Opinion » Ted Rall

Think Flexibly, Revolt Locally

In the U.S., the revolution will not be categorized

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I just spent a week at one of the occupation protests in Washington. It was one of the most exciting and enlightening experiences of my life.

History will little note this factlet, but the October 2011 Stop the Machine protest was where the first major civil uprising since the 1960s began in the United States. Timed to begin on October 6, the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Stop the Machine has been in the works since last summer. Its organizers had a simple, novel idea: take over a public space and don't leave.

Post-Vietnam-era protests have been frustrating exercises of political theater, well-mannered affairs for which marching licenses are received from the police, self-appointed "peace police" patrol the perimeter to discourage left-wing hotheads from taking swings at the cops, and even the arrests are staged in cooperation with the authorities. People chant. They march. They go home. And little changes.

To be sure, the American Left has won some victories over the last few decades. Who, even as recently as 1990, would have guessed that gay and lesbian couples would soon be able to marry with the sanction of the state, that their wedding announcements would be published in the august New York Times? Though largely symbolic (since it will actually increase costs for most patients), Obama's healthcare reform represented a rare concession: despite Reaganism, which asserted that we were all on our own and should expect no assistance from government, society has arrived at a rough consensus that certain basic needs are a human right.

But these have been small wins. The broad strokes of governance have shifted to the right. Much of what used to be considered the outer fringe of the far right is now taken for granted by both major political parties: a state of constant war, a military empire whose hundreds of bases circle the globe, brazen political assassinations that once occasioned Congressional hearings and official denials. And, of course, the economic catastrophe that began in 2008. Had something similar unfolded before the rise of Reagan, it is impossible to imagine the U.S. government ignoring the pleas of the evicted for relief, the shouts of the unemployed for extended benefits and (at bare minimum) a moratorium on housing foreclosures, many of them rushed and in some cases not even legally sanctioned.

It was inevitable, given its marginalization by the mainstream media and the two big parties, that the Left would take to the streets—and that it would do so using new tactics and strategies.

Unlike the standard choreographed protests of the 1980s and 1990s, not leaving—setting up tents and sleeping bags—is a direct challenge to state officialdom. It's illegal. But it takes heavy-handed tactics—pepper spray, tear gas, batons—to evict demonstrators from an encampment. Police brutality arouses the anger of the public and exposes the generalized violence of the government.

A few months after we announced Stop the Machine, the Canadian "culture jammer" magazine Adbusters stole our idea. They invited people to Occupy Wall Street, a spontaneous political be-in which metastasized, and suffered arrests and brutality, and has since generated spinoffs in hundreds of American cities. It is the biggest set of protests since the 1960s.

Occupy wasn't first. But they had a great name and better timing—not to mention the good luck to get brutalized on camera by New York police.

In Washington the occupation movement also includes the Occupy Wall Street spinoff Occupy D.C., eight blocks away from Stop the Machine. Occupy D.C.'s urban campers in McPherson Square are younger and whiter than Stop the Machine's. As you'd expect, they're wilder and more energetic. Stop the Machine is older ("people dress normal here" was one thing I heard a lot), more diverse and better organized. Again, as you'd expect.

We rented Portapotties.

No one should care about who came first. Revolution is open-source intellectual property. Results, not credit, matter. However, our goals are identical: addressing the needs of the 99 percent of Americans who are getting screwed by the political system, an end to America's wars of choice, putting the planet first. The various strains of this movement should merge. The kids should lead. That said, they need the help and experience older activists are able to provide.

I've learned a lot during my last week as an occupier. Some of my basic assumptions about politics and revolt have been challenged.

I have wondered how revolution would come to the United States, a country with highly decentralized governance. In many nations, you own the country if you capture the capital. Not here. An uprising in Washington wouldn't close the deal; media and finance are in New York. And military bases are everywhere. Localized movements such as Occupy Boise, Occupy Madison and Occupy Dayton solve that problem. Like Russia's councils of workers ("soviets") the seizure of power will be viral and local.

The media is correct when its analysts say that social networking sites and the Web are important organizing and recruitment tools for activists. But the Occupy movement is even more of a response to and a reaction against the Internet. "Isn't it amazing," a woman asked me during a meeting of our Economics and Finance committee, "to actually meet and talk to people?"

It is amazing. It was, as the left-wing Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (who spoke at Occupy Wall Street) might say, a triumph of the real.

Skype is cool. But it can't replicate the experience of getting to know your fellow citizens day after day. You can't just roll your eyes and click away from a 9/11 Truther or Ron Paul fan in person. They're real. Not a cartoon. Not a caricature. Not a punchline. They function and raise kids and work jobs (or did until recently). You may disagree with them, but not about the important things. You're both disgusted with the current state of affairs, with the current state that's responsible for it. You differ on the details: how to fix what's wrong. In person, you're forced to respect everyone.

Like other pundits, I had been skeptical about the lack of specific demands coming out of the Occupations. I take it back. First of all, there are specific demands: end the wars, tax the rich, help the poor and middle class.

Now I've participated in general assemblies that require group consensus. I've spoken on a stage. I've taken up residence on the "soap box," a small stage anyone can take over to start ranting about anything and everything. I've had countless conversations and debates and even shouting matches with one or two or groups of seven. It can be terribly frustrating. The problem is that the Occupation movement is a big tent. It includes old-school lefties, young anarchists, libertarians who might just as easily have joined the early Tea Party, revolutionists, and reformers who want to take over the Democratic Party from the left. Not only do you not share ideologies, you don't share the same vocabularies. Sometimes you want to throw up your hands and walk away.

But you don't. Because the big tent is not just a problem. It's a blessing. True, ideological diversity means differences of opinion that can lead to temporary decision-making paralysis. Which isn't bad. The longer we keep the media on tenterhooks about our demands, the more they'll pay attention. The process of debating what we should demand also ensures that a wide range of ideas are heard—unlike the "mainstream" Democrat-Republican echo chamber, where a myriad of basic assumptions are never questioned. Besides, we're trying to rebuild the political structure, economy and social relations of the United States from the ground up. These things take time. As they must. There will be specific demands. They must be carefully considered, both to reflect the true goals of the vast majority of the people and, of course, to be intelligently thought-out.

A movement's growth is directly proportional to its willingness to confront the system. A fascist NYPD officer's unprovoked pepper-spraying of four young women prompted thousands of New Yorkers to drop what they were doing to join Occupy Wall Street. The worst thing an oppressor can do is to kill his victims with kindness.

As the deadline for its permit to use Freedom Plaza drew near, the crowd at Washington's Stop the Machine grew bigger. People were scared and excited at the prospect of arrest. The energy was palpable. "This is it, people," an organizer told a General Assembly on D-Night. Then the U.S. Parks Police, which runs Freedom Plaza as federal land, pulled off a brilliant, unprecedented coup, offering to renew the permit for four months. (I can imagine the USPS cops snickering: "That brings you to February. Have fun in the snow.")

Radicals need hard-ass authoritarians to push up against in order to expose themselves as monsters. Washington authorities gave us the soft pillow instead. Damn them. "What were we supposed to do?" organizer asked me. "How would it look if we turned down such an offer?"

People looked crestfallen. "I came here to do something," said a 40-something real estate broker from Los Angeles.

"We're not an occupation. We're a campground," added a man in a tent next door. The next day, there were decidedly fewer people.

Cops 1, revolutionaries 0.

Meanwhile, Occupy D.C. remains illegal and unlicensed and thus edgier and more electric. (I assume #ODC, as the Twitter hashtag calls it, will move to Freedom Plaza if the cops kick them out.) Stop the Machine can use its safe haven a block from the White House to stage off-site actions to shut down government offices and generally raise hell. They'll have to escalate and confront in order to remain relevant.

Another lesson concerns leadership. This movement is technically non-hierarchical, but where there are human beings there are always leaders. Stop the Machine's permits had to be applied for. Equipment had to be rented. Websites to be built and so on. Those tasks fell to roughly a dozen people. They worked hard and they deserve credit; their actions may eventually lead to the overthrow of the U.S. government. Nevertheless, they ought to have done more to mix and mingle and thank the thousands of people who took time off from work and traveled from all over the country to risk arrest or worse. "Where the f—- are they?" was the refrain.

"I've been so busy," an organizer told me when I told him about complaints that he was being called "one of the 1 percent of the 99 percent." He was busy. So busy that neither he nor the other organizers spent a single night sleeping on the site. They thought they deserved a night at a hotel. Maybe so. But insularity is death. So is elitism. Whether in business or in a movement to abolish capitalism, leaders must work the hardest and take the biggest risks to earn respect.

It is easy to get co-opted by liberals, Democrats and other establishment progressives who—unlike us—basically accept the system as it is. At one point the AFL-CIO offered us a quid pro quo: they'd send thousands of union members to support us if we marched with them to Congress to back President Obama's Americans Jobs Bill. It was tempting. The press would have been great. There was also guilt. "Do we really want to offend the AFL-CIO?" asked the union liaison.

"Yes!" someone shouted. Laughs. "We can't be bought!" yelled someone else. So that ended well, with a whimper and a shrug of the union guy's wide shoulders.

You may wonder why I keep referring to revolution and revolutionaries. I do so because this is a revolution. It may end in a hail of bullets, simple discouragement, with victory, or with victory followed by tyranny. All the same, it is a revolution. Like a school dance in which all the girls line one wall and the boys line the one opposite, we all know why we are there. We don't have the numbers to smash the state. If and when we do, the waiting will end.

Then we'll dance.

One can't help wonder what is going through President Obama's mind. "He's got to be scared silly," marveled a 30-ish computer coder from Silicon Valley. Her old job is in India now, no doubt paying a tiny fraction of what she earned. "Why doesn't he doing anything?"

Indeed, Obama could put the Occupy movement out of business and ensure his reelection next year with a single speech. "I have heard you," he'd say, going on to propose a new Works Progress Administration that would directly employ at least 20 million Americans to rebuild crumbling bridges, create America's long-overdue high-speed rail network, and other tasks. He'd pay for it by ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which are unpopular anyway. He wouldn't even have to get such a bill passed. He'd just have to try. The protesters would vanish, mostly to volunteer for Obama's campaign.

The fact that Obama can't even go through the motions of responding to the number-one priority of the electorate—jobs and the economy—exposes the nature of the political system over which he presides. Obama, Congress and the U.S. political class are so beholden to their corporate campaign contributors that they don't dare to even pretend to respond to voters—not even to retain their own positions.