Lessons from #OccupyPortland
Like many cities across North America, the #Occupy solidarity movement has arrived in Portland, Oregon. Along with other cities in Oregon including Bend, Astoria, Eugene, and Salem, Portland -- reputed "Little Beirut" -- had a massive demonstration yesterday and continues it with the mass encampment in downtown Portland's Lownsdale and Chapman parks, nested between the Portland City Hall, U.S. District Court, and the Multnomah County Jail.
Yet, unlike a specific name such as #OccupyWallStreet, #OccupyPortland does not convey the same notion; after all, we Portlanders already live and work here and thus have already occupying the city even before any of this movement started. On the other hand, Wall Street is a specific place with its own inherent symbolism and functions. Most demonstrators do not live on Wall Street.
This morning hundreds of demonstrators were awakened by "peace keepers" appointed by the #OccupyPortland organizers -- at 5:45 a.m. The word was that there would be a general assembly (GA) at 6 a.m.
This so-called GA was one of the most confusing and disorganized meetings I have ever seen. While it has that good feeling associated with a participatory mass rally, all what I could figure out was that participants were simply repeating back whatever the speaker was saying in unison, almost like a religious sect involved in mind-control. I guess anyone could be a speaker and voice what was on their minds; yet all this seemed both superficial and dangerously disorganized. If history is any lesson in organizing, any successful revolution that comes with a lasting impact must have a solid, coherent core leadership. Whether that would be in a form of a singular dictator or in a form of a small presidium or council is irrelevant; rather such a structure clearly defines what a chain of command is, and what roles each person or sub-group plays within the larger organization. While a meeting such as the GA creates an illusion of a direct, participatory democracy, in reality there will be a confusion, misunderstanding and lack of direction in both decision-making process and also in the execution of the decisions therefrom. What I saw in this GA was a mix of an ochlocracy -- mob rule -- and psychologically-manipulative pep rally mentality. This psychologically overcharged mob rule is exactly what went wrong with the Chinese revolution when Mao Zedong introduced the Great Cultural Revolution, which turned the entire China upside-down with great confusions and casualties everywhere. There must be a clearly defined parliamentary procedure (even if it is consensus-based), or it will eventually collapse as people lose a sense of direction and unit cohesion.
In fact, the party atmosphere has already diluted much of the original grievances that brought #OccupyWallStreet into manifestation. While I greatly appreciate Mayor Sam Adams' support (in whatever the degree he is capable of) and the restraint on the side of the scandal-ridden Portland Police Bureau, the lack of perceived hostility is a two-edged sword, a mixed blessing. On one hand it brings together more people, especially more mainstream, everyday people into the fold -- instead of making a demonstration a near-exclusive property of the ultra-radicals; on the other hand, the sense of common, shared purpose is not as palpable or clearly communicated. This, perhaps, is also the reason why the corporate mass media outlets quickly shifted from self-censorship and blockade of #OWS-related news to a near real-time continuing coverage of the #Occupy demonstrations nationwide. In the age of social media information of all forms spreads like wildfire; instead of giving #Occupy an allure of a forbidden fruit to the masses, the media could instead provide a sanitized version of #Occupy coverage to render the demonstration and movement irrelevant.
In the words of a certain random unhoused passer-by, who perhaps uses this same park habitually for his own camping needs, this is turning into a "hippie-fest." Indeed, I have noted the presence of many unhoused people who just showed up so that they could have some uninterrupted sleep without police harassment and with safety in numbers. This was further augmented by the fact that the organizers of #OccupyPortland arranged for massive distribution of free food for demonstrators -- which many unhoused people mistook for a "homeless feed." It is not that I am saying this is wrong (after all they are among the worst-affected victims of the present American system, and we ought to stand in solidarity with them!) -- but I am concerned that all this could easily render the movement powerless and without impact.
What I am concerned about this spate of #Occupy movement in North America is that, while it is often compared with the Jasmine Revolution and Arab Spring earlier this year, Americans would turn this into a strange fad -- yet another consumer brand, just like Obama's "Hope" and "Change" brand became during his presidential campaign almost three years ago. In the end, the original impetus is quickly forgotten, the message is diluted and made irrelevant by the mass media and social media, and quickly forgotten as soon as Americans move onto another short-lived fad. After all, very few people today talk of Wisconsin, which now seems like a long time ago but only about half a year, and even the observers of #OccupyWallStreet did not associate it with the earlier mass demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin.
The reality is that Americans -- and the American government -- are resistant to change. And unlike some similarly-resistant and regressive countries such as Japan, there is really no significant external pressure that compels the U.S. to change the way it governs itself. At the end of the day, even the #Occupy demonstrators, the majority of them, do not want the U.S. Constitution suspended even for a moment. Even for a good reason, Obama will not suspend the U.S. Constitution so that he could implement his "hope and change" free from the Republican saboteurs in Congress. The bank bail-outs and foreclosures will continue, and more undocumented immigrants will be thrown in private jail and deported. Education, healthcare and social services will continue to be slashed. Obama will not suspend the Constitution or dissolve Congress. Unlike in most parliamentary democracies in the world in which the prime minister has a power to dissolve the parliament and call for a new election at any time, the U.S. president is entirely beholden to and at the whim of Congress and its juvenile antics.
While I am cautiously optimistic about this massive change in people's consciousness around the world, there still must be a solid plan that is well executed in order to effect a lasting, meaningful transformation in society. In an ideal situation, this empire too will fall after the manner of the Soviet Union and East Germany. But that will only happen when a significant number of those who are charged with enforcing the law will defect and refuse to obey the orders from above. Soldiers and policemen would have to obey their conscience instead and defect in solidarity with the #Occupiers if there could possibly be any significant change in the short run. Otherwise, this too will become another background noise for politicians that they can occasionally exploit to further their money- and power-worship. Ultimately, this is about changing the consciousness of the people one person at a time, in a grand scale. It can only be accomplished with a great leadership and a plan, and most importantly through a carefully executed education of the masses and raising of awareness and conscience.