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Occupy Wall Street and the US Social Forum Movement: Local and National Perspectives

Submitted by News Desk on Fri, 02/17/2012 - 11:38am
As Occupy Wall Street initiatives around the country develop in response to the growing economic crisis, what opportunities and lessons present themselves for those of us working to transform our society? Below we report on inisights shared with us by Maureen Taylor, the State Chairperson of Michigan Welfare Rights Union and co-chair of the Detroit Local Organizing Committee for the 2010 USSF and George Friday, National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network and member of the USSF National Planning Committee.

USSF News: Do you see a connection between the past work done by the US Social Forum in 2007 and 2010/ WSF and the Occupy Movement?

Friday: Absolutely. From my perspective of working on movement-building and with a long-term perspective, the idea that “another world is possible and that another United States is necessary” has been really important for developing a shared vision and a sense that we in the United States have a particular responsibility in this work. Before 2007 you didn’t hear people saying this.

The U.S. and World Social Forums have helped spread within our culture this idea that change is both possible and necessary so that it can become part of our fronts of struggle. Getting people to talk about it and think about it has helped encourage the idea that if we want to realize a different world, we need to escalate our confrontation with the status quo. OWS helped capture and ignite some of this imagination, this latent feeling that the USSF/WSF has been nurturing for several years. The USSF of course was not alone in doing this, but it was an important part of developing this culture of confrontation that enabled OWS to emerge with such enthusiasm.

Taylor: The past work that was completed at the 2007 and at the 2010 USSF laid the basis for the current Occupy Movement in that it helped to focus on the gap between the very rich and the working class. Many of the Occupy members across the country attended the USSF and remembered what the experience brought to them.

USSF News: What lessons or resources can the US/World Social Forum process bring to the Occupy movement?

Taylor: What the Occupy Movement lacks is discipline and a clear message. It might be that the beauty of the unfettered response to collapsing capitalism is meant to not have either, but without some level of structure, it will only wallow and burn-out both the resources and the energies of those involved. It is a “flash in the pan” without direction. The USSF can share experiences with those members of Occupy in an effort to further clarify what the USSF/WSF is and why the Occupy movement as it is now is not that! A sustained, engaged social movement building process can be achieved if USSF/WSF attendees take the time to communicate with folks from the Occupy Movement.

Some level of discipline must be achieved to reach whatever the shared goal of Occupy is. A common assessment of political circumstances has to be at least minimally discussed, and a tangible goal that reflects some semblance of the Occupy movement’s outrage about privileges afforded to the 1% should be discussed together in an effort to draw OWS activists into the longer-term struggle. The Social Forum demonstrated why some level of discipline was critical toward reaching expected outcomes, and this was a valuable lesson we learned during the USSF process.

Friday: A key lesson is about the ways we develop shared power. In the USSF we’ve deliberately cultivated an intentionality in our practices and leadership. We have learned from past struggles that the leadership of our movement must come from those groups most oppressed by the system we’re trying to change. We need to learn from low-income people and people of color, the folks at the bottom of “the 99%.” These are the exploited, damaged, homeless, defeated people who need to lead our movement but who aren’t able because of their conditions of oppression. So as a movement we must ask, how do we help build the power and capacities of the bottom 8-20% so that they can lead.

And those at the higher end of “the 99%” need to be mindful of the ways privilege and power operate, and how they can affect the dynamics in movements. This is not just to say privilege is always a negative factor, but those who have privilege can look critically to find ways to use that privilege in strategic ways that serve the movement without reproducing the hierarchies that are endemic to the system we’re working to transform. As a movement, we need to make the most of our collective skills and resources in ways that build power.

One other key lesson the USSF modeled—and we did this better in 2010 than in 2007—is the need to take care of our bodies, minds, and spirits as we do this work. Folks in OWS want to do this, but are using Eurocentric model or a co-opted model of Indigenous leadership. They haven’t integrated many of the less tangible elements of diverse leadership styles. In OWS there is a conscious resistance to being hyper-organized, but not always much reflection on what that means in terms of how the movement can relate with potential allies. I’ve witnessed a general lack of reflexivity among many OWS activists, and the intensity of action in this moment has undercut the ability to act in ways consistent with the movement’s larger values.

I’ve seen this happen in earlier struggles as well. We often make assumptions about our shared values and principles, but we don’t spend enough time talking about how we interpret those values. It is important to take time to define what we mean by key ideas like trust, community, anti-imperialism, etc. We don’t take the time. In the USSF we’ve struggled to make time to work on creating more conscious processes that are mindful of how the dominant Euro-centric culture influences our practices.

USSF News: What lessons or resources can the Occupy movement bring to the US/World Social Forum process?

Friday: What is attractive is the pace and quickness, the dexterity of the OWS—its ability to move quickly and generate energy and attention. Our democratic process in WSF has, by necessity, been more deliberate and slow. But in OWS it feels like things have come together quickly and with lots of dynamism. It would be good for us to think of whether and how the USSF process can transfer some of that dexterity and energy.

OWS has also helped pave the way for people who have long been ready to resist—that is, low-income people, people of culture, those who have long suffered the consequences of capitalism gone wild and corporate greed—those folks are the most vulnerable, so when they see white people enraged and mobilized despite their privilege, there is hope that it will create some more space or breathing room for these folks to escalate the struggle.

There may also be lessons about shaping how the media frames our movements. To the extent that OWS has been able to get new ideas into the corporate media, we can think about the opportunities we now have for helping the wider public understand the depth of movement that exists in this country and the many diverse opportunities out there for them to become part of collective efforts for transformation and change. OWS may not fit the needs and capacities of everyone who wants to work for change, but there are many groups and initiatives that offer ways for them to bring their talents and energy to our movements.

USSF News: What are the basic needs of a sustainable revolutionary movement today, and how & where do we go to meet them?

Taylor: We are grappling with this very question. Here is what we have come up with so far:

    * To build a sustainable, social movement, a common assessment of the economic circumstances needs to be shared. In order to row a boat, all the rowers have to be pulling at the same time, or you go around in circles.
    * Next, efforts must be made to engage the natural allies around that shared assessment or analysis.
    * Those involved in the building efforts must be those most affected. So, for instance, victims of poverty have an important role to play in the elimination of poverty, and they bring a certain prospective to the battle that is critical.

Friday: I have thought a lot about this so I can sum it up in four points. To advance our movements, we need to develop four things: collective vision, shared power, individual accountability, and the strategic use of privilege.