Occupy Movement Befriended: Unsolicited Advice

Most of the people I know are among the “99 percent” in the totem pole of national wealth, and wish the Occupy Movement well. Only one has actually spent time at an Occupy site. Another has said, “She might.”  Most others, myself included, expect to stay at home. Some are emphatic on that point. They like what they’ve heard of the Occupy Movement in a soft and fuzzy sort of way, but ask: What are their goals? When will they come up with a list of demands? What do they want? What will it add up to? These and other questions suggest that support for the Occupy Movement is tentative, spongy, and fickle, and could dissolve as quickly as it has developed. There are facts, opportunities, and risks that the Occupy Movement would do well to consider in future decision-making. I note them here as unsolicited advice from a sympathizer who would like the movement to succeed.

First, participants at Occupy sites should keep in mind that the overwhelming number of supporters and colleagues in the movement are not at a site and will not be coming soon, if at all. The movement isn’t about the aims of the actual assemblers. Rather, it’s about American democracy, Wall Street practices, income inequality, and the future direction of the nation.  While the number of participants at the sites is impressive, and perhaps growing, it is nowhere close to 1% of the 99%. If the Occupy Movement wants the support of the sympathetic public, it must continually earn it.

Second, a participant at an Occupy site should think of him- or herself as a citizen, one among all citizens. Each should value his or her identity, individuality, rationality, perspective, values, and sense of the issues, while retaining openness to change, and welcoming of the views of others. An assembly is first a crowd of strangers before it acquires more substantial form as a group, organization or community. This present dangers. Crowds tend to be loose, shifting, unstable, unruly, emotional, herd-like, and susceptible to violence. Individual identity and self-responsibility are the best antidotes to such tendencies and they increase the odds against unwanted surprises.

Third, Occupy participants, on site and at home, should recognize that 1, 99, and 99.9 percent income categories are impersonal appellations, and should not to be considered personal in any way. They are neither descriptive of personality nor character. Values, beliefs, attitudes, patriotism, spirituality, altruism, selfishness, and other human traits, are not knowable or deducible from percentage points alone. Warren Buffett and Stephen King are examples of the 1 percent who would likely support the aims of the Occupy Movement. Joe the Plumber is probably an example of the tens of thousands within the 99 percent who would not. No justification exists for labeling and stereotyping individuals and groups because of the income category they fall within. Hate and violence should be countered and avoided. “We’re the 99 percent” is a useful political statement about income inequality and Wall Street excesses. That is good enough.

Fourth, viewers of a certain age are watching the Occupy Movement through the lens of the student protests of the Vietnam War. Other people are watching the protests through the lens of left-right dynamics in the Cold War period. Some others, myself included, look back to the worker revolts in Europe in 1848, and at various anti-colonial revolts. Stated affirmatively, sympathizers of the Occupy Movement with a historical perspective ask themselves whether the wisdom of past protest movements—particularly the non-violence philosophy and tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King—have been studied, received and built upon with friendly additions. Hopefully, non-violent protest has advanced to such a level of sophistication that modern protestors can achieve their objectives without doing horrific damage to the country and the culture. Will the actions taken by Occupy do more harm than positive good? I have not been comforted by the central place anarchists have assumed in the formation of the Occupy Movement. Must we explore the anarchist way still again? I hope not.

Fifth, community is a valuable and even necessary concept when people assemble at Occupy sites. Yet, community, like assembly, is a means to the ends of the Occupy Movement and should not be allowed to become an end in itself. While attention to community is necessary, participants will be wise to avoid seeking at their site to improve on Brook Farm, kibbutzim, or any variant of a commune, including certainly Potemkin Villages.

Since community is also and otherwise a most important human ideal, and a valuable reality when present in the world, additional attention to the issue is deserved. Let’s start by examining the ways in which Community is necessary to an Occupy site, and thus to the Occupy Movement. I see three linked senses:

  • A political community concept is necessary for political decision-making. Devices such as the “open mike,”  “peoples’ mike,” “working groups,” “general assembly,” “consensus decision-making,” “ horizontal communication,” and “leaderless movement,” as was used for example at the Zuccotti Park site in New York City and elsewhere, are important in showing the public a spirit and actuality of democracy. Anyone who shows up at the site can speak and have their words repeated in small bits and in their own cadence by the full assembly. Such practices announce to the public a straight message: come join us, you’re welcome here, you’re a citizen, equal to others, your ideas are wanted, your voice will be heard, you’ll have a vote in decisions—this is the way a community should work, isn’t it, and the way ours does work. This, from a public relations viewpoint, is good political theater. To have credibility with a mass electronic audience, it is necessary that an Occupy site demonstrate its bona fides as a democratic political community.
  • Community is also necessary at an Occupy site in a sociological sense. When an assembly decides to occupy a park for any extended period of time, it must become a human community—a substitute home and ersatz village—for the time participants live there. All of the needs of living arise and apply: shelter, clothing, food, water, health care, work, education, relationships, communication, order, security, privacy, recreation, entertainment, boundary maintenance, public relations, spirituality and meaning, etc. In a short time an assembled crowd transforms itself into a living community, with an adaptive material and symbolic culture. A distinct form of social organization with offices, positions, roles, relationships, and rules soon arises. Tents, buildings, stores, paths, commissaries, equipment and supply caches emerge, as do maps, symbols, totems, songs, signs, sayings, and legends. A sophisticated division of labor is set forth.
  • The third type of community that an Occupy site, now nascent urban village, confronts is the actual surrounding community in and around the park. I’m speaking first of people: homeless people, troubled people, roamers, picnickers, neighborhood youth, bottle sharers, gangs, and other users of parks. Parks have their established uses varying by season, holiday, weekend, and time of day. Second, I’m noting that areas around parks, and user groups of parks, are communities within communities within communities up to what we call regional metropolitan communities. Occupiers are necessarily invaders, gentle invaders perhaps, but invaders nonetheless. Other groups and activities are displaced, and the displaced are right there, outside, in the neighborhood, ready to ask questions, make demands, freak out, join in, or threaten trouble. The Occupy site in Portland, Maine offers an example. There have been a rash of incidents of violence at the Lincoln Park site, leading to five arrests on the day after Thanksgiving, and a hospitalization for serious injury, leading to a City Council meeting on the future of the site and a permit denial. In the same week, two teenage girls from Buxton were found at the Occupy site several days after they had been reported missing and an all points search had been set in motion on their behalf. It could be argued, I suppose, that this was a positive outcome unavailable three months ago. Better they should be in Portland than Los Angeles. Regardless, these are serendipitous events the Occupy movement doesn’t need. They replace the movement’s intended message. The key words are goal displacement, serendipity and unintended consequences. Unfortunately, they come with the territory and the various occupy communities will predictably have to deal with them. Other meanings of community are emerging within the Occupy sites. In an interesting CBC interview with Professor David P. Williams, Professor Emeritus of Social Work at Dalhousie University and participant at the Occupy site in Halifax, it was reported that Dr. Williams, serving as site social worker, had introduced a “therapeutic community concept” to the care of homeless, mentally ill, and impoverished persons who had found their way to the site. Williams noted that the intent was to include and care for people as equals within the Occupy community and to avoid separation, alienation, and stigmatization. When the interviewer noted the cost thus far to the city of Halifax for policing the Occupy site, Dr. Williams pointed to the utility of costing out the services Occupy Halifax provides to city clients within the therapeutic community concept. The care being provided by the Occupy site might reduce costs to the city in other ways, thus offsetting some of the city’s police costs.

While extremely interesting, my overall conclusion is that attention to community threatens to displace focus on the goals of the Occupy Movement. Since I too am a social scientist who has taught courses on community education and the sociology of community, I personally hope that occupy sites appoint site sociologists, anthropologists, and historians to keep a record and archive of the cultural products and organizational forms that emerge. But community development, as I’ve said, is not a goal of the Occupy Movement and it could easily divert the movement from its goals. Also, I find it sobering that Americans work so hard to get away from each other, disappearing into separate, well-guarded, private homes, hideaways and cul-de-sacs. The atavistic wish to retreat from modern urban living to the campfires of the primitive tribe, so well exploited in youth and family camps every summer, thrives for about a month, and then, once consummated, is followed by a rush back into attenuated individual and family privacy. Folks who really love camping are found at campgrounds. This minority might also enjoy living at an Occupy site. The rest of us tend to be namby-pambies who prize their indoor comforts. I suspect that we have become inured to the artistic beauty and social benefits of a well tended Occupy community.

Fifth, participants at Occupy sites should think of themselves as representatives of and translators for the rest of us, and think of their work as fundamentally ambassadorial. Represent yourself and others you know directly—family, friends, associates, neighbors, and fellow employees—and also represent stay at home occupiers, sympathizers such as myself. You are one United States citizen among 313 million others, and one citizen of the municipal or regional community in which your occupy site resides, of whatever population size that municipality or region happens to be. C. Wright Mills wrote of the modern experience of feeling cornered, powerless and “trapped.” The task of Sociology, as Mills framed it, is to help people understand how personal, private and local “troubles” are linked to “public issues.” The job of the Occupier participant goes a step farther, to relate and translate these personal and local concerns into municipal, state, and national issues and resolutions. Our existing governmental structure, and its various executive, legislative, and judicial bodies, are constitutional and legitimate. But government is not working well right now, and Congress is particularly dysfunctional. My hope is that the Occupy Movement can help the country renew its democracy and sharpen its responsiveness to the needs, desires, and choices of its owners, the citizens of the United States. I wish the same for the people of other countries around the globe. Occupiers could perform the intermediary function between citizens and their government, acting as liaison, broker, negotiator, solution framer, and advocate to elected and appointed officials.

In what I have said in this essay, I do not intend to praise those of us who stay at home or criticize those who assemble to protest. Indeed I am more inclined to do the exact opposite, to criticize the stay-at-home uninvolved and praise the involved and active. I very much admire and appreciate those who have been willing and are willing to assemble and suffer in the name of important causes I care about, but have been willing only to write about. Yet, writers serve too. My aim is to give realistic advice. I want the Occupy Movement to have optimal chances for success and be effective in attracting mass support. The Occupy movement has done well so far. My ideas are meant to be an encouragement to keep on the straight and narrow tracks the movement is already on, and to explore all the byways. There is a lot of space to occupy. Occupy everywhere! Occupy every place it is important and legal to do so, and make the message clear and effective.

At the Washington D.C. site, the participants successfully drew up a set of recommendations to submit to the U.S. Congress’ “Super Committee” on reducing the cost of government. That is a good example of what is meant by ambassadorial work. It is not important that their advice went unheeded. The quality of the research and thinking that went into the recommendation is what’s important. Do it again, over and over, with this and other proposals. It is great that the Occupy Movement has been successful in conveying its general concerns under the banner “We are the 99 percent.”  I hope each site, like Occupy Washington, finds ways to translate local concerns to high quality public proposals at the municipal, state, and national levels.

In this essay I’ve defined myself as a hardheaded soft-hearted rationalist. Rationality, however, has its critics. Emotion has a not unwarranted historical reputation of bursting through barriers faster than reason. Look at what Copernicus and poor Galileo had to endure before an accurate map of the solar system achieved acceptance. Many will say that rational proposals cannot often be developed at an Occupy site and represented effectively to governmental entities. For these unbelievers I close the essay with a lighter, perhaps more credible image of change, another approach and theory, one that may be effectively applied by Occupy sites as a retort and counter strategy to excess rationality. Back in the 1960s I recall seeing a cartoon in a magazine I believe was called The Realist. In this cartoon, as I remember it, five or six acquaintances, of varying ages, perhaps a family, were gathered around the television set viewing an interview in which the respondent has just said to the interviewer something like: “I don’t give a **** about that!”  Above the six viewers’ heads were written the particular four letter swear word imaginatively supplied in silence by each viewer. There were no duplications—a different swear word in all six cases! If sites in the Occupy Movement are not always able to form and advocate rational proposals to centers of power and authority, perhaps they could arrange to make statements whereby we citizens are enabled to each punch in our favorite epithets, problem analyses and remedies. Thus energized, we just might take back our democracy again. Good luck to the Occupy Movement.

Will Callender

December 10, 2011 ©

5 thoughts on “Occupy Movement Befriended: Unsolicited Advice

Add yours

  1. I just wrote a fairly lenghty comment only to find it was in the wrong place and went nowhere–not even into cyberspace! I’m not going to repeat the whole comment but the following is the gist. I said that I, too, wish the “Occupiers” well even if I too stay home. I suggested that emotion may tend to “move” people initially more than rationality. Only then are they ready for rational solutions that may require themselves to change.I agree with the author that “intentional communities” have generally failed. True community is the result of shared goals, dreams and actions. And I shared the hope that the “Occupiers” can help restore a shared sense of purpose in this country and elsewhere. Finally, I voiced my fear both of too much order and too much chaos. Sometimes the social order needs to be moved and such actions are often messy and less than rational, but too often violence and unwanted consequences result–my fear for the Arab Spring. With the author, I hope the “Occupy Wall Street” movement can mature into offering real solutions to our current national malaise.

  2. In the early 1930s during the Great Depression, new communities or Hooverville’s were created at the margins of our great cities. Homeless, unemployed, run-away children and adolescents and others formed these shantytowns. The west side of upper Manhattan bordering the Hudson River housed tens of thousands. Only the WPA project to create Riverside Park displaced this community of the disaffected.

    Are not the new Occupy settlements communities of those like-situated: unemployed, discouraged workers, young people saddled with student debt, people radicalized by the Great Recession and the growth of income inequality, those alienated from the political establishment and the failure to regulate our financial sector. What unites them all is a pervasive anger.

  3. That’s a valuable analysis. I hadn’t known of Hooverville, although I think I can guess who the place was named after, and why. Your comment made me realize that I have been stereotyping the “middle-class” young folks with the massive diploma debt as being different from the “really poor.” I had assumed they could go back to adequate income via their parents. But perhaps they can’t. Your point is important: the assembled have a shared anger.

  4. I think you are correct to differentiate the educated young as a debtor group from those who are members of an underclass. The educated young have human capital and connection with social networks despite the collapse of opportunity structures. They come to Occupy encampments with Apple MacBook Pros, iPhones, Northface jackets and other branded gear. Few have known food insecurity, hunger, or the stresses of extreme poverty in hyper segregated ghettoes. However, this new debtor class is angry about joblessness, diminished prospects, and alienation from American institutions.
    I wonder how many really poor people are participating in the Occupy movement and if they can make connections with the other groups.

  5. These Occupiers are enjoying the riches and benefits of capitalism but seem to forget. Our system is not all perfect even though it is the best. The movement is a waste of time and resources, I believe. They would be more productive to pick up their tents and try to suggest ways to improve on what we already have. I think the movement is a disaster and has failed to do what they intended and hoped for.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

A WordPress.com Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: