Yesterday CL published a column by metro Atlanta journalist and researcher George Chidi about why he's leaving the Occupy Atlanta movement. We're happy to give members of the group a chance to respond.
Many of us in Occupy Atlanta were deeply saddened by George Chidi's article, "Why I'm leaving Occupy Atlanta," published yesterday in Creative Loafing, and several of us have come together to pen a collaborative response. This response certainly does not speak for all members of Occupy Atlanta, but rather reflects the thoughts of those who felt compelled to contribute.
There is a debate among many of us about whether or not publicly discussing the pros and cons of Occupy Atlanta in Creative Loafing is productive. At first, many of us saw George's article as an unnecessary public airing of incorrect or uninformed assumptions and conclusions. After a period of reflection, however, we began to see it as an opportunity to share our message, the work we've been doing, and the victories we can claim - and to more explicitly deal with the controversies and issues we have within our movement.
Although many of us respect George's opinions and even agree with some of his points, we contend that many of his criticisms arise from a misunderstanding of the basic structure and purpose of the Occupy movement, that others are due to an understandable ignorance of the multitude of efforts that are currently underway all over the city of Atlanta, and that his overall conclusion reflects an unnecessary cynicism about the potential of Occupy Atlanta - and the Occupy movement in general - to play a role in engaging everyday citizens in developing and pursuing a vision of a better world.
What is Occupy Atlanta?
George asked a very good question in his article: What is Occupy Atlanta?. Misty Novitch asked this very same question in a video survey of 26 occupiers:
Some occupiers have described Occupy Atlanta as being "more like a coalition than an actual organization" (Georgia Slim), "a growing network of working groups which allows us to share experience and resources" (Wes Morris), "a forum to connect and communicate" (Jeremy Galloway), and "organizing the WE, in this case bringing neighborhoods/communities together to solve the glaring unjust results of greed, and creating solutions that address basic human rights" (Sally Mason).
Some of us might describe it as a mass social movement, demanding that our policies, systems, and societies reflect the needs of the 99% and not only of the 1%, the interests of the many and not only of the wealthy few, and the desires of the marginalized and not only of the dominant.
No single person or group within the Occupy movement has the authority to define for everyone else what the movement is, why it exists, what it should do, or where it should go. The definition of Occupy Atlanta is as dynamic and multifaceted as its members, infinitely adaptable and constantly in flux as new conditions present themselves.
Occupy Atlanta strives for an atmosphere of acceptance, care, and nurture of one other, and those characteristics have been the focus of many of our actions and projects. Building relationships takes hard
work and commitment, especially in an all-volunteer organization. There are divisive forces in our country and world which have kept us separated, encouraging us to quickly judge and demonize, casting each other away as having a "dangerous agenda."
The Occupy movement removes that barrier, bringing people from diverse backgrounds, ideologies, and socio-economic levels to a place where we can once again see each other as human beings - people respecting the
rights of all. The beauty is simple: through the process of General Assemblies and the hard work of organizing, the shared vision of a country where we are no longer afraid of each other manifests itself,
and many of us have witnessed this worthwhile endeavor through our involvement in Occupy Atlanta.
Are we all leaders or are none of us leaders?
Many articles in the media - and George's column in Creative Loafing - refer dismissively to our movement's identity as "leaderless." A part of the original "Pledge and Guidelines" of Occupy Atlanta states that "We are either all leaders or none of us are leaders." This means that we resist advocating any "leaders" of the movement above others.
This structural "leaderless-ness," or claim that "everyone is a leader," is admittedly controversial. Some may say, with good cause, that it might be more efficient to have official, authoritative leaders and formal, corporate structures, at least at first and for short-term gains.
This traditional leadership style is what we have become accustomed to in our society, and the practice of decentralized leadership may be frustrating to people who are accustomed to working in a traditional
authoritarian environment. But there is much to be gained from "leaderless-ness."
In a non-hierarchical organizational structure anyone can step up to facilitate any task, project, or effort as they see fit. In Occupy Atlanta, the final "check" on important decisions lies with the General Assembly, currently working on a 90% consensus model, and made up of everyone who is available to attend. This allows innumerable "leaders" to emerge unofficially but brilliantly, and their projects and priorities can receive equal attention. Many of us can attest to the unlikely leaders who consistently emerge because this structure allows space for all of us. This allows people who are often disenfranchised or disempowered by traditional institutions to realize their potential and have a voice.
This decentralization of leadership also helps relieve the symptoms of burn-out, something that every long-time activist is all too familiar with. Activism can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting, especially when it is in addition to paid work, school, other commitments, and family and social life. Before Occupy started, there always seemed to be far too few of us doing far too much. The decentralization of leadership allows overworked activists to take a step back while others step up to fill that role, sometimes in ways that are powerful and surprising. The torch is handed off and, as people take breaks from the movement, they can recoup and prepare to come back ready for action.
A third reason why we continue to be a "leaderless" movement is well encapsulated in what Steve Osborne says about ego:
"For the past 20 years I've been talking to activists in Europe, and from all the experience that was shared with me, 'ego.' Ego had destroyed all the movements in which my friends were involved. The Occupy movement was obviously aware of the ego problem and that's why the 'we're all leaders' credo was established to allow for organic formation and growth of activities."
Slowly but surely, we're getting more and more organized as people who are accustomed to following learn to take up the mantle of leadership.
Issues within Occupy
One thing is uncontroversial: we have made mistakes. Certainly most of us have had issues with the movement or disliked the way certain matters were handled. That is a challenge in any group, especially one born so quickly out of necessity and which has garnered such massive public scrutiny.
We have endless important questions to discuss and dilemmas to solve: how we handle disputes or disruptions in a movement open to all, how we prioritize goals and strategies given the multitude of political perspectives and priorities of Occupy Atlanta participants, how we coordinate with existing coalitions or groups without forgoing our autonomy or risking co-option - the list goes on.
We have a lot to learn and a long way to go as a movement, and we can use all the help we can get - not just with ideas and critiques but also with the less-sexy and incredibly exhausting work of actually
making the needed changes.
What Occupy has done - and is doing
George and many others have difficulty seeing the 'strategic connections' between our many actions all over the city. This is because they insist on viewing Occupy Atlanta as a political machine, and from that angle it appears defective. Occupy Atlanta is not a well-oiled machine. It is a living, breathing organism.
In many ways, Occupy Atlanta can be seen more as a social movement than a political one. It is about people reclaiming and taking control of their own communities, from the level of individual homes and neighborhoods all the way up to the scale of global politics and economics. All over Atlanta, people are beginning to resist
foreclosures and take back control of their homes.
In the short time we've all been working together, we've accomplished some extraordinary feats.
- We have helped defend the home of Brigitte Walker, an Iraq war veteran who was wounded and became unable to pay her mortgage premiums. After seeing tents on her front lawn and her neighbors
standing behind her, Chase Bank agreed to renegotiate.
- We have helped defend the Higher Ground Empowerment Church in Vine City. BB&T not only renegotiated their mortgage but also agreed to donate to local community projects.
- We have helped defend, clean up, re-decorate, and empower the homeless shelter at Peachtree and Pine, the fourth floor of which is currently our headquarters.
- We are currently assisting three other families in defending their homes - the Pittmans in the Old Fourth Ward, the Frazers in South Dekalb, and the Flores family in Vine City.
- We are engaging entire neighborhoods in discussion about defending our homes collectively.
- We have helped create several community gardens in different areas across Metro Atlanta, helping communities reclaim their common spaces.
- We have started and maintain a co-operatively owned bicycle shop. SHIFTbikes offers free classes on bicycle maintenance and gives away bicycles free of charge in exchange for a few hours of labor.
- We have begun to train people as facilitators in the Restorative Circles model to address conflict in communities, and begun to explore other ways of maintaining mental health.
- We have begun and maintain Really, Really Free Markets on the first Saturday of every month in Troy Davis (Woodruff) Park, a market at which everything really is free.
- We have united with CWA, Jobs with Justice, and Teamsters 728 to save approximately 300 union jobs at AT&T - marking a record low in layoffs - and also prevented union jobs from being replaced with
non-union jobs with lower pay and fewer benefits. This work strengthened ties between organized labor and activists involved in Occupy.
-We have worked with a wide variety of Atlanta community organizations on a variety of issues, including: rallies in support of the Arab Spring with the Atlanta Arab Committee, opposition to the Citizens United decision with Atlanta Move to Amend, opposition to the building of two nuclear reactors with Georgia WAND, protests against war with Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, and much more.
As Occupy activist Darrell Grizzle says, "These projects are worthwhile in and of themselves, apart from any over-arching strategy. To me, the diversity of actions, which some might view as 'scatteredness' or a lack of focus, is one of the strengths of Occupy Atlanta, not a weakness. We are not just protesting, we are DOING."
Some of our accomplishments are harder to measure and lack tangible "deliverables."
We have built and continue to build coalitions with numerous groups including the IWW and other labor unions, women's groups, and the Tea Party - in past months, such a coalition helped call attention to and defeat SB469, a bill that would have dramatically curtailed free speech and labor rights in Georgia.
We have planned and executed multitudes of actions and events, and have begun to challenge restrictions on the public's access to purportedly public spaces.
We have held public forums - General Assemblies - and created a space for community conversations and direct democracy where one did not exist before.
We have engaged an entire generation of new activists who came out of the woodwork to form a dynamic movement made up of people from all types of backgrounds, all races, people from all social classes and walks of life, men and women from all age groups. Young and old, students, manual laborers, professionals, executives, college professors, domestic workers, immigrants, gay, straight, transgender, queer, liberal, conservative, moderate, socialist, anarchist, communist, libertarian.
Together we have raised awareness and shifted the public dialogue to begin redefining official priorities. We have engaged countless individuals and given them hope, purpose, and community.
Occupy has given us a chance to form meaningful relationships and connections with dozens of like-minded (and sometimes not-so-like-minded) peers who are equally, if not even more, dedicated to fixing whatever it is that's broken in our world. The creation of relationships of mutual respect, aid and inspiration is an end and a means of Occupy.
As Occupy activist Jeremy Galloway says, "Without Occupy Atlanta I'd just be screaming at the television (or computer screen) every time I see the news. Instead, now I can actually do something about it. Something that not only helps me, but helps other folks as well."
Randy Novitch, 54, says, "I have never felt like I had a say in my government - until Occupy."
Mass Strategy Meeting for United Offense
George Chidi decided to leave Occupy Atlanta at the Mass Strategy Meeting for United Offense on April 25th, 2012.
This mass meeting was put together quickly in less than two weeks by a handful of people calling, emailing, texting, Facebooking, and speaking to individuals and groups. The direction behind this mass meeting was similar to that of the Occupy movement at large: It is time for us to take the offensive in order to make real gains.
The Declaration of Rights of the People of Georgia was passed at the Occupy Atlanta General Assembly on March 17th, 2012, the day of a huge protest against a series of bills that attacked women, workers,
immigrants, and the poor.
The full text of this declaration can be found here.
The Mass Strategy Meeting for United Offense sought to leverage the solidarity that had successfully defended Georgians against SB469 and use it in a more visionary fight for greater gains for all of us - not just to maintain the status quo. We often come together to defend ourselves, losing ground all the time as we try to hold onto what we have and the powerful try to take it away, but many of us recognize the need for a "progressive offensive," for coordination across issues, movements, and strategies.
And like many Occupy events, it seemed fairly disorganized at first as we determined the process we would follow, allowed space for new leaders to step up and participants to have ownership of the meeting, gave participants an opportunity to eat dinner (as food is a critical tool for community organizing), and settled in with a group of participants who arrived with different ideas, goals, and expectations for the meeting.
But, as Jim Nichols points out, "I think the fact that around 80 folks showed up for a random meeting on a random Wednesday night for making the start of long-term plans for a social justice movement is amazing.
Not in response to a war, or legislation... but to plan and work on an offensive movement! Never would have imagined such was possible last April 25th, ."
It is unfortunate that George Chidi became frustrated and left the meeting before the strategic work even got started. After the brainstorming session, we used the Declaration of Rights as a basis around which to organize smaller "break-out groups." Participants self-organized into working groups around the nine fundamental rights laid out in the Declaration of Rights, with the addition of sustainable communities as a break-out group. Within about an hour these groups established goals, demands, and plans of varying
concreteness within each of these vision statements.
1. The right to a government and politics free from corporate influence: Putting forward political candidates we choose in local elections to help make the system work for most people;
2. The unconditional right to ample, nutritious food: Working with the group Metro Farms and building infinitely more community gardens all over the city;
3. The unconditional right to adequate, assured housing: Facilitating communities in Washington Park, English Avenue, and Vine City to create alternate economic systems; renovate homes while preserving architectural character and resisting gentrification; as well as building sustainable communities through urban gardening, litter pick-ups, composting and growing food locally;
4. The unconditional right to use any public space to exercise our right to protest and assemble as is our will: Maintaining a presence in our parks; beautifying public spaces and walkable communities; starting poetry readings and continuing Really, Really Free Markets at Troy Davis (Woodruff) Park; and fighting the recent anti-urban camping laws that are an attack on Occupy activists but disproportionately affect shelterless persons;
5. The unconditional right to comprehensive healthcare that includes reproductive health services and counseling for addiction and mental illness: Aiding Atlanta Resistance (Street) Medics (ARM) with volunteers, materials, spaces for training seminars, etc.;
6. The unconditional right to unlimited access to high quality education at all levels and a proportionate influence in the direction and decision-making of the schools where we work, attend, and teach: Resisting school closings in Metro Atlanta and tuition hikes at public universities while continuing the Altanta Free School and addressing misinformation and rearranging priorities in the education system;
7. The unconditional right to access extensive public transportation, with those most reliant on this system having proportionate input in its decision-making;
8. The unconditional freedom from systematic discrimination based upon race, class, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or immigration status in every facet of life: Addressing the prison industrial complex, ICE detention centers, and racial profiling by police through community events such as teach-ins and art shows; demanding a referendum that police live in the neighborhoods they patrol; providing protection from abusive police by conducting "Know Your Rights" trainings; and creating alternatives to policing and the "criminal justice" system (i.e. Restorative Circles);
9. The unconditional right to desirable employment, a living wage, collective bargaining, and democratic participation in our workplaces: Assisting existing labor struggles and organizing communities to support the democratization of all workplaces.
George and others have difficulties seeing how these goals and plans tie together to form a coherent strategy. To us, however, the strategy is perfectly clear. Our goals are about building community, demanding democratic control, and giving voice to the voiceless. Human rights and freedoms are holistic and comprehensive - without any of these rights, our list is incomplete, and perhaps it is incomplete as it is.
We still have to reflect on our most recent meeting, follow up on these plans, and coordinate our work with that of others, not to mention recruit more folks to help. Needless to say, we have a lot to do. But this is only the beginning. Our next Mass Strategy Meeting for United Offense, which we plan to have monthly, is the last Wednesday of next month, May 30, at Troy Davis (Woodruff) Park in downtown Atlanta at 7:00 p.m.
We all have critiques and complaints about the Occupy movement, like anything else in our lives, but we have a lot to celebrate, as well. We encourage George and everyone else who is curious about what a true people's movement looks like to come by, volunteer your time, and help us build a better world.
Authors of this piece include, but are not limited to: Martin Altamirano, Sara Amis, Russell Benford, Tim Franzen, Jeremy Galloway, Tori Galloway, Darrell Grizzle, Daniel Hanley, Darlene Jones-Owens, Jeffrey Karsten, Anna Kelley, Sally Mason, Greg McDonald, Wesley Morris, Misty Novitch, Randy Novitch, Steve Osborne, Scott Prichard, Georgia Slim, Ernest Talley, Rachel Taylor, and Adam Wadley.
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