Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Open Letter to Occupy Tampa, its Members, Allies, and Supporters (and to other Occupies in Crisis).

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Last Thursday, I was invited to answer some questions about income inequality and Occupy for a continuing education course at a progressive church in north Tampa.  I was really amazed to find that this group of a dozen people in their sixties, seventies, and even eighties were eager to hear more about Occupy.  I told them about the movement’s drive to get the money out of politics, and to return to people a sense of the democratic process.  A frail-seeming woman in a wheelchair quipped, “If only you’d been around for Reagan.”  But then a man with a snow-white beard spoke up: “Everything you’re saying sounds wonderful – but why am I not hearing more about it?”

That’s when I noticed he was on the verge of tears.  He knew that he was witnessing a great moment of possibility, but he sensed that it was slipping away.

He was right.

Occupy has opened a window through which we can see a new world.  It comes after decades of neoliberalism in which looking for new possibilities, much less working towards them, has seemed futile.  By bringing together and giving voice to people committed to living in that new world, it has shifted the political culture of what is still the richest and most powerful country in the world.  It has shown its potential, and the need for it is obvious.  As that supportive but dispirited man said in all sincerity, “Without you, we’re lost.”
Hearing just how much faith – or at least, how much hope – these people were pinning on Occupy was a wakeup call for me.  We still have a lot to do, and we have massive untapped resources with which to work – silent allies, waiting to be activated.

Of course, returning to the reality of Occupy Tampa was another sort of wakeup call.  Because we’re on the verge, in Tampa as in many places across the country, of losing all of this possibility.  Of losing everything we’ve worked for.  Those of us who have been proud to be associated with Occupy Tampa are now at risk of being associated, for the rest of our lives, with disappointment, failure, maybe even catastrophe.  While the air is still full of possibility, on the ground, we are at a crisis.

Many – in fact, most – of the energized and purposeful individuals who showed up for the early days of Occupy Tampa are no longer active participants.  As those activists have trickled away, the space that has been shared to us by one of our great outside allies has come to be mainly of non-activists, where there are regular outbursts of violence, hate speech, drug abuse, and even active sabotage of political projects.  It is only a matter of time before this stew of instability explodes and forever tarnishes the name of Occupy Tampa.

In order to address these issues of fracture and decline, I’m encouraging all past and present allies of Occupy Tampa to make the effort to come out to our General Assembly this Saturday, April 28th, at 7:30pm, following our discussion of May Day planning.  There, we need to address two key issues – first, how to maintain cohesion even as affinity groups of Occupy Tampa pursue independent projects, and second, how to deal with individuals whose actions threaten the work of our organization from within.

As the great movement thinker Cindy Millstein has emphasized again and again over the last six months, this moment is fleeting.  The sense of possibility that came with Occupy may disappear at any moment – remember what happened when 9/11 put a sharp end to the anti-globalization movement?  We must seize this moment while it lasts.  But a major part of seizing this moment is making it last – working to carry forward the initial burst of energy that brought us together.  If you ever considered yourself a member or sympathizer of Occupy Tampa, you are needed NOW to make sure the moment does not simply pass.

I want to frame the discussion that we will have on Saturday.  A few related issues and dynamics have gotten us where we are now.  At bottom, all are negative downsides of the unique and exciting aspects of Occupy’s initial structure – particularly, the way it invited everyone to participate in the process of changing the world.

This openness drew in huge numbers of people who, though they had a strong sense that there was something wrong, hadn’t previously felt empowered to work to solve the country’s problems.  Occupy gave people the sense that they could do something, make a difference – they saw the sudden media attention and excitement surrounding Occupy Wall Street and had an instantaneous sense that this was their moment.  But what very few of these newly-activated activists were aware of was the huge amount of work and patience that had gone into the initial Occupy Wall Street action. 

This was not just the work of planning one event, though that was definitely substantial, but the work of building the entire network and culture that made its success possible, a community of thousands of activists nationwide built around consensus process and direct action.  It was the work of the dozens or hundreds of actions over the past decade that didn’t become a national phenomenon, but which crucially built the skills and relationships that would later make one possible.  Just as Rosa Parks’ years of training as an activists are often lost in the simple story that she was ‘tired’ when she sat down on the front row of that bus, the years – decades! – of work that went into Occupy Wall Street was rendered invisible for people watching from the far reaches of the country – especially places like Tampa, where activism has long been dormant.  All people saw on television was a sudden uprising.

And that was appropriate – because most Americans’ only understanding of how one changes the world these days comes from television and movies.  In those formats, problems are resolved and triumphal music plays within an hour, or two hours, or thirty minutes.  Revolution is The Revolution, a glorious moment that ends in triumph.  Many people at Occupies across the country, including Occupy Tampa, thought that The Revolution was here, that their heroic music was about to play.  When that did not happen – when it became increasingly obvious that the systematic changes demanded by Occupy would require years of struggle, trying and failing, learning – many people decided that they weren’t up for it, and went to seek their starring role elsewhere.  I wish them luck.

The effort to make America work for all people has not been undertaken for your entertainment.  It is not filled with special effects.  There is only occasionally music.

But even those genuinely committed to working for change have taken steps back, for a variety of reasons.  Life is difficult, especially in a system in which our survival relies on our submission to so many forces larger and more powerful than ourselves.  Many people saw the momentary potential of Occupy, committed massive amounts of time to it in the Fall, and by March had entered a period of serious burnout.  Others continue working tirelessly for the movement, but in ways and in places where their ongoing effort is not always obvious.

For better or for worse, The Revolution is not imminent.  Personally, I think that the revolution is now, but also eternal – a constant part of our lives that we must nurture to maintain.  There will be no moment after which Everything is Fixed – instead, we must continue working, constantly, in ways large and small, to fix everything.  To do this work, we must build an organization that can move forward indefinitely – that will not be laid low by burnout and the failure of communication.  There’s at least one very concrete change that can help Occupy Tampa combat all of these forces. 

We must transition to having one weekly General Assembly.

A single weekly GA will allow people to stay connected to one another’s efforts in a way that is sustainable within the confines of living a full life.  Our current setup, in which we technically have a GA every night, has made it more and more difficult for people to network as participation has become less constant. There’s little motivation to show up to GA on any given night, because there’s little chance that people you need to work or communicate with will show up on the same night.  The main work of the movement, after all, has never taken place during GAs, but between them.  The GA is a way to keep abreast of what others are doing, share ideas, then break off to get down to nitty-gritty.

Think about it this way – having GA one night a week makes that single meeting SEVEN TIMES more effective for networking with other members of the movement than any single GA under our current setup.  That’s seven times the motivation to get out and go.

Our nominal commitment to nightly GAs has eroded our sense of connectedness and common cause.  It has sapped our will, because we have lost awareness of just how strong we are.  In addition to its practical benefits, a single weekly GA, with the chance to see our numbers in one place again, would be a morale booster.

The decline in our morale, participation, and sense of purpose has contributed to a much more acute problem.  Our Occupation site at Voice of Freedom Park has become a toxic environment.  Many of the full-time residents there are good-hearted, intelligent people who are committed to the ideas of Occupy.  But there are also many who have either little interest or little ability to serve the needs of the movement.  There is verbal and physical violence on a regular basis.  It is becoming a node of tension with, and may soon become a material source of harm to, the neighborhood we had hoped to help.

There are a lot of different possible solutions to this situation, but the overriding thing we need now is participation, at least in the short term.  The revolution isn’t coming tomorrow – but something really, really bad could happen at Voice of Freedom at any moment, and those of us still there on a regular basis don’t have the resources, knowledge, time, and energy to solve the problem on our own.  We need help.  This is not about yet again putting out fires, it’s about changing our operating principles so that we don’t have to devote energy to internal policing in the future.

To fix the situation, we have to understand what brought it about.  I’ve already mentioned how Occupy’s commitment to openness brought in a lot of new activist energy, and the same openness was built into and strengthened by the commitment to public space and/or long-term occupation.  But just as the openness of Occupy brought in a share of short-time thrill-seekers along with the committed new activists, Occupy’s encampments, with their friendly community, sense of excitement, and support systems, attracted a share of people with serious personal baggage along with the politically committed and directed.  Many of these are people who have been seriously harmed by the very social structures that we’re working to change, so it only makes sense that we do our best to welcome them.   Treating people who have been denied security, education, and dignity by our current system as equal participants in a mass movement is Occupy’s single most radical and visionary gesture.  It’s the main reason I personally have stuck with Occupy Tampa rather than taking one of the many hands that have been extended to me to join with existing progressive and even radical groups in the area.

Occupy is not and should not be a social services organization, but we provide immense help simply by attempting to treat as equals people who most of the surrounding culture treats as barely human.  It has been truly amazing watching Occupy Tampa live up to the promise of this model.  We have seen small flareups of violence and crime, but on the whole we’ve been very fortunate.  Those with strong mediation skills have worked to solve problems between various parties who have less skill and experience living and working constructively with groups.  We haven’t always succeeded in these efforts, but I think we’ve done an amazing amount of good along the way. 

But this is a model that requires some kind of balance between people with good communication skills and impulse control, and those with problems in those areas.  Currently at Occupy Tampa, as many more mainstream Occupiers return to the lives they had before Occupy, the proportion has swung tragically out of whack.  The breakdown of civility and rising tension amongst full-time occupiers still at camp is palpable.

As much as I am inspired by Occupy's openness, I don’t think it is a viable long term solution to constantly call mediators in to resolve the sorts of inane disputes that have recently resulted in serious problems up to and including violence.  In my opinion, we need to follow up on the work that our Metacommunication group has been doing in setting guidelines of acceptable behavior – but we have to back them up with a clear message, from a sizeable presence of activists, about what is and is not in line with our mission as Occupy Tampa.

To speak to a particular instance, I was recently told that two disturbed individuals who have been staying at Occupy Tampa went out of their way to sabotage work done by the Gardening group.  If this is true, these individuals need to be told to leave, and to never come back.  We should have a similarly unwavering policy towards people who have shown predelictions for violence, hate speech, or other behavior that represents an existential threat to Occupy Tampa.  We haven’t been able to enforce such standards because of a lack of participation, and a consequent lack of legitimacy.  Just to tie things back together, having large-scale weekly GAs would provide that sense of legitimacy.  As we’ve already seen, a large group of people coming to consensus that they’d like to never see someone again tends to be self-enforcing.

I know that many people will have a hard time with the idea of throwing people out of camp.  But let me emphasize what I just said – certain behaviors represent an existential threat to our movement.  When we allow violent and unstable individuals to remain associated with us in any way, there is the constant possibility that some series of events will unfold that will give Occupy Tampa such a bad name that it will effectively destroy us as a group.  We can’t let anyone do that.  In the end, there is little difference between an actual government infiltrator or saboteur and a drunk with a knife.  Would you let a known infiltrator continue to affiliate with us?

I think there’s a simple solution to our camp problem: a zero-tolerance policy towards shitheads.

So, those are my thoughts on the causes and solutions of our current stalled situation.  We cannot expect anyone to sacrifice their health or sanity for Occupy.  We have to shift to a model that allows people to balance the effort of living in the world with the effort of changing it.  We all need time to work, love, and even agitate outside of Occupy.  But the relationships we’ve formed as Occupy Tampa, along with the symbolism of Occupy itself, are simply too powerful to let it slip away.  We have to have the chance and the setting to come together regularly, as Occupy, and remind ourselves of just how strong we are.

We have all made real sacrifices to get this far – how can we give up now?


Roger Butterfield said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roger Butterfield said...

Upward wiggly fingers!

Joel Klinepeter said...

Thank you, we truly need the help at the encampment. I and others have been trying but we're all frustrated, exhausted, and I can speak for myself that I'm about out of ideas.

Without the help of the group we won't be able to hold the encampment together much longer and the daily stress there is taking a mental toll on all of us.

Joel Klinepeter said...

Thank you, we truly need the help at the encampment. I and others have been trying but we're all frustrated, exhausted, and I can speak for myself that I'm about out of ideas.

Without the help of the group we won't be able to hold the encampment together much longer and the daily stress there is taking a mental toll on all of us.

David Z. Morris said...

Joel, I can't imagine what you're dealing with on a day to day basis. Hopefully we can pitch in and all take collective responsibility for what's going on before it brings everyone down.