Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Understanding Movements: Extraordinary Times versus the Rest of the Time

A friend who has been very involved in Occupy SF put on his Facebook status the other day that this movement has changed everything he thought about movement building. I suspect a lot of activists, especially younger ones, are feeling that way.

I’m not.

This 99% movement is amazing. It’s glorious. It’s so time for it. But it’s not The Movement. I hate to say it, but it’s not going to last.

I keep hearing people say it’s been 30 years since there was a movement this big. I don’t know where they’re getting that thirty year figure from, or if it’s just that the people who are saying it really mean 1968-72 and don’t want to admit that that was forty years ago. But in fact, there was a movement that was this huge and this amazing that started just about thirty years ago the antinuclear movement. In the summer of 1980, hundreds were arrested at dozens of actions that temporarily shut down nuclear power plants all over the country. Thirty years ago next year, a million people took to the streets of New York to demand a freeze on nuclear weapons. Between March of 1982 and June of 1983, we had over 3,000 arrests at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs, where nuclear weapons are – sadly still -- developed. Many of the people arrested in those nonviolent protests spent two weeks or even thirty days in Santa Rita jail. We were The Movement then. Almost no one even remembers it.

Courtesy CISPES

 In the mid-eighties we had another huge movement. It was called The Pledge of Resistance; I mentioned it in my last blog. Over 100,000 people signed pledges to do civil disobedience in opposition to U.S. aggression in Latin America, and thousands actually did it. In one week in 1985 there were 1,000 arrests across the country in hundreds of local actions.

Remember 2003? Millions of people around this country marched, as part of an international movement, to stop the Iraq war before it started. When that failed, tens of thousands took part in nonviolent direct action. Over 1,600 were arrested in San Francisco alone in the first three days. That was just eight years ago.

1999-2000 was the year of the “anti-globalization” (what I prefer to call global anticapitalist) convergences. It was the year of the Letter-Number-Code-Name actions: N30, A16, D2K (November 30, 1999 was the day 15,000 people, more or less, shut down the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle; April 16 was the day 5,000 or so protested the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings in DC; Democratic Convention 2000 brought thousands to Los Angeles for heavily policed marches, concerts and the occasional sit-in.

Where are the people who created those movements? Some were students or youth organizers who have gone on to be the community organizers of today, working for nonprofits or unions on small-scale grassroots campaigns. Some burned out and went to graduate school, or became depoliticized. Some were among those who became inspired by Obama’s promise of hope and change, and some of those have since become disillusioned and depoliticized, while others have become radicalized and maybe are among those sitting in in parks across the nation. Some of us were long-time radicals then, and we’re still doing what we were doing before that – helping to fan the flames of whatever spark seems most promising. Today, it’s the 99% movement.

This movement has many things in common with all of those. It’s mobilized thousands of new activists and brought some people who haven’t been active in a while back into the streets. It’s organized on the principles of nonhierarchical direct democracy, which the media find infuriating and incomprehensible and people with jobs and busy lives find frustrating because it takes so long to make decisions. Like most, if not all, leaderless movements in this country, it does in fact have self-appointed and unacknowledged leaders and they tend to be white men. It’s plagued with racism and sexism which mostly stay bubbling under the surface, denied even by women, people of color and queer folks. It’s starting to have some divisions around issues like how confrontational to be with the police, whether it’s claiming to speak for people it doesn’t represent, and whether it’s hogging media coverage that rightly belong to other movements who can’t get any.

These are the tensions that tend to fragment and ultimately destroy movements. I certainly hope that this one will prove the exception, but it’s hard to imagine. For one thing, it’s about to be winter. There’s a reason that it was Arab Spring.

It would have been great if it had begun in June; that would have given it four months before it started to snow in New York and Chicago and pour endlessly in San Francisco. In fact, that was meant to happen, according to a very informative article on the organizing history of this spontaneous movement.

“Throughout April and May, members of A99 were organizing and debating possible future actions. They decided that Flag Day, June 14th, would be an appropriate time to launch actions. …

“On June 1st, this Anonymous call to action was published to AmpedStatus:

Acts of Resistance: What Are You Going To Do To Rebel Against Economic Tyranny?

On June 13th, it was announced that as part this day of action a group of people will occupy Liberty Park, a strategic public space closest to Wall Street and the New York Federal Reserve building. This Anonymous statement was released:

Activists to Occupy Financial District’s Liberty Park Until Demands Are Met – Operation Empire State Rebellion Begins

With only 16 people showing up at Liberty Park, and only four prepared to occupy it, this part of the day’s actions were considered by some to be a disappointing failure. Though this intense form of civil disobedience didn’t gain enough support at that time, the many other actions happening throughout the day were very successful.”

The occupations have not yet met with severe repression. Yes, people have been pepper sprayed, yes, 700+ were arrested, but that’s not the type of repression that kills movements.

I mentioned the antinuclear movement. In June of 1982, 1200 people were arrested for blocking the entrances to Lawrence Livermore Labs in Livermore, California. They refused to give names and held jail solidarity until a deal was reached, which took a couple of days. Everyone was released in 2-3 days, after pleading guilty to jaywalking and being sentenced to time served. One year later, about the same number of people were arrested doing the same type of action. There had been numerous smaller actions during the year, and many of those activists had been sentenced to 30 days if they would not accept lengthy probation periods. But we believed that the large number at the June action, like the previous year’s, would make it impossible for the system to handle us for such a long time.

The men's tent, Santa Rita 1983 from my friend Luke Hauser's website
The two judges in that district took a hard line toward us. They wanted to quash the movement, which had not only organized actions at Livermore but had also disrupted tests of the MX missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and was aligned with other huge mobilizations in other parts of the country, like the nuclear weapons production site at Rocky Flats, Colorado. They insisted that we all accept two years’ probation or 45 days in jail. We sat in a makeshift prison camp composed of circus tents for nearly two weeks, and when a deal was finally struck, we all had to serve another four days in jail or pay a fine of $250. People lost jobs, missed kids’ birthdays, got kicked out of apartments because they couldn’t pay the rent. But we had had a great time together and gotten huge press. Daniel Ellsberg, who was among the arrestees, had debated the issue with District Attorney on ABC’s Nightline. When we got out, we said triumphantly that we would not be deterred, we were just getting started.

That was the last really big action at the Labs, which continue to develop weapons systems to this day. People had all kinds of reasons for not wanting to do civil disobedience again. Some felt that we had exhausted the utility of the tactic and needed to move into community organizing. Some felt we needed a legal strategy or to pressure policymakers. Some felt the whole nuclear issue was too liberal, and wanted to focus on opposing U.S. intervention in Central America or apartheid in South Africa. Some thought we should be working on the economic war in Oakland.

But people were also afraid. Most couldn’t risk being in jail another two weeks, or even longer. And for all the great reasons and ideas people had about what they were going to do instead, that would be more effective than symbolic actions, most of them didn’t follow through. Some did. Western States Legal Foundation was formed by a group who wanted to pursue a legal and policy strategy, and they are one of the leading antinuclear policy groups in the world today. TriValley Cares, which formed to do outreach and organizing in the Livermore area http://www.trivalleycares.org/, won the right to place an antinuclear exhibit in the visitor’s center at the Lab. They continue to organize, activate and educate to this day. Many of us took the skills we had learned in the Livermore Action Group into the Pledge of Resistance and later movements. But the fact is that the huge antinuclear direct action movement in California was crushed and the weapons continue to be developed and tested at Livermore.

I don’t say that’s going to happen to the 99% movement, but logic says it’s more likely than not. The media are going to lose interest, unless the tactics of the protests or the repression they face escalate. And if the tactics escalate, the repression is sure to follow. Capital and the government it controls are not going to just sit by and say, “Oh, well if people really want us to pay more, we will.” They will ignore the movement for a while, but if it seems like it’s picking up steam and not petering out, they’re going to move to crush it, and they’re probably going to succeed. Some of the activists will move to another level, and the rest will melt into the woodwork again, hopefully to come out another day.

And when that happens, the things people have learned about movement building during the times of less activity, when we’re sitting in rooms of a dozen people, calling 20,000 people to come out and getting 16, are going to be important. Those are what keep the tiny sparks alive so one of them can catch and ignite the flame.

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