Like most other social justice activists I know, I have been following (and taking part in) the Occupy Wall Street movement. The encampment in Burlington, VT was in City Hall Park in Burlington's downtown district for over two weeks. After a tragic suicide in the encampment, the Progressive/Democrat majority city government shut the camp down by claiming it was unsafe. In Olympia, WA., where my fellow dialogist Peter Bohmer resides, the campers are occupying land near the state capital and have to this point managed to work things out with the authorities to avoid conflict. Like Occupy camps everywhere, the status of these camps could change at any time. Indeed, since we began this endeavor, several have been shut down by police and other authorities, usually using the excuse that the camps were unsafe. Yet, the continued existence of the movement is certainly changing the nature of certain elements of the political discussion in the United States. This is why Peter and I decided to engage in the dialogue below. Our conversation began on November 5th and ended at around 2 in the morning PST on November 17th.
Peter and I go back over twenty years. The conversation that follows is but one of many we have had since we met. We share it as a springboard for thought and discussion. At the same time, we do not claim any special knowledge and pretend to no higher wisdom. We hope that the dialogue is received in the spirit of revolutionary camaraderie.-- Ron
Ron Jacobs: Do you remember last spring you said in an email (during the Arab Spring stuff before NATO and Libya) that this could have the same impact as 1968? Can you briefly explain that perception?
Peter Bohmer: I was very inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt beginning at the end of last year and early this year, 2011. The growing numbers in the face of murderous repression, the courage, the participatory democratic process of the occupiers, and the call in their statements and in the actual occupation for democracy and economic and social justice really resonated with me and captivated me.
Movements and uprisings tend to spread within and between nations as people begin to feel that there are alternatives to resignation to the status quo and the sense of powerlessness that so many people feel. When I said that I hoped 2011 would also be a world historic year, I thought it was somewhat likely these movements and upsurges would burst forth first in countries where there was growing economic inequality and poverty, where austerity programs were in place and where the majority of the population had no power over the direction and policies of their country. I thought of places as ripe for major rebellion such as Greece which I had visited in September 2010 where the IMF and the European Union was increasingly calling the shots and particularly in other nations in North Africa and the Middle East where the people were following what was happening in the region's largest country.
Although the resistance to budget cuts in Washington Stare where I live was somewhat limited, I also thought it possible that the examples of the occupation in Egypt and the labor led protests in Madison against their Tea Party Governor, Scott Walker's frontal attack on State workers and their unions would spread throughout the U.S.
Ron: And now we have the occupy movement, which seems to be inspired by the events in Tahrir Square. Despite it's indecisiveness in its agenda, it has captured the hopes of many and the wrath of most of the corporate right wing. I have concerns about what I consider a lack of focus but at the same time there is a part of me that understands that the current political understanding of people in the US would reject something more directed. In fact there are those in the occupy movement that lump unions right up there with corporations. What this says to me is that they are confusing union leadership with the rank and file and misunderstanding the role of unions in a capitalist economy, not to mention an unawareness of that history. Nonetheless these types of political misconceptions exist. Is the movement a step forward?
Peter: As a result of observation and participation in the still-growing "Occupy Movement", an alternative to the pervasive feelings of powerlessness and resignation are emerging. There has been for quite some time in the United States widespread opposition to the growing inequality of income and wealth, to total corporate control over all parts of our life, to global warming, to a government that tortures and is totally beholden to Wall Street, to homelessness and losing our homes, to unemployment and underemployment, to growing debt and poverty, to the imprisonment of over two million people, to militarism and endless wars, and this list is incomplete. At the same time, resistance although greater than reported in the mainstream media has been somewhat limited and ineffective. The importance of this movement is that active resistance is increasingly being seen as valid and the right thing to do. There is a growing feeling beyond the occupiers that hopelessness and escape or maybe voting for the lesser of two evils are not the only options.
Common to the growth of powerful social movements have been people who are willing to resist the status quo and take a stand who by their bold actions strike a chord with much larger numbers of people. This causes them to then change for at least a period of time the organization and activities of their lives and also change their values and ideology towards a less self-centered and me first system of belief and towards solidarity and cooperation, and towards a commitment to economic and social justice. This is happening right now, something is in the air.
Having a physical space which people occupy makes this movement visible and also possible for new people to join it. In Olympia, Washington, it is creating dialog and community between homeless people, young people, anarchists and other activists, retired people, etc (many people belong to more than one category). Although in Olympia and in many other places there are no visible demands and somewhat limited discussion of what kind of society we want and how to get there or what we want in the short and medium run, occupiers needs for food, shelter and increasingly health care are being addressed and increasingly met as is the question of self-government. So to say, this occupation is not political is a very narrow definition of political.
Ron: If the occupy movement is at the forefront of left-oriented popular struggle, how do we move forward? What might forward look like?"
I've been in a few occupation/liberation actions over the years, as have you. In fact, I think we were involved in two or three together. Anyhow, whether it was Peoples Park in 1979, a campus building sometime in the past few decades or the Occupy encampments in our respective towns, the fact is these actions usually end. Many of the ones I was involved with ended with some kind of compromise agreement between the bureaucrats involved and the occupiers. Peoples Park ended with a temporary truce and the park still a park. As I involve myself and observe the Occupy movement, I am also doing what I can to make it into something beyond the occupations. However, I am not sure what. We saw one possibility at the end of the Oakland Strike day when folks took over the foreclosed Travelers Aid building in Oakland's downtown. Although the timing was obviously wrong (it's not a good idea to occupy a building while the cops are down the street ready to kick ass), the impetus behind the action makes a lot of sense. In fact, I have been a part of discussions about squatting foreclosed buildings here in Vermont and also with folks online in other parts of the world.
A sidebar to this is how long can the occupations remain meaningful before they become like so much graffiti in the minds of the supportive observer?
Peter: As of today, November 7. 2011, most of the occupations are maintaining their momentum. This is a very positive accomplishment. For example, in Olympia, many people in Occupy Olympia are looking ahead to November 28, 2011, to confront the Washington State Legislature when it is being called back into a special session by the Governor Gregoire, a Democrat, in order to make further cuts in a State budget that has already severely reduced needed spending for health care, for education at all levels and for poor people. Occupy Olympia is committed to maintaining the occupation of a downtown park at least until the legislative session and possibly beyond.
None the less as Michael Albert, pointed out in his ZNET article, "Occupy to Self-Manage", occupations and the related general assemblies, the decision-making group for most occupations, tend to decline over time in numbers and enthusiasm. So it is key to bring in new people and create an atmosphere that is welcoming of new people so that we do not wither away. Let us not unconsciously exclude people who have not been part of the left or activist communities. It is also important that we use our occupied sites as a base to for actions and education outside of our sites.
We need to consciously make movement building one of our goals of this phase of the Occupy Movement. This means developing organizations, institutions, and people who have a deepening analysis and critique of capitalism, with growing capacity and skills to confront this system, and to put forward and win non-reformist reforms. Hopefully this will last beyond these set of occupations. By non-reformist reforms, I mean reforms that meet people's expressed needs, that build our understanding of the limits of capitalist reform, and that also build our capacity to struggle for and win more fundamental and radical transformation of this oppressive and unsustainable society.