Looking at Occupy and the Arab Spring

AADERT Conference

Springfield   Looking at the connections and contrasts between the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy Movement was an irresistible topic for the 20th conference of AADERT (African and African-American Development, Education, Research, and Training) at Springfield College.  In fact anything that seeks to look deeply at social movements and learn from them counts as irresistible in my book, so I’m clearly not an unbiased guide.  Nonetheless 150 students, professors, activists, and men and women of the African diaspora assembled in the rain at the newish Flynn Union Center for the discussion all day on Saturday.

Listening to others from the diaspora, it did not seem to hold that distance had made hearts go fonder or certainly more secure.  Long time expatriates and exiles from Somolia, the civil wars of Liberia and Ethiopia, and elsewhere had to be judged from their remarks as highly skeptical of the real likelihood for reform and democracy arising from the Arab Spring.  Even less controversial issues like using the internet still reverberated with fears of security and surveillance 7000 miles away and in another world.

I had to heed the perspective since the Organizers’ Forum delegation’s visit to Cairo has been both inspiring and depressing as we both joined friends in hope for the future and the excitement of Tahrir Square and tried last fall to parse the views of mostly secular presidential candidates, none of whom have now survived to the runoff in recent Egyptian voting.  Were I talking to our friends on the Young Revolutionary Council now, I would imagine they are disaffected and uncertain whether to boycott the election completely with a choice between a member of the old Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or hold their eyes and vote for the Brotherhood in hopes they can make a difference.

My own remarks focused on the elements of movements and how they could be identified in each of the movements by shining a light that revealed the hands behind the curtain.  I also tried to look at the contributions of each.  Interestingly, asking people to raise their hands less than a handful had any real knowledge or involvement with Occupy, further making my point about the somewhat elite nature of the movement attacking elites.  [See my remarks soon in Social Policy).  It was fun to be challenged to look at both of these major events together, even though the results are also still out in the jury on both of them.   The highlight for me was a woman at the end of the questions & answers, who said she just had to say something and then told a story of being doorknocked in Springfield by an ACORN organizer a couple of years ago, then getting together with her neighbors and winning – it was magical!

Almost as interesting to me was visiting with a class of Human Services graduate students and their professor, Dan Russell, in between sessions.  These were hardened veterans of real work in the trenches of the caregivers with experience  in unions from SEIU to Steel, and real cynicism and trepidation about whether their voices mattered and whether it was worth them speaking up and raising them when they saw injustice.  It goes without saying that I made my best, impassioned plea.  Their assignment had been to read some of my recent blogs, so it was fun to find some real traction with my remarks about the need for even the lonely voices in the jury box to speak truth to justice about the erosion of both mercy and justice in our criminal system.

Hope is not a plan, as I reminded the AADERT crowd, but persistent and committed work and events like these and the dialogues they produce still keep the heart light with expectation.   After my remarks a young man came up, stood in line to speak with me when it came to his turn, said he was from Monrovia, Liberia, and he wanted to know how he could join ACORN and help.  Now that’s a plan!


Springfield Rebuilding One Year Later Déjà vu All Over Again

Round table discussion at Pioneer Valley AFL-CIO on rebuilding

Springfield     One year ago a tornado cut a 6 mile swatch of destruction through Springfield, Massachusetts, and I was meeting with labor leaders and other activists at the Pioneer Valley AFL-CIO offices to discuss the comparisons between New Orleans and Springfield in the rebuilding.  It was depressing in many ways because even after 7 ½ years since Katrina, it is amazing how little we seem to have learned.  More unnerving was reading the Rebuild Springfield plan written by many of the same consultants that had collected millions in New Orleans and how little they had to offer and how much they seem to virtually fabricate from the New Orleans experience:  it was like reading about both a Springfield and a New Orleans that I didn’t know.

Best practices held up from New Orleans by Goody Clancey and others including the Tulane neighborhood health centers without any recognition that New Orleans still had not recovered hospital beds, Brad Pitt’s unsustainable Make it Right houses in the Lower 9th which are not replicable there or anywhere else, and neighborhood networks that are foundation funded fronts that practically speaking don’t exist on the ground.  Over and over again the Springfield plans spoke of input that no one could verify on dreams that no one could realize.  Tenants having problems with landlords were advised to seek volunteers and read about a tenant rights’ flash card costing $10 a piece also with roots in New Orleans – bizarre!  Over and over again there were plans with no funding and only the flimsiest idea of where the money might be.  Talking about economic development, the plan read like a Richard Florida piece on recruiting young techies to try out an old mill town’s bar scene.  The biggest economic recommendation was to upgrade the economic development agency.  Just pathetic!  No wonder people were mad and disappointed, and ready to join with ARISE to protest city officials about being left out.

ARISE and others protest exclusion from rebuilding plans in Springfield

Over and over again I watched heads shake in agreement both during the labor and activist meeting and later at the Odyssey Bookstore talking about my book, Battle for the Ninth, and the experience of New Orleans.  The organizational capacity was not on the ground, the ability to move people quickly to recover despite elite and business interests and to move political mountains wasn’t there.  Opportunities were lost and people were hurt.

One question kept nagging about how we could do better next time, and my answer was inadequate.   No one believes it can ever happen here.  What does it take to realize it always happen to someone someday, so why not be ready?

More discussion with labor and community leaders on rebuilding