Posted November 21st 2011 at 5:09 pm by
in Perspectives on Current Events

Asserting the Commons, or Why Occupy Boston Doesn't Have a Permit

The following is a guest post from Mike K, an active participant in Occupy Boston. He blogs regularly at radlife.org.

I have been waiting a very long time for this moment. Okay, it’s only been 11 years or so, but as a 27-year old IT professional, that is like eons. You see, toward the end of high school, a friend of mine and I became budding young activists. This blossomed in college where I adopted veganism, marched in protests, and studied environmental policy. (I am jaded about protesting now, but Occupy is different and I’ll explain why.) Through my studies, both in the classroom and out, I realized that the unsustainable nature of our global economic system could very well manifest itself within my lifetime or the lifetime of my children. I also came to see that the roots of our ecological, social, and economic crises run too deep and are too intertwined to be resolved individually.  Everything is intertwined.

To illustrate what I mean, I’d like to invite you to play a game. It starts with a question: “What is the biggest problem facing the world or the country today?”

If you said: ecological degradation; economic injustice; loss of constitutional rights; racism; sexism; poverty; pollution; mass extinctions; exponential population growth in the face of declining resources; unsound monetary policy; unsustainable agriculture; decline of communities and local economies; financial chicanery and corruption; ineffective government; a cryptic and unfair tax code; unaccountable government, international, and corporate institutions; climate change; or a spiritual decline…

Give yourself 1 point for each. Feel free to add your own and award yourself points for those as well. Count them if you feel the need. Now pick the most important one and ask yourself: “Can I solve this problem in isolation from the others on my list?”

I don’t think we can. We need a new conversation that includes voices of those who suffer under these problems, not just the supposed experts who have failed to fix them for decades or centuries. Fortunately, we live in America and we have this thing called the Constitution. The first thing added to it after it was ratified was this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now consider the Statement of Purpose ratified by the Occupy Boston General Assembly (A process requiring a large quorum and modified consensus of 90% or more people in favor).

We the people who have occupied Dewey Square, under the name Occupy Boston, have done so in order to maintain a place, where all voices are welcome for the open discussion of ideas, grievances, and potential solutions to the problems apparent in our society. We are and will be holding general assemblies where proposals may be brought to the group as a whole, to be consented to. We have and will continue to occupy this space for the purpose of DEMOCRACY! [Exclamation point mine]

“Congress shall make no law…” is pretty clear. I believe it sufficiently answers the “why don’t they get a permit?” question. There is even legal precedent specifically saying that pitching tents in Boston is an expression of free speech. <– It’s worth noting that I (and many Occupiers) vehemently disagree with the last sentence in the linked article.

The Occupy movement is an assertion of rights in the face of police brutality, government control, and a hostile media environment. It is a place to meet, mingle, share ideas, and discuss solutions. In consenting to be “permitted” to exercise our constitutional rights, we would surrender control over a potent part of our American heritage.

We also have an organizational situation that explains both why we can’t have a permit and why Occupy Denver elected a border collie named Shelby as their leader: No one is in charge of anyone else. Through the consensus process, we consent to things like the statement of purpose and the “no drugs” policy, but no one’s voice speaks for others without their express consent. This is also why we appear disorganized even as we set up food pantries and communications infrastructure and march by the thousands across nations and oceans in solidarity with one another.

Asserting the Commons, or Why Occupy Boston Doesn't Have a Permit

The world is complicated now, and we need a more complex discussion to weave the threads of our issues. Among Occupy’s greatest tools are face-to-face sharing of our experiences and respectful online discourse and networking. Not only do we exchange ideas in a vast global social network, we also coordinate action both strategically and tactically in a matter of minutes or over the course of months and hopefully years.

Consider Bank Transfer day. In under a month, roughly $4.5 billion moved from large banks to credit unions. This was not an Occupy campaign; it was started autonomously, and spread like wildfire, piggybacking on the Occupy and Anonymous networks. Four and a half billion may be a drop in the global economic bucket, but the bucket only holds so many drops. That kind of collective autonomous action is what makes the current global meta-movement so powerful.

On Tuesday, November 8th The Boston Herald ran a story about Occupiers in Dewey Square taking showers at St. Francis House at 39 Boylston Street. From this came accusations of abusing social services intended for the less fortunate. News Corp, the parent company of The Boston Herald, has another subsidiary in England which is under investigation over phone hacking charges. Rupert Murdoch, News Corp’s CEO, has admitted he actively shapes public opinion. I mention these things because, as far as I can tell, News Corp is one of the institutions actively opposed to the Occupy movement and allied social justice movements.

The truth is that Occupy Boston has served thousands of donated meals to homeless people since its establishment. More importantly, it is a place where those without an address are welcomed and where they frequently make significant contributions to the community.

Make no mistake, Occupy is not “The Revolution.” It will not, by itself, cause a mighty flood of justice or an endless river of righteous living. It is a platform and a portfolio of strategies and tactics. It is an ad-hoc social network willing to put in work to build just institutions. If you share your ideas with someone who listens, you automatically join the conversation. I’ll leave you with a quote from this fabulous Douglas Rushkoff article:

Whether or not we agree that anything at all in modern society needs to be changed, we must at least come to understand that the occupiers are not just another political movement, nor are they simply lazy kids looking for an excuse not to work. Rather, they see the futility of attempting to use the tools of a competitive, winner-takes-all society for purposes that might better be served through the tools of mutual aid. This is not a game that someone wins, but rather a form of play that is successful the more people get to play, and the longer the game is kept going.

They will succeed to the extent that the various models they are prototyping out on the pavement trickle up to those of us working on solutions from the comfort of our heated homes and offices. For as we come to embrace or even consider options such as local production and commerce, credit unions, unfettered access to communications technology and consensus-based democracy, we become occupiers ourselves.

2 responses to “Asserting the Commons, or Why Occupy Boston Doesn't Have a Permit”

  1. Amy says:

    Thanks Mike K! Happy to see a post like this on CoLab Radio.

    I like how you point out that Occupy is different than other activities because it is not single interest-based (or focused as others criticize). Whereas interest-based organizing has divided, Occupy is trying to unite for combined power so that collectively we can win big.

    How important do you think it is that Occupy leverages the experience of traditional interest-based organizers and advocates? I think that some seasoned interest-based movement builders (who more often than not work in heated offices and focused on one or maybe two issues) were not sure at first if Occupy was going to be additive to their work or not. They stood in solidarity but didn’t take to the camps.

    Has their participation grown, as momentum has built? Are you seeing more traditionally defined advocates (who’ve use more traditional tactics) joining Occupy? Or is Occupy mostly a space to engage new people who were never that involved with that old system of non-profit advocacy and political organizing?

    I know that organized Labor joined Occupy early – it doesn’t get more traditional than that in terms of tactics. How is that marriage going? I guess I’d like to hear your comments about what it’s been like to try and fuse old players with the new players into this movement.

  2. Mike K says:

    Hi Amy –

    As winter approaches and federally-coordinated raids clear encampments, there is a fair amount of internal debate happening. Right now, the big question is “What is Phase 2?”

    As to your question about joining with existing interest groups, I would say it has been mixed. You seem to “get it” – the idea that Occupy is not a campaign, but rather a platform for campaigns. As things settle down and the movement adjusts to its new situation, I think you will see more cooperation with traditional nonprofits. This is likely to pick up in the spring, when people again want to stand outside for hours making friends and discussing public policy.

    Occupy is a great place for people to find solidarity with others who want to work on issues. That is where I think most “traditional” campaigns will draw value from the movement – the interpersonal connections it fosters. As far as unions go, I am waiting for Mondragon to flip them to cooperative work forces.

    If there is a “hibernation” phase over winter (which I think is inevitable to some extent) it will be a time for people to get organized among themselves in person and online. If the winter is well spent, a re-birth in the spring will be a powerful thing indeed.