Americans and Occupy: Don’t make it about you

Three years ago, I was standing in front of the City Hall in San Jose. We only had five tents set up (police and city government were preventing a larger encampment) but we were here. Occupy San Jose.

An almost-stranger and I were talking. You met dozens of people, yet learned their deep-set moral principles instead of their names. Who this man was I have no idea, even his appearance has been forgotten. What he said has always stuck with me. It helps illustrate a problem American activists may have, and one that is detrimental to the global social justice movement.

News was coming about developments in the Chilean students’ resistance movement. Their work was inspiring. My conversation companion said “I’m so glad that they’ve been inspired by Occupy Wall Street.”

A march by Chilean students. August 5, 2011. (Maxi Failla/AFP/Getty Images)
A march by Chilean students. August 5, 2011.
(Maxi Failla/AFP/Getty Images)

*record stop* Woh. We have a major problem here. Chile’s movement predated the occupation in New York, dating to around May 2011. Occupy in America started in mid-September, by then mass protests had already happened all over Chile.

To be sure, I do not blame this man for his ignorance. Few non-activists paid attention to what was happening down in South America, and Occupy brought many people in with no prior political awareness. This thought provides a learning opportunity. America (and Americans by extension) are used to running the world. This doesn’t just apply to foreign policy and government action, but is also the case with popular culture. Much of the world mimics or consumes whole American music, film, and fashion. Beyond the economic lies the political and social structure at the lowest levels of the population. If you take your lessons from the largest institutions, you might think that the activists of the United States start all social movements, and invent all new methods of protest.

Hong Kong occupiers stop a police vehicle. By Felix Wong.
Hong Kong occupiers stop a police vehicle. By Felix Wong.

Occupy certainly propagated the model of resistance more than Chile did, or for that matter the Spanish indignados movement. In fact, Occupy Central in Hong Kong was wildly successful in the first wave of occupations, and that experience has helped lay the foundation for the current mass action.

So America is a grand stage where ideas gain currency. As the first organizers of Occupy San Jose stated plainly to those at our first meeting, the general assembly structure was stolen wholesale from the campaign in Spain. That is the key- to acknowledge the forebears, and avoid being American chauvinists. The Civil Rights Movement had many unique features, but it owed a massive debt to the decades of struggle in India. If Americans claim that all social movement strategy and tactics are native to the country, they risk alienating the larger world community. We must be aware of the past, incorporate past successes, and avoid past failures. In action, steps must be taken to avoid American stereotypes.

Occupy was incredibly important. But it was not born of nothing, and its influences are valuable sources of strength and wisdom.

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