Reflections on October 2011 and the occupations across the U.S.

A few friends have asked me to write about my trip to DC, and I know I need to pull together a report for MPT and for the wonderful folks whose support made it possible for me to go (those who contributed $ for transportation, my beautiful co-workers who immediately made it clear they were willing to pick up my shifts at the clinic, my friends who offered support in case of arrest…. So many that I carried with me on my short trip.)

And yet, as I go to write, it seems difficult to find the story, challenging to express what I feel with the inadequacy of words.  So I guess I will start with some background and some general observations – see what becomes of it.

Some background: Last summer Michigan Peace Team members met Elliott Adams at the US Social Forum. He joined us on our team there and later attended our training for trainers.  On his recommendation Veterans for Peace invited us to join them in DC for the October 11: Stop the Machine Events http://october2011.org/  The idea was we would facilitate  at least one general nonviolence training and then facilitate a “peace team” training (or to use the term they use, a “peace keeper training”  for Veterans for Peace and friends who would be providing an alternative to typical “security” at the October 2011 occupation.  We readily agreed and a team of 5 of us headed to DC early Monday AM in a rental van filled with training supplies, apples, granola bars and other “protest food”.

Observations and such:
Our first training was Tuesday afternoon. A smallish group (20ish people to start w/ others trickling in as the day went on.) There are people from so many places: DC, California, Alaska, Ohio, NY. So exciting. A good chunk of them have tons of experience, but for many this is the first training they have ever attended for the first “protest” they have ever been a part of. A few folks have come directly from Occupy Wall Street and we are all eager to hear and learn from their experiences.

Tuesday night, unable to sleep I find myself in the middle of an intense discussion with some others who had been in NY at occupy Wall Street, and some who are new to all of this. We are discussing consensus. Its challenges and why it is so important. I appreciate their willingness to be self critical as part of the movement and think about how we can keep learning and doing this better.  I end up facilitating some quick decision exercises and a somewhat longer consensus role play.

Our training Wednesday is much larger. We start with a crowd of around 50 and more and more just keep arriving and squeezing in as the afternoon goes on.  We end up with around 75-80 participants. Again, the experience in the group ranges from those with no formal nonviolence training who have never been in a protest or a rally to those who are professional facilitators and trainers. Folks from Portland, OR to Portland, ME from Alaska to Hawaii and lots of places in between.  The training is challenging, but all in all goes well and we get tons of good feedback. I am stuck by the deep dedication to nonviolence in the group, and the commitment to see our opponents as human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Thursday, and the first day of the occupation at Freedom Plaza arrive. The MPT team heads there early. We are not there to act “as a peace team” but rather to be support and a resource to those that are… empowering and widening the circle.  A few folks approach me about joining the peace team and I end up doing an impromptu “street training” in a corner of Freedom Plaza.  Around a dozen people gather for discussions, hassle lines, and other role plays. It’s energized and fun and people seem to get something out of it.

Later that day those in Freedom Plaza march to the Chamber of Commerce. Seeing the crowd approach the chamber closes before the action even begins — we had heard of a similar experience from “occupy DC” who shut down Bank of America. Elliott mentions Alinsky’s lesson that it is often the reaction to the action that is the action.

The evening brings the first general assembly for this group. A quick explanation of the consensus process is given and folks begin.  The agenda is short w/ just 2 main items. Still, we run out of time and have to table one until the following day. Facilitation is good, but it is clear many in the group have not used this process before. That is both challenging and exciting. The group is discussing the possibilities for sleeping/camping through the night; legal and other risks as well as goals and strategic targets. A man stands up to speak. He notes that until very recently he was homeless and living on the streets in DC he tells us “here is what you need to know about sleeping on streets and sidewalks in DC.” — he shares with us both information and his opinions about our options.  I find myself feeling hopeful because the crowd gathered recognizes his expertise and sees that a voice that would often be marginalized has much to offer the group.

Returning to the church for our last night I am both pumped and sad. I know things are just getting started and I don’t want to leave. For me this will all be more interesting and more important as the “formal” or “planned” events come to close and the community gathered /the action itself takes on a life of it’s own. But, I know we all need to get back, and I can’t help but think much of our work is really at home.

Unable to sleep again, I join a group gathered in the auditorium of the church. A few folks there have come right from Occupy Wall Street and are sharing their thoughts — willing to be critical of the movement they feel a part of in order that we all learn and grow. The talk centers on provocateurs and after some discussion I facilitate some role plays before heading to bed for a few hours of sleep before the drive home.

Some thoughts upon the return home:
Being a part of this was inspiring and did feel in some ways historic. Although, as originally planned the “Stop the Machine; Create a new world “ or “October 2011” movement was not planned in conjunction with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, it is hard not to see them as all part of a piece. And, in fact, I believe it has become just that.  With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how things look in DC in a few days – or a few weeks. The October 2011 was a planned and organized event with definable leadership, a stage and a program. But, of course, the community gathered and the actions themselves took on a life of their own – a life that will be influenced by the Occupation of Wall Street and the Solidarity occupations occurring all over the country. Once the permit runs out on the evening of Oct. 9th what will happen?  It seems to me that in many ways how the community evolves and what tools are used become the action. A model of direct democracy and inclusion, a radical example of what can be.

There is opportunity here. And hope. I firmly believe that the more people standing up to demand justice and freedom for ALL the better. The greater the numbers demanding economic equality, corporate and bank accountability, an end to the wars that waste financial resources &  even more important precious lives, and that every voice is heard  the better off we are.  In DC, on Wall Street and in the hundreds of other cities and towns where people have come together to occupy there is opportunity. And our message is beyond important.

Yet the means is also the message and if we are unwilling to be self critical we risk a message that is hypocritical and marginalizing.

And let’s face it — we are not inclusive. While the crowd in DC was diverse in age and experience and in where we come from –  we were still the folks who could come. Yes, everyone’s voice can be heard at the General Assemblies — if you are present.

But, it is hard to be present, in DC, In NY or even in your own community if you are working multiple jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over your head.  It is far riskier to be present if you are undocumented.  I notice, the crowd in DC (and from what friends at occupy Wall Street have told me) is largely white. No, not exclusively – but still not truly representative of the 99% we strive to represent.

A friend of mine — who I have sat through many long and tedious meetings with – has joked that consensus sometimes seems like tyranny of those with the strongest bladders.  I believe in the consensus process, but know we need to work to be sure it does not become “tyranny of those who could take time off from work/ those who could travel/ those who have papers”

I am glad that the 99% are starting to realize we have far more common ground than not. That, as one poster said  “The patchouli wearing hippie liberals and the ATV riding, gun owning conservatives are starting to realize they are not one another’s enemy but share a common opponent “. That is something. It is powerful and important. But let’s not gloss over the fact is that among the 99%  inequalities do exist,  there are differences of wealth and privilege.  Denying that reality only adds to the marginalization.

I’m not suggesting we give up, or allow guilt about the privilege some do have to paralyze us or lead us to inaction. I am saying we need to talk to one another about our different experiences and we need to LISTEN. I am suggesting that we acknowledge both our privilege and our hurt histories and we strive to dismantle those systems of oppression, which means being willing to hear how we perpetuate these systems. We need to take care with our language, our symbols, our “targets” and our messages.

For example, one of the women who spoke noted that  we may not have media ready sound-bites and a list of demands because we are not there yet, “ we are the beginning of a movement”. Her overall message was beautiful — that the movement itself can be a message, that process is important and that this is not a stand alone moment.

But let’s be real…. we are not the beginning. The economic crisis did not begin with the bank bailout or even with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers. Poor and working class people know the “crisis” is not new but a direct result of how the system works — that capitalism has always only served the needs of a very small group. And that the group it serves is primarily white and often men.

Let’s not fail to recognize that countless actions have come before, that so many people have been engaged in this struggle for so long.

Solidarity means demanding accountability for the police brutality we saw visited on those protesting on Wall Street. But it also means recognizing that for far too many people of color police brutality is an every day fact of life.  Solidarity means demanding accountability there as well.

It seems we also need to acknowledge that where ever we choose to occupy — we are doing so on stolen land.  Our indigenous brothers and sisters deserve as much — and more.

And so, as I return from DC I am excited. I am thrilled and honored to be a part of something that could be real change. I love our commitment to nonviolence and the modeling of consensus as a part of an attempt to be truly democratic.  I am thrilled with the possibilities before us. We want to build a new world. I believe we can do it. But if we build the new without examining the materials we are using we risk using contaminated and broken materials. This will only leave that which we are building broken and contaminated.

We can do better. We must.

3 responses to “Reflections on October 2011 and the occupations across the U.S.

  1. As always, I enjoy reading your reflections.

  2. This is fantastic Sheri. I too always enjoy reading your reflections! I appreciate you being willing to be critical of a movement you obviously feel very much a part of, and I appreciate your consistency in working to be aware of issues of power and oppression; particularly as they play out in our own movements and work. Cheers.

  3. Pingback: Michigan Peace Team in D.C. « Michigan Peace Team's Weblog

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