Photo by Pipe Meadow/Flickr.
December 6, 2011
Dear friends and partners in Occupy Boston:
Today marks the ten-week point since several hundred of us in Greater Boston, inspired by protests around the world and spurred into action by the police brutality in New York City, first met under the cloak of darkness at the Boston Common bandstand. That night Occupy Boston (OB) was born.
Since then we've seen our local branch of the global movement grow from an indignant cluster of strangers to what it is today: an internationally recognized protest stubbornly resisting authority. Our tide has ebbed and flowed with both significant accomplishments and embarrassing mistakes, but through it all we've remained steadfast, strong and obstinate-like any good protest movement must.
To say we are a good protest movement, however, does nothing to deflect the great problems and uncertainties we face today. We obviously live with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen to the Dewey Square encampment after December 15, but I think we have more important issues--ones that will mean the ultimate life or death of this entire movement--to address as a human community. I wish to address them below.
OCCUPATION: TACTIC MASKING AS MOVEMENT
It is important to remember that, despite the Facebook page uniting us all being named Occupy Boston, literally occupying a public space in Boston was not a given for the group that first assembled. In fact, the first questions we had to answer were "Do we occupy? If so, where and when?" The scope was meant to be larger than just a literal physical occupation, similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement that already had dramatic actions, well-oiled General Assemblies (GA) and a sophisticated media operation. Occupation was seen as a tactic, not the movement itself.
In Boston and other cities around the country the occupations have become the overwhelming focus of the movement while other aspects have suffered. We seem to be circling the wagons in a conservative effort to protect camp from eviction at the expense of dynamic ideas from groups like direct action, facilitation, media, and outreach. In doing that we are in danger of turning a protest against global injustice and brutality into a grandstand for the First Amendment.
Physical, mental, emotional, and financial resources need to be redistributed and decentralized from the literal occupation. We desperately need energy and radicalization in our movement, which will be provided if and when other ideas receive the attention and resources they deserve.
THE PEOPLE UNITED
I heard a prescient statement on the night of Indigenous Peoples Day (aka Columbus Day). The protestors had made their way back from the various marches held that day and at least half of us were gathered on the Greenway parcel adjacent to Dewey Square. We were all preparing for the impending police raid when a woman whose name I forget addressed the crowd at the emergency GA. She said, "Getting arrested does not make you a better protestor. It does not make you better than the people who cannot risk arrest."
We should hold the spirit of that statement as one of our movement's guiding principles. Each person in our movement has their own unique mix of life experiences, political opinions, physical abilities, familial and job responsibilities, citizen status, and criminal record. Some people's lives afford them the opportunities to risk arrest, sleep at Dewey Square, and/or spend every day attending camp meetings while some do not. Likewise, some people can spend hours a day in email correspondence with fellow protestors while some cannot. The important thing to remember is that each productive member of our group brings something valuable to the movement. The strength of our collective is that, through cooperation, our diversity can conquer individual deficiencies and our movement can flourish.
From my perspective some petty human traits like intolerance and egomania are flourishing in the three main factions of OB: those on-site with limited access to email, those off-site with limited access to camp, and those with limited access to both venues. When people separate themselves like this they create sanctuaries for cliques, dominators, enablers, and other assholes who want to be leader of the pack. They dig into their turf and fight like dogs; if new people enter that territory they better watch out.
Nobody in this movement is King or Queen of any domain. Dewey Square is not the Mecca of the Occupation Movement in Boston. Those with more internet access or more highly developed writing styles are neither smarter nor more sophisticated than anybody else. We must understand how necessary we are to each other if we are going to succeed, for as one of our favorite chants goes, "The People, United, will never be defeated!"
CHECK YOURSELF (REMIX)
Prejudice in myriad forms is a very real problem in OB, so much so that I've wondered how the hell Dewey Square could be my intentional community. Most often that prejudice is directed at women, people of color, houseless people or members of other historically marginalized groups. This should obviously be unacceptable to everybody. What are also unacceptable to me are the measures we are taking to address these prejudices, particularly the interest in applying academic race theories to every single human interaction and to applaud token displays of solidarity (for the record: I support much of the body of work in critical race theory but feel that many of its real-life implementations are self-defeating).
Two weeks ago these practices led to a discomforting display at the GA. People of color and their white allies lined up on separate sides of the stage and the white people delivered a message on behalf of the people of color. Thus we had the races segregated and the whites speaking for blacks, just like in 1955 America except the whites were being patronized, too. This strange phenomenon of well-intentioned prejudice trying to combat malevolent prejudice harms everybody. The original prejudice marginalizes the usual people and degrades humanity. The reactionary prejudice reinforces the divide without solving the problem. The two together create a theoretical, ineffectual groupthink that allows for a person to be treated as a dominator regardless of their actual character.
I come to this opinion through my experience as a straight white man whose struggles and beliefs don't match the assumptions people make of him. I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood littered with trash, dotted with drug houses, and plagued by violence. As kids we sat thirty-five to a classroom in rundown schools and were eligible for free school lunch. My family had little experience preparing kids for college and my high school was struggling too much to give me the attention I'd get in a wealthy suburb. I went to college but quickly dropped out due to frustration and poverty.
I've learned some things from this life. One is that some people will never look past my looks to consider me for my struggles. Another is that billions of people have not been afforded the same opportunity to overcome their struggles, simply because they were not straight white American men like me. This is an awful dichotomy, but somewhere in the middle of it is a space for human reflection, love and understanding. From this space we can improve ourselves and help others fight. We can cooperate as strong individuals to meet hate with even more ferocious love.
Instead of responding to acts of prejudice in pre-ordained group discussions, we should dedicate ourselves to self-cleansing and the defense of other human beings. Make a pledge to work on projects with people not from your racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Make another pledge to stand up for a victim of prejudice at the moment you witness it. We must first be the change we wish to see if we're ever going to manifest it in society.
Listen to a Stevie Wonder song or a Cornel West speech if you don't know what I mean.
“OCCUPY’S ASSHOLE PROBLEM”
About a month ago a veteran activist named Sarah Robinson wrote a viral blog post titled Occupy’s Asshole Problem: Flashbacks from An Old Hippie. Like that dry freezing air that first hits your enflamed nostrils on January mornings, Robinson’s explication of Occupy’s interpersonal problems and how to fix them was an uncomfortable but invigorating wake-up. OB beat writer/blogger Chris Faraone went as far as to use it as a springboard for some of his own Boston-centric analysis in his post, Occupy Boston's Idle Douchebag Safety Issue.
Their general analysis as it applies to OB is that a pattern has developed: most people have sacrificed some of their personal freedom to make an honorable attempt to reassert the common good. A small crew of “assholes” and “douchebags” has undermined that attempt with acts of substance abuse and violence. One group in the movement is working tirelessly to enforce accepted standards of behavior with little support and a shoe-string budget. Another group in the movement doesn't think we're allowed to be intolerant to the people perpetrating those acts. Gridlock is created, chaos remains, and the movement spins its wheels.
This issue is complicated by the fact that many of the alleged perpetrators are houseless, mentally ill, active addicts, or some combination thereof; they are at the bottom of the American Caste System left to fend for themselves. Most of us in the movement are infuriated by our government’s thirty-year dismantling of the social safety net and believe that these are exactly the people who need the tenderest loving care. It is grossly irresponsible, however, to assume that a ragtag group of amateur protestors with a profound lack of training in healthcare and social work can meet these needs. The occupiers with these serious problems cannot be properly helped by the rest of the group and they cannot meet the behavioral standards of the community. We enable their destructive behavior and they disable our protest efforts.
Despite the repeated criticism that we stand for nothing, everybody in OB knows that we have common values that bind us together. These values and their corresponding behaviors must be codified, disseminated, upheld, and defended at all times by all of us. This will definitely require a lot of help from allies in social work to do it humanely and a little help from law enforcement to do it effectively. Regardless of the astoundingly negative opinions some of us have of police officers, cooperating with them on this issue is absolutely necessary if we're going to improve safety in the camp.
OCCUPY IS A PROTEST, NOT A UTOPIA
Think of this theoretical newspaper headline: “Motley crew of malcontents solve sum of society’s ills with tents and tarps.”
As silly as that sounds, that seems to be where much of our rhetoric is aimed. We want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, nurture the soul, educate the masses, protect victims of predation, create our own media apparatus, build a new model of decision-making and somehow police this entire intentional society from within…with paltry resources against one of the largest and most repressive world governments in human history. Is that really what we all signed up for?
Occupy, as I understand it, is a protest movement that challenges the stranglehold multi-national corporations have on government, finance, the economy, and the media. The premise is that small clusters of people spread across the world can take on an inherently unjust and evil system, fighting to prioritize human need over human greed. It is not intended to be an exercise in utopian microcosms.
This movement against Wall Street—a term that should be synonymous with Global Predators—is the most significant protest the United States has seen in at least thirty years. We know the people who are responsible for the suffering and we want to see their destructive reign come to an end. We’re not going to get them or get there by sweating the details of a 21st Century commune. Instead we should be looking to make each individual occupation cell as large as possible and make them thoroughly interconnected. For Boston this means transforming how we reach out to the rest of the region, including the other occupations that have sprung up (e.g. Ocupemos el Barrio, Occupy the Hood). If we want the masses to participate with us we cannot expect them to come to us and fall in line. We need to go to where they are and share the power.
For those who feel that this letter is exceedingly negative, let me state emphatically that I believe we are capable of resolving all of these problems. We have proven our capabilities with what we have accomplished and dedicated people are already working on all of these suggestions. I just want to call these problems and solutions to the attention of the entire community because they are not currently being treated with the seriousness they deserve.
I hope that this letter can change that. I hope that we can have new discussions that can expand our discourse and further our movement, so together we can contribute our best to the global revolution against inhumanity.