Monthly Archives: December 2011

Occupy DC Endorsing an Ammendment to end Corporate Personhood; Connecting Reform to Revolution

Those of us who have been part of the Occupy Movement are familiar with the common critique, “what exactly do you want anyways?”

Generally answers like, “justice for the 99%” do not seem to satisfy.

Of course we do not need to satisfy a hostile audience, and the meme of “they don’t stand for anything” is clearly coming from a hostile place.  Still, this meme is exploiting a real gap which exists between the potential of the movement and its current state.  I believe our  long term success depends on closing this gap.

The gap is this: there are a lot of people who believe injustice has been done to the 99%, and they would like to see (and perhaps be involved in) repairing that injustice.  Sympathizers and possible sympathizers far outnumber actual occupiers, and the potential of that broader support is society changing.  But that potential needs something concrete to focus on.  They are waiting to see where Occupy heads.  To be more involved they need to know, what do we see as a pathway for finding the justice we seek?

One such pathway may involve a constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood and get corporate money out of politics.  Two weeks ago, at both camps in Occupy DC, the General Assemblies voted in support of such an amendment.  It is concrete.  It is consistent with the issues occupy is addressing and the general point of view of occupiers. It is something other groups have been working on and a lot of people can get behind.

But creating any concrete goal also threatens to magnify the divisions which exist within the movement.  When talking about the constitutional amendment, one person described it as “reformist bullshit.”

I sigh when I hear this.  I consider myself the type of activist more concerned with revolution than reform, yet I also recognize that revolution is a long term struggle, and the reforms we create are not necessarily inconsistent with that process.

I can desire a revolutionary overthrow of our profit-maximizing, humanity exploiting, power consolidating, government corrupting, unsustainable, and ever-obsessed with “more,” economic system; and I can believe that a lesser reform, such as ending corporate personhood, is still a good idea.  In fact, these ideas seem nothing but complementary to me.  Some worry that reform takes energy away from revolution.  But I think, if I really believe in revolution, than achieving a more minor reform is not going to dissuade me from that ultimate goal.  And, if the minor reform does dissuade me, I was never seeking revolution in the first place.

I think those who want revolution are frustrated because the progress is slow; but remember, how long did capitalism take to overthrow feudalism?  How long did it take master-slave hierarchies to overthrow hunter-gatherer equality?  The future which is coming cannot be imagined in the present day; and creating that future is a process which can take hundreds or thousands of years.  If we really wish for revolution we have to ask, do we currently have the conditions which make it possible and, if we don’t, what is the process of cultivating those conditions?

Perhaps reform is actually part of the revolutionary process.  Humanizing political reforms have always been born from a process of people standing up for themselves, and what is more central to revolution than that?  Through reform we practice engaging with opposition.  We develop new ways to look at the world.  We energize ourselves and our neighbors.  We make democracy into more than a platitude.

Besides, if our ideological purity is such that we cannot contemplate anything but revolution, do we oppose voting rights won by the woman’s movement because they engaged the official legislative process?  Do we oppose child labor regulations won by the labor movement because they became backed by government?  Do we oppose the constitutional amendment which freed the slaves because it is in the constitution?

Revolution is the only way to overthrow the broader realities of oppression.  Yet this has to be the right revolution.  It has to be built upon a long process of rehumanizing ourselves, of learning to live together, and of learning to stand up for ourselves -not only against our external exploiter but the exploiter within.  Personally I think, trying to overthrow a system without doing the necessary legwork will only lead to nothing really changing; and maybe certain reforms -such as Occupy helping to win a constitutional amendment which ends corporate personhood- are actually part of that legwork.

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Separation of Institution and State, not Belief and State

Last Monday I listened to prayers for jobs in DC.  Members of the Washington Interfaith Network had gathered together, two thousand strong, as a coalition looking to influence city officials.  I was there as part of my own faith community, the Washington Ethical Society -a nontheistic, humanist-leaning, religion.  Reflecting on the fact that I was with humanists who were attempting to influence politics with religion, I was suddenly struck with a sense of irony about the separation of church and state.

It was always an interesting principle to me.  I understood, we didn’t want theocratic despots and religious oppression.  Yet I had seen the separation of church and state applied in ways that did not make sense.  I remember, in high school, when friends were upset because they couldn’t pray in school.  One friend was a Bahai, who had an obligatory prayer to say at noon.  Also there were Muslims, who are supposed to pray five times a day.  In this example, the separation of church and state, a policy theoretically designed to encourage religious equality, was actually disproportionally burdening already disenfranchised faiths while probably not providing much of a burden to the more dominant Christian faiths.

Plus we said “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.  In other words, individuals were not allowed to privately practice their faith, but the state institution could actually promote the idea that the US was supported by God.  Thus I saw, separation of church and state was a principle like many legal principles, selectively applied when it was convenient to those who had power.

Separation of church and state can be misused.  Personally, I do not think it is the belief element which is the problematic part of the church involving itself in politics.  I really don’t know how I could oppose people’s religious, spiritual, moral, or ethical values influencing their politics.  In fact, the separation of church and state is itself a religious, spiritual, moral, or ethical value.  I also realize, if I did think that such values should be taken out of politics, I would have to oppose the work of Martin Luther King and the SCLC, the American Friends Service Committee, Father Roy Bourgeois and his work to end the SOA, Liberation Theology, and the work of the Washington Interfaith Network.

To me, the separation of church and state is really about separating the institution of the church from the institution of politics.  In other words, I am okay if a Hindu is in office; I am not okay if Hinduism becomes the state religion.  Ultimately this is a principle about undue influence in a pluralistic society, and I think it can be applied to much more than religion.  In the present day, corporations hold the same influence traditionally held by the church.  They spend billions of dollars lobbying to influence public policy, corporate executives move back and forth from political office, and corporations also have strong ties to the media, legal, and educational systems.  This power promotes our race to the bottom in terms of wages, how acceptable it is to give workers’ no say in their work environment, and our lack of any sort of real regulation for environmental, health, or economic security.  This is undue influence coming from the corporate sector, and dominating the broader interests of the plurality.

In general, no single institution should ever have that kind of power.  This idea that individual institutions should not dominate society is, to me, the spirit behind the separation of church and state.  In simpler terms, it is just saying that political officials should not have a conflict of interest.

Stopping Traffic on a Rainy Day; To Block or not to Block?

Yesterday was a rainy day along K street, famous for its lobbyists who make a living promoting corporate interests.  For the beautiful, loving, rabble-rousers, it was a day of action.  Thousands were gathered in protest of the lobbyists’ work.  Around three o’clock, about twenty lay down in the street.  They were covered in plastic and signs.  They stared up at the sky.  Medics walked in and out of the prone group which blocked traffic.  Two rows of police surrounded them, prepared to make arrests.  Along the sidewalks a crowd chanted, said words of support, and attempted to influence the cops -who stood with stoic resistance.  Everyone was soggy.  The rain was as constant as the action.  I was standing slightly in the street, speaking to a reporter -words that I knew he was not looking for.  Then the line of cops moved in; “get off the street or you will be arrested.”  I moved.  Soon the arrests followed.

I had thought about risking arrest that day, but decided against it.  I had mixed feelings about the scene.

On the one hand, I believe in civil disobedience.  In 2003, I jumped a police barricade, protesting the war in Iraq.  My heroes, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, were the types who would risk-arrest in the face of unjust laws and unjust social order.  But a lot of people would not risk arrest.  Being arrested (even for a just cause) carried with it a stigma which I knew often prevented people from taking action for social change.  And I wanted to take a real committed action again.  I was happy for the protesters laying in the street, taking bold action.  They were breaking the stigma of arrest within themselves and, in the process, reaching a sense of empowerment like I felt when I jumped the police barricade.

On the other hand, I had reservations.  These are well summarized in an article written by George Lakey about the WTO protests.  Lakey writes,

…there are times when stopping traffic may be the best we can think of…  However… [suppose] we take the point of view of the bystander or the television camera. When the police drag away protesters who are blocking a city intersection, what is the message of the protesters? The World Bank has policies that hurt people? Maybe, if the bystander or television viewer is willing to make several logical steps or leaps of imagination. There’s no reason to expect that bystanders and TV viewers will work hard to make those connections, especially when the excitement is in the physical conflict itself between arresting officers and activists.

In the end, I think blocking traffic is better than nothing, but it does not particularly call out to me as something to put my body on the line for unless I can make a clear case that I am blocking something horrible which is being transported down that road (weapons, for example).  My preference would be to shut down the buildings lobbyists work in (instead of the street), although I know this involves complicated logistical and strategic decisions.

I am uncertain; but I suppose there are three points I want to make.

  1. I am proud of the protesters who risked arrest, who were willing to put their bodies on the line for what they believed in.  I think they are brave people who stood up for the nation and the world’s well-being.
  2. If you are witness and support for an action, do not taunt the police.  Seriously.  Stop that.  I know, police are representatives of an unjust system.  To one extent or another we all are.  Chanting “shame,” or “what would your children think,” or claiming you will make a “citizen’s arrest,” is inviting the press to think we are crazy when the cops are behaving reasonably (when they are not, it is a different story).  This is also inviting the police to be angry and unsympathetic (and they will direct that anger towards the people who are actually taking a risk, not the fool standing on the corner trying to rile up trouble).
  3. The struggle is not about protesters versus police.  In this case, it is about democracy being sold to corporate interests, and protesters resisting the lobbyists who represent those interests.  I also think that, when the message of an action is less clear, it is more likely to become hijacked by the common, tired, and almost ritualistic meme of protester versus cop.  Bear in mind, this is not a message of change; it is only a continuation of what we are used to.

Making the Map While Walking the Path; Education, Social Change, and a University for the 99%

I believe quality education and effective social change cannot be separated.  For the occupy movement, if our vision is to make a world which does not serve the 1% at the expense of the 99%, we seek social relationships that have not existed for millennia.  Because the world we wish to see does not exist in our memory, we activists are stumbling in the darkness towards a destination there is no road map for.  Yet we still follow this journey because the goal is so important.  Hopefully, we make a map while walking the path, marking the wisdom we have gained so that the uncertainty becomes easier to navigate; so that others can better find their way and invent their own wisdom; so that our impact is not just on our own lives but on society at large.  This is a process of education, and of social change.

No matter how much we march, no matter how many actions we do, we cannot actually change the world unless we continuously realize lessons that change how we live.  For example, how can we have peace and justice without learning about the cruelty behind many of our privileges, the aspects of our culture which reinforce suffering, our ability to generate energy within ourselves that can resist oppression and promote healing, our prospects for being inviting to people so they will want to join our movement, our ability to act in the face of the fear which often paralyzes us, our ability to show love, and our ability to evolve our resistance according to the unique challenges of the time and place where we live.  Such learning is born from action and translated into action.  This is the perpetual cycle of praxis.  Learning becomes social change, social change becomes learning, and action without education is just as pointless as education without action.

All this is why I wish to work on creating a free University at Occupy DC, in order to help integrate learning into the daily activities of the occupation.  A couple of weeks ago I saw a a large sign which read “University of the 99%.”  People were talking about classes where “anyone can teach and anyone can learn.”  It was such a beautiful idea.  I also met people from Occupy Wall Street who were spreading a practice they called “Think Tank.”  This involved people discussing a subject, sharing their ideas, and those ideas being recorded, transcribed, and put online.  Lastly I have been involved in the national effort to train occupiers in how to be trainers, and have attended two trainings in Philadelphia given by Training for Change and the Ruckus Society.  This helped develop my own educational skills, and increased my appreciation for the value of education.

I believe our commitment to education astronomically enhances our ability to create change.  I believe an hour spent in a workshop is generally more productive than an hour spent at the GA, or at the majority of marches.  I also believe that our commitment to education is central to our ability to sustain ourselves for the long haul.  My hope is that there can be a lot of universities for the 99%.  This is needed, not only for the movement of 99%, but to salvage our faltering educational system.

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