Naomi Klein: Disasters are being exploited by shock politics

Hurricanes like Irma can be a gateway for shock politics that manipulate the vulnerable. To defeat ‘disaster capitalists’ and their radical agendas, says award-winning writer Naomi Klein, we need to knuckle down and get real about the future.

Naomi Klein can pinpoint the day something inside her switched. It was 6 December, 1989: the day 25-year-old Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the École Polytechnique in Montreal and, separating the female students from the males, shot all the women in a row.

“You’re all a bunch of feminists,” he shouted, before turning the gun on himself. For Klein, a student at the University of Toronto, the shock was a call to action.

“That was my wake-up call,” she says. “It was just the most blatant hate crime.”

Klein was no stranger to activism. She’d grown up surrounded by the language of social justice – her parents moved from the US to Montreal in protest of the war in Vietnam – but had never felt the need to get involved.

As a teen, she was too busy being a mall rat. Like any child of the ’80s, Klein was more interested in designer labels than deep debate and admits being “vaguely embarrassed” by the kind of “hippiedom” that her family home represented.

But when Marc Lépine declared his mass shooting a “war on feminism”, blaming affirmative action for his rejection from engineering school, she understood that political actions have consequences: that politics is about real lives.

This was not a political time on campus, says Klein. “But because I had grown up among feminists I sort of had some tools to help my friends talk about this, even though I had never used them myself.” She put up flyers, inviting people to come together and talk about what had happened.

“Around 500 people showed up,” she says, “and I found myself having to chair a meeting for the first time in my life, so it was a bit of a trial by fire.”

For the next 40 minutes, Klein will speak non-stop – about the system that gave rise to Trump, and the conditions that could finally defeat his type – without ever sounding lofty or verbose.

She’s in London to talk about her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, and a lot of people want to hear what she has to say.

In a few days she’ll stand in front of an audience at London’s Royal Festival Hall and explain that Trump’s “man-babyness” is a tactic in itself. She’ll also call the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed at least 80 people and could have been prevented, another case of “lovelessness in public”.

“Every decision that contributed to that epic crime was rounded in a brutal calculus that systematically discounted the lives of poor people,” she’ll say, drawing parallels with how the US government not only failed the victims of Hurricane Katrina but pushed through a wave of privatisation in its wake, all in the name of ‘progress’.

Offering a counter-narrative to this particular brand of BS is Naomi Klein’s greatest strength. The celebrated writer – who fired shots at “brand bullies” in 1999’s No Logo before cutting through the jargon of neoliberalism ever since – has made it her life’s work to debunk the myth that private wealth and infinite growth will save us all.

But there’s another truth that desperately needs outing. Donald Trump as POTUS is no shock. He’s the inevitable spawn of a failed system, says Klein, that’s been screwing us our entire lives.

“If you wrote a sci-fi book years ago and cast Trump as president, your editor would have said it’s way too obvious,” she says, laughing.

It took Klein three months to write No Is Not Enough. She normally blocks out five years for a book. But time is of the essence, she says, and the planet’s future is at stake.

“When the politics of climate change go wrong – and they are very, very, wrong right now – we don’t get to try again in four years.”

NAOMI-KLEIN_ILLO_4
Things have gone from bad to worse since those words were written. Trump has pulled the plug on the Paris Accord, flicking a middle finger at all the work, however minimal, that had already been done to minimise global warming in the coming years. But securing bigger profits for his fossil fuel friends is just one item on Trump’s “toxic to-do list”.

Banning Muslims, deporting Mexicans, controlling women’s reproductive organs, making healthcare a privilege rather than a right, and fuelling racial hate: these are just the appetisers, says Klein, the amuse bouche of a noxious buffet being prepared by Trump’s “constellation of disaster capitalists”.

All they need is the slightest tremor, she says, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, or a terror attack like 9/11, and they’ll serve it up hot and fast.

It’s crises like these that can then be exploited to push through their radical agenda. Just look at the war in Iraq.

“I’ve studied societies in states of shock,” says Klein. “This loss of collective orientation is what makes people vulnerable, so I wanted to very quickly get us oriented – to show Trump in a context we know. When people tell themselves they are in a state of disbelief, they are really open to being politically manipulated.

“So I just want to say, ‘Well, is he really that shocking?’ I think he’s actually an entirely predictable, even clichéd outcome of American culture.”

Which is why she wrote this book in a red-hot minute. The final pages conclude with the Leap Manifesto – an inspiring vision of tomorrow, co-written by 60 movements, where renewable energy creates jobs and fights inequality.

It’s an alarm bell for the future, a wake-up call for the here and now, and a reminder that the only thing standing in our way is the failure of our own imagination.

Trump came as a shock to a lot of people, but you don’t quite see it that way. For those who aren’t familiar with your earlier book The Shock Doctrine, what do you mean when you refer to Trump’s ‘shock politics’? Or his plans to unleash pro-corporate ‘shock therapy’? 

The shock doctrine is this phrase I came up with to describe a theory of power. I originally used it in the context of the Iraq War in 2003. It’s this idea that in moments of extreme national trauma, when the country you thought you lived in suddenly seems like a very different place, the narrative of who you are, of what your nation is, shifts dramatically.

Those moments of heightened disorientation and fear have been harnessed by elites to push through some of their most unpopular pro-corporate policies that systematically stratifies society between the haves and the have-nots.

The ultimate example was Hurricane Katrina. In the traumatic aftermath, there was this frenzy of privatisation and deregulation – and of course people can’t engage in economic debates when they have nowhere to live. New Orleans now has the most privatised school system in the US; public hospitals were closed and public housing demolished in the interest of gentrifying the city.

People weren’t prepared for Trump; they told themselves it would never happen. I want to negate this idea of seeing him as this bolt from the blue, because a true shock is a rupture in a narrative. It’s, ‘We thought we were one thing and suddenly we’re something else.’

And to me, there is a fundamental dishonesty in metabolising Trump in that way because Trump is as American as apple pie. His products may not be made in America but he is so ‘Made in America’. He is just beauty pageants, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and fighter jets – and the worship of wealth and endless consumption.

You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of storytelling, that we have to tell a different story to the one peddled by ‘shock doctors’. Why is it so important to have ownership over our own narrative? 

Well, this is what we are: a collection of stories. I remember so vividly after 9/11, whenever there would be any critique of power, people would say, ‘That’s pre-9/11 thinking.’

There was this idea of blanking the slate and I think that’s quite deliberate. History, our shared narratives, how we ended up where we are today is what keeps us oriented.

It’s a classic tool of authoritarians to deny history, to deny those shared reference points, because a population without history is easy to control.

[History can be] a shock absorber for societies. I saw it in Argentina. After the 2001 financial crisis [and anti-austerity protests that led to President Fernando de la Rúa declaring a state of siege and ordering everyone to stay in their homes], there was this period of reinvention where the whole political class was kicked out.

The slogan in the streets was: ‘All of them must go.’ People remembered what had happened during the dictatorship 25 years earlier – how they had lost their rights because they had allowed appeals to national security to trump their freedoms. That ability to collectively learn from the mistakes of history is tremendously important.

That’s part of what I mean by story, but I also think the crises that we have now are stories that are failing us. Stories of infinite growth on a finite planet, of wealth as a key to happiness.

There are so many stories that I think Trump represents the epitome of – the logical conclusion of – and those stories are failing us as a species.

NAOMI-KLEIN_ILLO_2

What do you make of what’s happening here in the UK with the resurgence of the left? Young people came out in their droves to support Jeremy Corbyn, the most socialist leader the Labour Party has seen for generations. What do you think is fuelling this turning point? For young people, it can’t be collective memory of a worse time… 

I think the spell of neoliberalism is lifting around the world, and it’s been a slow process. This ideological project that began under Reagan and Thatcher of, ‘Let’s just leave everything to the market.’ This idea that anything public is sinister and anything you try to do collectively will inherently fail.

Milton Friedman famously said in a letter to Pinochet, when he was advising the Chilean dictator, that the major mistake happened when people thought they could do good with other people’s money.

The idea that by pooling resources, i.e. taxes, we could do something good, like have public healthcare or free education – that was the fundamental error in his view. So that’s been the project.

The flip-side of the project has been a war on the imagination. The most damage was encapsulated in that Thatcher phrase, ‘There is no alternative.’ But as neoliberalism has been slowly decomposing, faith in the policies has died.

People stopped believing that privatisation would lead to efficiency, that a rising tide would lift all boats. Those utopian promises of the neoliberal age that I grew up with, that your generation didn’t, started to fall away.

But even as people started to reject those policies after the 2008 financial crisis, the courage to pose alternatives to it – to propose a radically different way to allocate resources, live together and share the planet – seemed impossible.

So the first stage was finding the courage to say, ‘No!’ But the next phase is finding the courage to say, ‘Yes!’ And it turns out that that’s a lot harder.

What I’m tremendously inspired by is that, since 2008, there really aren’t any true believers in neoliberalism anymore. There aren’t people giving the same sales pitch that I grew up with: If we outsource everything it will run more efficiently.

I mean, say that after Grenfell Tower and you’ll be chased, right? So it’s been this zombie ideology – it’s still upright, it still staggers around, it has its own momentum – but it’s without a soul. It doesn’t have that animating force.

So when young people hear a politician like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn put forward bold ideas about redistribution of wealth, they think: ‘We do live in a time of unprecedented wealth, it’s just that the money is stuck at the top. So why don’t we get more of that and pay for things that improve people’s quality of life?’

Like, what a concept! [laughs] These ideas feel fresh and they haven’t been tarnished by that constant ideological assault that an older generation was subjected to.

It’s young people’s freedom from that sales pitch, post-2008, that is making it possible to say, ‘Yes!’ To go beyond the ‘no’, which is all my generation could really manage, this sort of ‘enough!’ That was the cry of the Zapatistas: ‘Basta! Enough!’ But drawing a line only goes so far.

Do you believe this generation is capable of providing that ‘yes’? 

Younger people getting involved in politics have learned from the suspicion of institutions that my generation have. We made a fetish of not engaging in organised politics at all.

What I see now is a really healthy inside-outside strategy, maintaining independence and creativity on the outside of politics but still understanding that if there isn’t an association with a political project – with institutions that have enough heft to tether this very atomised, amazing, decentralised internet-based activism – then it’s going to just kind of float away.

There needs to be an interplay but it has to be one that protects that amazing fertile creativity that we saw in Momentum [the grassroots movement driving support for Jeremy Corbyn], that we saw in the Bernie campaign. It’s not about trying to centralise and control this energy.

NAOMI-KLEIN_ILLO_3

The anti-free trade movement that you were part of in the early 2000s, which hit the mainstream with the ‘Battle of Seattle’ WTO protests in 1999 and again with Occupy Wall Street, was criticised for not offering an alternative. Do you look back at that as a failure? 

I think that movement was part of this slow death of neoliberalism. It was such a hugely successful indoctrination process that it really took a long time for us to reawaken. I don’t believe we are fully there yet.

But I don’t see movements in this linear way that you can say, ‘That movement was a failure and this one was a success.’ I see continuities and strong through-currents.

Many of the founders of Occupy Wall Street went on to reincarnate as Occupy Sandy, this extraordinary people’s relief organisation, in response to the total failure of the state after Superstorm Sandy. They then became the backbone of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

So we can say that Occupy failed because it didn’t have demands, but I think it just shows a really short-term view of the way movements actually work.

There are periods when they are obvious to the media and then they go underground into a gestation period – a hibernation period where they learn from their mistakes – and then re-emerge as people who have a fully articulated political platform. Which is what the Sanders campaign had.

I tend to never believe a movement’s obituary because I don’t think our media understands social movements. They’re constantly declaring our movements dead and over – and are perennially surprised when they re-emerge.

You don’t shy away from saying how bad things could get. You also collaborated on a documentary with Alfonso Cuarón, whose dystopian filmChildren of Men is set in a near-future of authoritarian states where refugees are imprisoned in internment camps. Would it be naïve to dismiss that as science fiction? 

Alfonso would say the future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed. Which was a quote from William Gibson who also says, ‘I’m not writing future fiction.’

The idea of this future that white liberals try to scare themselves with is both the past and the present for people of colour on this planet.

In the book, when I say things could get worse, it’s almost exclusively things that have already happened, pushed forward by people in very powerful positions within Trump’s administration like Mike Pence, who played a central role in the looting of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I’m just looking at that track record. What did Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary, do after the 2008 financial crisis? He was at the centre of the profiting from foreclosures.

Their credentials – as shock doctors, as disaster capitalists – are very clear and we should take them on their record.

That’s not conspiracy theory – that’s just fact. If you deregulate the markets, they’re going to have bubbles, they’re gonna bust, you’re going to have a market crash.

If you tell the whole Muslim world that you’re at war with them, you may just have some blowback on that, right? So I think it’s worth preparing for that because we do better when we’re prepared.

Our generation looks to people like you to help navigate the past so that we can learn from it. What would be your message to a young person who wants to take action, but is scared of failure?

I see movements as this flowing river – it sort of ebbs and flows and we learn from our failures. But we don’t have a lot of time to fail right now.

It is just one of these moments. There’s this quote from Samuel Beckett: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’ But I don’t think we’re in a fail better moment. I actually think we’re in a win moment. That’s what we have to try and do.

No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need is published by Allen Lane.

This article appears in Huck 61 – The No Regrets Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/naomi-klein-interview-no-is-not-enough-shock-politics-trump-world/

Advertisements

“We are in a revolutionary moment”: Chris Hedges explains why an uprising is coming

The status quo is doomed but whether the future will be progressive or reactionary is uncertain

"We are in a revolutionary moment": Chris Hedges explains why an uprising is coming — and soon
(Credit: Nation Books)

In recent years, there’s been a small genre of left-of-center journalism that, followingPresident Obama’s lead, endeavors to prove that things on Planet Earth are not just going well, but have, in fact, never been better. This is an inherently subjective claim, of course; it requires that one buy into the idea of human progress, for one thing. But no matter how it was framed, there’s at least one celebrated leftist activist, author and journalist who’d disagree: Chris Hedges.

In fact, in his latest book, “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt,” Hedges argues that the world is currently at a crisis point the likes of which we’ve never really seen. There are similarities between our time and the era of the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe — or the French Revolutionary era that preceded them — he says. But in many ways, climate change least among them, the stakes this time are much higher. According to Hedges, a revolution is coming; we just don’t yet know when, where, how — or on whose behalf.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Hedges to discuss his book, why he thinks our world is in for some massive disruptions, and why we need revolutionaries now more than ever. A transcript of our conversation which has been edited for clarity and length can be found below.

Do you think we are in a revolutionary era now? Or is it more something on the horizon?

It’s with us already, but with this caveat: it is what Gramsci calls interregnum, this period where the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place.

That’s what that essay I quote by Alexander Berkman, “The Invisible Revolution,” talks about. He likens it to a pot that’s beginning to boil. So it’s already taking place, although it’s subterranean. And the facade of power — both the physical facade of power and the ideological facade of power — appears to remain intact. But it has less and less credibility.

There are all sorts of neutral indicators that show that. Low voter turnout, the fact that Congress has an approval rating of 7 percent, that polls continually reflect a kind of pessimism about where we are going, that many of the major systems that have been set in place — especially in terms of internal security — have no popularity at all.

All of these are indicators that something is seriously wrong, that the government is no longer responding to the most basic concerns, needs, and rights of the citizenry. That is [true for the] left and right. But what’s going to take it’s place, that has not been articulated. Yes, we are in a revolutionary moment; but maybe it’s a better way to describe it as a revolutionary process.

Is there a revolutionary consciousness building in America?

Well, it is definitely building. But until there is an ideological framework that large numbers of people embrace to challenge the old ideological framework, nothing is going to happen. Some things can happen; you can have sporadic uprisings as you had in Ferguson or you had in Baltimore. But until they are infused with that kind of political vision, they are reactive, in essence.

So you have, every 28 hours, a person of color, usually a poor person of color, being killed with lethal force — and, of course, in most of these cases they are unarmed. So people march in the streets and people protest; and yet the killings don’t stop. Even when they are captured on video. I mean we have videos of people being murdered by the police and the police walk away. This is symptomatic of a state that is ossified and can no longer respond rationally to what is happening to the citizenry, because it exclusively serves the interest of corporate power.

We have, to quote John Ralston Saul, “undergone a corporate coup d’état in slow motion” and it’s over. The normal mechanisms by which we carry out incremental and piecemeal reform through liberal institutions no longer function. They have been seized by corporate power — including the press. That sets the stage for inevitable blowback, because these corporations have no internal constraints, and now they have no external constraints. So they will exploit, because, as Marx understood, that’s their nature, until exhaustion or collapse.

What do you think is the most likely way that the people will respond to living in these conditions?

That is the big unknown. When it will come is unknown. What is it that will trigger it is unknown. You could go back and look at past uprisings, some of which I covered — I covered all the revolutions in Eastern Europe; I covered the two Palestinian uprisings; I covered the street demonstrations that eventually brought down Slobodan Milosevic — and it’s usually something banal.

As a reporter, you know that it’s there; but you never know what will ignite it. So you have Lenin, six weeks before the revolution, in exile in Switzerland, getting up and saying, We who are old will never live to see the revolution. Even the purported leaders of the opposition never know when it’s coming. Nor do they know what will trigger it.

What kind of person engages in revolutionary activity? Is there a specific type?

There are different types, but they have certain characteristics in common. That’s why I quote theologian Reinhold Niebuhr when he talks about “sublime madness.”

I think that sublime madness — James Baldwin writes it’s not so much that [revolutionaries] have a vision, it’s that they are possessed by it. I think that’s right. They are often difficult, eccentric personalities by nature, because they are stepping out front to confront a system of power [in a way that is] almost a kind of a form of suicide. But in moments of extremity, these rebels are absolutely key; and that you can’t pull off seismic change without them.

You’ve said that we don’t know where the change will come from, and that it could just as easily take a right-wing, reactionary form as a leftist one. Is there anything lefties can do to influence the outcome? Or is it out of anyone’s control?

There’s so many events as societies disintegrate that you can’t predict. They play such a large part in shaping how a society goes that there is a lot of it that is not in your control.

For example, if you compare the breakdown of Yugoslavia with the breakdown of Czechoslovakia — and I covered both of those stories — Yugoslavia was actually the Eastern European country best-equipped to integrate itself into Europe. But Yugoslavia went bad. When the economy broke down and Yugoslavia was hit with horrific hyperinflation, it vomited up these terrifying figures in the same way that Weimar vomited up the Nazi party. Yugoslavia tore itself to pieces.

If things unravel [in the U.S.], our backlash may very well be a rightwing backlash — a very frightening rightwing backlash. We who care about populist movements [on the left] are very weak, because in the name of anti-communism these movements have been destroyed; we are almost trying to rebuild them from scratch. We don’t even have the language to describe the class warfare that is being unleashed upon us by this tiny, rapacious, oligarchic elite. But we on the left are very disorganized, unfocused, and without resources.

In terms of  a left-wing populism having to build itself back up from scratch, do you see the broad coalition against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a hint of what that might look like? Or would you not go that far?

No, I would.

I think that if you look at what’s happened after Occupy, it’s either spawned or built alliances with a series of movements; whether it’s #BlackLivesMatter, whether it’s the Fight for $15 campaign, whether it’s challenging the TPP. I think they are all interconnected and, often times — at least when I’m with those activists — there is a political consciousness that I find quite mature.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I covered war for 20 years; we didn’t use terms like pessimist or optimist, because if you were overly optimistic, it could get you killed. You really tried to read the landscape as astutely as you could and then take calculated risks based on the reality around you, or at least on the reality insofar as you could interpret it. I kind of bring that mentality out of war zones.

If we are not brutal about diagnosing what we are up against, then all of our resistance is futile. If we think that voting for Hillary Clinton … is really going to make a difference, then I would argue we don’t understand corporate power and how it works. If you read the writings of anthropologists, there are studies about how civilizations break down; and we are certainly following that pattern. Unfortunately, there’s nothing within human nature to argue that we won’t go down the ways other civilizations have gone down. The difference is now, of course, that when we go down, the whole planet is going to go with us.

Yet you rebel not only for what you can achieve, but for who you become. In the end, those who rebel require faith — not a formal or necessarily Christian, Jewish or Muslim orthodoxy, but a faith that the good draws to it the good. That we are called to carry out the good insofar as we can determine what the good is; and then we let it go. The Buddhists call it karma, but faith is the belief that it goes somewhere. By standing up, you keep alive another narrative. It’s one of the ironic points of life. That, for me, is what provides hope; and if you are not there, there is no hope at all.

 

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer

Occupy the Party: the Sanders campaign as a site of struggle

  • February 16, 2016
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20:  U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participates in a "Don't Trade Our Future" march organized by the group Campaign for America's Future April 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. The event was part of the Populism 2015 Conference which is conducting their conference with the theme "Building a Movement for People and the Planet."   (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)


(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Instead of treating the Democratic Party as some kind of authority with the power to co-opt our message, we should treat it like any street or park and occupy it.

  • Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 2016 US presidential election presents the far left in the United States with some hard questions.

For those convinced that the electoral process is a vehicle through which the capitalist class enlists the rest of us in consenting to our own subjection, Sanders’ campaign makes us ask why this time might be different. For those focused on internationalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and worker control of the means of production, there seems no principled reason to support Sanders. And for those convinced that only a politics that develops outside the system can change the system, it’s unclear how the campaign is anything but another iteration of the society of the spectacle: enthusiasm is mobilized and directed until redirected onto the next new thing.

But these aren’t the hard questions.

The hard questions involve how, exactly, the left conceives of political change and what we are willing to do to bring it about. The hard questions involve the relations between principle and practice. The more we uphold left principles, the less likely we are to have the capacity to implement them. Our principles become barriers to their own realization. Conversely, the more we get our hands dirty by engaging in the processes that might bring about significant political change, the less left and less significant these changes are likely to be. We will have had to compromise, water down, rank and involve ourselves with strange bedfellows. The dilemma of left politics is that we appear stuck between beautiful souls and dirty hands.

Politics involves knots of principle, compromise, tactics and opportunity. Their push and pull against one another accounts for much of what many dislike about politics: banal rhetoric, betrayals, splits. Finding a candidate or party with which one fully agrees is impossible. Something is always missing, always off.

This is not (only) the fault of the political system. It’s (also) a manifestation of the ways people are internally split, with conflicting, irreconcilable political commitments and desires. After the tragic capitulation of Syriza to the coercion of the European institutions last summer, for example, a taxi driver in Athens explained with a shrug of his shoulders, “What could they do? We wanted two things and couldn’t have both: eliminating our debt and staying with the euro.” Politics forces us to confront conflicting goals: guns or butter, security or freedom, now or later. The conflicts are within us, between us, and between us and the settings in which we seek to intervene.

The institutions through and in which we might intervene are also split. They are not uniform or self-identical. There is disagreement between members and flanks, between candidates and platform, between aspirations and actions. No institution is a uniform whole. It’s always divided, the site of myriad conflicts and struggles always threatening to tear it apart.

A question for left politics, indeed any politics, is the terrain on which to fight. We have to be in the fight if we want to affect its outcome. For many of us, the terrain of political struggle is the streets and the squares, the insistent push of protest. Emphasizing the power of political movements, we push to demonstrate the power of the people, to confront those who seek to control, imprison, and coerce us with the force of our number.

In the US, the most recent examples of such movements are Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. Not only did both refuse the status quo but both have changed the conditions of political possibility. Because of the advances of these movements, inequality and incarceration, and the racist capitalist structures that intertwine them, are driving the mainstream political conversation in ways that we haven’t seen in a generation.

How do we extend the force of the movements? How do we make them endure? One way is to occupy institutions that have the capacity to realize movement aims. Party and state institutions can be tools and terrains that we seize in order to push our ends. The party isn’t opposed to the movement. It’s a terrain that the movement can occupy.

With regard to Occupy, we all knew that no one could speak for the movement. We all knew that the movement could not be reduced to one group of people in one park. The power of the movement was its capacity to replicate and extend itself, to be more than any city or practice.

The Sanders campaign extends the fight to the terrain of the Democratic Party. Since Bill Clinton’s co-creation and occupation of the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s, the Democratic Party has shifted ever rightward, jettisoning any commitment to the working class it might once have had, courting the finance sector and other elements of the corporate elite, and adorning itself with just enough cultural politics to placate its base. No wonder most of the left left the party. Like the other institutions of extreme capitalism, the Democratic Party is not for us. But we can treat it as a site of struggle. Black Lives Matter activists have recognized this crucial fact.

The Sanders campaign is forcing a split in the Democratic Party. Sanders is confronting the Democrats’ claim to democracy with the party’s practice as an instrument of oligarchic political control. He is doing this with the language of social democracy, reintroducing socialism into a political setting based on its disavowal.

The political question this poses for the left is whether we want to join the battle tearing apart the Democratic Party. Instead of treating the party as some kind of authority with the power to co-opt our message, we need to treat it like any street or park and occupy it. The more we engage, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice.

If we win, that is, if Sanders gets the nomination, we have access to a political apparatus that extends throughout the US, into every state and community. If we lose, we have gained valuable political experience and created an opportunity for building a new political organization for and of the left.

Just as Occupy was never about one group, so the Sanders campaign is not about him. It’s about changing the conditions of political possibility. The Democrats are terrified of this, which is why they dismantled the rules barring PAC donations to the party.

The left has been alienated from the Democrats yet now their elite is terrified that the left will take it over. We should give them reason to be afraid. When we occupy the party, we continue the movement, pushing the power of the people.

Can “socialism” be part of the mainstream political vocabulary in the US? Can it displace the hegemonic sense of “no new taxes”, “there is no alternative”, and “the era of big government is over”? Is it a term we can fight over and through in the context of a national politics, or is it relegated to the sectarian struggle over twentieth-century failures?

The only way we can be adequate to our principles is if we are willing to fight for them. This means taking on the battles that present themselves. Too often left voices invoke self-organization, as if what this means were clear, as if somehow workers all over the country were but one step away from generating of their own autonomous collectives. This, for example, is the position Ben Reynolds takes in his recent essay on the Sanders campaign for ROAR. But when we join, build and co-opt parties are we not self-organizing? Too often left voices invoke social movements as independent of political organization, as if the momentary presence of crowds in the street translated automatically into power that endures. Such an invocation leaves out the institutions through which movement power becomes political change, the sites where the meaning of the movement is fought over and advanced.

If our goal is to change the world, we should try changing a party as a trial run. If it doesn’t work this time, then we create a new one.

Not An Alternative

Not An Alternative is a Brooklyn-based arts, politics and theory collective with a mission to affect popular understandings of events, symbols, institutions and history.

 

https://roarmag.org/essays/occupy-democratic-party-sanders-campaign/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

What Really Caused the Implosion of the Occupy Movement—An Insider’s View

Taking a hard look at some of the self-sabotaging behaviors of the left.

Photo Credit: Daryl Lang/Shutterstock.com

I’m in a warmly lit apartment on the Lower East Side. It’s a cool night in early October of 2011, the height of Occupy Wall Street.

What a fucking whirlwind it’s been. Two months ago I had just moved into my parents’ basement, feeling deflated after the end of Bloombergville (a two-week street occupation outside city hall to try to stop the massive budget cuts of that same year), convinced this country wasn’t ready for movement. Now I’m in this living room with some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met, at the shaky helm of a movement that has become part of the mainstream’s daily consciousness. It’s my first time feeling like the Left is more than a scrawny sideshow, and it’s surreal. Truth is, I wasn’t much of a believer until I was caught up in the mass arrests on September 24th, until Troy Davis was murdered by the State of Georgia and I felt the connection in my body, until more people came down and gave it legs. But now it’s real. The rush of rapidly growing numbers, recognition from other political actors, and increasing popular support and media acclaim is electric and overwhelming. It feels a bit like walking a tightrope.

I’m a leader, and people know it, but no one says it. It’s a strange feeling. I’m not the only leader, of course — there are many. In this room, we’re a wide range of people. Some of the folks go back to the Global Justice Movement, but most of us have met in the middle of the whirlwind, building the kinds of relationships you can only build in crisis or struggle. Some of the room is seasoned and experienced, some very new to this type of thing, but all of us have demonstrated leadership early on (some before the thing even really started) and come in with lots of relationships. Between us we lead a number of working groups, drive some of the major mass actions, play formative roles in much of the media being pumped out, and more.

The meetings are closed, and we all feel kind of bad about it, although this is another thing we don’t talk about often. There isn’t much coherence to how we ended up here in the first place — one person invited a few over and the next invited a couple and so on, until the room was full. It was as arbitrary a time to stop inviting people as any, but this is how things often happen in movement moments. We justify the boundary by reminding ourselves that we are certainly not the only collection of people meeting like this — there are many affinity groups and other kinds of formations — and that we are here to plan and strategize, not to make decisions.

But we also know that there are a lot of movers and shakers in the room, and that this affords us a disproportionate ability to move things through the rest of Occupy. We know the age-old pitfalls of people making plans in closed off rooms, and it’s not lost on us that — while this space is also led by some of the most powerful women and folks of color in the movement — most of us are white, middle class, and male. If someone had asked any one of us directly, we’d likely have agreed that, collectively, we have quite a bit of power and aren’t being held accountable to it.

But for the most part, we keep that nagging feeling under wraps, so we can continue the work. There is a confidence we seem to share that we are filling a void, meeting a real need, putting everything we have on the line to keep momentum going. We seem to agree, even if quietly, that movements don’t exist without leadership, that the general assembly has been more performance art than decision-making forum since the first couple of weeks, that leaderlessness is a myth, that we need a place to have sensitive discussions hopefully out of reach of the surveillance state. And in truth we know our jobs aren’t glamorous by any stretch of the imagination; after all, a good deal of the efforts of the folks in the room are aimed at getting occupiers port-o-potties and stopping the incessant drumming.

We know we’re breaking the rules, but for the most part we conclude that it must be done. And besides, we’ve broken the rules our whole lives — it’s how we ended up here.

Torn at the Seams

It wasn’t too long before it came crashing down. It got cold, the cops came, the encampments were evicted, and momentum died down, as is to be expected. This is the story we tell, and it has some truth in it, but those of us who were on the inside know there was more to it than that.

Truth is, we hadn’t planned that far ahead. Probably because not many of us thought it was going to work. As the folks at Ayni’s Momentum trainings will tell you, all movements have a DNA, whether it’s intentional or not. When movements take off and decentralize, they spread whatever their original DNA is, and while it’s possible to adjust it as it goes, it’s sort of like swimming against a tide. Our DNA was a mixed bag. The title had the tactic (Occupy) and the target (Wall Street) baked into it, the 99% frame demonstrated some level of shared radical politics, and the assemblies represented a commitment (an obsession, perhaps) to direct democracy. But we didn’t have too much more than that. As Occupy grew and spread, its DNA evolved to its natural conclusions: On one hand, a real critique of capitalism, powerful mass-based direct action, a public display of democracy. On the other hand, an infatuation with public space, a confusion of tactic for strategy, a palpable disdain for people who weren’t radical, and fantasies about leaderlessness. And then there were the questions we had never answered at all, which were begging to be explained now that we were growing: How would this transform into something long-term? Who were we trying to move? What were we trying to win?

But there’s more to it than that too. There was, alongside the external pressures of growth and definition, an internal power struggle, as there so often is in moments like this.

It happened in many circles of Occupy, and it happened to the group I was a part of, too, in that Lower East Side apartment. Some of the folks in the group got frustrated, and pulled away. They accused the rest of us of being liberals (this was a curse-word), said we were co-opting the movement for the unions, claimed that even meeting like this was a violation of the principles of the movement. Those claims were false, but they were hard to argue with, because most of us were already feeling guilty for being in closed off rooms. So we shrunk. Sort of like when an over-zealous white “ally” trips over other white folks to call out an example of racism; the first to call it out sits back smugly, having taken the moral high ground and pointed a finger at the others, and then the rest clench their jaws and stare at the floor guiltily, hoping the storm passes over them.

We tried to stop the split. We slowed down. We spent time trying to figure out what the right thing to do was. We tried to be honest about how much of this had to do with differences in politics and how much of it was really just ego on all sides. Some of us tried to reach across the aisle, to mend broken relationships. But in the meantime, the folks who had taken the moral high ground had begun building a separate group. That split happened in October in that living room on the Lower East Side, perhaps in other circles in the movement around the same time; by November it was playing out in the movement more broadly, until in December there were distinctly different tendencies offering different directions to the movement as a whole. It would be overly simplistic to trace the overall conflict inside the belly of Occupy Wall Street to the dissolution of this one group or even to in-fighting more broadly, but at the same time, it was a significant factor. All movements develop mechanisms for leadership and coordination, whether formal or informal, and they suffer real setbacks when those systems collapse.

Of course, in the midst of the squabbling and the confusion about our direction, the state came crashing down on us. We became a real threat and the men in suits and uniforms who make decisions about these sorts of things realized that that the benefit of being rid of us outweighed the negative press they would get for the state violence necessary to do it. They were right. The mayors got on conference calls to coordinate. The newspapers turned on us. They dragged us out of parks and squares all over the country, arrested thousands of people. We did our best, but we weren’t organized, disciplined, or grounded in communities enough to stop it in the end. Ultimately, we weren’t powerful enough. Without the park, we were rootless. It got cold. We had no way to huddle together, to learn from what had happened, to support one another through what had become an existential crisis. We met in union offices instead of public squares, and the organizing core shrunk. We went from actions in which the whole base participated to projects different collectives tried to drive on their own, and ultimately, that dwindled too. By the following summer, the true believers who insisted that Occupy was still going strong had become an endangered species.

But the truth is, it wasn’t the state, or the cold, or the media. The real problem underneath it all was a deep ambivalence about power. In fact, all of the things that made Occupy Wall Street brilliant had this paradox built into them, this politic of powerlessness woven deep inside, like a bad gene or a self-destruct mechanism.

For example, the mantra of leaderlessness came from a genuine desire to avoid classic pitfalls into hierarchy, but it was, at the same time, a farce, and divorced from any sense of collective structure or care for group culture. It foreclosed on the possibility of holding emerging leaders accountable, created a situation in which real leaders (whether worthy or not) went to the shadows instead of the square, and made it impossible to really develop one another (how, really, could we train new leaders if there weren’t supposed to be any in the first place?). Similarly, the refusal to articulate demands was brilliant in opening radical possibilities and sparking the popular imagination, but it also meant we didn’t have a shared goal, meant the word winning wasn’t even part of the movement’s lexicon. In many ways, it was an expression of a fear of actually saying something and taking responsibility for it, and it encouraged the often-repeated delusion that we didn’t even want anything our enemy had to give, that Wall Street and the State didn’t have any power over us. The vigilance against co-option came from honest history of movements falling prey to powerful forces hoping to dull or divert their aims; but it ultimately became a paranoia more than anything else, a tragic misunderstanding of the playing field and what it was going to take to build popular power. Instead of welcoming other progressive forces and actually co-opting them, purists shamed “liberals,” cultivated a radical macho culture more focused on big speeches at assemblies and arrests in the streets than the hard organizing behind the scenes, and turned Occupy into a fringe identity that only a few people could really claim to the exclusion of the hundreds of thousands who actually made it real.

Occupy Wall Street created a new discourse, brought thousands of people into the movement, shifted the landscape of the left, and even facilitated concrete victories for working people. But at the same time, a substantial chunk of its leadership was allergic to power. And we made a politic of that. We fetishized it, wrote articles and books about it, scorned the public with it. Worst of all, we used it as a cudgel with which to bludgeon each other.

Sure, the cops came for us — we invited them, after all. But we were the problem: When the state tugged hard enough, we tore at the seams.

The People Went Home

I spent years being angry about it. I was angry at the people who had attacked the group I was part of from the inside, the people who bullied me into giving up every piece of leverage I had by making me feel like I didn’t have the right to organize the folks I had access to, who punished me every time I was quoted or interviewed, who came to the meetings I facilitated and intentionally disrupted them. The stories are too long and too many to recount here, and anyone who was in the middle of it has their own share of war stories too.

But more than anyone else, I was angry at myself for letting it happen. I spent months waking up in the middle of the night, replaying the different moments I had capitulated to cool kids and given up real opportunities to grow the movement out of fear that I’d be iced out if I didn’t. And the truth is, I had no excuse. I had already learned this important lesson at the New School in 2008 when a couple hundred of us occupied a building to get a war criminal thrown off the board, win back student space, and push forward student self-governance and responsible investment: Bad politics don’t go away on their own, you actually have to fight them.

Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, and it’s certainly unpleasant, but it’s true. In those moments, when we refuse to engage in these fights because they feel childish and below the belt, we forget that the majority of people are standing in the middle, wondering what the hell is going on and looking for people they can trust. When those of us who are thinking about power and trying to grow the base don’t step up to that challenge, the folks in the middle assume that the people bringing in toxicity are the leadership, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it. They find no other voices providing leadership they can feel a part of. So they go home.

And that’s kind of what happened. The state upped the ante, raised the heat on us. Shit got ugly, and directionless, and toxic. The self-destruct mechanisms went off, the politics of powerlessness played out to their logical conclusions. The folks best equipped to offer leadership in that moment didn’t step up. So everyone went home.

And as I think back on the mistakes I made — among them, this grand mistake of shrinking from the responsibilities of leadership, however personally costly — I can’t help but feel a little bit ashamed. We did a tremendous amount. But we could have done more. We could have lasted longer, brought more people into the movement, established more powerful institutions, won more material gains. If we understand the prison industrial complex and climate change and wealth inequality and the foreclosure crisis as hard and tangible threats to people’s literal survival, then we have to see, with equal clarity, that our movements are nothing short of an attempt to save lives. And we could have saved more lives.

The Politics of Powerlessness

Many of us left that moment bitter, depressed, heart-broken. Some of that is predictable, maybe, on the downward spiral from such a high. Some of it was the product of a lot of young folks experiencing their first tastes of movement and thinking the result was going to be a revolution. But some of it was specific to this toxicity, the sudden snapping of this unbelievable tight rope we had been racing across.

From there, I went wandering. I bumped straight into the movement’s social media call-out culture, where people demonstrate how radical they are by destroying one another. It felt like walking into a high school locker room. In this universe, we insist on perfect politics and perfect language, to the exclusion of experimentation, learning, or constructive critique. We wear our outsiderness as a badge of pride, knowing that saying the right thing trumps doing anything at all. No one is ever good enough for us — not progressive celebrities who don’t get the whole picture, not your Facebook friend who doesn’t quite get why we say Black Lives Matter instead of All Lives Matter, not your cousin who mourned the deaths in Paris without saying an equal number of words about those in Beirut. Instead of organizing these people, we attack them. We tear down rather than teach each other, and pick apart instead of building on top of what we have.

And of course, the politic of powerlessness doesn’t only live on social media, but in our organizing spaces as well — and it’s in the realm of identity that so much of the battle takes place. We confuse systems like white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism with individuals we can use as stand-ins for them. We use the inevitable fuck-ups of our potential partners as validation that we should stay in our bunkers with the handful of people who make us feel safe instead of getting dirty in the trenches. We imagine identity as static and permanent, instead of remembering that all of us — to borrow terminology from organizations like Training for Change — have experiences of marginalization that can help us support one another, and experiences of being in the mainstream that can help us understand the people we want to shift. We forget that, while identity gives us clues and reveals patterns, itdoesn’t fully explain our behavior, and it certainly doesn’t determine it. We abandon the truth that people can transform, that ultimately we all — oppressed and potential oppressors alike (if such simplistic frames should even be entertained) — can and must choose sides. So we shirk this ultimate responsibility we have as organizers: To support people in making the hard and scary choices to be on the side of freedom. In all of this commotion, we turn inward. We forget the enemy outside, and find enemies in the room instead, make enemies of one another.

And here, just as from Occupy Wall Street, the vast majority of people — those great many on whom this system relies and the very same ones we will need to organize to make it come to a screeching halt — grow tired. So they go home. And we lose.

Compassion and Curiosity on the way to Power

It’s October of 2013, brisk and breezy, with the leaves changing in dramatic colors. I’m in a Mexican restaurant in Minneapolis with organizers from Occupy Homes — the same folks now part of the leadership of Black Lives Matter MN. We’re debriefing the retreat a couple of us just held for them as part of the Wildfire Project. Wildfire supports new, radical groups emerging from movement moments with long-term training and support, and connects them to one another to help them become greater than the sum of their parts. We’re tired from a big weekend, and I’m getting feedback on my facilitation.

The organizers tell me to step up. They notice that in the training, I didn’t tell my story, shared very little of my experience at Occupy or elsewhere even when directly relevant, evaded every opportunity to offer opinions on their strategic plan even when asked, deferred to the group on everything. They say they know I have more to offer, that they asked me to come here because they trusted me, that they demand that I bring more of myself next month. They want to invest in me, they explain, because they need me to be my most powerful self so I can support their members in that same transformation, and so I can go out and help build a powerful network for them to be a part of.

The feedback makes me a bit blurry. I can’t remember the last time anyone told me they wanted me to be powerful. I’m a straight, white, class-comfortable male in the North Eastern United States, certainly not part of the groups most impacted by the systems we are fighting. I’ve spent the past few years duking it out with the voices in my head — on one hand knowing I have something to offer in this important moment, and on the other hand internalizing deep shame about where I come from and guilt over the mistakes I’ve made along the way as a result. In the midst of those mistakes and in the face of a movement culture that seemed to see me as a threat, I internalized the message that the best thing I could do for the movement was to mitigate the damage I’ve done by existing — that my job, really, was to disappear. There are historical reasons for this dilemma, and current reasons that our movements have adopted these knee-jerk responses to what it perceives as power or privilege. But in the end, the impact was that it made me less effective, whether as an ally to other oppressed people, a leader in Occupy, or a facilitator with Wildfire. This is part of the politics of powerlessness, I think to myself as I sit in this restaurant booth in Minneapolis, and it has found its way into my bones.

But the demand to become powerful comes from the folks to whom I am most accountable — heroes who are defending themselves from foreclosure, occupying already-foreclosed houses to keep people off the street, taking over local political offices to try to use eminent domain to take back people’s homes, and asking Wildfire for support — so it feels different this time. I go home to New York and I do the work. I go through all sorts of transformative processes to remember where I come from, to try to understand the conditions that made me internalize those self-sabotaging politics. I find partners who want to win more than they want to be right, who forgive me and help me forgive myself, who invest their time and love and energy in me while holding me accountable and demanding I do the same for them. I re-commit to using everything I’ve been given in the service of the movement.

Along the way, I start to internalize wisdom taught me by a mentor and coach from Generative Somatics, an organization that fuses emotional healing, physical practice, and radical politics: People do what they must to survive. Our behaviors — even the self-sabotaging ones — are our bodies’ responses to threat. Our instincts are clumsy at times, and they often cut us off from our better options, but credit where credit is due: these instincts, at some points, probably saved our lives. Instead of hating those traits so much, we might be better off tipping our hat to them, thanking them for the safety they have provided us, and letting them know that we don’t need them anymore — that we want to practice something new instead. It doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior in ourselves or the movement; it means understanding where it comes from for the sake of changing it.

This is our task as organizers and revolutionaries: to become our most powerful selves and supporting the whole movement in that same transformation. In the service of that goal, my anger thaws into compassion and my self-righteousness becomes curiosity, and it’s with this lens that I start to look at the movement with fresh eyes. I wonder what really caused the implosions at Occupy in the first place, and why those behaviors persist across the Left. I start to try to figure out where the politics of powerlessness come from, what needs they meet for us. And as I dig below the surface, I can’t help but notice the shifts that the Black folks rising up across this country have already offered the movement; so many enormous contributions in the struggle for freedom, but even something as small as hats that say power on them are a challenge to the politics of powerlessness, a reflection of our ability to make and practice new rules for ourselves as we transform.

Undoing the Politics of Powerlessness

Today, when I think about the politics of powerlessness, it feels clear as day to me that the source of all of it is fear. Fear of leaders, of the enemy, of the possibility of having to govern, of the stakes of winning and losing, of each other, of ourselves. And it’s all pretty understandable.

We call each other out and push one another out of the movement, because we are desperate to cling to the little slivers of belonging we’ve found in the movement, and are full of scarcity — convinced that there isn’t enough of anything to go around (money, people, power, even love). We eat ourselves alive and attack our own leaders because we’ve been hurt and misled all our lives and can’t bear for it to happen again on our watch. We race to prove we are the least privileged, because this is the only way we can imagine being powerful. We turn our backs on people who don’t get it, because organizing them will not only be hard but also painful, because we will have to give up some of our victimhood to do it, because it will mean being vulnerable to the world we came to the movement to escape. Our ego battles are a natural product of a movement that doesn’t have a clear answer for how leadership is to be appreciated and held accountable at the same time. Our inability to celebrate small victories is a defense from having to believe that winning is even possible — a way to avoid the heartbreak of loss when it comes.

And perhaps most importantly: Our tendency to make enemies of each other is driven by a deep fear of the real enemy, a paralyzing hopelessness about our possibilities of winning. After all, whether we admit it or not, we spend quite a lot of our time not believing we can really win. And if we’re not going to win, we might as well just be awesome instead. If we’re not going to win, we’re better off creating spaces that suit our cultural and political tastes, building relationships that validate our non-conformist aesthetic, surrendering the struggle over the future in exchange for a small island over which we can reign.

The politics of powerlessness is a defense mechanism, meant to protect us from our worst fears. And as I’ve been learning, it never works to hate one’s defenses, to bang our heads against them, to bend them into submission. No, the way we change is by really getting curious about their source, and trying to address their root causes. Of course we’re afraid. Fear is a totally grounded response to what is happening around us. We need to sit with that. And we need to find new practices for dealing with our fears, because in the end, those hard truths are precisely the reason we need to do awaywith the politic of powerlessness.

This defense mechanism, which may have saved our collective lives somewhere along the way, has outlived its usefulness. It has become a barrier to the success of the movements being born around us, the flourishing of our people, the world we want to win. We are standing against a series of crises one more terrifying than the next, stemming from systems more towering than ever before, guided by people who are happy to kill many of us to preserve their wealth. If we don’t get powerful soon, we’re going to lose. And in this case, losing means not only the immense oppression, exploitation, and repression this system guarantees; it also means the extinction of our species. Challenging the politics of powerlessness and replacing it with something that can win is not an academic question; it is truly a matter of life or death. We had better get our shit together, and quick.

We need to replace judgment and self-righteousness with curiosity and compassion. Those are the tools that will help us support each other in the face of the crises ahead, and they are the qualities we will need in order to truly understand the very many people we still need to organize. They will help us become facilitators instead of polemicists, teach us to build instead of tear apart. Flexing these new muscles, we must convert a politic that punishes imperfection into one that uses everything at its fingertips to win — that compels each and every one of us to turn our gifts into weapons for the sake of freedom. We need to build groups — collectives, organizations, affinity groups, whatever — because groups are what keep us in the movement, they’re what keep movement moments going, where we transform, how we fight, and the best way to hold each other accountable to the long struggle for liberation. We need to win small victories that open up space for bigger ones, and we must celebrate them, because that’s the best inoculation against a politic based in fear that nothing is winnable. We have to develop powerful visions for the world we want, so we can put those small victories inside a broader strategy that strikes at the roots of the systems we face. We must all engage in the hard and transformational work to become our most powerful selves; after all, it is truly the only way we even stand a chance.

Honoring Fear

I’m at a retreat center in Florida, at the first ever Wildfire National Convening, with 80 members of organizations from all over the country: folks from Ohio Student AssociationDream DefendersGetEQUAL,Rockaway Wildfire, and the Occupy Homes groups in Atlanta and Minneapolis. It’s the first night, and the organizations are performing skits that explain their origin stories. It’s Rockaway Wildfire’s turn — a group that formed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, merging the relief effort with organizing in Far Rockaway, Queens. Out there, floods fell on top of broken schools, impoverished projects, and a population that was drastically underemployed and over-policed. The folks in the Rockaways were losing their homes to foreclosure before the floods wrecked them, losing their sons to prisons long before the storm came to displace them.

The skit begins, the lights go down. We hear the pounding of feet against the floor, which sounds unmistakably like heavy rain. And then a chorus of howling that sounds like the violent wind that battered the New York area that October in 2012. Then heart-wrenching wailing, like a child crying. Pounding and howling and wailing that get more and more intense like an orchestra building up to its crescendo. Suddenly, I’m crying. The sounds catapult me back to the hurricane, but also to the fear I carry with me of the many more hurricanes surely on the way, and the children and parents and friends we will have to protect when they come. Suddenly the sounds come to a crashing halt, the lights go up, dimly, and I realize most of the other people in the room are weeping too. There is silence, the kind of hanging stillness you stumble on rarely, when a room full of people dedicated to the struggle are all quietly reckoning with the fear we carry in us every day and the doubts we have about whether we can do what must be done. Then one of the actors breaks the silence with the last line of the play, delivered soothingly to her child, as if she has read the minds of the 80 fighters gathered here: “Don’t worry, baby, don’t worry. We’ll be alright. Momma’s gonna start a revolution.”

The fear is real — palpable and also grounded. In addition to good organizing, it will take some small miracles to win the world we all deserve. It’s better to acknowledge that than to try to bury it. At least it’s honest. And who knows, maybe there is something about fear that — when we turn and face it — can be grounding instead of handicapping, can help us sit in the stakes rather than live in denial, can compel us to take the risks we need to take rather than to hide, can drive us to be the biggest we can be instead of shrinking. Or at least, that’s my hope.

And when I’m in doubt, I remember the most important lesson I learned at Occupy Wall Street: We don’t know shit. The secret truth is that Occupy Wall Street wasn’t supposed to work. But it did. It created a whole new world of possibility. That possibility is here — we can feel it in the very heart of the movements being born around us. And we have been invited; the only question, now, is whether we will rise to the challenge.

Yotam Marom is an organizer, facilitator, and the Director of the Wildfire Project. More of Yotam’s writing can be found at www.forlouderdays.net. Maybe someday he’ll learn how to use twitter @yotammarom. We all have dreams, don’t we?

 

http://www.alternet.org/occupy-wall-street/what-really-caused-implosion-occupy-movement-insiders-view?akid=13812.265072.yyzNkA&rd=1&src=newsletter1047977&t=6

Naomi Klein: “we are not who we were told we were”

by Liam Barrington-Bush on October 1, 2014

Post image for Naomi Klein: “we are not who we were told we were”On the eve of the publication of her new book, Naomi Klein talks about the things that give her hope in a world that can sometimes feel very bleak.

Naomi Klein rose to international acclaim in 1999 by explaining how big corporations were exploiting our insecurities to convince us to spend money we didn’t have, on stuff we didn’t need (No Logo). In 2007 she masterfully dissected the ways those steering the global economy use moments of social and environmental crisis to justify transferring public wealth into the hands of the ultra-rich (The Shock Doctrine). Less-known though are the alternatives Klein spends much of her time witnessing, documenting, and digging into, from the spread of fossil fuel divestment, to community-owned energy projects and resistance to tar sands pipelines.

On the eve of the publication of her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Klein sat down with Liam Barrington-Bush at the Peoples Social Forum in Ottawa, to talk about where she finds hope in a world that can sometimes feel very bleak. She reminds us that in a culture that treats people as consumers and relationships as transactions, ‘we’re not who we were told we were.’

::::::::::::::::::::::

LBB: In a recent piece in the Nation, you wrote: “Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real — let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.” What has helped you to believe that a different way of living is possible?

NK: I think part of it is just having been lucky enough to have seen other ways of living and to have lived differently myself. To know that not only is living differently not the end of the world, but in many cases, it has enabled some of the happiest times of my life.

I think the truth is that we spend a lot of time being afraid of what we would lose if we ever took this crisis seriously. I had this experience when I had been living in Argentina for a couple of years; I came back to the US because I had agreed to do this speech at an American university. It was in Colorado and I went directly from Buenos Aires, which was just on fire at that moment; the culture was so rich, the sense of community was so strong. It was the most transformative experience of my life to be able to be part of that.

So I end up staying at a Holiday Inn, looking out at a parking lot, and it’s just so incredibly grim. I go to this class and I do my spiel. I was talking about Argentina and the economic crisis. At this point the US economy’s booming and nobody thinks anything like this could ever happen to them. And this young woman says, “I hear what you’re saying, but why should I care?”

And it was so funny because people don’t usually say that out loud. Like, they may think it, but she was like: ‘…I don’t understand why I should care, because, I mean, I have a really great life. I drive to school and I drive to Walmart and I drive home.’ And I just thought, that doesn’t sound like that great a life, you know?

Arundhati Roy tells Americans that she feels sorry for them; that she feels like, ‘you’re staying in your house to protect your washing machine.’ The truth is, if you have been exposed to other ways of living that have more community in them, where doors are more open to one another, first of all, you want to shop less, because you’re not shopping to fulfil all these other needs you’re not getting fulfilled. You’re not shopping for identity and you’re not shopping for a sense of community.

There’s a virtuous cycle that sets in when we build community; whether we build community in movements or in other ways, because I do feel like we are shopping to fill this void a lot of the time. I always find the only thing that makes you not want to constantly fill that void is if something else is filling it, you’re just too busy, you forget.

So that lack of imagination just has to do with what we’ve been exposed to. That’s why Occupy Wall Street, for all its flaws, was such a transformative experience for so many people. Because it was that moment where it’s like, ‘Oh! We’re not who we were told we were!’ It was that feeling of surprise that there are so many other people in this city who just want to talk to strangers and connect in this way, unmediated.

LBB: In the same article you wrote, in reference to your own ‘rootless’ life, that the poet Wendell Berry encouraged you to “Stop somewhere. And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.” How do you see the relationship between a sense of place and the solutions to something as massively daunting as either climate change or capitalism?

NK: Since the ‘70s, the icon of environmentalism has been the globe, the earth from space. And it was a really deracinated relationship with the earth, it was literally the astronaut’s view of the planet — this god-like posture — we’re looking down at earth.

A lot of the mistakes of the Big Green groups, I think, can be traced to this idea that environmentalism is about this whole planet. So if it’s about the whole planet, you can offset your carbon pollution in Richmond, to a carbon-offset in Honduras. The world becomes this chessboard.

I don’t think you can love a whole planet. I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places. And those places happen to have the largest pools of carbon underneath them and those places, because of technology, are linking up with other places.

That’s why Wendell Berry says, ‘each of our jobs is to love our place more than any other place.’ And if everybody did that we’d be fine. Nobody needs to love the whole world!

LBB: I was in Perth, Ontario recently. In some ways, Perth is just another North American small town, but it is also a place where a strong localism is bringing together a real mix of people; elements of the traditional farming community, hippie back-to-the-landers, off-grid survivalists, Transition Towners, traditional food bank volunteers, alongside those working on more participatory and sustainable ways of addressing the community’s food needs. Do you think this kind of place-based solution has the potential to bridge some of the political divides that have made so many larger scales of change impossible for so long?

NK: I don’t know if it holds solutions, but it certainly has potentials that are harder to realize in cities. Especially I think in farming communities you can definitely overcome left-right divides, because often you’re drawing on a tradition and a history of stewardship. So there’s a real disconnect between that philosophy, which has very deep roots, and modern capitalism, which is so ‘use-it-up-and-throw-it-out.’

Also around climate organizing, people often find that if you’re able to speak to and revive that conservative tradition of stewardship, it’s an opportunity to cross political lines. And even if those conservative farmers don’t even believe climate change is real, they still believe in the principles of protecting the land and protecting the water, and the responsibility to leave the land better than you found it. So if you believe in that, it doesn’t even really matter if you believe in climate change, because you’re not going to frack your land.

LBB: Are there any particular stories you have heard or experienced in your travels that give you hope for us getting out of the current mess?

NK: I think the movement that I have found most inspiring in recent years is… the movement against the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline in British Columbia. That’s not because it’s more inspirational than other movements, I just found it to be — and still find it to be — one of the most positive and beautiful movements I’ve ever been a part of because it is this amazing combination of resisting something that people don’t want, but also just a total celebration of place.

I really felt so lucky to witness this process where people in that very special part of the world, really fell more deeply in love with their place and created these incredible coalitions to defend it, like the Save the Fraser Declaration, which more than a hundred First Nations signed.

Fighting these extreme extraction projects becomes a real space for historical healing. We use these words and we have these symbolic marches around reconciliation between settler and Indigenous peoples and it’s very empty. But what actually played out in BC is the very concrete realization among non-Indigenous British Columbians that they are tremendously lucky that so much of their province is on unceded Indigenous land.

Against this backdrop and history of conflict — which still exists — you would hear a non-native farmer say, ‘I’m so grateful to my First Nations neighbors for never giving up these rights and defending these rights, because this is going to be what protects my water.’

So that’s extraordinary! I can’t believe how much I’ve seen my country change in such a short time. It’s that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are fighting for what is most essential — they’re fighting for their children’s health, they’re fighting for their water, they’re fighting for their land and they understand, we understand, that our fates are truly interconnected.

So these words that we use, like solidarity and all of this, suddenly become really concrete. It is literally that if we do not deal with this past, of who created this crisis and who is largely responsible and how that’s going to translate into policy and resources, then ultimately we’re all cooked.

Another movement I’ve found inspiring this past few years is just how quickly the fossil fuel divestment movement has spread in campuses and cities. I think it speaks to the fact that people understand that there are power dynamics at play in the climate fight that a lot of the Big Green NGOs have tried to paper over. Where the discourse was just like, ‘we’re all in this together, everybody’s going to do this, the billionaires are going to join together with the Hollywood celebrities, are going to join together with ExxonMobil and the Nature Conservancy and we’ll fix this together!’

So what was really inspiring about being part of the launch of that movement was realizing that people were so up for this! It was like they were just waiting for someone to ask!

I don’t think that this tactic is going to bankrupt ExxonMobil or change everything, by any means, but what I found inspiring was seeing the readiness of large numbers of people to use tactics that are significantly more confrontational than the ones that the traditional green movement had been offering. So I think that that’s a really hopeful sign for the future.

LBB: Are there any particular themes or patterns you’ve picked up between these and other sources of inspiration, that you think could offer hints to people wanting to take action themselves?

NK: I think another inspiring movement is the rise of renewable energy in Germany. That is a really important case study because this is a post-industrial, Western, large, very powerful economy, that in the past decade has made a dramatic shift towards renewable energy, primarily wind and solar.

But what’s really interesting about it, is that it is the small-scale, decentralized, cooperatively-owned aspect of the transition that is fastest-spreading, that has people most excited. That’s an important pattern. Energy democracy is a phrase more and more people are using to describe this sort of phenomenon, where it isn’t just about switching from fossil fuel to so-called green energy, it’s also a power shift in who owns and controls the source of the power, where the resources go.

So what is driving the movement in Germany is not just that people don’t want nuclear power, they don’t want coal; it’s that they want to have control over their energy, they want their resources and the profits to stay in their communities. And this is happening in the age of austerity where it’s a big deal if you can actually get resources to communities. So these are very much pro-democracy movements. They’re not just about where your energy is coming from and what color it is, it’s really about self-determination and community control.

And there are ways of designing government policy that decentralize power. So you look at Germany none of this would be happening if Germany didn’t have a bold national feed-in tariff plan. You couldn’t just do it ad hoc, at the local level. That would not get to you what Germany has done, which is 25 percent of their electricity coming from renewable energy and that’s going to keep expanding.

You need those bold policies and you also need to say no to fossil fuels — you need regulation. So you need to have a relationship with government in order to win those policies. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be in government, by the way, because German Prime Minister Angela Merkel is no lefty, but the anti-nuclear movement and the climate movement in Germany is strong enough that they have won this, which is extraordinary.

Similarly, I look at what’s happening in Spain with this transition from the street movement of the indignados to Podemos, a political party that is intersecting with traditional politics, but in a new way. So I think that’s another pattern that we’re starting to see, of finding ways to intersect with policy, with the state, but at the same time to decentralize power and deepen local democracy.

Naomi Klein is a Canadian activist and best-selling author of No Logo (1999) and The Shock Doctrine (2007). Her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, is out from Allen Lane/Penguin Books now.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator, and author of Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the ‘more like people‘ Facebook page.

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign

Business as Usual in Manhattan

https://secure3.convio.net/engage/images/content/pagebuilder/PCMlargestmarch.png

by ARUN GUPTA

I’ve never been to a protest march that advertised in the New York City subway. That spent $220,000 on posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join a march to save the planet, according to one source. That claims you can change world history in an afternoon after walking the dog and eating brunch.

Welcome to the “People’s Climate March” set for Sunday, Sept. 21 in New York City. It’s timed to take place before world leaders hold a Climate Summit at the United Nations two days later. Organizers are billing it as the “biggest climate change demonstration ever” with similar marches around the world. The Nation describes the pre-organizing as following “a participatory, open-source model that recalls the Occupy Wall Street protests.” A leader of 350.org, one of the main organizing groups, explained, “Anyone can contribute, and many of our online organizing ‘hubs’ are led by volunteers who are often coordinating hundreds of other volunteers.”

I will join the march, as well as the Climate Convergence starting Friday, and most important the “Flood Wall Street” direct action on Monday, Sept. 22. I’ve had conversations with more than a dozen organizers including senior staff at the organizing groups. Many people are genuinely excited about the Sunday demonstration. The movement is radicalizing thousands of youth. Endorsers include some labor unions and many people-of-color community organizations that normally sit out environmental activism because the mainstream green movement has often done a poor job of talking about the impact on or solutions for workers and the Global South.

Nonetheless, to quote Han Solo, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Environmental activist Anne Petermann and writer Quincy Saul describe how the People’s Climate March has no demands, no targets,and no enemy. Organizers admitted encouraging bankers to march was like saying Blackwater mercenaries should join an antiwar protest. There is no unity other than money. One veteran activist who was involved in Occupy Wall Street said it was made known there was plenty of money to hire her and others. There is no sense of history: decades of climate-justice activism are being erased by the incessant invocation of the “biggest climate change demonstration ever.” Investigative reporter Cory Morningstar has connected the dots between the organizing groups, 350.org and Avaaz, the global online activist outfit modeled on MoveOn, and institutions like the World Bank and Clinton Global Initiative. Morningstar claims the secret of Avaaz’s success is its “expertise in behavioral change.”

That is what I find most troubling. Having worked on Madison Avenue for nearly a decade, I can smell a P.R. and marketing campaign a mile away. That’s what the People’s Climate March looks to be. According to inside sources a push early on for a Seattle-style event—organizing thousands of people to nonviolently shut down the area around the United Nations—was thwarted by paid staff with the organizing groups.

One participant in the organizing meetings said, “In the beginning people were saying, ‘This is our Seattle,’” referring to the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial that was derailed by direct action. But the paid staff got the politics-free Climate March. Another source said, “You wouldn’t see Avaaz promoting an occupy-style action. The strategic decision was made to have a big march and get as many mainstream groups on board as possible.”

Nothing wrong with that. Not every tactic should be based on Occupy. But in an email about climate change that Avaaz sent out last December, which apparently raked in millions of dollars, it wrote, “It’s time for powerful, direct, non-violent action, to capture imagination, convey moral urgency, and inspire people to act. Think Occupy.”

Here’s what seems to be going on. Avaaz found a lucrative revenue stream by warning about climate catastrophe that can be solved with the click of a donate button. To convince people to donate it says we need Occupy-style actions. When the moment comes for such a protest, Avaaz and 350.orgblocked it and then when it did get organized, they pushed it out of sight. If you go to People’s Climate March, you won’t find any mention of the Flood Wall Street action, which I fully support, but fear is being organized with too little time and resources. Nor have I seen it in an Avaaz email, nor has anyone else I’ve talked to. Bill McKibben of 350.org began promoting it this week, but that may be because there is discontent in the activist ranks about the march, which includes lots of Occupy Wall Street activists. One inside source said, “It’s a branding decision not to promote the Flood Wall Street action. These are not radical organizations.”

Branding. That’s how the climate crisis is going to be solved. We are in an era or postmodern social movements.

The image (not ideology) comes first and shapes the reality. The P.R. and marketing determines the tactics, the messaging, the organizing, and the strategy. Whether this can have a positive effect is a different question, and it’s why I encourage everyone to participate. The future is unknowable. But left to their own devices the organizers will lead the movement into the graveyard of the Democratic Party, just as happened with the movement against the Iraq War a decade ago. You remember that historic worldwide movement, right? It was so profound the New York Times dubbed global public opinion, “the second superpower.” Now Obama has launched an eighth war and there is no antiwar movement to speak of.

Sources say Avaaz and 350.org is footing most of the bill for the People’s Climate March with millions of dollars spent. Avaaz is said to have committed a dozen full-time staff, and hired dozens of other canvassers to collect petition signatures and hand out flyers. Nearly all of 350.org’s staff is working on climate marches around the country and there is an office in New York with thirty full-time workers organizing the march. That takes a lot of cheddar. While the grassroots are being mobilized, this is not a grassroots movement. That’s why it’s a mistake to condemn it. People are joining out of genuine concern and passion and hope for an equitable, sustainable world, but the control is top down and behind closed doors. Everyone I talked to described an undemocratic process. Even staffers were not sure who was making the decisions other than to tell me to follow the money. It’s also facile to say all groups are alike. Avaaz is more cautious than 350.org, and apparently the New York chapter of 350.org, which is more radical, is at odds with the national.

But when the overriding demand is for numbers, which is about visuals, which is about P.R. and marketing, everything becomes lowest common denominator. The lack of politics is a political decision. One insider admitted despite all the overheated rhetoric about the future is on the line, “I don’t expect much out of this U.N. process.” The source added this is “a media moment, a mobilizing moment.” The goal is to have visuals of a diverse crowd, hence the old saw about a “family-friendly” march. Family friendly comes at a high cost, however. Everything is decided by the need for visuals, which means organizers will capitulate to anything the NYPD demands for fear of violence. The march is on a Sunday morning when the city is in hangover mode. The world leaders will not even be at the United Nations, and they are just the hired guns of the real climate criminals on Wall Street. The closest the march comes to the United Nations is almost a mile away. The march winds up on Eleventh Avenue, a no-man’s land far from subways. There is no closing rally or speakers.

An insider says the real goal was to create space for politicians: “If you can frame it as grandma and kids and immigrants and labor you could make it safer for politicians to come out and support. It’s all very liberal. I don’t have much faith in it.”

When I asked what the metrics for success for, the insider told me media coverage and long-term polling about public opinion. I was dumbfounded. That’s the exact same tools we would use in huge marketing campaigns. First we would estimate and tally media “impressions” across all digital, print, outdoor, and so on. Then a few months down the road we would conduct surveys to see if we changed the consumer’s opinion of the brand, their favorability, the qualities they associated with it, the likelihood they would try. That’s the same tools Avaaz is allegedly using.

Avaaz has pioneered clickbait activism. It gets people to sign petitions about dramatic but ultimately minor issues like, “Prevent the flogging of 15 year old rape victim in Maldives.” The operating method of Avaaz, which was established in 2007, is to create “actions” like these that generate emails for its fundraising operation. In other words, it’s a corporation with a business model to create products (the actions), that help it increase market share (emails), and ultimately revenue. The actions that get the most attention are ones that get the most petition signers, the most media coverage, and which help generate revenue.

Avaaz has turned social justice into a product to enhance the liberal do-gooding lifestyle, and it’s set its sights on the climate justice movement.

The more dramatic the emails the better the response. It’s like the supermarket. The bags and boxes don’t say, “Not bad,” or “kinda tasty.” They say “the cheesiest,” “the most delicious,” “an avalanche of flavor,” “utterly irresistible.” That’s why climate change polls so well for Avaaz. It’s really fucking dramatic. But it’s still not dramatic enough for marketing purposes.

One source said the December 2013 email from Avaaz Executive Director Ricken Patel about climate change was a goldmine. It was headlined, “24 Months to Save the World.” It begins, “This may be the most important email I’ve ever written to you,” and then says the climate crisis is “beyond our worst expectations” with storms and temperatures “off the charts.” Then comes the hook from Patel, “We CAN stop this, if we act very fast, and all together. And out of this extinction nightmare, we can pull one of the most inspiring futures for our children and grandchildren. A clean, green future in balance with the earth that gave birth to us.”

Telling people there is 24 months to save the world is odious, as is implying an online donation to Avaaz can save the planet.

The same overblown rhetoric is being used for the People’s Climate March: It’s the biggest ever. There is “unprecedented collaboration” with more than 1,400 “partner” groups in New York City. Everything comes down to this one day with the “future on the line and the whole world watching, we’ll take a stand to bend the course of history.”

Presumably the orderly marchers behind NYPD barricades will convince the governments of the world that will meet for the Climate Summit that won’t even meet for another two days that they need to pass UN Secretary­ General Ban Ki-­moon’s “ambitious global agreement to dramatically reduce global warming pollution.”

Moon is now joining the march. But it’s hard to find details, including on the Climate Summit website, as to what will actually be discussed there. The best account I could find is by Canadian journalist Nick Fillmore. He claims the main point will be a carbon pricing scheme. This is one of those corporate-designed scams that in the past has rewarded the worst polluters with the most credits to sell and creates perverse incentives to pollute, because then they can earn money to cut those emissions.

So we have a corporate-designed protest march to support a corporate-dominated world body to implement a corporate policy to counter climate change caused by the corporations of the world, which are located just a few miles away but which will never feel the wrath of the People’s Climate March.

Rather than moaning on the sidelines and venting on Facebook, radicals need to be in the streets. Join the marches and more important the direct actions. Radicals need to ask the difficult questions as to why for the second time in fifteen years has a militant uprising, first Seattle and then Occupy, given way to liberal cooptation. What good is your radical analysis if the NGO sector and Democratic Party fronts kept out-organizing you?

Naomi Klein says we need to end business as usual because climate change is going to change everything. She’s right. Unfortunately the organizers of the People’s Climate March didn’t get the memo. Because they are continuing on with business as usual that won’t change anything.

One prominent environmental organizer says that after the march ends, “The U.N. leaders are going to be in there Monday and Tuesday and do whatever the fuck they want. And everyone will go back to their lives, walking the dog and eating brunch.”

The future is unwritten. It’s not about what happens on Sunday. It’s what happens after that.

Arun Gupta contributes to outlets including Al Jazeera America, Vice, The Progressive, The Guardian, and In These Times.

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/09/19/how-the-peoples-climate-march-became-a-corporate-pr-campaign/

 

Inmate No Longer Here: the struggle for prison justice


by Manos Cizek on September 13, 2014

Post image for Inmate No Longer Here: the struggle for prison justiceCecily McMillan and Lucy Parks reflect on Occupy and the struggle for prison justice: ‘We’re going to see a big movement. It’s coming, that’s clear.’

Cecily McMillan is an American activist who actively participated in Occupy Wall Street and who now advocates for prisoner rights in the United States. In March 2012, she was arrested as protesters tried to re­occupy Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. She was convicted of assaulting a New York City police officer and sentenced to 90 days in prison and probation for a subsequent five years. Cecily was released in July 2014 after serving 58 days at Rikers Island.

Lucy Parks is an Occupy Wall Street activist who has also acted as field coordinator for the ‘Justice for Cecily’ support team.

Manos Cizek is a media activist and independent filmmaker from Greece. He recently sat down with Cecily and Lucy for an exclusive ROAR interview about Occupy, Cecily’s experiences at Rikers Island, and the struggle for prison justice in the United States. Photo by Jenna Pope.

:::::::::::::::::::::

MANOS: How do you see the continuation of the Occupy movement in the context of prison justice and the combination of these two movements?


CECILY: I think that the Occupy movement still exists, not in the sense that it is on the ground, not in the sense that it is a tangible movement that is emerging, but it exists in the sense that we have started a class dialog, we have started a class commentary. Any time we’re talking about a corporatocracy, any time we’re talking about corporate control of our democracy, the lack of a middle class, the sinking of the working class into an underclass, that is the Occupy movement. And when you radar that into the prison justice movement, what you get is a move from human rights and racism into a class dialog.

So you can really contextualize the problem on the many layers that affect what prison justice is. Right now in New York it’s very difficult for us to get beyond the targeting of black and brown men. That is the strongest reality here. But there are many poor white people who are being targeted just the same in other prisons, in other jails, throughout the United States. In this sense it’s important to recognize that there is a human rights violation, that there is a corporate value to keeping people inside private prisons, that there is a racist marker on black and brown men in particular that sends them to these incarceration systems.

LUCY: I think it has been really good at uniting the dialogs of race and classism which is important because so much racism is tied up in class politics, and so much of the racist system we have is built to keep people of color poor—and then uniting them also with the poor white people and then bringing it back to Wall Street and the strong Occupy battle of the 99% against the banks. I think it draws a strong connection and is a way to make sure that the blame is put where it’s deserved, which is on the corporatocracy.

CECILY: The prison justice movement is also the first real shot at a true concept of “We are the 99%”, which is essentially what we need in order to build a true civil rights era-style social movement. What I mean is not that we’re going to necessarily work by the same model of the civil rights movement, but in order for such a movement to take hold in our country and make real changes, there need to be multiple arenas of accessibility from the bottom up.

So it really is the first point of merging the various people that are asking for change into a cross-race, cross-cultural, cross-class—and now we’re adding with our work at Rosie’s—cross-gender social movement. Which is what you have to have in order to have a social movement; it can’t be a minority of people because that’s a campaign. A movement allows for access to all.

MANOS: You’ve recently delivered a petition and sat down for a meeting with Commissioner Ponte, on August 25. Are you happy about the meeting, and what are you expecting to get out of it?

CECILY: That was huge. City council people, public advocates—everybody has been talking about how difficult it is to get a sit-down meeting with Commissioner Ponte. We were so surprised. We went there not expecting a full-on meeting. We went there expecting to wait him out until he showed up to take our petitions. To get a sit-down meeting is a win beyond anything we could imagine. But it just goes to show you that 25 people, who are recognized as people, who are recognized with the rights as citizens, that if they go across that bridge, if they make the move to stand by prisoners that are being held on Rikers, that is so terrifying; they were so ready to get us off that island that this is what they offered us!

LUCY: One thing that struck me about the petition delivery was that the police presence was incredible. I mean it was a petition delivery through very peaceful action, we had around 25 people which is not huge, but they still outnumbered us with police officers wearing riot gear and they set up barricades. And what that really shows is exactly how scared of us they are. We know that something we are doing is working and they feel threatened by it.

CECILY: And that’s I think where we have to get to right now in social movement building in our country. We need to start recognizing the tactics of the government and the tactics of the police as a marker of our power, when they show up in force and in mass like this. We need to expect it. We need to plan for it. And we need to go about campaigns in an actionable way; what are we going to do if they do X, Y and Z. I think right now, to a large degree, we’re still really caught up in spectacle.

MANOS: Cecily, what experience did you get out of your trial, and in what ways does that experience relate to the Chelsea Manning’s court support effort that you were a part of?

CECILY: Lucy is actually the mastermind of our court support effort. I was in support of Chelsea Manning, of course, but court support is a nuanced level of direct action. I’m advocating ultimately that from the moment you step onto the street to the moment you go to jail, to the moment that you go to court, that you as an activist must follow through with your convictions and not plead out.

Less than 5% of felony cases right now go to trial and when I was in Rikers I was the only person that I met my entire time there who had been to trial. And so we have a privilege beyond anybody else to stand trial, to expose the justice system for what it is, and the big lesson here is: if you choose to give up your cultural privilege, if you choose to not take the pathway of striving to become a part of the 1%, then, if you choose to stand by people of color and poor folks and people who have been marginalized, then you will be treated like one.

Your cultural privilege, your white privilege, your class privilege, will be removed from you and will not save you from jail. But nonetheless, you as a by-product of that privilege, you have the best fighting shot to expose the justice system for what it is: another arm of the corporatocracy. You must, as a point of your values, as a point of your commitment, as an organizer, go to trial and possibly go to jail.

LUCY: Chelsea Manning was on trial for something that she was able to make a conscious choice in doing, but then Cecily was on trial for something that happened to her. And then Chelsea Manning was also in military court and we were in Manhattan State court. One of the people in the support team had gone down to Texas to do court support for the Chelsea Manning trial. We had a sketch artist, actually, who had sketched the Chelsea Manning trial extensively, who came to do some sketches of this trial. So we drew some parallels, but not a whole lot in terms of court support, other than packing the courts and trying to get press attention and all of that. I think we drew more on the court support model from CeCe McDonald.

CECILY: I think ultimately what we’d like to utilize court support for is to constantly build more avenues into supporting the Left, standing up for our rights. It’s a low level of accessibility into a movement that allows people to see what they thought were secured and safe-guarded rights for every citizen; the right to a speedy trial, the right to a jury, the principle of innocence until proven guilty. It’s a way for people to see the cracks in our system firsthand, as they’re sitting there and they relate to the individual who is being tried.

LUCY: It’s a civics lesson.

CECILY: We also hope that this model will be transferrable to any single person in our movement who falls, and in that sense it has a sort of unifying effect right now inside a very fractured Left.

MANOS: Lucy, what are the difficulties you encountered upon coordinating the actions of Justice for Cecily’s support team? Did you find stronger support from within the United States or from abroad?

LUCY: The trial lasted a month, so I was going in at least 3 to 4 days a week, every week for a month. The entire court support team and half of us are students, the other half of us have real jobs. We always had someone outside the courtroom to greet people, give them flyers, talk to them about etiquette and I literally would have to sit down every night before the next day of court and draw out a master schedule of when everyone had to leave to go to class or work, who could be there when.

Some days we faced challenges of not having enough people in court, by the end we faced the challenge of having way too many people there. But really everyone was incredibly supportive and everyone banded together to help us in ways that I’ve never seen before. I do think that the support came more from the United States. We had a petition that got 200.000 signatures on it and then we also had a decent amount of international support. I know we had a lot of articles published in Latin America about the trial, a lot of articles in Vietnam actually about the trial, The Guardian did also a lot of the best coverage.

I think the main challenge we faced honestly was tiredness, burnout and lack of time.

CECILY: We had no sense of what we were really up against. I think to a degree all of us did still have an idea, did still want to believe that there was some sort of justice in the justice system. It was really shocking.

LUCY: Also everyone in the court support team was very young. I mean I’m 19, most folks were between 21 and 25, with a few folks who were 31 and 32, and a few folks who were also 19. We had a lot of naïvité and that worked against us in a lot of ways. But it also worked for us in some ways, in that I think when you don’t have an experience that tells you that what you’re doing is not gonna work, then you’re more likely to believe that it will work and then you’re more likely to be able to make it work.

CECILY: And when it doesn’t work, it breaks your heart in a way that allows you to see the system for what it is and say “Well, fuck you! You’re not going to get us down, we’re going to figure out another fucking way.” And so with the upcoming trial on September 15, as a result of the targeted arrest while I was awaiting trial, we will go forward with the same court support model again, but of course this time we are considering jury nullification.

LUCY: There was one juror actually who came to the press and admitted that he still believed Cecily was innocent at the end of jury deliberation, he just didn’t realize that it was OK for there to just be one person that thinks the defendant is innocent and thought that jury is supposed to be a unanimous decision, not a majority decision. And to quote him, he went with the ‘guilty’ verdict because he “didn’t want to fight a losing battle and also didn’t know that she was facing serious prison time.”

CECILY: He wasn’t fighting a losing battle. He believed I was innocent and had he just maintained that position, then it would have been held a mistrial. In a hung jury there would have been a chance for the trial to have been redone; at which juncture we would have had an opportunity to get in all of the evidence that had been edited out by the court. Now as we’re fighting the appeal we’re gonna have to go forward with the case with the same evidence that was presented. If we win the appeal’s case the probation will be gone and we will have an opportunity for a retrial.

MANOS: So you’re currently on probation for 5 years and you’re a felon, so you can’t vote for the next 7 years.

CECILY: Oh there’s so much more than that. I have 3 teacher certifications, most of my life I work with children. Before this, I was an Upper East Side nanny. Even in jail I was a suicide prevention aid to the adolescents in Rose M. Singer Center. I’ve always worked with children. I had always wanted to possibly become a foster parent. So I can’t work with children at all as a felon, in any public institution. I don’t think I can even work at McDonald’s, actually. We were looking at houses in Atlanta the other day, the other team member Paul and I, and so many of the housing requirements say “no felons, don’t even ask.”

Through my probation, I actually cannot have any contact with the police. If I have any contact with the police I have to report it. So, we now have to consider what actions, what marches I can go to; there are certain events that I can’t go to on the Left anymore, because if there is another felon there, part of our probation is that we cannot interact with other felons. I can’t move without notice and I can’t leave the state unless I give 45 days notice to the judge.

LUCY: It’s a new type of jail time, and also 5 years probation is so long. Usually, when they give that type of probation, what they’re trying to say is that they really want to send her back to jail. Because they didn’t get away with giving her the long sentence they wanted to the first time, and they’re trying to do that in a quieter way and a way in which they can assassinate her character even further.

CECILY: It’s a setup. I mean, everybody in Rose M. Singer Center said “5 years probation? That’s a setup.” I have to go in every month to do a hand scan which monitors if I have been using any drugs—I don’t—that’s good. The probation officer can show up at any point at my home, at my workplace, they can ask me to come by any time. I mean, if they would like to use me for some sort of radical Left GPS system, they can. They can make me quit a job if they don’t see it as a reputable job. If I’m not working, or not in school, I go back to jail. If I don’t have a residency that’s stable, I go back to jail.

MANOS: Are there any statistics on the amount of people that are dying in Rikers Prison?



CECILY: This is the most fucked up part. Judith, the woman who ended up dying as a by-product of medical neglect, the woman I had met while she was in Rikers, she had been throwing up blood violently for hours. The inmates rallied together: “bring her down into the infirmary!” She’s admitted to the hospital, put in critical care— two weeks later she’s dead. Her autopsy shows: death unknown. Every single one of her organs had shut down. Had been totally destroyed. Her womb collapsed. There was no reason that all of that would have enacted given the way that she had presented when she came to the jail.

Now, how do we know that? Her sister got into contact with me. How did her sister get into contact with me? She’s in Florida; her sister is also a Correctional Officer. She found out that her sister had died, when she sent her sister a letter and the letter had been returned: “Inmate no longer here.” So she went online and looked it up, and when she was looking up “Rikers Island”, after she had tried desperately to get a civil rights lawyer to look into it and had been denied several times, she was looking online at Rikers for information, stumbled upon my story, said “Could that be my Judith?”, contacted the New York Times, Michael Schwartz and Michael Winerip gave her my phone number, she called me and I told her what happened.

So if you can imagine all of those really lucky coincidences that lead her knowing what her sister’s life was like in her final days, how many people have that sort of luck? I’m terrified to know how many people actually do die in Rose M. Singer Center, when there’s a lack of inmate organization, when there’s a lack of resources, when there’s a lack of attention, when our country seems to be covering up the fact that women are even in prisons, except in a funny show like Orange Is the New Black. We’re gonna figure what those numbers are as we continue to investigate Rose M. Singer Center.

LUCY: And whatever numbers we find the real numbers will probably be higher.

CECILY: We’re terrified of the consequences.

MANOS: You were visited while in prison by Nadya, Masha and Peter, formerly of Pussy Riot, now having their NGO Zona Prava. How was that for you, and how is your current communication with them in the context of prison reform both in the United States but also around the world?

CECILY: I love them. It’s been one of the most alienating experiences to get out of jail and go back to a world where most of my friends do not have a lot of experience with the cultures that surround imprisonment. It’s been really hard to navigate what it is supposed to be to be a white woman speaking on these topics. Hanging out with Nadya and Masha and Peter for an entire day, we just went down to Battery Park and Peter made us chase a boat for a really long time. I mean, we’re just 24, 25 and 26 year old girls trying to do something right for this world, trying to make something more out of an experience that I think we all realize is really super commonplace for a lot of people in this world.

It’s been amazing to have them as comrades and in terms of the international piece, we are really looking forward to working on something sort of like “From Rikers to Russia” narrative that will start the international interconnectivity of discussing prisons as a human rights violation, particularly from a woman’s perspective, which we think hasn’t been done and will be more fruitful because women are socialized generally to be more community-building communal beings. Both of our teams are really committed to discourse and collaboration rather than competition and setting up an “us and them.” We’d like to make it a human “we” narrative. And I think that moving forward we are just all around delighted to work together.

LUCY: The other thing about Nadya, Masha and Peter is, they actually became a large part of the leniency campaign which is why Cecily is out of jail now, when they went and visited her at Rikers during the first weekend that she’d been in. They came and had breakfast with the support team in the morning and then I went over to Rikers with them, we talked about politics. Then they went in and visited Cecily and came out and were so amazed, that they then utilized all the resources that they had as a part of the petition campaign to get her out, and also as a part of the campaign we had of writing letters to the judge asking for that leniency. So, really, if they hadn’t been so wonderful in putting forward all their resources and energy on that, Cecily might still be at Rikers.

CECILY: We also have a running dialog with them about this concept that they referred to: “anti-fear”. In the sense that when there is terror, when there is police repression, when there is backlash, that’s not a marker of weakness on your behalf, that’s a marker of strength. When they fear you, if you can respond with anti-fear, you win. Because at the end of the day, all they have is their guns and all they have is their money. But if you present and you went out as a human being who’s willing to stand up against the money and against the guns and maintain your personhood, maintain your dignity, maintain your respect, maintain your personal narrative as somebody who’s just trying to be good for others, you win.

And yeah, the consequences grow greater and greater as you become more successful. But at the end of the day, what is living if this is the world that we’re living in?

MANOS: Talk to me about October’s Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration.

LUCY: We’re working with an organization called the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, started by Cornel West and Carl Dix, who are both great folks and have been working on this for a few years, and who are now putting together this October Month. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that something big needs to happen around mass incarceration and police violence now, and in New York there are literally probably at least 100 different groups doing work around this. What we’re aiming to do in working with Stop Mass Incarceration Network in October, is to pull together those groups under a news heading of this Month of Resistance, to show how many people are doing work and to start coordinating so that it becomes a real movement.

I think Americans are becoming more and more aware—especially with books like The New Jim Crow—of the reality of the prison system. And then in October we also need to show how many people are doing work around the issue and get even more people involved, because there is the potential for an actual movement around this. We just need to pull together and we need to energize people. What we’re aiming to do is to create coalitions and do outreach and then build into something way bigger in the future.

CECILY: To mobilize people from all the various angles as well. Not only all the groups, but all the various angles. The Anti-Mass Incarceration Movement is a structural movement, because you can’t just target the prisons, you have to target the prosecutorial overreach, you have to target the appointment of judges by elected officials that are elected by money, you have to target the lack of resources that lead people into prisons out of classism and racism and oppression to begin with. You have to go at the back end; the lack of resources, the probation, the sort of statelessness that I was talking about. You have to address the statelessness of an entire class of people in our country in a way that requires, again, cross-class, cross-race, cross-culture and cross-gender coalitions.

Additionally, I think that it requires an inside-outside strategy; it requires radicalism outside of institutional projects but it also requires inside organization and actions in the prisons and outside support. I think it will be the first major step into uniting the 99%, in a way that we haven’t seen actualized yet—just verbalized. And one way we’re trying to get out this beforehand is by calling it what it is: this isn’t just racism, this isn’t just classism, this is political repression. When there is a government that specifically denies participation to an entire group of people and thus renders them stateless, thus renders them unable to participate as citizens to begin with, and then you put them in jail for that; that’s political repression. These are political prisoners.

And so I think that there lies within that narrative a possibility at mass political activation. We’re in it to win; to win massive structural changes that we want to see in our national government. We have a sense of revolution—our revolution is not violent, our revolution is to live the rest of our lives affecting movement after movement after movement until we unite more and more people that are not represented by this government, which is most of the people, to affect the government that will not only be more respectful towards the citizens here, but respectful of the world order that so many other countries are working avidly to create and that we continually undermine.

MANOS: What would be your ideal view of a correctional system? How would it function and feel? And if you could paint the picture with words, what would that be?

CECILY: No correctional system!

LUCY: Yeah, at least what I would like to see is eventually no jails, no prisons. It’s not effective at creating a better society. I think it would be a slow process to get there and I think that to build that society we have to address especially the huge class issues. And what I would like to see is more of a process of resort of justice, where if someone does something like steal something then it’s viewed as a community harm, and what you’d have to do is work to pay the person back. We need to address this in a way that actually builds a better, more productive society that is built on growth rather than punishment.

CECILY: To be honest the entire time that I was in the sentencee dorm—so that’s the women who have been sentenced at Rikers—I had by far the highest, most violent offense. The classes of women that I met there were generally one of four—I would say there’s only a handful of women who were there for something else: one being selling their bodies in order to feed themselves or their families, two was theft in some form or another in order to take care of themselves or their families, the third is addiction and the fourth is primarily mental health. And those four, to me it seems like those are not crimes, those are byproducts of our society that reflect a really violent form of poverty and a really violent form of alienation, which actually left these women no choice to do otherwise.

LUCY: Those aren’t crimes, those are modes of survival.

CECILY: Ultimately what I would like to see the prison justice systems replaced with, are rehabilitation systems. I think when somebody in our society commits a crime, it is because for whatever reason the society, as it is, is not functioning for them. It’s not working for them or they cannot see their place within it— they had not been given the avenues or the resources in order to participate in society—I mean, that was certainly true of my case; there was no avenue for us to address the government, so we started a social movement. We need to say why is this person not participating to the standards that we’ve set? Do we need to change the standards? Do we need to allow for more access to resources? Do they need therapy? Do they need food? Do they need more adequate housing? Like, there’s no sense of talking to people about why it is that they committed the crime that they committed. It’s just all of a sudden, you were a person and now you’re a number and numbers don’t have opinions or value.

LUCY: So basically, to sum it up, we want no jails, no prison. We want everyone to be fed, clothed, housed and taken care of, to the extent that we deserve to be as human beings.

CECILY: And that our country can afford! We spend more money on housing a prisoner—I think it’s something like five times as much in housing a prisoner per year—than we do on the average child at public schools. We are paying to put people in an inefficient system that just sends them back into crime. This system doesn’t benefit anybody. Except for maybe the private prison systems that are making a profit off of the people being there. It’s crazy. This is the 21st century!

MANOS: So equal access to resources seems to be part of the solution, but at the same time we have the private prison system that is part of the larger corporatocracy—and we should find a way around that as well.

CECILY: We’ll start with improving the conditions in jail right now, building those cross-class, cross-cultural, cross-race, cross-gender connections, building ever towards a common dialogue on human rights—for every person, regardless of where they are, deserves to be treated like a person—and what we perceive will erupt with the Prison Justice movement, as it begins to interconnect with the Student Debt movement, as it begins to interconnect with the Immigrant Rights movement. I think ultimately what we’re going to see is a social movement of some kind.

LUCY: Something pretty big.

CECILY: It’s coming, it’s bubbling. That’s clear. Ferguson has been valuable, in that it is seen as a marker of mobilized dissent coming and people are no longer content to be treated like Others and are responding in a way that says “No more!”, that says “We will not stand by anymore, we will not stand by, avert our eyes, keep our heads down and not look up and not stand up for our brothers and our sisters.” It’s coming. The duty that we have as American citizens, as our country terrorizes, rapes, harms, threatens and exploits so many other countries worldwide, ultimately we have to start a strong social movement here based on human rights, based on a cross-class dialogue.

We’re hoping that what has historically followed will continue to do so and we’d love to see obviously a series of mass uprisings throughout the world, to establish a new world order that is focused on organizing the people, for the people and by the people.

Transcribed by Manos Cizek, Maria Gioni, Ilios Poros, Anghelos Palioudakis and Lindsey Aliksanyan.

http://roarmag.org/2014/09/cecily-mcmillan-occupy-prison-justice/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29