Comprehending that we live in a world "colonized by corporations," social movement actors intend to converge in Kalamazoo, Mich., this summer to assemble collectively, "Decolonize the 99%," identify common aims and develop specific strategies for social transformation.
The Occupy Wall Street (Inter) National Gathering will kick off Aug. 21 and last for five days. The name and decolonization subtitle underscore roots with Occupy Wall Street while also acknowledging "the injustice the United States' forbears brought to this continent and our solidarity with decolonization," a press release for the event states.
The first Occupy National Gathering (NatGat) took place last summer in Philadelphia, Pa.
"This one in almost every way was built to stand on the shoulders of the one before," says Chris Whamoff, 35, originally from Plainwell, Mich., a small town about 10 miles north of Kalamazoo. He has been active in Occupy Kalamazoo since its inception.
Whamoff assisted in organizing the NatGat last year and is on the National Gathering Working Group helping to organize the event this year via direct democratic conference calls, online hubs and transparent collaborative forms of communication.
There was heavy focus on communication last year, and this time around the idea is to apply that communicative lifeblood to emphasize cohesion, Whamoff said.
Each day of the gathering will revolve around a specific theme: local community, emancipatory media, green earth, economic justice, and ending war while promoting peaceful cooperation.
Taking lessons learned from last year's dialogue, "each thematic day is going to end with a specific action or something that shows a step of cohesion and not just communication," he said. "Whereas last year it was communication, the emphasis this year are steps on what that communication brought."
Activists started planning earlier this time, and there is a more explicit international orientation to the upcoming convergence – hence the parenthetical addendum to the event name. About 20 countries either have members in the working group planning the event or have discussed ways to help, Whamoff estimates, adding that outreach is ongoing. There are tentative plans to link a Power Shift event in France happening concurrently with NatGat, so as to network, share knowledge and find ways to work together across borders.
Connecting local struggles to global issues remains key. Attention to pressing local concerns partly explains the decision for Occupy Kalamazoo to host.
The entire state of Michigan has been on the receiving end of neoliberal attacks and systemic catastrophes. Homelessness is a chronic issue, and there are instances every year of homeless people freezing to death in and around Kalamazoo, Whamoff notes.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) helped craft the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a law loathed for legalizing indefinite detention of American citizens. The NDAA is now being re-configured to permit "unrestricted analysis and research of captured records pertaining to any organization or individual 'now or once hostile to the United States,'" Stephen Benavides reported.
What is more, Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, "has pretty much made dictatorship legal here in the state of Michigan with the emergency finance manager laws," while attacking unions in his spare time, Whamoff explained.
Whamoff has labored in the public sector for some time as a social worker. He has also worked in hospitals. His employment experiences naturally led to more concerted praxis, he recounted.
Given the grossly inadequate healthcare provisions for the poverty-stricken communities in Michigan, it's hard not to be an activist at this point, he said.
Epitomizing the slew of socioeconomic and environmental issues affecting the area, Enbridge oil company spilled some one million gallons of Tar Sand Oil – a type more toxic than the kind that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill – into the Kalamazoo River in July 2010. Since that time, nearby residents have reported serious illnesses – likely due to the oil, which sunk to the bottom of the river bed. It remains there with only a thin layer of clay preventing it from entering the water supply.
But as journalist Bill Moyer suggested, even amidst all these crises afflicting Michigan, resistance and prefigurative politics in the state abound.
Moyers, pro-peace activist Cindy Sheehan, and current Move to Amend spokesperson David Cobb will be speaking at the NatGat event.
In addition to giving talks, they will also be leading teach-ins, facilitating workshops and engaging in dialogue with activists. Their involvement dovetails with this year's focus on "leadership building and people-powered training, education, and actions," as the NatGat website states.
The concept of leadership training apropos of Occupy can be confusing to outside observers who have heard the movement described as "leaderless" without additional explication. The participatory process, horizontality and non-hierarchical ways of relating are not antithetical to the stated aims. Properly implemented, cultivating confident leaders mutually reinforces equitably dispersed democratic decision-making.
"In regards to the leadership training, we're trying to personalize it … in the idea of it beingleaderfull [so] that everybody understands how to have personal accountability and how to organize themselves," Whamoff said.
NatGat training will emphasize extant structural inequalities with respect to race, gender and class in order to better address uneven power relations.
The participatory ethics of Occupy geared toward altering those injustices are what drew Whamoff to the movement to begin with.
"Just seeing it and watching Occupy happen, it was the first group I felt like I could join it and actually have a voice," he said, noting his long-time involvement in various kinds of activist work that don't quite compare.
Having been a public employee advocating social justice reforms, he recognizes the limitations associated with state-based initiatives. Whamoff will continue to try to garner state support for basic public services as part of his other activist engagements.
However, stressing that he is speaking only for himself based on his years of experience, he said that relying on the state or conventional organizations and expecting meaningful change "is unrealistic and borderline insanity," as trends indicate.
The growing disconnect between people and elected officials tied to intensified corporate influence rendered the state organism almost too impotent to enact serious change.
"Being a part of the state system has, if anything, helped me see how unreliable it is as far as representing the people," he lamented. "I've spent a lot of time in the system now. I've spent my career in the system trying to make change. And I've watched it constantly get worse."
In the main, the only time Whamoff says he witnessed real positive impacts on people and community is through autonomous movements and self-organized efforts.
Because budgets are always tight, and in accord with the rhizomatic, affective relational ethos of Occupy, organizers are trying to use as little money as possible to put this year's NatGat together. Thus far, that has been possible thanks to a long list of those who offered to contribute.
Free food will be provided by the Turtle Soup Kitchen of The Rainbow Family of Living Light, described by some as "the largest non-organization of non-members in the world," that promote community building, nonviolence and alternative ways of relating.
Lamplighter Inn, a local business struggling through protracted economic recession, agreed to let Occupiers and friends camp on their property the five nights of the gathering for $1000.
Other limited funds from fundraising will be used to set up a travel scholarship for people trying to make it to Kalamazoo for the convergence, Whamoff said.
The outpouring of support combined with collaborative efforts have raised his hopes for what can be accomplished as a result of the NatGat in August along with likely ripple effects.
"My hope is definitely that a) we start providing some kind of health impact for the oil spill; b) that we provide some kind of model to start relieving the stress of our local homeless. And as a whole I hope that the Occupy National Gathering and the Occupy movement with all the networking we've been doing leads to a way for people of different walks of life … no matter what group, no matter what cause … that out of this event we come out with a way to work together on our underlying issues."