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A Conversation With Peter Bohmer

Transcontinental Occupation

by RON JACOBS

Like most other social justice activists I know, I have been following (and taking part in) the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The encampment in Burlington, VT was in City Hall Park in Burlington’s downtown district for over two weeks.  After a tragic suicide in the encampment, the Progressive/Democrat majority city government shut the camp down by claiming it was unsafe.  In Olympia, WA., where my fellow dialogist Peter Bohmer resides, the campers are occupying land near the state capital and have to this point managed to work things out with the authorities to avoid conflict.  Like Occupy camps everywhere, the status of these camps could change at any time.  Indeed, since we began this endeavor, several have been shut down by police and other authorities, usually using the excuse that the camps were unsafe.  Yet, the continued existence of the movement is certainly changing the nature of certain elements of the political discussion in the United States.  This is why Peter and I decided to engage in the dialogue below.  Our conversation began on November 5th and ended at around 2 in the morning PST on November 17th.

Peter and I go back over twenty years. The conversation that follows is but one of many we have had since we met.  We share it as a springboard for thought and discussion.  At the same time, we do not claim any special knowledge and pretend to no higher wisdom.  We hope that the dialogue is received in the spirit of revolutionary camaraderie.–Ron

Ron Jacobs: Do you remember last spring you said in an email (during the Arab Spring stuff before NATO and Libya) that this could have the same impact as 1968?  Can you briefly explain that perception? 

Peter Bohmer: I was very inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt beginning at the end of last year and early this year, 2011. The growing numbers in the face of murderous repression,  the courage, the participatory democratic process of the occupiers, and the call in their statements and in the actual occupation for democracy and economic and social justice really resonated with me and captivated me.

Movements and uprisings tend to spread within and between nations as people begin to feel that there are alternatives to resignation to the status quo and the sense of powerlessness that so many people feel.  When I said that I hoped 2011 would also be a world historic year, I thought it was somewhat likely   these movements  and upsurges would burst forth first in countries  where there was growing economic inequality and poverty, where austerity programs were in place and where the majority of the population had no power over the direction and policies of their country. I thought of places as ripe for major rebellion such as Greece which I had visited in September 2010 where the IMF and the European Union was increasingly calling the shots and  particularly in other nations in North Africa and the Middle East where the people were following what was happening in the region’s largest country.

Although the resistance to budget cuts in Washington Stare where I live was somewhat limited, I also thought it possible that the examples of the occupation in Egypt and the labor led protests in Madison against their Tea Party  Governor, Scott Walker’s frontal attack on State workers and their unions would spread throughout the U.S.

Ron: And now we have the occupy movement, which seems to be inspired by the events in Tahrir Square. Despite it’s indecisiveness in its agenda, it has captured the hopes of many and the wrath of most of the corporate right wing. I have concerns about what I consider a lack of focus but at the same time there is a part of me that understands that the current political understanding of people in the US would reject something more directed. In fact there are those in the occupy movement that lump unions right up there with corporations. What this says to me is that they are confusing union leadership with the rank and file and misunderstanding the role of unions in a capitalist economy, not to mention an unawareness of that history. Nonetheless these types of political misconceptions exist. Is the movement a step forward?

Peter: As a result of observation and participation in the still-growing “Occupy Movement”, an alternative to the pervasive feelings of powerlessness and resignation are emerging. There has been for quite some time in the United States widespread opposition  to the growing inequality of income and wealth, to total corporate  control over all parts of our life, to global warming, to a government that tortures and is totally beholden to Wall Street,  to homelessness and losing our homes, to unemployment and underemployment,  to growing debt and poverty, to the imprisonment of over two million people, to militarism and endless wars,  and this list is incomplete. At the same time, resistance although greater than reported in the mainstream media has been somewhat limited and ineffective.  The importance of this movement is that active resistance is increasingly being seen as valid and the right thing to do. There is a growing feeling beyond the occupiers that hopelessness and escape or maybe voting for the lesser of two evils are not the only options.

Common  to the growth of powerful social movements have been  people who are willing to resist the status quo and take a stand who by their bold actions strike a chord with much larger numbers of people.  This causes them to then change for at least a  period of time the organization and activities of their lives and also change their values and ideology towards a less self-centered and me first system of belief and  towards solidarity and cooperation, and towards a commitment to economic and social justice.  This is happening right now, something is in the air.

Having a physical space which people occupy makes this movement visible and also possible for new people to join it.  In Olympia, Washington, it is creating dialog and community between homeless people, young people, anarchists and other activists, retired people, etc (many people belong to more than one category). Although in Olympia and in many other places there are no visible demands and somewhat limited discussion of what kind of society we want and how to get there or what we want in the short and medium run, occupiers needs for food, shelter and increasingly health care are being addressed and increasingly met as  is the question of self-government. So to say, this occupation is not political is a very narrow definition of political.

Ron: If the occupy movement is at the forefront of left-oriented popular struggle, how do we move forward?  What might forward look like?”

I’ve been in a few occupation/liberation actions over the years, as have you.  In fact, I think we were involved in two or three together.  Anyhow,  whether it was Peoples Park in 1979, a campus building sometime in the past few decades or the Occupy encampments in our respective towns, the fact is these actions usually end.  Many of the ones I was involved with ended with some kind of compromise agreement between the bureaucrats involved and the occupiers.  Peoples Park ended with a temporary truce and the park still a park.  As I involve myself and observe the Occupy movement, I am also doing what I can to make it into something beyond the occupations.  However, I am not sure what.  We saw one possibility at the end of the Oakland Strike day when folks took over the foreclosed Travelers Aid building in Oakland’s downtown.  Although the timing was obviously wrong (it’s not a good idea to occupy a building while the cops are down the street ready to kick ass), the impetus behind the action makes a lot of sense.  In fact, I have been a part of discussions about squatting foreclosed buildings here in Vermont and also with folks online in other parts of the world.

A sidebar to this is how long can the occupations remain meaningful before they become like so much graffiti in the minds of the supportive observer? 

Peter: As of today, November 7. 2011, most of the occupations are maintaining their momentum. This is a very positive accomplishment. For example, in Olympia, many people in Occupy Olympia are looking ahead to November 28, 2011, to confront the Washington State Legislature when it is being called back into a special session by the Governor Gregoire, a Democrat, in order to make further cuts in a State budget that has already severely  reduced needed spending for health care, for education at all levels and for poor people.  Occupy Olympia is committed to maintaining the occupation of a downtown park at least until the legislative session and possibly beyond.

None the less as Michael Albert, pointed out in his ZNET article, “Occupy to Self-Manage”, occupations and the related general assemblies, the decision-making group for most occupations,  tend to decline over time in numbers and enthusiasm. So it is key to bring in new people and create an atmosphere that is welcoming of new people so that we do not wither away.  Let us not unconsciously exclude people who have not been part of the left or activist communities. It is also important that we use our occupied sites as a base to for actions and education outside of our sites.

We need to consciously make movement building one of our goals of this phase of the Occupy Movement. This means developing organizations, institutions, and people who have a deepening analysis and critique of capitalism, with  growing capacity and skills to confront this system,  and to put forward and win non-reformist reforms. Hopefully this will last beyond these set of occupations. By non-reformist reforms, I mean reforms that meet people’s expressed needs, that build our understanding of the limits of capitalist reform, and   that also build our capacity to struggle for and win more fundamental and radical transformation of this oppressive and unsustainable society.

For example, Occupy Olympia is trying to develop a set of tents where there would be free medical care, traditional and non-traditional,  on-site. This would meet an important  need and also point towards a system of free and universal health care as a basic human right. A next step could be to demand and/or occupy  indoor and permanent space that could be used a free health clinic, to provide quality health care and also does popular education in the broader community that healthcare should not be a commodity.

I like the  idea of creating housing by squatting in unoccupied buildings as you suggested in Oakland. Whatever we do must be done in a way that large numbers of people beyond the occupation understand and support our actions. That will increase the likelihood that if there is police and government repression our movement will grow rather than become isolated.

Overcoming defeatism and resignation and furthering community and beliefs in the importance of collective action is happening, that is a great start. We do not have the power during this period of the “Occupy Movement” to create a participatory socialist society nor even to seriously reduce the obscene inequality of income and wealth in this country. Hopefully some limited short-term goals will be won.

It is a long struggle.  Building healthy networks, institutions, organizations within and between communities and cities; that create the basis for a more conscious, powerful and visionary and radical occupy movement in the not too distant future is a goal. It will make this current movement worth the time and effort and commitment of so many people throughout this country and beyond.   Most of the specific occupations of space may come to a close in the not so distant future but the movement can and should continue.

Ron: There are those that say part of the reason the movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was able to be as effective as it was is because the establishment media covered it. Most the time, the coverage was negative, but the coverage itself spread the word and highlighted injustice.  Since then, most of the movements against capitalism and its symptoms (war, poverty, environmental degradation, etc.) have been mostly ignored by that press. Occupy seems to be changing that.  Perhaps it is because there are so many young middle class people involved, but nonetheless, the coverage is there.  Consequently, the numbers may not be as big, but the message is reaching further, at least for now.  Meanwhile, there are the new Internet social media. What’s your take on the role that these various media play today?

Peter: Certainly in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the mass media coverage of the protests, Black Freedom, anti-Vietnam war and the TV images of the U.S. war against Vietnam, and of the women’s liberation movement contributed to the growth of these movements.  Probably even more important was a vibrant “underground” and radical press such as the Black Panther Party newspaper which was national, the Guardian which was also a national weekly newspaper and papers in many, many cities such as the Berkeley Tribe, the Old Mole (Cambridge, MA), the San Diego Street Journal and OB Rag (San Diego), and the Fifth Estate (Detroit). There were also important papers by the women’s liberation movement such as Off Our Backs, and the GI movement and a news service that provided news and graphics for these papers, Liberation News Service. These papers had significant circulation. They were an integral part of the new left and other movements of that period. Today these types of movement papers are few and far between although for example in Olympia, Works in Progress, plays that role to some extent. On the other hand, social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, play an important role in spreading the word about actions although providing less context and analysis than the “underground” papers of the 60’s and early 70’s. Democracy Now today plays a very important and positive  role in providing an alternative analysis to the mainstream media and  in covering social movements such as the Occupy movement. So do websites such as CounterPunch, Znet, and Alternews (among others). They lack some of the boldness and creativity of that earlier “underground press” but are very valuable. We need to tell our own stories.

The mainstream media has given a lot of coverage to Occupy Wall Street and the growing national movement. Although much of it is negative, it does as you say spread the word and has helped publicize the obscene economic inequality in the United States. I am not sure why it has gotten so much coverage. Its novelty may be a factor.

Ron: These last several months of worldwide anger organized against the neoliberal capitalist economy reminds me of a number of historical events. 1968 is but one. The Occupy movement is somewhat reminiscent of the IWW’s free speech crusade when their insistence on exercising their free speech rights by setting up soapboxes on street corners throughout the US West and the subsequent arrests and harassment by police exposed the myth of free speech in the US. Could this be that spectre that Karl Marx wrote about? Immanuel Wallerstein wrote in his book Antisystemic Movements about the years 1848 and 1968 as failed revolutions that ultimately changed the world’s consciousness in greater ways than the revolutions that preceded them (France 1789 and Russia 1917). “The fact that they were both unplanned and therefore in a profound sense spontaneous explains both facts.” he writes. “The fact that they failed and the fact that they transformed the world.” Perhaps the events of the past year and a half–from Greece to Egypt to Tunisia to Britain to Europe and North and South America–will be perceived similarly. I think it is much too early to tell.  In the meantime, there is a growing surge of calls to converge for a number of actions in the spring.

Peter: I think  we are at the beginning of a huge upsurge, the beginning of a transformative social movement not just a  movement that made  a big splash for two months and then  fades quickly.  There will be setbacks. From what I saw and read, the demonstration in New York, today November 17th, was huge and powerful. The occupation of land may be winding down because of repression, the weather and fatigue but hopefully the Occupy movement will find new forms and really blossom in this coming spring. The high unemployment and poverty rates in the United States are not going to improve and may get worse.  They are going to worsen in Greece, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and many other countries.   The causes for action are not going to go way nor is the anger nor is the growing  understanding of the need for collective action. We are part of a global movement.  That capitalism is being named as the problem by many of the participants, not just the banks, is very exciting.  Also necessary and beginning to happen although clearly a lot more needs to is a slowly growing awareness that anti-racism and the need for all forms of equality, economic, gender, racial, LGBT, is central both inside the movement and in the greater society.

The coordinated repression of many of the occupations, e.g., NY, Portland, Oakland, is clearly connected  to the fear that much of the economic and political elites have of  the potential power of this movement. Because of the widespread anger and the resonance  this movement has with growing numbers of people, police brutality has rather than scared people increased participation. Bold and creative actions need to continue and grow. So does popular education of participants in these occupations and of  the rest of the 99% in the causes of the economic and social crisis and of all forms of oppression. Equally important is further discussion of what kind of society we want and how to get there in the short, medium and long run.  We need to consciously build organizations and institutions that can improve people’s lives now, particularly those suffering the most, while also building the capacity to revolutionize this society.

The movement is much bigger than those who have been occupying various sparks and sites. It includes those who have in ways big and small contributed to it, e.g., bringing food down to the occupiers, discussed and supported it at union meetings .  One challenge here in Olympia and the Pacific Northwest more generally is to be more inclusive, to welcome and listen to and reach out and include more people who identify with the goals of the “Occupy Movement but do not feel comfortable at the sites or the marches or direct actions.

It is a very exciting time to be alive. There is something in the air that I haven’t felt for a long time.  In spring, 2013 I intend to co-teach a full time program at the Evergreen State College comparing and  contrasting the liberation and social  movements  of 1968 to 2011 in   the U.S..and globally. There will be a lot to examine for 2011 and we still have six weeks to go. I am confident 2012 will be hotter than 2011.

Power to the People!

Ron: I myself think it’s a bit early to tell if this is the spectre that Karl wrote about or if Wallerstein is correct.. The underlying politics of the movement are too muddy right now. As far as I have seen, the relationship between the US wars and occupations and the 1% has only begun to become part of the conversation.  This relationship needs to be addressed and brought to the forefront of the movement.

There are those in the movement who are anti-leftist (and I don’t mean the various non-left anarchists) and many more that haven’t consciously considered left politics. However, I can’t help but agree with you when you say it is an exciting time to be alive.  This is especially the case after the events of N17 in New York, Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles and elsewhere.  Indeed, although the numbers were smaller here in Burlington, VT., the spirit of resistance and hope present across the nation and in Greece and Italy on N17 permeated the march and teach-in here, as well.  I concur: Power to the People!  

Peter Bohmer has been an organizer and participant in the struggle for social and economic justice since the 1960s.  In recent years, his political activities have taken him to Venezuela, Cuba, Greece and a number of US cities.  He teaches political economy and has been a faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. since 1987. 

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.