Occupy’s Growing Pains


I have been active in the historic Occupy movement since it first erupted onto public space. I have attended numerous meetings, rallies, teach-ins and other events, as well as written supportively about it. Since the Sept. 17 opening at Occupy Wall Street in New York, I have been excited and ignited by this incredible uprising.

Recently I have become frustrated by some of its hostile interpersonal dynamics. We could benefit from more tolerance, compassion, and respect for differences within the millions of members of the 99% that we claim to represent.

My previously published writings about Occupy all have been exclusively about its substantial  accomplishments—opening a wide national/ international conversation on wealth inequality, challenging corporate personhood, banks, and foreclosures, mobilizing thousands of people, energizing youth, and creating community. I am grateful to Occupy for these and other significant political and social contributions, which have already changed history. They have also inspired me personally.

Though reluctant to address my concerns with Occupy’s problematic infighting publicly, I do so because of Occupy’s guiding value of transparency. Also because I plan to continue within this mass movement, rather than become another burned-out drop-out. Reports from Occupy groups elsewhere indicate similar problems to those where I live. Occupy is too important to let it fragment; we need unity through diversity, rather than divisiveness.

My reflections emerge from nearly half a year “being on the ground” within Occupy. I seek to deal with the good and the not-so-good, or even bad. The good and the bad often arrive together, or follow soon upon each other.

Critical thinking, self-criticism, and a dialectical process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis have guided other movements. Such restorative, regenerating processes could benefit Occupy groups. Or they run the risk of remaining small groups, rather than growing to include a wider diversity of views and backgrounds within the large 99%. I have made such observations within Occupy circles, to which some have listened; others have dismissed me as “being on the other side.”

An elder, retired member of one of the Occupy affinity groups that I am in reminded us of the following from the sixties: “The personal is political, but the political should not be personal.” This phrase helps me avoid bitter infighting and try to de-personalize inappropriate attacks.

Occupy seeks to speak truth to power, so it is inconsistent to then attack each other personally. Though Occupy is about activism, introspection on how we communicate can enhance resilience, making us more effective. Differentiating between criticisms and attacks would be essential. In our passion to improve things, expressing criticisms as constructive messages that we would respond well to if they directed at us would be helpful.

Chile and Love

Chilean-American Ariel Dorfman’s essay “Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile” in The Nation magazine (Nov. 9, 2011) stimulated these reflections. Unhistorical perspectives within Occupy concern me. Dorfman’s essay–which appeared to be from his forthcoming “Feeding on Dreams” book–provided an historical frame that I partly share with him. I lived briefly in Chile during the early 1970s.

Occupy re-ignited the dreams I began having half a century ago, during the l960s, when there was a similar (though distinct) historic uprising of democratic aspirations to create a more just world. That mass movement organized me to resign my commission in the U.S. Army, which was waging an unjust war on Vietnam. Occupy reminded me of who I am, the values that have guided my adult life, and the courage to re-assert them.

As I have watched the president—the 1%’s top manager—and the 1%’s bought Congress and bought Supreme Court pass and uphold more laws restricting freedoms and listened to Republican candidates for the presidency, I am concerned that the U.S. might be approaching a similar collapse of democracy as occurred in Chile. There are, of course, major differences. A similarity is how polarized the U.S. now is and how polarized Chile was then.

“I joined a million marchers who poured into the streets of Santiago to celebrate the third anniversary of our electoral victory” Dorfman begins his article, writing about Sept. 4, 1973. This is in a country of only a few million people. A week later, Gen. Augusto Pinochet was responsible for the assassination of the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende, on the other Sept. 11. This launched two decades of terror throughout Latin America’s Southern Cone. It is still recovering.

As a youth, I was thrilled to participate in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in Chile, as I was to be last fall with around 4,000 pro-Occupy people. But rather than growing in support, as Allende did in Chile, Occupy may be declining. Yet Occupy may be the biggest threat that the vulnerable 1%–because there are so few of them and potentially so many of us–have had in a long time. We need all the support we could get to prevail.

An historical antecedent of a decisive mass demonstration here in the U.S. would be the l999 shut-down in Seattle of the World Trade Organization (WTO); the WTO never really recovered. That was only possible because 40,000 well-organized people came from all over into the streets with clear, de-centralized leadership. Blessings to them.

“Mad, Passionate Love—and Violence: Occupy Heads into the Spring” by San Franciscan Rebecca Solnit has also guided my reflections.

“When you fall in love,” Solnit begins, “it’s all about what you have in common, and you can hardly imagine that there are differences, let alone that you will quarrel over them, or weep about them, or be torn apart by them.” She adds, that “if all goes well, (one can) struggle, learn, and bond more strongly because of, rather than despite” these differences. That is where Occupy has arrived, in my opinion. Some people want to stay in the honeymoon and not hear criticisms from which they could learn.

Whereas Solnit focuses on some of the political differences within Occupy, I will focus on interpersonal attacks that drive people away. Some creative, committed people have marginalized themselves. Many meetings are poorly facilitated. Some prefer free-for-alls where they can talk on and on. People who still have jobs and families to care for cannot stay as long, so those who are uncontained wear others down.

Interpersonal Conflicts within Occupy

Anger, fear, and passion initiated Occupy. Some of that anger and fear have now been turned on Occupy activists in what might be described as “horizontal hostility” against each other. Anger can help initiate things; it can also de-mobilize, as can fear. Shadow sides of anger, fear, and passion include destructive rage, paranoia, and dogma.

Occupy claims to represent the 99%. Yet it has been unable to mobilize more than a small percentage of that large constituency. Some have even begun a class struggle within Occupy, pitting the poor and working class against the middle class. Though still young, if Occupy learns from its mistakes, it could broaden its appeal. Otherwise, it will remain a footnote in history, rather than a sea change. Perhaps Occupy is in its “terrible twos” and will soon mature. We need to outgrow mean-spirited attacks and “my way or the highway” attitudes.

Occupy claims to be “leaderless,” which has values such as being inclusive and de-centralized. But some activists seem anti-leader. They oppose authority, any kind of authority, rather than being against social injustice. They oppose structure, mistaking it for hierarchy. Leader-ful perspectives could be more helpful, as could an understanding of ourselves as co-leaders who share leadership and take responsibility for it. We would benefit from learning how to work in teams, in spite of our American hyper-individualism and inflated egos.

Some activists blame the system for all problems, rather than take personal responsibility for one’s own shortcomings. Occupy often lacks follow-through and discipline. Its guiding ideas can be stronger than their implementation. Individuals in Occupy need to be accountable for what they do, or fail to do.

It is too easy to blame one’s opponents and the corporate media and demonize them as “enemies.” The successes of true history changers—such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela—occurred partly by their winning over some of their adversaries, who became defectors from the privileged and their protectors.

Occupy Wall Street was well-funded at the beginning by a former Wall Street broker; a West Coast philanthropist recently gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to media projects by some of its activists. Welcoming potential allies can strengthen Occupy. One has to be careful, of course, not to accept compromising conditions and be co-opted by funders.

Ironically, Occupy’s guiding description of the 1% and the 99% was borrowed from the former head of the World Bank. “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%” titles Vanity Fair’s May 11, 2011, article by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics. “America’s inequality distorts our society in every conceivable way,” he writes. This is “an inequality even the wealthy will come to regret,” Stiglitz predicts. “As we gaze out at the popular fervor in the streets, one question to ask ourselves is this: When will it come to America?” Come to America it did, through Occupy. He concludes that the fate of the 1% “is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.”

Occupy too often alienates natural allies, both individuals and groups, with dismissive dualisms such as “we are radicals and they are liberals.” Such good/bad, either/or, black/white thinking polarizes and is not helpful to building a mass movement. Groups and individuals can retain their own political integrity and still enter alliances and coalitions.

Some of the early responders to the Occupy call resist expanding their base to include a wider number of participants from the large and diverse 99%. Founders of groups, movements, organizations, and institutions can cling to remaining in charge, rather than share with others. The necessary radical changes that Occupy advocates are not likely to come easily or soon; it is important to have long-term strategies, retain activists, and be sustainable.

What is currently happening within Occupy occurs in many groups trying to work together, especially for social or political change.  Authorities have hit Occupy hard, including using divide and conquer tactics. We need to develop mediation tools to continue to hang in there. Rather than merely working toward conflict resolution, we can strive for conflict transformation and accept appropriate, non-personal conflicts as potentially helpful. Then Occupy can move beyond the honeymoon stage to authentic community.

Occupy would benefit from remaining a place that touches people and activates them, rather than decline into dis-functionality. Rather than fighting each other, we need to support each other and target the monopolization of wealth by the 1%.

The problems outlined here can be solved. We can find ways to stay together. Spring is arriving, so things will bloom and blossom. Rather than contract, this is a time for Occupy to expand and spread. We need to practice the transparency that Occupy was founded on and deal with our “stuff,” rather than deny it.

The peace movement had similar problems in its infancy. As a young soldier in the l960’s I was called a “paid killer” and “death merchant.” Name-calling, shaming, and scapegoating—which have been used recently within Occupy–are not the best tools to facilitate change; they tend to create resistance. Such tactics did not win me over to the peace movement. Its strategies and messages eventually matured. Activists started treating soldiers as human beings, which helped many of us leave the military.

Perhaps the problems discussed here are a sign of maturation beyond the honeymoon and digging in for the long haul of a sustained mass movement for social justice. As for me, it is too early to separate or divorce.

Occupy is a dynamic learning community. Within it one can learn not only how broken the system is, but also how to work together in teams. Many affinity groups and work groups continue to do phenomenal work, which can deepen friendships. I miss those who have left. Through Occupy I have met people who will probably remain lifelong friends.

If we want to create a better world, we need to model it. Occupy is a process, still in motion. What’s next? Stay tuned.

“Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968.

Shepherd Bliss farms, teaches college, and can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.

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