There's Something Happening Here

The year started with creeping realization of just how much worse things might become, politically and economically, given the results of November 2010 elections (with the right wing takeover of the House of Representatives and many statehouses). Soon we started to hear about massive demonstrations in Tunisia. By mid-February we were completely mesmerized by the protesters in Tahrir Square, as we watched what would come to be called the Arab Spring. Next came Madison, WI, where tens of thousands of public sector workers, students and farmers marched almost daily for several weeks while a smaller group occupied the state capitol. Over the summer, groups like National People’s Action and their allies carried out creative actions against big bank targets in the heartland. Meanwhile, Congress became a train-wreck: we have witnessed repeated threats of government shut-downs, a debt ceiling debacle and the “austerity of hope” in our states and cities. Confidence in government institutions has plummeted. Over the summer, people fought back against corporatocracy and austerity on the streets of Madrid, London and Athens. And now, there’s definitely something happening here in the form of “Occupy Wall Street.”

Through it all, progressive and left social movement groups have been trying to legitimize a set of ideas and proposals around bottom-up democracy, a new, more morally-grounded and sustainable economy, reining in corporate power and making government institutions more responsive. Drawing attention to ideas about, and opening up space for new thinking about economy, government, civil society, while exposing the lie of ‘post-racialism’ requires a variety of tactics and many types of organizations, including peaceful yet radically disruptive ones that spark peoples’ imaginations, and/or that at least show people who are fed up with Wall Street and Washington that there are ways to come together besides joining the morally bankrupt and authoritarian Tea Party.

Is it all coming together as a movement? It may be too soon to tell. But that is what we all should be aiming for. I have to admit the convergence on Wall Street that has spread across the country took me by surprise. I am scrambling to catch up. I do know that the social change world needs the nimbleness and energy of these kinds of emerging social movement groups. They push more established groups to broaden their demands, democratize their processes, and get back in touch with the principles that brought them together in the first place. One way that Occupy Wall Street is doing this is by emphasizing it’s pre-figurative nature: these protesters are not ready to shift the conversation from broad principles and vision for a new society toward specific demands for economic and political reform. As they point out, making demands of the system can reinforce the notion that the system is fundamentally okay and just needs some tinkering. As one participant put it “You are creating a vision of the kind of society you want to have in miniature.”

The protesters’ understandable resistance to pressures to clarify their demands should not deter other groups from putting forward their demands, in the short-run, while laying the groundwork for the society we want in the long-run. On the contrary, this kind of spontaneous movement can bring urgency to our ongoing efforts around bank reform, jobs, foreclosure prevention, etc. It is fortuitous that this is happening now, in advance of planned actions on the part of the New Bottom Line to rally support to Make Wall Street Pay, to push states around foreclosure settlements, to protect peoples’ homes, to support jobs programs, to make our tax system more progressive and to get real bank reform back onto the agenda. It also is heartening to see young people seizing upon the symbolic significance of Wall Street as a way of saying this is where the power is and this is what has to fundamentally change.

I appreciate the significance for Occupy Wall Street that they are willing to engage with other movement groups, including Labor and Washington-based advocacy groups, most of whom have forms of organization that the protesters do not support. I also salute the agility and openness of leaders in organized labor and among the many community and faith-based organizing networks that are rallying in support of Occupy Wall Street. They are listening to their hearts, and perhaps to their members as well, who are feeling inspired by the commitment and creativity of the young protesters who are willing and able to speak for the 99 percent who are being worked over by Wall Street and its elected enablers. As a result, Wednesday’s solidarity march could be ground-breaking. Still, bringing together an emerging formation with existing ones is going to be challenging. Social movement groups from varying traditions, such as labor, faith, civil rights and community organizing have different ways of doing things, different approaches to decision-making and leadership, and different organizational imperatives. For the long-term, these differences will have to be accepted and appreciated, somehow.

What does social movement history tell us about the possibilities of this moment? While there is a lot about the times we are in that are historically specific, it is worth noting what this moment has in common with previous times of upsurge, where simmering grievances and discontent have bubbled up. I think of the 1930s when ‘the 99 percent’ of workers and farmers responded to multiple pressures and contradictions. Their expressions of protest took many different forms, as they should today. They also helped lay the groundwork for all the great movements that followed: labor, civil rights, community organizing, etc. In the mid-1970s through the mid 1980s, the anti-nuclear movement was galvanized by groups like the Clamshell Alliance. With their emphasis on modeling egalitarian and non-hierarchical practices, the Clamshell Alliance strove to use political protest as a means to achieve cultural revolution. Inspired by a vision of an ecologically balanced, nonviolent, egalitarian society, they engaged in political action through affinity groups, made decisions by consensus, and practiced mass civil disobedience.

In an interview with Ezra Klein, Occupy Wall Street participant David Graeber acknowledged that turning this kind of protest into actual social change that transforms society is an interesting and challenging question. This also is reminiscent of the Clamshell Alliance. They succeeded in stopping the Seabrook nuclear power plant, and played a significant role in halting the construction of thousands of other planned facilities. In this way, they were able to turn protest into social change. Still, once the larger anti-nuclear movement lost steam, the urgency of their culture of radical egalitarianism did not necessarily permeate other organizations and institutions. The Clamshell experience provides a model for participatory-democratic organizing and leadership --- one that every social movement group can learn from. Perhaps the same will be true for Occupy Wall Street. As a reminder about these lessons, I took another look at Barbara Epstein’s insightful analysis of the anti-nuclear movement, called Political Protest and Cultural Revolution. Epstein lifts up what was groundbreaking and unique about groups like Clamshell, while honestly assessing the tensions and internal contradictions that emerged, especially around questions of leadership. These questions deserve their own, separate commentary.

While emergent social formations like Occupy Wall Street (and Clamshell) can alter the movement landscape in lasting ways, the actual mobilization itself tends to have a limited lifespan. It could be short, it could be longer (as it was for Clamshell), but the ecstatic intensity of direct action and protest is hard to sustain long-term. Whatever its life-cycle, we can do much to help ensure that this concentrated energy gives life to new kinds of organizing, even as it shakes up and rejuvenates existing ones. Together, old and new social movement formations could develop movement ‘hubs,’ where some strategic mapping and planning, coordination around roles and division of labor can happen. Again, it is too soon to tell whether this it a likely trajectory for the current efforts.

To turn this moment into an opportunity for building a stronger movement infrastructure, groups will need to sort out a division of labor; groups that can play different roles, in coordinated fashion. An infrastructure that can engage in strategic practice. We are a long way from having such an infrastructure. My fervent hope is that people involved in each kind of social movement formation can see the advantages of working with others, appreciating their respective roles --- toward a strategy for long-term movement building.

And, along the way, let us finally put an end to our
nation’s political and economic subservience to Wall Street. Amen.




What better than recognizing the power of the moment, being grounded in the history, and looking forward to the possibilities of the future!  Thanks for this call for intentionality in collaboration, infrastructure building and strategic planning as we move forward.  This is the kind of sustenance we need for movement building - and the humor at the end makes the flavor just right.  Amen, indeed.