Tag Archives: nonviolence

No Time for Sound Bytes Now: #OccupyWallStreet is its Own Message

At Liberty Plaza, New York City (CC BY SA Carwil Bjork-James)

A formidable NYPD presence holds one side of the exit ramp while an equally-large throng of soaked, defiant youth face them on the other side. I’m heading back towards the ramp after witnessing a white-shirted police supervisor commandeer a public bus, ordering the passengers off and instructing the driver to turn around and head back to the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has been shut down for over an hour now. When the bus arrives, hundreds upon hundreds will be arrested and boarded onto the bus, as well as police vans. Meanwhile, the protesters on the street begin chanting to the police: “We pay YOU! We pay YOU!” and “It’s OUR bridge. It’s OUR bridge!” as a cold, driving rain fails to dampen their spirits.

Police square off against protesters. Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Arriving four days earlier, I had hoped for, and was greatly disappointed when, a short list of demands never materialized from the occupation’s General Assembly. Repeal corporate personhood. Remove special interest money from elections. Something. Yet by the fourth day, standing at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge with this standoff, it was clear to me that the Occupy Wall Street movement had evolved.

The occupation at Liberty Plaza may outwardly appear to be just a large encampment of hundreds of tired, exuberant, unwashed people. But it’s an incredibly subversive idea. What the occupation has managed to do thus far is set up a center for agitation on Wall Street’s doorstep, while simultaneously stand up to the most militarized police force in America. In that brave act of defiance, they’ve begun the process of recapturing public space to assemble and foment resistance against a corrupt system, a public space lost to us after 9/11 (with the introduction of “free speech zones”) and just as importantly, begin to remedy the fear and cynicism so many Americans have been feeling for well over a decade now under the hand of a police state and a domestic intelligence apparatus unparalleled in American history. The Founders clearly understood that the right to assemble was of key importance to those who wanted to correct wrongs done by their government. If they could not assemble, they could not achieve their goals. Liberty Plaza is a long-overdue civics lesson.

The protesters have collectively said, simply by holding the plaza: This is OUR square, the PEOPLE’S square, and we have a right to assemble and organize a campaign against the economic and civil injustices perpetrated by the plutocrats and their tax payer-funded security service, the NYPD.

They’ve managed to pull back the curtain and expose the police state which works to protect the ruling elite’s interests at the expense of the citizens they originally took an oath to serve: CIA-trained NYPD counterintelligence squads; videotaping the faces of peaceful protesters to feed into a facial recognition database; commandeering public buses for mass arrests; entrapment; kettling and pepper spray. And perhaps the most audacious: A $4.6 million bribe, ostensibly for new laptops, given by JP Morgan to the NYPD. All of this against peaceful citizens who are the living embodiment of a wildly-popular sentiment in America since 2008: the rich and powerful in this country have gotten away with too much. When Americans demand fundamental change and refuse to rely on or even trust a thoroughly-corrupt system to achieve that change, they must begin at the root of their oppression, and it’s as simple an idea as occupying public space in the face of police intimidation.

This movement is only getting started, with many, many cities developing their own occupations. Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps it’s time to just let this people-powered movement grow on its own, because you can’t package an idea whose time has come into one or two pithy sound bytes. As one protester told me: “It’s bigger than one or two issues because it’s not about reforming the hopelessly corrupt system we have. This is about creating a new system entirely.”

If you would like to donate to #OccupyWallStreet, visit the New York City General Assembly website.

The Project is leaving Wall Street to report on the Boston occupation, and then to Washington D.C. for the major October 6th occupation in our nation’s capital, but we can’t do it without your help. If you enjoy my work and would like to help me cover expenses such as travel, food and gear, please consider donating to the David and Goliath Project’s #Occupy Media Fund.


To Liberty Plaza’s Patriots: “Change the Hearts of the Oppressed” (with video)

Photograph: John Stuttle/guardian.co.uk

“…but far more important was the effort to change the hearts of the oppressed. They needed to become unwilling to continue accepting their oppression, and to become determined to build a better society.”
– “Tapping the Roots of Power” from Waging Nonviolent Struggle, Gene Sharp

Something important is happening at Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan. The encampment that began there on Saturday, September 17th, is a vocal and stark reminder of growing American youth discontent. Banks and other corporations are sitting on record profits and CEO salaries continue to climb at an unprecedented rate, while students and the average American worker face an anemic job market and growing economic disparity. The occupation in Lower Manhattan may be the start of a sea-change in so-called American democracy. But if it is a true change (and other organizing efforts in cities like Chicago and Atlanta, including an ongoing one in San Francisco suggest that it may be), certain things must change in order for this nonviolent revolution to be sustained and really have an effect. More on that in a moment.

I was fortunate enough to spend four days at the camp. In many ways, the camp is a world unto itself: very self-sustaining, with its own media center, food area, trash committees, etc. It’s a shining example of a cooperative community. The protesters are very open to pedestrians, quite willing to engage them in conversation, and often invite the homeless to eat the seemingly-endless supply of pizza that continues to flow in from supporters across the country. The sense that the camp’s inhabitants are making history, and that they’re fighting for a fairer, more equitable system is palpable and infectious. The NYPD is increasingly using tactical intimidation in the form of brutal harassment to quell the spirit of the protesters, as this video below shows:

There have also been unconfirmed reports of alleged agent provocateurs (not uncommon considering increased counter-terrorism activity with the help of the CIA) and ordering tents and tarps be taken down during rain storms. The resolve and courage of the protesters only seems to strengthen, however: Immediately after a police raid, for instance, a march is organized as a show of strength. The marches to “the belly of the beast,” as many protesters call Wall Street, are dismissed by outlets like CNBC, who just this morning said that the occupation will fizzle out by week’s end. Presumptions like this come off as naive because they underestimate the passion, energy and commitment these young people have for their mission.

But this begs the question: what exactly IS the mission? What exactly are the demands that Liberty Plaza wants met?

Since getting back to Philadelphia last night, I’ve been able to catch up on media stories about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some outlets capture the youth energy and thirst for change accurately, while some it seems go out of their way to downplay the significance of what’s happening in Lower Manhattan. Almost none can really zero-in on one specific demand, however. As friends and family (many of whom share this anger towards Wall Street) have told me: “I still don’t know what they want.” And that may be the most accurate part of this story thus far. Watching news reports and reading eyewitness accounts, we see brave young people marching and facing ramped-up police intimidation, but the average American watching these reports can’t latch on to one specific message.

Photograph: John Stuttle/guardian.co.uk

Growing a movement means bringing others from different segments of society together. It quite often starts with the radical left (intellectuals and the youth), as the Egyptian revolution this year and the student-started revolution in Poland that eventually brought down the Soviet Union show us. But in order to sustain these movements, one demand or even a short list of demands must be crafted to appeal to larger segments of society. While the people in Tahrir square had a long list of grievances, from high food prices to political oppression, eventually one solid demand emerged: oust Mubarak.

As the picture above illustrates, there are a whole host of grievances at Liberty Plaza, and nearly all of them are legitimate. There is great anger at Wall Street, hence the reason for camping out mere blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange. But the connection between grievances such as “Forgive student loan debt,” or “End the wars,” or even “End corporate personhood,” is lost because there is no coherent narrative to connect those demands. A sustained campaign of civil disobedience and highly-visible public marches on Wall Street is crucial and is coalescing well at the moment. If these demonstrations get bigger, however (and there is currently great momentum) one loud and clear demand to feed to the media–and to broadcast as an invitation to Americans of all stripes to join the demonstrations–can only strengthen the movement, because when whole sections of society refuse to participate or be complicit in a corrupt system, they take away the ability of rulers to exercise their power. Hence the power of a general strike, for instance.

“The internal stability of rulers can be measured by the ratio of the strength of the social forces that they control and the strength of the social forces that oppose them.”
–”Tapping the Roots of Power” from Waging Nonviolent Struggle, Gene Sharp

So, permit me to make a suggestion: “One citizen. One dollar. One vote.” Getting special interest money out of politics changes the whole game, and addresses a myriad of concerns expressed by not just the Liberty Plaza occupiers, but an overwhelming majority of Americans. For example:

1) Student loan debt is astronomically high in large part because of special interest money (i.e. Wall Street banks) influencing political decisions in Washington, D.C. It’s so powerful, in fact, that chronic gamblers can discharge their debt, but graduates are unable to discharge their debt. Period.

2) Our country is in a perpetual state of war due largely to the military-industrial complex (Wall Street) occupying the halls of power.

3) Corporations are allowed to pour unaccountable and unlimited amounts of money into elections because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Clarence Thomas and the Koch Brothers, anybody?

4) The state-by-state campaign to break the backs of public sector workers’ right to collectively bargain, or to disenfranchise Democratic voters? Big-moneyed (Wall Street) interests under ALEC have literally been crafting legislation in every state to perpetuate such injustices.

Monsanto at the FDA. Oil companies and climate change legislation. The list goes on and on.

“One citizen. One dollar. One vote.” It’s a demand that speaks to all Americans. My libertarian father, myself (a democratic socialist) and my Republican friends firmly agree on the need to get money out of politics. Special interest corruption of our democratic processes IS our Mubarak. And Wall Street is a clear-cut example of the power of special interests. It’s a perfect focal point for popular rage and misery at our broken economy.

It’s time to start organizing nonviolent civil disobedience, petitions, and other efforts in order to galvanize our country into a concerted effort to make “One citizen, one dollar, one vote” not just a slogan, but a mainstay of our democracy. Some suggest legislation. Some suggest a Constitutional amendment. Whatever the solution, we need to start that conversation. Liberty Plaza, with the world watching them and support growing, is in a perfect position to push the national conversation on corruption in our government into the spotlight. I hope they do so. To learn more about how to organize this campaign in your community, visit US Day of Rage.

If you want to help those at Liberty Plaza, you can donate here.

For the latest news and analysis on what’s happening with the protests and life at the camp, visit the excellent Waging Nonviolence.


Pay Attention to Nonviolence: The Story of Budros and a Documentary Film (with TED video)

“I believe that what’s mostly missing for nonviolence to grow is not for Palestinians to start using nonviolence, but for us to start paying attention to those who already are.”

With that, documentary filmmaker Julia Bacha launches into the story of the town of Budros, and the townspeople’s nonviolent struggle against Israeli intentions to build a wall that would steal 40% of the people’s land.

The story of Budros is probably one you’ve never heard before. I hadn’t heard about it until today, when I happened across this incredible talk by Bacha:

Bacha’s speech is inspiring on two fronts.

One:

“What was even more surprising was that Budros was successful. The residents, after 10 months of peaceful resistance, convinced the Israeli government to move the root of the barrier off their lands, and to the ‘green line’, which is the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the Palestinian territories.”

Two: Her speech also posits that nonviolent direct action might be used more frequently in places like the Middle East if it were only paid attention to more by the media. She cites a perfect example: the Palestinian town of Walajeh, which faced a plight similar to Budros. The people of Walajeh had grown “disenchanted” with nonviolence, “since nobody was paying attention.” After activists screened Bacha’s film in Walajeh, something spectacular happened: a week later, the town held the “most disciplined, well-attended demonstration to date.” The villagers, after seeing the film, steeled their resolve to continue nonviolent struggle against the construction of the Israeli-imposed wall because they felt that “there were indeed people following what they were doing.”

The story of Budros inspired Walajeh to continue their efforts and not resort to violence. But it didn’t stop there: on the Israeli side, there is a new peace movement which, after translated from Hebrew, means Solidarity. Solidarity members have been using the story of Budros

“as one of their primary recruiting tools. They report that Israelis who have never been active before, upon seeing the film, understand the power of nonviolence, and start joining their activities.”

Nonviolence’s effectiveness isn’t as surprising as the fact that one documentary essentially helped fuel a nonviolent resistance movement against long-time occupiers. Bacha’s question is a good one:

If a small-budget documentary could begin to change the narrative in three towns, what would happen if large media conglomerates focused on these efforts instead of Hamas rockets and Israeli raids?

This of course leads to other questions, such as:

What repercussions would this have on other nonviolent movements all over the world? And should we even try to reform the present media system, or forge ahead by inspiring the creation of more political documentary filmmaking?

My hunch is with the latter. What are your thoughts?


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