Harpo Jaeger dot com

Oakland, Keystone XL, and the future of #Occupy

The situation at Occupy Oakland continues to deterioriate:

A man was shot to death on Thursday near a downtown Oakland plaza where hundreds of anti-Wall Street activists have camped out for a month, stoking renewed calls by some city officials to evict the protesters.

It’s not clear yet whether the victim and/or shooter were involved in Occupy Oakland, or just near it. Either way, this is bad press something that Occupy really needs to avoid. That said, this is dumb (same article):

“Tonight’s incident underscores the reason why the encampment must end. The risks are too great,” [Oakland Mayor Jean] Quan said. “We need to return (police) resources to addressing violence throughout the city. It’s time for the encampment to end. Camping is a tactic, not a solution.”

Quan certainly didn’t seem too concerned about wasting police resources on October 25th. But there’s a larger lesson to be learned here: #Occupy is running out of capital. If the movement doesn’t translate to substantive political action very soon, it will lose steam.

“Political action?” you say? “Politics is messy and full of special interests. Politics will dilute the message and subvert Occupy’s grassroots, democratic nature.”

Well, yes. But “politics” doesn’t just mean lobbyists and committee hearings (although those are pretty important too). Politics is the process of organizing constituent groups around issues with specific goals in mind. Occupy brought together a lot of people with a lot of ideas, and that’s been incredibly valuable in and of itself. Now it’s time to make the jump to issue-based organizing. That doesn’t mean we have to give up the incredible democratic and people-powered nature of Occupy, it just means that there needs to be some serious top-down leadership to put together real, workable campaigns.

For example:

…a few minutes ago the president sent the pipeline back to the State Department for a thorough re-review, which most analysts are saying will effectively kill the project.The president explicitly noted climate change, along with the pipeline route, as one of the factors that a new review would need to assess. Theres no way, with an honest review, that a pipeline that helps speed the tapping of the worlds second-largest pool of carbon can pass environmental muster.

And he has made clear that the environmental assessment wont be carried out by cronies of the pipeline companythat it will be an expert and independent assessment.

That was veteran environmental activist Bill McKibben on the Keystone XL pipeline, which, thanks to an ongoing campaign including over one thousand arrests and culminating in a giant protest at the White House last weekend, looks decreasingly likely to be approved. This is one of the environmental movement’s biggest victories in an uncomfortably long time. It came about because a) there are a lot of people who care enough about the issues to go to DC and protest in person, and b) because a few people took charge and coordinated a highly visible event, paying serious attention to strategy and media outreach.

What can #Occupy learn from this? That it’s not enough to have passionate people on your side. If it were, we’d never have gone to war in Iraq. We’d never have passed the PATRIOT act. We’d never have assassinated an American citizen on foreign soil without anything even resembling due process. And we wouldn’t continue using unmanned drones to carry out indiscriminate attacks on uncertain targets.

Occupy Providence donation receiving tent | photo by me

So far, #Occupy’s energy has been focused on physically sustaining the occupations. That takes a lot of work, and the amount that’s been accomplished is nothing short of incredible. But if Occupy wants to move forward and make a real political difference (like, dare I say, the Tea Party?), we need substantive goals and action strategies. It’s clearly possible to turn people out for actions; Occupy Providence had a really strong presence a few weekends ago in a demonstration to support their continued occupation of Burnside Park, and have also been sending folks to Bank of America in groups to close their accounts and move their money to local banks. But actions like this have largely been invisible to the media and not coordinated at a national level. That can’t continue.

Living at Occupy Providence for a week was a really incredible experience. I have real faces and experiences to consider when I think about the movement faces and experiences other than my own. I try to see things from the perspective of the homeless, the unemployed, and those who’ve been far less privileged than I in any number of ways. The commitment and kindness I’ve encountered at Occupy Providence has been nothing short of inspiring.

I hope that others feel the same way and I hope that inspiration moves us to question our assumptions about what it means to be a movement. Grassroots support and centralized leadership aren’t mutually exclusive; rather, they’re vital co-components of any successful activism strategy.

I want desperately for #Occupy to succeed. We need to define success and articulate a clear plan of action to get ourselves there. Complicated problems require complicated solutions, so let’s not sell ourselves short.