When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor. John Lennon
Rule 7: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. Don’t become old news. (Even radical activists get bored. So to keep them excited and involved, organizers are constantly coming up with new tactics.) Saul Alinsky
Why is the Occupy National Gathering ending up like every large Occupy protest seems to? The Philadelphia gathering wasn’t meant to be yet another loud, live-streamed struggle with police, especially in a city filling up with families for the Fourth of July. It was supposed to be what the Associated Press respectfully calls a national conference.
If Occupy is fighting for the 99%, why are we alienating them? The public is tired of what they see as useless, bothersome battles. We can no longer assume that negative coverage is merely a flaw in mainstream media, nor that only trolls make negative comments on the web. We’re losing hearts and minds, not winning them. In Philadelphia, people who brought their children to see historic places like Independence Hall — and eat genuine Philly cheese steaks and soft pretzels — are already miserable from the extreme heat.
Photo by Terry Hall
They don’t want to see massed police. The city and federal governments prepared for the national gathering by providing enough of them to make Philadelphia look like a police state, with highly visible officers and vehicles from numerous agencies including the Philadelphia police department, Homeland Security, the United States Park Police, and the U.S. Marshals Service. The Philly PD is the fourth largest in the nation. They prepared so heavily because, in a vicious circle, we’ve taught them to.
The militarized police presence is ironic. It shows a heavy-handed intention to control and restrict real people’s freedom of assembly and speech. Meanwhile, so-called corporate people are allowed unlimited use of what the Supreme Court calls their speech — money — to run our political system for their own benefit. The founding fathers would be appalled.
On the first day of the June 30-July 4 gathering, Philadelphia police pushed, shoved and clubbed protesters who refused to leave a section of 55-acre Independence National Historical Park. The protesters had already ignored police warnings not to set up camp there in the first place. During the short time that police blockaded entry into park, protesters yelled insults in their faces. Some made every effort to incite violence.
Police officers,civilian employees, and their families are all part of the 99%. During a “mic check” session, most protesters kept that in mind, but some simply shouted “fuck the police.” Maybe anger and desperation are driving them over the edge, where they lose the ability to reason in the violence of the moment. Treating working-class police like surrogates for the 1% isn’t the same as having an impact on the 1%. It’s letting the 1% goad us into reactions that justify theirs.
Photo by Terry Hall
On the fourth day, police deployed a small army to bar Occupy members from a free, public concert. But at the same time, a police representative shared a long, thoughtful discussion about the interaction between police and protesters with several articulate Occupiers. When someone started shouting and swearing at him, others agreed the behavior was an unwelcome and nonconstructive interruption and went back to the discussion. In other words, there are other ways.
For those within Occupy who believe in using the vote, this could have been golden. It was an opportunity to send a message about making change in the place and at the time where people would be most receptive. The city’s drenched in democratic history. The First and Second Continental Congress met there in 1774 and 1775; they wrote and adopted the U.S. Constitution there, in a blazing summer very much like this one. The iconic Liberty Bell is there.
The Occupy National Gathering might have been its own tourist attraction, something people enjoyed seeing, started thinking about, pointed to in their photos later. Activists from different Occupies involved in the same causes might have met under legible signs that people outside the movement could understand and identify with, like “Foreclosure-Eviction Defense” or “Voter-suppression Defense.”
But it would take a different kind of tactic first, one that leads to permits and planning instead of riot police. What about silent protests with loud signs? An Occupy protest force to keep provocateurs physically away from police? More quick, creative actions and fewer same-old marches? Drawing some attention to what we’re doing — restoring abandoned houses, turning vacant city lots into small-scale farms, fighting off banks that foreclose unfairly and wrongly — instead of what we’re against?
The national gathering’s supposed to include “direct actions, movement-building, and the creation of a vision for a democratic future,” according to its agenda. This country needs a great deal of economic and political change, but it’s not Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Violence isn’t a solution. What is?
The late Saul Alinsky, best known for his book Rules for Radicals, wrote about “means and ends.” He said it takes both to effect change. He also wrote:
Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewers who says, “Okay, what would you do?”
The Occupy movement can choose from an arsenal of means. We’ve made more people aware of income inequality and the concept of the 99% versus the 1%. On the air, we sometimes hear the word “occupy” used to signify any non-Tea Party protest or movement. But the ideas are getting overshadowed by the predictable and distracting clashes with police, and people aren’t seeing any clear results. Corporations keep getting away with defrauding the public outrageously. Poor people keep getting poorer. Rich people keep getting richer.
It’s time to create that vision for a democratic future. It can’t wait. What is the Occupy movement striving for? Anarchy? Marxism? Zeitgeist? Is the answer a combination of the best features of all these economic systems, or simply better regulation of capitalism? Asking and answering these questions will lead to a list of ends that Occupy must accomplish to end what it despises. Without them, internal confusion will dissolve the movement.