Thursday, April 12, 2012

99% Spring vs Occupy: Coopting, Colonizing or Complementing?

Two weeks ago, three different people sent me invitations to the 99% Spring Training.

When I looked at the announcements, my first thought was, “Why would people think I need this?” The Spring Training seems intended to bring in people who have not done direct action before, teach them what it is and how to do it, motivate and organize them into groups. I would only clog it up with my overwrought, jaded energy, if I could find the time to go.

I was also surprised that MoveOn is organizing direct action trainings. I associate them with electoral politics, and if I have been understanding my MSNBC and Comedy Central talk show hosts correctly, there’s an election brewing, right? Why isn’t MoveOn organizing people to go out and register voters?

My third thought was, “Wow, this is coming from three really different places.” One was from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, home of Books Not Bars and Green for All and various other social justice movements in Oakland. One had come from a friend in India, and I think she had gotten it via someone involved in immigrant women’s organizing. The third was from, and the email was focused on climate justice activism but mentioned that the training would not be solely around that issue.

Whatever else you can say about the 99% Spring Training, it’s broad-based.

Yesterday, another email was going around like wildfire. This one is called “The ‘99% Spring’ Brings Co-optation into Full Bloom: Counter-Insurgency as Insurgency.” Written by an Occupy Oakland militant who is also a Ph.D. candidate at UC Santa Cruz, the piece accuses the 99% Spring campaign of being a ruse to “contain and defang” the Occupy movement by “sucking a large cross-section of Occupy into Obama’s reelection campaign, watering down it’s [sic] radical politics, and using these mass trainings as a groundwork to put forward 100,000 ‘good protesters’ to overshadow the ‘bad protesters’ (who actual take [sic] personal risks and/or have radical politics), to ease the State’s ongoing campaign to pick us off one by one….This is not a riding of the coattails of a hip social movement; this will be a form of counter-insurgency. This will be used to disrupt, discredit and destroy the Occupy movement.”

Okay, as I said, I was (and remain) suspicious too, but those are some strong accusations!

The writer has some legitimate points. It’s very true that the “good protester/bad protester” trope has been worn to death in the press about Occupy. To allege, however, that “Those in power would like to see nothing more than for 100,000 people to be trained to chain themselves to local bank branches for 6-9 months, hooting about their ‘greedy side,’ get disillusioned at how fruitless that is, and go back to playing video games and downloading pirated music after Obama’s election,” is, to say the least, hyperbole.

There’s no evidence that those in power – whether you are talking about the Obama administration or the mayors and police departments of Oakland, San Francisco or New York, are anxious to see hundreds of thousands – or even hundreds – chain themselves to local banks. Remember NYPD pepper spraying people marching around closed Wall Street institutions on a Saturday? At least two people I know had their arms broken by police for occupying Bank of America at a student-led (nonviolent) action (of far less than 100,000) in San Francisco last year.

Author Mike King suggests that “Every single Occupation that doesn’t want to turn into nothing more than an ample pool of chumps registering people to vote for the same Obama administration that has declared an all-out war against us, should bring forward a resolution at their General Assembly to condemn this clear attempt to destroy our movement.”

I have a better idea. How about some old-fashioned noncooperation? Don’t go to the trainings. Don’t participate in their actions. Do nothing to help them, and don’t waste your energy fighting them. Concentrate on the great organizing you’re doing, and make your exciting street actions the irresistable next step for the people who cut their teeth on choreographed blockades.  People who go to a training because they want to blockade banks are not going to accidentally start registering voters for Obama, and the arguments about property damage and confrontations with the cops were going on in the Occupies long before the 99% Spring came on the scene.

What’s the truth about the 99% Spring?

An Occupier from New York who attended the training for trainers, with some skepticism, writes:

“I’m just back from two days of training for trainers, and this is my verdict: the Training for Trainers was fantastic. Hundreds of people in attended the same training as me in New York, and thousands more took part across the country.

“The folks attending the training represented a cross section of our country’s progressive, 99% movement. I met community organizers, peace activists, union members, occupiers, and many more. The group was inter-generational, racially diverse, gender balanced, and included folks from all NYC boroughs, Long Island, CT, NJ, and upstate. My impression is that most are experienced organizers, but from many different traditions and organizational homes.

“There was zero, none, nada discussion of the Obama campaign, electoral politics, the Democratic Party, or MoveOn. To sum up then, the critiques against the 99% Spring are false. Those who lobbed uninformed critiques are now in a position of having to apologize and take back their words or lose credibility. They ‘proved’ that MoveOn provided support for an amazing, collaborative effort resting on teachings used widely inside the Occupy movement…. the 99% Spring is an example of a large powerful organization placing resources in the service of a fairly radical agenda and allowing others to take the lead.”
Now that’s obviously one person’s opinion, and what will happen remains to be seen. But it seems ridiculous and self-destructive for any of the Occupy movements to wage a big campaign against another grassroots movement.

The 99% Spring is not going to draw people away from Occupy. What’s more likely to do that, if anything – and I’m rooting against this – is the factionalism and ideological purity that is already threatening many of the groups. Parts of Occupy Oakland, as I write, are fighting with Decolonize Oakland over getting a permit for a May Day rally. The Decolonize folks, who are primarily queer people of color, have built a big coalition including many immigrant rights organizations and want to make sure that undocumented people can participate without fear of being arrested and held for deportation.

In Bahrain I attended both permitted and unpermitted marches. The permitted marches were organized by a coalition of opposition parties, and stayed on approved routes determined not to be disruptive to business or traffic (though in fact, all the cars arriving for the marches caused some pretty serious traffic jams).

At first, I was unenthusiastic about the permitted marches. We were there to witness human rights violations and we assumed the permitted marches wouldn’t have any. And here at home, I always prefer militant street actions to permitted marches; we used to call the annual spring mobilizations “activist church.” But as an outsider, I had a very different reaction to the big marches in Bahrain. When I saw the thousands and thousands of people streaming in from every direction, I was deeply impressed.

That doesn’t mean every march should be permitted. The smaller groups of people marching in Manama being doused with tear gas, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja starving himself to death in prison, even the young men throwing Molotov cocktails – all are also moving in their own way. But there is an impact to having masses and masses of people involved.

Occupy has brought in a ton of people. Occupy Oakland has had a series of barbeques in different neighborhoods in the last month which have had great participation from diverse communities. 99% Spring is likely to appeal to a very different group of people, who share Occupy’s goals but are uncomfortable with some of its rhetoric, tactics or culture. It’s a liberal movement, yes. But a liberal movement is not a bad thing for a radical movement to have. I’ve spent most of my life doing radical activism in a political climate where liberals are in short supply. I haven’t gotten very far. I’ll be glad for a chance to be a radical pushing on liberals who are pushing on moderates.


  1. There's a discussion of this here:

  2. Thank you Kate. And your photo from Bahrain is especially moving and effective.

  3. 99% Spring is [...] a liberal movement, yes. But a liberal movement is not a bad thing for a radical movement to have.

    I agree.

    In this week's SF Chronicle Books there was a review of When God Talks Back, by T.M. Luhrmann. Luhrmann is an anthropologist, and her book sounds pretty fascinating, but what really struck me was this paragraph from the review:

    The form of Christianity we call evangelicalism, with its emphasis on personal holiness and conversion (being "born again"), thrives despite its controversial status. In fact, it has taken America by storm. Ninety-nine percent of Americans believe in God or a "higher power," and of these believers, 40 percent - easily more than 100 million - identify themselves as evangelical. Evangelicalism is, of course, a very big tent.

    A hundred million evangelicals? Wow, that's a big number. Big enough to make me wonder, so I checked against a Pew report of a few years back, and did some arithmetic against U.S. Census numbers from the same year, and came up with a number closer to 58 million.

    What's that got to do with liberals and radicals?

    It's a vast world out there, is what. And while evangelical Christians aren't all to the extreme right of liberal, I'm guessing there are precious few of them who would call themselves radically left.

    When ideological purity is set beside the weight of how many of who believe what, it looks pretty puny to me. I'm with you Kate, give me a liberal movement any day of any 21st century week. Gotta fill that tent...

  4. Been reading varying versions of what the 99% Spring is supposed to be. One mentioned Obama pins being available on the info table. I went to the training on Vashon which was actually fun, no elections were even remotely mentioned and it was a rehash of what i already know, but a significant number of older people, most not active since the Vietnam War, came to get their inspired responses to occupy activated into direct action skills. Also shifting away from the term occupy is very important. Way too many people of color have issues with this oppressive amerikkkan term pushing instead for Decolonize and Liberate. Anywhere people channel their courage at this late date is essential. Last chance time is upon us and those with a inkling of awareness fully know this. May the slanderers take heed for they could be undercutting their own successes. Does no good to keep labeling any not enthused by domineering self described "radicals" as whimpy liberals or reformists. Something bigger than any of us is afoot. We need a spectrum of approaches to bring down the killers of all life and a healthy children's future.

  5. I ran into an old friend at a birthday party yesterday and he had been to the training in Santa Cruz. Sounds like it was maybe unnecessarily canned but he said the same thing -- the crowd (150+) was mostly older, a little leery of "Occupy" but wanted to take action. He thought it was possible that they would try to constrain people's actions to certain approved scenarios, and I have certainly had that experience with MoveOn before. But that's where Occupy/Decolonize/Liberate can step in with more interesting possibilities, if they have them.