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Let’s Outgrow the Infantile Disorders Evident in Occupy the DNC

With the one year anniversary of the #Occupy movement just around the corner, DC based activist Joel Northam gives a critique of the movement during both National Conventions.

Whatever your preconceived notions regarding the content of this pseudo op-ed may be, there are a few things you should know. I am an Occupier. I have been since the movement spread like wildfire to the major cities across the states, and when I got the call in my city of Washington D.C. on October 1st, I enthusiastically took the metro down to McPherson square, and I haven’t ceased involvement since then. Though my tenure at McPherson square was cut short about 3 months in when I started a job (or as I frequently call it among all circles now, ‘wage slavery’), I maintained a presence. I left my tent up until our encampment was raided in early February. A few comrades who lived near me decided to make our tents into a neighborhood nicknamed “Fort Malcolm”, in honor of one of the most genius revolutionary thinkers of the previous century. It would always be a place to go back to and see the same faces and feel a sense of community. After work, as inconvenient as traveling in the city was, I managed to make it to McPherson Square 4-5 times a week staying for hours on end de-escalating, sometimes facilitating, and taking advantage of the library. I mention this to the reader, so that you know that my heart lies with this movement, despite our many imperfections, and any critique of it coming from me is out of nothing but love and a desire to become better and more cohesive everyday. Coupled with that, the desire to topple this regime and the ruthless capitalists who own it and to create a better world is integrated into every facet of my existence

Let’s start with what went right. I had long known that we were going to be making an appearance at both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention; we had to. Showing up to both can give two impressions to the passive observer standing on the sidewalks with their camera phones out in downtown Charlotte. First, they could conjecture that we’re showing up to both conventions because we recognize that the two-party system is rigged (It’s actually one party of multinational corporation executives, bankers, revolving door lobbyists, and other oligarchs masquerading as two parties) and our message would be that we’re clearly not satisfied. Second, they could conjecture that we went to both conventions because we have no idea who it is we’re pissed off at. Instead of pondering about what our image may be through the lens of not quite awakened working class liberals, I decided to find out for myself. During the marches, I tried to mingle with as many people as I could, and surprisingly the former conjecture of our purpose in attending both conventions was more popular than the latter. This was good news. It meant that perhaps there are more potential allies than we may have believed, but we’re at fault for having a sub-par level of energy to cultivate those positive responses, find common ground and bridge whatever divides in order to form coalitions simply because of lack of communication with the broader working class.

This leads me to my first critique. During a few of the marches, there were many casual onlookers who simply wanted to ask questions and sometimes challenge us on our theories. Many of us welcomed it, but there were a few who viewed these challenges as attacks, and proceeded to tear their heads off. “You ignorant fuck” was a common phrase that was heard frequently from the mouths of comrades. Truth is, there are very ignorant people outside of Occupy and within it. Perhaps instead of viewing challenges to your theory as a threat or attack, it would behoove you to make sure you know your stuff so that you can respond accordingly and maintain a certain level of composure. I’m often surprised at how many people call themselves Anarchists, talk about smashing the state, but haven’t read any of likes of Bakunin, Proudhon, and Kropotkin, and know how to channel their theories pragmatically in our current external environment. Don’t be ashamed to admit that you don’t about a particular subject if you don’t, and if it bothers you that you don’t know about it, then maybe it’s time to hit the books and reinforce your theory for next time someone challenges you. But to attack someone who is, like the rest of us, conditioned by her or his environment which designates a person’s experience of the external world and the beliefs thereof, is infantile. I believe that if you call yourself a revolutionary, it means not just breaking other people out of their conditioning, but it also means breaking your own conditioned inclinations to perceive a challenge as a threat and respond accordingly. The majority of working class liberals don’t look at us with as much scorn as the working class conservatives do, so it makes no sense to burn bridges before we’ve even had an effective dialogue. All it takes is one person to bring another to align themselves with the movement’s ideals, but conversely all it takes is one person yelling “You ignorant fuck” to further alienate the broader mass.

My second critique is short but sweet. I’ll preface it by declaring unapologetically that I hate the police. I’m a radical Black man in America; not only have I experienced police brutality, but a high level of scorn for the state machinery is sort of hardwired into my DNA. The bad news is that many of the working class, especially those who have been privileged enough not to have been forced to see the police in the same light as I do, don’t have as much scorn. In recognizing this, I try my hardest not to pick fights with the police unnecessarily, especially if they’re just standing there guarding an obvious high security checkpoint with automatic rifles, that no amount of yelling could convince them to let you through (yes, that happened). The officers standing guard are never going to declare, “Damn Johnson, this must be what a police state looks like. I may as well turn my badge in and let these dirty hippies have their way with the plutocrats inside that we’re protecting.” Infantile. Potential allies who watch occupiers picking fights with the police for stupid reasons wind up telling the police “Good job, thanks for keeping these insane assholes in line”. You have to pick your battles a little better than that. Now if the police are snatching people up off the streets, or beating them, or just exhibiting their typical socio-pathological brutality, then by all means have a field day. I’ll be right there with you.

Since we’re on the subject of alienation and burning bridges, this brings me to my third critique. The day of Barack Obama’s speech at the DNC, Green Party candidate Jill Stein came to our encampment in Marshall Park for a press conference and to speak to a few of the comrades there. Instead of her press conference being successful and having dialogue with the occupiers, a few people proceeded to make a scene in front of live television while Jill Stein was speaking. “Fuck the Green Party! They’re trying to co-opt the movement! She’s using us as a backdrop!” and other temper tantrum-inspired phrases were hurled, with a healthy mix of comrades who were trying to de-escalate the situation. Now, although I do not agree with Jill Stein on some issues, and have heard rumors of her semi-authoritarian demeanor on marches and direct actions, this is also a woman who has run ads stating that “We need a revolution”, a message with which it’s safe to say most occupiers would agree. Rather than having a sit down to discuss where we see eye to eye and where we don’t, the egotistic, childish current within our encampment was quick to sever that tie and alienate a potential ally. I have as much fear of our message being hijacked and diluted as anyone else dedicated to this movement does, but it makes no sense to cut off people who believe in our message and could provide support when we as a movement desperately need it. Infantile. I do not believe engaging the powers that be on a parliamentary level is the means to the end. It’s simply a tactic, and tactics include both parliamentary and non-parliamentary activities. We should know by now that diversity of tactics is necessary in this fight, so we need to learn to tolerate others with tactics that are not your own.

My final critique is one that we’ve heard over and over again, but I feel after Occupy DNC, needs to be restated. We have little to no organization. We have plenty of marchers, campers, and sign makers, but not enough organizers and activists. It doesn’t take a degree to organize; all it takes is breaking out of your comfort zone, communication, passion, many manic days and nights of unrelenting stress and discomfort, and the desire to see it all worth it. All many occupiers knew was that there was a national call to action to protest the RNC and DNC, and that there’d be a place to put tents and there would be marches. The actions were planned sometimes a few hours in advance, and there was little to no cohesion whatsoever. I wonder how many channels of communication were open? How many outside allied groups knew about the actions? How many people could have come out with us if there had been just a bit of follow-up with the groups that participated in the Coalition to March on Wall Street South? Why are we not branching out? Many a time, I heard someone say, “I don’t want to participate in the coalition march, it’ll be boring.” Infantile. Working with allied groups is a reciprocal relationship. You show support to them, and in return they show support to you. Sitting back and thinking “Well someone will probably go on that march” is nothing less than armchair slacktivism, and it’s killing us softly. What would you rather have? A futile march of 50 people chanting “smash the state!” or would you a rather put some work in and get a march of 10,000 people that you’ve branched out to, communicated and networked with? Which number do you think represents a larger threat to the establishment? Despite the crust punk current’s assertion that we can topple the system and smash the state all by ourselves without broad based working class unity, especially working class activists, is absurd. To say “It’s all going to come down eventually” and then go have a twelve pack of natty ice and pass out in your tent all day is pathetic. This actually takes work. We say we’re the 99% – truth is, we’re only about .04%, and you’re not going to get to maximum capacity by refusing to work with other groups that have been involved in activism longer than we have. The ignorance, the egos, the infantilism, the lack of study, the lack of knowledge of past revolutionary movements and theory, and the alienation of allies needs to come to a grinding halt if we’re going to make any significant headway with our many goals.

With all of that said, I believe that if you’re serious about this, the words “Oh I don’t really care much about that particular issue, so I’m not going to branch out and make connections” should never come out of your mouth. If you’re an environmental activist within Occupy, then you are also an anti-war activist, an anti-racism activist, a labor activist, a housing activist, etc. We need to support each other’s struggles more, because the very large umbrella called capitalism sort of overshadows them all in varying degrees, and we’re going up against one of the strongest, most repressive forces on the Planet. What we may lack in organization, we definitely make up for in intersectionality, but in this next phase we need to begin to merge both intersectionality and organization. I don’t believe that we should be a leaderless organism. I think we should be a leaderful organism. Leadership does not equal authority. Being a leader means that you’ve put theory into practice and have won, resulting in people being garnered to your cause, strategy and tactics. That happens naturally, and it doesn’t mean that a leader has to have her or his bureaucratic stamp on everything in the leaders’ locus. I know many Anarchists who are de facto leaders, and even leaders have leaders. The entire notion that if we maintain some sort of organization there will inevitably be a tyrannical hierarchy directing everyone’s every move within the movement is absolutely absurd. If we’re serious about this, we need to step up our game. We’re not infants anymore. Most of our encampments are gone and we are not as visible to the public, so we need push for more open and cohesive lines of communication among groups that agree with our message. That includes labor, includes organizations, includes radical parties, and includes other movements. We need to make sure that when there is a national call to action, everyone is accommodated with a place to sleep, food to eat, water to drink, medical care as needed, legal help as needed, a schedule of events, etc. We need to learn civility when we’re speaking to others in our social class who are just becoming aware and are new to these ideas, and we need to fill the cracks that have been perpetuated through this isolating, dividing, and corrosive system. That, comrades, is revolutionary. An armed coup where we march down Wall Street or K Street won’t win this revolution, nor will it be won by holding hands around the White House while singing Kumbaya, nor will it be won drunk, disorganized, and lazy. We need to develop our theory pragmatically, through open experience and communication, raising consciousness person to person, so that when the time comes where the conditions are set, we’ll be ready for what comes next. It’s time to start thinking practically about how we are going to win. I conclude by hoping that this critique is taken into consideration, and hope that we can collectively evolve. ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE.

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