An Aimless 99% Spring

An Aimless 99% Spring

Natasha Lewis: An Aimless 99% Spring

Sunday morning I woke to find an email in my inbox: “Your 99% Spring Training is today!” the subject line chirped. I’d signed up to be one of the 100,000 people that a coalition of liberal-left groups is aiming to train in nonviolent direct action this spring. The tone of the email, as might be expected from an event led by, was a tad saccharine for my tastes so early on a Sunday, but I sucked it up, brushed my teeth, and rode the subway to Wall Street. I arrived at the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) office, where the session would be held, at 10:30 a.m., to find twenty-one people seated in chairs facing a projector screen, introducing themselves to each other and sharing stories about the moments they realized they were part of the 99 percent. Someone handed me a sixty-page training guide.

There were teachers, union members, civil servants, and a freelance graphic designer in the room. Some people talked about how they had lost their jobs, some their pensions. Most people’s stories touched on disillusionment with mainstream politics, and frustrations about inequality.

The atmosphere was comparable to Occupy Wall Street, and most people seemed pleased to have a chance to share their stories and draw links. We broke into groups and built upon the conversations we’d started.

My group of seven included a couple dressed all in black who introduced themselves as “occupiers” and a Verizon worker who had been a union activist for thirty-three years. He said that he had been losing faith in the power of unions to fight an isolated struggle: “Occupiers came to a CWA picket and I realized that this is a social movement, not a labor movement,” he said. We were told to write down our 99 percent stories and read them out. A man who works for the NYC Parks Department suggested that we rebel against the designated format, so we ditched our pens and talked with each other about privatization and threats to retirement income.

After reading accounts of other 99% Spring sessions, I was prepared for a Democrat love-in, but that wasn’t what I found. The most compelling of the facilitators talked about her history organizing for the Democratic Party, and her subsequent disillusionment with mainstream political work. (“Some of us are here because in 2008 we made a vote that we thought had been important,” she said knowingly.) The facilitators showed us a video, “The Story of Our Economy,” that was vague and unfocused, but it laid blame on Republicans and Democrats. The only other literature apart from the training book were mint green information sheets about getting involved with the Occupy General Assembly.

After we had shared our stories, we were given a video history lesson in nonviolent direct action. 240 years were jammed into a fifteen-minute film that served as a roll call of groups that had used the tactic. Given that all of us had devoted seven hours of a sunny Sunday to sit inside and be trained in nonviolent direct action, I would assume that most people in the room were already sold on the tactic. The flashes of visual excitement, narrated by a catalog of successes, gave no insight into what it’s actually like to be involved in organizing a campaign of nonviolent direct action. My guess is that the video was meant to inspire us about the possibilities of collective action. Unfortunately, the people power message wasn’t convincing enough: a significant proportion of the lunch-break chatter was taken up by discussions of the need to get celebrities to promote “our message.”

As Paul Adler went into in his post comparing the 99% Spring to the Vietnam Summer, some critics have denounced the recent trainings as a move to co-opt the Occupy movement. Others have countered that it is in fact MoveOn (et al.) that has been co-opted by Occupy. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street vs 99% Spring tension played out through the course of the day. As the facilitators led the discussion, we were asked who we thought had been left out of the American dream in the history video. A young woman in a black hoodie, an Occupy ballerina-bull logo patched on her elbow, asked for a definition of the American dream.

Next we were asked to reconvene with our small groups, armed with a handful of colored sharpies and a large piece of paper, to draw our ideal world, which we would decide on as a group, like a collective utopian Pictionary. The unemployed graphic designer (one half of the “occupiers” couple) sketched out a globe in dark green. The words “barter,” “renewable,” “humanism,” and “post-civilization” were written down. The CWA guy looked skeptical. While we toiled, the facilitators walked around and interrupted us. They had donned ties and stuck labels with the names of corporations to their shirts. One man came over and said with a playfully challenging tone that he wanted to build a condo. His pen hovered threateningly over Syria but he conceded to our protestations before doing any serious damage. But before we knew it, a “BP representative” mined a chink in our solidarity and scrawled a huge red oilrig near the bottom of our page. Oil! Yuck! This was the beginning of the end. The next tie-wearer scribbled all over our new triumph, our ideal world, before ripping it to shreds.

“Why are you doing that?” the hoodied occupier yelled. “Stop doing that!” At first it looked like she was really getting into the game, good for her! But no. “I’m serious!!” she screeched, “you can’t do that! Why are you asking us to make an ideal world if you’re just going to destroy it!?”

The room went quiet.

Apologies were made and the occupier explained her outburst. She gets so mad at police, has seen her friends’ arms get broken. She mentioned the linked arms of kids in Sanford, Florida (the town where George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin), with tears in her eyes. “That’s why I’m here. I want to be able to do that.” She said that she hadn’t come here to get angry but to learn. She had a point.

After a few more pseudo-psychological exercises, we were led into the hallway and divided into facing “hassle lines.” This was what we’d all come for. I have been involved in direct action many times but never trained. I think I’d naively believed that I would be able to maintain my cool even in an aggravated situation, as long as I understood the stakes involved in fighting back against police.

As the CWA union activist pointed out in the afternoon, his picket line experience had taught him staying calm isn’t easy. Last year my seventeen-year old brother was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer at a demonstration in London. He maintains that he didn’t do it, and after a long and laborious court process charges against him were dropped, but I had to acknowledge I wouldn’t have been shocked to hear he’d kicked out in an outburst. As tensions between police and demonstrators will likely rise this spring and summer as Occupy Wall Street actions get going, it is important to remember some of the lessons the 99% Spring facilitators were mentioning: that staying calm and nonviolent in the face of police brutality can be extraordinarily difficult and is tactically smart.

We stood in the corridor in lines facing our partners. One side were told they were bank managers, the other customers taking money out of their accounts (on their own) and making a fuss about it. We acted out our parts before freezing and talking about our body language. This scenario seemed more fitting for an anger management class than a lesson in political action. My partner and I, a middle-aged man with wispy white hair who seemed well-versed in the tribulations of the sectarian Left, participated unenthusiastically, uncertain about how these fake scenarios were supposed to translate into anything we wanted to know. The facilitators acknowledged that this training day was, despite being seven hours long, just a short introduction to direct action. We were told to consult websites listed in our guide for information about what we should know if we intended to be arrested as part of an action.

Charles M. Young, in a post for Counterpunch about an Upper West Side training, evoked the feeling of pointlessness well:

Every time somebody brought up something that was actually happening, Landis insisted that our agenda was set and we were only discussing hypothetical situations. So we talked about hypothetically withdrawing money from a hypothetical evil bank, or hypothetically stopping the hypothetical fracking in the Catskills that is going to poison New York City’s hypothetical drinking water.

It is impossible to tell whether having this pseudo-experience would be a help or a hindrance when it came down to the real thing.

There was a lot of chat throughout the day about “making connections.” It is a truism that connections are an integral part of any political action, but it was hard to see exactly what the facilitators meant by this word. At the end of the day, there was vague talk about how we should all follow each other on Twitter. Like Occupy Wall Street, it was a useful exercise to share stories and draw links between one person’s student debt and another person’s job loss. The arbitrary sign up processinput your zip code and pick a nearby trainingis perhaps good for bringing people together whose echo chambers might not normally cross. But this arbitrariness meant that we weren’t planning for anything specific, and a significant part of the importance of trainingbuilding trust within a grouplost its meaning.

I’m not really sure (and I don’t think the 99% Spring organizers are either) who the intended audience of this day was. It was both too long and not in-depth enough. Money might have been better spent providing these trainings for existent groups to prepare their members for specific actions.

The debrief, by trying to be so inclusive, encapsulated the aimlessness of the day. We were told about upcoming “actions” that we might be interested in taking part in, such as May Day and MoveOn’s plans to disrupt shareholder meetings on May 9. Marches, political theater, and disruptions are useful tools if they are part of a focused and sustained movement, but they cannot provide a base for anything except politics as hobbyism. My advice to anyone who wants real insight into what it’s like to prepare for and take part in a campaign built around nonviolent direct action: stay home and watch Freedom Riders instead.