Exchange of letters and comments on Occupy Oakland and the larger Occupy movement

I think you might find this exchange between a student and me about Occupy Oakland and the Oakland community of some interest. There is a rumor that there may be a new violent confrontation hours from now as the occupiers refuse to leave (the mayor had previously offered for us to be able to stay 24/7 but without tents–in other words, just as people coming to present our ideas, but not as occupiers. Let me hasten to add that I believe that the police riot 12 days ago was totally unjustified, and believe that the police who were involved should be sent to prison like others who violate the law. The violence of Oakland police is a daily reality for people of color in Oakland and many other American cities, and always a shock to everyone else because it is only when it happens to white people that the media stays on the story for more than a day or two!  I have also posted some responses from others below the first two.

So here is the letter I received on email this morning:

Jordan Ashe wrote:

Dear Rabbi Lerner:

My name is Jordan Ashe and I am a student member of your Tikkun community.  I attended the Oakland camp yesterday.  I washed dishes, observed, and engaged in conversation.  My children left sidewalk chalk drawings as gifts to the occupiers.  It felt good to be part of the 99%.  It felt good to give of myself to others and to see my legacy-my family-do the same.

To my horror, however, I observed and heard things that left me in a state of great concern.  The 99% need healing, they need repair, they need transformation.  The camp was ripe with hostility towards police.  My conversations with the occupiers revealed little or any willingness to forgive and seek atonement from the police.  Even more horribly, the occupiers seemed content to forget or even ignore the basic lessons our great non-violent leaders left for us.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the most dangerous thing about violence is its futility.    This great leader recognized that fighting violence with violent resistance leads to a continuing cycle of inter-generational trauma and hatred.

Yet many of the occupiers seemed ready for a violent fight-some welcomed it- and many more were unready to forgive.  I fear this movement is in need of spiritual guidance less it lead to the same horrible cycles history has witnessed many times over.  This guidance was sorely lacking at the occupation and even as I journeyed throughout the camp, I was unable to find a spiritual center.  It is the lack of spiritual consensus and guidance that, I believe, is responsible for what I observed next.

The highlight of the day was a speech and a reading from the Egyptian movement that was followed by a “Solidarity March.”  The reading was disturbing to hear because its focus was on the justification for violent resistance.  Although the need for violent aggression may be debatable in Egypt, it is not here in America.  The activists of our past changed this county by being willing to die, not by being willing to kill.  What shocked me more was that no one (including myself) booed or hissed.  We sat there and many applauded.  Worse followed.

A leader of a Palestinian youth group read his own speech.  ”Down with Israel,” he said near the end of a speech that focused on past wrongs.  There was resounding applause.  Then one of the leader’s crew standing next to me said “fucking Jews,” and in the face of this I could stand it no longer.  I told him that I believed it was racist to say that and that forgiveness and atonement is the only hope for peace in the middle east.  I told him that I forgave him and he should be careful with his thoughts and words.  I told him that my best friend is Palestinian and I am close to many Jews and I wished sincerely to see the differences reconciled for the sake of the innocent generations of the future. Then I had to leave because I was overcome with tears and wanted to scream out to the crowd (I wish I had).  The Solidarity March went out shortly thereafter but some people stayed out of the march for the same reasons I did.  After all, it makes no sense to march in a “Solidarity March,” when the speeches before the march openly contradict the concept of solidarity.

I wish our American youth and people around the world would use the tools passed down by the legacy before them.  Organized Non-Violent Non-Cooperation is a gift of strategy from our greatest activists.  MLK, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez-these are men who changed the world by doing but not by killing and we squander their memory and their message when we ignore their teachings.  How quickly the world forgets.  To the religious and faithful and spiritual around the world (those like myself), I would ask: Does God want us to kill in God’s name?  Or, Does God want us to be willing to die in God’s name?  Shall we sacrifice the lives of others before we sacrifice of ourselves?  Shall we win the battle against our external enemies yet loose the battle against our inner self?  In the struggle against oppression, against fear, against the machine of death and war, perhaps our greatest weapons will be forgiveness, atonement, selflessness, and love.  I hope people arm themselves with these weapons and I hope they fight back with all their might.  I would give my life to that kind of fight.

I am not sure why I wrote to you.  But I am sure that writing to you helped me put the sadness of this event behind me.  Thanks for reading and for being there.

-Jordan Ashe

Law Student, Father, Husband, 99%er

Dear Jordan,

Thanks so much for this letter. I share your sadness at the distortions within Occupy Oakland.

I have been participating both in Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco, and I feel that the Occupy movement nationally has made a tremendous contribution to our society. By formulating things in terms of “the 99%” it finally did what many other progressives have failed to do—namely, identify us as having a common interest in protecting ourselves from the class war that has been waged against us, all of us, for the past 30 years by the 1% and their representatives in the government, media, academia and military. So I remain a passionate supporter of this movement.

Yet some of the strengths that exist elsewhere are notably lacking in the core group that led people into the struggle in Oakland. Let me be clear, however:  I know that at least 90% of the people who marched on Nov. 2nd during the General Strike and marched to the Port of Oakland are people who agree with you. But there is a determined group of violent self-described “anarchists” who ideologically believe in violence and seek it out. They correctly note that destruction of property is not the same as destruction of human beings, and they correctly note that the amount of violence against human beings built into our global economic and political systems makes any violence that they do pale in comparison. Moreover, the violence of the Oakland police has been a central reality in the lives of people of color in Oakland, and only stays in the attention of the media for more than a day or two when the victims are white (or in this case, a former US soldier back from Iraq and Afghanistan). So there is a built in hypocrisy when the media makes the story “the violence of the demonstrators.”

But those arguments are, in my view, not good reasons to allow violence or provoke violence or property destruction by demonstrators,  for two reasons: 1. We should be non-violent because it is the right way to treat other human beings created in the image of God, and should not seek to create circumstances in which police violence is inevitably triggered unless we do so by ourselves being totally nonviolent in action and words.  I’m in favor of non-violent disruptions of oppressive institutions (e.g. a sit-in in the Bank of America or in a Wall Street firm or in a corporation involved in illegitimate foreclosures or in producing military equipment or at the State Dept or the various offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Services given their vicious processes) as long as we keep a 100% non-violent stance. I do not think people need to sit down and get arrested–though that works in many cases; it is also legitimate to do nonviolent disruptions using mobile tactics in which demonstrators disrupt and then withdraw to disrupt somewhere else–as long as the demonstrators avoid destruction of property or creating a situation in which violence is inevitable. Non-violence does not mean passivity, but it must mean a fundamental respect for human life and for the dignity of human beings, including those with whom we strongly disagree. Our actions must reflect that sense of respect for the humanity of the Other–because that is precisely what is absent from the policies and practices of the 1% and those who do their bidding.    2. Though breaking windows or destroying property is not the same as breaking bones, it is perceived by much of the American public as a wrongful act, and a movement that engages in that activity quickly loses public support and isolates itself no matter how much the American public agrees with its goals. That is why the FBI and other elements of the “security apparatus” of the US government have consistently planted their youngest employees inside social movements with the goal of trying to encourage acts of violence so as to provide an excuse to repress those movements with public approval.

But non-violence has not been the stance of the inner core at Occupy Oakland. I was deeply disturbed, and have withdrawn from active involvement with, a group of clergy who were meeting to discuss how they could assist in Occupy Oakland. At the third meeting I attended I proposed that we urge Occupy Oakland to officially endorse non-violence, train monitors to non-violently restrain violence-oriented demonstrators, and appeal to the majority of demonstrators to support these monitors to restrain the violence-oriented ones. To my shock, the clergy voted that down. They were only willing to endorse a resolution saying that they themselves supported non-violence, but they objected to the notion that they should call upon OO to share this same orientation.

Not surprisingly, then, a few days later when one of the participants at OO suggested a resolution for non-violence, without the active support of this clergy group the people who agreed with him felt silenced after some part of the crowd actively booed when he mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi’s commitments and teachings for non-violence.

The dominant reason given by the clergy for their cowardice was that “we have no right to impose our view on those who are taking the risks of sleeping outside at Occupy Oakland; we should respect their process.” But advocating is not imposing, and a movement that claims to speak for 99% of the population ought to have some mechanism to pay attention to the sensibilities of the people whom they claim to be speaking for! If those of us who have been in the movement, marched with the movement, and publicly advocated for the movement, do no have a legitimate voice in that movement, it seems transparent that such a movement cannot claim to be fighting for democracy. It thus undermines itself.

I watched this same thing happen in the 1960s and early 1970s when a small group of violence-oriented Weathermen, and the FBI agents who infiltrated the anti-war movement and a few of their more suggestible followers, managed to play an important role in undermining support for the entire movement by demeaning people who weren’t ready to “prove their commitment” by violent or property-destroying acts. Not only did the violence provide public justification for an increase in repression of the anti-war movement, it also soured the millions of people who were attracted to the possibility of building a different kind of world based on love, kindness, generosity and caring for others. The mass of participants in our movement abandoned it once the violence-prone got the attention of the corporate media, and I fear that the same thing is happening now.

There’s yet another twist in our current situation. The Occupy movement is meant to challenge the class war  being waged against the 99% by the 1%. Sitting in front of a particular building to make that point was a useful tactic. But the people who are there have turned the tactic into a fetishization of the encampments, as though the movement was really about their right to set up tents and stay their all night, rather than about challenging the materialism and selfishness of the global marketplace and the lack of democracy in a society that allows the wealthy and the corporations to give endless monies to elect people (in both major parties) who in turn support the corporate agenda and the tax benefits for the rich. I personally believe that the city governments should actively help the demonstrators find a place to demonstrate in an area adjacent to the forces they are demonstrating against. But if they don’t, we should not make that the center of the struggle, because there are a myriad of other tactics to keep the issue on the front burner.

I share with you a deep distress at the hatred toward Israel and/or toward Jews you encountered. I’ve seen little of that in the days that I’ve been down there, but I’m not surprised that a handful of people retain those feelings. Again, I feel it is the obligation of the clergy and the adults to stand up to this publicly, raise the issue and challenge those who misuse legitimate outrage at the current policies of the current government of the State of Israel as their excuse for delegitimating the State of Israel itself or for expressing anti-Semitism. While I fully reject the attempt to label all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, and have myself been subject to attacks and death threats from right-wing Zionists who have labeled me a “self-hating Jew,” I do think that we should insist that our friends in the Occupy movement or any other activist movement of progressive bent challenge anti-Semitism or the double standard applied to Israel by a handful of people who thereby sully our movements and give ammunition to those who seek to discredit us entirely!

Warm regards,

Rabbi Michael Lerner,

Editor, Tikkun &  Chair,The Network of Spiritual Progressives

Our readers respond:

Dear Michael,
I admire your response in “Exchange of Letters” and I agree with it.

But I would like to add a commentary which may be more acceptable to some of the more violently inclined people at the Oakland Occupation.  (I myself had to stand between 2 large male occupiers to keep them from swinging at each other.)

A spiritual approach, or even an overly moral one, is not going to cut it with certain people.  You have to emphasize what works and what doesn’t.  As an example I think we can point to recent events in Syria.  Until now, the people’s response to their dictator has been almost completely non-violent.  Over 3000 people have been killed, and yet the people have kept on coming out to non-violent demonstrations.

Now, however, units of the army have defected and declared an armed revolt.  I believe that this armed response is now justified and that the timing is right.
If the armed response had come earlier, however, it would have justified an even more violent reaction from the dictator.  Many more people would have been killed and, most important, the population at large would not have come to sympathize with the demonstrators.
Non violence does not always work.  Gandhi himself said that it would not have worked under Hitler, and in fact he violated his own absolute standard of non-violence, when he recommended that Indians volunteer to fight on the side of the British against the Axis.  It may even be said that his satyagraha campaign might not have succeeded with the British if he had not helped them with troops.

There are two conditions, taken together, which I believe, which justify the abandonment of non-violence.  First, the state must have demonstrated that it will kill any number of peaceful adversaries.  And second, a large majority of the population must be in active sympathy with the resistance.

The United States, unlike Syria, is a long way from having met either of these conditions.  And as long as the state has not yet engaged in massive internal violent murder, and the population is not overwhelmingly sympathetic to the opposition, absolute non-violence is the only tactic that can win over a majority.  It is the only thing that can possibly work.

Those who wish to valorize the aggressive approach of the Black Power movement need to remember that Martin Luther King’s tactics brought us the Voting Act and the Civil Rights Act.  The violent events of the late 60′s brought us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  I don’t blame the morality of the resisters who responded to state violence with a comparatively small response of their own.  I blame their tactics.  Somehow, sometime, we’ve got to learn from history.

Yours in solidarity,
Laurence Schechtman

tags: US Politics   
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3 Responses to Exchange of letters and comments on Occupy Oakland and the larger Occupy movement

  1. Ed Stamm November 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Great letters! Thanks for sharing them!

    I think one reason the protesters are clinging to their encampments is because they enjoy exposing the hypocrisy of the U.S., which applauded protesters camping out in Tahrir Square, but sends in riot police to clear the protesters from their own parks. It’s also a simple strategy that keeps the pressure on the keeps the struggle in the media spotlight.

    That being said, I do share your concerns about those who want to use violence. In theory I believe it is much, much wiser to resist non-violently and to let the cops get all the bad press (what little there is – a man is apparently intentionally shot in the head at short range with a tear gas projectile and there is little media investigation – or as you may have heard, police in Chapel Hill are now pointing loaded assault rifles at protesters). I think the police feel a lot better about doing their job when people resist violently. They don’t feel they are beating up on unarmed citizens, but are fighting with a dangerous mob. Non-violence not only defuses the violence (at least a little), it also demoralizes those who are using it unilaterally. You don’t see that happening, but it’s happening.

    But on a personal level, it would be extremely difficult for me NOT to fight back if I was part of a peaceful protest that was violently attacked by the police. Perhaps the fact that my father was a cop and I was bullied physically and verbally for years as a kid, and just took it because I had to, and my non-violent response did little to stop the oppression has something to do with it. Luckily, since I live in Japan, I haven’t had to face that personal issue.

    However, I do feel strongly that damaging the property of local residents and businesses, and violence against non-attackers is completely wrong. I don’t even think it’s appropriate to disrupt someone else’s meeting or business unless they are actively doing something terrible, like evicting people from their homes or making bombs that are actively causing civilian casualties. People have a right to gather without having their event disrupted, even if you really, really disagree with them. But of course it’s ok to protest.

    Luckily, so far the majority of protesters have not been violent. I think the only hope for this movement is an influx of people who will dilute the influence of the overly aggressive minority who advocate offensive violence. So I encourage you to get involved again and to speak up and to say the things that people don’t want to hear. Sometimes spiritually inspired advice is unpopular, but that’s our job, and even one voice arguing for non-violence can make a big difference!

    I think another important issue is getting this movement into the political process. I know a lot of people don’t want that to happen, but I think that’s the most realistic approach. Most people will not camp out, but a lot of them will vote. We need independent candidates to run at all levels, not only to clean up Wall Street and Washington, but to restore our Constitution, end the wars, reform our economic system, and get the country on a spiritually progressive path.

  2. Daniel Alexander November 15, 2011 at 9:46 am

    There is a small “Occupy Wall Street” movement in my hometown of Baltimore, as there is in many urban areas across the US. Curious about what the movement was about, their signs read the typical slogans such as “We are the 99%” and Occupy Wall Street”. What does that mean? Is there a certain law that is unjust that you would like to change? Apparently not. There is no agenda to this movement. I can neither agree nor disagree with them because they are not saying anything. My impression was that this was just a group of people whose only commonality is that they are bored and lonely at home, looking for something to occupy their time. They have no common message, goals, or purpose. Clearly, these are fundamentally good people who are trying to make the world a better place. As they protest corporate America holding signs made of cardboard that were manufactured by large paper manufacturing corporations owned by millionaires who sell corporate shares to investors on Wall Street, the hippocracy becomes clear. The tents they sleep in were also manufactured by large corporations with share holders and millionaire owners. In fact, everything about the protestors including the clothes on their backs comes from large public companies who sell their products for profit. The tragedy here is that they have assembled themselves into a small army that could do a world of good by doing community service for their local communities. It is a tragic waste of time by the fact that they do nothing productive for their communities. Equally guilty are politicians who claim to empathize with the protestors. One protestor held a sign saying: “what would Jesus do?” The answer is clear: He would work as a carpenter and do something constructive with his time.

  3. Ed Stamm November 15, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Yes, if only Jesus had just been a carpenter, the world would surely be a much better place! We’d never have to waste our time reading drivel like:

    “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

    Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

    And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
    (Matthew 25.35-40 ESV)

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