Firstly, let me say thankyou for what you are doing for a fairer and more compassionate world. I spent a bit of time around the camp in week one, and experienced it as an inclusive space where significant conversations were taking place.
What follows is my hopes, my encouragements, for what they’re worth, from someone who has studied and participated in social change movements in some depth.
What we saw at last Friday’s eviction was just the first skirmish in a larger struggle, a struggle which may take years and must be conducted nonviolently if it is to succeed in birthing a better world than the one in which we currently live. And by ‘nonviolently’ I do not mean merely the absence of violence but the robust, active, public, persistent transformation of wrong.
Now the real struggle begins.
We are witnessing a shift in world politics which has for too long been allowed to be dominated by a few. It would be easy and self satisfying to blame the few for this, but we must take our share of the responsibility, for we the many have largely remained inactive and therefore ineffective.
That is changing. The ordinary people of the world are shaking off their apathy and rising up for a world of love and justice. We are realising that we all need each other. More than ever in this world we are all interconnected.
In fact, even the very language of the 99% implies our need of the 1% to be whole. This is as it should be, for as long as we all live under the same blue sky we cannot pretend we exist in isolation from one another.
That’s why I encourage you to not just refuse to demonise your opponents but to treat them with love and respect. Whether we’re talking about those who are sceptical or outright opposed, if you are to succeed you need to win them over, not alienate them further. You must therefore act in such a way that you win the sympathy, and then the support, of the majority. Know that the public wants to choose a side with which to identify in this struggle, but whether or not they do depends entirely on the way you conduct yourselves. If you are to win, you have to be the ones with whom they want to identify. You have to be the courageous ones, the principled ones, the disciplined ones, the ones who persevere with patience and love. If not for moral reasons, then for strategic ones.
Resist the temptation to scapegoat or demonise others, even those who make themselves the most bitter opponents of this movement. Demonisation of others may help you feel self righteous but does nothing to win over the very people you call brothers and sisters in the 99%. What is more it ignores the reality of our own moral ambiguity, and sets you up as dishonest and hypocritical. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has said, the dividing line of good and evil runs through us all. Let us therefore admit our own failings as well as keeping others accountable for theirs. But let us not allow our own failings to be used as excuses for inaction. You will win by appealing to the best of both your opponents and yourselves, not by shaming the worst.
Nonviolent action cannot be defeated because it carries within it the seeds of its own moral victory: persevering love that puts itself at the service of others. It works because our capacity to accept suffering for a noble cause is greater than our opponents capacity to inflict it. It does not seek suffering out but is willing to persevere through it where necessary because the cause is greater than any one of us.
Persistent nonviolent action cannot be defeated by the violence of your opponents for with every use of violent force they undermine their own moral legitimacy; they admit that they have run out of sufficiently compelling ideas to be convincing. The reality is, the only ones who can lose this struggle are you – either by giving up, or resorting to violence.
The key to broadening the movement is reducing your opponents’ fear – and believe me, they are afraid of you, which is why Friday’s eviction was conducted so brutally. Reducing their fear is not the same as backing down; on the contrary. They need to know they have nothing to fear from you, but you will not go away. If with every instance of repression you remain silent but resolute, polite but defiant, the truth in which you stand has a chance to shine through. With every such act you bond together, and as you bond together you get stronger and draw more people. Fear begets fear. Courage begets courage.
After all, police and authorities know only too well how to deal with hostility and violence – it’s what they’re trained and ready for. What they’re not equipped or prepared for is love. Love undermines and transforms any hostility they display towards you. It’s much easier to beat up or hurt someone who is hostile to you than someone who displays only kindness and generosity.
To those who think nonviolence is for the weak, I encourage you to look at its exemplars in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, the Serbian Otpor! movement, the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers and elsewhere. Nonviolence requires a discipline and strength of character, especially in the face of oppression and provocation, that the violent will never know. It also requires a serious sense of humour. Whatever else you do, enjoy yourselves.
No one ever said this struggle could be conducted without inconvenience, difficulty or suffering though. The powerful few have resources at their disposal and they will use them to maintain their place. But know that in time you will overcome – not by strength of arms, but by strength of character.
Remember you cannot rely on the mainstream media to be your allies. This is not entirely their fault; we’re talking about a quantum shift in imagination, something even the Occupy movement itself doesn’t fully understand yet. You will be the exemplars of what Peter Maurin called “a new world in the shell of the old.” One thing we must insist on; that the means are the ends in seed form. That if we want a more inclusive and democratic society then all voices must be heard and valued – even the ones we disagree with, and the ones we think are crazy. That if we want a world where all have enough then those who have more must share what they have with those who have less. That if we want a peaceful world without war or threat of violence, then we must do conflict well. It is us who must give flesh and bones to such a world, so that imagination is no longer needed.
So stay humble. Stay compassionate. Witness to a better way.
I will stand with you. We are the 99%. Together we will become the 100%.
EDIT: I am concerned that my open letter above was misunderstood by some as too passive – because it was written partly in response to the violent eviction on Friday, and the potentially volatile backlash within the movement, it probably didn’t focus enough on continued, repeated defiance of the existing order. Nonviolence is essential for practical and moral reasons, but it should not be mistaken for passivity or a lack of active engagement. As Gene Sharp says, nonviolence is not passive, it is action which is nonviolent. If Occupy does not pose a serious (nonviolent) threat to the existing order (not to the safety/wellbeing of those who run it) it will become just another carnival of protest.
That said, I understand that many who were in the thick of things on Eviction Friday were deeply traumatised by the violence of the police. My concern is that a) they were unprepared for it (hence the importance of training everyone who participates in nonviolence, early and often) and b) instead of building resilience and solidarity, the fear of police has been allowed to rule the day for many, whether by passivity (retreat to faraway spaces) or counter-violence (“f*** the cops” type of language). It should be noted that some remained nonviolent (that is, neither allowing their actions to be intimidated by police nor reacting in kind) and were able to hold the State Library over the weekend as a consequence, despite forcible eviction and despite protestations of some within the movement that such a feat was impossible or would result in more police violence. This should be a lesson for Occupy Melbourne in the kind of gentle but robust defiance I’m talking about.
In other words, don’t be afraid of creating tension and conflict by appropriate, strategic nonviolent civil disobedience or defiance of authority. As Dr. King said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored… Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Finally, if you haven’t already read Zizek’s analysis of the Occupy Movement I suggest you do so now.