Terrance Heath

Well-Behaved Movements Seldom Make History

Filed By Terrance Heath | November 19, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Occupy movement, Occupy Wall Street

medical-advice-peanuts-lucy.jpgAlmost since the Occupy Wall Street movement began, everyone from pundits to the person-in-the-street have offered their $0.02 on what the OWS movement "should" do next. The number of columns and blog posts offering such advice naturally increased after the midnight sweep of Zuccotti Park, complete with media black-out. And they will probably not subside even after the OWS movement's successful nationwide day of action.

The advice is almost always the same: Do something else.

This advice usually comes in many forms, one of which -- conveniently enough -- have been offered up a Financial Times columnist.

Gary Silverman urges Occupy activists to "find the love," offering his example of sharing what may or may not have been stolen fried chicken with latenight Washington DC club goers.

The experience left me with an appreciation which has only grown over the years for the power of small kindnesses. I know for a fact that the provision of fried chicken to a stranger creates the potential for connection and communication.

I would argue that one of the great tactical flaws of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been its failure to go beyond expressing frustration and to find ways, however symbolic, to serve the actual people living and working around its encampments.

Silverman's advice, like all the rest of it, sounds well-intentioned. After all, he's just offering the OWS movement advice that he thinks will boost it's chances of survival in the long-term. But it sounds so much like the retorts I've heard in countless debates with right-wing activists on countless issues, which usually go something like this: "What about (fill-in-the-blank)? Why aren't you protesting about that issue? Why don't you do something about that?"

It's a smart tactic, because it puts the other person on the defensive. Either they stammer out a response about why they aren't addressing said issue, make it a point to explain at length how they are addressing said issue, or brush it aside as "not the point." The first two responses, if one takes the bait, signal to your opponent that they have successfully changed the subject. The third is likely to make you sound cruel or thoughtless, which your opposition will readily exploit.

This tactic not only creates a false dichotomy. Either you're doing something about "this" or you're doing something about "that," but you can't do both, so you have to chose. (And the assumption is the fill-in-the-blank issue is "better" or more worthy than the one you're already working on.)

It also assumes that you're not already doing something about "that." Though Silverman, given his failure to find a homeless person to share either his southern fried windfall or his ill-gotten chicken wings, says he isn't suggesting that OWS open up a soup kitchen, he ignores that occupations across the country were already "serving the people" by taking care of the homeless in cities that can't or won't take care of them.

In just under two months, the Occupy movement has managed to turn the countrys attention toward social inequality. As many in the movement struggle with unemployment, student debt and unaffordable mortgage payments, words like foreclosure, debt and joblessness have reentered the public discourse.

More recently,as the number of homeless people at Occupy encampments climbs,the conversation has shifted toward the growing but often hidden dilemma of homelessness in America.

One of the country's largest occupations can be found in Portland, Oregons Chapman and Lownsdale Squares, where an estimated 500 people spend their nights in a sprawling encampment of tents. Many of them are homeless.

The movement is well aware that there are downsides to inclusiveness. Theres been some rowdiness, theres been drinking, theres been some people fighting on occasion, Silverman admitted, adding, Were trying to self-police as best we can.

In addition, tending to the needs of the homeless could potentially divert energy away from theoccupation's initial goals.

The last sentence in the blockquote above reveals the real genius of the "Do something else" diversion: "Doing something else" may divert your energy away from your initial goals. Not that feeding the homeless isn't an important thing to do, or that OWS activists weren't already doing that. Before joining the OWS movement, many were involved and remain involved in any number of movements and organizations serving any number of social needs or causes.

The other part of Silverman's advice for OWS amounts to morphing into a more "well-behaved movement," one that disrupts daily life as little as possible, and is thereby less likely to really change the status quo. I'm reminded of a saying I heard in college, one that historian Laura Thatcher Ulrich scribbled in her research notes in the 1970s, and used as the title of her 2007 book: "Well-behaved women seldom make history."

Well. Well-behaved movements seldom make history.

The bottom line is that the Occupy protests are disruptive. That's the idea. That's the idea of any serious protest movement: to be disruptive -- to stop business as usual -- to force the media and the society at large to focus on a critical, fundamental problem.

When Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery she was being "disruptive." So was the bus boycott that followed.

When the sit-down strikers that founded the United Auto Workers refused to leave the plants in Flint, Michigan in the 1930?s, they were being "disruptive."

When Gandhi led tens of thousands of Indians in the civil disobedience that ultimately toppled British Imperialism, he was being "disruptive."

When thousands of Wisconsin workers refused to leave the State Capitol in Madison earlier this year, they were being "disruptive."

When the people of Egypt occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo they were being "disruptive."

The protesters who dumped tea into Boston harbor in 1773 were being "disruptive."

The idea of the Occupy Movement is to occupy Wall Street and other public spaces to demand that American government and business pay attention to the elephant in the room - the exploding inequality in wealth and power between the 99% and the 1%.

It may not be the best analogy, but look at it this way. Herman Cain might not have been a presidential candidate, if Rosa Parks hadn't cause a disruption in the front of the bus while Cain went obediently to the back of the bus.

I won't presume to offer advice on where the OWS movement should go, or what it should do next. Instead, I make just two earnest requests.

Don't go silent. You have shifted the national dialog and by the power of your central message made media and political elites take notice, and forced them to at least talk about inequality where before they focused exclusively on austerity.

And, please, don't become a "well-behaved," movement that doesn't inconvenience or make anyone uncomfortable, and therefore changes nothing.


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Well said! Thank you for writing this. I think one other thing that is implied by one of the blockquotes is that homeless people have opportunistically joined the encampments -- when, actually, homeless people are _already_ part of the 99% and have just as much right to organize politically and engage in protest. Homelessness is a very political issue, and many homeless people are political activists.

T, well actually your analogies really aren't especially good. There's a way to be disruptive, when the target AND their activity IS disrupted. The actions you cited from history, were more than just VISIBILITY. They had LEADERSHIP. They had a WELL INFORMED spokesperson who could and DID empathize.
There was a TACTICAL purpose, beyond disruption.
We know that for DECADES insider information, the selling of junk bonds and greedy CEO who were given outrageous bonuses regardless of the business circling and eventually going DOWN the drain was part of the problem.
We can ALSO see that people who had NO BUSINESS signing onto mortgages or obtaining credit cards OR publicly funded subsidies for their overblown corporations is part of the problem.

But worst of all, deregulation of entire industries that allowed them to uproot, and move from this country altogether is what has destablized everything.
At least if the captains of industry didn't necessarily have employee loyalty, they had national loyalty where they'd rather cut their wrists, then get in bed with a dysfunctional Third World government to increase their profits.

But the government can't make Joe Citizen be honorable in paying his bills, any more than it can make a corporation or middle level business stay local.
It would require some kind of AGREEMENT for all sides to play nice. For those at the top to expect to make some sacrifices or at least not extend themselves to the point of excessive and exceptional greed.

The Occupiers haven't elected someone, or focused on a core of individuals to have that discussion with the people on the top at Wall St. or anywhere ELSE for that matter. The Occupiers, need and should have someone who will put on a suit, and polished shoes and integrate and infiltrate those hallowed halls of industry and finance.
While the people on the street, maintain a vigil over all that occurs in such a way that looks like they MEAN business and not treat the situation like one big Woodstock weekend.

I walked by the Occupy LA, blocks from my workplace (which suffers because the local government is rife with malfeasance and misspent public funds). But those who have been INTERVIEWED by local media (aren't making any sense really).
They are angry, but inarticulate.
And the marijuana logos, and signs in support of marijuana truly are NOT helping the cause.

I listened to an interview where a woman who had a street coffee cart, had had her cart vandalized. Not only was it trashed, and some of her equipment stolen, but people had urinated all over it.
Her tears and anger were at the Occupiers, NOT the rich or those who had kindly and generously patronized her tiny business.
So YEAH...behaving rightly IS extremely important, because when you DON'T, that is going to be the HIGHLIGHT reel on the evening news!
It didn't even take such an incident to make ME unsympathetic.

Rosa Parks, in fact DID behave properly. So did all of those who boycotted the Montgomery Bus Co.
The NAACP did it's research on the financial impact of a boycott. So did those understood what divestiture of South African financial interests would be as well.
There's more to it, than squatting on public property and pissing on it.
Or those ALWAYS on the fringes exploiting the issue and taking it out on smaller businesses. The way the anarchists behaved during an economic summit in the Pacific Northwest.

I'm suffering too, but I have a better idea and understand what's more effective from long years as an activist.
There IS a line between behaving BADLY and behaving EFFECTIVELY and the Occupiers don't seem to have figured that out at all.

When people change the subject to knock you off the goal,they do it to make themselves look better.And anyone with common sense can see straight through those said people.I have seen this before in some pictures with captions.Like in a single picture.1 is of starving children in Africa with a caption next to it that reads "99%".under teh pictuer is another picture of a protestor with a sign that says 99% but the caption next to it says 1%.Clearly the person who had made the poster was trying to divert the attention away from our own problems in the states to the problems of those who are dying in 3rd world countries.Just to make those of us in teh states seem selfish and snobby.What makes the attention to the 3rd wolrd country moot in their argument is exactly what Ghandi once said,"Be the change you wish to see in the world".Meaning,if you want to change whats wrong with the rest of the world,you have to start by making changes at home.And right now,the 99% ARE starting with that step.We are trying to keep ourselves afloat so we don't wind up as a 3rd world country too.We have to take problems one step at a time and address each issue 1 at a time or we'll lose track of what we are doing.You don't have to be perfect to be needed!