Category: Words

Occupying Culture

A pamphlet about building cultural norms: pdf here

Conversations about agent provocateurs are happening all over Occupy, with good reason. A healthy group culture can help to prevent efforts to disrupt and provoke. 

With one jubilant fist raised, Occupy exploded onto the American activist scene. Direct Democracy using the consensus process is not itself new but I am not aware of any American activist group the size of Occupy that has coalesced and immediately adopted a horizontal structure.

After six months of participating in my local Occupy I began to identify what I found challenging about our process. It was my own expectations about activist culture, the norms of how we interact with one another.

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Horizontal, meet Vertical

Jason Miczek / Reuters

Musings on the May 9th Bank of America protest planning

In November of 2011 Occupy Charlotte was approached by the (then named) Coalition to Protest at the DNC. Along with the subtleties of language like ‘join’ and ‘endorse’ it gave us the opportunity to consider philosophical issues about working with other groups. 

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social media

once upon a time
radicals of code
vowed to remove the censors
so the
people of the world
could engage
in dialogue

how did our opensourced dreams
become a landscape of megaphones?

we are screaming past one another, pushing
all fighting to be
kings of the soapbox mountain

occupying thoughts

There are a great many questions swimming in my head about the Occupy movement and our relationships to other groups. A broad one: Will we, and if so how, work with other groups?

As a movement, Occupy is young. That does not mean despite what is often reported, that all Occupiers are young, either in chronological age or in activism. But young, new, exciting, challenging, yes. Social movements have often built on their ancestry, which seems like a good idea. A blanket refusal to work with any other groups that existed prior to the birth of Occupy sounds like a dumbassed arrogant choice to me. But valid concerns about co-option or at least distraction by movements with different goals from Occupy’s raise interesting questions.

Occupy Charlotte has already begun to answer some of these by the choices we’ve made. We have declined invitations to work with MoveOn while accepting an invitation to work on a specific local issue with the Tea party.  Yes, you read correctly.  A few people at the top of a local tea party group’s hierarchical structure attended an Occupy Charlotte GA and asked us to work with them on an issue we were also working on, to protest and push back against our city council’s plan to offer $2.5 million to Chiquita. When I realized who they were and that they were asking to place a proposal on our agenda I grinned thinking many things at once.  Things like “good luck with that” , “good thing we don’t have huge amounts of stuff to discuss tonight” and “well this should be at least entertaining on this cold wet night”. By the end I was stunned, but we had reached consensus to work together on this one specific issue, to co-issue a press release and to coordinate speakers at the next meeting of our city council.

Fast forward a few months.  We struggle today with whether and how we will work with the99% Spring and Confront Corporate Power, which we all now realize is an effort by MoveOn and the more progressive folks in the Democratic Party. I find myself longing for the ease and transparency which existed in our conversations about working with CAUTION, the local Tea Party  identified group. Those white guys were not interested in co-opting us, we all realized the possibility of calling greater attention to the actual issue if we combined our energies, but it wasn’t like they had any interest in a long term love affair with us. They were upfront about who they were, they approached us with clarity about the fact that our broad visions were very different and we all focused on the issue itself. Who knows what conversations they had in their own group, but they approached us with transparency and respect for our own process.

I knew before I showed up at the Training for Trainers weekend that the99% Spring initiative was a MoveOn organized thing. I actively chose to decide for myself what I thought of it.  I asked questions (like: have there been any agreements made not to modify this training or the supporting materials?  nope).  There were many people present who identified themselves as a part of MoveOn, they were not hiding that, they were proud to identify with the group they’ve been working with, just as we all were. I disagreed with some of the content in the printed materials, but knowing that I wasn’t committing not to modify it so that it would be appropriate both for the groups with which I identify and support my own values was enough.  The training itself was good. It wasn’t what I think of when I use the phrase Nonviolent Direct Action Training, but it was similar to what I might think of as NVDA training part one. Empowerment, a call to take action, to participate, to see the possibilities when people work together. There was no whisper of Democratic party or any electoral politics.  I left feeling glad I had gone to see for myself and open to the possibility of adapting and presenting this training as someone who identifies as a part of Occupy.

But today I’m back to trying to sort out what I see next for us as we attempt to work with other groups. This is perhaps a discussion of theory for many Occupy groups, but for Occupy Charlotte it’s a practical boots on the ground question of rapidly approaching action. Bank of America shareholders meeting is here.  ALEC’s meeting is here. The DNC is here. WTF should we do?

Many of us are already up to our elbows working on the actions here during the Bank of America shareholders meeting on May 9th. We believed when we began that we were working with a coalition of NC groups.  We knew that they were not necessarily Occupy groups, that they were organizations that had different structures, processes and possibly different ending visions than we did, but that we shared one similar goal (actions on May 9th) and possibly others from a philosophical vantage point. I see two things that are challenging us today as we attempt to move forward.

The first is about working within a capitalist system as many of us are attempting to challenge change or circumvent it. Working with other long established groups means we are working alongside activists who are paid to do this job. Throw money in and it always gets complicated. I’ve been a part of many similar conversations about these things over the years, I understand the idea of starting where we are and the theories behind phrases like Right Livelihood.  I wish we’d already had these conversations, I expect when we do I will learn more, so this is simply acknowledgement that these topics are on our horizon and each day I feel like it’ll happen sooner than I thought the day before.

The second challenge is here.  No horizon line, it’s right here, right now. That local coalition of NC groups I believed we were working with may exist only in our own minds. I could be okay with that were it not for the notion that this may have been intentional on the part of those with whom we’ve agreed to work.  I lean toward believing that systems cannot really be changed from within. I also believe in a diversity of strategies and tactics, so I don’t reject out of hand the idea of working with and supporting others who hold different overall beliefs.

But what am I going to do when it becomes clear that the tactics of a group I am working with include attempts to manipulate me to serve goals, messages, visions I haven’t even been informed of?  I suppose one choice is to simply view it as something like rudeness. People screw up. How much do I care if someone behaves badly and is rude to me? I could just roll my eyes and move forward.

I feel myself leaning toward another choice. I don’t like that choice because it might mean having to admit I was wrong.  I hate that, but I’ll do it when I need to. I also don’t like it because I’ll be throwing away lots of work I’ve already done, and my time and energy is already stretched almost beyond the sustainable point. And finally, I have real fears about what it might mean to us Occupy Charlotte, as a group.  But. Working with groups who are using the same tactics of dishonesty and manipulation with me that Bank of America does, to organize a protest of Bank of America, is probably a bigger hypocrisy than I can swallow.

This is not a postmortem, these are my thoughts about something that is happening right now. And they are only my thoughts, they don’t reflect a group, we haven’t gotten there yet.

But I have a bit of advice for any group who would like to work with Occupy Charlotte.  Just be honest. Show us the respect we deserve and will eventually demand anyway. Some will find that advice and expectation naive, others will see it as radical. Whether you see transparency as a courtesy or good strategy doesn’t matter.  That whole ends justifying means thing never works for very long. Occupy is a movement of people. By and of. At least in Charlotte, the Tea party got that. People will work together on issues, even when they hold different ultimate visions.  We call it diversity. It’s a good thing. But hiding shit and trying to manipulate others into what you want screws that up and doesn’t really work anyway. It just distracts us all from attaining the goals we do share.  I know, some people believe that is the point.  I hope they are wrong.



“What should we do about your husband and my wife living together *?”

Now there’s a conversation one doesn’t get to have everyday.

* a euphemism 😉