Like many around the U.S, and even around the world to some degree, I have been excited by the appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement and it's numerous off-shoot groups. In fact, I have been involved in the work of our local Occupy group in Minneapolis since the day it sprang up last October. It has been a wild ride. I have developed wonderful friendships with people I might otherwise have not met. The sheer ability to discuss the state of the world with people who genuinely care, want change, and are passionate about the issues has been a blessing. It's lifted some of the isolation and marginalization I have long felt as a person deeply committed to jettisoning capitalism, overturning all forms of human oppression, and liberating not only ourselves, but the planet itself.(Actually, I believe that the planet has the skills to liberate itself, if only we'd stop destroying it at every single turn.)
However, at this juncture in the movement, it's quite clear to me how much we all need to heal. How many divides cannot be mended simply by declarations of solidarity and calls to attack a tiny group of uber wealthy folks and their minions. We might be the 99%, but so much of our individual and collective experience has been tamed by conformity, distorted by false notions of power, and trapped in us vs. them mindsets.
Another member of Occupy Minneapolis just started a blog, and her first post inspired me to offer more of my own take not only on Occupy, but on the larger issues that drive me these days. Please head here to read her current piece, and follow her future writing.
"I'm part of the 1%, and you are too. As people living in the United States, by the level at which we consume resources, and by our access to a kind of power to change things, compared to the rest of the world we are the 1%. Also, to the rest of the species on the planet, who would like a say in how we are running things, humans are the 1%. We owe it to them to speak up and also to listen."
Calling ourselves 99% was a bold and brilliant move, that has the richest 1% quaking... and also, possibly, laughing. So much hangs in the balance around this idea. Can we really overcome our differences enough to join forces and reclaim our freedom?
How, exactly, have we been enslaved? There is a general feeling, among most of us, of being trapped. We want there to be an enemy, someone clearly evil we can point to and say, "That person. That 1% person is the root of it all. If only they were gone, then we would be free."
When we call ourselves the 99%, without touching our long and twisted history of injustice and pain towards each other, how "Solid" is our Solidarity? Centuries, even millenia, of human injustice await to be healed. Women still silenced. Indigenous Nations still stolen from. Post-slavery people still pushed to the bottom. People told they are "illegal" and separated from their families because of our Free-Trade policies and unjust immigration laws. How can we expand our awareness of all of these struggles, as we ask for their participation in our movement? How heavily do we take our responsibility, to include their voices as we decide our activist-strategies? Do we include a sense of the other 99% of the world, as we organize? How do we act in solidarity with post-colonial countries still strangling in debt? With repressive regimes where their right to assemble is met with mass slaughter? Do we unionize on behalf of sweatshop-workers around the world, or do we buy their cheap goods? Do we consider the sacrifices in lifestyle we will all have to make, to counter Global Climate Change? Is it too late?
First off, full disclosure: I have been having a lot of in person conversations with the author, so my writing is definitely influenced by her ideas. I am very grateful and blessed to have Malia in my life, and the fact that we met during Occupy reinforces what I want to say next.
Developing real relationships across whatever differences are present, as well as coalitions between groups that have been divided historically, is the only way Occupy or any social change movement like it will succeed.
Our imaginations must expand. Our listening skills expand. Our willingness to let go of being right all the time must expand. Each of us must, in my opinion, learn how to work towards a better future without knowing what that future will be exactly. None of us knows exactly what it will take to break down the current systems of oppression, nor do any of us know what will be needed for a just, healthy society on the other side.
I am troubled by the sense of knowing it all that sometimes pervades both the conversations we have in Occupy, and also the actions that we choose to employ. It's deeply painful to look around the room, see the lack of people of color, and then listen to predominantly white activists say they truly know the needs of their communities. As a former ESL teacher who spent years working in various wings of the broad immigrant rights movement, it's impossible for me to ignore how few immigrant voices are present, and how little the issues that uniquely impact them are readily marginalized as not important, if they are ever raised at all.
Recently, a woman offered to give a teach in on Islamic forms of banking, in connection with the challenges our local Somali-American community is having around sending money back to their family and friends in Somalia - and you could almost hear a pin drop in the room. Whenever the talk is about going after big banks and corporations, people are enthusiastic. However, this affiliated topic, which probably didn't directly impact anyone in the room, didn't seem worthy of more than a few nods of agreement.
Even though I don't want to, I still hesitate talking with my refugee and immigrant friends and former students about Occupy. I wonder what they think of it all. How much they have heard. What they have heard. And whether they feel it has anything to offer them.
Immigrants and refugees are only one group amongst many who tend to have so much more to lose than most mainstream, liberal, middle class white folks do - the people who are easiest to find in Occupy circles. Just consider dealing with the police. I have former students who could easily be deported if they are discovered at a rally. And you have to have your head under a rock to miss the fact that men of color especially are dealing with racist legacies whenever police and law enforcement are involved. Simply being present near a march or action can be grounds for harassment or worse, something the average white person isn't likely to face.
The word "occupy" itself is problematic. Occupying and taking over is exactly what colonialists did for centuries, and what multinational corporations have continued to do to this very day all over the world. Not only was the land stolen indigenous peoples on every continent, but the very ways we think and act have been colonized, to the point where the majority of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, can't even recognize that we are tamed and controlled.
Just as so much of the ground has been covered with a single form of bland looking grass or mono-cropped corn, wheat, or soybeans, so too has the human mind been papered over with lies about what it means to be a "civilized" human. Instead of gender diversity and flexibility, we have been sold a gender binary based on oppressive norms and twisted forms of power. Instead of celebrating the amazing diversity of species on the planet, and the myriad of ways in which they (including humans) can come together in mutual support, we believe we must squash down, control, and manipulate everything for our benefit.
There is so much damage to be undone, and it won't be undone through acts of civil disobedience or legislative lobbying alone. In fact, as long as those actions continue to remain divorced from an awareness of, and willingness to address, the colonizing forces I pointed to above, they will simply be half measures. Which doesn't mean that, for example, stopping foreclosures isn't worthwhile work, but that we need to re-examine the very ways in which we build our neighborhoods and communities - and in my view, aim towards a transformation of how we live together, and how we live in relation to the earth. I fully support efforts to help people stay in their homes, but I deeply feel a desire to see that we all live more liberated lives in those homes as well.
The word "solidarity", as Malia alluded to above, is buzzing throughout Occupy Minneapolis and other Occupy groups. And yet what does that mean, and how might we go about actually achieving it?
Simply put, too many of us aren't really working together as respected peers in solidarity. Or we are only building solidarity with those that we have the most in common with. I have personally been guilty of this to some degree, and recognize the need to reach out more, and offer some form of support to various wings of the movement.
But it's more than just reaching out. I'm keenly aware, as a man, of the need for men in general to step back the level of their speech and action, to recognize the long, painful history of sexism and patriarchy, and act accordingly when it comes to listening to, respecting, and elevating the ideas of women and trans-gendered folks. I'm keenly aware, as a person with European ancestors, of the need for people like myself to step back the level of our speech and action, to recognize the deeply painful and damaging legacy of racial oppressions that have marginalized our brothers and sisters of color. We need to learn how to actually be brothers and sisters, instead of assuming that we are so. We must be willing to cede some of the spotlight, and do our share of the background work and more so. And we absolutely must be willing to commit ourselves to a lifetime of decolonization work on our hearts and minds, without drowning ourselves in unnecessary guilt and shame.
And what about the Earth? What about this amazing, alive planet that gives each of us the very breath we need to keep going?
We have groups likes Occupy the Food System. Occupy Cargill. Or Occupy Gardens springing up. Gotta love that. And yet, they remain on the margins, not terribly sexy compared to going after obnoxious bankers, corrupt politicians, and abusive police officers. Furthermore, even these groups remain human-centric in that they are based on enlightened self interest. Without quality, healthy food, people will die. Without the space to grow it, people will suffer.
But what above movements that don't offer direct benefit to people? Or direct tangible benefits to people? What if a major wing of Occupy had to do with applying the same "step back" principles I just wrote about above to humans themselves?
How might we "occupy" ecosystems in ways that mostly benefit plant and animal diversity? And how can we teach each other to recognize that doing so is not - I repeat NOT - in conflict with our efforts to overturn human oppression and economic and social injustice?
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the planet is calling us right now. It's doing everything it can to shake humanity out of it's collective slumber and stupor, out of love, but also out of a warning of what might come if we choose to remain living as many of us currently are.
The tenacity of the dandelion is living within each of us. The graceful movements of the elm are waiting to be unleashed from our hearts. We each harbor both a lion's roar and an elephant's patience.
It is absolutely time to reclaim the bold, wild, and liberated imaginations that are our birthright. Because in doing so, we are that much closer to becoming the wild and liberated people that we are each meant to be.