Change You Can Believe In

Published on Zcommunications (first on The Nation), by Jeremy Brecher, October 26, 2011.

The occupation movement that began on Wall Street and is now spreading across America is part of a tradition known in the American Revolution as the “people out of doors” – marches, demonstrations, and impromptu assemblies that historian Gordon S. Wood described as “extra-legislative action by the people” who “could find no alternative institutional expression for their demands and grievances.” The movement has provided new hope for progressive social change. But it also raises many questions about how such movements can be sustained and grow powerful while retaining the democratic impulse that inspired them in the first place … //  

… Creating a process:

Many people are asking whether the Occupy Wall Street movement can be sustained. But that may not be the most important question. When historians look at the hunger marches of the early 1930s, they don’t ask how many years they continued, let alone how they affected contemporary elections. Rather, they consider them as part of a process that generated the unemployed movement, the industrial union upsurge, and the leftward swing of the “Second New Deal.”

Of course at the moment it is critical to spread the occupations and provide support and resources to help them continue. But ultimately their significance will lie in what the rest of the 99 percent do. What will the occupations stimulate beyond simply a continuation of themselves?

Occupy Wall Street does not need to be the whole movement of the 99 percent. Occupy Wall Street recognizes this when it calls on people everywhere to form their own assemblies and “create a process to address the problems we face.” It isn’t their job to organize unions, lobby Congress, or run candidates in elections. Their job is to inspire the rest of the 99 percent — including those who are in non-youth milieus and in educational, political, legal, and other institutions — to organize themselves and develop concrete strategies to make the entire range of changes that will be necessary to meet “the problems we face.” And they can do that best when they stay true to themselves, retain their own authentic voice, and provide the direct action, street heat expression for the discontent of the 99 percent.

A delegation from Occupy Washington recently marched to join a rally against the Keystone XL pipeline. Street heat support for anti-eviction actions and strikes is a logical next step. Such action builds alliances, show how people can directly affect a situation, and ties the movement more visibly to the needs of the 99 percent.

Social movements have often combined battles on the ground with struggles for change through legislation. In the 1930s, labor struck and organized on the ground and defied local bans on freedom of speech and at the same time fought in Congress for “labor’s Magna Carta,” the Wagner Act. In the 1960s the civil rights movement fought white supremacy one lunch counter and one voting booth at a time, and at the same time campaigned for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. In fact, the two levels were synergistic.

The people out of doors were crucial players in the events that led up to the American Revolution. Encampments like Occupy Wall Street have played a critical role in American politics from the war veterans’ Bonus March encampment of 1932, to the Resurrection City encampment of the Poor People’s Movement following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, to the 1989 Camp Solidarity where some 50,000 people camped out in support of striking Pittston mine workers. Occupy Wall Street is writing one more chapter in that noble story.

Power to the people out-of-doors. (full long text).

(Jeremy Brecher’s new book Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action, just published by Paradigm Publishers, addresses how social movements make social change. Brecher is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements, including Strike! and Global Village or Global Pillage and the winner of five regional Emmy awards for his documentary movie work. He currently works with the Labor Network for Sustainability).

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