Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Two Cathedrals: A leaderless movement can still be led

Read the original at Two Cathedrals

In its editorial last week, CityBeat tried to kickstart a conversation about the future of the Occupy movement, particularly in San Diego. The gist is that the physical occupation side of things has run out of steam and distracted from the original goals of raising awareness and building consensus around the economic and political disparities in San Diego, the country, the world. That’s probably right, although as much as the physical occupation was important because of its impact on others around it, it also worked because it was such a low, opt-in bar for potential activists to clear in order to participate. That’s what makes ‘graduation’ tricky.

The more difficult needle to thread is what comes next? CityBeat recommends joining the system to save the system from itself, a strategy that’s been around forever in equal parts co-option and Crashing the Gate, depending on who’s talking. Especially in San Diego, a more engaged citizenry with higher expectations is a desperately needed step, but it isn’t an end in itself to just make a list of other people who don’t do enough. Occupy has kicked the door open and created opportunity, now it’s everyone’s job to go through it.

Here’s the piece that so few seem to understand — or want to. Occupy was never about occupiers taking over the system. They aren’t aspiring to write new bills, or hold elected officials accountable, or be the next generation of reform politicians. They are think tank policy wonks. They aren’t journalists. They aren’t legislators. They already have vocations and already have lives. They’re protesting the disruption of those vocations and lives because policy, elected officials, watchdogs aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain. They aren’t looking for a new gig — they just want their original gig back. There are plenty of people who have run for office, who have started or joined community organizations, who have invested themselves in the stuff of making our communities stronger, who now must rise to the occasion.

It’s a tough concept to grasp across the spectrum. For every conservative seeking to discredit the objections of the 99%, there are Democrats dodging behind the ‘where’s their plan?’ tut-tut. Scott Peters is waiting to be led. Bob Filner wants to know where the itemized list of demands is and compares with nostalgia to his heroic time as a Freedom Rider. It’s still just four months since Occupy began; it was more than three years between the Freedom Riders departed and the Civil Rights Act was passed. The Voting Rights Act took another year — and after those four years activists were still getting beaten bloody on the road to Selma. They’re running to solve the same problems that Occupiers and their allies are are raising, so solve them. Leadership is earned by example.

Stephen Lerner has been one of the sharpest leaders on this point, identifying the need and the opportunity before there even was an Occupy, emphasizing both the need for an effort shaped like Occupy eventually was and the need of innovative leadership to grow into the bigger issues that the effort has exposed. Now, “Lerner is neither in nor of Occupy Wall Street…Be that as it may, his name is very near the top of that lamentably short list of strategists of how to rebalance power in America so that the 99 percent have more of it.” But he’s helped make clear that economic justice shouldn’t be a difficult concept to champion; leadership should not have trouble rising to meet this occasion.

Everyone needs to maintain and build on this momentum, but it isn’t the time to demand that Occupiers lead everyone else (though they’re welcome to it, and let’s take leadership wherever we can get it). It’s time to demand that all the people who signed up to be our erstwhile leaders to snap out of their reverie and actually do the job. They can do it; they know how. We’ve seen a couple early steps towards challenging the inertia of concentrated money and political power. There’s popular support served up on a platter for anyone willing to earn it.

To their credit, CityBeat declares itself an ally in this effort. But at some point, it has to stop always being someone else’s job to go first. That’s how we found ourselves in this spot to begin with — waiting for someone else to take responsibility. The strength of the Occupy effort is in its work outside the system: Bank Transfer Day moved $4.5 billion into community credit unions. Occupy Our Homes is forcing the country to confront the never-ending foreclosure crisis in new ways.

The opportunity isn’t to turn the 99% into politicians. This moment is when we’ll find out whether any of our politicians are ready to be leaders for the 99% — and whether there’s still room for populism to work at all.

by Lucas O’Connor

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