Well-Behaved Movements Seldom Make History

Terrance Heath

Almost since the Occupy Wall Street movement began, everyone from pundits to the person-in-the-street have offered their $0.02 on what the OWS movement “should” do next. The number of columns and blog posts offering such advice naturally increased after the midnight sweep of Zuccotti Park, complete with media black-out. And they will probably not subside even after the OWS movement’s successful nationwide day of action.

The advice is almost always the same: Do something else.

This advice usually comes in many forms, one of which — conveniently enough — have been offered up a Financial Times columnist.

Gary Silverman urges Occupy activists to “find the love,” offering his example of sharing what may or may not have been stolen fried chicken with latenight Washington DC club goers.

The experience left me with an appreciation which has only grown over the years for the power of small kindnesses. I know for a fact that the provision of fried chicken to a stranger creates the potential for connection and communication.

I would argue that one of the great tactical flaws of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been its failure to go beyond expressing frustration and to find ways, however symbolic, to serve the actual people living and working around its encampments.

Silverman’s advice, like all the rest of it, sounds well-intentioned. After all, he’s just offering the OWS movement advice that he thinks will boost it’s chances of survival in the long-term. But it sounds so much like the retorts I’ve heard in countless debates with right-wing activists on countless issues, which usually go something like this: “What about (fill-in-the-blank)? Why aren’t you protesting about that issue? Why don’t you do something about that?”

It’s a smart tactic, because it puts the other person on the defensive. Either they stammer out a response about why they aren’t addressing said issue, make it a point to explain at length how they are addressing said issue, or brush it aside as “not the point.” The first two responses, if one takes the bait, signal your opponent that they have successfully changed the subject. The third is likely to make you sound cruel or thoughtless, which your opposition will readily exploit.

This tactic not only creates a false dichotomy. Either you’re doing something about “this” or you’re doing something about “that,” but you can’t do both, so you have to chose. (And the assumption is the fill-in-the-blank issue is “better” or more worthy than the one you’re already working on.)

It also assumes that you’re not already doing something about “that.” Though Silverman, given his failure to find a homeless person to share either his southern fried windfall or his ill-gotten chicken wings, says he isn’t suggesting that OWS open up a soup kitchen, he ignores that occupations across the country were already “serving the people” by taking care of the homeless in cities that can’t or won’t take care of them.

In just under two months, the Occupy movement has managed to turn the countrys attention toward social inequality. As many in the movement struggle with unemployment, student debt and unaffordable mortgage payments, words like foreclosure, debt and joblessness have reentered the public discourse.

More recently,as the number of homeless people at Occupy encampments climbs,the conversation has shifted toward the growing but often hidden dilemma of homelessness in America.

One of the countrys largest occupations can be found in Portland, Oregons Chapman and Lownsdale Squares, where an estimated 500 people spend their nights in a sprawling encampment of tents. Many of them are homeless.

The movement is well aware that there are downsides to inclusiveness. Theres been some rowdiness, theres been drinking, theres been some people fighting on occasion, Silvermanadmitted, adding, Were trying to self-police as best we can.

In addition, tending to the needs of the homeless could potentially divert energy away from theoccupation’sinitial goals.

The last sentence in the blockquote above reveals the real genius of the “Do something else” diversion: “Doing something else” may divert your energy away from your initial goals. Not that feeding the homeless isn’t an important thing to do, or that OWS activists weren’t already doing that. Before joining the OWS movement, many were involved and remain involved in any number of movements and organizations serving any number of social needs or causes.

The other part of Silverman’s advice for OWS amounts to morphing into a more “well-behaved movement,” one that disrupts daily life as much as possible, and is thereby less likel to really change the status quo. I’m reminded of a saying I heard in college, one that historian Laura Thatcher Ulrich scribbled in her research notes in the 1970s, and used as the title of her 2007 book: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Well. Well-behaved movements seldom make history.

The bottom line is that the Occupy protests are disruptive. That’s the idea. That’s the idea of any serious protest movement: to be disruptive — to stop business as usual — to force the media and the society at large to focus on a critical, fundamental problem.

When Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery she was being “disruptive.” So was the bus boycott that followed.

When the sit-down strikers that founded the United Auto Workers refused to leave the plants in Flint, Michigan in the 1930’s, they were being “disruptive.”

When Gandhi led tens of thousands of Indians in the civil disobedience that ultimately toppled British Imperialism, he was being “disruptive.”

When thousands of Wisconsin workers refused to leave the State Capitol in Madison earlier this year, they were being “disruptive.”

When the people of Egypt occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo they were being “disruptive.”

The protesters who dumped tea into Boston harbor in 1773 were being “disruptive.”

The idea of the Occupy Movement is to occupy Wall Street and other public spaces to demand that American government and business pay attention to the elephant in the room — the exploding inequality in wealth and power between the 99% and the 1%.

It may not be the best analogy, but look at it this way. Herman Cain might not have been a presidential candidate, if Rosa Parks hadn’t cause a disruption in the front of the bus while

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