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Occupy: History and International Examples to Learn From

by gmoke
Fri Nov 25th, 2011 at 07:08:05 PM EST

My sister sent my a link to a New Yorker article on the history of Occupy Wall Street:

It focuses on Kalle Lasn and Micah White of AdBusters, the organization that made the initial call for an occupation of Wall Street.  They are both interesting characters with ideas not usually voiced in the major media.  I do wish a little more time had been spent looking at David Graeber, the anarchist theorist who helped convene the first GA on the first day but you can read about him at l

For all this history, what I find lacking is the larger context, that Occupy is part of a world-wide movement against corporate globalism and for person-to-person globalism that started with Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Tunisia and continuing from there to Egypt, Libya, Yemen but also Spain, Greece, Macedonia, Brazil, Mexico, the UK....  In fact, the US movement is rather late to the party and is missing a real chance by not expressing forcefully their/our solidarity with the demonstrators now being brutalized in Tahrir Square.  That would complete the circle, confuse the politicians and pundits, and make visible the global nature of this movement at last.

Here are three examples that widen the scope of the discussion:  the 15-M, indignados, or indignate movement of Spain;  the experience and remarks of Dr Bernard LaFayette, a co-founder of the civil rights era's Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee;  and Leyah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Liberian non-violent freedom fighter.

Spain is particularly interesting because it is what I call a second order movement:  Egypt, Libya, Tunisia were struggles to get rid of dictators and establish democracy;  Spain is about making a "democratic" country address the needs of the people rather than seesawing power between two major parties in a multi-party system which serves only the connected.  Spain is also interesting because the people have gone from occupying the town plazas from May 15 to August of this year, to marching to Brussels and presenting their ideas to the EU Parliament, to doing online education on the recent elections.  The more conservative party, the People's Party, won that election but there are indications that the 15-M or indignate education campaign may have shifted some of the constituency to the left or to stay home, a political statement in itself (a real-life counterpart to Jose Saramago's novel Seeing in which the majority of ballots cast in an election are blank and considered a threat by the powers that be).

Here are my notes from a presentation from a scholar studying what is happening in Spain:

Berkman Center, Harvard Law School
The Spanish Revolution and the Internet:  From Free Culture to Meta-Politics
Mayo Fuster Morell
Video of this presentation at

Her generation was born under dictatorship and experienced the change to democracy.  This is the largest movement since then, the death of Franco and re-establishment of democracy in 1975.

We are now in a time of transition caused by shifts in the technological environment and power agents (market, state...) and a move to a commons form of self-government in free culture and digital commons movement which has expanded into the indignado movement.

Social cooperation in free software, wikipedia, open access and file sharing have proved the viability of commons self-governance but since 2006 corporate entities have popularized and used social cooperation as a business model, thus generating an inherent conflict.  (If you watch the video of this presentation, you will see an Apple ad with the original English soundtrack repurposed to promote the ideas of 15-M, one of the most intriguing culture-jamming examples I've ever experienced.)

Free culture and digital commons political goals:  preservation of commons, make important information publicly available, and improve social justice and equitable access to all, particularly over the north/south divide.

Strategies include demonstrating sustainable models (wikipedia, copyleft...), legal defense and offense (EFF), lobbying, citizens mobilization, institutional pedagogy, political representation (Pirate Party in various countries, Iceland in general since their banking collapse).

In Catalonia, performative acts rather than popular campaigns is the most used tactic, more than half the actions in a sample of 145 cases. In other words, people do things together to help themselves and others rather than campaign to change legislators and laws.

The situation has moved now to a recognition that in order to build a free culture the political culture has to change - meta-politics

In 2010, there was a don't vote movement and the beginning of criminalization of free culture activity

Slogan:  we want real democracy now (I like the Situationist slogan myself:  Be realistic, demand the impossible.)

At one point there was 80% support for the occupiers of the squares, probably due to the economic situation of high youth unemployment and the mortgage crisis.  "We want to come together" with the building of solidarity between neighbors and actions against evictions and foreclosure (this is happening with the US Occupy movement as well.  See )  50% increase in food coops and time banking and wireless coops.  Indignate movement is not only acting to change politics but is also building self-help networks.

For Spain, this is a convergence of free culture, the housing rights movement, and anti-privatization of public services movement.

Not just about protest but about working together to solve our own problems.  This wider perspective makes the organization clearer.

Unified identity - more than the sum of organizations but sharing some common goals.
Both performative and campaigns meeting common needs ourselves outside the state and the market.

Commons is a pool of self-governed contributions, within limitations (as the state becomes more authoritarian and the market more controlling).

Q:  Trouble forming a common message, why?
A characteristic of such social movements not to have a unified message.  A reflection of the diversity made possible by the transition to a new, more complex society.  Journalists and politicians may not be willing to understand the goals and minimize the coherence of the movement to delegitimize it.

Q: Tension between self-help and elections or "politics"?
A:  15-M generated a split in Catalonia in the free culture movement between performative and campaign proponents.

Q:  Free software movement has benefited from corporate contributions - what is the tension there?
A:  The ambivalent framing of free software (not left, right, capitalist, or socialist) has been useful in the free culture growth and the commons has grown along with the corporate participation.  Elinor Ostrom name checked as saying not everything should be in the commons (and that there can and should be multiple, overlapping regimes of action and governance).

Q: Linkage between social networks and individuals who pass through them, the experienced versus the newbies?
A:  Plaza de Catalonia organized in neighborhoods and commissions around tasks.  The new people did the practical work - cooking, cleaning - while the experienced ones gravitated towards the "intellectual" work.  Risk of traditional activists dominating.  They have to change the frame as "we are the 99%" allows each person to have a voice as a citizen.  These tensions are creative too.

Here are my notes on a recent talk by one of the co-founders of SNCC, now working with the King Center:

11/ 17/11
Wheelock College
Dr Bernard LaFayette and Charles Alphin

Dr Bernard LaFayette
Sometimes when you're blind other people have to see for you - how his friends introduced him to his wife

Grew up in Tampa with many multicultural influences and family roots in the Bahamas and Cuba

Process for change - Nashville was first sit-in that resulted in change;  understand depth of problem and include the view of your opponent, you have to see what your opponent sees;  how do you yourself participate in perpetuating the problem and then figure out how to withdraw from that participation;  oppression requires certain factors to work in concert - people willing to be oppressors, people who cooperate with oppression - they are not victims but also participants, as are all in a system of oppression;  oppression and discrimination are not isolated - injustice anywhere affects injustice everywhere;  how are we the same, with all our differences, which are strengths not weaknesses;  childism - seeing others as children, permanently immature and needing guidance, our guidance;  countries are also treated that way, for example Nigeria and its oil; "They are not occupied so they can occupy" critics may say - another example of childism applied to the Occupy movement.

Charles Alphin - former police captain who became a non-violence trainer for the King Center

Nearly hung in St Louis at 9 years old because he tried to take a swim in a segregated pool.  In 1975 met Dr LaFayette when they fought to better the education of their children.  

How to work on the root cause rather than the symptoms, especially as symptoms make money.  Kingian non-violence works not on what others do to you but what you do with yourself and others.  Trained 80 South African leaders in 1993.  You can't understand one country until you've seen two, Dr LaFayette told him.  King didn't talk about conflict resolution but conflict reconciliation.  Trained over 20,000 Nigerians in nonviolence, former combatants in guerrilla civil war

Q: Greatest challenge?
Alphin:  Nobody likes change except a wet baby.  Look at the position and not the person, judge actions not people.

LaFayette: Not what they do to me but what they do to others, the example of burning the hair of women at sit-ins.  That's what tested his non-violence the most.
The whole country of Colombia is thinking about institutionalizing non-violence in the schools, already in prisons (due to the efforts of the King Center among others).

Q:  Defining moment for nonviolence?
LaFayette: age 7, segregated streetcar with grandmother, deposit money at front but blacks had to enter at the back, the conductor closed the back door on them and his grandmother fell.  That's what started him on the road to justice.

Q: Experiences in Russia?
Alphin:  Visited in 1990 with Fellowship of Reconciliation, Russia then looked like US in the 50's, they weren't coming to take us over, we were lied to.

Q: Gandhian economics (my question)?
LaFayette: Focus on economics in strategies for social change but not by on non-violent or Gandhian economics in and of itself.

Alphin: King always had an economic component in his campaigns and Atlanta's economic growth was due to his work there as the racism of Birmingham held them back from becoming a larger economic center. JOB - journey of the broke

Q: Occupation?
Alphin:  in Atlanta, we all should have been out there years ago.  Will do two day workshop on nonviolence with Occupy Atlanta

LaFayette:  It is global. Some places will continue to occupy but without leadership and goals they will be driven out.  All the civil rights actions were in the spring and summer with the exception of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 which was in the winter.  People are acting their way into thinking.  Strategy has to do with how you respond to obstacles, learning from your mistakes.   Common belief in consensus and no leaders but consensus is a form of leading and who calls the meeting and sets the agenda may constitute a hidden leadership. They (King Center) train leadership. Occupy needs a specific goal and a plan to accomplish it otherwise the action becomes the goal. Action needs to be directed to those who make the decisions.
Alphin:  Nonviolence does not work until you get the majority of the people's good will.

SNCC is a group well worth studying.  Many of its alumni are still involved in the struggle, from Bob Moses with the Algebra Project to Bernice Johnson Reagon who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, to Reverend Charles Sherrod whose wife, Shirley, was recently in the news as a target of Andrew Breitbart's "reporting."  Mr Breitbart has no idea what he has gotten into.  

I have written more on SNCC in my review of Hands on the Freedom Plow: men-in-SNCC

Last but not least is Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liberian occupier of a soccer pitch that President Charles Taylor passed every day. a/

"I was catching up on my Daily Show watching, and last week he had on Leymah Gbowee. She is a Liberian activist, and a recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. She also happens to be totally charming and delightful. Do you know why she received the Nobel Peace Prize? She led a protest movement in Liberia against civil war and human rights abuses. Specifically, she and her fellow activists sat down in a soccer field near the Presidential palace in Monrovia and refused to move until they secured a meeting with the President, Charles Taylor. They eventually succeeded. 'Imagine taking over the Capitol building,' Gbowee said. 'And I think sometimes Americans need to do that, given the state of your nation.'
"In other words, she Occupied Liberia. And the reward that people across the world give for that is the Nobel Peace Prize. The reward that people get in America for that is pepper spray."

Part of her movement was also the Lysistrata tactic, a women's sex strike, or so she said to John Stewart.

Here are links to her extended interview with Stewart: pt--2

Her book is Mighty Be Our Powers and there is a documentary about her work called "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."  Impressive person.

Occupy is the most impressive rising of people I've seen in my 61 years as an American citizen.  It could become even more impressive by reaching out to our brothers and sisters around the world struggling against the same forces and by studying and understanding the models and history they bring us.  We in the USA tend to think we have a monopoly on everything.  We tend to be a parochial, insular, and self-satisfied people.  If Occupy is to succeed, if this global movement towards person-to-person globalized cooperation and away from neoliberal/neoconservative corporate globalization is to succeed, we have to open our eyes, raise our heads, look around and learn from everything and everybody.

Hey, I'm old.  This may be my last chance.  I'd like to see the people win for once in my life.

PS:  I'd also like to see Occupy go green:

crossposted at n-From

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