Saturday, March 31, 2012

Occupy Movement, Meet Permaculture

When Occupy Wall Street appeared last fall, it was a breath of fresh air in what had become a decidedly stale a depressing political landscape. From the broad collection of issues being represented, to the actual "occupying" of a major public space in plain site of one of the world's most powerful economic institutions, OWS brought people alive and brought people together - sometimes across astoundingly challenging differences. As the movement spread across the country, and went international, it was like watching the flashbulbs of cameras at the World Series or Super Bowl. Everywhere you looked, the lights of grassroots democracy were being switched on. And even those with some sympathy, but also with a lot of questions and reservations, couldn't help but express some astonishment that this was happening at all.

Then the coordinated police repression set in. The untended roots of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and the like rose to the surface, and sprouted all over the place. The attraction to power, and greed, began to overtake the egalitarian processes and structures that had been formed, sending decision-making into a tailspin. The secular activists began to shun the spiritual ones, and many of the spiritual ones either retreated from their messages, or simply disappeared all together.

And then winter came. Stealing the sun. Swamping most of the remaining occupations with snow, or cold, or both.

People went inside, and started rethinking strategies. Many of the affinity groups that had already started to develop around particular issues, values, and/or cultural identities strengthened, while at the same time, the structure for overall leadership and direction - the General Assembly - greatly weakened. At least here in Minneapolis this was the case, but from what I have read, this was true in numerous other places to some degree. The Occupy Homes started receiving national attention for it's work on foreclosures. Occupy the Hood sprung up as a response by people of color to the lack of racial diversity in the main Occupy Minneapolis group. The Whealthy Human Village project arose out of a concern that Earth-based issues weren't gaining the kind of attention that economics and corporate power did. The Well Being committee developed as a response to the internal discord, and a sense that bringing in more compassion, tools for dialogue, and general care would help the overall movement sustain itself. And the list goes on.

With the rise of each of these groups came a degree of segregation. Many folks chose the group or two that most represented their passions, and stepped back from the rest of what was going on. Others tried desperately to "do it all," only to burn out after a few months. Still others have somehow maintained a regular presence across multiple lines, but often at the expense of "going deep" in any one area. This has created a situation where the core team within many groups is a fragile number easily impacted by the dropping out or falling back of even two or three members. The Occupy Homes group has managed to attract a much larger number of people, and yet it sometimes has dominated the Occupy Minneapolis scene, to the point where outsiders have wondered if all we do is address home foreclosure.

Next Saturday, April 7th, Occupy Minneapolis will officially re-occupy two public spaces in the downtown area. While there has been a planning team working on these efforts for a good two or three months now, there hasn't been all that much discussion amongst the larger group about it. While I was one of the last ones standing when we held the People's Plaza, my views about tactics and focus have shifted since then. Which doesn't mean I am necessarily against these plans, but I do have a hell of lot of questions about it all.

What is the relevance of re-occupying public parks now?

How will these occupations sustain themselves?

How does park occupation fit in with the broader array of affinity groups that have developed in the past several months?

Will there be efforts to honor the contributions of everyone, or will there be a repeat of the dynamics that appeared during last fall's occupation, where those who put in the most time on the plaza (or in the General Assembly) were considered the only "true" occupiers?

What is the role of the General Assembly? Or more importantly, how can we both maintain the healthy autonomy of individual affinity groups, while also being intelligent about collective coordination of the whole?

And what about the baggage behind the word "Occupy" itself? Will there be some deep digging in this anniversary year of the Dakota 38 massacre, or are we just going to go on with Occupying, even if it leaves our history behind?

I'll be honest. Part of me is deeply pessimistic about the possibilities right now. A fair amount of people seem to be in love with autonomy and having the freedom to use a "diversity of tactics," but when it comes to working on a broader set of strategies, as well as doing the needed work of developing true solidarity, there's mostly the sound of crickets. The poison of hyper-individualism continues to wrack our movement, as does the poison of untransformed anger and righteousness, and until both of those are addressed head on, things will continue to be fractured.

I would like to take up David Holmgren's 12 Principles of Permaculture Design as a possible framework of inspiring different ways to move forward with the Occupy movement, as well as how we are already doing some of them already to some degree.

Here are the twelve principles:

1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.

3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

When I look at this list, the first one that springs to mind as important is number four. Occupy developed as a wide open field where anyone could appear and deposit whatever they wanted into the collective. The beauty of this has been that everyone potentially has a voice, and anyone's ideas potentially have the chance to be put into action. However, one of the major downsides has been that the loudest, and most forceful have often taken over. A single dissenting voice, or a small group of forceful players frequently dominate conversations, push actions in a certain direction, and generally create a hostile atmosphere for those working the edges. Or who aren't as outspoken or articulate. The privileged educationally sometimes talk down those who have lesser or different vocabularies. Professional activists sometimes talk down those who haven't been around activism before. And so on.

What's even more problematic about this dynamic though is that the lack of boundaries and shared basic agreements means that anyone can theoretically enter into any group or meeting, and claim membership. It's a boon for agent provocateurs, although in the case of Occupy Minneapolis, I believe it's been more the case that those with the loudest agendas, or who think of themselves as having all the answers, are more able to influence and disrupt than they should be.

"We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well." Which means that some set of basic agreements need to be put into place. Which means that there must be an understanding that excessive disruptive and/or disrespectful behavior can lead to ejection from a meeting or group. Which means that it has to be ok for some boundaries to be put into place, especially when it comes to affinity group membership and participation.

One of the reasons I am wary of re-occupying the parks is principle number nine. "Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes." The energy of the hundreds or even thousands of people that attend marches and rallies almost always dissipates quickly. They come together, get riled up, and then most go home, only to come back for the next march or rally. Furthermore, rallies as they are often currently structured are highly passive affairs. People stand around and listen to speakers whip them up with information they either already knew, or which doesn't really help them take effective action in their lives, and in the world. Marches, on the other hand, are more active in the physical, bodily sense, but the reduction of complex issues into simple slogans significantly limits their long term impact. People remember the spectacle, and perhaps are inspired by it, but it's not really the work needed to transform society.

I bring marches and rallies up because they were staples of our local occupation last fall, and into the winter. How do you get people down to the plaza? Hold a march or a rally. And the people would come, get riled up, and then most would go home. Some small percentage would get inspired to join an affinity group or committee, and maybe some level of media coverage would happen, but that was about it. There's no reason to believe it will be any different this spring.

Which takes us to principle number three. "Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing."

Now, the way I see it, there are many different kinds of rewards. Occupy Homes has become pretty good at working towards the tangible rewards of blocking foreclosures and helping people stay in their homes. Another set of rewards are more intangible, such as relationship development, and solidarity building through personal and group sharing. The problem with marches, rallies, and over-structured processes like the General Assembly is that there are often neither tangible nor intangible rewards as outcomes. A week's worth of GA meetings can, and have, produced nothing of substance. A rally can, and often does, block the ability for relationships and coalition building to develop during it's time span.

The way I see it, whatever we do as a movement, we must become more creative. We need to apply the template of principle number two to our projects and efforts, and consider whether what we want to do will "Catch and store energy," or not. Will doing X bring more people in? Will speaking about Y attract a diversity of interested parties?

A larger question to ask is whether there are simply too many actions going on? One week in February, I recall that there were multiple rallies, marches, or other events held nearly every single day. That kind of approach might catch some energy in the short term, but I doubt anything is being stored for the long haul. The problems we are facing today have been built up over centuries, and they won't be addressed in a year's, or even a decade's time.

In other words, what sort of movement ecology is necessary to support it's work over a generation or even longer?

Which brings me to my last point, which runs off of principle eleven. "Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system."

In my opinion, what the world is calling for us to do right now is to live on, and act from, the interface of the margins and mainstream. When it comes to movement ecology, this means stepping towards that which has been rejected as "not activism." It's important to note the word "interface" here. I'm not saying toss out the rallies, marches, occupying offices, blockades, etc. No, it's more about integrating those with things like relationship building, the arts, raising children, growing food, skill sharing, dancing, meditation, yoga, and sharing meals together. It's about desegregating and decolonizing our minds, both in terms of the myriad of -isms we've ingested, but also in terms of what we believe it will take to transform our society. Because we don't know what it will take. Or what it all might look like. And actually that's a good thing. It frees us up to include anything that might be helpful, and allows for a true, representative diversity that will outlast the police beatings and attacks from those who want to maintain the status quo.

Creative Commons License
Creative Writing the Dharma by nathan thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at