"Occupy Together, The Division of a Community"
The author, Glenn Spagnuolo, is the cofounder of the Recreate 68 Alliance, a member of the Transform Columbus and All Nations Alliances and a long time social justice activist from Denver, Colorado
“Occupy Together, The Division of a Community”
Writing a critique of the Occupy Together movement has been a difficult task for a radical that continues to work for, and appreciate, a full uprising of the people against an unjust government. Since the beginning, many of us have been watching closely the developments from the “occupation of Wall Street” struggling with our own inner conflict of action or inaction in the face of a movement that is beginning to capture the public’s imagination. I write this from Denver, Colorado with my experience based in the solidarity actions of Occupy Denver in mind and influence of thought.
As radicals, we have been urged to join this movement and put aside our differences for the sake of community solidarity and unity. We have been chastised when we question the goals, strategies, and hierarchal nature of this emerging movement and have been urged to accept the positions stated by the leaders of this “leaderless” movement because, as we have been told, “inaction is just not acceptable because there is too much to lose at the present moment”. This urgency may sound familiar to many of us as it accompanied the election of Barack Obama, which some of us refused, rightfully so, to be a party to. Not to steal a line, but in regards to the actions of Recreate 68 and Unconventional Action during the DNC in 2008, history has absolved us. The left has blindly been supporting the Wall Street action without a critical assessment of it. As radicals, we have an obligation to think critically and question the underlying ideology and lack of historical approach utilized by groups that wrap themselves in such nationalistic, patriotic hyperbole as what we have witnessed to date.
As it stands at the moment, this movement appears to be nothing more than white middle class liberals upset at the current stage of capitalism which appears unfair to them, because for once their pocket books are the ones being affected. The inherent greed embodied in a capitalist system that has been exploiting people of color and has been built upon the genocide of this nation’s original Indigenous inhabitants since its inception, has been nothing more than an academic exercise in justice for many whites because they actively or passively benefit from the arrangement. This populace rage has been simmering only since white community members have become bankrupt or evicted from their homes or have seen a marketed decrease in their unearned wealth and class disparity. Prior to this point, while many of us were engaged in resistance to this unjust system, the occupiers were content to sip four dollar lattes and pick out furniture from their IKEA catalog that showed their cultural diversity. In the words of Cornell West, “it’s only a problem when white America becomes ‘niggerized’”. When it was people of color being evicted or exploited or Indigenous peoples being forcefully removed from their traditional homelands, it was not an issue on most of the occupier’s radar. The simple concept of “taking America back” is an insult to oppressed communities. “Taking it back” to when, when capitalism did not affect, but rather benefited, the white liberal middle class?
First let us address the lack of historical understanding and inappropriate language utilized by this group, then we shall address some remaining issues of non-violence and a diversity of tactics. To begin with the obvious, the use of the term “Occupy Wall Street” or closer to home, “Occupy Denver” needs to be addressed. “Occupy”…“Take America back”…for whom are they taking it back? “Return America back to a just system”…a return…to what, the glory days of capitalism when whites benefitted and remained unaffected by a systems oppressive nature? The land that both the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Denver groups claim as theirs has never been theirs or American land, it has been illegally occupied lands of the Lenape or Cheyenne or other Indigenous nations that lived in the area. The Wall Street protesters are playing hacky sack in the same spot that their ancestors had played similar games, with the exception that they literally kicked around the severed heads of native peoples for sport. In Denver, they camp on the same land that the Colorado 3rd Cavalry marched triumphantly with severed body parts dangling from their saddles and hats as trophies from the Sand Creek Massacre. The point being, that the lands the “occupy” group has been on have been illegally occupied for centuries by their ancestors and their ilk from which they have inherently benefitted. It is the loss of this very benefit that is causing the anger towards Wall Street. If they intend to take back America for the Indigenous communities and address the illegal colonization of the native land they camp on, I would not be so concerned, but the “occupy” folks media statements have been clear and articulate their position that they are not anti-American nor anti-capitalist and ergo not anti-colonial in their struggle.
Other language utilized by this movement that is causing many of us unrest is the use of such terms as “Days of Rage” or “revolution”. This only adds to their less than historical understanding of the politics of change necessary for a true revolution to take place in this country. It is insulting to our comrades that have engaged in direct militant confrontation with the United States government before us, and paved the road for many current radicals of today, for the “occupiers” to utilize language coined by their struggle. The Weather Underground and SDS members from the 1960’s and 70’s must be fuming, or in some cases, rolling in their graves, to see “Days of Rage” used to promote a permitted march and political actions coordinated to reduce any and all conflict with law enforcement. For some of the younger activists that may not be aware of why I may say this, the real “Days of Rage” was an action that took place in Chicago that was intended to increase the militancy of the movement. It was an unpermitted event, as they believed you should not ask permission to resist your oppressor, and it was intended and did create physical confrontations with the police in an attempt to strengthen the movements’ militant resolve through direct experience.
Additionally, saying you are not anti-American or anti-capitalism yet you are revolutionary is confusing at best and a lie at worst. Believing that capitalism can be reformed is typical of a protected class of individuals. Capitalism cannot, I repeat, cannot be reformed. The system is inherently oppressive and is built upon the exploitation of natural resources, personal wealth accumulation, and individual greed. If you support these principles and are not anti-capitalists, than do not call yourselves revolutionaries. Capitalism and American hegemony are ideals that radicals with a complete understanding of these ideologies’ real world implications should not be willing to compromise with nor accept.
The last issue to address is this ideological commitment to what has been proclaimed Gandhian non-violence. I thank the gods above that the British forces and the home-rule Indian authorities did not posses flimsy orange netting or Gandhi may never have made it to the shore to pick up a handful of salt. The ideology of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance has been raped by the American pacifist. It has been perverted to the point that it has come to mean compliance with authorities and avoidance of conflict when necessary. Additionally, the paralyzing pathology of pacifism practiced by a select few has been forced upon everyone else with a complete disregard to a diversity of tactics and opinions. It has gotten to the point that aggressive language and violation of unjust laws has been deemed to be violent or out-of-line with the pacifist mantra being espoused by this leaderless movement. Gandhi understood a diversity of tactics and his methods were only effective due to the militant guerrilla forces at work in India at the same moment in history along with Britain suffering financial hardship due to the violence of World War II. Gandhi also understood that not everyone was capable of being in the same non-violent state of mind at the same time, but this did not mean that they could not fight effectively in solidarity against the forces of oppression. As a matter of fact, he addressed this very issue when he stated, “Injustice must be resisted. No doubt the non-violent way is always the best, but where that does not come naturally the violent way is both necessary and honorable. Inaction here is rank cowardice and unmanly. It must be shunned at all cost.”
Locally, “occupy” organizers have even gone so far as obtaining permits and issuing marching orders that are veiled threats that law violators will be turned over to the police. Poor Gandhi, his message for his followers has been lost. He would never agree to such a position if he was alive today. He was clear about such topics and stated as much when he wrote, “A satyagrahi will not report a criminal to the police. He will not try to ride two horses at a time, to pretend to follow the law of satyagraha while at the same time seeking police aid. He must forswear the latter in order to follow the former…A reformer cannot afford to be an informer”. Keep this in mind Denver next time you obtain a permit, get a police escort for your march, and high five the officers for a good day of staged resistance. It is unethical to cherry pick parts of an ideology to support your cowardice to engage your opposition in a meaningful manner.
A short digression is necessary here for a moment. Many in the “Occupy Denver” movement have been upset with the use of the term pigs for the police and insist that they are our brothers in the struggle and are part of the 99%. Denver has been one of the most oppressive and violent police departments in the nation. They certainly were not acting in a brotherly manner towards Marvin Booker, a homeless preacher, whom they beat to death, or towards the numerous other victims of their police brutality. These officers were not drafted into the police department; they eagerly sought the job of an over-seer for the state. They chose to step over the line and join your opposition as their first line of defense. I have yet to see one officer quit his or her job and show up at the barricades in Denver and doubt highly I ever will. The sooner liberals stop being corralled like helpless animals by flimsy netting and crying like they were just shot or beat when pepper sprayed and realize that the police are not your friend, the better for us all. Many of us have been aware of the oppressive role of the police for a long time. Our brothers and sisters in communities of color, indigenous communities, or GLBT communities have experienced police brutality, murderous behavior, and out-right lies that have resulted in their deaths or incarceration since this country’s founding and many of us that have been on the front lines of this struggle, prior to the great white awakening, have our physical scars as well.
I have no problem with non-violent resistance. I have a big problem with the use of pacifism to avoid direct symbolic confrontation. Even the 700 person arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge was shameful. The Brooklyn Bridge, the big icon of cooperate greed (read sarcasm here). Many exclaimed they were forced onto the bridge. Why allow State authorities to force you anywhere without direct non-violent confrontation? Thousands were in the march. Gandhi was clear that non-violence was useless if not put to use in direct confrontation with the violence of the state. A good organizer should have chosen when and where this confrontation should have taken place. If those involved are serious about “revolution” and non-violent resistance, they should have considered marching their thousands to the stock exchange or other symbols of finance and forced the police to behave in a violent manner to unveil the oppressiveness of the state. What better symbolic image than the police using force to protect the stock exchange from the American public. Gandhi, as some in this so called movement have claimed, did not “just sit in the streets non-violently and win a country.”
When Occupy Denver’s non-violence becomes truly committed to a principled revolutionary change, then and only then should it be applauded. If this occurs, maybe some of the radicals may even consider joining you. Take heed the words of a true revolutionary pacifist from the past, David Dillenger, “I think there is a fraternity, a solidarity of people who are serious about revolutionary change and serious about human beings and transcends differences in tactics and strategy and methodology. As a pacifist and as one who believes profoundly in non-violent methods, I still feel a great solidarity with someone like Che Guevara. The greatest problem about non-violence, perhaps, is that most of us non-violent American activists have not been truly serious as violent revolutionaries have been.” So please think about that the next time you strap on your Che Guevara t-shirt and step up to the mic at your general assembly meeting to chastise a so-called anarchist for being too militant.
One last word needs to be said as to the democratic practices of this movement. “This is what democracy looks like” has been a rallying cry from the “Occupy Together” group. The so-called general assembly meetings are supposed to be an example of democracy in action. The Denver crew says they use a “modified form of consensus where a majority rules”. This is not consensus, but regardless of that fact, when playing within the rules set forth by this leaderless movement, democratic principles are still not adhered to. Democracy can be an ugly thing, you can never be sure of its outcome. If the outcome is something you do not like, you have to live with it. This is what happens in a majority rules system as opposed to true consensus. When Denver accepted the principles of solidarity set forth in St. Paul during the Republican National Convention, much concern and work behind the scenes was engaged in to undue this democratic decision and “re-own” the movement. The national group or leaderless leaders even threatened to remove Denver from its list of solidarity locations if it adhered to this democratically made decision. One more death knell for democracy in America. So much potential, but yet, so many problems. This is why, as radicals that believe in participatory democracy, we are concerned.
In the end, should radicals that believe in decolonization and revolutionary change join this populace movement? I cannot say for you, but for me, I am sitting this one out. When a movement other than the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movements, which are fueled by white rage, takes shape in this country, I am sure many of us will be willing and able to put our lives on the line, militantly or passively to make the changes necessary for a truly just society. Until then, I choose to sit back and enjoy the show.