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Member since: 2001
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To occupy or not to occupy, that is the question

There's been a rather noisy and highly visible debate going on within and around Occupy concerning non-violence, transparency, the black bloc, and "diversity of tactics." But there's a second question that just as pivotal but isn't being addressed as directly -- and that is whether the tactic of "occupying" is still valid in itself, especially with so many states and cities going out of their way to prevent it, even to the point of passing thoroughly unconstitutional laws.

I started thinking about that this evening because of an article at American Prospect that rubbed me the wrong way, though I couldn't quite put my finger on why:


As winter fades, the Occupy Wall Street movement is heating up again. But don’t expect the same focus on physical encampments and rowdy protests. While the blood of the 99 percent is still boiling at the injustice of growing inequality, in organizing meetings and workgroups, cooler heads are prevailing. This is Occupy 2.0—the mainstreaming of momentum.

From my conversations with Occupy organizers and supporters, my sense is that the main thrust of organizing energy and attention will go toward Occupy Our Homes— a coalition of Occupy activists joining with existing grassroots groups to support families that are facing foreclosure or have been evicted by big banks. . . .

The great thing about Occupy Our Homes as a tactic is that there’s still a tangible way for the tents and sleeping bags set to be involved (as when Occupy supporters camped out on the lawn of the home of an Iraq War veteran near Atlanta, ultimately saving her home from foreclosure) but foreclosure prevention also creates avenues for other types of engagement, whether bringing a casserole, writing a letter to a bank, or joining a prayer vigil. Such actions put a broader face on the 99 percent movement, not just punk kids in bandanas but middle class families threatened with homelessness standing with block association presidents and pastors and grandmothers (i.e., my mom).

Say what you will about mainstreaming, that’s how movements evolve being a fringe concern to a force for change. I don’t mean to disregard the role of the vanguard, those at the leading edge of a movement’s origins who take the first, bold steps and, often, risks. But vanguard leaders should be self-aware and situate themselves in a larger context, seeing the prospect of mainstream appeal as a sign of their success not a threat to undermine it.

All very sensible -- but probably too damn sensible. Mainstreaming, cooler heads, prayer vigils, casseroles -- none of that has the kind of crazy energy and willingness to throw yourself into the gears of the machine that initially got Occupy off the ground and turned it into a force its originators had never envisioned. But "craziness" is not a argument you can make to people who are looking for sensible. So on what basis is it possible to argue against mainstreaming?

Then I followed a Facebook link to a Firedoglake item about the "Occupy Exchange Program," whose first project is to send three members of Occupy Buffalo down to Occupy Little Rock to exchange information -- and it gave me a clue as to what was missing from the American Prospect piece:

Meet the first three Occupy Exchange Fellows from Occupy Buffalo: Samantha Colon, Robert Albini and John Washington; three outstanding organizers whose local activism on education, mass transit and foreclosure mills has been a model for other occupations across the country.

Right now they’re on their way to Occupy Little Rock, where local occupiers have taken the encampment off the grid using solar panels, wind turbines, a grey water system and an urban greenhouse.

As Occupy Buffalo and Occupy Little Rock have openly demonstrated through their work, occupy encampments are vibrant communal spaces where people can come together to solve problems and demonstrate a model for the world as they want it to be. By sharing and exchanging strategies, experiences and skills – and then publishing them online to make them available to the rest of world – the Occupy movement can continue to not just demand change, but provide strong alternatives for a more equitable society.

Right there, I think, is the essence of the encampments, and why they can't be neatly folded back into a world of prayer vigils and potluck dinners. They're about creating "vibrant communal spaces ... a model for the world as they want it to be ... strong alternatives for a more equitable society."

It's one thing to chant "We are unstoppable, another world is possible." But that doesn't amount to much unless you can offer some indication of that other world in tangible form -- solar panels, grey water systems, and all.

I'm out in the middle of nowhere and (like the mother of the American Prospect writer) I'm too old to start sleeping on the ground. So it's easy for me to say that Occupy has to find a way to continue creating voluntary communities -- because I'm not the one who has to do it.

But they do have to -- and I would sure like to see as lively a discussion about that as the one about the black bloc.

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