Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Occupy Movement Needs a Good Sales Pitch

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.


Mackenzie said...

There are, and have been, members of the 1% saying they agree with Buffet, that they should be taxed like everyone else. I would not be surprised to hear that there are also some in that group who would like to see greater regulations put in place on banking to prevent another crash or stronger conflict of interest laws around campaign financing. Wonderful thing empathy is.

MizLoo said...

For the record, Philadelphia Quakers are lending support by providing hospitality & respite for the Occupy participant at Friends Center and have published a minute applauding the effectiveness of the Occupy movement in bringing the issue of economic justice to the forefront.

Comrade Kevin said...


I'm always glad to see an active response. Every city has its own dynamics. Washington culture is often suspicious, ponderous, and risk-averse. I might be tempted to blame at least some of it on the preponderance of lawyers in this town.

forrest said...

The Civil Rights movement was very much church-led, often explicitly religious.

This 'new thing that God is doing' is not-- and, I think, needs to be.

One reason it has not been very precisely defined... is that it embodies a deep rejection of "the framework of extant systems", based both on recent experience and some long, ugly history.

You don't try to make strawberry shortcake with an unwashed sausage machine; it'll just give you something too much like sausage... too little meat for a sausage, too much for anything else. That's all it knows how to do; it can't imagine feeding people anything else!

If there were such a thing as a single "Demand" of this movement, it might be best put as: "It's broken; fix it!"

At some point, people who've rightly rejected "this filthy, rotten system" [Dorothy Day] are going to have to reach a working agreement with people still mentally captive to it...

And then we might need Stephen Gaskin's ironic description of "spirit": "the one thing capable of making a 'monkey' [ie, one of us featherless bipeds] change his mind."

Small Farmer in The City said...

Perhaps a re-visioning of OWS is to redefine who the "1%" are....arguably the 1% are not best defined by one's temporal wealth - that may change quickly as too many of Bernie Madoff's clients discovered.

Rather, the 1% are those folks in communities everywhere who are so lacking in compassion, or niggardly or actively hating anyone but themselves that they will laugh in the face of other's sufferings and pain and use whatever power and influence (including money) available to them to actively beggar their neighbors and do so with apparent glee. These characters may use money in evil ways but it's not the money that is evil, rather the money's master...

I offer this in light of the reality that even while some in OWS complain about the 1%'s wealth and power the folks least complained of or rather often held out as the antithesis of the 1% have last names like Jobs or Buffett or Gates or those appearing at the conclusion of PBS shows....

Having said this I'd also say that where OWS parts ways with the Friends Meeting for Worship for Business is the failure to sit and listen for the leading of the Spirit, a lack of willingness to lay a matter down and acknowledge clearness is not yet arrived, and a recognition that there are those leadings best dealt with individually not by the Meeting as a whole...

Further thoughts?

Comrade Kevin said...

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness. A Quaker reflection on this movement that is neither insufferably self-righteous in support nor reactionary against. That gives me hope.

Anonymous said...

How about you idiots slackers get a big boy job and stop complaining about the 1%. If you put in half as much work being productive instead of complaining and following like sheep, you might be able to buy your occupation. I bet every one of you is a liberal arts major or a dropout. Do you have any clue how much crime has been caused by your childish occupy movement. the 1% pays for the park you guys are smoking pot in.