Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Occupy a Small Southern City? No.

A local “Occupy” began in the small Southern city I live in. The folks who started it were from a student environmental group—the closest thing to an activist group on the local campus—and were joined by professors and community activists. At the first meeting I attended, someone asked: “Does anyone want to set-up an encampment somewhere?” there was silence followed by a bevy of reasons from individuals why they couldn't participate in it (thus, implying they would like to, but just couldn't). The new group of “occupiers without intent to occupy” debated the legality of a sidewalk march, looked into acquiring a permit, and even announced their route to police (who sent a bike-cop to the march). The occupiers were a remarkably self-disciplining group. I was very curious to see what all this would lead to.

The event itself inspired youthful, first-time participants, as well as elders, who expressed excitement at the number of protesters. The turn-out was relatively large, due to the influence of “bigger cities”; people had heard about #OWS in NYC and elsewhere. Very positive media coverage resulted, just as with lead-up coverage to the protest. (Very little activism takes place here and there's usually a direct regurgitation of talking-points by the media.) Attendees were a mixture of optimistic, excited newcomers and battle-scarred, cynical political veterans. People vented righteous rage, but afterward did not know how to translate it into long-term struggle. Some of us inserted some class-war flavor, including a “you are the 1%” line into the liberal, repetitive “we are the 99%” chants as we approached a Bank of America branch. The chant went great, and was the event's most intense and exciting moments. But, ultimately, the town's “Occupy” was just that: a one-time protest event, not a movement.

As always, multiple factors contribute to an outcome. In this case, certain things prevented the movement from moving forward, growing, and gaining militancy. First, low trust, experience, and stable residency existed amongst those active with Occupy. The town’s small activist “pond” caused problems: activists must interact with a small number of fellow activists who do not get along. Thus, many interested people stayed-away from Occupy due to personality conflicts. Debates between seasoned activists, who share long histories, drowned-out other voices. Like many other Occupy groups, this one includes Democrat partisans who—in the country's most conservative region—position themselves as the local radicals. FaceBook served as a safe “place” for trading information. But, if online “activism” is the extent of a community's collective experience, translating talk into real-world action is difficult.

The local university, the most progressive zone in the small city, is also the site of a restrictive “free speech” policy, vindictive administrators, and a transient student population. The town itself has a history of political repression (including being adjacent to the historic “lynching capital” of the US), a small number of incredibly large land-owners, and crony politicians. Finally, conservative Christianity not only provides the theoretical framework for most people's lives, but also tends to numb people's sense of self-empowerment from collective acts of resistance.

The biggest challenge to the city's attempt at Occupy involved the lack of activist or progressive infrastructure, critical-mass, or inertia. Yes, culture can change, but it often takes long years of organizing. People do what they know or what they think others are doing—thus if little radicalism or reference to radical ideas exists, where are people to gain experience with radical action? Radical ideas (e.g. occupations, GAs, direct democracy, consensus) can get watered down due to misunderstanding, lack of experience, timidity, a “that wouldn't work here” attitude, a less politically-adversarial culture, and people refusing to work with others. The challenge remaining: introducing more folks in small cities to radical ideas (of praxis, strategy, tactics). It's possible—and I hope—that Occupy can still help satisfy this need.