I moseyed over to Occupy K Street last night for the general assembly and the action committee meeting. Not much to say about the GA – except maybe to mention that there was a serious shortage of women. Of the two that spoke, one offered to take notes and the other was reporting back from the committee that cleans and does dishes. I’ll let you make your own comments.
The action committee meeting was much more interesting. If you have been following a certain blogger (who I most definitely would never, ever socialize with – please don’t ban me too) then you know that the action committee is exhibiting some of DCs most common ailments.
There are a whole lot of people in this town who make their living in orgs that lobby. That includes me, by the way. I work in the advocacy department of the Oxfam International Secretariat. I don’t lobby. I make sure people get paychecks and that their insurance doesn’t get cancelled. (There. Full disclosure. Happy now?)
I don’t actually think lobbying is very useful. I do think the watchdog role we play has some use. My peeps watch the World Bank and IMF. But I stay the hell away from all that shit in my spare time. I’m sure a lot of the people down at occupy are like me. They are paying their rent by working in an org that they hope doesn’t do more harm than good and are happy to have an outlet for the stuff that might matter. The revolution will not be funded and all that.
The thing is, it is extremely difficult to get out of the professional, policy, advocacy, pro-democrat mindset in this town. And not everyone is just paying the bills. There are a lot of climbers in DC. That includes lots of people in organizations that you may think are warm and fuzzy.
Happily, the first part of the action committee went pretty well. While we were still talking national politics, the general tone was that democrats and republicans are equally responsible for our mess and should all be targets. So far so good.
But then the conversation turned to actions sponsored by SEIU et al. While the committee separated itself from them to some extent, we were still basically talking about actions that will inevitably connect Occupy with organizations that spend money and energy to elect democrats to office.
One minute we were talking about how fucked up it is that the democrats are having a $1,000 a plate fundraising dinner. The next minute we were talking about supporting (however nominally) an organization that funnels millions of dollars to democrats in order to get access to the halls of congress. (How’s that been working out for you, SEIU?)
Orgs that focus on the political process drain all our energy. They are part of the problem. Any organization that is taking our money and giving it to political candidates needs to be a target. They are screwing us. The idea of marching on K street with a bunch of lobbyists (albeit more benign ones) makes my brain hurt.
Nonprofits shouldn’t get a pass either. We spend too much money on the political process as well. We can’t support candidates, but we spend a lot of time on policy. I should note here that, while the Oxfam International Secretariat is not unionized, Oxfam America is represented by…wait for it… SEIU. (It may be very awkward in the office tomorrow.)
I’m not saying that nobody should ever lobby for anything. People have immediate and pressing needs. Sometimes a minor reform can actually help somebody without increasing the state’s power. Changing the crack to powder cocaine sentencing discrepancy does not challenge the racist prison industrial complex. Though I’m sure those people getting out of prison a bit early are glad someone did it.
But that is not radical change. And people need to recognize that being reformist and radical at the same time is damn near impossible.
The capital occupies this city. It is just too tempting for activists to focus on big, sexy targets like congress, especially in a town where so many people move here specifically to focus on national and international politics. Then we have the continuous stream of outside protesters that come in needing coordination, support, and places to stay.
It weakens us.
All the time that we spend on protesting the national government or supporting the constant stream of demonstrators to the capital is time we do not spend on local DC issues. We live in a city that has hideous statistics. Three out of four African American men in DC will spend time in prison. Our illiteracy rates are through the roof. Our AIDS rates are astronomical. Unemployment may be as high as 50% in some areas.
And by allowing ourselves to be sucked into the national political scene again and again we lose so many potential allies that would work with us if we were focusing on their daily struggles.
Another thing I noticed last night, and that I have noticed in lots of activisty spaces in DC, is the rather narrow age range present. I was probably one of the oldest farts there. We live in a city that is packed with people who have experience with everything from CORE to ActUp. Where are they at?
It seems to me that a lot of activists get burned out on the national protest scene. It is emotionally draining and shows very little results. A person can only do that for so long. Some of those people go off and work in small orgs focusing on local issues. Those people need our support and we need their experience.
I don’t know how we avoid getting caught in the national, international, labor, NGO, lobby black hole. I’m not sure if the reform v. radical or agitating v. organizing conflicts are resolvable – or even manageable. And I have no idea if we can actually get more people in on this conversation. But I don’t see where things are going if we don’t try.