Read an Excerpt
Occupy Wall Street took everyone by surprise! That surprise was felt by those who initiated the action as well as by others who, like myself, joined in later.
No doubt like other observant participants, in trying to understand what was happening I used previous experience as a template. The experience that came to my mind was that of the New Left of the early 1960s.
From 1960 to 1967 or 1968, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) professed belief in nonviolence and in what we called ‘participatory democracy’. We believed that we are all leaders, and, although we did not use the term, our practice expressed horizontalism. We sought to influence each other by exemplary action rather than by ideological harangue. History, it seemed to us, might come about because Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of a bus, because four young men ‘sat in’ at a segregated lunch counter, or because David Mitchell refused
to be drafted for a war in Vietnam that he considered a war crime.
The Occupy movement exhibits these same characteristics to an astonishing degree. Who would have believed that this ‘structure of feeling’ could reappear after SNCC and SDS crashed and burned in the late Sixties? It is as if beneath the charred surface of the forest floor all manner of seeds, sprouts, networks of green and growing things, somehow survived and now have reappeared.
Thus SNCC and SDS on the one hand, and Occupy on the other, are alike in their commitment to certain values. There are particular problems that we in the Sixties failed to resolve and must therefore pass on, in that unhappy state, to protagonists of Occupy.
The first has to do with demands. We had demands in the Sixties: Yes to the right to vote in the Deep South, No to military service in Vietnam. We knew that behind these problems stood an economic system, capitalism. We did not know how to make specific demands that, if acted on, could change capitalism into something better. We passed on this conundrum to those who came after us, who turned out to be Occupy.
We failed in creating an appropriate process of representative government within our Movement as its numbers grew.
We did not know, and proved unable to learn, how to deal with an intransigent minority in the course of Movement decision-making.
This is a formidable collection of unresolved matters!
Sorry about that, brothers and sisters.
But in effect, history has given all of us a second chance. There is excitement in recognizing that the activists in Movements all around the world, gathered, as we have, in downtown public squares (Wenceslas Square in Prague, Tahrir Square in Cairo), are struggling with the same problems.
In the Sixties we supposed that somewhere there was a society that had found solutions to the issues we experienced. If not the Soviet Union, then surely the intrepid guerrillas of Latin America, Algerian women with their battle cry, the Chinese in seeking to pass on the spirit of revolution to a new generation, even the students of Paris, had found the Answers. Painfully, we discovered that was not the case.
We are all in this together.
Longtime US activist, lawyer, historian and author.