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Nov 28 2011

History debunks myths about Occupy

One of the things that has struck me most about the opposition to the Occupy movement is the ease with which people approach repeating the trite truisms about the occupiers. No matter how many professionals stand up in support of the protest, everyone reaches for the “unemployed bums” canard. Regardless of the number of specific problems highlighted by protests at each site, nobody seems to have any problem expressing their bewilderment at the lack of a cohesive message. Despite the amount of energy and time put into making the occupied sites more than just an urban camping trip, people throw around the term “lazy” like rice at a wedding.

The other aspect that particularly fascinates me is the tin ear for the lessons of history that these criticisms showcase. Every revolutionary protest movement looks like this, even the ones that we would otherwise support. It doesn’t take an encyclopedic knowledge of history to see the parallels between the occupation of public space and the non-violent resistance of Indians to British rule. Nor does one have to have a degree in the humanities to see the attempted demonization of Occupy’s “hippies” echoing the same condemnations from a generation ago in the person of the actual hippies of the Vietnam resistance movement.

But even if one isn’t well-attuned to those particular stories, it’s hard for me to look at the Occupiers and not see links to the civil rights movement of African-Americans in the mid-20th century. Now this is not to say that the problems of centuries of racism and the fight for human decency is on equivalent footing to corruption in financial and political institutions (which have become two sides of the same ill-gained coin); however, it is worth noting that many of the common bromides hurled at the Occupy movement are shown to be quite hollow by even a cursory examination of history.

“The Occupy people don’t have a plan! All successful protest movements have clear goals and plans that are defined before the protest starts!”

I suppose the second statement there is pure implication from the first. The truth, however, is something quite different. The important thing to remember about the civil rights movement is that it started as something quite diffuse, as a reaction to several problems that all overlapped. Certainly voting rights and housing were part of the civil rights struggle, but they were not established as “the goals” at any point.

While the establishment of the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act were significant milestones, nobody at the beginning of the movement was pushing for federal legislation. It would be far more accurate to state that they were fighting a number of small battles over individual injustices that were linked by a common theme of anti-black racism. It’s hard to imagine that Rosa Parks was pulled from a bus shouting recriminations of the Southern Democrats and white flight from the suburbs of Detroit.

Similarly, the Occupy movement objects to the general state of affairs, and is using its platform to fight individual battles rather than laying out precisely what will make them happy. It is also worth noting that the civil rights movement never really ended. It’s not as though when the ink dried on the Voting Rights Act that Dr. King dusted his hands and said “Good! Dream achieved! Let’s go get funnel cake!” Revolution is a long process, and to imagine that a movement like Occupy will, after only 2 months, have an “end goal” is a ridiculous expectation.

“They should just occupy a voting booth! After all, there’s nothing wrong with the current state of the democratic system!”

I don’t know what kind of person looks at a group protesting corruption in government and says “this problem can be solved by voting”. I hope that kind of person doesn’t practice medicine, or they’re likely to look at a gangrenous wound and prescribe a band-aid and some strong peroxide. The political system is the problem – candidates on both sides of the aisle are beholden to large money donations, and spend more time campaigning than legislating. As a result, we see debates over issues that are volatile but not relevant to the long-term health of the country, since neither side can afford to rock the boat too hard.

Occupy is trying to draw public attention to the flaws in the system that are fueling the fires destroying the very foundations of our society. Again, while the two things are not interchangeable, many members of the civil rights movement were highly skeptical of the political institution, noting the vein of racism that ran through it. Many people, notably Black Nationalists, openly disdained the idea of working within the system or running for office. What they intended to do was set up a separate parallel system by black leaders for self-government. While Occupy is not quite so radical as Stokely Carmichael (which is not a criticism of brother Carmichael, many of whose views I share), it is worth noting that a major component of the Occupy ideology is that the current political system is broken. Urging participation in a broken system is like demanding a new jockey for a dead horse.

It should also be recognized that Occupy is increasing political activism and participation among youth, whose voices have been in decline over many elections. In the same way that the civil rights movement sparked new involvement of black voters and politicians in the post-movement era, I anticipate that we will see many members of the Occupy movement emerge in later years to become strong voices for change in politics. Suggesting that the central positions of the Occupation can be resolved by simply continuing to vote for the lesser of two evils (which many see as being the case today) is wildly ignorant of not only the issues, but contemporary political reality.

“They won’t pick an issue! Everyone knows that protests are always about a single thing that never deviates or evolves!”

There is a perfect image to describe the impetus behind the Occupy movement:

Occupy is not about a single issue – it is a reaction to a system that is seen as unsustainable and not serving the best interests of the majority of people. The system has many facets – legal, financial, political, and philosophical. There will be no ‘magic bullet’ solution to all of these things, and it is important for a movement that wishes to represent the people to listen to the issues the people have. There are, therefore, a variety of causes represented at each Occupation. It was ever thus: the civil rights movement included those who wished to work within the system and those who wished to abolish the system. There were those who thought that the ballot box was sufficient, and those who wanted to ship all black people back to Africa. There were those who wanted fair housing, and others who wanted reparations for slavery.

It is a fallacy to label the civil rights movement as a homogeneous organization working toward a single goal. It is only possible to think of it this way through the rearview look of history. In reality, the civil rights ‘movement’ was a number of smaller movements that were related by a shared outrage to ‘this sort of thing’. In the same way, Occupy will not have a specific issue, and will likely take up causes that don’t seem to be related to bank regulation or the abolition of corporate personhood. This kind of kaleidoscopic look at the problems of the system is symptomatic of two things: 1) a protest movement with a broad base, and 2) a system with a huge number of problems.

I am not sure why it is that people refuse to look at and learn from the lessons of history (please don’t quote Satayana here – that’s not what he was talking about), but even my cursory knowledge of past protest movements shows that Occupy is not an outlier when it comes to expressions of outrage, and its tactics are therefore not uniquely doomed to fail. Critics of the movement will have to do some soul-searching to figure out why they (I assume) support the sit-ins for black civil rights at private businesses, but do not support the tent-ins at public parks for greater corporate and political accountability.

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20 comments

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  1. 1
    annesauer

    Great post. I have often wondered recently whether those who oppose socially progressive movements ever think about the likelihood that they will end up on the wrong side of history.

  2. 2
    RW Ahrens

    Excellent post! I wish this could be more widely read, it is simply an excellent explanation of what the current movement is all about. It cuts through all the flak very well.

  3. 3
    Crommunist

    Feel free to spread it around. Those share buttons at the bottom aren’t just for decoration ;)

  4. 4
    Lauren

    I always learn so much from reading your posts. And you are just so… Reasonable. It seems hard to find.

    I have now looked up and learned about Stokely Carmichael whose name I do not recall from lessons in school. Which is odd since I talk about the idea of systemic racism all the time. I should have done my research and looked up where it came from.

    AND I learned about the Satayana quote.

    Thank you!

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    I learn just as much researching these posts as you do reading them. I have to stay a step ahead of you :P

    Glad you enjoy my stuff!

  6. 6
    Tamsin

    “The Occupy people don’t have a plan! All successful protest movements have clear goals and plans that are defined before the protest starts!”

    I get so sick of people saying this. I’ve recently been studying the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which was initially extremely successful (until the Soviets kidnapped the new government’s Defence Minister and then intervened with tanks). Sure, the protesters had their list of demands, but no one seriously expected that a student protest in solidarity with Poland would turn into a mass uprising and revolution within less than a day. They were basically making it up as they went along.
    Any grassroots protest movement is likely to be diverse in its goals and may at times even be incoherent – that’s simply a function of the wide range of people involved. If I ever see a mass protest movement that is perfectly planned with a well-formulated set of goals and demands from which it never deviates, I will suspect astroturfing.

  7. 7
    Dunc

    I don’t know what kind of person looks at a group protesting corruption in government and says “this problem can be solved by voting”.

    Sure you do. You did an eight post series on System Justification Theory, after all… The response to the Occupy movement is a perfect case study.

  8. 8
    jamessweet

    I am interested what you would have to say about this, my concerns about the Occupy movement, which are related to the ones you have addressed here, but I think are distinctly different. In brief: It’s not that Occupy doesn’t have specific goals; as you describe in great detail here, that’s not necessarily a problem for a political movement, and Occupy has a much more cohesive direction than many a successful movement in the past. Rather, what worries me is that they don’t have specific goals and the style of protest is a “we’re-not-leaving-until-we-get-our-demands” thing. I don’t see how that’s going to work out in the end.

    Please don’t judge my concerns on just this short summary, read the blog post and the follow-up comment if you want to judge my argument. In particular, there are important caveats that clearly this style of protest has been effective in getting media attention, and in a follow-up comment I admit that I don’t know what exactly I would change to make Occupy more effective. It simply that this aspect of it has been making me uneasy from the start. How does it end? I don’t see how it can end in anything but perceived failure, no matter how successful it is in actuality…

  9. 9
    Quietmarc

    That second point never makes any sense to me. It’s not like I turned in my right to vote when I went to an Occupy protest. I mean, we’re allowed to do BOTH, aren’t we? I wasn’t aware that we had to choose just one.

    But maybe I’m greedy, wanting to use more than a bare sliver of my rights as a citizen to agitate for what I believe in….

  10. 10
    Jadehawk

    I mean, we’re allowed to do BOTH, aren’t we?

    some of us aren’t. But then, if I did go voting, that actually would be the sort of voter fraud certain people are being paranoid about… (except I’m a legal alien, a category that seems to be generally nonexistent in the mind of many people)

  11. 11
    Quietmarc

    True, and I apologize for overlooking the people who can’t vote (for whatever reason). But that makes the objection even less sensible. “Why don’t you just vote,” is a ridiculous objection to Occupy.

  12. 12
    Wade

    Wow, you’re almost as ambiguous with your history as you are with your list of credentials and qualifications to offer this information. You should really go back and take African American History (perhaps you have, but got a bad professor?).

    The beginning of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century was the decision on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. That decision rejected separate white and non-white school systems, thus overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been established in the earlier decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. This began a plethora of well organized attacks on the various OTHER ways that “separate but equal” was being used to keep Blacks from enjoying full freedom and equal rights. There was no ambiguity to these actions; they were well planned, had clear goals, and leaders (e.g., Rosa Parks) BEFORE they were enacted (although some, such as Minnijean Brown of the Little Rock Nine, emerged organically through personal acts of resistance).

    To compare the Civil Rights Movement to the Occupy “Movement” is bad history, and insulting to the leaders of the former…but I’m sure it will get you plenty of blog hits.

  13. 13
    Crommunist

    The Civil Rights Movement is a nice label that we can apply as we look backward on a group of events, but it was not one group, nor did it have official leaders – just people occupying leading roles. What King did in Alabama was not linked to what Malcolm did with black empowerment and the NOI in the northern states. Those men are considered to be among the leaders of “the Civil Rights Movement”, but can only be identified as such in a post-hoc way. These leaders, incidentally, had been working behind the scenes for years and were only vaulted to the limelight because they had a groundswell of popular support for their positions. The same is likely to be the case for Occupy – people who have long been activists for financial and political reform will have more traction for their views because of the attention being payed to the protesters.

    It should also not be overlooked that people within Occupy point directly to King’s doctrine of non-violent resistance and the precedent set by the CRM.

  14. 14
    Stacy

    “They won’t pick an issue! Everyone knows that protests are always about a single thing that never deviates or evolves!”

    This is a good way to hamstring a movement–what happens if/when you happen to achieve that single issue?

    That may be what happened to First Wave feminism, now popularly characterized as “suffragettes”* who fought for the vote. In fact, feminists in the 19th and early 20th century fought for a lot more than that–access to education and to the professions, economic rights, an end to the sexual double standard, you name it–but after they began focusing on voting rights it was pretty much guaranteed that the movement would lose momentum after suffrage was achieved.

    * A belittling term. People who fought for women’s right to vote called themselves suffragists.

  15. 15
    Sean Boyd

    I had an encounter with the “Occupy equals bums” meme yesterday. I was on a bus in beautiful downtown Tacoma, Washington. We were stopped at the corner of Pacific and 21st, the location of a little park that seems rarely used most of the time. For the past couple of months, though, it’s been the location of Occupy Tacoma. Sitting at the light, the driver of the bus looked at me through his mirror, and said without preamble, “You know they’re all homeless.”

    I resisted my knee-jerk reaction, which would have been an expletive, followed by asking him how he came by his special knowledge. I said something noncommittal, but I’m pretty sure that my inner Don Rickles came through loud and clear anyway. He kept up with it until the next stop, at which I exited the bus. I couldn’t help but think, once I got my annoyance under better control, that the best response would have been “So what?” Even if his assertion were true (and it’s not), what does it matter? Since when did being homeless become equated with having no right to expressing one’s views? And, given that the “solution” the right offers for the homeless is to “take a shower and get a job” (thank, Newt), shouldn’t the homeless have a right to protest the lack of jobs?

    What pissed me off more, though, is the notion that a government employee feels it’s acceptable to publicly denigrate citizens and residents of the county for which he work, while he’s on the job. I’ve been debating filing a complaint with the transit agency. After all, he does have a right to be an ignorant fool. I don’t think he ought to be spewing that view all over passengers who just want to get to their destination.

    At any rate, Crommunist, a timely post as always.

  16. 16
    Crommunist

    Your response should have been: “yeah, they should all get jobs. I realize they’re probably not that educated or skilled, but how hard could it possibly be to like… I dunno… drive a bus or something? Any moron could pull THAT off.”

    Anyone employed in the public sector who is against OWS needs to be sat down and had some things explained to them.

  17. 17
    Sean Boyd

    Yep…layoffs for Tacoma police and firefighters were just announced today. And there are numbskulls who think this is a good thing. Until they need those services, anyway.

  18. 18
    Ben Fenton

    The other thing that bothers me is how liberals and the Official Left insist on rewriting history to support their dogmatic adherence to non-violence. Many of these self-appointed leaders and peacekeepers even go so far as to claim that civil disobedience is wrong because it breaks the law. They also claim that the Egyptian Revolution first wave was won through a strict, non-violent approach–even though the Egyptians were actually fighting the cops in the streets and attacking the police stations.

  19. 19
    Peter Smith

    I don’t understand why voting is not a solution? If all of the occupy movement’s supporters voted, and if all those on the sidelines (supporters or not) voted, the political world would be very different.

    Political parties go where the voters are, don’t they? If some groups don’t vote, can you really be surprised if the politicians don’t listen? I don’t think that governments would be seeking injunctions to have the camps closed down if they felt that there were lots of votes to be had out of this movement.

    Is there some representative system other than democracy that has a chance in solving the many problems the occupy movement is protesting?

  20. 20
    Crommunist

    So you’ll notice that financial reform is not a major topic for debate in this election. Or in the last one. Or in any of them, really. It’s probably the single biggest threat to American democracy right now, but instead we’re fighting over whether or not it’s a good idea to force gay soldiers to lie, and whether or not we should give rich people more money. When both parties are silent about an issue, or when both parties are drawing their major source of funding from the same corrupt place, there is a need for significant change.

    The issue is that Occupy has no faith in the ability of the political status quo to solve the major problems. There is no party that is representing their interests. However, there is also nobody seriously suggesting that the democratic system be abolished. As we approach the 2012 election, expect more political content to come from Occupy, and expect both political parties to begin speaking their language. It’s already started happening.

  1. 21
    History Debunks 3 Myths About Occupy Vancouver | Occupy Vancouver Voice

    [...] Crommunist writes a great piece on the historical parallels between the Occupy movement and prior mass movements in the past, and finds that OV is not an outlier. One of the things that has struck me most about the opposition to the Occupy movement is the ease with which people approach repeating the trite truisms about the occupiers. No matter how many professionals stand up in support of the protest, everyone reaches for the “unemployed bums” canard. Regardless of the number of specific problems highlighted by protests at each site, nobody seems to have any problem expressing their bewilderment at the lack of a cohesive message. Despite the amount of energy and time put into making the occupied sites more than just an urban camping trip, people throw around the term “lazy” like rice at a wedding. [...]

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