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Friday, November 11, 2011
To Empower The 99%
A perspectives document on Occupy SLC
by Christian Wright
PT I: A POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE ON OCCUPY SLC
Where is Occupy SLC today? What do we have to work with? What could we do with ourselves?
Occupy SLC is moving along. A major recent victory was the gaining by the Fed Occupiers of a winning a space at Galavin Plaza, near 200 South between State and Main Streets, as an "educational front" in the center of the financial district. There we are able to directly protest the rule of the rich and powerful by bringing an anti-corporate message to large groups of people 24/7! Elsewhere, the "Town Hall" meetings which are held at "Room B" in the lower level of the library on Mondays and Thursdays from 7-9pm, and which involve much broader forces of "the 99%" who wish to challenge corporate power have in the past week gotten much better organized, efficient, and empowering. The focus of those meetings is to allow specific working groups to meet, communicate, plan and organize the actions, outreach, and messaging of the movement.
At Pioneer Park, organization and disorganization pose great challenges as well as opportunities. Last week a low point was reached when it snowed, several tents collapsed from the snow, and most crucially the kitchen was unable to cope with the weather. This was overcome by the energetic actions of several occupiers, including Jesse F, who quickly raised money online and drew up plans for the current, weatherproof design of the kitchen which is working well.
Yet, what we need is not just a better tarp or shelter here and there, what we need is a clarity of purpose and sense of direction. The park survives today, as much from luck as from anything else. Like a ship adrift at sea, no one is at the helm, half the sails aren't even out, and the anchor is dangling somewhere several meters below the surface. We are drifting along aimlessly among the currents, our maps and compasses and political signs have for weeks remained scattered about the floor of an abandoned room where they are periodically chewed up and stolen away for bedding by humble and self interested creatures while most of the crew has gotten into the rum and occupied the galley where they continue to be served by dutiful cooks themselves completely unaware whichever direction they are drifting in today, what time they will run out of provisions, or whether land and treasure or reefs and enemies are in sight, right behind us, dead ahead, or ominously close.
As I write this, I have just been informed there was a death today in the park. Other deaths, one a homicide and another an apparent suicide, have occurred at occupations in other cities. Camping in a park forever waiting to be evicted, run out of food, get snowed on or see people freeze to death is not a political program. It is not the answer to capitalism. It is not even a sane activity for anyone other than a completely desperate and actually homeless person to engage in.
I believe that ordinary people coming together and talking to one another can figure out the solution to just about anything. This method of discussion, thinking, honest collaboration, and the use of pens and paper has allowed us to do everything from inventing antibiotics to the construction of sewage and water systems to the abolition of legalized segregation and inter-planetary travel. I recommend, that instead of waking up, going about our day, and then going back to bed, that we begin a serious discussion that attempts to find a way forward for us all out of the cold and hunger and apathy and powerlessness and homelessness of our present condition.
PT II: WHAT ARE WE ACTUALLY DOING TO EMPOWER THE "99%" AND DIMINISH THE POWER AND CONTROL OVER SOCIETY OF THE "1%?"
Our movement has much potential, but most of our currently planned actions and events are (at the moment) completely Utopian. What are our events? We have education and propaganda, that is good. There are signs and fliers and there is Street Theatre. Perhaps that will "raise some consciousness", but again it avoids the question of direct struggle and material conditions. We have so much support because "consciousness" has already been painfully raised for most people by having their lives fall apart over the past 3 years of recession and greater than 10% real unemployment.
What we need is to challenge power directly and organize specific things that can win concrete improvements in the living standards of the 99%. In this article I will address the problems with several currently organized and proposed "actions", discuss a different way to view one's organizational potential, and offer a few concrete suggestions of my own.
Current active campaigns of the movement are as follows:
-To take money out of major banks and put it into credit unions.
-To protest shopping on "Black Friday" after Thanksgiving.
And, for good measure,
-to have a General Strike.
Let's look at these one at a time.
With regard to banks, I bank with Wells Fargo. I have not taken my money out of their bank and I have no plan to. But I know they are an evil institution. I was a fancy waiter in Denver in 2008 during the Democratic National Convention and I worked a party where banking lobbyists, including Wells Fargo, paid lots of money to the Democrats and bought for them king crab and raw oysters and expensive alcohol and chocolates with little pieces of flake silver and gold on top of it to eat. Yes. Gold and silver that is mined out of the earth in deadly mines and that is very precious. And they were eating it, during a recession. The heartless bastards. Later that fall, after business dropped down and I got laid off, I had bought $10 of $3 a gallon gasoline and a $1.50 coffee on a debit card. An old transaction had gone through unbeknownst to me and Wells Fargo inflicted upon me punitive overdraft fees totaling $70. This really bothered me and I think educated me very well about the inherent evilness of banks that bribe our politicians who look out for their interests, but who then punish their customers when they are caught up in the teeth of the recession.
To the credit of Wells Fargo, however, I spoke with a sympathetic banker and got the fees taken off. So there are humans there working at the branches after all. Yes. No human pushing papers around an office opening and closing accounts is an enemy of mine. The problem is at the top. And I realize the banks are evil. Though I appreciate the convenience of doing business with them. They have many convenient ATM and branch locations. I move around seasonally for work and work in different towns and states at the same time so it is a convenient bank for me to use. Sure they are an evil bank. But so is every bank.
I don't think taking my money in or out of any bank is going to accomplish any concrete changes. The social movements of the past in the 1930s and the 1960s that won things like unions, 8 hour working days, the weekend, health insurance, social security, unemployment insurance, that fought racism and segregation and expanded the right to vote and legalized abortion.... none of these things were won by people taking money out of one bank and putting it into another.
Credit Unions are not the solution. There will still be troops in Afghanistan and a $600 billion dollar pentagon budget and a $69 billion dollar military R&D budget compared to a paltry $6 billion dollar federal investment in alternative energy whether I use a credit union or a major convenient bank. There will still be a two party dictatorship masquerading as a democracy where ever I bank. They still won't let Ralph Nader or the libertarian or the green or any other candidate in the presidential debates. Immigrants will still be scapegoated for our problems and deported and abortion will still be unavailable in over 80% of counties in the United States. Where I bank will change none of this.
The problem here is much deeper than any one bank. Any one United States' president. Any one law or any one corporations' behavior. The problem, fundamentally, is one of POWER. An elite of super rich and corporate executives have too much. The great majority of the working and middle class have very little. Power, not hard work or luck or thrift or honesty, determines the appropriation of wealth in a capitalist society. It is not against Wells Fargo, or the Bank of America, or Chase , or General Motors, or the Democrats or the Republicans or Lockheed Martin or Boeing or the Pentagon that we have now been driven to revolt against. It is an entire system controlled by parasites and plunderers that is too abominably filthy to be cleansed by a single law, a single reform, or the abolition or even nationalization of a single corporation.
Another action proposed by the movement is that of refusing to shop, and attempting to discourage shoppers, from shopping at large stores on "Black Friday". Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving when many stores offer great deals. The anticipated crowds of Black Friday, and the ensuing holiday season offers inadequate though much needed and happily agreed to employment to many citizens. Of course these great deals are quite useful to poorer and working class folks. And you know what? I think poor and working class folks should be able to have things like clothes, blenders, washing machines, and TVs. Sure, most TV rots your brain. And FOX news is straight racist propaganda. But the Daily Show and the Colbert Report and South Park (all on "Comedy Central") are the best news programs on TV and people will get smarter and think more if they see them. Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel are super cool. So is National Geographic Explorer. And Cuddling up with a loved one to watch a movie is fucking awesome. Do you like cuddling up with a loved one and watching a movie? Of course you do. It is romantic and sweet to lie together under a warm blanket and drink something nice and eat popcorn and watch a movie. It could be a movie about anything. Just love or comedy, something lighthearted to allow you to escape for a few hours the soul-destroying horror of ordinary life. Or perhaps you might even watch something political and inspiring that motivates you to become a better revolutionary. Have you seen the movies "Malcolm X" or "Defiance" or "V for Vendetta" or "Land and Freedom"? Those are fucking awesome movies that will make someone way more inspired to take action to challenge the system than will, say, attending many of our movements' meetings!
It has been suggested that instead of shopping at the large stores we shop at local, smaller stores. Perhaps local and smaller stores do less harm, on average, than the giant capitalists. But it is the nature of capitalism that if we so succeed in patronizing small and local stores that they will only become large capitalists themselves one day, which is precisely the dream of every small businessman. And I do not fall for that marketing trick that "local" businesses are inherently better than "non local" businesses. In 2009 I worked at a small, "local" independent family run restaurant. They did not exploit as many workers as a larger corporate restaurant I worked at in 2007 did. But that is only because they weren't big enough to hire that many people yet. And they did exploit me! The owner illegally stole 20% of waiters' tips every day. He pretended it was going to the kitchen, but the kitchen never saw them and they were only paid an hourly wage. This small businessman was a fucking asshole who stole money from me and from nice, intelligent hard working 18 year old waitresses. He was a fucking parasite. And a "local" one. So a small businessman is not inherently better than a large businessman.
Giving money to some businesses instead of others in not going to change the systematic injustices of capitalism, the wealth inequalities, the closed nature of our political system, or end the wars or win investment in solar and wind power. As the working and middle classes, we don't have the money that the rich have. Our greatest strength is not with our pocket books. It is with our numbers. On the street, gathering together, defending our jobs and homes from foreclosure and outsourcing, and in the workplace and the school where we can occupy and go on strike and shut down the flow of profits to the top. That is where we are most powerful.
The "politics of shopping" ignore this, fail to recognize and take advantage of it, and ignore direct actions that could improve people's material conditions. The problem in a recession isn't that people are buying too many things or buying things from certain places instead of others. The problem is that people are broke and don't have a job and they can't buy things they need to survive. Like food. Or housing. Or a fucking TV to watch an awesome movie on and cuddle with a loved one to feel like a human being.
We need to fight for ourselves. Fight for our material interests. The wealth in society we have produced by our collective toil has been greatly concentrated in the pockets of the greedy and evil few. The people who work the hardest get hung out to dry and blamed for all the problems. The people who work the least and cheat the best get all the money. That needs to change in a big, big way. As a fellow revolutionary I would agree with Martin Luther King, Jr., that it is not just a question of providing a handout for a beggar, but of realizing that a system which produces beggars is an edifice in need of restructuring!
* * *
Are there other ideas? Other actions or campaigns? Yes, there is one! There is the idea of a General Strike! The fucking General Strike! In Salt Lake City, Utah in November 2011! Holy Fucking Shit Indeed! Has there ever been a General Strike in the entire history of the State of Utah? None come to mind, and I am a reasonably well informed person on matters of Utah State History! What is a General Strike? A General Strike is when everyone doesn't go to work, and they picket and march and elect people to a Strike Committee to run the strike and they make leaflets and daily newspapers and they are really really really really really well organized. What was a general strike? There was one in Seattle in 1919 when the working class ran the city for 5 days. There were big ones in Minneapolis and San Francisco in 1934. The was a huge, nation wide one in France in 1968. And who ran these strikes? Who called them? They were run by unions. Not the stagnant, bureaucratic declining shells of corruption like we have today. They were living, breathing unions led and run by an active, involved, radical and democratic membership. The active participation of Socialists and Communists was key to their well managed effectiveness and political leadership. Lessons we have forgotten today.
Today our movement is calling for a General Strike for a date later this month. And there is no labor support! Ahh, but I am told by a General Strike Organizer that "I talked to some people [in labor] and they were really excited". Wonderful, indeed!
Calling for a general strike when you have no unions and no organized working class support and no auxiliaries is completely meaningless. There will be no general strike. And yet one is called for. Called like a witch doctor speaking to invisible spirits, expecting to summon them from thin air! What is wrong here?
It is obvious. A great revolutionary in a revolution once suggested to an assembled crowd three basic principles for them to take into consideration. They were as follows, 1) Distrust the Bourgeoisie. 2) Control Your Leaders, and 3) Rely Only on Your Own Organized Strength.
And where are we today? We've got #1 pretty good. Though we've re-defined things from a scientific class analysis based on relations of humans to the way things are produced and owned to a vague, neo-populist analysis that focuses on wealth alone in a sweeping an abstract way: the "99%" verses the "1%". But the basic understanding is there. The super wealthy are the problem.
Then there's #2: Control Your Leaders. That is slightly less than halfway there. Most of our leaders pretend they are not leaders even though they are clearly leading in important areas of work. Behind the pseudo-radical semantics of us being a "leaderless" movements lies the reality of leaders who are unaccountable and uncontrolled. There in lies a tremendous danger. Elections, a great way to tie accountability and responsiveness to any important position (such as a newsletter editor, a website manager, a room facilitator, a minutes writer, an email list organizer, a permit holder, etc...) are usually ignored. At a few times when they are so obviously necessary to the basic functioning of the movement, such as a facilitator at a town hall meeting of 65 people, a facilitator is elected. Though it is not called an election. And instead of a clear and simple raise of hands to validate the authority of the elected facilitator a confusing "consensus" is taken that many people in the room do not participate in one way or another, nor do they understand. So we are still learning the most basic rules of leadership that every professional, political, and union organization in the world has spent the past few hundred years developing.
And #3? The last one? Ahh! This is the hardest, and the weakest. We do NOT rely on our own organized strength. We rely on phantoms and hopes. The same mistake many of us made with Obama- where we not only trusted a leader we didn't control, or even try to control, but we trusted a leader we couldn't control and we relied on his promises, rather than on what was organized, real, visible, and our own!
How the General Strike proposal exposes our great failure to appreciate this third point! Instead of being at the place, where perhaps we may be several years from now, where organized and unorganized workers are largely won to the idea of struggle and in communication with one another through official as well as informal horizontal networks; where the idea of a general strike might actually be possible, we are, instead... here. Today. In Salt Lake City in November 2011. Where we have nowhere near the organized strength necessary for a general strike. But does this stop the printing presses? No. It does not. The flyers are made and printed, "General Strike" proclaimed boldly on the front. And they are hung up. And instead of relying on our own organized strength we are relying on the vague HOPES (that no one, deep down actually believes in) that somehow, if we have a nice enough looking flyer, and we manage to put it up in enough places, that it will just *convince* several hundred thousand breadwinners in a recession to risk their jobs and put their families at risk to refuse to go to work and to come out to a demonstration called by people they've never met on behalf of a cause infamous for its chaotic leadership and its inability to coherently define itself!
So of course, there will be no general strike, and it will fail, and any union representative from a president to the lowliest shop steward or card holder looking at our flyer will laugh at the Utopian ultra-leftism of it. Such is the level of thinking currently leading the work of the Town Halls' events committee!
I will ask, then, what IS our own organized strength? What DO we have to work with? What CAN we realistically count on?
Look around Pioneer Park and see us for what we are! Talk to us and interview us and ask us questions! Get to know us, each other, ourselves! We are the people with good ideas and morals and intentions who are confounded in every election cycle by a pathetic choice between two heartless war mongering and out of touch elites bought and paid for by defense contractors, polluting energy companies, the pharmaceutical industry and the at-large super-rich. We are the ripped off unappreciated toilers who built the country only to then get thrown out on the scrap heap when the money changers on Wall Street pushed papers around wrong and fucked the economy up. We are the broken down, homeless, hated and scapegoated and made fun of and feared Salt Of The Fucking Earth. We are between jobs and caught up and addicted and degraded and alternately selfish and selfless because we have Traumatic Brain Injuries and personality disorders and a keen interest in personal survival. We are also activists and who are smart and skilled and who are probably spending a lot of our time worrying about and feeding and clothing and sheltering a lot of other people who probably don't give a damn about us or the cause. Yes. We are what society is, and what society needs, whether it knows it or not! We are the 99%, no doubt about that.
The crisis has arrived. Injustice, and the distribution of Power that makes this injustice possible, is clear to us all. And now we must deal with it, develop solutions and strategies and concrete campaigns. And we can't half ass it, or put our faith into illusionary forces. We can't rely on propaganda alone, and hope that the right call to action, or the right slogan, will bring everyone out to some great big jolly "fun" activity. Let us become more serious than that! Let us agree with the great Revolutionary, Thomas Paine, who famously said:
"When it becomes necessary to do a thing, the whole heart and soul should go into the measure, or not attempt it. That crisis was then arrived, and there remained no choice but to act with determined vigor, or not to act at all."
What we need is to challenge power directly and to organize specific actions and campaigns that can win concrete improvements in the living standards of the 99%. Victory is the best propaganda. People are busy and their time is important. They will rightfully distrust any persons or movements who seem to enjoy wasting time and working inefficiently. And what we need to inspire people today isn't hollow slogans on leaflets or the collapsing rhetorical masturbation of a directionless, unaccountable, inarticulate and "leaderless" inertia! THE AMOEBA IS BUT THE LOWEST FORM OF LIFE- it is not an organizational structure to be replicated by higher beings! Propulsion by any creature takes a great deal of division of labor among constituent parts, as well as coordination, accountability, and definition of roles. Let us abandon all empty talk and focus instead upon the original, radical idea, that revolution will not happen in a day, and that a protracted struggle on ideological, political, and economic fronts over months and years is necessary to build up the confidence, will, and organization among the popular classes that is absolutely a necessary perquisite for any political or economic restructuring of society from below.
PT III: MY PROPOSAL FOR PIONEER PARK TO LOOK FROM TENT CITIES AND TOWARDS A PERMANENT SOLUTION TO HOMELESSNESS
Unlike most Occupations currently happening around the country, in our unique case, we have become predominately a park full of actually homeless people, and it is a minority of us who are out here for the purpose of making a political statement. I agree with Seth that this is perhaps a blessing in disguise, and provides us with an opportunity to organize support around a concrete campaign that could directly improve the material conditions of the people hardest hit by the recession, as well as politically attack and win ground against the currently dominant morality of selfishness, greed, and degradation of human life.
I propose that we should organize ourselves to a political campaign around the slogan "Housing is a right." We have through no intention or fault of our own managed to organize much of the city's homeless into a political movement that asserts housing and feeding oneself as a human right. We have dramatically demonstrated the need for comprehensive housing and the inadequacies of the current private shelter /charity and cash strapped governmental housing assistance programs by our tents that are set up in the park.
I propose that we consciously organize this into a movement to make housing a right. We have an incredibly wonderful strategic position to do this. The city would rather us disappear from the park. I as a homeless person would rather have shelter with a roof and central heating than I would freeze to death in tent in a park all winter. Most of the homeless people here feel the same way. Many people in the city politically support our message, that people should be placed over profits, and that housing should be provided for those who need it. And we've put a lot of embarrassing pressure on the city power structure as well as the deep pockets of the large financial institutions. We can use that pressure and this opportunity to win a better shelter and housing assistance program.
Also through no fault of our own, the highly visible presence of drug addiction in this park can be featured front and center in this movement to radically challenge the way drug addiction is treated in our society. Currently it is treated as a criminal problem. In reality it is a medical problem, and it is a moral crisis that we as a society have chosen to keep our drug addicts freezing outside in the street, rather than welcomed into the shelter of a secure and warm and humane treatment system. Asserting the right of housing and treatment for even the most disparaged, "hopeless", drug addicted and mentally ill people is not only a moral necessity, but it is a great political attack against the prison industrial complex. Millions of dollars are made building prisons and employing judges, lawyers, sheriffs, policemen, and prison guards to take non-violent drug users and turn them into felons who must unproductively be housed at great public expense in dehumanizing facilities where useful education is denied and an informal criminal education is abundantly accessible. This is a system that degrades human life. There is no other way to put it. And it is here that we could at best strike a great blow, and at worst at least cause a few cracks in the politics that hold it all together.
Therefore, my proposal is:
We, the residents of Pioneer Park, have hereby decided to constitute ourselves into a movement to abolish homelessness in the Salt Lake City area. We are directly abolishing homelessness by taking over a public park and using it to shelter and feed ourselves. This is a temporary solution, and in the interests of finding a permanent solution we hereby have set ourselves to advocate the following demands:
1) For funds to be made available, via grants and tax payer subsides, to improve the existing and inadequate shelter system as well as to construct new homeless shelters. New Shelters must be made ASAP and they must be well lit, well heated, handicapped accessible and conveniently located. They must be staffed by well paid and highly qualified social workers as well as by security guards who are able to ensure a violence and drug free environment for all seeking to escape street life. Wherever possible, every effort must be made to secure the dignity and the safety of all needing shelter by having private rooms available for families, couples, and individual citizens in need of shelter.
2) In addition to the construction of new family- friendly, drug and violence free shelters, we must acknowledge the special needs of other populations. For the safety and health of all citizens separate shelters should be constructed for mentally ill people who have special needs. Private institutions with documented and respectable experience in managing group homes for intellectually disabled people need to be invited to Salt Lake and involved in the solution to the housing crisis. Along with this, publicly managed institutions and systems must also be included as part of the solution.
3) A third category of drug addicted individuals also exists among the homeless population and everywhere in every shelter system has threatened and troubled the life of non-drug users seeking themselves a way out of homelessness. We recognize fact that people who are addicted to hard drugs are more likely to have their morals corroded by the vices of theft, violence, and unreliability. This does not change the fact that all those who are addicted to drugs are still human beings with lives that have value. Housing is a right for them as much as anyone else. Therefore, we propose a joint state- and private partnership to secure funding and management for a system of shelters and group homes for the drug addicted. While we believe the exact details of the management of such a place be left to experts with experience in this field, we propose the following suggestions:
-No one is arrested or put in jail for non-violent drug use.
-A needle exchange program is made available at all locations and drug treatment programs are made available. Free transport is also provided from each location to AA or NA type groups' meetings and back.
-Instead of being hoarded and stolen, theft and security is obtained by having institutional security supervise the keeping of residents' drugs in guarded, private on-site safe deposit boxes.
-Private, monitored rooms are made available for drug addicted individuals to do their drugs in. This reform is recognized as being safer for the individual as well as the general public than the current policy of forcing drug addicted individuals to seek public places to do drugs in.
-24/7 on site security is maintained and all violent persons are referred to city authorities for prosecution.
4) Upon the erection of a shelter system that safely, and with dignity, meets the needs of our city's homeless population, we will happily disband our occupation of Pioneer Park where we are currently with difficulty and discomfort housing ourselves within inferior system of shelter. This does not signify the end of our resolve to fight the abuses of the current power structure and priorities, but it will allow us to return the park to the city for other uses while we focus our energies productively and efficiently on other campaigns to reform other aspects of injustice in the Salt Lake City area.
At the moment, many of our "activists" feel that camping in a park forever without issuing any concrete demands or statement of purpose is going to somehow... be a good idea. I think these people are out of their fucking minds, and what they are most likely to do is to piss away a great opportunity to challenge corporate power, make lives better for people, and ultimately, they're going to get evicted and the kitchen will be torn down and the tents will be confiscated and the people who were relying on the protective cover of their movement to camp in the park are going to be out on their own once again scurrying about in an uncaring world of isolated homelessness.
The right to housing, and the act of providing love and care for all persons regardless of their position is a notion that has deep roots in many religions. Here in Utah, we can use this fact to gain support from many religious faiths.
As I political program of activity to win the above demands I propose:
1) We discuss this proposal with all homeless members of the Pioneer Park Occupation to see how they feel about it, and what level of involvement they would be able to contribute.
2) All of us educate ourselves as much as we can on the nature of the existing shelter system, and that we produce a document that lists its deficiencies. Also, we should educate ourselves on the struggles of places that have comprehensive and well functioning shelter systems and see what we can learn from them. These lessons can be added to the above document to produce a useful literature.
3) We hold a press conference at the Park announcing this campaign and these demands
4) We elect delegates we trust who are articulate and smart to meet with state legislature members to discuss our demands.
5) We empower the same delegates to meet with members of the most powerful financial institutions that we are currently protesting, especially if they have been bailed out by public funds, and we invite them to made charitable grants towards the construction of an improved SLC shelter system. Our movement has given them a political motive to participate in this. But obtaining their participation we would win a concrete victory for our own material relief, and in the process demonstrate the effectiveness of social movements to organize against the morality and power structures of capitalism.
6) We attempt to secure the broadest possible involvement in a public campaign of protests, at the park and at strategic targets, from homeless members of the park, homeless people not currently sleeping at the park, and any other political supporters.