On March 17, 2007, I was in Washington, D.C., shouting and marching with about 20 of my activist colleagues from the University of Central Florida. We were there on that cold, gray day to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Pentagon was our target. When we tried to access it through a highway overpass, we faced a wall of police officers outfitted with masks and shields; clipped to their belts were gallon-tanks of pepper spray connected to hoses resembling the ones my father used to spray weeds in the garden. After two hours of sitting in front of the riot police, we decided it would be wiser to retreat – we didn’t know what we would do if we reached the Pentagon, anyway. The next day, the wars continued on and we drove home. Somewhere along the drive, I realized that our march was utterly pointless. It was clear that those with power do not give up power willingly, and that when they do, it is only under tremendous pressure. We needed months, years and possibly decades of action to generate this pressure, not just a single day.
Thus when the Occupy Wall Street movement entered its second week in late September, I was thrilled that finally – finally – activists had learned something important: a few thousand people stubbornly remaining in one place is a far more effective means of political pressure than an epic “day of action.” When this new logic spread to more than 1,000 cities, including Orlando, I was even more thrilled. Occupy Orlando, which has remained in and around Senator Beth Johnson Park for more than a month now, adheres closely to the practices of Occupy Wall Street; in turn, Occupy Wall Street says it takes its cues from the “revolutionary Arab Spring tactic.” But there is one crucial difference between the occupiers and their Arab counterparts. The latter folks know what they want: the ouster of the dictators who oppress them. Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Orlando, on the other hand, have stated no such concrete goal. Ask 20 different protestors what the endgame of the occupation is, and you’ll likely get 20 different answers.
This critique is nothing new, but it is becoming more relevant in the case of Occupy Orlando. Without a series of manageable goals to strive for, the group has become little more than a reactive force, arguing with the city and police for its right to exist, but doing little to convince the public why its existence is important. It has rallied thousands to its marches, but to those in power, “This is what democracy looks like!” does not translate into a demand for change – it’s only a vague cheer, slightly louder than the usual Orlando fare. Therefore, in the absence of having a concrete external focus (Wall Street is too far away, “the 1 percent” has not really been identified locally), the group has started to turn on itself. A visit to the group’s general assemblies, or even to its Facebook wall (OccupyOrlando is a private group, but any interested party can join easily) shows that the most heated discussion is not over how the revolution should be broken down into manageable goals, but rather, whether Tea Party members should be allowed to join the group and how the homeless are treated at general assembly meetings.
This inward focus may be the result of an ideology that actually discourages the adoption of shared goals – that is, until some way, somehow, they are arrived upon “organically” from all of the movement’s participants acting in consensus. Otherwise, the model’s proponents argue, the person who forces his or her idea upon the group will inevitably wield power over other people. To combat this tendency toward hierarchy, decisions at Occupy Orlando are made only with a 90-percent majority vote of those present at their general assemblies – and I am told that more enduring social good can come from these long, thoughtful deliberations. But what point is there in deliberating if the matter at hand is pointless? Does the proposal for lighting a park with solar panels (Nov. 5) really make a difference if a group cannot give a compelling reason for why it must occupy the park in the first place?
It’s little surprise that without direction, Occupy Orlando has become a labor pool for more established left-wing causes with direction. On Oct. 25, for example, 15 members of Occupy Orlando were present at the labor negotiations between LYNX and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1596. The occupiers were not present because LYNX CEO John Lewis is considered part of the 1 percent, but rather, because supporting the union was an existing campaign of the group Jobs With Justice.
Occupy Orlando recognizes a serious problem – that people with lots of money can, and do, subvert the democratic process to further their aims. With that in mind, the group should propose specific reforms to the policies (or perhaps the lack of policies) that enable the wealthy to buy political office. In striving toward this goal, the group would find excellent guidance on the website of the Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform (floridaelectoral reform.org). There, spelled out in plain detail, are steps that can be taken locally that can at least begin to wrest undue power out of the hands of moneyed interests. We are a nation of laws – why not work to change them?
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