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On Political Movements

December 29, 2011

One big reason why the Occupy movement has been so unexplainable by the media, and incomprehensible to many regular folks, is  that there hasn’t been a real mass political movement in the United States since about 1973(1). We hear about x or y movement all the time, but usually these “movements” are rapidly growing organizations or coalitions.

Having been associated with an international movement for several years now, People’ Health Movement, I have had to explain many times to people in the US how a movement is different from the kind of political activism we are used to. These distinctions also apply to Occupy and if people understand them then they will stop making those stupid suggestions that often begin with “The Occupy Movement should focus on..”

  • A movement is not an organization. A movement transcends organizations.
  • A movement happens when masses of people reach the same conclusions about the situation in the world around them at about the same time and something sparks them to come out, recognize each other, and begin to take action.
  • Participants in a movement share a core vision, values and analysis. The better those are articulated, shared, and understood by participants in the movement, the more powerful and effective the movement will be.
  • Movements are not about issues. Movements are about ideas in response to threats to human well-being.
  • Movements are made by people acting in their daily lives according to the shared vision, values, and analysis, not by professional, paid activists.

Example: The Civil Rights Movement, broadly speaking, was not about passing the Voting Rights Act or even, ultimately, about black people, although they led the way and formed the core (a pun!). It involved oppressed people of all kinds – women, chicanos, youth, etc., asserting their human dignity and claiming their rights. It was not an organization. It used a diversity of tactics, many people expressing a philosophy of non-violence, while others were willing to use violence in self defense or offensively. People took up different tactics and used them locally as they thought they applied. Lunch counter sit-ins were loosely organized with over 70,00o direct participants and spontaneous solidarity boycotts of Woolworth’s and other chain stores by northern white supporters (2). People who thought it was a good idea did it. When that tactic achieved success, people moved on to other things.

Within the civil rights movement there were people who worked against Jim Crow, on voting rights, on media representation of people of color and women, on making health care services available to everyone and responsive to the needs of the community, on housing, on community organizing, and on and on. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t have a focus. It had thousands of demands on every level. Sometimes over the years the broad movement would coalesce in support of a particular demand or campaign, but that didn’t stop the local work or other ongoing actions.

So what is the shared vision and analysis of the Occupy movement? It hasn’t been completely processed and articulated yet, but here is my interpretation.

Every system that we rely upon for our well-being in the US – education, health, justice, public safety, etc – is dysfunctional. As the economy becomes more dysfunctional and unable to provide a livelihood for people, more people see and experience the problems in the system. On top of that, there are a number of looming potentially catastrophic environmental crises that we haven’t been able to address. On top of that, our government at all levels has been become so corrupted by the same corporate interests that created many of the aforementioned problems, that we can’t go through the government to fix them. Therefore, we have no choice but stop the old system and turn to each other to begin building a new system that meets our needs in a way that enables human survival through the environmental chaos to come.

Right now I think there is a lack of shared understanding about the 4th item, the corporate takeover of government. Everyone agrees that that is the case, but some people, think it is possible to use the government to end this corruption. These are folks like George Lakoff who urges the movement to “occupy elections,” or others who propose we “occupy congress” or focus on ending corporate personhood. But by the time we get those things done we’ll be crispy or soggy critters. This realization that government can’t be reformed by using the system’s tools in time to save ourselves is why people are in the street, why the camps were set up to model the vision of the world we are building. Occupy Oakland, at least, has withdrawn its consent from the government. So have most other occupiers, even if they aren’t fully conscious of this yet.

1. An argument could be made that the Central America solidarity “movement” of the ’80s was a real movement, but it never included a significant portion of the US populace either as activists or supportive followers, and mainly consisted of organizations that received direction from their allied organizations in Central America. I would describe it as a wing of the liberation movements in Central America, but not a US movement in itself. I say this as an active participant in that movement who ended up actually working in Central  America.
2. Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds., The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1997)
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