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A Year of Occupy

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A Year of Occupy

 The following article is a look back at a Year of Occupy from someone who has been an active participant. While noting the history of the movement in a rough way, it draws primarily upon the writer’s firsthand experience with the local manifestations of Occupy. The local movement started in a series of meetings last September in Norfolk, VA, and burst into full bloom on October 6 of last year. What remains of the local group is planning an anniversary event for October 6 of this year. Any omissions, mischaracterizations, mis-statement of facts, bowdlerizations, calumnies, disinformation or misdemeanors are the responsibility of the author alone, who is striving mightily herein to NOT live up to his nom-de-plume.

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness, and our ability to tell our own stories…” – ~Arundhati Roy



Arab Spring, American Fall

OWS Poster

It will be a year ago this weekend that a group called Occupy Wall Street made an encampment at Zuccotti Park and captured the imagination of the world. The largest collective national protest in 40 years inspired other Occupy camps to spring up like mushrooms after a summer rain across the FSA in imitation and tribute. Many were inspired by visitors to Zuccotti, who came like pilgrims to look, march, participate, and understand. In the space of just a few weeks the repressed and frustrated found their voice, and expressed it in “mad as hell” Howard Beale moments across the country.

OWS was originally inspired by Kalle Lasn and Micah White of Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist publication, who conceived of a September 17 occupation in lower Manhattan. A peaceful occupation of Wall Street was promoted with an image featuring a dancer atop Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull statue.

Also inspired in part by Egyptian mass protests in Tahrir Square, Occupy protesters put forward the main issues of social and economic inequality, corporate greed, corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector. The OWS slogan, “We are the 99%,” addresses the growing income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. Lack of justice on the part of Justice Departments was also an issue, as the Feds failed to prosecute those who had brought about a global crisis of monetary insolvency. (Far better, it would seem, for the attorney general to focus on free speech demonstrators and whistleblowers.)

Protesters were forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, with a coordinated raid on other Occupy camps following on shortly thereafter. While there have been unsuccessful attempts to re-occupy the original location, protesters have turned their focus on occupying banks, corporate headquarters, board meetings, college and university campuses, along with Wall Street itself.

So what has Occupy achieved?


Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out

It’s fair to say that occupy has changed the conversation. Within the space of a year, we tend to forget how in a country deeply resistant to notions of class, where everyone is” middle class”, the development of any sort of class consciousness is quite remarkable. Most Americans find it difficult to stomach the sight of the 1% being bailed out and then earning obscene profits while they, or their family, friends, and neighbors, are looking for work without success.

The escalating income inequality evident from the 30 year class war begun under the Reagan Administration against the working people of the US reached its apex at the presence of Occupy. Phrases like “The 99%,” “the 1%,” changed the national conversation and the prevailing narrative forever. Occupy’s mission was to expose how the 1% are controlling our fates through the financialization of all aspects of economic and political life. The evidence is abundant: the middle class is drowning in loans, student debt, fraudulent mortgages, and a democracy being sold to the highest bidder, all while our environment is turned into yet another toxic asset, and those assets which we hold in common are sold off to the highest bidder as well.


November saw a coordinated attack on camps all across the country. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was one who admitted to being on the phone with the Department of Homeland Security. It seems clear that Homeland Security orchestrated a coordinated set of attacks led locally by  increasingly militarized local police departments. Armed with budgets swollen by several years of homeland security grants coupled with outright gifts of military and paramilitary gear, local police decided to move on Occupy encampments such as the one in Norfolk, clad in full riot gear and tearing down tents with paramilitary zeal. What had been cordial relations between occupiers and the police quickly became hostile in an astonishing fashion.

Occupiers were arrested; trumped up charges brought, later dismissed in court.. As with the attack on Zuccotti, the assaults on the camps were often staged at hours where they would attract the least attention. And where the local press ran a story, the thrust of the story was predictably on the side of “take a bath and get a job.”

Anita in back of squad car at Occupy Norfolk arrest


Carmen arrested at the Occupy Norfolk camp in Commercial Park. (Abhi Photo)


What is interesting is the timing of these attacks on the camps. During the month of October, as camps were beginning across the country, much of the effort concentrated on a quotation mark move your money” effort, asking people to move their accounts from the large banks to smaller, community banks or credit unions. The move your money day was November 6. By some estimates Bank of America lost $4 billion of deposits in the month of October as a result of this effort. More people moved gtheir bank accounts in the month of October than had moved in all of 2010. Shortly afterwards that the coordinated assault on the camps began.


These attacks created new memes. New York Mayor Bloomberg got to claim that he controlled his” own private army”, the 7th largest in the world.


And in another show of disproportionate force on the West coast, Lieut. John Pike became famous as “pepper spray man” as he was photographed employing blinding pepper spray on sitting, peaceful protesters at the University of California Davis. (In one small scrap of justice, it should be noted that Lieut. Pike and UC Davis have parted company as of this past summer.)


Much as been made about Occupy being non-political. The easy peg on which to hang Occupy  is as the lefty counterpart to the Tea Party. Yet Occupy has never been embraced by the Democrats, and with good reason. Most Occupiers distrust Democrats as fully as they do Republicans.

Given the Democratic party’s reliance on campaign contributions from the very sources the Occupy movement opposed, along with its support of bailouts for the financial sector, the Dems were never going to give their full backing to the Occupy movement unless the movement became a viable force politically. Any astute political observer knew the Democratic establishment would not work to achieve the goals of the Occupy movement, particularly at the national level. Hillary Rodham Clinton raised nearly $20 million from Wall Street when she was a senator. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has received more than $5 million from the same sources since 2007, and Barack Obama received more than $15 million from the investment industry during the 2008 election cycle. This year, the Democratic National Committee has raised more than $10 million from the securities and investment community, the same people against which Occupy takes to the streets.

Some wanted the Occupy movement needed to put forth its own slate of candidates in primaries and local races — as the tea party began doing in 2008 when it became disillusioned with Republicans — to either replace the Democrats who wouldn’t support their positions or to force incumbent Democrats to adopt the views of the movement. Of course the teahadis were subsidized by the Koch Brothers and other reactionaries as useful minions able to advance their far-right agenda.

Of course, the Occupy movement could not offer its own candidates or alternatives because it never offered a clear, coherent vision or plan of action. Those who wished to turn Occupy into a co-optable political movement asserted that abstract ideas and clever slogans had to give way to concrete proposals and electoral agendas.

Like the people at the heart of the Egyptian revolution, those spearheading the Occupy movement were the youth, the intellectuals and academics, people with lofty ideals but with little practical experience in governing. Without a mechanism to turn ideals into policy, many would say Occupy is simply spinning its wheels.


A Winter of Discontent

The violent crackdown on peaceful dissent, and the relative brutality of police tactics, especially when confronted with peaceful protesters, became an issue of concern for Occupiers as much as it was ignored in the mainstream media. The mainstream media had hung Occupy on the news peg of the “black bloc anarchists,” whose presence among occupiers is almost always synonymous with infiltrators, either of the Homeland Security or the local police variety. (It became an article of faith among our local Occupy groups that anybody exhorting other people to violence head de facto identified himself as an infiltrator, pink hair or not. And, although I can’t prove this, I believe to this day that our local Occupies were rotten with them.)

The escalating criminalization of dissent has gone hand-in-hand with an increasingly ubiquitous surveillance society. In the wake of the PATRIOT act, we have become complacent, and have watched silently as cameras become ubiquitous at the same time that our rights to privacy are diminished. Even the recent case in which a New York judge has ruled that Twitter must give the court three months worth of tweets from a user in a pending case involving an Occupy Wall Street protester is yet another chilling trend. The freedom for corporations to act as persons increases, while the freedom for private individuals to act likewise diminishes. And the power of government to abet the aims of corporations, while inhibiting the aims of individuals continues unchecked.

As Aaron Cynic has said,

Plenty of people might dismiss connecting these requests and other instances that highlight targeted suppression of dissent as mere paranoia. Such tactics have a chilling effect on legitimate dissent, and the efforts by multiple law enforcement agencies to question, detain and arrest activists of varying stripes points to a much more dangerous world. More than a decade ago, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that when it came to dissent in troubled times, Americans should “watch what they say and what they do.” Rhetoric like Fleischer’s and quick quips today from politicians like “if you’re not doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t be worried” shows an increasing acceptance of the criminalization of dissent, and points towards a disturbing future.

Such rhetoric is now become the norm.

It in spite of the increased emphasis on security Occupy groups remained active in supporting a variety of demonstrations and movements. Throughout the winter and early spring, our local groups supported actions protesting NDAA, the prospect of war with Iran, staged a very successful Mayday action in coordination with many other Occupy groups throughout the country, and had a very successful statewide General Assembly in Roanoke. A dedicated and committed core of volunteers kept the flame alive over months.

Circular firing squad

Occupy polity is messy. Decisions in this leaderless organization are made by the Gen. assembly which consists of all those people who identify with the local occupy organization, who gather together to share announcements, to deliberate on proposals initiated by workgroups, and to otherwise mount the virtual soapbox and share what is on their hearts. A general assembly is not a Rotary breakfast. The advantages of the leaderless group are obvious: it is far less easy to co-opt or decapitate. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to get things done. One or a few individuals with agendas can derail the work of the group.

Day 14 Occupy Wall Street

There is also a great deal of concern about co-optation. During this past summer we saw the schism between OWS and the 99% Declaration, which was another group that sprung up from OWS but  split with them along fault lines of concern. The Adbusters people, for example, attacked the 99% Declaration as the product of “the same cabal of old world thinkers who  blunted the possibility of revolution for decades.” Not surprisingly, the 99% Declaration was led by a former lawyer for Goldman Sachs. It’s ironic that having given birth to the notion of “the 99%,” Occupy finds subsequent movements eager to use the 99% moniker and elbow the originators out of the way, often to achieve political objectives. The truth is that many occupiers are disgusted with both political parties, including this writer. I hold with Gore Vidal who, in 1970, observed that “the Democrats and Republicans are the left and right wings of the Property Party.”

What has happened locally, especially in Norfolk, is that many of the original founders of the local Occupy movement, many of whom were Ron Paul libertarians, fell away from the movement, either from disaffection with what seemed to them to be a progressive left agenda, or for Occupy’s refusal to endorse any party or candidate. In any event, those people are gone and their energy is missed.

Without camps around which to coalesce, the survival of local Occupies becomes challenging. It is made even more so by the impact of marginal personalities, group dysfunction, selfishness, jealousies, and gossip, and all of the other many human frailties to which most of us are all too prone. Locally, one person who is a garden-variety bully, has disrupted the proceedings of two Occupy groups (and is now working on a third) with lurid tales of intrigue, lost love, and defamation of character. Moreover, in an organization that resists being an organization, and which behaves far more like an affinity group, affinities get strained by gossip, whispering campaigns, he-said-she-said, and the sort of thing one might have thought best left behind in high school.

On a personal note, I can be depended upon to utter one phrase in most situations: “Be who you say you are; do what you say you’re going to do.” It is both galling and frustrating to have the work of a group be hijacked by somebody’s failure to execute. But what do we do, dock their pay?

Sign from March on Wall Street South (D. Digati photo)

March on Wall Street South (D. Digati photo)

What next?

The future of Occupy depends solely upon the ability of local groups to generate and maintain enthusiasm for the cause. As noted above, it is very difficult to sustain enthusiasm in the absence of a campsite. Many municipalities have gone out of their way to make it difficult for occupied groups to camp by passing ordinances restricting camping within city limits, etc.

Our colleagues in Occupy Roanoke have a different and productive example. They enjoy good relations with the local police and are in good odor with the local press. They are well funded, fully fuctional, and smart.

One of the ongoing conundrums of Occupy is that in order to realize “a better world is possible,” we have to behave in different ways, and we are ill trained to do so. Few have the vision and discipline necessary to set aside personal agenda and ego. Raised in a culture of craven materialism, where every transaction and relationship is financialized, in a culture that elevates the Cult of the Individual, “competition” is normal. We are marinated in the values we wish to change. It is cooperation, and self-sacrifice, and putting the other first, that is essential. Some might call it servant leadership. A communitarian spirit is a concept so alien and foreign to most of us that it might as well be Martian.

As Thom Hartmann has said in The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight, and in a different context, “We need new stories.”

It may be that the Occupy moment has come and gone. The changes in the prevailing economic narrative remain. What we do about them is anybody’s guess, but in an era where the PATRIOT act has been amplified by the National Defense Authorization Act, enhanced crackdowns on whistleblowers and troublemakers, greatly enhanced surveillance, the use of drones, a militarized police, and at this writing, a Middle East in flames, it remains to be seen what happens next.

For my part, I can say that as a result of Occupy, I have met some of the finest and most remarkable people who it has ever been my pleasure to meet. I have built associations with other activists working on causes which for which we share a commitment. And in a quite unforeseen development, I even met the woman with whom I now share a home and a life, which came as an unbidden blessing.

So much good has come from Occupy, and whatever good that may yet come will be a result of the collective effort of all of us. Herein lies the challenge:

“The obvious point is that most social activists look constantly to the state for solutions to social problems. This point bears labouring, because the orientation of most social action groups tends to reinforce state power. This applies to most antiwar action too. Many of the goals and methods of peace movements have been oriented around action by the state, such as appealing to state elites and advocating neutralism and unilateralism. Indeed, peace movements spend a lot of effort debating which demand to make on the state: nuclear freeze, unilateral or multilateral disarmament, nuclear-free zones, or removal of military bases. By appealing to the state, activists indirectly strengthen the roots of many social problems, the problem of war in particular…”
~ Brian Martin, ‘Uprooting War’






















A New “Lost Generation?”

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My weekend plans to check out a potential doomstead having blown up, I found myself on Saturday night at a birthday party for a young Occupier who just turned 30. This is a young man from a neighboring Occupy group who had proven himself to be very intelligent: whenever he opened his mouth, he generally had something to say which was Right. On. Point. So I was happy to be able to attend, and looked forward to spending some time with him and his friends.


His apartment and the area outside was filled with young people, all of them 20- or 30- somethings. (My lady friend and I were the oldest people in attendance, by several decades.) After a long, protracted and frustrating search, the birthday celebrant finds himself working at a restaurant, learning a trade, and diligent in his cooperation with the owner to try to make that business profitable.  He is also wise enough to see the self-interest of learning everything he can right now, the better to gain knowledge to apply to his own career, and perhaps a restaurant of his own someday. So he is doing all right, and on his 30th, finds that he has some lift under his wings.


Everywhere within were the faces of earnest, fresh-faced people, full of life and exuberance and party spirits, friendly and willing to engage in conversation. The crazy kid who had recently passed a kidney stone (!), who became the resident paparazzi, taking pictures of everybody with great good humor; the intense redhead in the kitchen, engaged in thoughtful conversation, even with an old guy; the sincere young politico, whose lefty rant made my ears perk up; charming young women in attractive dress and better good humor . . .  The sorts of faces that two generations ago I might have encountered at any college party.  Some of these young people had completed or attended college, including the local community college. Many others had not.

Many of these young people in attendance were employed sketchily, if at all, in one of a variety of service level jobs. This was not a gaggle of young professionals, secure in their future prospects, educations paid for and themselves well on their way to professions laden with status and benefits. Rather, this was a group of young people who the captains of our economy forgot—working class people. People who grew up in circumstances much like my own.

When I saw last night was a gaggle of thirty-odd young people in various stages of coping with an economy in which all of the money had been sucked away.

Were both of us thirty years younger, what has occurred to these folks would have occurred to us as well. What became clear to us is that we had a ringside seat for the formation of an entire generation denied the expectation of  a functional middle-class lifestyle, the first generation in the history of this country without a reasonable expectation of doing better than their parents.


IN 1992, many of us chortled at H. Ross Perot in the TV debates, and wondered what he meant when he mentioned the “giant sucking sound” that NAFTA would create as North American jobs would be whisked to the maquilidoras. Now, twenty years later, we know what he meant. And our children are paying the price for our inattention and selfishness.

Many of us are old enough to remember when it was possible for working-class kids, particular those without a higher education, to go to work, get a job, and make a life for themselves. Own a house, own a car, to maybe own a vacation home or a boat—none of that was beyond the reach of a factory worker making a decent wage. For the young people in attendance at this party last night, the new normal looks like this: part-time work, topping out at 35 hours per week, so as to not incur the obligation of paying for benefits, no health insurance, living either at home, or in an apartment with several other people to share expenses, no car, and an uncertain future.

Yet these exuberant partygoers were vibrant, attractive full of life, and intent on having a good time in the face of all. There is nothing wrong with their work ethic or attitudes. Here’s one example:

One young woman told her story of working two jobs to be able to go to aesthetician school, so that she could work in a shop, and potentially have her own shop someday. She successfully completed the course of study, and began work at what she called her “dream job.” Then she ran afoul of The Law. I did not get the entire story, and did not push for it, but she apparently incurred a fine for a motor vehicle infraction that she could not pay, and lost her license. The next day, driving without a license (yes, I know), at a  red light, a cop ran her plates and discovered that fact. The local magistrate who heard her case was not amused, and with little empathy and less humor  remanded her to a week in jail. Which spelled the end of that “dream job.” Thus her employment and opportunity at a job she really loved came to grief, and now she works as a waitress at an IHOP, ostensibly to find another way to climb the career ladder.


Barbara Ehrenreich covered some of this ground in her book, “Nickel and Dimed- On (Not) Getting By in America” in which she went undercover as a low wage worker to find out how non-skilled workers make ends meet. The experiment took place in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, with Ehrenreich finding a job and lodgings in each location. In each location, Ehrenreich worked full time and lived only off the amount of money earned in those low-wage jobs. Her goal was to determine whether or not she could both live off the money earned and have enough money at the end of the month to pay the next month’s rent. One of the things Ehrenreich learned is how easy it is to get in serious trouble with the law because you don’t have a whole lot of money.

In a subsequent interview, Ehrenreich said, “It is now easy to get into serious trouble with the law because you don’t have much money – and then to get poorer and poorer because you get in serious trouble with the law. The classic example would be if you have a broken headlight on your car, but you can’t fix it because that would cost over $100. So you get stopped by the police, and you get a fine of maybe $100 or $200. If you could have paid that, you could have fixed the damn light! Now you have this debt to the government. If you don’t pay that, you begin to be in really big trouble that just builds and builds. More fines and fees are added, and they will all accumulate interest too. At some point, if you haven’t paid, you are very likely to have a warrant out for your arrest.”

While some of us might look down the nose of a young person who continues to drive without a license, I find that our very system of laws tends to concentrate on further disadvantaging the last and the least among us. Not for nothing are our private for profit prisons guaranteed a 90 per cent occupancy by the states that contract with them, and are they filled with people guilty of victimless crimes.

Several partygoers had either attended college without completion, accumulating student loans with little prospect of paying them off in the near term, or have graduated from college, with even more loans trailing along behind, and were unable to find a job by which to launch a career. An astonishing number of these thirtysomethings were living back at home, and for their trouble were hearing from their parents, “Why don’t you show some initiative and go out and get a job?” I assume these parents have apparently have not opened a newspaper in the last 20 years.

After the party, I discussed some of these issues with my friend. She recalled her own experience at the age of 19 wondering, “What should do with my life? How might I make my way? What career should I choose?” And at least she perceived herself as having the opportunity to choose from among a range of options, as did I with the benefit of a university education, and a notion of my chosen field.

So what do we have to show for the forty year class war and dismantling of American manufacturing? We have created a generation without recourse to higher education as a practical matter, because children of the working class have as their only option to finance said education the assumption of massive debt. And assuming you have the risk tolerance to assume said debt, that is a huge bet placed against the prospect of an  uncertain future of finding employment in their chosen field. Whether you do or not, the debt, the ruinous debt, remains, and cannot be discharged, apparently even by bankruptcy. What a system.

So what do the facts say? This from May 2010:

In 2007, 5.4 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed; the official rate is now 9.0 percent. The number of unemployed high school graduates jumped from 12 percent in 2007 to 22.5 percent. Over this three-year period, the youth labor force (workers age 16 to 24) has contracted by 1.1 million workers, the report found, and an additional 1.2 million more “have become disconnected from both formal schooling and work.”

This 5 percent drop represents the largest contraction for any age group in the population. “For the class of 2010,” the report states, “it will be one of the worst years to graduate high school or college since at least 1983 and possibly the worst since the end of World War II.”

Indeed, the entire US workforce faces one of the toughest job markets in the post-World War II era. Official unemployment currently stands at 9.5 percent, and most economists predict that these high levels will persist for years to come. As in countless countries in Europe and around the world, the ruling class of the US has attempted to avert financial crisis from the stock markets and the banks onto the backs of the working class, both through government debt and through the imposition of social austerity measures.

Such measures, however, put deflationary pressures on economies throughout the globe, increasing the likelihood of a further turn in the downwardly spiraling global economy. This scenario presents the very real possibility that current US unemployment levels, far from improving, are situated to increase, perhaps drastically, in the near future.

Amid this grim economic atmosphere, young workers are compelled to take on gargantuan levels of student debt, and are confronted by the complete absence of even the threadbare social safety net available to other demographics.

Students graduating with a bachelor’s degree from public four-year institutions owe on average $19,535. Undergraduates completing degrees at private four-year institutions now owe, on average, $25,350. In comparison, these same figures in the 2000-2001 academic year were $14,916 and $16,906 respectively.

Most students now finish their degrees in six years, or not at all, due in large part to the burden of carrying a full workload while pursuing their education.


Not surprisingly, a surprisingly large number of these young people are completely disaffected with the consumerist, happy motoring lifestyle, which offers them little aside from low-level service jobs, and are pursuing ways of living that are more sustainable and less contributive to the giant capitalist bloodsucking wealth machine.

As I spoke with these folks and collected their stories, it  also occurred to me that a generation without little hope and fewer prospects could be easily swayed to vote for somebody who offers both. Were I in their shoes, it would be easy to listen to blandishments of a Man on Horseback.  Recently  Endisnigh published some comments in the Forum from Craig Dilworth, among which these stood out:

“As regards free trade, Douthwaite points out that international free trade inescapably leads to a levelling down. It means that salaries and wages will tend to converge at Third World levels, and social security provisions in industrial countries will continue to be cut, since these are an overhead that economies cannot bear if they are to compete successfully with countries without them. Only the owners of the surviving transnational companies and of natural resources will escape the general impoverishment. Already the islands of prosperity are growing steadily smaller in an otherwise sick, dilapidated and hungry world. “

More Dilworth:

In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man. If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place. Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, no matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place. The highest goals require no justification; all secondary goals have finally to justify themselves in terms of the service their attainment renders to the attainment of the highest. This is the philosophy of [ social ] materialism, and it is this philosophy – or metaphysic – which is now being challenged by events.

Dilworth (2010-03-12). Too Smart for our Own Good (p. 400 – 405). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

So this coming generation may be primed and ready for a man on horseback, offering to lead them to a promised land, the paving stones of which ostensibly come from  the clawback of health benefits, pensions, Social Security, and other attributes of the “nanny state” that we use to characterize as the American dream, and which, under the influence of far too much Tea, we now call “socialism.”


Because of Wall Street bailouts, the Bush tax cuts, various scams and other welfare for the rich, the money that used to employ people has been sucked out of the economy.  Money is now scant for education, for job creation, training or for social services for unemployed young Americans. Any funding for basic social spending is predicated on austerity, on gutting the living standards of American workers and opening such areas as education, health services and infrastructure to further privatization and profit-taking at the expense of the public.

And we call this policy. It is a crime against the next generation. And this, among other reasons, is why I Occupy.


Praying for a Pony

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This essay is going to seem like I’m going around my ass to get to my elbow. I probably am. Bear with me.
A friend of mine, a remarkable musician and a local pastor, tells the story of a friend’s wife who has been recently diagnosed with ALS. His friend’s initial instinct was to pray for peace and that God’s will be done… However, after a few weeks, he decided that it seemed reasonable that he reach further and that he should “pray for a pony.” When he was a boy, this friend never prayed for what he really wanted (a pony) and instead always asked God to provide him with a lesser gift. Why in the world would he not pray for his wife’s complete healing?

So I will join my friend, as he “prays for a pony” (for complete healing). My pastor friend goes on to encourage us to pray for ponies in your own lives.

So why not a pony?

This weekend people from across Virginia will converge on Roanoke for a statewide General Assembly. I will be attending along with some sizeable number of local Occupiers. An ambitious agenda is planned.
I read the article RE crossposted from The Independent, with some interest, as it seems to herald the end or fatal fracturing of Occupy, and its failure to enact an electoral agenda quick enough  for some. Perhaps disappointment with Occupy is inevitable, since no one body or movement can be all things to all people. In our little corner of the world, though, we have gone at this issue a little differently. Like Many Occupy movements, we too have had our share of Occudrama, bitter infighting, factionalism, political divisions, and recently, reconstitution. Here’s a brief description of where we have been.
Since its inception in late September, 2011, Occupy Norfolk has gone through many changes.   After an initial start at Harbor Park, where the local minor league baseball team plays, our group obtained a permit to camp in Commercial Park in downtown Norfolk, in the very shadow of the financial buildings that dominate Norfolk’s skyline. For the brief period of time in which the camp was in operation, it was a glorious thing–a practical example of how the workers themselves could build a functional community. It was the gathering place for workgroup meetings, nightly GA’s, communal meals, and maintained the presence of 35 to 40 full-time Occupiers. A groundswell of support drove the first iteration of our Facebook page to attract over 4000 adherents.
The encampment was broken up by local police in November of 2011, at the same time when encampments were being rousted all around the country, presumably at the direction the Department of Homeland Security. At that point, the previously peaceful and collegial relationships with the local police took a sinister turn. Our group has spent a great deal of time preparing for and successfully fighting charges ranging from obstruction of justice, to trespassing to defacing a monument. The fact that our legal team has had most of these charges dismissed or reduced testifies to the fact that the charges were overdrawn and frivolous.
In the period after the encampment we faced challenges.  Many of the original people drawn to this movement found themselves disaffected after the camp was broken up. Meeting places changed. communication was uneven. Personality conflicts ensued. Certain people disrupted meetings, or even sabotaged local events. We too have had issues with those who urged more disruptive and confrontational direct action. During the winter months, in the midst of standing up some demonstrations, we went through a period of planning and soul-searching.
We held several brainstorming meetings and determined priorities. The group determined that the number one priority was organization. Toward that end, an organizational task force developed and made a proposal for a Spokes Council, based on models already in use in different occupations. (This, in fact, was one of the projects I spent a significant amount of time and effort on during the winter and spring.) This was consensed and approved by our general assembly and has very recently been put into place.

"Occupy" by Noam Chomsky

Looking forward:
As Occupy Norfolk looks forward, we plan to cooperate and share to the fullest extent possible with other local occupations, including Occupy Portsmouth, Occupy Virginia Beach, and the newly formed Occupy the Peninsula. It should also be noted that a local chapter of “Occupy the Hood” is also active in the Norfolk area, and also enjoys our support.  We recently held a regional GA at the home of one of our members to plan a Mayday event. Even though we only had about four days to plan it, that event went well. We plan to continue to meet in this fashion one weekend a month to facilitate inter-occupy cooperation and planning for targeted events.
In his new book, Noam Chomsky observes that “Occupy is the first major public response to thirty years of class war.” I would suggest that rumors of the death of Occupy are wishful thinking on the part of the servants of the one per cent crowd. It’s not about campsites, so much as education, inspiration direct action to occupying the conscience of a nation.
“People seem to know about May Day everywhere, except where it began, here in the United States of America,” Chomsky says “That’s because those in power have done everything they can to erase its real meaning. …Today, there is a renewed awareness, energized by the Occupy movement’s organizing, around May Day, and its relevance for reform and perhaps eventual revolution.”

Banner from Occupy Norfolk action, May day 2012


Images from May day action

One of the things we have learned throughout this process is that, even though Occupy is “leaderless” group, that doers, natural leaders emerge. The temptation is for these people to take on too much, and burnout as a result. Part of the reason for our adoption of the spokes council model is to avoid burnout.

Occupy Norfolk’s primary issues on a National, Statewide and Local Level
• Move to Amend (workgroup)
• Privatization and Tolls between Norfolk and Portsmouth
• War on Women in Virginia
• Fighting  lifting the ban on uranium mining in Virginia
• Community gardening/creating sustainable environments
• Resisting offshore drilling off Virginia shorelines
• Working together with other activist groups to create “critical mass.”

Regional General Assembly in front of MacArthur Mall

As Sinclair Lewis once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his living depends upon him not understanding it.” Probably the greatest single obstacle that Occupy Norfolk faces is to get our views heard in an area where so many people are either active duty military or directly employed by defense contractors and support industries. We also face a media environment in which, as regards Occupy, the story is already written and the reporters go out to gather the details to complete the latest installment of the prevailing narrative. Nobody ever said it would be easy. Our core group remains active and committed to the cause of making sure that our children and grandchildren will come of age in an America that is recognizable and lawful.
In Occupy, Chomsky points out that one of the movement’s greatest successes has been simply to put the inequalities of everyday life on the national agenda, influencing reporting, public perception and language itself. Citing a recent Pew Research Center report on public perceptions of class conflict within the United States, Chomsky notes that inequalities in the country “have risen to historically unprecedented heights.” The Pew study finds that about two-thirds of the U.S. population now believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor — an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009. The language, if not the story, is changing.

Occupy in NYC

None of this should be surprising. As Robert Parry notes the accession of right wing media in a recent article in Consortium News, posted by me somewhere in the bowels of the DD Forum. Parry observes that in the wake of Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, the watchdog press had demonstrated that it could do its job, and that the resilient American republic could still correct itself. Yet “after Nixon’s resignation, his embittered allies didn’t simply run up the white flag. They got to work ensuring that they would never experience “another Watergate.” And it wasn’t just a struggle that pitted the press against the pols.
“You could say that much of the U.S. Establishment had been unnerved by the surge of democracy that had arisen to challenge longstanding traditions and injustices — the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement. There also were cultural upheavals, with the hippies and the drug culture. It was an unsettling time for the rich white men who held most of the levers of power.
 “These folks were not about to cede power easily. They made adjustments, yes; they gave some ground. But many were determined to fight back and some had experience in defusing and dismantling social movements around the world. Indeed, the CIA’s decades of political and media manipulation in the Third World and even Europe gave Nixon’s allies a playbook for how to neutralize opponents and steer a population here at home. . .
“And what we saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States was something like the behavior of an embattled oligarchy. Nixon’s embittered allies and the Right behaved as if they were following a CIA script. They built fronts; they took over and opened new media outlets; they spread propaganda; they discredited people who got in the way; ultimately, they consolidated power; they changed laws in their favor; and – over the course of several decades – they made themselves even richer, indeed a lot richer, and that, in turn, has translated into even more power.”
A turn of events which has led members of four generations into the streets in protest to the injustice and inequality of three decades of class war. It is in this context that we travel to meet with our peers across the state, and that we also turn our gaze to matters closer to home.
Howard  Zinn wrote, “Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn’t just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that’s what we have to do today. Some people might say, ‘Well, what do you expect?’
“And the answer is that we expect a lot.
“People say, ‘What, are you a dreamer?’
“And the answer is yes, we’re dreamers.
“We want it all.”

Firedancing at the 41st St. party

Am reminded of Thom Hartmann’s “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, ” which is one of passionate, rigorously argued and thoroughly researched books I’ve ever read..  Hartmann argues that the only lasting solution to the various self-created environmental crises we face is to relearn the lessons of our ancient ancestors — who lived sustainably for thousands of generations.  This would summon us to behold the world in a way both ancient and new, at least to us. We lack the ears to hear the voice of all life, the eyes to see the obvious, the simplicity to strip away the complications, the denials, the excuses. At some moment we discover that we, personally, hold the power of personal and planetary transformation.  Hartmann also argues that we “need new stories,” a new narrative, to replace those that inform our “wetiko,” or cannibal culture in which we eat everything in sight, and waste the rest.
Some are living that dream right now. When I began with Occupy, I thought that what would make a difference was masses of people on the streets, a la the collapse of the Berlin Wall or Moscow in 1991. Others provide the example that there is a different way. When Occupiers chant,”We are unstoppable/another world is possible,” that can also mean that the power to change can extend beyond the streets and into once-abandoned urban lots. If nothing but changing our way of seeing and understanding the world can produce real, meaningful, and lasting change, which will lead us to begin to control our populations, save our forests, recreate community, and reduce our wasteful consumption, then Deb Lassiter is one such person.

Deb Lassiter at May Day action

Deb has created the 41st St. Guerilla Peace Garden near her home in Norfolk. This is from her invitation to the dedication event:
 “My neighborhood, Highland Park near ODU, has suffered from much violence, neglect & apathy including the tragic death of ODU student Christopher Cummings less than a block away on 6/11/11. The next day in frustration I began the peace sign near the sidewalk that was the genesis of the 41st St. guerilla peace garden. Built on neglected property beside my house (a former neighborhood crack house) the land has gone from a trash dump to a garden producing strawberries, vegetables, flowers and friendship, as well as inspiring peace and cooperation among neighborhood residents.With the addition of a brick pizza/bread oven built entirely with donated, reclaimed materials, we hope to be able to share bread with those that need it. On May 5th we plan to dedicate the garden and oven, make pizzas and herb breads, eat together in fellowship, and enjoy live music and poetry together. We will also have some special guests & out of town occupiers I know you will enjoy hearing from. Please bring tents & camp out in the garden if you wish. (We will have two communal tents available).

We also have a guerilla garden action planned to help beautify a neglected area nearby that ODU students walk through everyday & will also be beneficial for the wildlife. We’ll also be shooting a video that will be seen by many in our effort to inspire them to help us in this struggle for positive change. I hope you will come and lend your energy & friendship in the work for Peace, Beauty and renewal in Highland Park.”

Ultimately, gardening is an act of hope. It is a statement of renewal. One small thing we can do to unplug from the Matrix.
The party was a resounding success, gathering some 70 or 80 people all told, through an evening of feasting, dancing, drumming, poetry, fire dancing and conviviality. It brought together many people who had not seen one another since the earliest, heady days of the movement when all things were possible.

This sort of gathering changes things. This place, the oven, the grounds, the garden, the event were shaped by many hands working together. Working together builds community. And now the flame of this candle has spurred the creation of other community gardens which are springing up on the west side of Norfolk.
We can’t fight the state. As I have averred from the first days of Occupy, “Anyone who urges you to violence against a system that owns a complete monopoly on the tools of force might as well be on the payroll of Homeland Security.” We can’t change the world; but we might be able to change our own minds about the small differences we can make in our own yards, our own habits, our own neighborhoods, and in the process we might be able to bring one other person along for the ride. And in so doing we can plant seeds of sustainability.
As Thom Hartmann says, we need new stories. So we need to create them. As for me, I’m gonna pray for a pony.
We want it all.


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