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Inside an Occupy Affinity Group

by SHEPHERD BLISS

Our new Occupy affinity group (AG) recently met at “Mr. Mom’s” comfortable home. His four-month-old daughter mostly sleeps in a nearby swinging crib. Sometimes she rises and nestles into his chest, occasionally spitting up a white, milky substance over his dark shirt. This evokes memories, as well as a few smiles and even giggles.

This baby is about twice as old as the infant Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which was born Sept. 17, after a brief summer gestation. Both are growing and expanding rapidly–a delight to experience. Babies deserve nurturing, so they can mature and do good in the world. Their innocence and enthusiasm for life and learning energize me, as I watch these two infants grow, sometimes making mistakes. Occupy inspires hope for the dynamic futures that both may have. What might be next?

Our new AG is pretty peaceful, as Occupy groups and their participants tend to be, in spite of what the corporate media emphasizes. At my first direct contact with Occupy in mid-October, my attention was drawn to two young children at an encampment playfully circling around their mother, a key organizer. At future gatherings, those kids would draw some of us into play, willingly including adults, who sometimes can be boring.

Improving the future options of these boisterous, energetic, darling children is a key motivation of occupiers. Better futures than now are possible, especially since Occupy has mobilized millions of people to stand up for our rights and freedoms. It is time to awaken from our sleeps and throw aside any passivity or despair that we may have and move together with our diversities into direct actions to improve our world. As Eileen Morabito, a participant in small town Occupy Sebastopol, noted, “I like how Occupy incorporates gray-hairs and pink-hairs.”

“The gates of permission have been opened,” my new young friend occupier Ben recently said while borrowing some tools. When I go to the weekly Farmers Market, which shares our plaza with Occupy, the conversations stimulated in this easily-shared public space are now more animated and joyous than before Occupy.

The U.S. financial, economic, political, social, educational, health, religious, military, and other institutions seem to be collapsing. “They’re rotting out from the inside,” Ken noted. Occupy offers bold, intense, new national and international conversations that can help create alternatives that strive not to repeat the same mistakes, which have caused the growing gap between the super-wealthy 1% and the 99% rest of us.

America has declined into something that damages its own citizens, others throughout the world, and our lovely Earth itself and creates isolation. Systemic change is needed. Band-aids are not enough. It is time for planetary patriotism that stands up in public spaces and makes noise in the faces of the greedy 1% who rule this country and beyond. Now that we have made substantial noise and gotten much attention, what might our next steps be?

LAUGHING AND SINGING TOGETHER

Sometimes our AG does well-facilitated, serious planning. Other times we laugh. We like being together. Our ages range from mid-20’s to late-60’s and we are building a multi-generational community together, which may even soon host an eco-camp. We include a volunteer fire fighter, a home-schooling mother of three, a birth worker, a bamboo builder, and permaculture designers. I only knew one of them before a few weeks ago, but now I feel as if we are likely to endure as a team and as friends with a common mission.

We exemplify Occupy’s Phase Two, as we keep moving creatively and develop new strategies and tactics beyond encampments. Each weekend in our town square, for example, Mr. Music and the Love Choir draw dozens of people, energized by Occupy Sebastopol, under a “Peacetown USA” banner. We sing, dance, play musical instruments, recite poetry, and talk with each other in this public space now getting more use. Next month we have a Town Hall meeting in a local church for an open discussion in our community about Occupy, facilitated by a former mayor; diverse points of view will be welcome. Our City Council and police chief have been very cooperative with Occupy.

Our AG has been guided by the following question posed by the Alliance of Community Trainers (ACT) at http://trainersalliance.org: “What framework can we organize in that will build on our strengths, allow us to grow, embrace a wide diversity of participants, and make a powerful impact on the world?”

Some of us attended a helpful training by ACT organizer Erik Ohlsen of Permaculture Artisans (www.permacultureartisans.com). “Affinity groups offer a structure that can build on the encampments and general assemblies of Occupy. AG’s offer a place for like-minded individuals to plan and carry out actions that have the full representation of the group and its values,” Ohlsen said.

“Although we work for a common cause in Occupy, we may not all agree or work well together. AG’s offer a solution as groups can autonomously organize around their commonalities and priorities while still supporting, working in solidarity with, and collaborating with other affinity groups and individuals.”

AGs plan strategic nonviolent direct actions. Mutual support and a division of labor are important. AGs make democratic decisions and agreements together with transparency and hold each other accountable. Among the roles in a direct action are individuals or teams that are responsible for the following: scouting, communicating, medics, action, media, negotiating, police liaison, and support.

AGs deal with various logistics, such as signaling, regrouping, transportation, legal, food and water, and developing an exit strategy. Members can practice skills such as public speaking, talking with opponents, the media, and the police, and facilitating consensus decision-making that includes diverse points of view.

“Once a movement has spawned many affinity groups within a community a next step can be a spokes-council structure where representatives of AGs are empowered to meet with each other and plan actions that include all affinity groups,” Ohlsen added. “This decentralized, solidarity-based organizing was successful in shutting down the World Trade Organization ministerial in Seattle in 1999.”

AGs can have good family-like qualities where people genuinely care for each other. My own family of origin is military, so I appreciate these new militant but not militaristic friends.

DIGGING IN FOR THE LONG HAUL

After existing for only a couple of months, the rapidly growing movement has entered a new stage. “Occupy has entered a transition,” one of our AG members observed. We are digging in for the long haul. The title of a recent article by Rebecca Solnit came up as we planned our short-term strategy“You Can Crush the Flowers, But You Can’t Stop the Spring.” She borrowed the phrase from Alexander Dubcek, the government official turned hero of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968. The new, child-like, and unique Occupy has many deep and diverse historical roots that can enable it to grow into a strong force for positive change.

Our AG emerged naturally when a few dedicated activists decided to meet, get to know each other better, plan, and build trust for the years to come. We anticipate both difficulties and victories. We have been reflecting on what has happened in the last two months of activity and where we might go from here. We do not plan to go away. In fact, there is no away. The Earth is one living organism, as is the growing, changing Occupy movement. It moves, in ways that are hard to even imagine, unscripted. Occupy is not so much a protest as it is a process. May it soon reach the newly-upright toddler stage.

During this process I have been remembering long-forgotten things about my personal and political history, which I have repressed and not thought about for decades. As the U.S. has declined in terms of the freedoms that it provides citizens, I have been censoring myself, not only with respect to what I say out-loud, but with respect to my memory. I selectively forgot my dreams and other important details, which are now returning and guiding me in the work that is necessary, for which I have been trained and am prepared to do. The Occupy movement and now our fledgling AG have taken the tape off my mouth and the block from my mind. It’s time to remember and speak out, especially about the mean and painful things that some humans do to others.

Among the things our AG discusses are the following: humility as a teacher, bartering and exchanging goods and food, empowering ourselves and others, taking personal and collective responsibility, creating accessible sustainability, respecting diversity, valuing human needs over monetary gain, conflict transformation, appropriate messaging, and supporting our collective needs over our individual wants.

We seek to create a safe space, courageously let go of fear, take risks, be leader-full, provide alternatives to the mass media, honor the sacred, practice forgiveness, appreciate beauty in nature and the arts, listen better, share vulnerability, and develop a new culture. Yes, it is a long list. We have agreed to function with a mixture of feelings and action.

We are not a particularly threatening group. We do respond positively to many of the creative Occupy sign, such as “Screw Us and We Multiply.” I am so glad that Occupy is developing its own humor. Some radicals (which means return to the root) can get too serious and even self-righteous, something to be avoided.

I have toddlers in my life right now, who enjoy coming to my farm, which brings me great pleasure, as well as concerns for their futures. I love the questions that they ask, how much they remain in present time, and how they fearlessly hold the gaze. I look forward to the infantile Occupy reaching its toddler stage, and then beyond as this still-new twenty-first century evolves.

The American Autumn is now entering what may be a lower-key Winter Hibernation of reflection, behind-the-scenes work, and building relationships with a wide range of people. I expect a Spring burst of energy in unpredictable ways, as Occupy enters a new seasonal cycle.

At our AG meeting in the home and presence of a baby and his caring stay-at-home father, nurture each other. This can help us and our nation to endure hardships that may come as we build a better world. Occupy inspires me and brings great joy as it seeks to break the 1 percent’s chains that shackle us.

Shepherd Bliss farms and teaches college in California, where he was born during World War II. He served as an Army officer during the Vietnam Era and works with various peace organizations, including the Veterans Writing Group. He can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.

Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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