This essay is going to seem like I’m going around my ass to get to my elbow. I probably am. Bear with me.
A friend of mine, a remarkable musician and a local pastor, tells the story of a friend’s wife who has been recently diagnosed with ALS. His friend’s initial instinct was to pray for peace and that God’s will be done… However, after a few weeks, he decided that it seemed reasonable that he reach further and that he should “pray for a pony.” When he was a boy, this friend never prayed for what he really wanted (a pony) and instead always asked God to provide him with a lesser gift. Why in the world would he not pray for his wife’s complete healing?
So I will join my friend, as he “prays for a pony” (for complete healing). My pastor friend goes on to encourage us to pray for ponies in your own lives.
So why not a pony?
This weekend people from across Virginia will converge on Roanoke for a statewide General Assembly. I will be attending along with some sizeable number of local Occupiers. An ambitious agenda is planned.
I read the article RE crossposted from The Independent, with some interest, as it seems to herald the end or fatal fracturing of Occupy, and its failure to enact an electoral agenda quick enough for some. Perhaps disappointment with Occupy is inevitable, since no one body or movement can be all things to all people. In our little corner of the world, though, we have gone at this issue a little differently. Like Many Occupy movements, we too have had our share of Occudrama, bitter infighting, factionalism, political divisions, and recently, reconstitution. Here’s a brief description of where we have been.
Since its inception in late September, 2011, Occupy Norfolk has gone through many changes. After an initial start at Harbor Park, where the local minor league baseball team plays, our group obtained a permit to camp in Commercial Park in downtown Norfolk, in the very shadow of the financial buildings that dominate Norfolk’s skyline. For the brief period of time in which the camp was in operation, it was a glorious thing–a practical example of how the workers themselves could build a functional community. It was the gathering place for workgroup meetings, nightly GA’s, communal meals, and maintained the presence of 35 to 40 full-time Occupiers. A groundswell of support drove the first iteration of our Facebook page to attract over 4000 adherents.
The encampment was broken up by local police in November of 2011, at the same time when encampments were being rousted all around the country, presumably at the direction the Department of Homeland Security. At that point, the previously peaceful and collegial relationships with the local police took a sinister turn. Our group has spent a great deal of time preparing for and successfully fighting charges ranging from obstruction of justice, to trespassing to defacing a monument. The fact that our legal team has had most of these charges dismissed or reduced testifies to the fact that the charges were overdrawn and frivolous.
In the period after the encampment we faced challenges. Many of the original people drawn to this movement found themselves disaffected after the camp was broken up. Meeting places changed. communication was uneven. Personality conflicts ensued. Certain people disrupted meetings, or even sabotaged local events. We too have had issues with those who urged more disruptive and confrontational direct action. During the winter months, in the midst of standing up some demonstrations, we went through a period of planning and soul-searching.
We held several brainstorming meetings and determined priorities. The group determined that the number one priority was organization. Toward that end, an organizational task force developed and made a proposal for a Spokes Council, based on models already in use in different occupations. (This, in fact, was one of the projects I spent a significant amount of time and effort on during the winter and spring.) This was consensed and approved by our general assembly and has very recently been put into place.
"Occupy" by Noam Chomsky
As Occupy Norfolk looks forward, we plan to cooperate and share to the fullest extent possible with other local occupations, including Occupy Portsmouth, Occupy Virginia Beach, and the newly formed Occupy the Peninsula. It should also be noted that a local chapter of “Occupy the Hood” is also active in the Norfolk area, and also enjoys our support. We recently held a regional GA at the home of one of our members to plan a Mayday event. Even though we only had about four days to plan it, that event went well. We plan to continue to meet in this fashion one weekend a month to facilitate inter-occupy cooperation and planning for targeted events.
In his new book, Noam Chomsky observes that “Occupy is the first major public response to thirty years of class war.” I would suggest that rumors of the death of Occupy are wishful thinking on the part of the servants of the one per cent crowd. It’s not about campsites, so much as education, inspiration direct action to occupying the conscience of a nation.
“People seem to know about May Day everywhere, except where it began, here in the United States of America,” Chomsky says “That’s because those in power have done everything they can to erase its real meaning. …Today, there is a renewed awareness, energized by the Occupy movement’s organizing, around May Day, and its relevance for reform and perhaps eventual revolution.”
Banner from Occupy Norfolk action, May day 2012
Images from May day action
One of the things we have learned throughout this process is that, even though Occupy is “leaderless” group, that doers, natural leaders emerge. The temptation is for these people to take on too much, and burnout as a result. Part of the reason for our adoption of the spokes council model is to avoid burnout.
Occupy Norfolk’s primary issues on a National, Statewide and Local Level
• Move to Amend (workgroup)
• Privatization and Tolls between Norfolk and Portsmouth
• War on Women in Virginia
• Fighting lifting the ban on uranium mining in Virginia
• Community gardening/creating sustainable environments
• Resisting offshore drilling off Virginia shorelines
• Working together with other activist groups to create “critical mass.”
Regional General Assembly in front of MacArthur Mall
As Sinclair Lewis once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his living depends upon him not understanding it.” Probably the greatest single obstacle that Occupy Norfolk faces is to get our views heard in an area where so many people are either active duty military or directly employed by defense contractors and support industries. We also face a media environment in which, as regards Occupy, the story is already written and the reporters go out to gather the details to complete the latest installment of the prevailing narrative. Nobody ever said it would be easy. Our core group remains active and committed to the cause of making sure that our children and grandchildren will come of age in an America that is recognizable and lawful.
, Chomsky points out that one of the movement’s greatest successes has been simply to put the inequalities of everyday life on the national agenda, influencing reporting, public perception and language itself. Citing a recent Pew Research Center report
on public perceptions of class conflict within the United States, Chomsky notes that inequalities in the country “have risen to historically unprecedented heights.” The Pew study finds that about two-thirds of the U.S. population now believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor — an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009. The language, if not the story, is changing.
Occupy in NYC
None of this should be surprising. As Robert Parry notes the accession of right wing media in a recent article in Consortium News, posted by me somewhere in the bowels of the DD Forum. Parry observes that in the wake of Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, the watchdog press had demonstrated that it could do its job, and that the resilient American republic could still correct itself. Yet “after Nixon’s resignation, his embittered allies didn’t simply run up the white flag. They got to work ensuring that they would never experience “another Watergate.” And it wasn’t just a struggle that pitted the press against the pols.
“You could say that much of the U.S. Establishment had been unnerved by the surge of democracy that had arisen to challenge longstanding traditions and injustices — the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement. There also were cultural upheavals, with the hippies and the drug culture. It was an unsettling time for the rich white men who held most of the levers of power.
“These folks were not about to cede power easily. They made adjustments, yes; they gave some ground. But many were determined to fight back and some had experience in defusing and dismantling social movements around the world. Indeed, the CIA’s decades of political and media manipulation in the Third World and even Europe gave Nixon’s allies a playbook for how to neutralize opponents and steer a population here at home. . .
“And what we saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States was something like the behavior of an embattled oligarchy. Nixon’s embittered allies and the Right behaved as if they were following a CIA script. They built fronts; they took over and opened new media outlets; they spread propaganda; they discredited people who got in the way; ultimately, they consolidated power; they changed laws in their favor; and – over the course of several decades – they made themselves even richer, indeed a lot richer, and that, in turn, has translated into even more power.”
A turn of events which has led members of four generations into the streets in protest to the injustice and inequality of three decades of class war. It is in this context that we travel to meet with our peers across the state, and that we also turn our gaze to matters closer to home.
Howard Zinn wrote, “Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn’t just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that’s what we have to do today. Some people might say, ‘Well, what do you expect?’
“And the answer is that we expect a lot.
“People say, ‘What, are you a dreamer?’
“And the answer is yes, we’re dreamers.
“We want it all.”
Firedancing at the 41st St. party
Am reminded of Thom Hartmann’s “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, ” which is one of passionate, rigorously argued and thoroughly researched books I’ve ever read.. Hartmann argues that the only lasting solution to the various self-created environmental crises we face is to relearn the lessons of our ancient ancestors — who lived sustainably for thousands of generations. This would summon us to behold the world in a way both ancient and new, at least to us. We lack the ears to hear the voice of all life, the eyes to see the obvious, the simplicity to strip away the complications, the denials, the excuses. At some moment we discover that we, personally, hold the power of personal and planetary transformation. Hartmann also argues that we “need new stories,” a new narrative, to replace those that inform our “wetiko,” or cannibal culture in which we eat everything in sight, and waste the rest.
Some are living that dream right now. When I began with Occupy, I thought that what would make a difference was masses of people on the streets, a la the collapse of the Berlin Wall or Moscow in 1991. Others provide the example that there is a different way. When Occupiers chant,”We are unstoppable/another world is possible,” that can also mean that the power to change can extend beyond the streets and into once-abandoned urban lots. If nothing but changing our way of seeing and understanding the world can produce real, meaningful, and lasting change, which will lead us to begin to control our populations, save our forests, recreate community, and reduce our wasteful consumption, then Deb Lassiter is one such person.
Deb Lassiter at May Day action
Deb has created the 41st St. Guerilla Peace Garden near her home in Norfolk. This is from her invitation to the dedication event:
“My neighborhood, Highland Park near ODU, has suffered from much violence, neglect & apathy including the tragic death of ODU student Christopher Cummings less than a block away on 6/11/11. The next day in frustration I began the peace sign near the sidewalk that was the genesis of the 41st St. guerilla peace garden. Built on neglected property beside my house (a former neighborhood crack house) the land has gone from a trash dump to a garden producing strawberries, vegetables, flowers and friendship, as well as inspiring peace and cooperation among neighborhood residents.With the addition of a brick pizza/bread oven built entirely with donated, reclaimed materials, we hope to be able to share bread with those that need it. On May 5th we plan to dedicate the garden and oven, make pizzas and herb breads, eat together in fellowship, and enjoy live music and poetry together. We will also have some special guests & out of town occupiers I know you will enjoy hearing from. Please bring tents & camp out in the garden if you wish. (We will have two communal tents available).
We also have a guerilla garden action planned to help beautify a neglected area nearby that ODU students walk through everyday & will also be beneficial for the wildlife. We’ll also be shooting a video that will be seen by many in our effort to inspire them to help us in this struggle for positive change. I hope you will come and lend your energy & friendship in the work for Peace, Beauty and renewal in Highland Park.”
Ultimately, gardening is an act of hope. It is a statement of renewal. One small thing we can do to unplug from the Matrix.
The party was a resounding success, gathering some 70 or 80 people all told, through an evening of feasting, dancing, drumming, poetry, fire dancing and conviviality. It brought together many people who had not seen one another since the earliest, heady days of the movement when all things were possible.
This sort of gathering changes things. This place, the oven, the grounds, the garden, the event were shaped by many hands working together. Working together builds community. And now the flame of this candle has spurred the creation of other community gardens which are springing up on the west side of Norfolk.
We can’t fight the state. As I have averred from the first days of Occupy, “Anyone who urges you to violence against a system that owns a complete monopoly on the tools of force might as well be on the payroll of Homeland Security.” We can’t change the world; but we might be able to change our own minds about the small differences we can make in our own yards, our own habits, our own neighborhoods, and in the process we might be able to bring one other person along for the ride. And in so doing we can plant seeds of sustainability.
As Thom Hartmann says, we need new stories. So we need to create them. As for me, I’m gonna pray for a pony.
We want it all.