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Naomi Wolf writes, "These great documentary films have a simple lesson: effective political protest needs good organization and smart messaging."

Naomi Wolf, activist and Occupy supporter. (photo: Herald on Sunday)
Naomi Wolf, activist and Occupy supporter. (photo: Herald on Sunday)



Occupy Must Learn From Sundance

By Naomi Wolf, Guardian UK

01 February 12


Occupy Wall Street: Take the Bull by the Horns


o, late last year, I said - to some controversy here - that the violent crackdown against the Occupy movement in the United States represented the first salvos of a civil war initiated by political and allied economic elites against protesters in a nascent movement whose still-not-fully articulated agenda would represent a threat to their unmediated and untransparent hold on profits. And a civil war it has indeed turned out to be.

Over the weekend, 2,000 citizens marched in support of Occupy Oakland - and were met by flash grenades and, some witnesses assert, rubber bullets. The Los Angeles Police Department is engaging in training exercises with the US military. At a parallel march in support, in New York City, a new apparition - large groups of masked men - joined the protesters, which is, globally, a sign that provocateurs intent on violence have joined the scene; and journalist Tim Pool was assaulted.

And reports continue to surface around the nation, most recently from Atlanta, of heightened local law enforcement investment in military-style hardware to use against domestic dissent. Predictably enough, after the NDAA created a clause allowing for the indefinite detention of domestic terrorists, Oakland council member referred to the Occupy protesters as "domestic terrorists".

In the midst of this escalation, some important lessons have emerged - from, of all places, the glittery and snowy Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah. I was there to appear on a panel titled "Loving the Masses", and in the course of my visit, had the chance to see some of the riveting and important documentaries about grassroots protest movements that distinguished this year's offerings: these included the powerful Never Sorry, about the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, directed by novice 27-year-old filmmaker Alison Klayman; Half Revolution, presenting edge-of-your-seat reportage from the front lines of Cairo's revolution, by young Palestinian-Danish director Omar Shargawi and Egyptian-American director Karim el-Hakim; David France's compelling How to Survive a Plague, about Act Up's rise and fall; the historically significant A Fierce Green Fire, detailing 30 years of the environmental movement, by Mark Kitchell; and the truly infuriating doc about how US corporations cycle their profits out of the country, hiding them routinely in offshore accounts or in their Irish subsidiaries, so as to avoid paying any US taxes whatsoever - and doing so in collusion with their hired hands in Congress - We're Not Broke, by Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce. The news is bittersweet and the lessons are timely.

One thing that emerges from watching these documentaries, in aggregate, is that this narrative is global. As the power of global corporations transcends the political power of nation states, global corporations are simply rewriting legislation in advanced democracies behind closed doors, and leaving the people - of Greece or the UK, America or Italy - out of the decision-making process altogether; then presenting the need for cutbacks as a fait accompli. It is this lack of financial transparency and accountability that Occupy's movement threatens, and there are truly billions of dollars - in untaxed US profits alone - at stake if they become successful.

Also apparent from these films is that the crackdowns against dissent are now globally coordinated: Acta, which allows corporations to block access to certain sites online, was signed recently by a series of governments. In Half a Revolution, Cairenes hold up bullets and tear gas canisters marked "Made in America". As Twitter and Facebook became global routes for "revolutionary" sentiment used by dissidents such as Ai Weiwei - who documented, via Twitter, footage of his being beaten by secret police in a hotel room, as well as tweeting his brain scan images that showed proof of the damage done by the beating - and as Facebook drove the protests in Tahrir Square, both social media have both recently announced policies that limit their usefulness as tools for organizing, that weaken privacy protections, and that can help to put in jeopardy dissidents who run afoul of local censors.

On the organizing side, the lessons are profound from these documentaries, as well. It was heartbreaking to sit on the panel watching clips from A Fierce Green Fire and How to Survive a Plague and see that most of the forms of effective peaceful protest used by these successful movements are now illegal, or else extremely dangerous. Lois Gibbs, a citizen leader in the Love Canal pollution scandal, spoke of holding government officials hostage until the groups' demands were met. Well, these days, that would get you ID'ed as a "domestic terrorist" and shipped to abusive detention.

Act Up successfully put a condom around Senator Jesse Helms' house, blocked access to the FDA, and showed up to disrupt meetings about drug trials that had been held in secret. Especially affecting to me was how long they were given to make their points before being silenced - and how they faced brief arrest processes, at most, but no violence. Act up was, of course, successful and their activism on fast-tracking Aids drugs has saved millions of lives.

Important lessons also emerged, especially from Act Up. Occupy - a movement I love and respect, and which represents our last best hope - also fills me with distress because of how difficult it is for a movement committed to "no spokespeople" to get their message out. Act Up, which was founded by a group that included people who worked in the media and in advertising, were not so self-hobbled: they created a memorable "brand" (the pink triangle) and coined a powerful soundbite ("silence equals death"); and activists accepted media training from a member who was also a news anchor. They were "on message" - labeling the Catholic Church, for instance, "murderers" when it opposed condom use. And it was effective, so the word "murderer" was repeated in dozens of voices and entered the news stream. The Church lost that round; the soundbite won the day.

Also clear was that Act Up did not get bogged down in consensus decision-making - which has derailed every single group I have ever studied that has committed to it - and went with a clear agenda voted on by majority rule. (They also appeared, from footage of meetings, to have been following Robert's Rules of Order.) Most importantly, they worked what every successful grassroots movement needs to create: an outside, disruptive pressure strategy, and a talk-to-and-negotiate-with-the-decision-makers-under-pressure "inside" arm, creating a pincer movement. So Act Up protesters would disrupt drug trials outside the FDA or a private drug company building, or occupy St Vincent's Hospital. Then, after the disruption had smoked out the leadership of the institution under fire, a few designated Act Up representatives would make themselves available to present their clear demands to those in power in those institutions and negotiate outcomes, with more protest and disruption implied if demands were not met.

Again and again, How to Survive a Plague shows that this tactic is effective. Right now, though, the Occupy movement has an ideological reluctance to creating both arms of the pincer. Many see it as "contaminating", in the words of one young activist, to even talk to the decision-makers they are protesting against, or to deal with the mainstream media. I would argue - as I did at Sundance - that the house is burning and we do not have time for this preciousness. The evidence from the French documentary, as well as from the Tahrir Square footage, is that the images in the news media let the world be a witness and, to some extent, protect protesters. But without journalists present, Syria is free to mow down citizens without intereference. That shows that disorganization and a policy of shunning media communication equals political death

Media exposure, a clear message, smart soundbites, clearly stated demands, and, most importantly, tasked, empowered negotiators working on the inside in concert with mass disrupters applying pressure from without - this equals political life.

 

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+12 # gUbbro 2012-02-01 08:23
unfortunately this revolution will follow a path of violence...ther e is too much for the corporate powers to lose for it to be any other way...humanity has yet to transcend the reptilian mindset
 
 
+14 # globalcitizen 2012-02-01 08:31
As the global class elites descend into the same totalitarianism , fascism of Amerikan Empire, becoming generically, criminal, brutal and enslaving humanity into War and Fascism, the whole question of class history, class civilizations, deforming humanity, enslaving it will come to the fore.

We the social masses must organize international strikes against Fascist U.S. EMPIRE and now its police state, police fascism, along with strikes against fascist NATO, European poodles, class thugs who are marching in lock step with war against Iran, while using fascist austerity to defend Fascist Capitalism.

The corruption of all civil institutions reflects the failure of class history, class states and the need to prosecute Obama, Bush officials, Western NATO officials for their war crimes, War criminals, and State Terrorism, and aggression around the world.

It will be a global battle to dismantle WESTERN FASCISM, and its second form, second round, based on a global Fascist Matrix. The Egyptians already know that removing dictators is not enough, and that voting for class parties , class ideologies enables this Fascism.

The world needs a social agenda, social classes to dismantle all class hierarchies and reclaim social control for humanity last seen before class history and the Patriarchal class mechanism was established, millenniums ago. Victory to humanity against global FASCISM.
 
 
+23 # Yellowbird 2012-02-01 10:30
Since we are obviously out gunned, I suggest people start thinking end game. Meaning in the end, who buys the stuff that capitalists rely upon selling in order to stay rich? What would happen if everyone refused to buy their stuff? If capitalists were broke the game field would level out.

Game plan? Boycott

Why is it not spoken of anymore?
 
 
+16 # bugbuster 2012-02-01 13:03
I've always thought it would be neat to just pick a target, any target, and somehow stage a mass boycott of that target just to show that we can.

Trouble is, you can't get enough people to do the boycott to make any impact.

I think Naomi's ideas point to a strategy with a far higher chance of success. These things take time. Remember the Civil Rights movement and the movement for womens' suffrage. There are no shortcuts.
 
 
+29 # 2wmcg2 2012-02-01 09:07
What "clearly stated demands"? I would suggest that if the Occupy movement embraces the cause of good, long-term jobs for Americans, its message will resonate across the political spectrum and will lead to victory. I would propose two demands in particular that are related to jobs:

1. permanently shortened work time in response to the nonreversible introduction of technology to displace human labor. No wage or price controls need be introduced. Wages historically keep pace unless there is a huge oversupply of labor. We can start by demanding a 4-day, 32-hour workweek - now.

2. abolition of the free trade regime, which puts Americans in direct cost competition with low-wage workers in Asia. I call for the internationally sanctioned use of tariffs to equalize the cost of production and encourage employers to improve living standards around the world.

Think positively and support specific "outside the box" proposals to create jobs.
 
 
-63 # Robt Eagle 2012-02-01 10:08
Let me understand this, it is OK for Occupy to destroy property and prevent people from going about their daily routines, but when confronted by police and requested to disperse...the Ocupiers start throwing rocks and bottles at the police, the police should walk away? When the police are summoned to your home due to an illegal invasion, should they walk away or arrive and take action? You just want to rant and rave and claim a police state. That is BS, there is no such thing. The Tea Partiers organized and went home and cleaned up properly and didn't cost municipalities a fortune for protection. Th Occupiers are lawless and couldn't care about laws. They want their agendas heard at the cost of civility. Get real, and go get jobs, then you won't have time to be in the street protesting because you will be paying taxes instead of trying to live off other people's hard earned money.
 
 
+17 # bugbuster 2012-02-01 10:57
Thanks for sharing, Robt Eagle. I hope you feel better now.
 
 
+21 # Joan Manning 2012-02-01 13:50
Oh dear, Mr. Eagle is back again with his Foxed-up mind. The Occupiers are all a bunch of lawless freeloaders and so are those who support them. We should all wash up like those nice, obedient Tea Partiers and go get a job.

I could puke.

Please, Mr. Eagle, do us all a favor and stay home on election day.
 
 
+6 # reiverpacific 2012-02-01 17:56
Quoting Robt Eagle:
Let me understand this, it is OK for Occupy to destroy property and prevent people from going about their daily routines, but when confronted by police and requested to disperse...the Ocupiers start throwing rocks and bottles at the police, the police should walk away? When the police are summoned to your home due to an illegal invasion, should they walk away or arrive and take action? You just want to rant and rave and claim a police state. That is BS, there is no such thing. The Tea Partiers organized and went home and cleaned up properly and didn't cost municipalities a fortune for protection. Th Occupiers are lawless and couldn't care about laws. They want their agendas heard at the cost of civility. Get real, and go get jobs, then you won't have time to be in the street protesting because you will be paying taxes instead of trying to live off other people's hard earned money.

You really do view the world through uber-conformist , blue-tinted glasses don't ya?!
Oh well, it takes all kinds.
Again, ask Scott Olsen -two time Iraq tour marine (since you worship the military so much) how he feels about the pacifist approach. It has served only to harden his resolve to try and prevent the police state from taking full hold. They are paid for by us -and that means you- but turn out in droves of Darth Vader look alikes for THEM the drivers and shills of the Corporate State who try to avoid paying any taxes at all.
 
 
+10 # soularddave 2012-02-01 18:19
Participants at Occupy DO NOT wear masks. We're not anonymous, and know that those with covered faces are likely agents provoceteur. Those agents are ushered to the sidelines. Those who cause destruction are turned over (back to) the police.

As here, you'd be one to insist on your way instead of working with the others.

Few of the Occupy occupations have been violent on the part of protesters. OTOH, the state apparatus has been very violent. This distinction is not lost tothose who are paying attention.

Mr. Eagle is projecting his own notions of the movement and the people on us. He is biased to the point of absurdity. His statements seem to be the result of others of his ilk, and NOT from observation. HINT: protesters don't bring tear gas cannisters to the protests.
 
 
0 # Cactusman 2012-02-05 23:05
Do you ever give it a rest?
 
 
+25 # Peace Anonymous 2012-02-01 10:14
When you look back at the last 30 years, but more specifically the last 15 and connect the dots who can be surprised? This is insane and I am sure a lot of German people in the 1930's felt the same way watching Hitler on the march.
If I hear one more politician talk about freedom and deomcracy I'm going to puke.
 
 
+13 # bugbuster 2012-02-01 10:18
Naomi, your clear thinking is appreciated.

Some of what you describe, especially Act Up's use of language and manipulation of media, is spot on, and could have come out of the remarkably successful Republican playbook. Since 1980 the Republicans realigned the South and swayed a whole population to act direct in opposition to its own self-interest.

What is needed is a disciplined non-violent movement which does not invite all comers unless they demonstrate some level of political maturity. This would be a peaceful movement that pointedly does not threaten anyone with anything but a request to follow the Golden Rule.

I even let myself imagine a movement where provocateurs in a demonstration would be easily identifiable because their biometrics aren't right.

Right. That's what I said. You have to be a registered member, or you get spray painted for easy identification by the cops, or something along those lines.

This movement's first charter is to be a trusted brand, and that brand is jealously guarded like any corporate brand, and the movement does whatever it takes to prevent counterfeiting.

Let there be all the movements anyone wants to have, but let there be one that guards its brand. The GOP does that, and it works spectacularly well.
 
 
+6 # Yellowbird 2012-02-01 10:26
While Naomi speaks the truth always and in very clear language... the most serious problem with Sundance is this:

The films and messages do not filter to the public until about 2 YEARS after the films are shown at the festival. Two years is too long to wait for a message to get out there. Because the film makers are interested in profit from their film instead of getting the message out, the need for greed is stopping the message........ .... from Sundance.

Is that what the organization stands for?

One would think the films would be cataloged on the internet at their site for all to see for free or for at least a small token membership fee. Not a gigantic subscription rate.
 
 
+4 # bugbuster 2012-02-01 12:58
Most likely the independent filmmaker is in hock for the making of that film as we speak. If you wish to see it for free, are you willing to put up your own money first to get the filmmaker out of debt?
 
 
+8 # ABen 2012-02-01 10:29
It's all about the presentation of an appealing narrative. Since most Americans must be dragged away from American Idol or a Kardasian self-promotion to pay attention to politics, they need a narrative that is clear, simple, and resonates with their lives. Something like, 'Wall Street; re-regulate it for the good of the economy,' or 'Create jobs for people not machines.'
 
 
+2 # cordleycoit 2012-02-01 10:52
Thank you again.At this point it maybe unwise as the oppression is hardening to take on the authoritarian armor of Vanguardists. There has been talk of masked people attacking the press as well as having the police there. Remember the downfall of the sixties when the Leninists became the voice of the people. The Movement was quickly fragments and crushed.
When a police-person beats you it is hard to let the thug do it. Going eye for eye means blindness; victory goes to the sure sighted, not the psychotic.
 
 
+11 # moby doug 2012-02-01 15:39
We oppressed are in an extraordinary position of strength. We wildly out number our oppressors & exploiters: the 1% and the 1/10th of 1%. Tens of millions of us are highly educated. The leveraging thus far executed by a tiny few against the hundreds of millions is a breathtaking act of prestidigitatio n, a con, which depends upon our willing suspension of belief in our own power.
 
 
+3 # NOMINAE 2012-02-01 18:38
Quoting moby doug:
We oppressed are in an extraordinary position of strength. We wildly out number our oppressors & exploiters: the 1% and the 1/10th of 1%. Tens of millions of us are highly educated. The leveraging thus far executed by a tiny few against the hundreds of millions is a breathtaking act of prestidigitation, a con, which depends upon our willing suspension of belief in our own power.


@ moby doug

Talking in terms of numbers can be misleading. Very little of this "battle" is going to be "mano a mano". All of that government cyber snooping can bring any individual down with a few clicks of the mouse. It is surprising how time consuming an IRS Audit can be. Certainly takes your attention off of getting out into the streets. For all of the bully-boy equipment the cops are buying the most impressive is the drones, and associated flight and maintenance training being done by local police forces in Texas and other places. One drone can control countless people. One "check" of your financial records can cripple you, even if you are scrupulously honest. Suddenly "suspicious" activity starts appearing in your financial records that you had nothing to do with. In the end this is not going to come down to a street brawl, tho brawls will be included. In the same way that a nuclear country has no fear of a nation with nothing more than a huge standing army, the Winning Balance here will not be counted in numbers of boots on the ground.
 
 
+3 # Activista 2012-02-01 19:01
Power of powerless - these are our children - and in the end new generation will take over.
There is NO violent option - violence always brings mud to the surface - look at Libya. Patience and persistence is needed - we are in bankruptcy - investing in militarism, NOT in people (education,heal th care, environment).
 
 
+2 # CINNAB 2012-02-02 05:31
WHOSE TO SAY THAT THE 1% IS NOT BEHIND THE VIOLENCE AT THE PROTESTS SO THE LAW ENFORCEMENT REACTS. WHAT BETTER WAY TO CAST AN OUTLAW EFFECT ON THE MOVEMENT
 

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