Friday, October 7, 2011

Reflections on a week with #OccupyBoston

On Monday morning I made my first trip to visit #OccupyBoston. Monday night I went to a meeting of grassroots organizers/activists from Boston and leaders from Occupy Boston. Throughout the week I have stopped by the camp two other times, had conversations with members of the movement and have followed the development of interactions between local groups that have been organizing for years and Occupy leaders (while there is not a formal leadership structure, there are people who have been there longer, are playing deeper roles and are in a leadership role by default.)

There are many things that have played out in ways that we have seen before. This movement is led by predominantly young, white people who have not been connected to a particular organizing group. The majority of them seem to be middle-class, and many that I met have a college education or are in school now. They have a clear sense that something is wrong with this country but I get the sense that for a good number of these folks this is there first experience going deep into some of the issues of economics and the American caste structure. The fact that a lot of folks don't have a lot of experience in drafting demands and that they are really working to figure out how to choose the right tactics for what they want to achieve is indicative of the fact that so few college campus have the kind of organizing landscape that I was part of as a student in California in the late 90s.

They are overwhelmingly young, white, privileged and inexperienced - and I am even surprising myself that I find that really exciting. For those of us who have been doing organizing for awhile, isn't this part of what we have been waiting for? Haven't we been complaining that the "masses" aren't taking action? As we have watched our country becoming more and more unequal, as we have watched some of the race baiting and "me mentality" of the Tea Party - didn't we wish for a deeper, more united, more focused on the real folks that are getting away with murder in our country movement? Haven't we wanted a movement that would say that it is Wall Street and not immigrants that are driving our nation to hell in a hand basket?

That movement might just be here and it is fraught with all the challenges that movements have. The problem of folks not being on the same page - that is what late night dialogues until 2am over beer are about (but since there is no alcohol allowed into the camps I guess they will have to settle for hot chocolate.) Last night there was a peoples assembly in Boston to consider if the group should release a statement calling for the end of corporations having the the same constitutional rights as people. Folks were struggling about whether to make it a demand or a statement and whether it would alienate people or bring more people in. This is Activism 101 happening for a lot of folks that probably would not have had this experience otherwise.

They are predominantly white but at least in Boston they are really open to being pushed around this issue. There are people of color in the Occupy movement who pushing from the inside and are helping those of us who are "outsiders" to engage with Occupy members. This same push is happening in New York also and probably in other parts of the country. On Monday a People of Color group is meeting to talk about how to move race into the center of the dialogue and structure of Occupy Boston.

They are disconnected from formal organizing and from the work that folks have already been doing in Boston. A group of young people of color participated in the General Assembly on Wednesday and are presenting a proposal at tonight's General Assembly about how they can teach #OccupyBoston members about the youth organizing work that has been happening in Boston. Tuesday a group of local community organizers and Occupy members are meeting to talk about connecting the Occupy movement to local struggles.

I am not saying I know where this is going. I hear people calling for clear messaging, concrete demands, and unified action. I think that does need to happen. But I also think that this movement is less than a month old. They are dealing \ out-in-the-open with the challenges that many of us have had to deal with behind closed doors before going out to present as a united front. So I don't think that their process is much messier, but there is more transparency about where they are struggling.

That transparency is why in less than a week since their launch there is a people of color group, a youth organizing group and a engagement strategy with the low-income folks and communities of color being developed in conjunction with local organizers.
That transparency that is part of what I believe is drawing people. It is the willingness to hear people and to let each new person add to the movement that is making folks feel like they are in a community where they are valued. The set-up needs some adjustment to make sure that it is not dominated by white men who tend to have a communication style that works best in the set-up as it is. As a Black person and a woman I can attest to the fact that many other longstanding organizing efforts are still struggling with this, so I don't think folks should act like Occupy is the only place where this is an issue.

This transparency is a paradigm-shift from the behind closed door deals that not only the banks and politicians but many mainstream organizing groups have become accustomed to. The back door dealing is what has turned people off to the organizing work of those of us who have been professionalized organizers. In the name of policy wins and "moving the ball forward" we have wheeled in dealed our way to "victories" like even the health care bill which might be overturned because we failed to make space for people to make it their cause.

My thoughts only speak for the work that I have seen in Boston, but if the struggle, dialogue and consensus-building that is happening here is happening at the 200+ other Occupy meet-ups then this is something radical and unique for this country. Even if they don't topple the financial system, they will have brought a lot of new folks into the dialogue about what needs to change in our country, and that is an important thing.

I for one will not blog on the sidelines without committing to working this out. This messiness, this community-building, this uncertainty, this passion, this frustration, and this hope - this is what democracy looks like and I for one will not miss the opportunity to make this a transformative moment for me, for all the people I serve (most of whom need to be brought into the center of this movement), for our country as a whole, and for the next generation.

The image that comes to mind is that of a burning building. There is a small water fountain out front and one small beach pail. Just across the street there is a fire hydrant but they don't have a hose or any way of getting the hydrant open. It is clear that the fire fighters are asleep on the job so the people have to save themselves. One person suggests that since the hydrant can't be opened they line everyone up and put out the fire with what they can get from the fountain. Recognizing that there is no way that is going to save the building another person suggests that they all start working together to open the hydrant. She doesn't know how to open it and she doesn't know how they will control the water once they get it open, but she trusts that if the 9 of them work together that they have a better chance of saving the building. Will they get it open? I don't know. But I know that if there is a chance that it can work that I am going to take a break from the beach pail assembly line and put my head and my energy into to trying to figure out how to open that hydrant.

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1 comment:

  1. Interesting analogy with the building. Yet is the building not representative of the structure that is in need of change. Rather than save and remodel letting it burn, confronting the loss and its meaning leads us to a new opportunity and perhaps a new way of thinking, feeling and being.