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Rebecca Solnit: Success is for the Stubborn

By       Message Tom Engelhardt     Permalink
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For the first anniversary of Occupy, large demonstrations have been planned in New York and San Francisco and a host of smaller actions around the country, but some of the people who came together under the Occupy banner have been working steadily in quiet ways all along, largely unnoticed. From Occupy Chattanooga to Occupy London, people are meeting weekly, sometimes just to have a forum, sometimes to plan foreclosure defenses, public demonstrations, or engage in other forms of organizing. On August 22nd, for instance, a foreclosure on Kim Mitchell's house in a low-income part of San Francisco was prevented by a coalition made up of Occupy Bernal and Occupy Noe Valley (two San Francisco neighborhoods) along with ACCE, the group that succeeded the Republican-destroyed ACORN.

It was a little victory in itself -- and another that such an economically and ethnically diverse group was working together so beautifully. Demonstrations and victories like it are happening regularly across the country, including in Minnesota, thanks to Occupy Homes. Earlier this month, Occupy Wall Street helped Manhattan restaurant workers defeat a lousy boss and a worker lock-out to unionize a restaurant in the Hot and Crusty chain. (While shut out, the employees occupied the sidewalk and ran the Worker Justice Cafe' there.)

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In Providence, Rhode Island, the Occupy encampment broke up late last January, but only on the condition that the city open a daytime shelter for homeless people. At Princeton University, big banks are no longer invited to recruit on campus, most likely thanks to Occupy Princeton.

There have been thousands of little victories like these and some big ones as well: the impact of the Move Your Money initiative, the growing revolt against student-loan-debt peonage, and more indirectly the passing of a California law protecting homeowners from the abuse of the foreclosure process (undoubtedly due in part to Occupy's highlighting of the brutality and corruption of that process).

But don't get bogged down in the tangible achievements, except as a foundation. The less tangible spirit of Occupy and the new associations it sparked are what matters for whatever comes next, for that 10-year-plan. Occupy was first of all a great meeting ground. People who live too much in the virtual world with its talent for segregation and isolation suddenly met each other face-to-face in public space. There, they found common ground in a passion for economic justice and real democracy and a recognition of the widespread suffering capitalism has created.

Bonds were formed across the usual divides of age and race and class, between the housed and the homeless as well as the employed and jobless, and some of those bonds still exist. There was tremendous emotion around it -- the joy of finding you were not alone, the shame that was shed as the prisoners of debt stepped out of the shadows, the ferocity of solidarity when so many of us were attacked by the police, the dizzying hope that everything could be different, and the exhilaration in those moments when it already was.

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People learned how direct democracy works; they tasted power; they found something in common with strangers; they lived in public.  All those things mattered and matter still. They are a great foundation for the future; they are a great way to live in the present.

Maybe Occupy was too successful a brand in that it sometimes disguised how much this movement was part of popular surges going on around the world: the Arab Spring (including the three successful revolutions, the ongoing Syrian civil war, uprisings in Yemen, and more); the student uprisings in Montreal, Mexico, and Chile that have continued to develop and broaden; the economic revolts in Spain, Greece, and Britain; the ongoing demonstrations and insurrections around Africa; even various acts of resistance in India, Japan, China, and Tibet, some large and powerful. Because, in case you hadn't noticed, these days a lot of the world is in some form of rebellion, insurrection, or protest.

And the family resemblances matter.  If you add them all up, you see a similar fury at greed, political corruption, economic inequality, environmental devastation, and a dimming, shrinking future. 

The Heroic Age

Nevertheless, the one-year anniversary is likely to produce a lot of mainstream media stories that will assure you Occupy was only a bunch of tents that came down last year, that it was naïve, and that's that. Don't buy it. Don't be reasonable, don't be realistic, and don't be defeated.  A year is nothing and the mainstream media is oblivious to where power lies and how change works, but that doesn't mean you need to be.

That same media will tell you 99 ways from Tuesday how powerless you are and how all power is made by men in suits who won or bought elections, but don't buy that either. Instead, notice how terrified Vladimir Putin was of three young performers in bright-colored balaclavas, and how equally frightened Wall Street is of us. They remember something we tend to forget: together we are capable of being remarkably powerful. We can make history, and we have, and we will, but only when we keep our eyes on the prize, pitch a big tent, and don't stop until we get there.

We live in the heroic age itself, the age of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, of the Zapatistas in Mexico, of the Civil Rights Movement's key organizers, including John Lewis and Reverend Joseph Lowery, and of so many nameless heroines and heroes from Argentina to Iceland. Their praises are often sung, and the kinds of courage, integrity, generosity of spirit, and vision they exhibited all matter, but I want to talk about another virtue we don't think about much: it's the one we call patience when we like it or it appears to be gentle, and stubbornness when we don't or it doesn't.

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After all, Suu Kyi was steadfast during many years of house arrest and intimidation after a military junta stole the 1990 election she had won and only this year did the situation shift a little. The goals of the stubborn often seem impossible at inception, as did some of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, or for that matter the early nineteenth century abolitionist movement in the United States, which set out to eradicate the atrocity of slavery more than 30 years before victory -- a lot faster than the contemporaneous women's movement got basic rights like the vote. Change happens, but it can take decades; and it takes people who remain steadfast, patient (or stubborn) for those same decades, along with infusions of new energy.   

I suspect the steadfastness of the heroes of the great movements of our time came not only from facts but from faith. They had faith that their cause was just, that this was the right way to live on Earth, that what they did mattered, and they had those things decades before the results were in. You had to be unrealistic about the odds to go up against the Burmese generals or the Apartheid regime in South Africa or Jim Crow or 5,000 years of patriarchy or centuries of homophobia, and the unrealistic among us drew on their faith and did just that, with tremendous consequences.

Realism is overrated, but the fact is that the Occupy movement has already had extraordinary results. We changed the national debate early on and brought into the open what was previously hiding in plain sight: both the violence of Wall Street and the yearning for community, justice, truth, power, and hope that possesses most of the rest of us. We found out something that mattered about who we are: we found out just how many of us are furious about the debt peonage settled onto millions of "underwater" homeowners, people destroyed by medical debts, and students shackled by subprime educations that no future salaries will ever dig them out of.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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