Open Letter to Occupy Wall Street Participants: Taking Advantage of Seasonal ‘Down Time’ ?

One of the lucky breaks of the Occupy Movement is that it has emerged and developed during times of relatively benign weather conditions in most places across the US:  it didn’t happen in the winter in the North, nor summer in the South. (Obviously, this is very general:  please stay with me.)  I’m not being a weather “determinist”—last January-March wasn’t exactly a picnic in Madison, Indianapolis, and other wintertime “hot spots”—but simply recognizing that sustained political mobilization is affected by the weather. The point here isn’t to decry this, but rather to acknowledge and take advantage of this.


As one who lives in Chicago, I am very aware of the impending winter. And this winter is supposed to be worse than last. There will be, I am all but certain, a decrease in outdoor activities. I’m not saying this should happen, but I expect it to happen. (And I celebrate those hearty souls who will try to prove me—and more importantly, the elites—wrong!)


Yet while we celebrate action, this seasonal down time gives us time to pause and reflect, celebrating what we have accomplished, and reflecting on and overcoming our weaknesses, so as to hit the streets more intelligently armed when the weather, once again, changes. In other words, we need to turn this “disadvantage” to our advantage so as to be ready and able to push the Occupy movement much further, deeper and wider as winter becomes spring. (Those in warmer climates will get their turn next summer-fall.)


My comments below are not intended as a cookbook, a recipe, but I want to share some “reflections” by one who has been politically active over the past 40 years, and also one who has entered academia to study and reflect on my experiences. Thus, I have not just studied social movements—I specialize on labor, both domestically and globally—but I’ve been an active member of, and participant in, a number of social movements and struggles since I turned against the Marine Corps while on active duty over 40 years ago. Thus, I have much more in common with movement intellectuals—whether they are inside or outside of academia—than I do with most academics.


Some thoughts….

The most important thing I think we all have to recognize is the need to further “construct” the 99% movement. Someone brilliantly concocted the concept of the “99%,” and I salute them. Ideologically, it is simple, succinct and clear, and it “boxes in” the 1%. This is important. Let’s understand that. Yet, at the same time, let’s also understand that’s an aspiration that 99% of us are unified and working collectively together:  it does not currently exist. In other words, let’s recognize what has been accomplished, and use that to build on and solidify our movement.


What do I mean?  Visit an Occupy encampment, and talk with people. You will find a wide range of issues and understandings. The media is aghast at the lack of cohesion—and those are the reporters who like what is taking place!  (I’m not going to discuss the idiots.)  The general assemblies are providing a forum to advance different positions, explain differences, and seek some common understandings. This is important and necessary. I’m confident that people will come to some general common positions. However, I don’t think it is enough.


We need more time, and more intimate settings, to get together to think out these issues than is possible with general assemblies, no matter how brilliantly run and how inclusive they are.


If you visit an encampment or join a march, what you find is a wide range of thinking and positions, moving from (generally speaking) left-of-center liberals to progressives on leftward, with a few thinking Republicans mixed in. (I’m not putting anyone down, but I am trying to describe our political diversity.)  This doesn’t make one position “correct” and everyone else “wrong,” but it acknowledges that we are not unified politically. In my opinion, we need to respectfully discuss these differences and try to come to more developed common positions.


For example, there are major questions we must face: are we trying to “reform” the system, or do we want to begin a process to consciously try to create a new society (whatever that means)?  Do we focus primarily on domestic issues, or do we focus on domestic and global issues at the same time? Do we support Obama and the Democrats in 2012, or do we also begin to seriously build an alternative third party for 2016 and subsequent elections? (I’m not trying to confine questions to these issues, but these come immediately to mind.)


There is one thing to note, however, in how I even constructed these questions: they each reject dichotomous thinking—Pepsi or Coke?—and argue that we need to develop processes to understand and develop solutions that incorporate our best thinking, and that includes all shades of positions. In other words, rejecting “either/or” options, and replacing them with “both/and” ones, shifting the discussion from “this” or “that” to both, and discussing priorities rather than absolutes. I think focusing on processes and priorities allows us to confront significant and important differences among ourselves in ways that dichotomous thinking simply doesn’t allow. (This also rejects the dichotomous thinking that mainstream society has been locked into by the elites and their passive educational system.)


The problem with addressing processes and priorities, however, is that it takes time:  there are no simple answers. It requires treating those with whom we have differences with respect—and that means being willing to listen to them, to try to understand where they are coming from, and to intervene when they need to hear “alternative” visions.


Again, general assemblies cannot provide the forum for this. We need smaller groups, and more time.


Here I think we can learn from the women’s movement, the anti-nuclear plants and weapons movement, and the anarchist movement (and which have been adopted by others). We need to come together, small group by small group, to begin the process of thinking things out. I’m suggesting that we start creating house parties, where people gather in people’s homes, to begin these processes. Now, these house parties can be based on a number of commonalities: particular political positions/ideologies (socialist, trade unionist), geographical proximity (college dorm, neighborhood), commonalities (race, gender, class, sexual orientation/identification, primary language, religious orientation, etc.), or whatever brings small groups of people together:  none is more important than any other, but the goal is to create sustainable groups that will last over time, and are intended to engage in commonly-desired political activities in the not-too-distant future.


Key to this, I suggest, is that we take time to begin getting to know one another. In other words, I think we should approach these house meetings with the idea that, if all possible, we will continue over an agreed upon time to try to work things out together. Say, at the first meeting, we agree that if we return to the next house party, that we are willing to commit to a further six weeks of meetings with this group of people. At the end of this agreed-upon period, we can then each decide if this process works for us with these people, or that we will be free to find another, more compatible group, with no hard feelings. With that agreed-upon understanding, we can proceed.


Once there is a commitment to a period of working together, then I suggest we not jump immediately to debating political issues, but that we take time to at least share something personal about ourselves. So, for example, we might give each person five minutes to tell about their lives, however they want to do this:  where they are from, what kind of family do they have, where they went to school, etc., etc. Whether done at the same time, or in a second “round,” it is always good to share individual stories of how you got politicized, or what brought you to the 99% movement. You might do another “round” on what each person would like to see come out of the 99% movement, maybe desired goals that are immediate and those that one might desire over the long-term. Folks will find, if my experiences are of any value, that as we get to know one another, we can relax, we can discuss differences more easily, and we can respect each other even more.


Once this is done—and it is worth it to take the time to enhance the comfortableness level for everyone—then I think each group should identify what are three key issues that each person thinks are most important for their group and the movement to address, and why. Take time to discuss this, as decisions made will probably drive the group’s work, at least over the immediate term. Then once the priorities are set by the group, then I’d encourage people to read articles and books on the subject, or get movement intellectuals in one’s area to come and discuss the issue, etc. In other words, I think it’s important to find the best thinking available, and utilize it to inform one’s discussions.


[A plug for the work of a friend of mine, whose work I think is exemplary. Vince Emanuele, an Iraq combat veteran who turned against the war while in Iraq, now has a weekly, two-hour radio show in Michigan City, Indiana every Sunday from 5-7 pm Central (Chicago) time. The show is broadcast locally (AM 1420), but is also live-streamed over the internet, so anyone in the world can listen live (www.wimsradio.com ) or can listen to pod casts of past shows (www.veteransunplugged.com/theshow/archive). Vince spends at least half of his shows talking with some of the leading activists and movement intellectuals in the US and, increasingly, from around the world, allowing them time to share their ideas and work in detail. He has also just recently started presenting “classes” on air, allowing him to discuss the media, for example, in ways that demystify subjects for listeners while presenting alternative approaches/thinking, etc. It is an excellent use of the airwaves/internet for movement building purposes.]


In other words, I think we need to consciously create affinity groups out of gatherings of individuals, so as to enhance democracy, strengthen organization, develop solidarity, and deepen the political understanding—and I’m talking in the broad sense, not just confining this to electoral politics—of the Occupy Movement. This development of affinity groups will allow us to consciously deepen our resistance, while allowing us to develop a process by which we hammer out our visions of, and pathways toward, a new societal model, one which is based on global solidarity in the struggle for environmental sustainablity and for economic and social justice.


What I am suggesting is not rocket science. For social movement scholars, it should be obvious I am building off the work of the late Alberto Melucci, who recognized that social movements did not emerge out of thin air, but were products of the processes by which they developed. I agree with Melucci that we have to think out and develop processes to build the type of social movements that we want.


Melucci advances a three-step model that he had identified in his research in Italy. First, individuals have to come together for the purpose of further political engagement, building on commonalities (however defined), to create a group that meets one’s needs sufficiently to result in an emotional commitment to the further development of the group at least for an agreed-upon period of time. Each group is a result of interaction, negotiation and (sometimes) conflict, but is based on a willingness to work together for an agreed-upon period of time. Ultimately, the purpose of each group is to develop a level of understanding that allows them to engage in collective activity.


Second, the group needs to engage in some collective activity as a means of attempting to achieve a commonly desired political goal. This means doing something together that involves taking some personal risk, whether simply identifying members of the group publicly as supporters/proponents of a particular controversial issue, or of engaging in some conflictual activity that is intended to enhance public awareness or as a means to seek further public participation to further advance towards one’s chosen goals. [Obviously, participating in Occupy activities does this to a certain degree, but to date, this seems so far to be on a largely personal basis—here I’m talking about engaging in common activity as a group.]


And third, this requires that each group “frame” their activities in ways that enhances their particular project. In other words, acting in and of itself can be interpreted in a number of ways, whether to enhance one’s intended meaning or to discredit them. Each group wants to ensure that their activities are interpreted as accurately as possible so as to enhance their efforts, which, in turn, undercuts opponents’ distortions or counters efforts to undermine the group’s project. This means consciously developing one’s “story,” one’s political analysis, so as to share with friends as well as the media so as to increase public support. [This is based on the understanding that there are almost always three different positions that develop in any organizing project:  those that support the project, those that oppose it, and those in the middle who don’t care or who are not paying attention, with the middle usually being the largest of the three. The goal of any organizing project is to move those in the “middle” to supporting the project being advanced.]


These three steps should be considered as part of an upwardly spiraling process, interconnected and not separate in real life. One creates a group that develops a shared political understanding, engages in collective action to advance their chosen political goals, and frames it to enhance their support by “outsiders,” which, in turn, leads to more people joining the group, further collective action and supportive framing, to more people joining the group….


Ideally, people create as many affinity groups as they deem necessary. And if/when the group decides to engage in non-violent direct action, there are people in the affinity group who might be willing to risk arrest, while others can’t, so those who can’t provide jail support for those who get arrested. Thus, this model allows for differing degrees of commitment even within an affinity group.


However, this describes the process for developing an affinity group. How do they work with other affinity groups?  One model found to be useful in the past is that of a “spokescouncil,” whereby each affinity group in a network is seen as a spoke and they come together at certain times to discuss/develop different plans and programs with the goal of creating a unified campaign and component “actions” to advance that campaign. Generally, an affinity group will meet, develop their particular positions, and then “empower” a delegate or set of delegates to represent them at the upcoming spokescouncil. By being empowered, this means that affinity group representatives have the approval of the group to do their best thinking and to take the best decisions at the council, and that will, therefore, bind the affinity group to carry out any decisions made.


That brings us to another crucial issue:  decision making. How can we be as democratic as possible, so as to respect everyone as well as to ensure all sides of issues being discussed get aired before making a decision, while yet not being stymied by a never-ending “process” that impedes activities?


Rather than waiting to address this issue only when it raises its head, I suggest it be confronted early-on in the life of each affinity group. The process we developed in a San Francisco veterans’ group that I was active in during the 1980s offers an intelligent way forward that works:  recognize that there are two different levels of issues, and establish a different decision-making criteria for each.


We decided that all issues could be placed in one of two categories:  “action” items, and “organizational” items. Action items were simple:  do we endorse this or that?, do we meet in June or July?, etc. For these, we always sought consensus, but if we could get that and there was division, we simply settled on a majority vote, with 50% + 1 deciding.


Organizational issues were major issues that could affect the very existence of the organization, such as do we endorse political issues, do we replace petitioning with non-violent direct action, etc. For these—and if there were differences regarding categorization, we also addressed that first—we established a “super-majority” (2/3s, 3/4s, etc., affirmative) required to pass these items in the face of no consensus before addressing the issue itself. Requiring a pre-defined “super majority” before getting into the discussion indicated this was a serious issue, while allowing it to be discussed in detail, prohibited much “maneuvering” to get a simple majority vote, and meant enough people desired it so as to preclude organizational splitting. Thus, this took a conservative approach to organizational change, not destroying a successful organization, while keeping the organization from being immobilized because we didn’t have complete consensus. This approach, or something similar, I suggest, deserves people’s consideration.


In short, what I’m suggesting herein is that we further develop our political understandings and unity, while moving towards being a movement of unified small groups instead of unaffiliated individuals. This would enhance our common understandings and our ability to present them to others, while increasing our social cohesion, providing us with more internal social and political support as we move forward.


Kim Scipes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN. His latest book, AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, has recently been republished in paperback. For details, links to reviews and 20% off paperback price, go to http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm. 

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