If we are to launch from a moment to a movement, we will have to broaden the “us”. We must win in the arena of values, and not allow ourselves to be narrowly defined by our tactics.
A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol — with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.
Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying “enough!” This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.
Occupation as tactic
It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.
On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.
But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”
By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular—even that they are common sense—and connected to a social base.
To pitch a reporter or assignment editor about an action or event you’re planning is to call them up—typically after sending them a news release—and attempt to persuade them that they should come out (or send a reporter) and cover what you’re doing. A good pitch call is at least as important as sending a good news release. With a call, unlike a news release, you are creating a memory of a human-to-human interaction. It’s your opportunity to make a strong impression so that when the reporter or editor goes into their morning or afternoon meeting—where they’re deciding which stories to cover—they are more likely to advocate for covering your event.
Reporters and editors are busy people. They often sound as if they are unhappy that you reached them by phone, and sometimes you’ll be lucky to get a full minute of their time. An effective pitch call makes a strong impression within the first five seconds, and makes at least the start of a compelling case within ten seconds.
For comparison, here’s an example of an ineffective pitch call:
Hi. My name is [name]. I’m calling about an event that we’re organizing. The event will be here in Manhattan. We’ll be having a march. It’s part of Occupy Wall Street. Veterans will be joining the protest today.
The caller would be lucky to get to the veteran part—which is the news hook—without the reporter or editor yawning or interrupting. Now, here’s an example of an effective pitch call:
Hi, I’m [name], calling on behalf of ‘Veterans of the 99%’. Tomorrow, military veterans dressed in uniform will march in-step from the Vietnam Memorial in lower Manhattan to the Stock Exchange. Then they’ll join Occupy Wall Street — where they’ll use a “people’s mic” to talk about why, as veterans, they are participants in the 99% movement. Did you receive our press release?
While the second pitch is actually slightly longer than the first, it is packed with words that command attention and stimulate the imagination. Everything in the pitch floods the mind with powerfully vivid images. The first example, on the other hand, is bland. There’s no indication of what the caller is even talking about until a few sentences in.
The Occupy Wall Street movement claims to be a movement of “the 99%”, challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is just a bunch of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America.
They’re not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Young radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement.
What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist. But clearly the radicals did something right here. They’ve flipped the script by framing the top one percent as the real extremists — as the people who are truly out of touch. By striking at the root of the problem and naming the primary culprit in our economic and democratic crises — by creating a defiant symbol on Wall Street’s doorstep — a new generation of young radicals has struck a chord with mainstream America. A movement that started as an audacious act by a committed band of radicals is growing broader and more diverse by the day.
Radicals will continue to play a crucial role in this movement. Throughout history the “radicals” have tended to be among those who give the most of their time and energy to movements for change. They tend to make up a large part of the movement’s core. As such, their contributions are absolutely indispensible.
However, successful movements need a lot more than a radical core. For every core participant who gives nearly everything of herself or himself, you need at least a hundred people in the next tier of participation — folks who are contributing something, while balancing other commitments in their lives. If we are to effectively challenge the most powerful institutions in the world, we will need the active involvement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people — folks who are willing to give something. If the core fails to involve a big enough “next tier” of participants, it will certainly fail to effectively engage the broader society. These “next tier” participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to accomplish our aims.
What is the difference between saying none of us is a leader and saying all of us are leaders?
At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying essentially the same thing. We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.
But the word leadership can mean a lot of things. There are things we associate with leadership that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward. It can mean looking for what is needed in a group, and stepping up to do that thing.
These positive group-serving associations with leadership are the reason why there’s an important difference between the idea of “no leaders” and the idea of “all leaders”.
If we are part of a group that talks about having no leaders, this phrase can inadvertently make us overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative. It can create a group culture where as individuals we become reluctant to be seen as moving something forward — because our peers might see us as a “leader”, which would be a bad thing.
Strong group identity is essential for social movements. There can be no serious social movement—the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged—without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. This kind of group identity is clearly emerging right now among core participants in occupations across the country and around the world, and that’s a good thing.
However, strong group identity is also something of a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from the broader society.
The Political Identity Paradox states that while social change groups require a strong internal identity in order to foster the level of commitment needed for protracted struggle, this same cohesion tends over time to isolate the group; and isolated groups are hard-pressed to build the kind of broad-based power needed to achieve the big changes they imagine.
The past ten days have been amazing. I took the train down to NYC last Wednesday, to see if I might lend a hand to the Wall Street occupation for a few days. There is so much going on. I don’t even know how many working groups there are, but today I heard that there are at least a few dozen. There are so many moving parts. I feel like a pebble in a volcanic eruption, and it’s a wonderful feeling.
Before coming down, I had talked with some friends here on the ground who I used to work with back during the global justice movement days (aka “antiglobalization movement”). They encouraged me to get involved with the press working group and the training working group. Sh!t hit the fan the day after I arrived with Bloomberg’s backhanded eviction attempt, and so I’ve been doing much more press work than training. The press work has mostly been helping to write and edit press releases, helping to prepare folks for interviews (to get their message out through the filters of the mainstream corporate media), helping reporters find the folks they want to interview, and I’ve done a handful of interviews myself too. Here’s one from NY Daily News:
A longer print version of the interview can be read here.
I’ve decided to stay a while longer — probably at least a few more weeks. I’m hoping to stay involved in the press working group, but to concentrate more of my time on training and leadership development. It’s amazing how many new folks are pouring into this social change effort right now. It’s hard on the ground to not to get caught up in almost continuous crisis/triage mode, but it’s so important that we seize this moment to help some of these great young folks become long-term leaders.
I’m trying to carve out a little time each day to write up or adapt a new one-pager covering a particular #occupy-related skill or strategy concept. Two days ago I set up a basic Wordpress site called #occupyWINNING (@occupyWINNING on Twitter), which will house this project. I plan to format most of the materials into PDFs too, so that people can easily print and distribute at occupations if they find any of the tools useful. I’ll be cross-posting everything here too.
In addition to what I post at #occupyWINNING, I’m hoping to soon start collaborating with other trainers.
I’m excited and grateful to be here.