The Sinking Occupy Movement


The Occupy movement is submerging faster than it's growing. There are two manifestations of an underlying primary problem causing this in my town, Portland OR, and I suspect it's not entirely dissimilar elsewhere.

Symptom #1: Street people magnet

As one of my students and a devoted Occupy worker put it, "What street person WOULDN'T be attracted to free food, no serious rules and at least some temporary protection from police?" That sums up a situation that may seem delightful to those who romanticize street folk but the reports are coming in from many Occupy encampments of police starting to raid tents and find meth, other drugs, inevitable incidents of schizophrenic breaks, fist-fighting and so forth. Street people suffer the hardest, but they also spread their suffering around. This is not their fault, but a movement that cannot handle this influx cannot pass muster with the general public.

Symptom #2: Violent 'radical' flank

The so-called anarchists, or black bloc, or whatever they call themselves, are a mixture of ultraleftists, romantically confused adventurers, spoiled brats, police infiltrators and agents provocateurs, immature teen rebels without serious analysis, dedicated but underinformed activists who genuinely believe violence is best, and testosterone-addled young males. They are never in the majority, or even the sizable minority, of any truly mass movement, but they are loud and kinetic. They are often conflated with the street people though they are quite different in almost all cases. Again, any movement that cannot handle this general grouping will falter and slide in the view of the 99 percent the movement claims to speak for.

The underlying problem in both cases? It's lack of analysis and the spine to do something about it. The problems both involve achieving a modified consensus about a behavior code with bright line boundaries and then growing the backbone required to implement it. If Occupy is meant to be a social service refugee camp—an admirable thing to be—it will also not be a serious movement at this time in our history. If Occupy embraces a diversity of tactics that includes violence it will lose any chance for a diversity of people that includes most of the 99 percent. If Occupy realizes this and cannot understand that it needs to evict anyone failing to sign on to a nonviolent code of conduct for all actions associated with the movement, including an alcohol-and-drug-free encampment, it will sink.

OK, I am writing categorically and I could be proven wrong. I am an academic and should know better than to make those sweeping statements. I admit I am worked up about this because a) threats are being made to my students who are involved, and b) I am tired of watching mass movements get hijacked by fringe elements who enjoy the rumble and really don't care about effectively achieving public policy change or corporate policy change. I take hits all the time, usually behind my back, for making these unpopular assertions. But I've seen it all again and again and again and it's sad that so many in so many movements fail to learn that if we don't discipline ourselves, here come the police to do it instead. Is that a happy result? And when the armed agents of the state come, they will do so with the full approval of most of the citizens because most of the citizens firmly reject rape, sex offenders, meth use, stabbings, and violent threat (including threatening one of my students with a gun), all of which have occurred recently in Occupy Portland and are representative of some of the other Occupy encampment issues elsewhere (NOT everywhere, certainly). 

The best aspect of all this may be that activists start to learn how to avoid or, when necessary, deal with these presenting and inevitable challenges. They are all surmountable. My hope is in the young activists, learning bitter but valuable lessons. When they come out next time they will do so with a strategic plan ahead of time and, I hope, they will teach us all some new ways to make gains toward peace and justice.

Tom H. Hastings is a lifelong peace and justice activist and teaches Peace Studies at Portland State University.  

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