Tag Archives: #OWS

Finding Inspiration in Scars and Burnout

On the cusp of Occupy Wall Street’s one year anniversary, the media (both mainstream and professional leftist outlets) are asking the question: “Is the Occupy movement on the decline?” and deservedly so. The movement, while certainly not finished, has lost numbers and steam for the time being. Some journalists have even mentioned “activist burnout.”

What is missing from this coverage is a deeper portrait of just what burnout actually entails, and why it may play a role – though maybe not the defining role – in a political and social movement’s progress. People outside of activism read or watch reports of protests, but many don’t realize that there are complex people marching on those streets and organizing behind the scenes, that carry their own scars.

An Occupy Wall Street demonstrator arrested on March 17th, 2012. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Activists are a rare breed of people. They spend countless hours in organizing meetings. They risk arrest during marches, are brutalized by police, and a number of first-time activists struggle with psychological trauma as a result. They take time off of work to volunteer. Many live with economic hardship. And just as importantly, a question lingers with many: Are the sacrifices I’m making in terms of friendships outside the activist community, as well as family relationships, worth the effort?

After the Occupy National Gathering – in which I acted as a media organizer in the interest of full disclosure – I was exhausted and had nearly depleted my savings account. Most of us had been going full steam since September 17th. I decided I had to stop. Others with whom I closely worked, and who put in far more energy than myself, were emotionally and physically depleted. Hours upon hours of meetings, often stressful, plus self-doubt and more than a touch of paranoia thanks to “pre-arrests” and police harassment of organizers well documented across the country, took their toll: Marriages were on the verge of disintegrating, movement friendships were greatly strained, and some were approaching nervous breakdowns.

I decided to reach out to other activists and listen to some of their experiences. Several spoke of the uncertainty they felt about carrying on the struggle.

I exchanged emails with a longtime activist who I’ll call “Sam.”  Sam is a military veteran and Occupy Boston participant. They relate their struggle being queer in a socially and religiously conservative family, and how their activism strained that relationship:

When I came out to my Mormon parents as bisexual, the results were disastrous. They could have lived with it, I think, had I not been an activist. But the fact that I lived to see equality drove them to disown me.

Sam continued their fight for equality, facing instances of harassment by Christian fanatics for working to get a civil unions bill passed in their former state’s legislature, and later by law enforcement while participating in Occupy Boston. To make matters worse, Sam was sexually assaulted multiple times while on active duty. Then came the last straw:

In January, I left OB altogether during the now infamous “sex offender” proposal. As a rape survivor, sitting through the discussions at GA and hearing every rape apology in the book trotted out pushed me over the edge. I was in a deep depression, and began hearing voices and hallucinating from the stress of reliving every sexual assault. I finally sought psychiatric help, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and started comprehensive treatment. I’m doing much better now. I’ve backed away from OB completely. My activism is now limited to the occasional research crawl when others of our friends need some extra eyes. I’m taking care of myself, and trying to put my world back together into some semblance of functionality.

Sam concluded with:

Activism is not a “safe space.” It’s a world that will eat you alive, particularly if you have suffered some kind of trauma. And let’s face it, most of us in the activist community have. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be activists. If we’re not being targeted by law enforcement, we’re being hurt by one another.

Social and political activism has destroyed my relationship with my family of origin (and good riddance, I say). It’s destroyed two intimate relationships. It’s also brought me a new family, and new relationships.  My life has been threatened. My career was destroyed by it. I nearly killed myself due to mental illness greatly exacerbated by it.

And I can’t give it up. It’s too important to keep raising my voice, building community, helping others. I’m taking a break from the hard core stuff in order to get better and put myself back together, but I’ll be back.

Canadian environmental activist Tooker Gomberg.

My exchange with Sam led me to find another remarkable soul, which came in the form of a letter lifelong environmental activist Tooker Gomberg wrote to his therapist on Earth Day in 2002. His career as an activist included multiple acts of civil disobedience, including breaking into a NATO airbase in the Netherlands to prove the existence of nuclear weapons in that country, a stint in Edmonton’s city council, and a failed 2000 mayoral run in Toronto, Ontario. In March of 2004, Gomberg took his own life by jumping off of the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His widow discovered a suicide note. Authorities found his bike on the bridge, but his body was never recovered. His death was partially attributed to an adverse reaction to the anti-depressant Remerol. He was 49 years old.

Tooker’s 2002 letter is tragic yet remarkable. It provides a portrait of what committing one’s life to a cause can do absent any balance. The missive is also a potent warning to current and future activists. In full:

Dear Activist:

It’s another strange day for me. Things have been strange for 8 months or more. I used to be an activist. Now I don’t know what I am. Did you ever read the Kafka story about the guy who wakes up and he has turned into a cockroach?

My mind is in a fog – I can’t think very clearly. Making a sandwich takes a long time – I have to concentrate on every step along the way, and I am moving very slowly and deliberately. I feel like I am stunned, and spaced out most of the time. Today is Earth Day, but I feel I am on another planet.

I have been spending lots of time in bed, mostly sleeping, dozing, and dreaming.

It feels like my mind has melted down, though I am told that it comes back once the depression lifts. Whenever that is. For some people it seems to be months, for others years, and others never get out of it.

But I am writing to you about activism, not the frightening impacts of depression.

Amory Lovins, the great energy efficiency guru, once called me a Hyper-Activist. I guess that’s what I was. I lived, breathed, and focussed on activism. It kept me thinking, inspired, interested, and alive.

But it also allowed me to ignore other things in life that now, suddenly, I realize I never developed. This makes me sad and despondent.

I used to enjoy cooking, but stopped. I always liked kids, but never really thought about having kids of our own. Changing the world was more important, and having a kid would interfere with our life’s work of changing the world.

I didn’t develop my mind in a broad way, learning about music and art and theatre and poetry, for example. It was focussed on changing the world. I never really thought about a career – I was living my life, not worrying about the trappings and credentials of the boring, status quo world.

Maybe I was living in a bubble of naiveté, doing my own thing, unconcerned that my perspectives and actions were so different from “normal”. I never wanted to be normal, anyway. Normal got us into the mess we’re in.

So now I find myself, with my sliver of being smashed to smithereens after being assaulted by police in Quebec City, a security guard in City Hall, and various other security guards during the mayoralty race. And numerous arrests.

Or maybe it was the tear gas, and last summer’s smog. Maybe I pushed my brain too hard, and overstressed it with the run for Mayor of Toronto, or the passport burning, or 20 years of pushing against the juggernaut. And maybe Sept. 11 firmed up my worries into a real fear that working for change was really dangerous.

Or it could be a physiological response to too much coffee, stress, and smog. Maybe I’ve burned out my adrenal glands. Maybe my brain is poisoned from so much thinking about tragic ecological issues, pondering bad air, and getting frustrated at the slow rate of improvement and the rapid destruction of the living world. Could my brain have been damaged when I was close to dying with heat stroke in Vietnam in 1998?

I should have developed a deeper kinship with my family and with people. Don’t get me wrong – I had lots of friends and acquaintances in the activist world. But they were not deep friends of the heart. I neglected my heart, and how I was feeling about things, about people, about situations. Now that I’m in crisis, I don’t really have the language to connect with people. The silence is easier than trying to explain what I’m going through, or to relate to other people’s issues or problems.

So what advice can I offer? Stay rounded. Do the activism, but don’t overdo it. If you burn out, or tumble into depression, you’ll become no good to anyone, especially yourself. When you’re in this state, nothing seems worthwhile, and there’s nothing to look forward to.

It’s honourable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do, and you’ll be energetic and enthusiastic about the activism. Don’t drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.

I never really understood what burnout was. I knew that it affected active people, but somehow I thought I was immune to it. After all, I took breaks every now and then and went travelling. And all my work was done in partnership with Ange, the great love of my life.

But in the end, when burnout finally caught up to me, it was mega, and must have been the accumulation of decades of stress and avoidance. And now I find myself in a dark and confusing labyrinth trying to feel my way back to sanity and calm.

So beware. Take this warning seriously. If you start slipping into the hole of depression and you notice yourself losing enthusiasm and becoming deeply disenchanted, take a break and talk with a friend about it. Don’t ignore it. The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul you can make a real positive contribution, and live to witness the next victory!


The Commodification of America

Artwork by Banksy. Photo by Chris Muniz.

Editor’s note: Guest writer John T. Marohn (@johntmarohn) was kind enough to allow the Project to republish this excellent piece on the commodification of America, wherein he asks the crucial question: “Is America for sale?”

Mr. Marohn is a retired college teacher, a freelance writer, novelist, poet, socio-political commentator, international film critic, and recovering alcoholic. John currently lives in Buffalo, New York. Please visit his website: Against the Grain.

“Business — that’s easily defined: it’s other people’s money.”
– Peter Drucker

“The social responsibility of Business is to increase profits.”
– Milton Friedman

“First amendment never shows why freedom of speech…did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form.”
– Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission

There it is folks. The American way: Profits. Corporate free speech. Other people’s money.

There is little doubt that America has become the global symbol for upward mobility, profits, and economic success. But we have also become the global capital of commodification in all of its forms, including prisons, education, health care, and, more cruelly, in our political arenas.

There are few institutional venues in the United States that aren’t, in some way, touched—some would say tainted—by the profit motive. Politicians curry favor with the wealthy who contribute to their campaigns. The health care system continues to be driven by ever increasing profits. The national defense budget has become so entrenched with defense contracts that it would be safe to say that United States Defense is an industry in and of itself.

And some of the top universities are run as corporations with heavy endowments, investments in the stock market, and huge government grants. Not to mention the sports industry that dominates the budgets of many very wealthy universities and colleges throughout the United States.

Who would have thought that we could have moved from an innocent laissez-faire economic model that still works well in the small local merchant world to a sprawling octopus of big-business and global corporatism running through every artery of our society.

Is America really for sale? It seems so.

I live in a small urban area in Western New York. Almost every day, I stop at one particular intersection that has a long wait at the traffic signal (there are at least six or seven traffic lanes the traffic light has to accommodate). If I’m in the south lane of traffic, I get a chance to see one billboard, conveniently placed on top of a two-story building.

It is always an ad about a particular hospital. The latest ad makes the claim that the hospital successfully treated more strokes than any other hospital. I wasn’t sure whether the hospital meant that stat to apply to the whole world, in Western New York, in the state, or throughout the United States.

I was not comforted by the fact that the hospital is scheduled to close within a year. I could only assume that, before the hospital goes down, it wanted to make one last foxhole effort to redeem itself from anonymity.

I also suppose that if I felt a stroke coming on, I would quickly flash back to my intersection stop, the billboard sign would pop up in my Pavlovian mind’s eye, I would call 911 and have the ambulance take me to the hospital’s emergency room. Ah, the power of advertising.

It is impossible to escape ads on television. The pharmaceutical and health-care industries are two of the many blatant users of the television ad industry. Marketing, of course, is the name of the game.

Image courtesy of semissourian.com

And marketing is not so much about “actual” competence as it is about the “image” of competence. Americans are supposed to believe, in theory anyway, that if an ad, especially a big billboard ad, says a health-care provider is good, then it must be true.

My point here is that the commodification of the health care industry is not just about health insurance premiums, deductibles, copays (all business terms, by the way); it is also engaged in the pro-active marketing industry.

And the commodification of health insurance is so widespread that Americans begin to believe that the privatization model is the only model that has any credibility. It becomes extremely anxious about even discussing Medicare-for-all paradigm because the health insurance industry controls the narratives in employer-sponsored health insurance policies, in the group plans strategy, in television and other media advertising, and in the lobbying halls of Congress.

More tragically, the health insurance industry completely dominates the “language” of health insurance with all the business panoply of words that have crept into the American vocabulary—premiums, deductibles, plans, copays. One can easily say, that the health insurance industry, through its control of the health insurance language, has made it almost impossible to think outside the box.

Americans have bought the insurance model for health care, not just because it is necessarily better model, but because, in theory, it is supposed to “insure” the patient that they won’t be saddled with a financial medical burden. That is the purpose of insurance: to protect a consumer from financial ruin by having an insurance plan. And the insurer hopes that not everyone in the plan needs to cash in at the same time.

However, “insurance” is a business. Businesses need to make a profit. Profits cannot take a back seat to expensive medical procedures that have the potential to put them out of business. So, you can be sure, a profit-driven company is going to do everything it can to scrutinize, stop, or delay a payment to a doctor or a hospital, especially if a procedure does not appear to be “cost-effective.”

Insurance, as Americans have come to know, is definitely a business. It is very much like having a debit card. A customer puts money into the premium. The premium is stored with other customer premiums. And the insurer holding those premiums pays a doctor or a hospital from those premiums after reviewing the doctor or hospital’s bill for a procedure, an office visit, an operation, or a test.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Now credit, on the other hand, is another model that a consumer can use to pay off a medical bill with a credit card, if they don’t have the cash or their insurance deductible is too high, or they don’t have any insurance. Of course, a credit card is also a very expensive way to pay off a medical bill because of the monthly interest charges

Credit, the more sophisticated capitalist term for money that’s available to borrow, has also crept into the higher ed business. Students generally take out loans from the federal government or a bank. The total amount of those loans has begun to rise in the US and graduating students are now confronted with a jobless work environment and a student loan to pay off.

What about politics? Well, the evidence, to most Americans is pretty well known. Lobbyists spend an awful lot of money in Washington to plead their cases. And the corporate world has now won a victory with the Citizens United case which allows corporations, unions,and non-profit political fronts to pour unrestricted amounts of money into media advertising. This, of course, is a variation of buying influence. After all, campaign money is not just about supporting a candidate; it is also a way of trying to convince a candidate to vote a particular way.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Occupy Wall Street protests are all about a capitalist/corporate/business-model system that is out of control. When politicians can be bought, when health care has become a very expensive business, when our college education system has become burdened with rising student debt, when some of our prisons can be owned by shareholders, when the business model of running a country has seeped into the country’s pores, on all levels, this younger, very articulate group of protesters are beginning to see how deep and wide the cracks in capitalism really are.

Let us hope that we can find alternative ways to vote on public policy in America, to educate our youth, and to give reasonable health care.


Art as Resistance: The Political Tweet Art of Kelly Alison (Dispatch 2)

Editor’s note: The Project is proud to present another dispatch of Kelly Alison’s (@iknomore) Twitter-inspired artwork. She creates visually engaging, politically relevant pieces. It’s no surprise that her apolitical work is just as stunning. Please consider sharing her work with others and if you can, supporting her through her website. I hope you enjoy.

ARREST BY TENT. #occupytheport #occupyhouston #occupydallas #occupyhouston #ows

PORTRAIT OF COURAGE. @angryarabia in #Bahrain (Zainab Al-Khawaja facing down riot police.)

INDEFINITELY DETAINED. #NDAA #SOPA #Obama

Here is a previous dispatch on Alison’s work.


Occupy 2.0: “Defending the Everyday Aims of Life” while Persisting in a Police State

Occupy Philadelphia marches in early morning hours after eviction. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

“No government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the government will come to a standstill.”
–Gandhi

The Occupy movement is now a genie that cannot be put back in its bottle.

And while it has certainly gone through growing pains, and will continue to do so, the adversity faced has only forced the movement to adapt and refocus.

After their first eviction, Occupy San Francisco decided to occupy sidewalks around the downtown financial district (the original strategy for Occupy Wall Street before 17 September, I should add.) Can’t have an encampment? Adapt and take public sidewalks. There is now a nationwide movement to also throw the gauntlet at major banks like Bank of America, and re-occupy foreclosed homes for families thrown out by the financial criminal class. The move has even prompted Bank of America to fire out an email to its employees. And yes, the email’s existence has indeed been confirmed by a Bank of America representative.

The financial elite are not the only ones concerned about this nonviolent peoples’ movement, of course. Incredibly, Mayor Jean Quan stated in a recent interview that mayors from at least 18 cities have been holding conference calls with each other to discuss how to deal with the Occupy movement. There are legitimate questions as to whether federal agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are playing some kind of advisory role or even assisting in coordinating crackdowns on occupations too. Indeed, it would be surprising if the federal government were not, given the history of programs like COINTELPRO. It is well known, however, that DHS operates what are known as fusion centers, which serve as “focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between the federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial (SLTT) and private sector partners.” Investigative journalists such as Jason Leopold are continuing to search for more answers about what role, if any, the federal government is playing in these crackdowns.

What is no mystery, however, is the contempt and cruelty often displayed by police towards this movement. Here’s what Patrick Meghan, a writer for the sitcom “Family Guy” experienced at the hands of the LAPD:

“I was arrested at about 1 a.m. Wednesday morning with 291 other people at Occupy LA. I was sitting in City Hall Park with a pillow, a blanket, and a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Being Peace” when 1,400 heavily-armed LAPD officers in paramilitary SWAT gear streamed in. I was in a group of about 50 peaceful protestors who sat Indian-style, arms interlocked, around a tent (the symbolic image of the Occupy movement). The LAPD officers encircled us, weapons drawn, while we chanted ‘We Are Peaceful’ and ‘We Are Nonviolent’ and ‘Join Us.'”

It gets worse.

“When the LAPD finally began arresting those of us interlocked around the symbolic tent, we were all ordered by the LAPD to unlink from each other (in order to facilitate the arrests). Each seated, nonviolent protester beside me who refused to cooperate by unlinking his arms had the following done to him: an LAPD officer would forcibly extend the protestor’s legs, grab his left foot, twist it all the way around and then stomp his boot on the insole, pinning the protestor’s left foot to the pavement, twisted backwards. Then the LAPD officer would grab the protestor’s right foot and twist it all the way the other direction until the non-violent protestor, in incredible agony, would shriek in pain and unlink from his neighbor. It was horrible to watch, and apparently designed to terrorize the rest of us.”

The police state will continue to use terror to coerce this movement into backing down. It will not work, however. As Andrew Kolin states in his book State Power and Democracy: Before and During The Presidency of George W. Bush: “Keep in mind that police states are by their inherent nature dysfunctional,” Kolin said. “The Occupy movement is hope of a return to mass democracy as a countervailing force to the police state and to it’s possible breakdown.” In an excellent interview with Jason Leopold at Truthout, Kolin says that “in all police states, ‘and Germany in the [1930s] is the classic example, they develop by crushing democracy.'”

Philadelphia police on a SEPTA bus arrive in riot gear to evict Occupy Philadelphia. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Myself and over 50 others were arrested in the early-morning hours after Occupy Philadelphia’s eviction–for marching. My resolve, as well as those who were arrested or were outraged at the way the police handled the eviction, has only strengthened. This movement must use love and persistence to fight back. There is no other way. The state knows only violence and fear, and this can only continue for so long in the face of what the Occupy movement offers as an alternative. This movement must continue to struggle for what dissident playwright and later president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel calls “defending the everyday aims of life.”

As Mark Kurlansky writes of Havel in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea:

“Organizations were formed to support the families of those persecuted by the government; alternative ‘universities’ taught the things excluded from official education; environmental groups were formed and cultural activities established…Increasingly citizens could live life apart from the one established by the regime. Though the actions were small, the goals were large.”

Kurlansky goes on to write of Havel’s strategy:

“…if people lived their lives parallel to the state system and not as a part of it–which he [Havel] termed “living within a lie”–there would always be a tension between these two realities and they would not be able to permanently coexist.”

The Occupy movement has for months now been engaged in creating the very same “counter-society” Havel and the Solidarity movement created to eventually bring the Soviet empire to its knees. Occupations across the country have been stepping up to offer free food, shelter and healthcare to the homeless because the state has failed to do so, a state that in turn uses its own failure as an excuse to evict peaceful protesters. The “occupation” has plans to offer free college education in Philadelphia, with local college professors volunteering their time, as I’m sure there are similar initiatives to do so in other parts of the country. And the movement is now standing–physically–with American families from across the country who are trampled on by banks who knowingly committed fraud and tossed people out of their homes.

Despite the winter, Occupy 2.0 is just getting warmed up. What are YOU going to do now?