Monday, March 25, 2013

Statement on the Public Discussion of Occupy Minneapolis' Social Media Use

Open Letter to Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Homes MN,

Over the past week, there has been an unfolding, very public debate between Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Homes MN about shared access to social media, methods of group governance and action, and the nature of solidarity. As a member of Occupy Minneapolis (since day 1) and affiliated collations, I feel compelled to offer a statement of what I see from my vantage point. It is my hope that at some point, the two groups can find enough common ground to mutually support each other against the forces and power structures that are currently oppressing all of us.

In order to promote transparency and honesty about personal stakes - something lacking to some degree on both sides of the public debate - I'd like to speak about my involvement in Occupy since October 7th, 2011. I was there on the People's Plaza the first day, and averaged about six to eight hours of active presence on the plaza five days a week. My participation in the General Assembly meetings was much less frequently due to schedule conflicts, and then later on, a distaste with the amount of conflict and stagnation that developed. I was active on multiple Occupy committees, including the facilitation committee that attempted to address issues of shared governance, consensus model structures, and methods of leading meetings. In the beginning of January 2012, I joined the Whealthy Human Village, and earth-centered offshoot of Occupy Minneapolis focused on environmental issues, food justice, and indigenous rights. More recently, I've been involved in Occupy and Idle No More's work addressing the XLKeystone and Enbridge pipelines. My involvement with Occupy Homes MN is much less significant. I did canvasing one weekend early on Monique White's home, the first foreclosure Occupy Homes worked on. I also attended a half dozen other events, press conferences, and rallies associated with Occupy Homes during 2012. While I haven't been actively involved, I have followed Occupy Homes work online, and have contact with a few folks more active in the foreclosed homes movement.

The Public Divorce

Members of the Occupy Minneapolis media team released this video last week in which they announced the suspension of access to Occupy's social media outlets - Facebook page and Twitter account - for members of Occupy Homes. Pointedly, the suspension and much of the following commentary has centered on Nick Espinoza, a vocal critic of Occupy's consensus structures from the beginning, and a prominent leader in the Occupy Homes movement since it's start here in the Twin Cities. Members of the Occupy Minneapolis media team cited philosophical differences with Nick, as well as attempts to control the message and image of the Occupy social media pages as the main reasons for suspending Nick's access. Nick countered this position by citing Occupy Homes MN's public influence, which added followers and readership to Occupy MN's pages that probably wouldn't have been there otherwise. He also called the process of suspension "undemocratic," and called for dialogue and a return of open access to Occupy MN social media for himself, and other members of Occupy Homes MN.

Occupy Homes MN released a response to the original statement a few days ago, in which they stressed that loosing access to the vast majority of their readership/followers through these suspensions could be a serious blow to their foreclosed homes work.

The Differences in the Two Groups

While Occupy Homes MN is rightly considered an offshoot of the original Occupy movement, it's structure, function and governance are qualitatively different from that of Occupy Minneapolis or offshoots like the Whealthy Human Village. Whereas Occupy Minneapolis has done it's best to maintain consensus decision making and shared, rotating leadership, Occupy Homes MN has a defined leadership, chosen public spokespeople, and a handful of paid "staff" members. Whereas Occupy Minneapolis continues to address a diversity of issues, Occupy Homes MN is clearly focused on a single issue - home foreclosures and their impact on the lives of families and neighborhoods. Whereas Occupy Minneapolis has connections and coalitions with a diverse variety of groups, from Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers to Idle No More MN, Occupy Homes MN is largely associated with other foreclosure groups around the nation, even though their coalition base is much broader than that. While Occupy Minneapolis is focused on addressing the root causes of social inequality and environmental destruction, Occupy Homes MN has - at least in it's public presentation - a more reform-centric focus, including home loan modifications, and working with the Minnesota state legislature to get restrictions placed upon the banking industry.

In my view, there can be value in both "radical" (i.e. root causes) activism and also reform-based activism. At the same time, both sides have tendencies that can limit their impact and lessen their appeal. One shared tendency is a total dismissal of the other side.

Amongst reformist types is a tendency to work too closely with folks in power, and to give up too much for painfully modest gains. Something that we see repeatedly every four years on the left when it comes to supporting Presidential candidates. Another tendency of reformists is to trust the processes and structures that have been useful primarily by members of the elite to oppress and control the rest of us. The sense that corrections can be made to capitalism to make it "fair" for example, is problematic in my view. Or the idea that if we just elect the "right" person or people to public office, things will be ok - another highly problematic view in my book.

Amongst radical types, there's a tendency towards ideological purity, and both private and public disowning of anyone or any group that doesn't feel "pure enough." Along with this often comes an increasing isolation, where the ability to develop the kinds of broad coalitions necessary to bring about justice becomes next to impossible. Anyone at all associated with Democrats, for example, is out. Anyone who questions an open ended "diversity of tactics" policy is out. Those associated with religious or spiritual communities are held as suspect at best, or are allowed only if they fully "secularize" their activism. The list goes on.

Public Personal Attacks and Hate Speech

Personality conflicts are inevitable in any social movement. Unfortunately, these conflicts seem to have a tendency to "go public," and become a catalyst for weakening and/or destroying social movements. As such, it's been highly disappointing to me that this attempted divorce between Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Homes MN has including extremely personalized attacks on Nick Espinoza. Including anti-gay hate speech that should be publicly condemned by Occupy Minneapolis, regardless of the desire to maintain a no censorship policy. Frankly, I find the understanding of "speech freedom" amongst some folks associated with Occupy Minneapolis to be woefully short sided. The idea that one is free to say whatever, without any consequences or kick back, is astoundingly ignorant. Not only of the role of the 1st Amendment in American history, but also of the role public speech has in social movements, and their advancement or lack their of.

Why I support a Separation, but not total Divorce between the two groups

While it's true that Occupy Homes MN developed out of Occupy Minneapolis, and that Occupy Homes MN's public position over the past year and a half has added to the membership of Occupy MN's media, the reality is that these two groups have been - for all extensive purposes - separate entities for at least a year now. The vast majority of Occupy Homes MN's current membership has little or no connection to Occupy Minneapolis's work, meetings, or committees. Occupy Homes MN speaks of solidarity, but hasn't publicly demonstrated support for the work Occupy Minneapolis has done, and continues to do. While they've used Occupy MN media to promote foreclosure work, there hasn't been any - to my knowledge anyway - reciprocity in the form of promotion of Occupy Minneapolis's activities around various issues. Given the single issue focus of Occupy Homes MN, it's likely that such reciprocity would be challenging to execute. Perhaps efforts towards such sharing would alleviate some of the tensions here.

Beyond this, it strikes me that the philosophical differences in terms of both internal governance and approaches to activism are great enough that a public separation makes more sense than a continued awkward co-existence. Making it clear that these two groups are different entities with some shared aims and goals allows for a true partnership to develop (if folks so desire) and for sharing in mutually enriching ways to occur. It seems disingenuous to me for Occupy Homes MN to call the suspension of their access to Occupy MN's social media undemocratic when the principle players doing the calling have had little or no active involvement in Occupy Minneapolis for a good year now.

On the other hand, I think it's short-sided for members of Occupy Minneapolis' media team to completely dismiss Occupy Homes MN. They're work is in it's own way part of the broader movement of justice, and it seems value to make an effort to see if an amiable separation is possible which allows for public support of each (when called for), while gives some necessary borders and boundaries for each group.


While I think there are significant and important issues behind this discussion, the quality of it so far probably looks, to outsiders or folks not connected to both groups, as petty, foolish, and childish. It's the kind of thing that gives fuel to the powers that be to dismiss all of us and our work, and as such, I am appealing to the folks most intimately involved in the conflicts to step your A game up. In other words, figure out a way to act like the responsible adults I know you all are capable of being, and get this dealt with one way or another.

In my view, the challenges from the 1% and their accomplices are going to get worse in the coming months and years. Those in power never give up power easily, as anyone with a sense of history knows. There must be more working together, and less unnecessary division. That's the only way we'll ever see a more just and environmentally sustainable world.


Nathan Thompson

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