Monday, October 10, 2011

Birth of a movement?

About a month ago I took a flier from a young man standing on the corner of Telegraph Ave. and Bancroft Way in Berkeley, California, where I've lived for a good, long time. Having lived in Berkeley for a good, long time I've seen (and, yes, participated in) my share of left-leaning political activism, some of it pretty outre by electoral-centric standards. People have been shoving fliers into my hands on and near Sproul Plaza since I showed up as a freshman in the late 1970s. Full disclosure: I've shoved my share too.

So I took the flier from the young man on the corner, and looked at it as I walked away. And then I slowed. And then I stopped.


The flyer wasn't advertising anything unusual. Market Street Belongs to Us, was the lede ("Wall Street" was printed-over, as you can see in the image at right). The wishful thinking in this statement wasn't anything new. Let the U.S. Days of Rage Begin it continued. Ditto. A social-realist graphic, depicting an archetypal working man, all muscular planes, forging a sword: okay, that's a little bit ridiculous in the 21st century, but in a town where Maoists still run a bookstore this kind of thing is no rarity.

The flyer was calling a protest at the SF Federal Reserve Bank on Market St. in San Francisco. The protest was called for Saturday 17 Sept.

Who called the protest?

That's what made me stop.

There was no group name, no website address, no e-mail or phone number or hashtag, nothing nothing nothing to suggest this protest would be associated with anyone or anything that was going to last past Saturday Sept 17th, assuming anybody even showed up. We know better than that now, but it wasn't now yet. So I went back and asked who was calling this protest.

"Anonymous," said the genial young man who'd handed me the flyer. His friend, standing on the other side of the sidewalk crossed over to join our discussion. He told me that there were protests planned all over on that day, from New York to Austin to Milan.

The US Day of Rage site wasn't referenced on the green half-sheet I'd been handed on Telegraph Avenue. Neither was the AnonOps Communications blog or @AnonOps on Twitter. The Occupy Wall Street group at Daily Kos hadn't been formed yet ... that came on 22 Sept, and its first diary (post) was by Jesse La Greca: YES! Olbermann SLAMS media blackout of #OccupyWallStreet & the teabagger double standard.

You might have heard of Jesse La Greca, last week if not before. A video posted to YouTube, in which he makes rhetorical mincemeat of a FoxNews producer in an interview Fox declined to air, has been making the rounds. This guy is a vorpal interviewee, check it out:

Man, I wish I could do that....

Anyway, back to the green half-sheet I was handed on Telegraph Avenue.

The guys distributing the flyers weren't the types I'd been led to expect from media coverage of other Anonymous-fueled events. I'm talking about hacker attacks on Visa and MasterCard in support of WikiLeaks and on sites related to BART, the Bay Area's commuter rail system. This summer's unsympathetic mainstream press coverage of Anonymous-led protests that mucked up commuter rail in the Bay Area -- and even sympathetic blogs like katinsf's on Democracy Sometimes -- added to the impression I formed that Anyonymous is peopled mainly by hackers, neopunks, and anarchists -- good folk, often enough -- who are typically (but certainly not always) white and/or scruffy. Both of the leafleters on Telegraph were African American, and looked pretty clean-cut, certainly by comparison to the avenue's typical flyer-distributing denizens.

So I put the half-sheet in my pocket, and went on my merry way. I was skeptical. Neither Market nor Wall Street, I thought, were going to belong to any "us" to which I have a membership card if the mode of redistributing its wealth lacked sufficient organization, interest, will, or longevity to put contact information on a flyer. I had something going on the 17th -- I don't even remember what now -- so I didn't go to the protest in San Francisco's downtown.

The rest is still-unfolding history.

Vivian Ho's article on the San Francisco branch of the Occupy movement, reported in Thursday morning's SF Chronicle, was titled Occupy SF protest march draws 800. She encapsulated the evolution of Occupy SF this way:

The Occupy SF movement began on Sept. 17 with six people gathering outside the former Bank of America center on California Street in solidarity with protesters in New York who set up camp in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street that day. In the two weeks since, support for the movement - both nationally and locally - has swelled. Participants of Occupy SF demonstrate in solidarity with the core values of Occupy Wall Street in New York, as do many of the other "Occupy" movements that have sprung up across the country.

Like most of the mainstream press lately, the Chron's reporter plays a little dumb about what "the core values" of those demonstrations are about; if you're looking for a capsule summary on a commercial news site you're likely to be misled. If you'd prefer to take your own look instead of squinting through some media professional's flak, you can start by watching Jesse La Greca's video, embedded above; and reading Charles M. Young's terrific piece, 13 Ways To Look at the Occupation of Wall Street.

By the time Vivian Ho's article was printed and tossed onto my doorstep on Thursday morning, the subject of her Thursday evening article had already wrapped: S.F. police break up Occupy SF camp. Not to worry. It doesn't take a crystal ball to see that Occupy SF isn't done yet.

On a national stage? Jennifer Preston wrote Wall Street Protest Spurs Online Conversation for the NY Times on Saturday (published in the Sunday print edition), describing the diverse and geographically distributed presence of Occupy Wall Street (and elsewhere) on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Other than references to Tumblr, she didn't mention the blogosphere, but did cite The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a broadsheet published by the New York protesters. 900 events set up on and activity in eleven states were described in this article of fewer than 1000 words.

Naturally, I feel more than a little bit sheepish to have been dismissive of that month-ago announcement on that green half-sheet.

Katinsf, as long as I'm linking to her blog today, wrote a post in May of last year: Is Failure the Chicken and Success the Egg?. She was meditating on Budrus (the movie), described on its own web site as "an award-winning feature documentary film about a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who unites local Fatah and Hamas members along with Israeli supporters in an unarmed movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier." Kate participated in events chronicled by the documentary, and even has a bit of her own video footage included in the film.

But what I mean to point out here is what she wrote about the fact that one just can't know which particular protest actions are going to catch fire and blossom into movements:

I’ve said this before, but people have a tendency to read social movements through their outcomes. Working backwards, we make a coherent narrative out of their strategies and tactics, their power struggles and organizational styles, leading inevitably to their successes or failures. We subject both our own and other people’s movements to this torturous dissection, and we pretend that we are deciding what to participate in based on our clairvoyant ability to determine which movements are going to succeed. All of us would have stood with Mario Savio on Sproul Plaza, but none of us would have been killed at Haymarket; all of us would have joined the French Resistance and none of us would have joined the Judenrat (the Jewish Councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, which cooperated with the Nazis in the belief that they would be able to help their people survive). A few years ago, I asked my friend’s son, who was 9 at the time, if when they taught him about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school they made it clear that the government, and many of its citizens, did not approve of what King was doing at the time. He said no, they teach that everyone always loved King. Okay, I said, then do they tell you that they put him in jail? Yes, he said, but I’ve never understood why.

The movements that succeed are not only a result of their forebears which succeeded. When we credit Gandhi’s march to the sea with helping to win India’s independence from Britain, we should also remember that he opposed the creation of Pakistan and that his hunger strike failed to prevent a bloody civil war.

I already mentioned Charles M. Young's 13 Ways To Look at the Occupation of Wall Street, which gives a window onto what's actually happening in Zuccotti Park down at the south end of Manhattan ... and I have to tell you that the picture he paints reads a lot like the ~6 week sit-in on Sproul Plaza during the 1985 blooming of the anti-apartheid movement on the Berkeley campus: lots of long, looping, tangent-happy discussion running into the wee hours. I was there, and I'm here to tell you we won that one (eventually). Not that utopia has hatched in South Africa, mind you. That's not how the world works. And it would be irresponsible to ignore the obvious: Young's 13 Ways... also sounds like a lot of other nascent movements, including many that didn't gain traction.

One last shout-out to Kate, who wrote last weekend about the Occupy... movement in San Francisco, the one that was just beginning to stir when I was handed that green half-sheet on Telegraph Avenue a month or so ago. She wrote:

I've always been a big believer that the way you build a movement is by doing something consistently and growing little by little. So often in this country, all the focus is on "How many people did you get?" We think anything that isn't huge is nothing, and it's more important to get 50,000 views on YouTube than to get 50 people to come to an action. Last week, some friends were talking about the Direct Action to Stop the War shutdown of San Francisco on March 20-23, 2003, and I suggested that one reason the antiwar movement fizzled out in this area was that we had 20,000 people those first few days and very shortly after that we had trouble getting 100 or 200 people at a demonstration. If you start really small, you have nowhere to go but up.

Will grassroots fury at the swindlers on Wall Street turn into real redistribution of wealth and power?

Here's hoping...


  1. We'll see - I certainly feel there's a legitimate, if currently unfocused, beef. The two most striking things to me right now are the ham-fisted republican response/sometime condemnation and the involvement of unions. If I was involved with this movement, I'd be very wary of the unions, in a similar way that the tea party people was wary of being called Republicans, even though this was their base. Admittedly, I've only roughly followed this - I'm sure a lot less carefully than you or Kate, but it occurs to me that given the big numbers the unions can produce, it's possible that this movement - before it has a chance to define itself (if that were to happen) will end up defining as primarily about workers/union versus corporation/wall-street. For it to become anything lasting I think it needs to grab some core ideas, like corporate accountability. Maybe get itself some high-profile people to dig on, like Elizabeth Warren.

  2. Or maybe this guy - - though of course he's 100% politician.

  3. A friend of mine wrote a great post about this today that you might be interested in. See

  4. That is a great post, BMA ... I went ahead and tweeted the link to 99% Success in the Failure to Define a Movement.

    I especially liked the callout (not by name but by deed) of Judith Miller's failure on behalf of the NY Times to report honestly about the lead-up to the war in Iraq; and the spot-on observation that the demand for OWS's demands is a canard, an attempt to turn Occupy Wall Street into something that can be co-opted, controlled, or destroyed. Thanks for sharing the link.

  5. @SteveL -- 150% maybe? I do understand and partly agree with where you're headed (first comment), but I don't think OWS is in danger of being co-opted by unions. Check out the post BMA referred us to, well worth a read.

  6. Nice post, though if 4,3, and 2 say how success might be defined, why not 1? I assume this is because asking how OWS defines success according to the author misses the point of the protests, but if that wasn’t going to be the pitch, why define the other three unless the point is to elevate OWS in some way as something that can’t be chewed up and spit out?

    The author defines success is being heard, and if that’s the definition, implied is that no change is required for success: if in five years nothing has happened at all as a result of the movement, its success was defined by the press, government, and corporate America noticing. This seems pretty weak to me. I suspect if you asked the actual OWS protestors - polled them - you'd find a majority want change, and see being heard as a first step, not an end unto itself. The problem is (maybe this is a problem all movements have) everyone wants change on their own terms, but for democratic change to occur that means dealing in a concrete way with #4, #3, and #2. It means leadership, disappointment, and cost. As long as the movement is abstract and leaderless everyone can be happy, everyone's voice can be heard, but no change can take place because then some percentage of the protesters would lose. That doesn't sound like success, to me. I suspect OWS would agree.

  7. @Steven -- An article Katinsf (Kate) posted in her blog is an articulate effort to tease apart the difference between organizations and movements. They're not the same, and I agree with the author Rinku Sen that arcs of substantive change demand both (she didn't say that exactly, about substantive change, but I think she implied it).

    Here's the link, Occupying, Organizing and the Movements That Demand Both.

    [reposted comment of October 21, 2011 9:22 AM, with corrected link]