The Occupy Movement Must Think Beyond Physical Occupation

David Shankbone/CC BY 2.0

There are, generally speaking, two main criticisms that I hear being leveled at the Occupy movement. The first—that the movement is incoherent, naive, and lacks a clear agenda—is somewhat unfair. As I argued in my piece on why the Occupy Movement articulates its agenda just fine, it seems absurd to expect a movement that is tackling the complex, multifaceted, systemic collapse of our entire economic paradigm for not yet having a complete list of fixes ironed out just yet. However the second—that Occupy is taking over public space by "mob rule" and declaring itself above the law—is more troubling. And it's something that the movement would do well to pay attention to.

My own experiences with non-violent direct action have taught me that the truth is rarely as simple as right and wrong, or good versus evil.

Civil Disobedience Becomes a Major Inconvenience
Way back on the first night of bombing of the current Iraq war, I found myself at a protest in the city center of Bristol, England. Activists had pushed past police lines and were blocking the main traffic route into the city. I watched as an angry and distraught old man yelled at and pleaded with protesters from his (now trapped) car that he was trying to visit his sick wife in hospital just a few blocks away.

I was left decidedly conflicted.

On the one hand, here we were marking the beginning of a war that the majority of Brits opposed. A war that was looking increasingly illegal. And a war that was being pushed through despite some of the largest, legal anti-war demonstrations that Britain had ever seen. Non-violent civil disobedience seemed like a just, measured, even somewhat tame response to the military and civilian lives that were about to be lost and the disregard with which the government had treated public opinion.

And yet what the old man was saying was also true.

We were stopping him from getting to his sick, possibly dying, wife. And we were doing so through no other means than our superior strength in numbers—in other words, our physical force was (unintentionally) oppressing a weaker fellow citizen. This moral conundrum is inherent in any form of non-violent direct action. And it is a dilemma that the Occupy movement would do well to be cognizant of if it wants to retain popular support.

Drastic Times Call for Drastic Measures
Many of us in the environmental and social justice movements are increasingly realizing that "softly softly" is just not going to get the job done. Despite electing a president who pledged to end "the tyranny of oil" and to break the stranglehold of corporate interests, we're seeing CO2 emissions rise to potentially catastrophic levels; we're seeing corporations usurp ever more power from individuals; and we are left seemingly helpless against a vastly powerful media machine that actively spreads disinformation and ignorance and calls it truth.

Much like the civil rights activists who occupied lunch counters, and the suffragettes chaining themselves to Buckingham Palace, I for one believe that non-violent civil disobedience will be a crucial tool in injecting some sanity into the profoundly broken economic and political paradigm we currently operate in. Given the relatively healthy levels of support for Occupy's central critique, and given the outrage voiced by many at the pepper spraying of UC Davis students, it would seem that a large portion of the American public would agree.

But the last thing that the Occupy protesters should do is to take public support for granted.

Nobody Speaks For the 99%
Throughout history protesters from all sides of the political spectrum have claimed to be "the voice of the people", no matter what level of support they actually enjoyed. While protesters may be justified in describing themselves as advocates for the 99%, it would be wrong to translate "advocating for" into "speaking on behalf of". As Transition founder Rob Hopkins' decidedly mixed response to Occupy shows, there are disparate and even diverging voices within the movement itself, let alone in broader society.

Without a truly representative process of election, nobody can legitimately claim to speak for anyone but themselves and perhaps those who have actively aligned themselves with the movement. It's important that those who do identify with Occupy understand (and I believe most of them do) that "we are the 99%" can only ever be a statement of solidarity, not a self-appointed position of authority.

The Commons Belongs to Everyone
Similarly, while the occupation of public space has been a hugely successful tactic for the movement, it is not without its own pitfalls. As soon as one group—whether it follows the principles of direct democracy or not—takes over a particular physical space, it reduces the ability for others to use that same space. And that conflict has the potential to lead to a rapid shift in public opinion regarding the validity of these protests. As one friend—critical of Occupy protester's tactics, although sympathetic to their complaints—asked, how should we react if the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, the young Republicans or even the KKK decided to set up camp outside city hall to air their grievances?

The fact is that any workable commons has always been guided by a set of shared rules regarding what is, and what is not, acceptable usage of that space. That's not to say, of course, that rules can't change, nor that they shouldn't sometimes be broken. As I mentioned above, civil disobedience is beginning to feel like the only apt response to systemic corruption, political indifference, and ecological and economic meltdown. But just as we can't translate popular sympathy into a mandate of authority, I would suggest that Occupy protesters would do well to remain open minded about how long and how hard they want to fight for the physical spaces they have occupied, versus adapting and evolving the movement and its tactics to take advantage of opportunities that arise.

Can Occupy Continue Beyond Occupation?
There has already been much discussion as to whether and how Occupy protests will continue if they are evicted from the parks and squares that they have commandeered. Certainly it seems unlikely that the movement would have grown with such ferocity had it not quickly and successfully created a physical presence in cities around the world. But as the weeks turn into months, many communities are asking how long the protests will continue, and what happens next. In Bristol, for example, protesters are planning a public meeting to discuss their tactics, and appear to be willing to move on from their city center camp ground if an alternative space can be found. Meanwhile talks between Occupy LA and the mayor's office seem to have broken down, despite early signs that the city might offer cheap office space and a community garden in exchange for protesters dismantling their tents.

No Simple Right and Wrong Answers
As someone who is broadly supportive of the Occupy Movement's grievances, and many of the remedies in its emerging platform, but who has so far sat on the sidelines of the physical protests, I don't have an answer to what protesters should do. But in all successful social movements gone by—from the suffragettes to the civil rights protests to the anti-apartheid movement—civil disobedience has been a carefully used tool in a much larger arsenal.

All I hope is that protesters remain aware that civil disobedience is a strategy; physical occupation of public and corporate space is a tactic; and that they should both be used wisely in pursuit of a much broader, more important end goal: a sane, sustainable and just political and economic system for all. And they should remain open to a mid-course correction as and when the time feels right.

Tags: Activism | Bristol | Los Angeles | New York City | Occupy Wall Street | United Kingdom | United States

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