Tag Archives: social movements

Occupy What? Occupy Where?

occupy-bannerRock Creek  The weekly entertainment and alternative paper in western Montana is the Missoula Independent.   The cover story entitled, “Occupy Missoula:  Where are They Now?” caught my eye.  Coming on the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the movement seems now more firefly than firestorm. 

            The reporter interviewed a half-dozen people who had been prominent in Occupy locally, but the article could probably have been written in scores of other communities. Typical of the power of a movement, all of them had hear the call and responded to the spirit.   Stirred to action by what they were seeing in New York City, more than 200 had assembled in a park of the Clark Fork of the Missouri River and then later camped out in front of the Missoula County Courthouse until winter came freezing them out and breaking them down with one problem or another.

            The cross-section of people interviewed included experienced activists, long accustomed to taking the long view of social change and heartened by the event, random folks seeking a voice to protest the economic collapse and its impact on their families and fortunes, and seekers, folks looking for a way to make change and desperately hoping that Occupy might be the answer.  Many had now scattered to the wind, returning home to work in more traditional nonprofits or teach school.   Others went back to school still grasping for a way to impact issues. 

A common theme runs through all of this that cannot be forgotten:  people want change but they have to find a way to be effective.  The common complaint from the Occupy experience, and for some the disillusionment, was the inability of the movement to define itself, either strategically or, moving past the encampments, tactically. 

One seeker joined an “intentional” community in Missoula that recently connected to something nationally called the International Organization for a Participatory Society or I-Ops for short.  I-Ops sounds like an interesting evolution of some of the strains of the Occupy excitement.   Members include some well known names like Noam Chomsky and David Graeber, the anarchist theorist credited with some of the thinking behind Occupy.   They claim 3200 members worldwide and are clear about their mission, ideology, and principles, which some of the ex-Occupiers appreciate.  They seem to call for a classless society and a participatory economy something along the Zapatista model in Mexico, according to this story.

In the same way Occupy sprang up in communities around the country, I suspect this story could be duplicated in city after city, community after community.  In Little Rock, there is still an Occupy time slot on Saturday afternoon with a heartbeat.  In New Orleans, like so many places, divisions were more common than consensus by the end. In Missoula, the I-Ops folks meet the last Wednesday of the month at the public library. 

Movements happen and their strength is the way they attract moths to the light, too bright, and people drift off again, but some come close enough to see a way to move forward and keep the fight alive, build the next thing, and learn a way to make change a part of their future, making it all worth the flight.


Annals of Organizing: Naked Protests

SHonduran ACORN Organizers and Wade an Pedro Sula Waiting for the meeting to begin ACORN Honduras leaders in the San Pedro Sula area were talking animately back and forth. In my sorry Spanish I could make out the fact that the subject was Cairo and the military, but not enough to be certain how each leader was coming down. I whispered to the volunteer helping translate and she confirmed that almost everyone but one leader believed that Mubarak should have stepped down, and all of them were worried about how the Egyptian people who handle the military from their own experiences in Honduras. When I asked if my companeros did not believe that the protests would go back to Tahrir Square if the military stepped out of line, another burst of talking began and one leader, cowboy hat on his head, held up a flash card to me, which read: “NO.”

We will see soon enough, but the creativity of social movements and their organizations had hit me hard reading earlier in the day about an effective protest and tactic in the frontier Northeast of India which has been under the equivalent of martial law for 50 years through the perverse Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958. Local and international human rights organizations have attempted consistently to make the AFSPA and the military abuses under the act an issue in India, but one government after another has sidestepped the matter despite frequent allegations of murder, torture, and rape by the armed forces.

A local victory came from the courage and creativity of a women’s organization in July and August 2004 to the terrible murder and likely rape of a 32-year old Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama, by soldiers. Here’s how an excellent new book called, The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India by Professors Nandini Deo and Duncan McDuie-Ra, tell the story:

“A group of soldiers from the Assam Rifles paramilitary division and several unidentified others entered Manorama’s house in Imphal and arrested her on the premise that she was an explosives expert with the People’s Liberation Army, the oldest insurgent group in Manipur. They beat her outside the house for three hours while the rest of the family was locked inside. The following afternoon her body was found naked and bullet-ridden by a roadside. It was difficult for doctors to determine whether she had been raped as she had been shot through the vagina. As the news became public the state capital erupted in protest led by the Meira Paibis, the vanguard organization in the women’s movement in Manipu. People poured into the streets demanding the immediate withdrawal of the AFSPA; the army fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd and imposed a curfew. Still the people protested; government offices were set fire, five youths attempted self-immolation in the center of Imphal, while another young man cut off one of his fingers. Opposition political parties joined the protests and demanded that the AFSPA be removed in three days.

“At 10:30 on the morning of July 15, forty middle-aged Manipuri women from the Meira Paibis marched to the Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the local branch of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force. The Kangla Fort is a significant symbol of Manipuri identity and resistance narratives; it is believed to be the first place settled in the Imphal valley and where the Manipuri kingdom was established in AD 33, but it has been occupied by British and Indian armed forces since 1891. The women entered the fort and unfurled anti-AFSPA banners, shouting slogans calling for the removal of the AFSPA. Then a dozen of the women stripped completely naked and ran into the army compound and called out to the soldiers to come and rape them. They then held up a banner that read in red lettering “Indian Army Rape Us,” while those at the gate held up a banner that read “Indian Army Take Our Flesh.”

The protest was extraordinary. Editorials appeared in newspapers from Kolkata to Mumbai debating the AFSPA and publicizing Manipur’s anguish. Displays of solidarity took place in locations like Delhi and Bangalore. Manipur was now on the national agenda.” The AFSPA remains, but the women won a victory nonetheless: “…on November 20, 2004, the protests led to the Assam Rifles vacating the Kangla Fort, the first time in nine decades that the fort returned to Manipuri control. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conducted the handover on the site where the nude protests had taken place. The colonizers were handing the fort back to the colonized, and the women’s movement had been the catalyst for this – something militant groups and transnational networks had been unable to achieve after decades of similar demands.” Meira Paibi in Hindi means “torch-bearing women.”

The military can be beaten!