Monday, October 10, 2011

Bringing the Salt March to Wall Street

by Miki Kashtan
In a few days the Occupy Wall Street movement arrives in my town, Oakland, and I am thinking a lot about what I want to do. As I reflect on what’s been happening in the last number of weeks, I feel quite uplifted and so, so relieved. For months I was watching with growing discomfort the absence of action in the US while nonviolent resistance was spreading like wildfire to more and more countries. Now, finally, the movement is spreading in this country which I have made my home since 1983. City after city now has its own occupy location, with a similar spirit in many of them. I am quite sure I am not alone in holding tremendous curiosity to see how things will unfold, and some hope that perhaps some shift could result, even a fundamental systemic change.

At the same time, I feel quite a bit of unease. Nonviolence, for me, is far from being simply the absence of overt physical violence. Nonviolence is a positive approach that requires tremendous courage. Nonviolence, if I listen carefully to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., rests on a deep love of all humans, including the ones the struggle and the resistance are mounted to topple. Nonviolence at its source emerges from clear vision, and is dramatically different from a purely oppositional movement. When Gandhi orchestrated the Salt March, he was at one and the same time violating the law as well as demonstrating with his actions the world he wanted to create. The same was true of the actions of young people during the Civil Rights Movement. A picket line outside segregated restaurants would have been pure protest. Boycotting the restaurants and blocking people from entering them would have been a disruption of business as usual. Actually sitting at the lunch counters, blacks and whites together, was what Sharif Abdullah calls “vision implementation.” Just like the Salt March, these actions were already part of the world being created, the transformation already taking place.

Mobilizing Popular Support through a Compelling Vision

In what I hear about the Occupy Wall Street movement I see a lot of creativity and sophistication in the form of organization, a willingness to keep learning and adapting, including in response to critiques from people of color, and quite a bit of tenacity and resilience. I can’t imagine a movement succeeding without these qualities. I repeat again: I am delighted that this mobilization is happening, and rooting for its success. At the same time, many of the statements I have seen contain “us/them” statements, and I know much more about what organizers and participants don’t want than about what they do want. Where is the loving vision that’s going to win over people? Where are the clear goals that can galvanize mass popular support for the movement?

According to scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, in their recently published Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, which draws on research covering over 300 violent and nonviolent campaigns, the key to a successful nonviolent campaign is the ability “to recruit a robust, diverse, and broad-based membership that can erode the power base of the adversary and maintain resilience in the face of opposition.”

I have some wild hope that there can be a way for the many who gather and those who support them to articulate an inspiring vision. This is not about making demands. The people on the street as well as the organizers have been deliberately shying away from articulating demands (see Richard Eskow’ article on this point for an understanding of why this may be so). However, not having demands doesn’t mean not having a vision. If we don’t want corporate profit to rule the day, what is it that we want instead? I know what it is for me: A call to create structures and systems that put human needs at the center. What can it be for an entire movement that prides itself on self-organizing? How can a vision be articulated within such a movement? Which of us will go and attend the meetings to support that in happening?

Mass popular support will also require finding a way to address the profound divides that continue to cut through US society. I see this possibility as resting on having conversations across many divides - political, racial, and social. The kinds of conversations that have rarely happened; that seek to transcend rather than entrench the polarities; that aim to find the shared human needs and dreams that give rise to such opposing views and experiences. Combining a simple and clear vision with the capacity to engage lovingly with others may be key to the movement’s ability to gain the consistent support of many more people.

Creative Imagination and Nonviolence
A third and last element that I would like to see is the capacity to mount multiple forms of actions beyond the current gatherings. With mass popular support and clear goals, what other steps could be taken that may increase the pressure and begin to undermine the sources of support of the existing institutions that the movement seeks to destabilize? Beyond pure protest, what actions could the movement generate that would demonstrate the vision? What would be the Salt March of this movement?

I want to imagine for a moment what might happen if the vision indeed rests on honoring human needs. If so, what actions could a mass popular movement generate that both disrupt the control of corporations as well as provide for basic human needs? One of the key elements of Gandhi’s campaign is what he called Constructive Program. The centerpiece of his program was spinning, which both materially and symbolically freed Indians from relying on the British Empire for their clothing. A similar approach was taken by the Black Panthers who operated many parallel institutions to the state, a move designed to empower and free people. If freedom from the rule of corporations and basic human needs were the goal of the Occupy Wall Street movement, what could masses of people do that would directly attend to human needs?

Before any specific action is contemplated, I want to emphasize that it’s critical that whatever the action, it has to be taken by a sufficiently large number of people so that they're less vulnerable to possible consequences and repression.

What if masses of people took possession of goods produced by corporations and distributed them to those in need? What if large groups of people appropriated structures and buildings so that homeless people, including those created through the recent ongoing foreclosures, would have a place to live? What if a million people stopped paying taxes and invested that money in sustainable technologies or permaculture? Would such actions be the equivalent of the Salt March or the lunch counters? And what would be today’s equivalent of the spinning? Gandhi insisted that anyone who joined his movement would commit to spinning for 30 minutes a day. What if we all committed to 30 minutes a day of taking action, individually, in groups, and in communities, that would free us from the rule of large institutions in the areas of food, shelter, clothing, health, and education - the most basic of human needs? Can you imagine how much energy a movement could generate if every day masses of people engaged in popular education, grew and made food from scratch, learned again how to make home-based medicines, and supported each other in all these areas? I have more questions than answers, because I am only one person. I hope you join me - in responses to this post, in conversations with others, and in the general assemblies of the various occupations.

Despite immense material benefit for some at the expense of others, I don’t believe that the current social order truly works for anyone. Let us march together towards the radically simple goal that Sharif Abdullah envisioned: a world that works for all.


  1. Thank you thank you thank you for articulating many of the unformed, undeveloped thoughts and questions floating around in my head. I love the question, "what if?" I had been thinking what if masses of people refused to pay interest bearing debt? What if masses of people woke up and realized the fallacy of the credit/money system and took action together instead of complaining privately? There are many other things that, collectively will make all the difference over time. I love all the "what if's" you ask. In the short term this one issue of debt is something that a whole lot of people can relate to and is probably what's motivating so many to hit the streets. Of course there is SOOO much more than that going on but it's what people can feel in their own lives. Over time will we need to learn to retool and re-skill our lives as so many don't even know how to make their own food let alone grow it or to fix things let alone make them from scratch. But we have to start where we are.
    So Miki...I would love to see you grab the mike when the movement hits Oakland! :) Thanks for being a visionary. I love reading your stuff.

  2. wow Miki,
    I too thank you for this post.
    Already the few strategies you have offered have blown my ideas of "what can I do " wide open.
    I see that is all it is fear and the illusion of separateness holding back and binding my creativity.
    Also I am enjoying what you say about this - being inly one person and spending 30 mins a day "spinning' I am and will be spinning my creative juices to get connected to visions of what I want to see happen.
    Loving this challenge of needs based economy.
    much gratitude and respect .. and joy hearing your heart pouring out what it has the song for.
    Kate Raffin- Sydney Australia.

  3. Thinking of Gandhi, MLK, and some others, those movements had single main figureheads that attracted most of the dialogue to that focal point and looked there for guidance and many decisions.
    What seems to stand out as basically different today is the 'leaderless' quality of the Wall St movement. (or as someone wrote: a movement of leaders)

    That seems to be a new challenge that may have its own dynamic and outcomes; they may lead in unfamiliar directions.

    That may also reflect the fact that there's no one focal goal (or 'demand'/request), as well as that this is GLOBAL, a new dimension not known before and presenting realities we know little about.

    It struck me that organizing mass actions coordinating so so many people (more that ever before, thanks to electronic media)....present new and different factors, hitherto not known and not experienced.

    The electronic media has also helped create a global culture, also a new phenomenon. That's what seems to drive the action we're witnessing, coordinated more or less.

    To me this great unknown may hold the key to the possibilities in this budding movement. Keys that none of us have created alone....but a kind of culmination of all that went before it.


  4. Hi Miki,

    Thanks for this. I love the expansiveness of your thoughts. I especially was happy to see the emphasis you gave to the need for involving large enough groups of people to reduce the vulnerability of anyone to retribution. I worry about retribution. I think another strategy to reduce retribution would be to actively engage the police and military, who would ordinarily oppose the movement for a new world. If we can remind the people who are armed in defense of the established order that they, too, have needs that are not being met by the way things are, then I think we might be able to exercise our creativity a lot further.
    Thank you for holding and articulating your vision, and for creating this and other spaces for others to join,


  5. Thank you for acknowledging the enlivening process of Occupy Wall Street, and for opening this conversation in NVC terms.

    In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, Kwame Anthony Appia points out that moral revolutions happen when the people holding to a practice become separated from the mainstream, and are given to feel marginalized and ashamed of their practices, and wish to join the rest of society in order to belong again. This is how the practices of dueling, slavery, and foot-binding became past practices (although we know that there are pockets of slavery still), and how the British finally left India. The people whose behavior is a dishonor to them and their families become unwilling to continue because it is too painful to be separated.

    So I believe that the "We Are the 99%" is a brilliant invitation to the 1% to be acknowledged for having deeply damaged the capacity of many people to live safe, loving, connected, and meaningful lives.
    And "We are the 99%" is an invitation for EVERYONE to take a look at the result of this structurally destructive behavior, and consider their part.

    It is an even more brilliant invitation to the 99% to marshall the creativity of our internal and external resources in order to build a human needs-based world.

    I am in full alignment with Mikki's sentiment, and I am also making a plea for creating the biggest force possible with more education, more unity, more connection, and more direct participation.

  6. "You may never know what results come from your action, but if you do nothing, there will be no results."- Gandhi

  7. Miki, I love you. I feel love! Thank you for daring to dream. Just your mentioning the possible ways we might collectively take action to meet human needs while freeing ourselves from corporate domination / money-based power-over limitations makes a new world more real and more possible for me, and more likely that I would consider participating in such actions. Yes! Here here to living from our hearts, doing what we know, purely and simply, is "right."


  8. Miki, As I prepare to join the sister demonstrations, I am grateful for this reminder to hold and articulate what I want, rather than what I don't. I would like to also hold that while many of us have a shared "no", we may be holding a variety of 'yes'es, at least on the strategy level, so digging into those strategies and naming the needs we want met (for those of us in the "99%" and those who are among the "1%"), will be magnificently powerful.

  9. Glad to see this post. I too have been following the OWS movement with delight and curiosity.
    Do look at Eve Ensler's recent post about OWS as art. I walked onto campus (SFSU) today and saw a chalked announcement about a General Assembly on Thursday. Already, the democratic and participatory methods in use at OWS are being absorbed and disseminated.

  10. You have expressed some of my own mixture of feelings ranging from hope (that an effective set of strategies will be shaped through these efforts) to disquietude (because of the 99% vs. 1% paradigm presented). I know that both the 99% and the 1% live in my heart, and that there is part of the 99% living in the heart of every labeled one percenter. I hope that we can exercise a dialogue in which we can clarify what are the behaviors of our society which we want to change, creating new behaviors as well as relinquishing ineffective ones. I hope that when we shame the 1% we can express our own abnegation for our own selfishness and individualism. Perhaps a day of mourning is in order? A Johnny Cash, "Man in Black" kind of day, where we express our own overlooking the pain of our prisoners, our soldiers enlisted through deceptive propaganda, our pensioners whose pensions have been forfeited... and we mourn our own loss of innocence, because we have succumbed to the cheaper purchase at a big-box store and helped drive small businesses out of business. I certainly hope we move away--quickly--from fingerpointing, which is a subtle form of violence in the heart. Yeah, I would propose, as a symbolic action, a day of mourning periodically, with the added dimension of a fast, or a partial fast, to underscore the way our own obsession with foods has brought about a plague of fast-food joints. I would also ask for an abstention from drugs, tobacco and alcohol be considered for this action.

  11. Here's what I see after visiting the camp in Portland, OR on a daily basis. I see people who have left a comfortable home and bed move into leaky tents in order to build a new kind of neighborhood. Here the hungry are fed, the homeless are given shelter and the sick in mind and body are nursed back to health. A model of a transformed society is being created. This is, and has the potential to be, a Revolution of Love.

  12. I am heartened by the creativity, spontaneity, resolve, and courage shown by the growing number of participants and supporters of the OWS demonstration.

    A few things come to mind.

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” - Mahatma Gandhi

    OWS should be enthusiastic that the second stage of being laughed at has manifested so soon.

    The wonderful lasting values being expressed in thoughts, words, and actions are beautiful. A thing to remember is that it is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them. Yet in this living up to lies the essential power that will touch the hearts restricted and minds limited by self interest.

    The more you really know, the more responsible you are. Understanding that those possessed by ignorance and addicted to illusory values can not be expected to act responsibly. Aren’t they really like naughty children?

    A group activity I thought of a few years ago may now find more receptivity. Very basically it is to call for a short period (1 - 4 days, maybe) of refraining from both earning and spending money. In India, I have heard that there is a holiday for work animals and even one for machines when they are given the day off. We could do this with money, with only a few exceptions for the sake of safety.