First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. --Mahatma Gandhi
I cut my political and protest movement teeth on the anti-apartheid divestiture movement of the early eighties.
I was thirteen years old when I became a liberal and a human rights advocate. I know this, because I can pinpoint the day on the calendar that I woke the hell up. It was June 16, 1976. That is the date of the Soweto Riots that sparked the undoing of the apartheid regime in South Africa. When Walter Cronkite told me about the riots, and showed me pictures of children -- my generational peers -- who had been killed by police because they revolted against the white-minority government decree that all school instruction would henceforth be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the white minority -- well, that set my bearing "and that's the way it is."
From that day forward, I made it my business to know what was going on in that country, and to stay up to date on the struggle for freedom of the black majority. A year later, when Biko was killed, I sat shiva and wore black for a month. (It was 1977 and I listened to punk, so I can't be sure anyone noticed that I was wearing black for a reason, but I was.)
When I went to college in 1980, there was an active anti-apartheid organization on campus, and I joined up. That is the movement I cut my political teeth on, and it just so happens that we won. In two decades, Nelson Mandela didn't just walk out of prison on Robin Island, he walked into the presidency and he healed his nation with truth, reconcilliation and forgiveness. His election came 18 years after I first stenciled "FREE MANDELA" on a t-shirt. Change happens slowly. If it happens quickly, it yields chaos and the probability of the change turning out to be for the worse instead of the better approaches 1.
With the success we had in our efforts in mind, and with nothing but high hopes for the ground-shift that is afoot in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I have been doing some thinking about what makes for success when social change is on the line. Call them BG's rules for successful radicals, cribbed heavily from the Civil Rights Movement.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a real grass-roots movement that is actually rather eerily reminiscent of what they tried to sell the astroturf tea party as back in it's nascent days. Now, the tea party was never a genuine movement, although it did attract some well-meaning and good-intentioned people, most of whom have since dropped out, once they got hip to the fact that the corporatists and theocrats were pulling the strings.
I happen to believe that the very fabric of the republic is in danger of being rendered rags, and I don’t want to see that happen, and not just because the nation owes me a pension at 55, either. I have been thinking about what we did in the eighties and in that context I offer some "lessons learned."
- The traditional media is your enemy. As we have already seen, their first inclination was to ignore. Then Fox started mocking. Then the rest of the press eventually started paying attention – but they did their fair share of mocking, too. Especially Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times. This deliberate and willful effort to ignore the protests and intentional failure to cover dissenting movements is a deliberate effort to cause confusion about what your movement is about within the mainstream, evening-news-and-morning-paper audiences. This is purposefully done in order to piss you off. If they can piss you off, they can make you appear unreasonable, and we all know what happens to unreasonable people…they either get negative attention, or they get rendered invisible.
- The movement will be infiltrated. Hell, it already has. While the press sends mixed messages or mocks dissident movements, the corporatists who are threatened by the movement are already busy putting operatives in your midst to both disrupt and co-opt.
- Only after infiltration is accomplished will the media start paying attention. Indeed, that is how you know they have succeeded in planting moles/operatives in your midst. The media won’t bother covering you until they know what the answers will be to the questions they ask. we have already seen this with Jesse LaGreca. How long do you think it will take for the M$M to get back to interviewing him on camera again?
- Politicians will start jumping on your bandwagon -- just as soon as it looks safe to do so. At that point, they will start relating tales and waxing nostalgic about how Wall Street corruption is the very reason they got into politics in the first place, way back in seventh grade when they ran for student council.
- “Non-Partisan” entities will start writing checks – but their checks will come at a cost. They will “help you organize” and “plan strategy.” Once that happens, they control you and the threat you represented is effectively neutralized.
As I keep saying, I want the movement to succeed. I believe that too big to fail is too big to allow. Period. But for the movement to succeed, a few things need to happen.
- Proclaim the movement to be non-violent and stick to it. Denounce violence. Denounce it with a full-throated roar. The rabblerousers don’t help, in fact, the probability is at least .5, and approaches 1, that they are plants and operatives sent to infiltrate and discredit your movement.
- Image matters. In fact, image is not half the battle, it is MOST of the battle. It's a myth that Rosa Parks was simply exhausted after a long day at work and too tired to move, I don't care what three different Women's Studies professors insisted when the topic was brought up in class. No, Rosa Parks was active in the local chapter of the NAACP and she was chosen for the action because she was not threatening -- light skinned, delicate features, slight, modest, soft-spoken; the kind of person who could make a person feel guilty for hating her on spec. In other words, she was the perfect face of the movement.
- Which brings us to: Pick a sympathetic face for your movement, but make god-damn sure the vetting is done beforehand.
- Decide on one media point person to do interviews and talk to the press. This person needs to be intelligent, quick-witted, attractive, well spoken and affable; someone who is capable of always putting their best face forward. This means looking good and speaking well and staying on message.
- Resist those "non-partisan" entities and their giant checkbooks. Better you stay independent.
- Stay focused on the greed, corruption and social inequality that the plutocracy embodies. This is the part that gives me the greatest amount of heartburn. I'm not seeing focus, and until there is focus, the movement won't be taken seriously. Don't get sidetracked by other stuff...Squirrel! In other words, fight one battle at a time. Win one before you try to fight ten at once. I'm sure the Free Mumia kids are already on the scene, but really, what does their cause have to do with this? Nothing. Nothing tangible, anyway. Let me say it one more time, because it's really fucking important: STAY. FOCUSED.
- Accept that the movement has already been infiltrated and comport yourselves accordingly. Never completely trust anyone who wasn't there before the beginning.
- Internalize this: "Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see," and make it your mantra. Our corporate overlords are masters of illusion and they are out to control you and co-opt your movement. They will do whatever they need to in order to achieve that goal, and employ any means necessary to make sure you fail.
- Take your inspiration from the lowly army ant…enough of them will pick an elephant’s carcass clean. Go forth and be those ants.
That's it. That's what a battle-weary veteran of a previous campaign has to offer. I can also tell you that nothing, absolutely nothing, feels better than changing the world. One victory nearly twenty years ago, that took twenty years to fight, is still keeping me going. I never completely give up, because I know what's possible.
I hope, in thirty-five years or so, these protesters have a similar tale of success to tell their kids and grandkids who are righteously pissed about something, because the republic itself -- and the issue of our future, whether we reclaim "We, the people," or become serfs in a corpocracy -- is riding on their success.