AfGJ and the Occupy Solidarity Social Forum–Reflection and Analysis

by Bruce Wilkinson, AfGJ Grassroots Development Coordinator

“What is the nature of the process by which organizations, institutions and societies transform themselves?” Donald Schon contemplated the question of how we learn and adapt to change in an increasingly unstable society during the upheavals that frame the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now Occupy Wall Street, on the heels of the Arab Spring and the uprisings across Europe, reignites that question in the US. The Alliance For Global Justice, perhaps unique as a national organization with the depth of experience and analysis capable of understanding the transformative power of movements, gave one answer through the creation of the Occupy Solidarity Social Forum.

The AFGJ board and staff retreat, held the first week of November 2011 in Tucson, manifested the idea of the national gathering at the end of a weekend of discussions and a night of drinking. The insight and courage gained from sipping Nicaraguan rum into the wee hours of the morning has enabled more than one revolution.

As the fiscal sponsors of Occupy Wall Street AFGJ had a symbiotic and trusting relationship with the movement and engaging in solidarity meant helping them but not leading them. The Occupy Solidarity Social Forum (OSSF) came into being President’s Day weekend on February 17- 20. Over 60 workshops occurred on wide ranging subjects with nearly 500 participants over the course of the weekend. AFGJ, along with a strong committee of Occupy Olympia, demonstrated a national gathering without a rigid agenda, where folks could bring their passions and learn from each other and create relationships with people that they found the most kinship with.

“The Occupy Solidarity Social Forum was the best event of its type I have ever attended,” said Dorli Rainey, the 84 year old lifetime activist internationally known for getting pepper sprayed by the police as part of Occupy Seattle.

Dorli Rainey gave an inspiring and tenacious speech encouraging direct action, inspiring the younger generation, which was everyone in comparison to her, to follow their hearts, to not be fooled by the politicians and not fear the police. This was Occupy at its most authentic, earnest and heartwarming. This was the proud horizontal fearlessness that spread like a wild fire across the country and inspired thousands into political encampments in protest against the inequality of the 1%. AFGJ, in partnership with Occupy Olympia, had succeeded in focusing that essence into a positive forum where creative solutions could surface and where camaraderie could be deepened.

Many of the workshops were inspiring but some of the best were the ones put together by Bill Moyer and Kyle Tanner of the Backbone Campaign. Together they gave workshops that engaged the Occupy movement in doing honest organizing towards a long term strategy. These workshops were some of the best attended with more than 50 people turning out for them. While some of the workshops were delivering analysis these provided concrete training in how to transition from being an activist to being an organizer.

One of the eclectic choices for participation was the “Occu-Pie as Protest, Occu-Pie as Affirmation.” This workshop was led by Jusby the Clown, complete with a red nose. While many of the workshops were packed, this one had only ten people, so we all had a chance to take a pie in the face. Two of the participants were from Occupy Wall Street and had come to present workshops on creative direct action but it was clear that the clown was ///the/// also a natural teacher of direct action skills.

Well versed in the possible consequences of the long tradition of pieing, Jusby had a very different take on the possibilities of this tactic and others. Pieing someone who didn’t want to be pied is considered assault, which doesn’t mean it is off limits but it means that for Jusby that sort of action would take a direct action team. He specified that he would need a legal team, a getaway strategy, several camera people, distractors and a detailed strategy to carry it out. However, a pie could be an affirmative tactic, we discussed how a well publicized and consented pieing of a progressive politician, a rare bird in these times, could show a humbleness of the politician to the Occupy movement and show the politician as a good sport. Jusby was the professional clown that could articulate direct action tactics better than the best of organizers that I have known.

“I always tell people that as activists we have a “toolbox” and the more skills and experiences you can put in there, the more you can use on your campaigns,” said Kerri Griffiths, an OSSF Olympia organizer. “The campaign you are working on might require strategic thinking and tactics, street corner demonstrations, press releases, hosting a forum, filming a video, lobbying your elected officials, and fundraising. Many people in our community know these skills. How do we teach and learn from each other?”

There is a way to facilitate learning from each other which must also be learned. After 33 years of learning through solidarity from the Nicaraguans and other Latin American social movements, AFGJ has internalized that skill and it was on display at the OSSF. The Occupy movement has been for many people their first time organizing without hierarchy and as part of a solidarity movement. Ideas spread horizontally very quickly through the internet and the encampments were a way that people learned to get along with each other and share certain practical skills but the training on how to put together a campaign, create organization, develop a long term successful strategy and succeed in the goal of revolution is much more difficult to teach. The OSSF was the first national gathering that focused on those pieces.

The feedback AFGJ has received has been overwhelmingly positive. One thing people loved was the food, which oddly enough can make or break opinions of a conference. The one major critique was the need for more time for each workshop. It is the intention of AFGJ to remedy this need through continuing growth of its online activist school and by building on the success of the OSSF with further national gatherings.

There is the question of what came out of the OSSF. For many relationships were made or strengthened and those relationships are at the core of solidarity work. In an increasingly digitally connected world it is sometimes forgotten that ultimately the point of all that technology is to bring us closer together in real life and to enhance the quality of time all of us can spend with folks that we love or who share our goals.. A chance to form deeper bonds with people who share the same source of struggle is what powers a movement.

All of the 99% face some level of struggle. Being alive today in America can be traumatic, as we all are subjected to the madhouse of the corporate hierarchical and militaristic system. Meeting others in struggle, being there listening to their story and creating bonds of solidarity is the way that a popular movement is built. When Occupy Wall Street brought everyone into their public squares that was only the beginning of solidarity. It is the beginning formation of relationships that must be tested, strengthened and expanded.

There were three words that the Occupy Olympia organizers began using when considering the scope and strength of the OSSF. They are liberty, equality and solidarity. In the dance of those three words is struggle, power, unity and freedom. It is the same sentiment as “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” or “Liberty and Justice for All” or “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!” These tripartite mottos are powerful concepts worth ruminating over. If the 1% had their own tripartite motto theirs must surely be “Veni, vidi, vici,” or an English translation of Julius Caesar’s famous words, “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

I believe that when we cooperate, trust and love each other we can build any society that we would like. Conversely the opposite is true. The measure of our suffering and lack of liberty is exactly equal to the amount that we let our trust disintegrate for rules, our cooperation fail for hierarchy and that we allow for our love to have national boundaries. It was a feeling that was felt by thousands of Americans last October that brought them into building encampments, it wasn’t social media. It bonded everyone to each other and that feeling and other similar ones will erupt from our hearts to fall upon the earth as the tectonic shifts of our universal consciousness builds the new future. Welcome to the new age.