Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thoughts on Occupy: the method is the goal

A few thoughts about the Occupy Movement:

First, I am overjoyed that this movement has been overwhelmingly nonviolent in its methods and intent.  This in itself is huge.  Through many of the demonstrations already staged, the effectiveness of nonviolent strategies has been reinforced to participants and observers.  In cases where nonviolent discipline has held most strongly, as in the case of the UC Davis students, the movement has gained its greatest support. 

I am very impressed with the breadth of creativity in tactics and expression.  I love all the kinds of art forms that participants have been using.  I was an occupier on the first day and took part in a street theatre action, and it felt right to be using the creative arts right from the beginning.

The emphasis on democratic, truly grassroots process bodes well.  Always, the methods are embedded in the ends achieved.  It's wonderful to see groups of people sitting together, doing the hard, hard work of consensus building.  I have some experience with this from taking part in Quaker business meetings, and I appreciate both the rewards and the challenges of  the consensus process.

I am concerned that targeting the "1%" as culprits in our economic stuggles may lead to certain people being labeled enemies.  To me, the enemy is not certain people, but rather systemic problems in US society and culture. Militarism is a culprit, for example, but that doesn't mean soldiers are enemies.  In fact, like city police, military personnel are caught in the problems of the system in many ways, just as civilians are.  If we can focus on reducing the resources put into maintaining a huge military structure, then that is addressing the problem.  Focusing on the wealthy or the police doesn't get to the heart of the matter, even though the confrontations have been educational.

This is where I think the nonviolent methods used by occupiers have been teaching us well.  We can see so clearly that, as the UC Davis students said, words are greater than weapons.  We have the tools of nonviolence to protect ourselves and to make change. 

So, to me, this is where the Occupy movement may lead.  As Occupy and the hundreds of thousands of nonviolent demonstrators across the Middle East have been proving, people power really can trump military power.  Military might is an obstacle to democratic reform, not a champion of it.  If people all over the world decide it, we can divest from the weapons trade, a dead-end business.  We do not need huge military forces to "protect" us. We can draw them down and invest instead in businesses that create rather than destroy. I am convinced that our economy will prosper if we do that.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blog break, but please read Waging Nonviolence!

Oh my, the time has flown.  I had a family event come up last spring and just didn't get back to blogging after that.  But, truly wondrous and courageous nonviolence has been emerging all over the world this year, and I've been thrilled.  I recommend the Waging Nonviolence blog for great reporting and analysis in this age of peacemaking.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

People Power in Wisconsin

I've been glued, this morning, to live video from the Madison capitol building, listening to the articulate responses of Wisconsinites who have spent the night there, upholding constitutional freedoms on behalf of us all.  For some historical context, I like this editorial published today by the Capital Times, and it's good to see one publication championing another.  Austin's own Jim Hightower will be part of The Progressive event this weekend. 

Progressive Wisconsin: A Tradition of Opposing Corporate Power

Capital Times Editorial

“The great issue before the American people today is the control of their own government. In the midst of political struggle, it is not easy to see the historical relations of the present Progressive movement. But it represents a conflict as old as the history of man — the fight to maintain human liberty, the rights of all people.” — Robert M. La Follette, 1912

Carnations are laid on a bust of Robert La Follette in the Capitol rotunda as demonstrations continued in Madison on Monday, Feb. 21, 2011. (CRAIG SCHREINER — State Journal)

More than a century ago, on a Fourth of July in Mineral Point, Robert M. La Follette sounded the call against corporate power.

“So multifarious have become corporate affairs, so many concessions and privileges have been accorded them by legislation -- so many more are sought by further legislation -- that their specially retained representatives are either elected to office, directly in their interests, or maintained in a perpetual lobby to serve them,” declared the founder of the progressive movement.
“Hence it is that the corporation does not limit its operations to the legitimate conduct of its business. Human nature everywhere is selfish, and with the vast power which consolidated capital can wield, with the impossibility of fixing any personal or moral responsibility for corporate acts, its commands are heard and obeyed in the capitals of the state and nation.”

La Follette saw unrestrained corporate power as the great threat to representative government.

When corporations are allowed to engage in political competition, using their vast resources to warp our electoral processes, La Follette warned that certain results would be guaranteed by a government no longer representative of the people but instead beholden to paymasters in distant boardrooms.

“When legislatures will boldly repudiate their constituents and violate the pledges of their platforms, then indeed have the servants become the masters, and the people ceased to be sovereign -- gone the government of equal rights and equal responsibilities, lost the jewel of constitutional liberty. Do not look to such lawmakers to restrain corporations within proper limits. Do not look to such lawmakers to equalize the burden of taxation,” warned La Follette.

This language sounds prescient at a moment when Gov. Scott Walker pockets checks from billionaire out-of-state campaign donors, then accepts a call he presumes to be from one of those donors and laughs about their shared “vested interest” in breaking public employee unions.

But the progressive movement, founded by La Follette to tip the balance back toward government of, by and for the people, was also prescient.

The power struggle now going on in Wisconsin, between Walker and his billionaire donors on one side and public workers, teachers, private workers, farmers and students on the other, is not a new one. Nor is the response to it.  It has been a good long time since we have seen this sort of exercise of our rights to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances, this sort of mass mobilization of working people, this sort of uprising against corporate power and corrupt politicians.

But the struggle has roots, in this state’s history and its present.

La Follette died in 1925. But the progressive flame has been kept burning since by institutions and individuals. The Madison-based Progressive magazine, which Robert and Belle La Follette began with a circle of allies in 1909, has been the steady champion of its founding faith, often working in conjunction with this newspaper in Wisconsin but also providing a national and international platform for progressive ideals and struggles.

Over the past decade, Ed Garvey and a community of volunteers from across the state built the “Fighting Bob” projects -- Fighting Bob Fest, www.fightingbob.com, the Peoples’ Legislature -- which renewed an interest in the La Follette legacy and renewed the tradition of mass gatherings.

Along with unions and farm groups that have maintained progressive traditions, as well as individuals who have remembered what made Wisconsin great, these institutions kept a consciousness that underpins and strengthens our state’s remarkable response to the assault on worker rights and representative government that Walker has launched.

At 7 p.m. Saturday, at the Barrymore Theatre, The Progressive will sponsor a free “Speak-Out for Workers’ Rights: Say NO to Union-Busting” rally, featuring Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison; Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; and Texas populist Jim Hightower. They’ll be joined by Garvey and The Progressive’s Matt Rothschild and Ruth Conniff.

If you hear an echo, it will be that of La Follette saying: “Think of the heroes who died to make this country free; think of their sons who died to keep it undivided upon the map of the world. Shall we, their children, basely surrender our birthright and say representative government is a failure? No, never, until Bunker Hill and Little Round Top sink into the very earth. Let us here, today, under this flag we all love, hallowed by the memory of all that has been sacrificed for it and for us, dedicate ourselves to winning back the independence of this country, to emancipating this generation and throwing off from the neck of the freemen of America the yoke of the political machine.”

La Follette and the progressives of another century fought the rail barons and their stalwart Republican pawns. The progressives of this day fight the Koch brothers and their Walker spawn. The conflict is nothing new. And it remains as it has ever been: “the fight to maintain human liberty, the rights of all people.”

© 2011 The Capital Times.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Day of the Fallen

The Workers Defense Project organized a march and rally today called 'Day of the Fallen" to commemorate the deaths of construction workers in the state of Texas.  We began the march at the Federal Building Plaza and carried 138 black coffin replicas to the steps of the Texas Capitol. 

Although the coffins were built lightly of foam core board and contained only air, I felt the heaviness of the sadness we were conveying.

People had come for the march from as far away as El Paso, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.  We numbered about 300, I think.  Included were union members and family members of construction workers who had died on the job.

Jim Hightower spoke, and Eliza Gilkyson sang.  Rev. Jim Rigby emceed.  There were prayers in English and in Espanol, gospel music and a singalong of "If I had a hammer," led by a young trio.

We stood with our CodePink banner in solidarity, and I watched legislators and their aides come out of the capitol, skirting our demonstration, looking sideways at the coffins.  I wanted them to stop and listen, but they walked quickly on.

On my way home, I looked out the bus window at the beautiful buildings in our downtown, the new lofts and storefronts.  Most of the people who built them can not afford to live in them.  Some of the people who built them were injured on the job.  Some were not paid for their work.  When I pass the spot on Rio Grande where three immigrant men fell to their deaths because of faulty equipment, I sense their spirits are present, asking me why.  The chic little shop that opened a few feet from where the men hit the earth is called, "Bodega on Rio."         

Monday, February 28, 2011

On, Wisconsin!

As a native Wisconsinite transplanted in Texas, I've been following the news out of Madison with much interest and enthusiasm.  I talked with my mother today, who lives in my Wisconsin hometown, just east of Madison.  She said that yesterday, she felt she just had to get out and show her support for the capitol protests.  So, she made a sign that read, "Negotiation is the heart of democracy" and, together with my dad, who held a peace sign, bundled up and went downtown to join a vigil with several friends.  They roused many more honks than thumbs down, my mom said.  In their mid-eighties, my folks are still active and engaged citizens, models of participation.  Yes, they can!

My folks and I also often talk about the solutions we see for the money crunch.  Wisconsin has a $3.6 billion shortfall this year.  US military operations in Iraq are expected to cost $3.8 billion per month this year.  Costs for US military operations in Afghanistan this year are projected to run $9.5 billion per month.  In 2008, the cost of the Iraq war was approximately $16.5 billion per month.

States rely on many sources of federal funds.  When war drains billions from the federal budget, states feel the sqeeze.  Add to that the direct costs of war to state budgets -- Wisconsin National Guard troops sent abroad, health care costs of injured veterans and 130 Wisconsin troop deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stop funding war.  Schools will have everything they need.

photo by John Hart from the Wisconsin State Journal

Friday, February 11, 2011

Victory of Nonviolence in Egypt

I am absolutely elated by the triumph of nonviolent people power in Egypt! Like so many supporters all over the world, I’ve been glued to news from Egypt since January 25, feeling a mixture of hope and concern for the movement, praying that demonstrators would be able to adhere to nonviolence despite violence done to them. Every day, my hope deepened as people displayed great courage and creativity in the face of weapons, police force, imprisonment and torture. And now, today, such joyous success! When tyranny is overcome through the power of nonviolence, there is no sweeter victory.

I have to think about Iraq – and how Saddam Hussein likewise could have been ousted through a people’s movement, had there been enough support for a civil resistance movement to grow. Instead, the US did exactly the opposite – destroying civil society through the savage bombings of 1991 and the years of debilitating economic sanctions that followed. The invasion of 2003 was not only a crime against an already battered people, it was the antithesis of how to encourage democratic reform. The people’s movement in Egypt has put in even starker relief the debacle of US policy in Iraq and gives us a vision of what might have been. Democracy cannot be forced at the point of a gun.

A positive corollary of the Egyptian people’s movement is this: I have a sense that during these 18 days of mass demonstrations, there has been less violence throughout the Middle East. People have watched the movement in Tunisia, then in Egypt with much interest, taking note that mass nonviolent protest has garnered much more sympathetic attention around the world than terror attacks.  I can imagine that someone who might have been contemplating committing a suicide bombing would now change his mind.  The success of the nonviolent movement will surely motivate more groups and individuals to take this lesson from the Egyptian people and acknowledge that violent strategies are too costly and only serve to justify state repression and violent intervention.

Now, will this obvious lesson also be learned by the Pentagon?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Flowers and solidarity in Egypt

wonderful account by Medea Benjamin, reporting from Cairo:

Our first attempt to buy flowers for the demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square was thwarted by a crazed-looking guy with a gun in one hand and a homemade spear in another (pruning shears taped to a broomstick, to be exact). Three of us, all Americans, were in a taxi driving to the flower market when this fellow stopped our car at gunpoint. His hand on the trigger, he forced us to pull over. Soon we were surrounded by a dozen pro-Mubarak thugs who started yelling in Arabic and broken English that foreigners like us were causing all the trouble in Egypt.

They said they were policemen but none was wearing a uniform. They seized our passports and then four of these characters squeezed into our taxi to "take us to government headquarters." Frantic, we started calling everyone we knew--local lawyers and activists, friends back home, the U.S. Embassy.

Soon the car stopped at an intersection manned by about ten soldiers. The officer in charge peered into the car and asked us where we were from. "Americans," he smiled with approval. "I love America." He started chatting about his training in Ft. Eustis, Virginia, while we sat terrified. To our amazement, he ordered our kidnappers to get out of our taxi, return our passports and let us go. We sped off, not looking back. Our poor taxi driver was shaking. "No flowers," he said. "Hotel."

Back at the hotel, we discussed our options. We were thankful not to be in some dark interrogation room being beaten to a pulp, but we still wanted to get the flowers. Folks back home had donated money for us to support the activists, and these people were putting their lives at risk to overthrow a dictator supported by our taxdollars. We could donate blankets, food and medicines through Egyptian groups, but we had to get the flowers ourselves.

We decided that the blonds, Billy Kelly and I, would stay behind and we'd send Tighe Barry and Rob Mosrie, who blend in more. Instead of taking a taxi, they'd go by metro. If stopped, they would say they were buying flowers for a friend's funeral.

Miraculously, they returned two hours later with a truckload of flowers. Praying that no thugs would beat us up along the way, we piled the flowers in our arms, grabbed our "Solidarity with Egyptian People" banner, and headed toward the square.

People along the street started clapping, smiling, giving us the thumbs up. "Free, free Egypt," we shouted, as we were swept into the square by a sea of people. They were hugging us, kissing us, snapping our photos--and crushing us and the flowers. Thankfully, we were rescued from the chaos by a group of men who linked arms to form a ring around us. Steering us toward the main stage, they hoisted us onto the railing so that people could see us. We began throwing roses, carnations, gladiolas and marigolds into the cheering crowd who yelled out, in Arabic, "The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated."

It was exhilarating. What a privilege to feel connected to this joyous mass of humanity that was charting a new course for the entire Middle East. I was in awe of their bravery, their devotion, their love for their country and each other. I looked down and saw a teenager who had ripped open his shirt to proudly show us his chest full of bandages from the street battles. "You are my family," he shouted, as he jumped up and down, crying and blowing kisses our way. "I love you."

All of a sudden, there was a commotion next to us. A military man was making his way to the stage. It was General Hassan El-Rawani, the head of the army's central command, coming to speak to the masses. Someone handed him a white gladiola. He took it awkwardly, looked over at us and smiled. Then he addressed the crowd.

The military has been in an untenable position and this was a particularly tense day. The commanders had promised they would not attack peaceful protesters, but the government was fed up with the protesters camping out in the city's main plaza. Today was Saturday, day 12 of the uprising. The army had orders to clear the square by Sunday so that life in Cairo could "get back to normal." Everyone was worried about what the army would do. The crowd became silent as the General spoke.

He urged the people to leave the square peacefully. He told them they had won, that a new government had already been appointed. It was time to go home.

He also warned the people not to be manipulated by outside forces who were pushing them to keep up the protests. Like the thugs who carjacked us at gunpoint earlier in the day, pro-Mubarak forces have been putting forth this line that the protests are instigated by foreign forces--from Iran and Hamas to America and Israel--who want to create instability in Egypt.

One of the young pro-democracy organizers looked at us while the General was speaking and laughed. "It's crazy how they try to blame this purely Egyptian uprising on foreigners," he said. "Perhaps they'll try to say that these flowers are part of some American plot to incite the masses."

Meanwhile, the General was still asking the protesters to leave the square. They were respectful, but stood their ground. "We won't go till Mubarak goes," they chanted back at him.

Having tried his best, the General stepped down from the stage and walked back through the crowd. He was still holding the white gladiola. And the next day, the people were still holding the square.
photo by Medea Benjamin