Friday, October 28, 2011

Love in the Wake of Violence: Notes from Oakland, October 28th

by Miki Kashtan
“It is not nonviolence if we merely love those that love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those that hate us.” -- Gandhi

I have not been to OccupyOakland since Saturday. For almost two days, no one was there, as police blockaded the area after destroying the camp early Tuesday morning. As of Wednesday night, occupiers broke through the police blockade and reentered the plaza. Along the way police used so called “non-lethal” weapons, one of which critically injured a young man who has since become a symbol for global solidarity for Oakland.

I sat at the computer intending to write an entirely different piece, one that’s been waiting for days now, about leadership and facilitation in the movement. I was simply unable to do so, because my heart is completely consumed with how to hold all that’s happened with love and human understanding. This includes all the people whose actions I find extremely difficult to comprehend. I cannot write about anything else involving this movement I so want to support until I am able to metabolize these events.

It is easy for me to extend love and understanding to the occupiers who braved the police and continued to march towards the plaza in an effort to reclaim it. It is easy to extend love to Scott Olsen. I read about him a little. I looked at his face. He’s a young man who chose to ally with the occupiers after serving two tours in Iraq and then joining Veterans for Peace. No challenge for me. I find it inspiring that someone who was in the army can wake up to move towards peace and transformation. It is easy for me to extend love and understanding to the people from Egypt who are organizing a march specifically in solidarity with Oakland. It is easy because I can identify with them, see them as being like me. I can see their care, and I connect with care easily.

And it’s not all easy. My attention is drawn to some reports suggest that some of the marchers threw rocks or bottles at the police. How can I extend love and understanding to any who may have participated in such actions?

I close my eyes, and I do all I can to imagine that I am the one throwing a bottle at the police. I imagine the rage, the helplessness, the absolute insistence on maintaining my human dignity despite everything, the surge of determination to remain powerful, to make something I believe is right happen. And I try to imagine my arm moving back with a rock in my hand to gain momentum, and then throwing the rock, and the sense of power I get from it, that I am doing something for justice. It’s extremely difficult for me to fully imagine this, an act so counter to my sensibilities, to how I know myself. I am filled with tears as I do it, and am completely connected with the human possibility of this act I would never myself choose.

I poke around, read some more, and encounter a comment on the OccupyWallSt site: “If that is true about ‘some protesters throwing rocks and bottles at the police’, it was EXTREMELY STUPID of those protesters and they should be banned from Occupy Oakland for life. Some of them were no doubt ‘AGENTS PROVOCATEURS’ planted by the CIA. Throwing rocks and bottles is EXACTLY what the 1% hope we will do, so as to justify a police crackdown and the imposition of MARTIAL LAW”.

I can feel in my body the anguish of being called stupid, and I pull myself away from that anguish to focus on the person who did the calling. I know about the power of nonviolence in the face of repression. I have such deep hope that the Occupy movement will deepen into more nonviolence. And so, despite having just understood in full and embraced in my body the people who possibly threw things at the police, I am totally and easily aligned with this person’s deep concern about this action. And yet a part of me recoils from the idea that they should be banned forever. That’s where the challenge lies for me. Why call them stupid, and why the desire to ban them. So I close my eyes again, and then I find the link. I know of the many times I wish that someone disappeared whose actions I find disruptive of some purpose that’s important to me. Through this, I can imagine being this person. I touch the active passion for this movement to work, to be impeccable in giving the police no excuse, so that the sympathy of the world can be maintained.

I am awash with overwhelm. So many more actors and players are involved, not only with Scott Olsen’s injury. I am thinking of the people dealing drugs in some of the encampments. Or the ones whose actions leave women feeling unsafe at night. I know of and have seen people who inhabit different enough realities that their participation in meetings and activities challenges everyone. I branch out and think of the police who attacked the occupiers, and especially those who made the choice to throw one more tear gas grenade at the people who were gathering around Scott Olsen after he had just been injured. Can I ever find room in my heart for all of them? Then there is the Tea Party person who holds the organizers of the Occupy movement responsible for Scott’s injury. And last and by far not least, I think of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who issued conflicting messages in response to the actions of the police, including initially commending the chief of police for what she referred to as “a generally peaceful resolution”, and is now facing increasing pressure to resign. There is no blog post that can be long enough to include my efforts to embrace them all.

It takes enormous effort to imagine the human emotional logic that would lead all these people to the actions that they have chosen. I find this effort deeply significant, because I want to live in a world where no one is a throw-away person. I want to create a world that works for all of us, not just those who are easy for me to understand and love. I want everyone to have their humanity honored, to have access to resources, to have food, and shelter, and health, and love. I really want everyone’s needs to matter, these are not just words for me. It’s the only way I know, ultimately, to end the millennia-old cycle of violence, hatred, suffering, and separation in which we live.

In the meantime, I want to extend love to myself for a moment. It’s so demanding to make room inside me for everyone, so, so challenging. Some years ago, when Rabin was assassinated, I called a friend to work my way through the many reactions I had. I do not have God in my life, haven’t believed in a transcendent being in many decades. Nonetheless, among the many feelings I found, the one that surprised me the most was a moment in which I felt something I can only call compassion for God. I understood, in that moment, that God’s job, in that moment and in all moments, is to love everyone fully and equally, all of creation. And that meant loving the assassin. And I felt compassion for the enormity of what it would take. I am a mere mortal, and it’s taking all I have to even imagine it.

In conclusion, I want to be sure I clearly articulate that no amount of love and understanding for everyone is a substitute for action to bring about concrete and material results. The point of this love is to ensure that our actions are free of violence, hatred, and separation. So that we don’t end up where so many revolutions have in the past: recreating the very conditions that the revolution was seeking to change. This means including, ultimately, the 1% in the final outcome just as much as the homeless that are being reached out to in some of the encampments where they have lived for years before the occupations started. Unless we include everyone, some people will eventually become some new 1% and some others will become drug dealers and threats to their fellow humans. I fervently hold on to this love. It’s my insurance policy that success will mean success for all.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Does Nonviolence Work? Notes from OccupyOakland October 24th

by Miki Kashtan

On my third visit to OccupyOakland, I co-led two workshops hosted by Nichola Torbett, founder of Seminary of the Street. In both of them I collaborated with Nichola and with Kazu Haga, an Oakland-based Kingian Nonviolence trainer. The conversations that emerged in these workshops, along with a recent post by Sharif Abdullah about vision implementation, form the basis of what I am writing below.
Effectiveness of Nonviolence vs. Commitment to Nonviolence
Although only one of the people who came to either workshop expressed an active disagreement with a commitment to nonviolence, her presence was sufficient to spark a profound conversation about the topic. Throughout the two workshops we kept coming back to a fundamental distinction between the question about whether nonviolence works and whether or not we are committed to nonviolence as a matter of spiritual or other belief system. Part of what was so poignant about the position of this person who wasn’t fully committed to nonviolence was precisely how much in her heart she was committed, and came to shift her perspective primarily based on an analysis that led her to question the effectiveness of nonviolence. The more I read about nonviolence, the more I discover that movements tend to choose nonviolence because of their belief in its strategic value, not necessarily because of a principled disavowal of the use of violence in certain circumstances. It’s a pragmatic choice, not a values-based choice.

Full commitment to nonviolence on the basis of values, whether spiritual or secular, means maintaining a nonviolent stance even if it doesn’t seem to work, even if the goals never materialize, even if the movement is crushed by force. This is an extremely challenging position to take. I cannot imagine asking this of anyone whose life has been affected by trauma, severe deprivation, pervasive discrimination, police brutality, poverty, or any other kind of structural ongoing violence. Those are the classic conditions that breed violent uprisings, terrorist activity, or, in less extreme situations, anger or even hatred. The level of internal resources necessary for such a commitment to nonviolence, especially in the face of potential or actual repression, cannot easily be available under such conditions, because those conditions erode the human spirit.

Why Nonviolence Works
If there is any chance that nonviolence will be proclaimed as a strategy, especially in Oakland, especially in response to the police, it rests on being able to show that nonviolence works. Thanks to Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, whose work I already quoted last week, we now have information at our disposal that can make this case. Anyone who likes to check things out for themselves can find the information in their book, and much of it summarized in an article.

The basic finding is that of 323 violent and nonviolent movements they analyzed between 1900 and 2006, 53% of the nonviolent ones succeeded as compared to only 26% of the violent ones. What’s even more telling is that when the movements were repressed, the nonviolent movements were 6 times more likely to succeed.

The primary reasons for the success of any movement, whether violent of nonviolent, is popular support and the ability to undermine the sources of support of the existing regime. No matter how repressive any regime is, coercion alone is never enough to maintain the status quo unless the armed forces remain supportive and the population remains fragmented and disengaged. As the case of Egypt demonstrates, when the population rescinds its implicit willingness to go along with the regime, and when the armed forces shift loyalty, even a very established repressive regime crumbles.

If sympathy for the movement and de-legitimation of the regime are essential conditions for success, that provides clear understanding of why nonviolent movements fare better, and especially why their response to repression adds to their relative success. A movement that manages to maintain a nonviolent stance in response to repression is much more likely to achieve both of these conditions. It’s harder for most people to support a regime that cracks down on nonviolent resistors than a regime that appears to be responding to violence initiated by a movement.

Nonviolence and Vision Implementation

Here is where common misperceptions of nonviolence are responsible for much of the negative attitudes towards it. As Kazu demonstrated during our workshop, a world of difference exists between non-violence and nonviolence. The former is what so many people associate with the latter: it’s a negation of violence, and it encompasses within it passivity, a non-response to what is happening. Nonviolence, on the other hand, as conceived by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., is fierce and loving. It is an active force that stands up for truth, justice, and love. Kazu reminded us that being able to accept repression while fighting for a vision of a different world often requires much more courage than fighting back. Because of the astonishing lack of knowledge of the history, principles, and tactics of active nonviolent resistance, many people aren’t even aware of the heroic measures taken by nonviolent activists throughout the last century. The Danes, for example, were able to save almost all the Danish Jews under Nazi Occupation, a feat unheard of in any other country, because they adopted a nonviolent resistance stance towards their occupation instead of passivity or armed resistance.

This is where Sharif Abdullah’s contribution to our understanding of nonviolence is so critical. His term - vision implementation - describes a core aspect of the active and revolutionary aspect of nonviolence. Visionary nonviolence goes way beyond acts of protest and paves the road to the future by utilizing creative actions that are, in his words, highly illegal and highly moral. Setting up camps on “occupied” areas where aspects of the vision of a possible world are a daily lived reality is definitely a form of vision implementation.

Sharif is also calling the occupy movement to step beyond the internal vision implementation within the camps into acts that take the vision into the wider population and can increase support for the movement at the same time. What he recommends is different from demonstrations and marches. “Protests only go so far: to be effective, it is necessary to show people what the change in society, the change in POWER, looks like.”

Back to the Beauty
When the workshops were over, I went back to the camp, and walked around once again, sitting and listening, talking to some people, and watching what to me is a magical snapshot of possibility. I tried to find the agenda for the general assembly meeting for that night, and couldn’t, so I didn’t stay. I talked with one of the media people, who was responsible for twitter and facebook presence. Her enthusiasm and deep optimism is what I am left with. We both celebrated how far from all white the camp was. Not quite fully representative of the population of Oakland, and at the same time much more so than is usually the case. Two weeks into the occupation, and under order of eviction that some believe is going to lead to a police raid sometime this week, services are solidifying and growing. The number of cities the world over who have their own Occupy movements is growing steadily. Yes, I wasn’t as satisfied with the process used at the general assembly meeting, and I am still mulling over how to integrate the responses to my post. It’s clear to me that I wasn’t fully walking my talk in what I wrote: I didn’t provide sufficient clarity of vision in what I wrote. I am mulling over, still, how to integrate the responses to that post. Until then, here’s where I am in this moment: despite the imperfections, I still have my sense of humility intact, and endless curiosity. My biggest hope is that we will never again see business as usual.

However lengthy this post is, it’s still only part of what I wanted to write about. I’ve yet to address the discussions of the idea of “loving your enemies”, another rich conversation that took place while I was at OccupyOakland. I have also been reading and reflecting on the comments to my post about the GA process and I hope to write something useful in response about the GA process and governance more generally. And in the coming days I anticipate getting there again. Stay tuned for more.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In Search of Dialogue: Notes from OccupyOakland, October 22nd

by Miki Kashtan

After my first visit to OccupyOakland I felt inspired. I was connected to the vision, to a sense of possibility. I was fully open to the unfolding, to seeing what would come. I’ve been very encouraged by the response I’ve been getting to my post about that visit.

Before I posted those notes I had a second visit to OccupyOakland, and my current picture is very different, more nuanced, sober, intrigued, concerned, excited, and even more clear that I don’t know much. I notice how much harder it is to write about those experiences. I find it challenging to express concerns about the movement, and yet I know it’s vital to express truth with love, and I am reaching into the courage to do that.

On October 17th I attended the general assembly meeting at OccupyOakland. I had never been to a large group meeting following consensus rules, and I didn’t know what to expect. So much happened during the evening that I simply cannot speak about all of it, and there is no way to get the feel of it from reading the notes posted on the OccupyOakland site. What’s below is by necessity filtered through my very personal perspective and sensibilities.

One thing that stood out to me is the extraordinary patience of hundreds of people sitting in the small amphitheater outside Oakland City Hall. Most people sat through more than two and half hours of people speaking with more or less discernible relevance, announcements about many activities, committees, requests, offers, opinions, questions.

What was also striking to me, and the main reason for this post, is the absence of anything I would call dialogue. When a proposal was put on the table, what I saw was a lineup of people expressing their opinion about why a letter should or shouldn’t be sent, or about why this or that paragraph would need to be revised or taken out. I saw nothing that resembled what I consider to be the building blocks of collaborative decision-making. The facilitators were mostly occupied with controlling traffic - not a small task in a crowd that contains people using drugs or inhabiting different realities than most, and where almost everyone’s comments extended beyond the time requested. Between this challenge and the overall set of rules, people had the space to speak, and yet there was nothing set up for them to be heard. How would anything emerge in such a context that would allow creative solutions to take place? How could people ever come together on a divided issue?

The proposal on the table was to send a letter in response to the Mayor’s two letters to the assembly, in which the city was making some requests (or demands, as the case may be) to those living and using the space. As the lineup of speakers proceeded, I learned more and more each time about the depth of the issues that this proposal was raising. I also understood more fully that at least some people hold the term “occupy” to mean taking full possession of the territory such that they no longer hold the city as having authority over that area.

For these people, and for some others, responding to the Mayor means accepting the authority of the city to make requests of the campers. I understand this logic deeply: if the idea of a parallel life being formed is serious, then I can see why people would fully question business as usual, and why they would want the rules to be made, freshly, by the group for itself.

For others, responding is a way to make a statement that the group is not about creating chaos and dirt; that there is a sense of responsibility and care for the environment. Some believed that such a statement could make the camp, and the movement, more compelling and appealing, invite others to join.

Again, I can see the logic. Unlike in other places in the world, what I saw wasn’t a cross section of the entire population. I believe it’s still associated in the public eye with a particular subculture, and many are uncomfortable joining even if they fully sympathize with the critique being articulated. So I can see why people would want to appeal to such people by being less different-looking.

With my growing experience in collaborative decision making, I was itching to see a process, something that metabolizes all the opinions, that allows people to see beyond the surface words spoken to the underlying concerns, issues, needs, and dreams in the name of which people speak.

Could there have been a way to move forward that would honor what’s important to both groups? Is it possible that at least some people could have shifted as a result of getting more deeply what was important to others? Or that some people might have been willing to stretch to accept a solution that wasn’t their favorite because they could see why it was important to others? Or could the entire issue of what this “occupation” means have become clearer to everyone, leading to some surprising direction that would have satisfied everyone?

When the lineup of speakers was finished, the proposal was put to a vote. Over 100 people voted for sending a letter to the Mayor and creating a committee to finalize it, and over 40 people voted against it. In the consensus rules that govern the general assembly this means the proposal is now off the table. I am not satisfied with this outcome. Not because I necessarily want the letter to be sent. I abstained during the vote, because I didn’t have a sense of having been enough of a participant in the movement to have integrity about voting, nor did I understand the issues well enough to make a considered opinion.

I am not satisfied with the outcome because it left the people who wanted to send a letter without a way to address what’s important to them. No, I am not suggesting a simple majority vote instead of the 90% existing rule, because then I would have the same question about the minority. I am aching for some way to transcend the either/or paradigm on which such votes rest. We have been raised to believe that the way we can affect the outcome is by making a compelling argument and convincing others of the rightness of our opinion. I am sad as I am winding down this post, because I see this preoccupation with arguments and with who is right as part of the very world the “occupiers” are seeking to transform.

I am longing, instead, for everyone to matter and to have a true voice, so that what’s important to them can be heard and they can truly affect the outcome. I want those working to create change to have access to the plethora of ingenious methods that exist to support groups in converging, in learning together, and in integrating divergent opinions. More than anything, I want so much for the Occupy movement to have this as part of what gets modeled: the possibility of transforming conflict and disagreement into a solution that works for everyone.

Seeing the surge in visits to my blog since I started writing about the “occupation”, I plan to be writing more about it each time I go. My next scheduled visit to the site is today, when I am also part of a training taking place right onsite and hosted by Seminary of the Street (where you can see more information about it). While everything I do is fully infused with NVC, this training is about nonviolence more generally, and I am co-leading with other folks. Hope to see some people there, and I anticipate posting something within the next few days.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An Alternative to Demands: Notes from OccupyOakland, October 18th

by Miki KashtanThe OccupyOakland I visited on October 15th was not a protest. You could say that I knew it, because I have read about it before I was there. I still couldn’t understand it fully until I saw what it meant. I suspect the same is true elsewhere, though I will not presume to know. A protest, in some fundamental way, engages with the existing power structures. What I saw, instead, was a parallel existence. This was not a march attempting to make something happen through demands and goals. What I saw was a gathering of people without any urgency, setting up camp, providing free services, engaged in the activities of making life happen, engaged in educating each other, curious to learn, and intent on inclusion. In an earlier post I was expressing some concern about the absence of a vision. What I saw in the park changed my perspective. I was fully humbled. There is absolutely no absence of vision. In fact, what was so compelling for me in being there was seeing a vision being lived out. They are not making demands. Instead, in their own small way, and however imperfectly, they are creating the world in which they want to live. There is free food being served 24/7, there are supplies of all kinds, energy created by people pedaling a bike, and everyone appears to be part of an incessant conversation.

I see an astonishing potential for this form of action that I hadn’t considered previously. It makes for a movement that has no clear end point. There is nothing someone else can do in any immediate way that will give the people gathered at the park in Oakland what they are already creating for themselves. I can’t imagine what would happen, or a set of actions on the part of anyone, that would lead people to say “Now we are done and we can go home to our daily living.” They didn’t seem particularly interested in that form of daily living that has become the norm in this country. It is, in fact, that very form of daily living that this movement seems to me to be challenging.

Is their core method a conscious choice on anyone’s part? Whether or not it is, the result is confusion for many. I was confused enough to not see their vision until I was there. Having been there, I now know why I didn’t see it. The vision is not being articulated, it is only lived, as best the occupiers know how. The action is broad enough, and the articulation is sparse enough that many of us can interpret the actions as manifestations of a vision we have. Indeed, many, including myself, have done so. I can certainly see what is happening as an example and precursor to the vision of a world based on caring for human needs. Some are also urging the movement to follow specific strategies, to articulate certain demands, to go for certain goals.

The lack of clarity about the difference between demands and vision continues. I am still wishing that some vision, or many visions, were articulated even in the absence of demands. I still suspect that many would find it hard to express the positive vision they are trying to live. I imagine that were they to do so, perhaps more people would grasp what they are trying to do and be inspired, because vision tends to attract people. No accident that one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speeches was about dreaming. That being said, I don’t know what is true. My humility grows daily about this movement.

There is also a way in which talking about “a movement” is misleading. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of thought and care that’s being put into coordination, logistics, and all other aspects of continuing this massive experiment. And yet much of what happens, including actual protest actions that are taking place alongside and within this attempt to step outside the norms of living, happens through people taking spontaneous, autonomous steps.

What is most striking to me of all is how much I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone, anywhere, has the capacity to predict what could happen as a result of this new form of action. This movement has outgrown our capacity to categorize, analyze, and predict. It’s already bigger than anyone’s decision making capacity. No one can tell the people on the street what to do. I feel a slight bit of discomfort, and a whole lot of curiosity and interest in accompanying this surge. In this moment, more than anything, I see this movement as part of a large wakeup call that life is issuing to itself.

The group of people that took possession of the Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland are creating a small scale experiment in living without relying on large institutions. Anyone can join, anyone can contribute, anyone can challenge, and anyone can talk. Why would that ever want to stop?

Stay tuned for more Notes from OccupyOakland. Since writing this piece I have been to OccupyOakland once more. I attended a meeting of the newly created Nonviolence Caucus (meets daily as of October 18th, an hour before the General Assembly, by the kids’ play area) and participated in the General Assembly meeting. I plan on posting my impressions of these conversations in the next couple of days.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beyond the Limits of Empathy

by Miki Kashtan

Can empathy serve as a reliable guide to action? David Brooks, in his recent article “The Limits of Empathy,” suggests that empathy is no guarantee that caring action will take place. Participants in Milgram’s famous 1950s experiments willingly inflicted what they thought were near-lethal electric shocks despite suffering tremendously. Nazi executors early in the war wept while killing Jews. And yet those strong feelings didn’t stop them. Why does this happen?

Empathy, Shame, and Fear
I have been haunted for years by this great puzzle, reading, thinking, and writing about it. Brooks suggests that “People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.” My investigations lead me to think that “a sense of duty” is part of the problem, not the solution. A sense of duty usually gets instilled in us through fear and shame, leading us to act based on external considerations while doubting our own intuitive heart response. Who of us won’t remember times when despite being moved to do something caring we didn’t because of fear? Jason Marsh, in his response to Brooks, retells the story of Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s research findings about the empathic values on which rescuers - people who saved Jews during the Holocaust - were raised. The Oliners also point out that rescuers tended to be raised with little punishment. When there is no punishment, there is less shame and fear, and more willingness and capacity to honor our empathic inclinations.

Overriding Empathy
I carry with me, with some tenderness and horror, the story of a man I know who, at 7, delightedly told his science teacher that he had captured a special insect. His teacher asked him to put the insect in alcohol and bring it to school. The insect, meanwhile, had other designs. Struggling for its life, it repeatedly attempted to climb out of the alcohol, and succeeded in doing so several times before it was finally drowned. All this time the child was shaking as he struggled to overcome his aversion to inflicting further damage on the insect. In the name of contributing to science and obeying his teacher, he set his feelings aside. As an adult, he said: "I never questioned my actions, only my feelings."

Being from Israel, I wanted to understand this dilemma in the context of the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli Jewish soldiers. Director Ido Sela, in his gripping 1993 documentary Testimonies (a short version of which is available on youtube), interviewed soldiers who shot Palestinians, subjected them to prolonged physical torture, or killed them during the first Intifada. They spoke of the same difficulty. Despite a felt sense of trauma from having inflicted harm on others they continued to do so. The most common reasons that allowed them to ignore, overcome, or numb out their empathic responses to the people they harmed were fear of consequences to them; doing what they were told to do; or believing it was the right thing to do. Only one person described an incident when he likened his own daughter to the children he was facing, and stopped short of harming them.

Writer David Grossman, a Lt. Colonel in the US Army, studied extensively what makes people overcome the natural aversion to killing that was discovered after World War I. In On Killing, he demonstrates repeatedly that US Army training focused on reducing access to empathic response by numbing and desensitizing trainees, thereby increasing the shooting rate from 10-20% in earlier wars to 80 and 90% in later wars. The cost, he warns us, is unprecedented massive trauma to war veterans as well as to the nation that sent them to war.

Trusting Human Nature
If we believe that humans are fundamentally evil and unruly, or at best plain old selfish, a view which still underlies most of the institutions we have in place, we will naturally want to control, shame, and punish our children into being “good” and insist on obedience to a strong code of behavior, thereby prolonging human suffering on this planet. As more and more of us trust our children and our own humanity, we will engage empathically enough with children and adults, allowing all of us to find and act on our own empathy without fear. I long to live to see that day.

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.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Musings on Choice and Children

by Miki Kashtan

When I was twelve my family moved from Israel to Mexico for two years. This decision happened immediately following the first year in my young life, and one of the only times in my life overall, that I had a sense of belonging and acceptance in a group of peers. The decision was made by my parents without consulting with any of us: my seventeen-year-old sister, myself, or my younger sister who was then five. More than that: it was made against my vociferous opposition, which was so strong that I was semi-seriously contemplating jumping off the ship and swimming back to Israel.

Not only did my parents have the legal right to take me against my will. That right is enshrined in millennia of social norm. Would I have wanted my parents not to go to Mexico because I didn’t want to go? Not exactly. I would have wanted them to be open to considering not going as a possible outcome once all the needs were on the table. More than anything, I would have wanted them to hear and appreciate the horrible loss I was about to incur, to hear my plight and hold my needs alongside theirs. I would have wanted them to let me know, in full, their needs, their struggles, and their perspective that would lead them to want to go. I would have wanted to be invited into joint holding of all the needs and making the decision together. The experience of having no choice and no say in our lives, endemic and pervasive in almost all children’s lives, many women’s lives, still, around the world, and other groups with little access to resources is acutely painful and traumatic. I wish it on no one, not even people who have done acts of horror against others, and certainly not so many of us on a daily basis.
Giving Children Voice
In reading the above, a friend who is in the process of going back with her family to live in another country was deeply affected and decided to engage in dialogue with her eight-year-old about the decision. Let’s call them Janey and Sam. When she first brought up the topic of going back there, they started to tell her all the things they liked and didn’t like about their experience there. Then she had the following dialogue with Sam:
Janey: After thinking about all of that, would you be willing to go back?
Sam: Do I have a choice?
Janey: If you really didn’t want to go, and since I really do want to go, it might be hard to figure out what to do.
Sam: (after some more conversation): Sure, I'll go.
Janey: (some time later): What if I told you that you and your brother could make the decision about whether we go or not--whatever you say, we'll do. What would you say then?
Sam: I would say yes to going.
Janey: Why?
Sam: Because you're giving me a choice and I don't like to be told what to do.
Children, like the rest of us human beings, want to be able to participate in decisions that affect them. Yes, we tell ourselves that they can’t, they don’t know enough, they can’t be trusted. The very same kinds of arguments that were used in the past to justify denying choice to women, or to blacks, or other groups. Although we are far from full participation of any such group, as I painfully know as a woman, the established norm is one of equal rights under the law. When it comes to children, however, there isn’t even a lip service commitment to equality. Children are still fully “owned” by their parents, and it’s acceptable and customary to restrict their movement, punish them at will, including physically, and make decisions that affect them dramatically without consulting with them first. The only group of humans still held in this way.
This is an extremely tall order. How can any parent in our society, even if they wholeheartedly embrace the full participation of their children, find enough inner capacity to navigate it all and in addition learn how to do it in partnership with children? If we are to create a world in which children experience choice, we would need to restructure life in major ways so that the responsibility doesn’t fall only on the one or two parents to respond to the needs of their children. I think about this a lot, and anticipate coming back to write about this topic more.
Choice and Options

Except in contexts where parents can physically force younger ones to go somewhere, most of the daily experience of life revolves more around attempting to control children’s behavior. Often I hear parents talk about giving or not giving their children choice in certain matters. Just today, for example, at a training I did, I heard one woman talk about her struggle with her 15-year-old who, in her words, “has to be home by 4pm” and who hasn’t been home by 4pm on most days in the last month. This young man was clearly exercising choice every day: the simple choice of whether or not to do what his mother said he “had” to do. It is completely within his power to make the choice not to come home by 4pm, as he has demonstrated repeatedly.
There is nothing anyone can do to take away or give choice to another. Even when physically forced, we still have inner choice in how we respond to a situation. Even when a parent tells a child to go to their room, the child is still choosing whether or not to do so. The power to “make” the child do anything does not exist except when the parent can exercise physical force of some kind.
Do parents have power in relation to their children’s choices? Absolutely! They have the power to restrict their children’s access to resources, and in this way limit their options. They also have another power that is at the heart of why it appears that we can make children, or other people, do what we want: parents have the power to deliver consequences for their children’s actions, backed up by legal and societal norms for doing so. This is no small matter, and every child knows that.
The question I am left with is not whether or not we give children choice. They have it. The question for me is what we can do to support them in making choices that will nourish their lives and their ability to be thoughtful, active, caring participants in life, now and for the rest of their living days. I doubt that having them make choices based on fear of punishment is going to give them the inner strength and clarity of purpose necessary for making wise choices. I have faith in human beings, and I fiercely believe that showing children care and interest in their needs, and presenting clearly what parents need, is a breeding ground of empathic and courageous human beings who can make choices based on their deepest understanding of their own and others’ needs.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why Wanting Matters

by Miki Kashtan

I am emerging from another hiatus in writing. This one was the longest since I started my blog. I just came back home 10 days ago from two intensive back-to-back trips, and I am here for a while. I’ve been missing regular contact with this medium which I have come to love. I seem to have increased capacity for writing, again, and I anticipate that as I begin to do more of it, the flow will resume.

After my previous post in which I wrote about some significant challenges, I received several responses. Most of them were expressions of understanding, support, and companionship. I was definitely relieved when I got those. And then I got another one which challenged me on the value of wanting.

Here’s part of what the person said:

“Maybe I’m am not understanding well what your identification with wanting is. However, what I have come to understand through my spiritual practice is that wanting, maybe more than anything else is a root cause of disappointment, restlessness, discouragement, and impatience. I have come to see that taking my wanting seriously has never contributed toward peace or happiness for others or myself.”

This is not the first time I have encountered this view, and I want to engage with it, again. My hope in doing so is to support ever-increasing clarity on all of our parts about the role of wanting in life, and about the relationship between wanting, attachment, and suffering. Two years ago I wrote a full-length article about it in Tikkun Magazine. I called it Wanting Fully without Attachment. My aha moment was discovering that it’s attachment that leads to suffering, not wanting per se. Wanting, I believe, is the core energy that makes life happen. When I look at small children, I see powerful and sturdy wanting, and the willingness to take sometimes enormous risks to move in that direction. It takes years and years of punishment and regimentation before we give up on what we want and lose track of that vibrancy of life within us. In my work with people, the surest way to rekindle aliveness and a sense of meaning in life is to reconnect with that passion that used to be all of ours.

Attachment, on the other hand, is the attempt to make life be a certain way. It makes us lose our openness to life, our creative and imaginative capacity to dance with what life presents without losing track of what we want, and our capacity to embrace the fullness of our experience even when it’s not what we want.

One of the key challenges in this unfolding and opening to what we want is that as we remove the lid on our wanting, it takes considerable spiritual fortitude to re-engage with our wanting without the illusory protection that comes with attachment to outcome. Because of this particular challenge, I see wanting without attachment as a deep spiritual practice. I am still learning, and will probably continue to learn.

The path of vulnerability, which I have been on for so many years, is not failing me, as the anonymous responder was wondering. I would say the opposite. The path of vulnerability has prepared me for the willingness to take risks. The new path is about applying that willingness to the actual process by which I make decisions. Despite my years of practice, this part is still challenging for me. On the big scale, I know what I want for me and the world, and am definitely mobilized towards these visions. In daily life, however, on the very mundane plane of existence, I tend to base my choices on what’s possible, on fear of consequences, and on some consideration of my limits. All of these considerations are in some way external to me. I have abundant clarity that I am more likely to live a rich and satisfying life when I learn to base my decisions on following closely what I want on the deepest level while staying clear of getting attached to any outcome. What else is there as motivation for action?