“…once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up…
So hope for a great sea-change…
Believe in miracles…”
— Irish Nobel Prize laureate Seamus Heaney, from the poem “The Cure.”
The miraculous and magical rise of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) tidal wave has suspended us in a threshold between a no-longer and a not-yet. The call for justice initiated by American youth echoes around the globe. Ours is a time of transition; exploring similar transitional moments in history could be instructive.
I recently watched the acclaimed fictionalized film “Battle of Seattle” with a 22-year-old who has been at Occupy Santa Rosa numerous times, here in Sonoma County, Northern California. The film evoked memories from the l968 Chicago National Democratic Convention, where I was in the streets and then briefly in jail. I was not in Seattle for the 1999 actions against the international gathering of the World Trade Organization, though I followed them in the media. By studying those two historical events, we can apply lessons from them to today’s rapidly unfolding national and global OWS movement.
What might their differences and similarities be and how can we avoid the problems of those previous events and harvest wisdom from them? All three have been mass mobilizations that dramatically changed history. They are each a battle for better futures that are possible.
I began visiting Occupy Santa Rosa on Oct. 15, when some 3000 energized people gathered outside City Hall and went on a march through downtown. Though Santa Rosa is a medium-sized city of some 165,000, our gathering was the sixth largest in the United States at that time.
The differences in the Chicago, Seattle, and Occupy events are numerous, including geographical, chronological, and duration. Chicago and Seattle failed to remain non-violent, for a variety of reasons, thus limiting their successes. Though some Occupy sites have experienced police violence–such as Oakland, New York, and San Francisco—here in Sonoma County and in other sites at least the protestors have tended to remain non-violent. If that peacefulness continues, the movement will grow and include more of the 99 percent.
One similarity in these three eruptions is that they have been mass uprisings of direct democracy challenging the domination of the many by the few. Then the state used its police power to subdue the constitutional First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly exercised by those seeking justice.
In l968 I participated in activities in Grant Park and elsewhere in Chicago. This was after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., during the history-changing l960s. Our peace movement eventually helped force the U.S. military out of the Vietnam War.
At the time I was a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Chicago.
Not having been in Seattle, I do not know how historically accurate “Battle in Seattle” is. I welcome feedback from those who were there or have studied this four-day event. The film has a ring of truth to it and reminds us how easily something conceived to follow the principles of non-violence as practiced by Gandhi, King, Quakers, and others can be re-directed by a few police agents and violence-promoting activists. If that were to happen in the Occupation movement, it would loose much of the support that it currently has. Its potential to gain more support among the 99 percent would be limited.
“I was thrilled and grateful to see the next generation picking up the mantle of activism,” said Angela Ford, a Seattle resident in 1999. “I knew that nothing would be the same in the country. At last, the issues of global corporate greed and plunder had surfaced here in the United States. It could no longer be ignored. It became part of public conversation.”
While watching “Battle in Seattle,” I thought about how unintended consequences can be numerous and far-reaching. Some people will get hurt. A pregnant wife of a police officer played by Woody Harrelson was accidentally caught up in a police attack on demonstrators and hit in the stomach by a policeman. She lost her beloved child.
Two of the strongest scenes in the film involve that policeman and one of the activist leaders. The policeman chases the young man and beats him without mercy, as revenge for his child’s death, until another policeman pulls him off,. He later goes to the jail to apologize. “I don’t blame you,” the activist says, facing a third strike and life in prison. He stays on the high ground. His target is the WTO, not the police.
“If you don’t stand up and fight, everything that is beautiful will be taken away,” one of the women jailed in the Seattle film says to her partner, both of them bleeding from the police brutality.
The final scene in the film is inspiring—the activists are released from prison without charges. This happened to me when I was released from Cook County Jail in Chicago after my participation in the 1968 activities. A judge in Nashville, Tennessee, recently released occupiers illegally incarcerated by the police there.
People whose memories include Chicago’68 and Seattle’99 have been active in Occupy 2011, raising questions and concerns. A big difference between the current Occupy movement and the other two historical movements is that OWS occurs not only in one city but is national and increasingly global. It is also ongoing, rather than limited to a short time. All three have been youth-led.
At first the U.S. corporate press ignored OWS, even as the world press was covering it. Then they tried to ridicule it and reduce it with demeaning descriptions, such as “dirty hippies.” They are finally being forced to give it more balanced coverage, though they continue to fail in the responsibility of the media to offer context and analysis.
“Once the tents went up,” said Santa Rosa occupier Heather Williamson, 22, “it became more of a community and at times even a party feeling.” Encampments have also been described as evolving into villages that occupy public space. Others describe them as “learning communities of direct democracy.” People can learn how to disagree without being disagreeable and how to deal with their anger appropriately, as well as how to manage conflict and let things go. An historical example of such encampments might be during the Great Depression, when so many people were homeless, as they are today.
Among the many things that OWS does is to function as a school. One can learn the following: peer leadership, communication, setting boundaries, dealing with opponents not as enemies, building trust and relationships, living together with diverse people, developing self-confidence and one’s own voice, letting things go, dealing with difficult people, self-policing, speaking publicly, remaining calm, developing a sense of group identity and unity. OWS provides a public space within which people can have various kinds of encounters with each other.
“My voice is coming out easier,” explained Williamson, who is visiting Sonoma County from San Diego. “I’m learning to speak loud enough.” She and others attend classes and workshops on things such as non-violence, yoga, and how to interact with the police.
A sleeping giant, the so-called “Me Generation” or “Millennial Generation,” which I reach in college, seems to be awakening. Many are passive in class and some feel hopeless about their futures with substantial college debts, few jobs, and often having to move back home.
“This ain’t over yet,” wrote one 71-year-old friend on Oct. 30, as the Occupy Santa Rosa General Assembly decided to continue staying overnight, in spite of the threat of police eviction.
“Santa Rosa has the potential to be an early role model for other communities across the country,” he adds, “where the climate is right for the local governments and the Occupiers to find common ground and to energize many people in these communities to get involved. If this movement is going to be successful, it needs many people marching, making democratic decisions in General Assemblies, and taking action.” He later notes, “Democracy is never perfect, but we need to get as close to it as we can.”
He then concludes with some insights from depth psychology: “There is the wisdom of the elders who may advise against rash actions, but there is the wisdom of the youth that can carry the ball forward to new ground. Hopefully, the elder energy can check the reckless Puer Aeternus (eternal youth) energy and the youthful energy can check the stuck elder Senex ( cynical) energy. We need a full-throated debate about these important issues so that all of these energies can find a proper balance. Step by step we must discover how to refine the Occupy democratic process.”
Seattle apparently had conflicts among elected officials, like between its mayor and the governor of Washington, and between electeds and the police chief. Such conflicts have happened in the San Francisco Bay Area. Occupations here have received significant support from San Francisco supervisors, some of whom have attended, as well as support from other elected officials and politically powerful people. If the Occupation movement can develop further allies from members of labor unions, faith and community groups, and others, this will serve it well.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was once an activist herself, but she authorized what became the most vicious police riot against occupiers to date, seriously wounding an Iraq Marine veteran, Scott Olsen. Her former allies are calling on her to resign and her authority has eroded.
“Creating confrontations with supporters is a tactical and strategic mistake,” said former Sebastopol mayor Larry Robinson at a recent meeting. “Most everyone here in local government gets it. What the occupiers do is bear witness to the injustices and moral issues. The concentration of wealth and income distribution is morally wrong. It is leading to the downfall of what could be a great civilization. We should not alienate natural allies, which includes local businesses.” Robinson added that it is important not to demonize Santa Rosa and local government, but to keep the focus on Wall Street.
“From Arab Spring and the Occupy movement we need to learn that we cannot predict when things will open,” Robinson said. “There is a tipping point, and we need to be prepared for that opening.” He has been studying chaos theory and speaking to groups about it and the importance of accepting uncertainty.
Police weapons since Seattle’99 have evolved and gotten more violent, as revealed by the some 400 policemen from 17 precincts that were mobilized and used helicopters, armored vehicles, and shotguns firing projectiles against a much smaller, unarmed citizenry. Tactics used by the police in the film “Battle in Seattle” are currently being used or may soon be used against the occupations, including martial law, police infiltrators, declaring States of Emergency and curfews, and sending in the National Guard, some of whom will have been in combat in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.
America has become more violent since Chicago’68 and Seattle ’99. As its morality has declined, its firepower has increased. Let’s not be naïve and innocent, especially given the enthusiasm of the youth, which has already been dashed by President Barak Obama becoming a manager of the wealthy 1 per cent.
As someone who lived in Chile during the democratically-elected government of President Salvador Allende in the early l970s, I experienced how quickly a country can go from having hundreds of thousands of people mobilized in the streets to a brutal dictatorship. In Chile I first heard the chant “The people united will never be defeated. (El pueble unido jamas sera vencido.) It was good to hear it again in the Seattle film and now at OWS occupations around the world, thus linking them to Chile.
Since Chicago’68 and Seattle ’99 the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. has risen. Though the U.S. military has expanded its reach—with a budget about the same size as all the rest of the militaries in the world combined—U.S. power and prestige have declined with the rise of the rest, especially China, India, Russia, and Brazil. American power is possible only because of its world-wide fortress.
The Occupy movement could either stimulate a growth of more oppressive control of the 99 per cent by the 1 percent or a weakening or even overthrow of the Wall Street stranglehold. The rich and their protectors are certainly carefully calculating how to turn back the Occupy tide and continue exploiting the labor of the rest of us and the Earth’s bounty.
Chicago’68 was a turning point. Seattle’99 was a turning point. Now Occupy’11 continues that legacy of a mass uprising of democracy. If Occupy continues to grow, it has the potential to recall the U.S. back to some of its original democratic values of freedom, liberty, and justice for all.
“There are those who are trying to set fire to the world.
We are in danger.
There is time only to work slowly.
There is no time now to love.” — Deena Metzger
Shepherd Bliss currently teaches at Sonoma State University and Dominican University in Northern California, where he teaches a course on U.S. History. He has run an organic farm for the last 20 years, contributed to a couple of dozen books, and can be reached at email@example.com.