practiced to keep spirits high, deepen connections among community members and maintain focus on honourable and just outcomes. I noted that such practices allow people to benefit from “good mind” and that there was an increasing amount of mainstream science that demonstrated many advantages to such activities.
Because ceremonies allow participants to give thanks, vision an optimistic future, feel grounded on the land, connect to ancestors, feel responsibility to coming generations and cooperate together, they generate wellness. More than that, they increase the likelihood that communities will achieve their many-faceted goals.
Mainstream science now understands that cultivating thoughts and feelings of generosity, gratitude, optimism, hope, compassion and cooperation are good for your health. Such mindsets help your body heal from stress, heighten immunity, accelerate healing, enhance creativity, facilitate problem-solving and much more.
Of course, this mindset also impacts your relationships, affecting friends, family and co-workers in positive ways. We also know that the more time you spend in an optimistic mindset, the more your body, including your brain, literally restructures itself so it becomes easier to shift your thoughts to optimism.
What’s even more exciting to social justice activists is the impact these mindsets have on our work. New research devoted to assessing the impact of corporate leadership practices indicates that when employees maintain positive and optimistic mindsets the company’s desired outcomes are more likely to be achieved.
Now of course we’re all concerned about applying science to manipulate people in a way that enables others to profit from their work; work that may contribute to the destruction of the environment, increased consumerism and the depletion of resources.
It’s also important to understand that encouraging positive mindsets, even if it positively impacts individual wellbeing, will not resolve the fundamental problem of a financial system that is unsustainable and anti-life. Yet, as activists, we can still learn from the science and apply it in a way that is consistent with our values.
By the way, I’m not suggesting that those suffering from a mental or physical illness need only shift their thinking to become well and effective. That is too simplistic. All life forms on the Earth and beyond are inter-connected and inter-dependent and there are many environmental, social and historical factors that impact our wellbeing. Shifts in mindset can only count for so much. Nevertheless shifts in thinking can create powerful change in our lives and communities.
Also, these findings don’t suggest that negative/unpleasant emotions have no useful purpose. Feelings like anger, fear, sadness, grief and others have a role to play in a healthy emotional life. So-called negative emotions should never be denied, ignored or repressed. In community organizing these feelings can keep you realistic, grounded and safe. The question is, should they motivate you as an activist?
Studies have shown that ‘the carrot is more effective than the stick’ when it comes to motivating people to be and do their best. Research looking at how corporate leadership can motivate workers concludes that “negative emotional attractors”, like creating an environment where everyone fears being fired, will only work for so long. Similarly, we can expect that people motivated by “The planet is dying!” and “Eat the rich!” will only be inspired for so long. We can further expect them to burn out faster as fear and anger invoke the stress reaction, which takes a heavy toll on the body.
However, not every carrot will do the trick. Studies show that, once survival needs are met and a reasonable quality of life assured, even financial incentives (like bonuses and raises) are ineffective at motivating people to work harder, smarter or with more creativity. And none of these motivators generates cooperation.
PEA’s (positive emotional attractors) are far more likely to achieve desired results. An example of a PEA is encouraging workers to see themselves as contributing to some greater good, such as reminding your “team” that selling solar systems helps the planet. Or telling folks that a percentage of company profits supports cancer research.
PEA’s produce improved AND sustainable outcomes. People work harder, are more creative, more adaptable and achieve better results. Additionally, folks who motivate others with PEA’s benefit from all the physical indicators of wellbeing that optimistic mindsets engender.
What this suggests to activists is that motivating each other with the vision of a better world is far more effective than manipulating fears about worst-case scenarios. The more we can create optimistic visions and role model our values of cooperation, kindness and generosity, the more likely we are to stay motivated and inspire others.
Pro-social emotions, thoughts and actions inspire and motivate more of the same. This results in more optimism, generosity, cooperation, compassion, kindness, productivity, creativity and an awareness of inter-connectedness. With a mere shift in mindset we can all benefit from an upwardly moving spiral of cooperative, kind and effective people. And before you know it, we’ll be living in that better world we created together.
ZAINAB AMADAHY is an author, community organizer and educator. Among her publications are “Indigenous Peoples and Black Peoples in Canada: Settlers or Allies” for Breaching the Colonial Contract: Anti-Colonialism in the US and Canada. She also contributed to Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision and Community Activism and authored the feminist science fiction novel Moons of Palmares. Zainab is a frequent contributor to muskratmagazine.com and rabble.ca. Her latest publication, Wielding the Force: The Science of Social Justice, explores emerging science and its relevance to social justice, activism and community organizing. For more information about Zainab’s work: www.swallowsongs.com
Wednesday night a huge “casseroles” demonstration has been called for people across Canada to show solidarity with the Quebec movement. At 8:00 p.m., wherever you are, go outside with a pot and a metal implement and make some noise. Bonus points for meeting up with neighbours while doing it.
FROM VELCROW: Calling all cinematographers! I’m soliciting footage from the Casseroles actions in Quebec and solidarity actions around the world, for possible inclusion in Occupy Love. I need well shot, cinematic images, preferably with a Canon 5-D. Good sound a plus! Send me a facebook direct message if you get some good stuff tomorrow night or at any of the actions. Thanks!
Please click the Facebook link below and confirm that, wherever you are, you’ll make some noise for Quebec at 8PM Wednesday. Invite all your friends and spread this as widely as possible.
IN ALMOST EVERY REPORT on the social movement now sweeping Quebec, including my own, words like conflict, crisis and stand-off figure prominently. Anger is omnipresent. The anger of protesters, the anger of government, the anger of those supposedly inconvenienced. Pundits scream about mob rule, anarchy in the streets and the dissolution of society as we know it.
Don’t get me wrong, there is anger, present of course. But that is not what you see if you take to the streets, or watch CUTV’s live stream. Pundits can’t stop bemoaning the inconvenience to “ordinary” Montrealers posed by these protests. But I wonder, are there any “ordinary” Montrealers left to inconvenience?
As I write these words there are demonstrations going on in every neighborhood of Montreal. “Casseroles,” where people leave their houses to bang pots in the street every night at 8:00 p.m., have led to marches everywhere. The police cannot keep up. Far flung suburbs like Vaudreuil and Île Perrot, the anglophone West Island and NDG, South Shore suburbs, Québec City, Sherbrooke, Gatineau, Rimouski, Trois Rivières and the list goes on. Some of these places have never seen a demonstration, certainly not since the days of the quiet revolution. Now their streets swell with hundreds, thousands.
The prevailing question in the media is, how do we end this? Supporters and opponents alike seek a “solution” to put an end to the “crisis”. And we need one, those on the streets need to be heard. Actions need to be taken to address the demands of the masses. But what exactly is so bad about what is happening? Why do we need it to end so urgently?
As this movement goes on, and grows by leaps and bounds, it is increasingly clear that it is not a movement of anger, of rage or of hate. It is a movement of love, of community and of hope. People who would be alone in their houses watching TV take to the streets and march with neighbours they never knew they had. Back when we had real communities, they were driven by the coming together of neighbours each night. Instead of watching TV, we met in the street, we exchanged details of our day and we made plans for our future. Just as the “casseroles” cause us to do now.
Perhaps the most lasting effect of this movement will be to build stronger, more connected communities. Every day that it goes on, more of us meet in the street, build relationships and talk about what kind of a society we want.
This is what Charest is afraid of. This is what keeps the powerful awake at night. If we talk, if we exchange ideas and debate the future of our society, we will want to change it. And nothing terrifies the powerful more than a change to the system which gives them their power.
The most honest reason which can be given for why people are in the street is the simplest. We do not see ourselves reflected in our government. But we see ourselves, our concerns, our hope, our love and our aspirations, reflected in every smiling face we see on the street. For the first time in a long time we are having a real conversation about what kind of society we want. We’re having it with each other, every night when we meet in the streets. And slowly, but surely, we are realizing that we have the power to make our dreams a reality.
Over at Translating the Printemps Erable, a superb volunteer collective dedicated to translating French articles about the movement into English, the administrator recently posted an Open Letter to the Mainstream English Media. It is perhaps the best description of this incredible phenomenon I have yet seen. In it they bemoaned the coverage which focuses on anger, when what we see in the streets is love. They describe the nightly “casseroles” like this:
If you do not live here, I wish I could properly convey to you what it feels like . . . It is magic. It starts quietly, a suggestion here and there, and it builds. Everybody on the street begins to smile. I get there, and we all — young and old, children and students and couples and retirees and workers and weird misfits and dogs and, well, neighbours –we all grin the widest grins you have ever seen while dancing around and making as much noise as possible. We are almost ecstatic with the joy of letting loose like this, of voicing our resistance to a government that seeks to silence us, and of being together like this. I have lived in my neighbourhoods for five years now, and this is the most I have ever felt a part of the community; the lasting impact that these protests will have on how people relate to each other in the city is deep and incredible.
The video below is a simple, black and white video of one night in the life of nos casseroles, but it has gone viral, encapsulating as it does the joy and togetherness of our movement.
We walk past each other every day, but we do not smile. We do not stop to talk, we do not connect. In these protests, in the breast of this movement, we are remembering what it is to work together to make our world a better place. We used to know, in some far distant past, but we have forgotten.
Many in this movement are mad at the media. But in many ways it is not the fault of the journalists, or the pundits who cling to the status quo like a drowning man grasps a life raft.
If you try to understand this movement through the lens of politics as usual, you are doomed to failure. This is a spontaneous, joyful uprising. It is not Astro Turfed, it does not depend on the media or the political parties, or even the unions or student groups for oxygen. It is a fire which has slumbered in our bellies for so long, silent and nearly forgotten.
What the critics and the pundits do not understand is that they are no longer in control. People will no longer nod and agree with their paper or their TV. They can diminish it, can under-report our numbers and exaggerate our violence, but it doesn’t matter. Their words and their barbs cannot defeat the solidarity and love which flows through our streets each night.
People don’t need the media to tell them what is happening outside their door. They can hear it. They can feel it. The genie cannot go back in the bottle. We are awake, truly awake for the first time in a long time. We will not go back to sleep.
I started to notice after the passage of Bill 78, and the mass demonstration of May 22, a change. Not only in the streets, but online. As the “casseroles” spread, so did their footprint on the social networks through which we express ourselves. Friends who had always hated protests, right wingers, misanthropes, apolitical types and everyone in between began to post pictures of themselves with pots and pans outside their house.
My Facebook feed, which is normally full of cute pictures and a hodge podge of random posts, unified. It coalesced in a way I had never seen before. I now notice, and am surprised, if I see a single post unrelated to this movement.
Twitter, which had largely been ignored by Francophone Quebeckers, is now swollen with tweets about the protests. The way we come together in the streets has spread to our online presence. We share and comment and talk. We come together as citizens of a community, galvanized by a common cause.
This movement may yet fail. It may be co-opted, or lose track of its goals. It may fizzle or be beaten, as so many other movements have been. But there can be no denying that something extraordinary is happening in Quebec.
If we, as a society, as a people, are to make a stand against the governments which cut taxes on the rich and corporations and then plead poverty as they dismantle our society, our communities, it will be here.
If a line in the sand will be drawn, it is here, in the streets of Quebec. The battle for a better world starts in this city, this glorious, madcap city whose joie de vivre flows through the veins of each and every one of us like a river.
Join us, speak your solidarity from the rooftops, call out our name. Because here in these streets, a revolution has started. A fire which burns for a better world.
Call me an idealist, call me a dreamer, call me anything you like. But this is a moment in time we will tell our children about. Together, we can start something here that spreads like wildfire across this continent. What happens next is up to us.
To paraphrase Robert Frost: Two roads diverged in the woods, and we — we took the one less traveled on, and that has made all the difference.
A community of people walking together on a spiritual path has a great deal of strength; its members are able to protect each other, to help each other in every aspect of the practice, and to build the strength of the community. There are many things that are very difficult for us to do on our own, but when we live together as community, they become easy and natural. We do them without growing tired or making a strenuous effort. The community has a collective energy. Without this energy, the practice of individual transformation is not easy.
When we live together in community it becomes a body, and each one of us is a cell in that body. If we are not part of the community body, we will be isolated, hungry, and needy, and we will not have a suitable environment for practice. We can visualize the community body as a forest. Each member of the community is a tree standing beautifully alongside the others. Each tree has its own shape, height, and unique qualities, but all are contributing to the harmonious growth of the forest. Looking at the trees standing steadily alongside each other like that, you can sense the beauty, solidity, and power of a sacred forest.
Our community body is going forward on the path of practice and its eyes are able to direct us. The eyes of the community are able to see the strong points as well as the weak points of every member of the community. By community Eyes, we mean the insight and vision of the collective body of the community, which includes the vision and insight of all of its members from the youngest to the eldest. Although the contribution of everyone’s insight is necessary for the community insight to be clear, it is not just a simple adding up of individual insights. The collective insight has a strength, a wisdom, and a vitality of its own, which surpasses any individual insight. […]
The energy of the community body has the capacity to protect and transform us. As a member of the community, all we have to do is to make our contribution to that energy. This is called community building. It is the most precious work a monk, nun or layperson can do. […]
When we are stubborn, we are not open to listening to others or seeing the limitations of our own way of thinking. We think our way is the best and our ideas are best. We may become angry when our community makes a decision that does not exactly reflect what we wanted. This is the result of our stubbornness and arrogance. We are so sure of ourselves, so sure that our view is the best. This is an obstacle to overcoming our suffering and finding peace and happiness in the present moment.
I have often said that there is no place for pride in true love. True love is a process of humility, of letting go of our individual ideas and notions to embrace and become one with another person or our entire community. When we are proud we can be easily wounded. We are like the tall, dry grasses that do not bend down low in the face of the winds. Instead, they try to remain standing tall and in the process are broken to pieces. Our pride is an obstacle to developing our understanding, compassion, and boundless love. When we are humble we have nothing to fear, nothing to lose. We easily flow with the circumstances that we find ourselves in and are endlessly open to learn, to practice, and to transform ourselves.
–Thich Nhat Hanh in Joyfully Together: The Art of Building a Harmonious Community.
After we were evicted from Liberty Park, I spent the early hours of the morning struggling in the streets of Lower Manhattan with a few hundred disoriented and angry people. Cops in riot gear were turning the streets into a maze of steel barricades. We tried to unify our scraggly numbers and rally, but it became gradually clear that the police had the upper hand. Toward morning, the tension in my body gradually eased into defeat.
Among my company that night was a Chinese man patiently trying to unify the hotheaded crowds. He had been a student protester in Tiananmen Square. He said to me, “Movements do not attract activists, they create them.” So even though we seemed to be losing, we were in fact learning. We were stumbling through the dark that night, searching for a path to walk together, and that’s why this is the beginning of my occupation story, not the end.
The story of my life began at the San Francisco Zen Center. My parents, zen teachers Norman and Kathie Fischer, transitioned from lay practice in Berkeley to a monastic life at Tassajara and Green Gulch Farm in the 1970s. We lived at Zen Center until my brother and I left for college. During these years, I absorbed the rhythms, smells, and tastes of monastic California-style zen.
Interconnectedness, sangha, and non-duality formed the language and spirit of my childhood.
Coinciding with the miraculous changing of leaves, Occupy Wall Street began in New York on September 17th but was really sparked by demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Spain and Madison, Wisconsin, months before. The time for transformation was ripe. In the U.S., decades of exponential wealth disparity and war after war against brown people at home and abroad left our society fragmented and spiritually sick. It was not an optimistic time to be a young person.
In the 2000s, as I pursued an art career, I struggled, often painfully, with finding my place in a culture that appeared to revolve around cutthroat competition, celebrity and immense concentrations of wealth. I even felt that creative freedom—the impulse I was following in my art practice—had been confused with greed, privilege and fear of failure. The big picture seemed hopeless. But then, reading about the uprisings in Tahrir and Madison, I began to realize that resistance was possible. Maybe, just maybe, we could heal our world if we woke up and brought our silent struggles into the strong sunlight—if we tried.
In June, I launched an art project called “Summer of Change: a series of numismatic rituals for Wall Street” and with my collaborator, Jim Costanzo, I chanted oratory at bankers and tourists, while throwing hundreds of dollars-worth of U.S. coins on the ground. For the first performance I chanted:
Oh, Wall Street! Your Great Wall is impregnable to marauding Justice, Equality, and Change!
Later, in another of the seven performances, arriving at the Stock Exchange in a wheelchair and wearing a silver mask resembling a giant FDR dime, I pointed at passersby and shouted:
The ship of our great democracy sinks in a rising tide of greed! Working-class Americans are the first to be cast off into the sea. Some stand by and watch this crime from afar. But who will be the next victim?
By the end of the summer, when the Occupy Wall Street protests started, I was all warmed up and right in the center of it.
What was I in the center of exactly? Something new—that was clear from the start. On that September Saturday, hundreds of people came together in Zucotti Park and didn’t go home. This was no ordinary protest. Rather, we were living change in our bodies. We were mending our connection to each other, mending the tender fabric of a society torn apart by emphasis on private space and money markets. We were re-embracing the right to occupy public space and finding our power as citizens in a shared world—the basic power of the people. It was anger that had awakened many of us. But in the park, love reigned. The beginning was wonderful!
There was a daunting task ahead. Inside the park, non-capitalist time and space prevailed: lost souls were meeting like crazy, creative plans were hatching and music rang out. Going a block away you felt culture shock: everything was the same as before in the same old world. And we knew that to get this work done we had to push ourselves, like caterpillars struggling in the cocoon. We had to transform and develop wings. Every day, all day, we marched and shouted and organized, served and ate free food, held assemblies, and struggled with the police. And so we turned from “protestors” into “people acting freedom,” in search of unbroken physical and social space, free of boundaries.
Yet we can’t live in this world without playing roles, like performers on a stage. In our occupy-opera, the NYPD play the role of protectors of the status quo, standing densely in their dark uniforms, with guns, stern expressions and menacing riot gear, or rolling up with trucks full of steel barricades. I know that these men and women are exquisite buddhas, perfectly imperfect as I am, but as the tension builds, they become monuments to un-freedom, following commands that lead them to bash heads against the pavement and to put non-violent people into little cells and slam the steel door shut behind them.
Meanwhile, we who gather together chanting and marching are “protesters.” We seem to be on the other side; we seem to be a menace, even to threaten social chaos. Passersby on the street are our audience. The stage is set and the curtains drawn. We sing our arias through the human microphone. Time and space contract and expand dramatically as these forces dance together.
These tense situations are the jewel of the movement, the master classes that turn us into activists, and we work hard to create them. We have a better chance of dissolving the boundaries that separate us if we first make them visible. But violence can begin here too, so it is important to not truly believe in the roles. I have tried to remember I am not separate from the cops and other actors, even while surfing the tension of these situations.
Early on in the protest I switched sides as an experiment, wanting to explore the limits of this new social space. As an Occupy Wall Street group marched from Liberty Park to the Wall Street Stock Exchange (a daily ritual in the first few weeks), I dressed in a business suit and waited with a small group at the Exchange. When the protestors arrived we heckled them as we imagined a group of young and entitled Wall Street investment bankers might (and sometimes do). I yelled “Get a Job!” loudly in the protesters’ faces, falling deeply into my new role. It felt a little transgressive too, like a man putting on a dress; I hadn’t realized how many unknowns were at play here.
The tension rose, emotions flared. All of a sudden, one of the drummers turned around at me and shouted, “I am a veteran of Iraq, I have PTSD and can’t get a job! Fuck you!” He hit me, hard, with his drumstick, which I was not expecting. The sting on my arm told me that years of suffering, anger, hurt and aloneness were coming forth. Yes, this was theater, but it was also very real—as real as violence, as real our emotions and bodies. In retrospect, it was like the Shosan ritual in which zen practitioners expose their inner life and pain in ceremony, for the sangha to share and support. In my conflict with the Marine, we shared the sting of disempowerment. Later that day I found him and we both apologized. Now we hug every time we see each other.
A few weeks later, I found a way to protest from my core social and economic struggles as an artist. I helped to organize an action group called Occupy Museums, to bring attention to the ways that major cultural institutions disempower artists and benefit the wealthy. One day we marched to MoMA and found a large police force waiting for us. They herded us into the police pen they had prepared for us. We stepped into the cage, yelling, chanting and waving signs; the tension mounted as our outrage filled the enclosed space. The police ushered away passersby who approached us in solidarity, creating a buffer zone around the magnetic human force of our voices and bodies.
In the midst of the tension, I found energy welling up within, but I let it happen, feeling it as energy not anger. I “mic checked,” invoking call-and-response from the group. “Policemen! (Policemen!) /We are watching you/harass citizens peacefully walking/on New York City sidewalks!/What’s going on here!?” Then my body, compressed in tension, started to move, to stride out from behind the barricades to the sidewalk and into the no-go zone defined by the standing line of cops. This was the corridor of greatest tension, full of the possibility of violence. But I found space, air, and life here! I began to widen my movements—now I was almost dancing—and my language opened: “I am free—I know I can be on this sidewalk!” Pointing to the policeman: “You are free! We all are free, let’s march on this sidewalk, we can be here!” Somehow, all of a sudden, we could be here! A surprise reversal of plot! So we marched out from behind the barricades onto the vast sidewalk.
Two weeks after we were evicted from Liberty (formerly Zucotti) Park, we gathered at Lincoln Center Plaza, a vast open space in New York where protest is forbidden. Lincoln Center was showing Philip Glass’s opera, “Satyagraha,” which speaks about the life of Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King—all non-violent protesters who have inspired Occupy Wall Street. Lincoln Center is partly funded by Michael Bloomberg, the very man who evicted us from Liberty Park.
Before the end of the performance, hundreds of protesters assembled on the steps of Lincoln Center, blocked off from the plaza by police barricades and heavy NYPD presence. Thus the private and public spaces, which on a normal day would be seamless, were clearly separated. When a few who dared to cross the line were arrested, there were shouts of “shame, shame, shame!” from some of the protestors. We took off our shoes—a Gandhian symbol of dignity—and stood barefoot on the cold pavement, conducting our assembly.
As “Satyagraha” ended and the elegantly dressed audience finally exited into the plaza, they came upon this strikingly theatrical scene: real life protest at the foot of the grand steps! We called out to them in unison to join us, but the sight of the NYPD barricades seemed to paralyze them.
Then all of a sudden Philip Glass, who had been at the performance that night, popped up in the Occupy Wall Street crowd—he had come to read a statement on the people’s mic. We sat down so that people could see him, and the lights from a video camera illuminated his face. He called out the last lines of the opera, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita:
When righteousness withers away
And evil rules the land
We come into being
Age after age
And take visible shape
A man among men
For the protection of good
Thrusting back evil
And setting virtue
On her seat again.
Chanting along with Glass, whose music had been the soundtrack to my childhood, I melted into the crowd, my body vibrating to the shared voice, deeply encouraged by this ancient text. When I looked up, the opera audience had joined us. The buffer zone was gone. We were one big crowd—the 100%! The physical NYPD barricades still stood among us, but they were no longer barriers, absorbed now into our big warm body. Until late into the night we held our general assembly. The police stood offstage, now relaxed. Two separate spaces had flowed into one, protesters had become people again, and the police could then be people too.
After the first day of the occupation in Liberty Park, I went home thinking that the scraggly core protesters would be gone the next day, booted out by the NYPD. But miraculously, this was not so, and from that moment on, I learned to suspend disbelief—to not kill off this unfolding moment in my mind. I learned to trust my body, which was responding to a desire for freedom and connection. I learned to trust hundreds of strangers. When we lost the park, this was only a stage in an unfolding movement. A few weeks later, we were all standing euphorically on the steps of Lincoln Center Plaza, 100% human, pointing with our hearts toward each other, and finding freedom in this way. Who knows what happens next?!
Noah Fischer is a Brooklyn-based artist activist who grew up at Green Gulch Farm, run by the San Francisco Zen Center. He has exhibited art installations and performances in New York and internationally. Since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, Fischer has completely committed his work to this movement. He is the curator of the No-Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center.
This is an expanded version of an article that appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Inquiring Mind.
When you fall in love, it’s all about what you have in common, and you can hardly imagine that there are differences, let alone that you will quarrel over them, or weep about them, or be torn apart by them — or if all goes well, struggle, learn, and bond more strongly because of, rather than despite, them. The Occupy movement had its glorious honeymoon when old and young, liberal and radical, comfortable and desperate, homeless and tenured all found that what they had in common was so compelling the differences hardly seemed to matter.
Until they did.
Revolutions are always like this: at first all men are brothers and anything is possible, and then, if you’re lucky, the romance of that heady moment ripens into a relationship, instead of a breakup, an abusive marriage, or a murder-suicide. Occupy had its golden age, when those who never before imagined living side-by-side with homeless people found themselves in adjoining tents in public squares.
All sorts of other equalizing forces were present, not least the police brutality that battered the privileged the way that inner-city kids are used to being battered all the time. Part of what we had in common was what we were against: the current economy and the principle of insatiable greed that made it run, as well as the emotional and economic privatization that accompanied it.
This is a system that damages people, and its devastation was on display as never before in the early months of Occupy and related phenomena like the “We are the 99%” website. When it was people facing foreclosure, or who’d lost their jobs, or were thrashing around under avalanches of college or medical debt, they weren’t hard to accept as us, and not them.
And then came the people who’d been damaged far more, the psychologically fragile, the marginal, and the homeless — some of them endlessly needy and with a huge capacity for disruption. People who had come to fight the power found themselves staying on to figure out available mental-health resources, while others who had wanted to experience a democratic society on a grand scale found themselves trying to solve sanitation problems.
And then there was the violence.
The Faces of Violence
The most important direct violence Occupy faced was, of course, from the state, in the form of the police using maximum sub-lethal force on sleepers in tents, mothers with children, unarmed pedestrians, young women already penned up, unresisting seated students, poets, professors, pregnant women, wheelchair-bound occupiers, and octogenarians. It has been a sustained campaign of police brutality from Wall Street to Washington State the likes of which we haven’t seen in 40 years.
On the part of activists, there were also a few notable incidents of violence in the hundreds of camps, especially violence against women. The mainstream media seemed to think this damned the Occupy movement, though it made the camps, at worst, a whole lot like the rest of the planet, which, in case you hadn’t noticed, seethes with violence against women. But these were isolated incidents.
That old line of songster Woody Guthrie is always handy in situations like this: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” The police have been going after occupiers with projectile weapons, clubs, and tear gas, sending some of them to the hospital and leaving more than a few others traumatized and fearful. That’s the six-gun here.
But it all began with the fountain pens, slashing through peoples’ lives, through national and international economies, through the global markets. These were wielded by the banksters, the “vampire squid,” the deregulators in D.C., the men — and with the rarest of exceptions they were men — who stole the world.
That’s what Occupy came together to oppose, the grandest violence by scale, the least obvious by impact. No one on Wall Street ever had to get his suit besmirched by carrying out a foreclosure eviction himself. Cities provided that service for free to the banks (thereby further impoverishing themselves as they created new paupers out of old taxpayers). And the police clubbed their opponents for them, over and over, everywhere across the United States.
The grand thieves invented ever more ingenious methods, including those sliced and diced derivatives, to crush the hopes and livelihoods of the many. This is the terrible violence that Occupy was formed to oppose. Don’t ever lose sight of that.
Oakland’s Beautiful Nonviolence
Now that we’re done remembering the major violence, let’s talk about Occupy Oakland. A great deal of fuss has been made about two incidents in which mostly young people affiliated with Occupy Oakland damaged some property and raised some hell.
The mainstream media and some faraway pundits weighed in on those Bay Area incidents as though they determined the meaning and future of the transnational Occupy phenomenon. Perhaps some of them even hoped, consciously or otherwise, that harped on enough these might divide or destroy the movement. So it’s important to recall that the initial impact of Occupy Oakland was the very opposite of violent, stunningly so, in ways that were intentionally suppressed.
Occupy Oakland began in early October as a vibrant, multiracial gathering. A camp was built at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza, and thousands received much-needed meals and healthcare for free from well-organized volunteers. Sometimes called the Oakland Commune, it was consciously descended from some of the finer aspects of an earlier movement born in Oakland, the Black Panthers, whose free breakfast programs should perhaps be as well-remembered and more admired than their macho posturing.
A compelling and generous-spirited General Assembly took place nightly and then biweekly in which the most important things on Earth were discussed by wildly different participants. Once, for instance, I was in a breakout discussion group that included Native American, white, Latino, and able-bodied and disabled Occupiers, and in which I was likely the eldest participant; another time, a bunch of peacenik grandmothers dominated my group.
This country is segregated in so many terrible ways — and then it wasn’t for those glorious weeks when civil society awoke and fell in love with itself. Everyone showed up; everyone talked to everyone else; and in little tastes, in fleeting moments, the old divides no longer divided us and we felt like we could imagine ourselves as one society. This was the dream of the promised land — this land, that is, without its bitter divides. Honey never tasted sweeter, and power never felt better.
Now here’s something astonishing. While the camp was in existence, crime went down 19% in Oakland, a statistic the city was careful to conceal. “It may be counter to our statement that the Occupy movement is negatively impacting crime in Oakland,” the police chief wrote to the mayor in an email that local news station KTVU later obtained and released to little fanfare. Pay attention: Occupy was so powerful a force for nonviolence that it was already solving Oakland’s chronic crime and violence problems just by giving people hope and meals and solidarity and conversation.
The police attacking the camp knew what the rest of us didn’t: Occupy was abating crime, including violent crime, in this gritty, crime-ridden city. “You gotta give them hope, “ said an elected official across the bay once upon a time — a city supervisor named Harvey Milk. Occupy was hope we gave ourselves, the dream come true. The city did its best to take the hope away violently at 5 a.m. on October 25th. The sleepers were assaulted; their belongings confiscated and trashed. Then, Occupy Oakland rose again. Many thousands of nonviolent marchers shut down the Port of Oakland in a stunning display of popular power on November 2nd.
That night, some kids did the smashy-smashy stuff that everyone gets really excited about. (They even spray-painted “smashy” on a Rite Aid drugstore in giant letters.) When we talk about people who spray-paint and break windows and start bonfires in the street and shove people and scream and run around, making a demonstration into something way too much like the punk rock shows of my youth, let’s keep one thing in mind: they didn’t send anyone to the hospital, drive any seniors from their homes, spread despair and debt among the young, snatch food and medicine from the desperate, or destroy the global economy.
That said, they are still a problem. They are the bait the police take and the media go to town with. They create a situation a whole lot of us don’t like and that drives away many who might otherwise participate or sympathize. They are, that is, incredibly bad for a movement, and represent a form of segregation by intimidation.
But don’t confuse the pro-vandalism Occupiers with the vampire squid or the up-armored robocops who have gone after us almost everywhere. Though their means are deeply flawed, their ends are not so different than yours. There’s no question that they should improve their tactics or maybe just act tactically, let alone strategically, and there’s no question that a lot of other people should stop being so apocalyptic about it.
Those who advocate for nonviolence at Occupy should remember that nonviolence is at best a great spirit of love and generosity, not a prissy enforcement squad. After all, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who gets invoked all the time when such issues come up, didn’t go around saying grumpy things about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
Violence Against the Truth
Of course, a lot of people responding to these incidents in Oakland are actually responding to fictional versions of them. In such cases, you could even say that some journalists were doing violence against the truth of what happened in Oakland on November 2nd and January 28th.
The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, reported on the day’s events this way:
“Among the most violent incidents that occurred Saturday night was in front of the YMCA at 23rd Street and Broadway. Police corralled protesters in front of the building and several dozen protesters stormed into the Y, apparently to escape from the police, city officials and protesters said. Protesters damaged a door and a few fixtures, and frightened those inside the gym working out, said Robert Wilkins, president of the YMCA of the East Bay.”
Wilkins was apparently not in the building, and first-person testimony recounts that a YMCA staff member welcomed the surrounded and battered protesters, and once inside, some were so terrified they pretended to work out on exercise machines to blend in.
I wrote this to the journalists who described the incident so peculiarly: “What was violent about [activists] fleeing police engaging in wholesale arrests and aggressive behavior? Even the YMCA official who complains about it adds, ‘The damage appears pretty minimal.’ And you call it violence? That’s sloppy.”
The reporter who responded apologized for what she called her “poor word choice” and said the phrase was meant to convey police violence as well.
When the police are violent against activists, journalists tend to frame it as though there were violence in some vaguely unascribable sense that implicates the clobbered as well as the clobberers. In, for example, the build-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, the mainstream media kept portraying the right of the people peaceably to assemble as tantamount to terrorism and describing all the terrible things that the government or the media themselves speculated we might want to do (but never did).
Some of this was based on the fiction of tremendous activist violence in Seattle in 1999 that the New York Times in particular devoted itself to promulgating. That the police smashed up nonviolent demonstrators and constitutional rights pretty badly in both Seattle and New York didn’t excite them nearly as much. Don’t forget that before the obsession with violence arose, the smearing of Occupy was focused on the idea that people weren’t washing very much, and before that the framework for marginalization was that Occupy had “no demands.” There’s always something.
Keep in mind as well that Oakland’s police department is on the brink of federal receivership for not having made real amends for old and well-documented problems of violence, corruption, and mismanagement, and that it was the police department, not the Occupy Oakland demonstrators, which used tear gas, clubs, smoke grenades, and rubber bullets on January 28th. It’s true that a small group vandalized City Hall after the considerable police violence, but that’s hardly what the plans were at the outset of the day.
The action on January 28th that resulted in 400 arrests and a media conflagration was called Move-In Day. There was a handmade patchwork banner that proclaimed “Another Oakland Is Possible” and a children’s contingent with pennants, balloons, and strollers. Occupy Oakland was seeking to take over an abandoned building so that it could reestablish the community, the food programs, and the medical clinic it had set up last fall. It may not have been well planned or well executed, but it was idealistic.
Despite this, many people who had no firsthand contact with Occupy Oakland inveighed against it or even against the whole Occupy movement. If only that intensity of fury were to be directed at the root cause of it all, the colossal economic violence that surrounds us.
All of which is to say, for anyone who hadn’t noticed, that the honeymoon is over.
Now for the Real Work
The honeymoon is, of course, the period when you’re so in love you don’t notice differences that will eventually have to be worked out one way or another. Most relationships begin as though you were coasting downhill. Then come the flatlands, followed by the hills where you’re going to have to pedal hard, if you don’t just abandon the bike.
Occupy might just be the name we’ve put on a great groundswell of popular outrage and a rebirth of civil society too deep, too broad, to be a movement. A movement is an ocean wave: this is the whole tide turning from Cairo to Moscow to Athens to Santiago to Chicago. Nevertheless, the American swell in this tide involves a delicate alliance between liberals and radicals, people who want to reform the government and campaign for particular gains, and people who wish the government didn’t exist and mostly want to work outside the system. If the radicals should frighten the liberals as little as possible, surely the liberals have an equal obligation to get fiercer and more willing to confront — and to remember that nonviolence, even in its purest form, is not the same as being nice.
Surely the only possible answer to the tired question of where Occupy should go from here (as though a few public figures got to decide) is: everywhere. I keep being asked what Occupy should do next, but it’s already doing it. It is everywhere.
In many cities, outside the limelight, people are still occupying public space in tents and holding General Assemblies. February 20th, for instance, was a national day of Occupy solidarity with prisoners; Occupiers are organizing on many fronts and planning for May Day, and a great many foreclosure defenses from Nashville to San Francisco have kept people in their homes and made banks renegotiate. Campus activism is reinvigorated, and creative and fierce discussions about college costs and student debt are underway, as is a deeper conversation about economics and ethics that rejects conventional wisdom about what is fair and possible.
Occupy is one catalyst or facet of the populist will you can see in a host of recent victories. The campaign against corporate personhood seems to be gaining momentum. A popular environmental campaign made President Obama reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada, despite immense Republican and corporate pressure. In response to widespread outrage, the Susan B. Komen Foundation reversed its decision to defund cancer detection at Planned Parenthood. Online campaigns have forced Apple to address its hideous labor issues, and the ever-heroic Coalition of Immokalee Workers at last brought Trader Joes into line with its fair wages for farmworkers campaign.
These genuine gains come thanks to relatively modest exercises of popular power. They should act as reminders that we do have power and that its exercise can be popular. Some of last fall’s exhilarating conversations have faltered, but the great conversation that is civil society awake and arisen hasn’t stopped.
What happens now depends on vigorous participation, including yours, in thinking aloud together about who we are, what we want, and how we get there, and then acting upon it. Go occupy the possibilities and don’t stop pedaling. And remember, it started with mad, passionate love.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 13 (or so) books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster and Hope in the Dark. She lives in and occupies from San Francisco. She will be featured in our upcoming documentary, Occupy Love.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
The Economy of Love
Here’s a short video featuring Rebecca Solnit, a hint of the upcoming documentary “Occupy Love.”