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A message from Olympia Occupiers to future activists

 

Occupy Wall Street has been instrumental in changing the national debate to encompass huge issues such as inequality and the dominance of Wall Street.  The encampments, on the other hand, are more of a mixed story—Occupy activists have struggled to create functional protest communities, with the blame often falling on paralysis in communication and decision making.

We set out to gather knowledge from those who lived and breathed Occupy Olympia, to get their story in print.  We want activists of future encampments to know what worked for us, what didn’t work, and what we would do differently next time.  Three Occupy activists, Alex Daye, Jeff Thomas, and Dana Walker, shared their views.

Alex Daye

Describe yourself and what you did last year during Occupy, and what you are doing nowadays.

I’m 32 years old.  I have two sons, 4 and 8 years old.  I am a student of philosophy, a holistic health practitioner, and I teach martial arts professionally.

Last year, during Occupy, I put my energy into the establishment of a first-aid tent in Sylvester Park, which later became a full service medical clinic in Heritage Park.  During the day, in addition to my medical duties, I staffed the supply tent and organized volunteers. In the course of two months, we made hundreds of patient contacts and distributed vast amounts of donated gear:  sweaters, blankets, sleeping bags, socks, tents, shoes, soap, toothbrushes, tampons, batteries, hand warmers, etc.  EGYHOP distributed excess supplies throughout the greater Olympia area, and Long Hair David told me at the time that the effect we were having had reached the distant hills.  People in houses tend to take a lot for granted, but a new tarp or a pair of dry socks can make an unimaginable difference to a person experiencing homelessness.  At night I slept in the first-aid tent and responded to nocturnal emergencies (I’ll spare you the details).  I also organized and served on the Peace & Safety committee, outfitting volunteers with flashlights, whistles, radios, and reflective vests for their dusk till dawn patrols.

In the past year, since Occupy, I have given hundreds of hours to homeless advocacy.  Besides volunteer service, I organized and executed a direct action in which a group of us built a free medical clinic on vacant state-owned property in downtown Olympia; the State came with guns and tore it down on the third day.  I also organized and executed a survey of students at the Evergreen State College:  11% of student respondents reported that they were experiencing homelessness at the time of the survey. The results are published in the 2012 Thurston County Homeless Census Report (available online and by request from the City of Olympia).  I am currently stockpiling cold weather gear for distribution this winter.

What do you think have been Occupy Wall Street’s successes?  And were there any surprise positives for you personally?

I grew more as a person in those two months than I would have thought possible.  It was a paradigm shifting experience, unprecedented in my lifetime.  The greatest success of this movement is the conversation that it began.  The fact that you are even asking these questions now is evidence of the ongoing success of our campaign.

What can be done to make protest communities work better in the future?

Prioritize the basic needs of marginalized people on all agendas.  Immediately draft and adopt an anti-oppression policy, post it, and enforce it.  Promote a matriarchal society.  Reject coercive authority as illegitimate; might does not make right.  Be compassionate, and be of service.  Stand on the side of truth and defend it tooth and nail.

How should decision-making and governance be determined?

Whenever possible, decisions should be made through a formal consensus process.  Better still would be an executive council of mothers and grandmothers, appointed by the community through consensus.

Is there anything else that you want future organizers to know?

Check your privilege.  Google it—you’ll be glad you did.  Really, be honest with yourself; it will make you so much more effective, and your alliances will increase considerably.  It is a cold hard fact that many women and people of color were alienated from the Occupy Olympia encampment by the oppressive behavior of cis-gendered straight white men—like me.  As an organizer, it is critical that you are aware of your role in oppression.  If you have time to be an organizer, then you have more privilege than someone struggling for survival.  If they had what you have, then they could do what you do too.  The only difference between you is a degree of privilege.  Be proud of your service to others, but not of your privilege.

Jeff Thomas

Describe yourself and what you did last year during Occupy, and what you are doing nowadays.

I was with Occupy from the first meeting at Sylvester Park until the eviction. I did a little bit of a whole bunch, from securing tents, staying up with people who needed help, organizing, facilitating, and marching, with a mixed bag of effectiveness. What I mostly did was learn about others and myself, which has largely shaped my life since Occupy. I’ve shifted from my painting business to community service, learning to live with less dollars and improving our built environment.

Much of my time is spent sprucing up houses and lawns, including The Commons@Fertile Ground where I serve as a member of the board. A mobile community kitchen is in the works, which will be available for free for community uses – work-parties, political events, feeding people for the sake of feeding people. Also planned is a natural materials depot for DIY urban beautification projects (think intersection painting). We’re hosting classes on communication skills and other “Village Skills.” I also study for my MBA and do natural plaster work.

What do you think have been Occupy Wall Street’s successes?

Escalation. Our nation faces serious corruption problems with serious consequences and politicians who address the corruption and systemic inequities have been considered conspiratorial extremists. The OWS movement has added an extreme, angry voice into debate, which has allowed current debates to touch more on fundamental problems like the wealth gap and campaign financing without seeming extreme, like what Batman did for Harvey Dent in The Dark Night.

Solidarity with poverty. A lot of us learned the difference between solidarity and charity. Occupy relied on charity, but also provided the opportunity for many to start to empathize with poverty.

And were there any surprise positives for you personally?

Yes! I didn’t realize how many people I’ve known for years would become politically aware! I’ve had friends who have ignored politics for their entire lives who now are deeply concerned about

What can be done to make protest communities work better in the future?

Recognize the difficulty. It’s ridiculously hard to organize and implement a tent city of a couple hundred people who don’t know each other, in cold rain with 40 mph gusts of wind, with no budget. Outsiders say we did poorly—who cares? Convincing people we know how to build a free resort town in downtown Oly wasn’t in the goals.

Practice and prepare. A “mobile kitchen” is in the works, which will improve upon designs and processes used in OO’s kitchen, hopefully followed by a mobile med tent. They’ll be used for various events and demonstrations, allowing skills and resources to build. I’m looking forward to limited-duration Occupations, like three-day protest camps.

Focus on tangible actions—washing dishes, making signs, posting to Facebook, singing protest songs—instead of trying to manage and govern the camp.

How should decision-making and governance be determined?

Sparingly. Create a list of value-based basics—is destruction of property officially off the table? What are the two-three main goals? Will people be asked to leave and for what? Keep it short. Post these basics before the Occupation starts and limit governance to that. Then stop talking about decision-making and governance. Encourage others to follow the basic principles, post the basics on signs, but keep it positive and don’t get too distracted when people don’t agree—it’s more important to focus on supporting each other emotionally and physically than to have everyone agree on theoretical rules.

Dana Walker

What was your experience with Occupy?

I was part of an organization that was already planning to occupy Sylvester Park before Occupy Olympia even started; when Occupy Olympia sprouted up we combined our efforts with Occupy.  I was there at the beginning, I participated throughout, and I was there when the encampment was shut down.

The Occupy Movement changed the entire narrative for the entire country and we correctly identified the villains —something the press completely failed to do.  We pressured the Wall Street banks and we greatly raised awareness of the scams to which the American people had been victimized.

This was pure grassroots at its best.

Occupy Olympia eventually split into semi-warring factions and I personally found the GA structure to be almost useless as far as actually getting anything done was concerned.  Since I am action-oriented I eventually stopped attending the GA’s and we began organizing actions on our own without endlessly talking in circles for a week before failing to take any action.

As is usual in such actions a small handful of people did all the work. When these folks started thinking they should have say in Occupy policy, the anti-authoritarian authoritarians objected saying they could do anything they wanted and that the reign of privileged white males was over. There was also a lot of friction between the anarchists and the people who wanted to negotiate with the state and between the people who wanted to participate in direct action and those that wanted to talk for days without ever actually doing anything.

When the Machine finally shut down the Occupy camp there was no resistance—except from some kids who seized a building next to the encampment. This move was highly criticized by some who complained that this action was not sanctioned by the GA, but such an action required secrecy—and at least they did something.

In the future I would suggest a ‘working groups’ model for getting things done and using GA’s only for overall strategic discussions and/or issues that affect the entire group.

Matson Boyd is a long-time Evergreen student who is still trying to get into economics graduate school. He can be reached at matsonboyd@gmail.com

Carole Willey, BSW, is a local community organizer and strategist with legislative and capitol campus expertise.

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