Over the weekend, the Quaker Meeting of which I am a member debated our own role in the Occupy movement. The issue had been brought before the entire congregation by a long-time prominent Friend. Two speakers had been invited. Both were actively involved with the movement, one a Quaker, and one not. Each represented one of the two Occupy DC groups still camped out across the city. Freedom Plaza is full of older, more professional activists with more coordinated strategies. McPherson Square is younger, more spontaneous, and provides a diverse plethora of ideas.
During the meeting, the fundamental difference between the McPherson Square occupiers and the Freedom Plaza activists broke down along these lines. Freedom Plaza’s long term participants believed that McPherson Square’s leadership and formation was hopelessly amateur and unruly. McPherson Square, by contrast, sought to be most authentic and populist, believing that Freedom Plaza wants all the attention for itself.
Both speakers had their say and answered questions from those seated. When it was decision time, the form of self-governance known as Quaker process began. It is also known as the consensus method, and has been adopted by the demonstrators themselves to some form or fashion. We wrestled considerably with the issue for over an hour. Quaker process gives every attender a voice, which is fair and democratic, but also time consuming. An issue is not said to reach consensus until everyone’s grievance has been taken into account. Not unsurprisingly, we ourselves broke into two camps.
Some wanted to use Meeting funds to pay the cost of Occupy DC’s essential material needs. These included, but are not limited to sleeping bags, warm clothing for winter, and food. We might have agreed to this option, except that a concern arose that the Meeting’s non-profit, tax-exempt status might be jeopardized. This, should we be perceived to be lending our support to an unapologetically leftist political movement. Other Friends felt deep ambivalence that two groups existed at all, implying that surely unity, if not unanimity was possible. In the end, it was agreed that individual Friends would support the gathering themselves, without direct Meeting financial support or by using said support to purchase materials.
The concerns of most were those of fear and confusion. They were reluctant to get directly involved in any activist movement that has yet to develop a sharply defined cohesive mission statement. Along with that were concerns that the movement was unlikely to grow and potentially likely to disband during the winter now not far away. But among the champions of the demonstrators, the Friend who brought this issue before the greater Meeting stated that the Occupy movement was, in her words, “the new Civil Rights Movement.” I myself would have to strongly disagree on that point.
As has been the case since the very day the protests began, the outside world has chosen to define the movement on its own terms. Some optimistic left-wing activists see the promise of needed reform only inches away. Much as they did with the election of Barack Obama, they project the idea that almost every progressive cause will be enacted the longer the Occupiers persist. Disingenuous, posturing right-wingers sound the alarm, perceiving the danger of so-called mob rule. Neither are correct.
But for the sake of accuracy, that which we now call the African-American Civil Rights Movement was not an especially swift collective effort. What makes Civil Rights fundamentally different is how it relied on wealth and power to achieve its goals. White liberals, often of substantial political agency and financial solvency, backed the movement. It took nearly sixty years for Plessy v. Ferguson to be overturned by Brown v. Board of Education. Following that, the second phase of the movement also took time and lots of sober contemplation.
An immaculately planned endeavor from the very start, African-American leaders rightly took center stage. Martin Luther King, Jr. among many other black leaders (and sometimes white leaders) stood out in front to legitimize the movement and speak to its aims and intentions. Facts like these are not often spoken about, but they are essential to understand. White progressive voices like Hubert Humphrey, who proposed and achieved a Civil Rights plank to Harry Truman’s 1948 Presidential re-election run did much to set the scene. Even those who are privileged and well-to-do can still feel a moral obligation for all people to have equal rights and citizenship under the law.
The Occupy Movement, as it exists today, advances an economic populist ideology. It divides people into the 1% whose greed is the sum of all terrible things or the oppressed, subjugated 99%. It is uncertain whether the wealthy, well-connected, and powerful would ever get behind a political view which places them directly in the cross-hairs. No model or historical invocation yet specifies how to overthrow calcified, hierarchical systems based on capital. Single-issue protests like those which rose up against the draft during Vietnam proved successful in their own time, for a time. The war over, the protests no longer ceased to be.
Occupy DC, or any Occupy gathering, finds itself faced with different challenges. Regardless of what it advances, it must first win over the skeptics. Right now, its most immediate problem is itself. Before any organization, religious or otherwise, opens up its coffers or sends its membership to toil on the front line, it must be able to latch on in a way that it understands. Part of achieving an adequate following is working within the framework of extant systems. It is not a deficit of purity to modify a message to attain the oxygen needed for greater growth. If the Occupy protesters want to be the change they wish to see, they need to think a little differently.