Wednesday, October 05, 2011

So You Want to Be an Activist?

Kelly Cogswell, HuffPost

People keep telling me I shouldn't be so dismissive of the Occupy Wall Street folks. It's early days yet. Somebody's got to do something about poverty and corruption. And there they are, eager and willing. Hell, they got arrested. They're practically ACT UP.

So I went to City Hall, where a demo was scheduled. Nobody was there except a bunch of bored-looking cops and aggressive squirrels, so I headed to their encampment a little further down Broadway. No one was doing anything, though I heard that there had been a couple of arrests. I watched people scribble homemade signs, and others do yoga, and still others sit in a circle and talk. And then I went off to a bench to read a copy of the cleverly named The Occupied Wall Street Journal, given to me by a white girl with blonde dreads and a bongo slung over her shoulder.

It could only have been written by young Americans who know absolutely nothing about anything and are damned proud of it. I learned that the recent riots in England were exactly the same as the ones in Egypt, and that the conditions in the United States were pretty much as dire as those in Tunisia. Heck, Occupy Wall Street is a card-carrying member of the Arab Spring.

And the strategy that I've been told would eventually emerge is apparently to take a hardline stance against hardline stances. Protesters are there to express a feeling. Yes, a feeling. Of mass injustice. And this feeling of mass injustice will create change with no leaders and no actual demands, because that's what corporate forces do, make demands with their filthy dollars. And OWS won't stoop to it until they're incredibly powerful. Or maybe they won't at all. The encampment is message enough about democracy in action.

This is what I'm supposed to take seriously?

If I'm skeptical and sneering, if I sound angry, it's because I want them to be better, smarter, more focused than they clearly are. The need for economic change is huge, and people are suffering (even if not as much as Tunisia or Egypt). I also want them to succeed as street activists. Since my stint in the Lesbian Avengers and the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, I've been convinced that direct action is a hugely important tool, one of the few for social change when you don't have tons of money and congressmen in your pocket.

The problem is that organizing demos, not to mention movements, is more complicated than it looks. And Americans in particular are doomed if they model themselves after a few YouTube images of demos in the Middle East or Greece or wherever. But what the hell. This is a generation raised on Martin Luther King Day programs that largely consist of his "I Have a Dream" speech and a brief clip of marchers getting attacked by police and dogs and water hoses. All it takes to change the world is a megaphone, a heartfelt speech, a couple of conflicts with the cops, and an iPhone to tweet about it. LOL.

I'm going to pretend this is a teachable moment and remind you just why ACT UP was successful. In fact, let's use their actions disrupting Wall Street to talk about how the pros do it. They were fighting AIDS, right? Novices might have gone down to the stock exchange screaming, "You have a bunch of money and power. Stop AIDS now!" Like the OWS people screaming for the end of capitalism, and failing that, the end of the Federal Reserve. But that's not what they did.

Mentored by experienced activists, ACT UP had strategies, plans, priorities. In their Wall Street actions, their targets were mostly pharmaceutical and health care companies. One early demand was that companies invest in research for drugs to treat AIDS. When drugs finally appeared, activists demanded (and continue to demand) that the drugs be widely available for reasonable costs. "People NOT profits!" A clear target, a clear message arrived at by a hell of a lot of work, and endless cups of coffee. ACT UP researchers became so knowledgeable that drug companies later recruited them. That moment in the street was only a tiny part of their work -- which, by the way, had a huge impact on not only Big Pharma but U.S. policy.

That's what it takes. Feelings alone never changed a damn thing. Maybe the problem is that the protesters just aren't desperate enough to choose any goal lesser than the transformation of the world. They don't exactly represent the people suffering the most from poverty and corporate corruption. There were no single mothers with kids, few people of color or visible queers, almost nobody middle-aged, unemployed and desperately trying to get back into the job market or pay off a mortgage.

At least so far, most seem young, white, educated. Their prospects for getting a job are a lot tougher than they were five years ago, and they have college debt, but you can almost see the safety nets of race and class below them. They shouldn't apologize for that. They are who they are. The problem is that they believe they are universal and represent us all. They are the center of the world. And dumb as dirt if their publication is anything to go by.


Why not indulge in hope? We do have to start somewhere. They've tapped into something, showed that the left is still capable of life. Ideas could emerge from that soil. Maybe a couple of leaders. Even MLK had to learn as he went. In his autobiography, touching on the setbacks of the Albany Movement, he wrote:

The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair. It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters. One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale ... When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors. Our appraisals not only helped to make our subsequent tactics more effective, but revealed that Albany was far from an unqualified failure.

Anybody listening?

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