An Open Letter to the Occupy Movement: Why We Need Agreements

Alliance of Community Trainers is the training collective I work with.  Here’s our statement to the Occupy movement on questions of violence, nonviolence and strategy:

From the Alliance of Community Trainers, ACT

The Occupy movement has had enormous successes in the short time since September when activists took over a square near Wall Street. It has attracted hundreds of thousands of active participants, spawned occupations in cities and towns all over North America, changed the national dialogue and garnered enormous public support. It’s even, on occasion, gotten good press!

Now we are wrestling with the question that arises again and again in movements for social justice—how to struggle. Do we embrace nonviolence, or a ‘diversity of tactics?’ If we are a nonviolent movement, how do we define nonviolence? Is breaking a window violent?

We write as a trainers’ collective with decades of experience, from the anti-Vietnam protests of the sixties through the strictly nonviolent antinuclear blockades of the seventies, in feminist, environmental and anti-intervention movements and the global justice mobilizations of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. We embrace many labels, including feminist, anti-racist, eco-feminist and anarchist. We have many times stood shoulder to shoulder with black blocs in the face of the riot cops, and we’ve been tear-gassed, stun-gunned, pepper sprayed, clubbed, and arrested,

While we’ve participated in many actions organized with a diversity of tactics, we do not believe that framework is workable for the Occupy Movement. Setting aside questions of morality or definitions of ‘violence’ and ‘nonviolence’ – for no two people define ‘violence’ in the same way – we ask the question:

What framework can we organize in that will build on our strengths, allow us to grow, embrace a wide diversity of participants, and make a powerful impact on the world?

‘Diversity of tactics’ becomes an easy way to avoid wrestling with questions of strategy and accountability. It lets us off the hook from doing the hard work of debating our positions and coming to agreements about how we want to act together. It becomes a code for ‘anything goes,’ and makes it impossible for our movements to hold anyone accountable for their actions.

The Occupy movement includes people from a broad diversity of backgrounds, life experiences and political philosophies. Some of us want to reform the system and some of us want to tear it down and replace it with something better. Our one great point of agreement is our call for transparency and accountability. We stand against the corrupt institutions that broker power behind closed doors. We call to account the financial manipulators that have bilked billions out of the poor and the middle classes.

Just as we call for accountability and transparency, we ourselves must be accountable and transparent. Some tactics are incompatible with those goals, even if in other situations they might be useful, honorable or appropriate. We can’t be transparent behind masks. We can’t be accountable for actions we run away from. We can’t maintain the security culture necessary for planning and carrying out attacks on property and also maintain the openness that can continue to invite in a true diversity of new people. We can’t make alliances with groups from impacted communities, such as immigrants, if we can’t make agreements about what tactics we will employ in any given action.

The framework that might best serve the Occupy movement is one of strategic nonviolent direct action. Within that framework, Occupy groups would make clear agreements about which tactics to use for a given action. This frame is strategic—it makes no moral judgments about whether or not violence is ever appropriate, it does not demand we commit ourselves to a lifetime of Gandhian pacifism, but it says, ‘This is how we agree to act together at this time.’ It is active, not passive. It seeks to create a dilemma for the opposition, and to dramatize the difference between our values and theirs.

Strategic nonviolent direct action has powerful advantages:

We make agreements about what types of action we will take, and hold one another accountable for keeping them. Making agreements is empowering. If I know what to expect in an action, I can make a choice about whether or not to participate. While we can never know nor control how the police will react, we can make choices about what types of action we stand behind personally and are willing to answer for. We don’t place unwilling people in the position of being held responsible for acts they did not commit and do not support.

In the process of coming to agreements, we listen to each other’s differing viewpoints. We don’t avoid disagreements within our group, but learn to debate freely, passionately, and respectfully.

We organize openly, without fear, because we stand behind our actions. We may break laws in service to the higher laws of conscience. We don’t seek punishment nor admit the right of the system to punish us, but we face the potential consequences for our actions with courage and pride.

Because we organize openly, we can invite new people into our movement and it can continue to grow. As soon as we institute a security culture in the midst of a mass movement, the movement begins to close in upon itself and to shrink.

Holding to a framework of nonviolent direct action does not make us ‘safe.’ We can’t control what the police do and they need no direct provocation to attack us. But it does let us make clear decisions about what kinds of actions we put ourselves at risk for.

Nonviolent direct action creates dilemmas for the opposition, and clearly dramatizes the difference between the corrupt values of the system and the values we stand for. Their institutions enshrine greed while we give away food, offer shelter, treat each person with generosity. They silence dissent while we value every voice. They employ violence to maintain their system while we counter it with the sheer courage of our presence.

Lack of agreements privileges the young over the old, the loud voices over the soft, the fast over the slow, the able-bodied over those with disabilities, the citizen over the immigrant, white folks over people of color, those who can do damage and flee the scene over those who are left to face the consequences.

Lack of agreements and lack of accountability leaves us wide open to provocateurs and agents. Not everyone who wears a mask or breaks a window is a provocateur. Many people clearly believe that property damage is a strong way to challenge the system. And masks have an honorable history from the anti-fascist movement in Germany and the Zapatista movement in Mexico, who said “We wear our masks to be seen.”

But a mask and a lack of clear expectations create a perfect opening for those who do not have the best interests of the movement at heart, for agents and provocateurs who can never be held to account. As well, the fear of provocateurs itself sows suspicion and undercuts our ability to openly organize and grow.

A framework of strategic nonviolent direct action makes it easy to reject provocation. We know what we’ve agreed to—and anyone urging other courses of action can be reminded of those agreements or rejected.

We hold one another accountable not by force or control, ours or the systems, but by the power of our united opinion and our willingness to stand behind, speak for, and act to defend our agreements.

A framework of strategic nonviolent direct action agreements allows us to continue to invite in new people, and to let them make clear choices about what kinds of tactics and actions they are asked to support.

There’s plenty of room in this struggle for a diversity of movements and a diversity of organizing and actions. Some may choose strict Gandhian nonviolence, others may choose fight-back resistance. But for the Occupy movement, strategic nonviolent direct action is a framework that will allow us to grow in diversity and power.

From the Alliance of Community Trainers, ACT

Starhawk

Lisa Fithian

Juniper

To comment or endorse this statement, got to:

http://trainersalliance.org/

This entry was posted in Occupy movement, political activism, social justice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

16 Comments

  1. Rick B
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. I agree 100%.

  2. Cameron
    Posted November 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    I am working my way down what I call your “Occupy Posts” – I figured you were out in the middle of it! I just want to point out one thing – don’t let the Occupy Protests work gain more ground in your life than the work for “The Fifth Sacred Thing” movie…that movie may well become the greatest thing you ever do, the most meaningful vehicle you will ever have to get across the message so many of us believe in, and it may become the greatest asset to us and the Occupy movement there is. Don’t get distracted – balance. Thanks for all you do!

    • Posted November 11, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      Thanks! And while I am writing more about the Occupy movement, we are working very hard on the movie and making great progress. But it’s not very dramatic to write, “We had this really great meeting today, and then I had another very productive meeting, and after that, I wrote up the notes from the meetings and added them to our Google docs….” Thanks for the suppport!

  3. Posted November 11, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    @OccupyLA we have a problem with young anarchists behind bandanas agitating police. There are also Anonymous supporters who wear Guy Fawkes masks but they don’t do that. What places have you seen different? I’d really like to know more, particular if this is an issue with Anons and you can email me or respond here.

  4. Posted November 18, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Hello Starhawk,
    Since you probably won’t read this I feel defeated before I start. I understand becoming an icon and everything but can you spare a minute? Your book The Fifth Sacred Thing and the sequel were inspirational. I’ve written a trilogy that embraces the same ideals–(and it was written before I read your book)–I was hoping to have you read Wolf Moon but realize now that you are way too busy–yes, this time we’re in is pretty crazy but for those of us who are trying to put our small voice out, we need support from those who have the clout to support us! I am older than you are, have lived through the 60′s and demonstrated and tried to live a life that represented my ideals…my books represent those ideals and I would love to bring them to the public eye.

    If you see this and have a moment I would love to have you read Wolf Moon and comment.(or just the first book, The Moonstone) I would use your comments on Amazon and on my blog to promote the books as well as you and what you stand for.
    p.s. we all try to do our part in whatever way we can.
    My e-mail is nbroadwell@qwest.net and my website will be wolfmoontrilogy.com–right now you can reach me by my e-mail or on my blog–niksblog-authorinprogress.blogspot.com

  5. Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Here is the 2 prt video from your Occupy Vancouver talk. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, experience and passion with us! Your presence has reinvigorated & given hope to our movement! <3
    Youtube pt1
    Youtube pt2
    BB
    DM*

  6. Tiffanny Nicks
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    hey…I am an artist and I am very interested in doing some pieces for the Occupy Movement…email me or look me up on facebook please I want to help and well i have this gift and I want to use it for a higher purpose then myself…Thanks and lady you are very inspireing

  7. Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    That’s the perfect ingisht in a thread like this.

  8. Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Speaking truth to power — thanks for this one from your article.

    Lack of agreements privileges the young over the old, the loud voices over the soft, the fast over the slow, the able-bodied over those with disabilities, the citizen over the immigrant, white folks over people of color, those who can do damage and flee the scene over those who are left to face the consequences.

  9. Posted January 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    This statement speaks my mind. Wondering how this was received around Bay Area occupy groups & others. From latest news from Oakland, it’s a little hard to tell what agreements are in place. Here in Seattle right now, the “diversity of tactics” discussion seems to be coming to the forefront, so I’m curious to know how this has played out elsewhere.

  10. Posted February 5, 2012 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    I am so grateful for this piece and would like to see it brought as a proposal to GAs around the country in light of the recent events in Oakland and other cities.

  11. Kathy Kelly
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Just a note to say how helpful we are finding this durable and relevant statement.

  12. Posted April 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Dear Starhawk,
    I met you in 1982, you advised me on leading a prayer for the ERA fasters, I was one of them. I am so deeply moved by your letter. I too have not retired or stopped progressing. Actually, I find it confounding when people my age ask why am I still involved in social justice movements. As if one could just stop like a faucet.
    Gandhi himself left Mrs Pankhurst when she called for the windows to be broken all over London, including Parliament, as he knew that the means and the end are one. You have captured this intelligence and carry it on. I am so proud of you and thank you.
    Zoe Nicholson

  13. abster
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Anything less than radical nonviolence is doomed to failure. Why not do what works? Have we learned nothing from Gandhi and King?

  14. Posted June 5, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Whether we name them agreements, or “being together in a good way”, or guidelines, or conscious practices of communal respect, etc., they give us a container for the work that needs to be done, a template for relating that helps our engagements to be more authentic. When using PeerSpirit circle methodology, one of the most important pieces to have in place is a group-generated set of agreements. Thanks for this reminder in this context too, Starhawk.

12 Trackbacks

  1. [...] http://starhawksblog.org/?p=675 By Starhawk | Published: November 9, 2011 [...]

  2. [...] You may want to read the whole letter at An Open Letter to the Occupy Movement: Why We Need Agreements [also]. [...]

  3. [...] ideas are drawn from Starhawk’s new book – The Empowerment Manual.  She  spoke about An Open Letter to the Occupy Movement: Why We Need Agreements which she wrote to offer help to the [...]

  4. [...] Pagan author, Reclaiming Tradition co-founder, and social justice activist will be visiting the Twin Cities in support of the Occupy Minnesota movement next Monday and [...]

  5. [...] Excerpted from the Alliance of Community Trainers, (Starhawk, Lisa Fithian,Lauren Ross) : [...]

  6. [...] Why we need agreements [...]

  7. By A Gentleman’s view. | Occupy: Organized Chaos on March 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    [...] the mayhem, citing the need for “diversity of tactics.” But Fithian countered in an open letter that “diversity of tactics becomes a code for ‘anything goes,’ and makes it [...]

  8. By Meet Professor Occupy Lisa Fithian on April 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    [...] the mayhem, citing the need for “diversity of tactics.” But Fithian countered in an open letter that “diversity of tactics becomes a code for ‘anything goes,’ and makes it [...]

  9. [...] in November, some good activists working with Occupy Wall Street wrote: “‘Diversity of tactics’ becomes an easy way to avoid wrestling with questions of [...]

  10. [...] has been a lively (but not too loud) debate within the Occupy movement about the issue of violence. Prior to the winter hiatus, almost all Occupy-related violence has come from the police — the [...]

  11. [...] has been a lively (but not too loud) debate within the Occupy movement about the issue of violence. Prior to the winter hiatus, almost all Occupy-related violence has come from the police — the [...]

  12. [...] has been a lively (but not too loud) debate within the Occupy movement about the issue of violence. Prior to the winter hiatus, almost all Occupy-related violence has come from the police — the [...]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>