Our American baggage: a July 4 reflection

Today marks the 240 years since an arbitrary point in time, one of several associated with the Declaration of Independence. It’s also a time to reflect on how irrelevant the Declaration is in the 21st century, despite constant references in political culture. Present American policy the antithesis of the right of revolution. The dismemberment of Occupy shows that even talking about revolution is taboo. This is to be expected- what kind of self-sustaining regime would ever recognize the right to be overthrown?

So even though it was created eleven years later, when we discuss our origins we speak, directly or indirectly, of the Constitution. Unlike almost every state with a written constitution, the US Constitution has undergone comparatively mild revision, even though it predates the French Revolution, and thus modern politics as we know it. In the past, I’ve talked about our origins as dead people’s baggage, and the problem of a pre-democratic Constitution. Consider this a third take on the same theme.

Taken from Library of Congress website.

Here’s a strange thing to consider. At this point, it is generally established that all-white clubs clash with civil rights law. This year, Harvard cracked down on single-sex clubs, indicating that even in bastions of privilege like the Ivy League, integration is now expected.

Were the Constitutional Convention assemble today, July 4, 2016, it would be a pariah. An all-white, all-male clique, who generally speaking despised the working class, and did not think of women or populations of color as citizens. Yet most people are okay with how the Constitution was created. This slides into the problematic “the times were different” defense, which has always been used to justify atrocity and injustice. All the institutions surrounding the Constitution have integrated in some sense- legislatures, courts, school boards, the Cabinet. But the roots remain the same. And when the three current female Supreme Court justices interpret the law, they wrestle with a legal history that women had no input on until a few decades ago.

The end result is a Constitution that is incredibly vague, which inherently supports existing privilege and white male supremacy. There are no protections for marginalized groups, because they were never thought to have political and social rights. In fact, one can say that constitutional change in American history is a story of turning universal rights into enforceable protections.

One reason a second Convention has never been called, despite Framers asking future generations to do so, is that the leap will be so dramatic. Can we imagine a Constitution ten times longer? Twenty? Can we imagine the Second Amendment remade? Can we imagine centuries of case law overruled?

So on this July 4th, we triumph the Declaration, as it remains pure, frozen in time. There is no sense of obligation to change it. On this day, we can travel to the past, and not bring its baggage on the return trip.

 

 

Plan. Execute. Win. Activism and net neutrality

Net neutrality carried the day at the FCC. The years-long fight between certain sectors of business and a coalition in favor of an egalitarian internet is not over by any means, but a decision to treat the internet like a public utility is a clear win for activists.

FCC commissioners hold hands during a hearing on net neutrality today. February 26, 2015. Mark Wilson/Getty

As Waging Nonviolence writes, the grassroots campaign for net neutrality stands as an example of how to structure activism:

Today’s net neutrality rules would not exist without the tireless work of activists both in the streets and behind screens. Last year, I interviewed activists about how they planned to win on net neutrality, something that seemed impossible at the time. But they achieved today’s improbable victory by following those plans to the letter: having a clear and concise demand from day one, creating synergy between online and offline organizing, and framing net neutrality as a social justice issue.

Gene Sharp, which the New Statesman once dubbed “the Machiavelli of Non-Violence”, emphasizes one thing above all in his work: if you want to win, you need a strong, resilient plan (much of his works are available online for free here). In reality, most social justice movements are not fully planned out before they happen, but figuring out what the central demand is, what tactics will be used, and what the contingencies if there is a setback or repression is key. The move for net neutrality was impressive in its breadth and organization, and the structural basis for its success is what can be exported to other struggles.

As an activist states, this is just one step, and the fight to cement the victory continues with a new standoff:

“Our next goal is to undermine the telecom industry,” said Zeese. “We want to make them politically toxic so that anyone who does their bidding is seen as someone who is corrupted by a monopoly system.”

There’s always a next goal. Mobilization is power.

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.

Occupy Hong Kong: A coalition of resistance takes shape

A collection of University of Western Ontario students show solidarity with protestors in Hong Kong.

The Nation is reporting that some 10,000 union workers in Hong Kong have decided to strike in solidarity with the Occupy HK movement.

Just a week ago the protest movement was catalyzed (and moved forward in timescale) due to student action. Now older citizens of all stripes have joined in, including businessmen and women, as this liveblog update catalogues:

In Admiralty, the crowd began to swell, fuelled [sic] by many working in Central who came out during their lunch breaks to voice support.

Clad in a stripped shirt, Lampson Lo Ka-hang, 33, said: “They are doing the right thing because someone needs to pressure the government,”

He said most of his colleagues were supportive of the movement.

Another man in his 30s, surnamed Yu, who works for a financial firm, said: “I just want to take this time to support these students.”

This is joined by large solidarity protests all around the world, including in regions dealing with similar problems, like Singapore.

And now there is a burgeoning strike movement. Given Hong Kong’s centrality to the global economy, the greatest power protestors possess (besides moral rightness) is the ability to disrupt the way China does its business. The mainland is known for sacrificing many things to keep factories running and capital moving. The PRC government has its hands tied on one of their usual solutions to unrest- appalling violence- and thus has to face the umbrella-wielding activists on unfavorable soil.

The fight will be long, for Beijing is used to besting social movements, as this year’s 25th anniversary of the June 4th massacre shows. But there is a built-up call for more political rights and economic justice. Heartening stories have been relayed, of mainland tourists showing support, amidst the expected skepticism and contempt. Events will always tilt towards those areas where protest is least constricting, and despite the tear gas and pepper spray, Hong Kong is still that island for which the issue of democracy for all of China will ultimately begin.

Each aspect of Hong Kong society is joining together, joined by the huge diaspora across the world, and other allies- many in their own battles against oppressive institutions. The bundle of sticks does not break when bent- it stays strong, and cannot be destroyed.

Occupy Hong Kong, Gene Sharp, and nonviolent revolution

If there is one modern thinker that I think needs larger exposure, it is nonviolent struggle academic Gene Sharp. Now a frail old man in his mid-80s, Sharp has spent the last sixty years compiling countless case studies and composed rock-solid theories on nonviolent means of enacting political change, and added a list of 198 methods to achieve them.

His thesis: even for those with no moral opposition to violence, unarmed struggle is more likely to succeed, and much more likely to produce a better society than the one it overthrew. This idea over the past few decades has gained widespread currency, as a feature in the not-at-all pacifist Foreign Policy this summer supports, entitled “Drop Your Weapons”. 

The Albert Einstein Institution, which is primarily Sharp and Jamila Raqib, operates out of Sharp’s home in Boston. Much of his work is available for free on the organization’s website, most notably There Are Realistic Alternatives, the short pep talk for would-be revolutionaries, and the practical guide to creating a better world, From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Gandhi during the Salt March

I already wrote a piece last year extolling Sharp’s virtues; this is more of an update. Some may look at this scene and think Sharp and Raqib to be fringe academics, that nobody actually listens to. However, there is always the theme, across the world and over many years. Ask key organizers of movements, whether those in Serbia that overthrew Slobodan Milošević, someone even US air power couldn’t drive from power. Some of the students behind the initial revolution in Egypt sought Sharp’s advice, and Benny Tai, a key leader in the current Occupy Central campaign in Hong Kong openly admits the influence. From this Bloomberg article:

Occupy Central is inspired by a civil-disobedience playbook set out by Gene Sharp, a U.S. academic whose work has inspired non-violent uprisings from Egypt to Serbia, Tai said. Sharp, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, argues that once authorities use violence against unarmed protesters they lose the sympathy of the rest of the population, leading to a shift in public opinion to support the protesters.

Protestor in the midst of tear gas dual-wielding umbrellas. Hella badass.

Wherever you go, Sharp shows up somewhere. He may never be the primary influence, and certain local conditions create local strategy and leaders, but he is around. His work is disseminated organically- he or his supporters have never printed copies by the millions. Yet From Dictatorship to Democracy has ended up translated into Chinese, and Ukrainian, and five separate languages used in Burma. We all know that the real heroes are those on the ground, and Sharp is thankfully a humble personality, but the effectiveness and discipline of Occupy Hong Kong shows the power of resources for planning and executing nonviolent forms of struggle. Work by Sharp, Robert Helvey, and others help anyone interested in the work of 20th century nonviolent resisters accessible. Not everyone has the brilliance of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., but lessons learned from their work can be distilled and provided as a guide.

Gene Sharp was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, his fourth nomination. Two years ago he received the Right Livelihood Award, which is its closest equivalent. I would like him to receive the Peace Prize, but it has always been a bit faddish (Barack Obama the year of his election) or strange (the European Union as a whole). This year I’d put good money on Pope Francis winning, but there’s a reason betting sites always have Sharp in the top five.

Have a plan. Know the methods. Change the world.

 

Occupy Hong Kong: through rain, lightning, and tear gas…

A torrential downpour on the mass crowds blocking key parts of Hong Kong
A torrential downpour on the mass crowds blocking key parts of Hong Kong

American media accounts tend to focus on the umbrella- now only four days in immortalized as a revolutionary symbol- as a way to deal with pepper spray. What gets left out is that Hong Kong has a subtropical climate. Not only has it been in the 90s (F), the summer is also notoriously rainy. In this way, umbrellas are the ultimate protest tool. Not only have they helped against police crackdown, the shade and rain protection have kept thousands of people at their posts. An economic shutdown only works as long as people are willing to stay out in the highways and streets.

Twitter is probably the best way to keep track of things, but some websites are doing an excellent job. The South China Morning Post has kept a very well-maintained English-language liveblog, the current section is located here.

Occupy is not just a movement, confined to a place and time. It is a method of action. It is a title given to those that go out and work. It existed long before there was a march on Wall Street, and exists now and will in the future. The protest here has been incredibly well-coordinated, but on a grassroots level. If people are disciplined and certain key traits (nonviolence, respect for the city) are maintained, there is no need for a rigid hierarchy. I am continually impressed by the humanity and decency shown by the protesters, but also their strength under fire, and their endurance under bad conditions- whether pepper spray or pelting rain.

Shut it down: Occupy Central and the global economic system

One of the strongest, most incendiary things an individual, or a group, can do is to seize a physical place and refuse to leave. The action of occupation is as old as mass movements, and predated the big-O Occupy movement. It is used to protect people from eviction, to keep park space free from development, to block access to political institutions, and to paralyze the economic infrastructure of towns, regions, and whole nations. As was the mantra in 2011 among some activists, sometimes you need to shut this motherfucker down.

Protestors in anti-pepper spray gear. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP
Protestors in anti-pepper spray gear. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

Occupy Central comes from a long and storied history of nonviolence. The color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon occupied key places of political and cultural importance. Central goes beyond that to a more radical place- using occupation as an economic weapon of the people. We saw this happen with the West Coast port shutdowns three years ago, and the related Block the Boat campaign against Israeli industry. There is an added weak point in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and other major ports- access of goods and labor is of international importance. To shut down central portions of Hong Kong is to amplify the power of the act of occupation, so it can reverberate into global markets. In the short term, good business must be paid for by increased political rights. From that platform, working to change the global economic system becomes easier.

Clash between umbrella-holding protestors and police. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP
Clash between umbrella-holding protestors and police. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

They now call it the Umbrella Revolution. It certainly has gained that tangible thing that defines great movements, whether a place, color, or object (Serbia’s 2000 peaceful revolution is sometimes dubbed “The Bulldozer Revolution” due to protestor tactics to break up barricades).

The whole world is watching. We have been blind to the authoritarianism creeping throughout Hong Kong. It has been a time to get educated, and get on the right side of affairs.