Sustaining the Occupy Movement

Kitchen at Occupy

Occupy's attention to feeding the hungry and housing the homeless has demonstrated a new, interdependent way of life. Here, protesters line up for free food at Occupy Boston. Credit: Robert Kendall.

In the fall of 2011, as the Occupy movement spread around the nation and beyond, fundamental systemic change suddenly seemed possible. The movement tapped into tremendous pain and stirred up hidden longings. Its slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” caught fire in the U.S. conversation landscape. Talking about the gap between the rich and the poor and even questioning capitalism are no longer taboo.

The movement has also generated enormous controversy, however, and its support seems to be declining. Some are beginning to doubt whether a popular, mass movement can still emerge, now that so many encampments have been dismantled.

Although I still see hope that the Occupy movement could live out its riveting promise, the questions it faces are daunting: How can the movement attract masses of people while preserving the essential founding focus on transforming economic realities? What can appeal to large numbers of people across political, racial, and class divides so that we can create the necessary change to match today’s crises?

I don’t claim to hold all the answers. What I most love about the Occupy movement is the utter inability of any of us to decide, control, or even predict its unfolding. But I would still like to highlight two aspects of the movement that, if cultivated, could contribute to creating a vibrant mass movement: the infusion of empathy into connections formed across differences and the emphasis on meeting basic human needs.

Sustaining the Movement Through Empathy

The Occupy movement has been a grand experiment with radical forms of democracy, making things happen despite the challenges of getting hundreds of people to agree without any formal leadership. The movement has also alienated those who cannot stand the endless meetings, the acrimonious debates, and the negative attitudes toward leadership.

It has brought together people who don’t commonly interact, with more visible diversity than is common and novel ways of relating. But the movement hasn’t created enough tools and structures for individuals to shift out of the social isolation and alienation that are pervasive in U.S. life. As a result, the destruction of the encampments turned a group of passionate activists and community builders into a collection of individuals coming together only for meetings that to many no longer seem relevant.

One way of sustaining this movement is to think strategically about how to support the people who are putting their life energy and resources into the daily tasks of maintaining the momentum of the actions that started in September. In the face of police brutality, internal strife, and declining support, those working on the ground are clearly in need of emotional, spiritual, and strategic resources. Even as it has offered food and shelter to many, the movement has also been the occasion for immense conflict, including sexual assaults. Even active supporters have been uncomfortable or afraid to participate. Those of us who want to support the movement could do much to increase the chances that the movement will be inviting to newcomers and remain sustainable for those activists who have been working on it from the start.

We can help the movement align its inner workings with its outer message. When the means align with the ends, when inner transformation follows along with social change, and when we create, now, the relationships and institutions we want to see in the future, movements become more attractive and compelling to large numbers of people.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

In response to this need, an array of resources has sprung up to support the movement. These efforts range from the most mundane and material to sophisticated networks of support such as Occupy Cafe (

Practitioners of Nonviolent Communication ( have also been involved in efforts to provide this sort of support. In a number of Occupy sites around the country, individuals trained in Nonviolent Communication have offered training, mediation, and empathic support to de-escalate conflicts. In New York, for example, workshops in Nonviolent Communication have been offered daily. A nightly community watch was established to respond to incidents of violence that tended to occur after 2 am. Anyone who wanted to join this group received Nonviolent Communication training to learn about defusing conflicts with empathic presence, even for those using drugs or being aggressive. Several sites, including Oakland, have had an “empathy booth” where people could come simply to be heard and thus be rejuvenated in doing their activism.

Aside from on-the-ground support, a small and very dedicated group has been offering daily access to empathy and coaching on the phone for Occupiers anywhere ( People often call when they are in great distress and leave with clarity about how they can respond to difficult situations. One Occupier, Kristie Gould from Edmonton, Canada, described the basic understanding she got from participating in the calls in this way: “We all have needs. More often than not (especially when in conflict with others) our needs are one and the same (to matter, to be seen/heard, to contribute, etc.) but our strategies to meet those needs are very different sometimes.”

Gould added that she has gained deeper understanding of herself and others, more energy and hope, and all this has allowed her “to connect in some really incredible ways with many Occupy members and also people opposing the [Occupy movement] here and elsewhere.… No one is out of reach, not those Occupiers with addictions or issues surrounding the loss of sobriety in camp, or mentally ill Occupiers.”

This way of transcending separation, infusing the movement with love and equipping Occupiers with practical tools to replace our habitual responses such as arguing, giving advice, or interrupting, is a seed of the future put into the soil of the present.

Gandhi statue

The Occupy movement could follow in Gandhi's footsteps by focusing on basic human needs. Here, a Gandhi statue donated by the Peace Abbey stands with Occupy Boston. Credit: Robert Kendall.

The challenges have been immense, and many of the supporters were stretched to know how to respond to the chaos, intoxicated people, suspiciousness, and lack of channels for introducing changes to the format of the general assemblies that would allow more dialogue to happen. Some of the people offering Nonviolent Communication on the ground have expressed a certain level of despair about the deeply ingrained habits of distancing, withdrawal, and judgment they encounter—habits that sometimes leave few options for resolving conflicts or learning. Another challenge is how efforts to calm people down to de-escalate a conflict can sometimes be perceived as attempts to silence one of the parties. What can be done to support those of us who have been deeply affected by the legacy of millennia of being at odds with each other in a world of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness? How can we mobilize the initial surge of hope that brings people out to the streets? How can we create sustainable empowerment for those who participate?

One of the key lessons from the work of Nonviolent Communication supporters has been that vision provides a deep well of motivation and energy. The very act of tapping into the underlying layer of meaning allows people to root themselves in their needs to nurture the vision of what they want so as to find their own power to take action.

Energizing the Movement Through Positive Vision

As Gandhi noted, a movement that is entirely about opposition cannot ultimately be sustainable. To reach, mobilize, and sustain the commitment of many, I believe Occupy would need to articulate an inspiring vision for a bright future, as well as concrete and practical plans for bringing about its realization without relying on the institutions that have failed all of us.

A clear vision can support existing participants in transmuting their anguish and rage into positive action focused beyond each person’s, or even each locale’s, specific grievances. Opposing the police and protecting the encampments and public spaces have not provided enough counterforce to the pervasive disempowerment and cynicism that so many of us bring to our activism. Working directly and practically toward a vision makes a popular movement more possible.

In some cities in Europe, people have shifted tactics to create dozens or hundreds of neighborhood assemblies. Unlike a single mass encampment, multiple, diffuse neighborhood assemblies are impossible to shut down or evict, and thus less vulnerable to repression. Such a shift can provide a way for the Occupy movement to dismantle the thick walls of separation and isolation within which we live in North America. Imagine the possibility of groups of people finally getting to know each other, speaking about what truly matters to them and how they want to face life’s challenges, and deciding what they want to create in their neighborhood and in the world. What might inspire such assemblies and help them become a source of strength in their communities and beyond as they move toward a shared vision? The focus on providing food and shelter to all brought many people together; perhaps this early focus could become the backbone of a more expansive movement.

Meeting Basic Human Needs

The Occupy encampments took on feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, albeit in tents, demonstrating an interdependent way of living. What if the Occupy movement called on all of us to take back access to our most basic human needs that are now primarily in the hands of very large institutions: food, shelter, clothing, health, and education? Focusing on these needs allows the central message of transforming economic structures to take practical shape. To some extent, this is already happening and is what drew me to the encampments, to the simplicity of having food available to everyone, no questions asked. As many of the larger encampments have been dismantled, this focus continues with an added emphasis on issues related to housing.

In focusing on meeting basic human needs, the Occupy movement would follow in the footsteps of Gandhi, who instructed his followers to spin yarn for at least thirty minutes a day. Spinning was the centerpiece of what Gandhi called “constructive program, which was ultimately more important to him than noncooperation or civil disobedience. In his program for the future, Gandhi had a clear and detailed vision of new forms to replace existing oppressive structures in every aspect of life, ranging from ownership to war. The former would be replaced with trusteeship, the art of having and using items for service, and the latter with “Shanti Sena”­ (peace army) to resolve regional and international conflicts.

Spinning was a perfect fit for the conditions Gandhi faced. It was a concrete act that anyone could do on a daily basis; it was proactive and responsive to a real need; it signified immediate economic independence by being cheap and self-run; and it was deceptively simple and ultimately highly subversive. What organizing principle could be its equivalent here in the contemporary United States, where buying from large corporations is cheaper and easier than local production? What is something that could be done on a daily basis and also provide a framework for large-scale actions?

In terms of a constructive program for the Occupy movement, focusing on these essential five basic human needs could mean dedicating thirty minutes a day to identifying, learning, and executing home-based or community-based ways of attending to those needs so as to increase self-reliance and empowerment and undo the dependence on external institutions.

This focus would not be new to Occupy because tending to basic human needs has been a thread woven into the encampments and beyond. Just the activity of doing this has supported a stronger connection with the radical notion that meeting basic human needs is actually possible and not difficult. Two recent examples support my intuitive sense that the challenge of meeting human needs is more political than material.

In Brazil, the officials and citizens of the city of Belo Horizonte discovered that ending hunger was embarrassingly easy once the political will was there. It meant, in part, changing how food, money, and relationships were thought about. Ending hunger meant providing food for everyone and getting everyone involved in solving the problem. It also meant better lives for farmers around the city.

Taking on ending hunger as an entirely grassroots effort requires ingenuity, courage, and sustained will. Neighborhood assemblies can support the growing, sharing, and distribution of food as part of the constructive program aspect of this focus. Volunteers can collect leftovers from households, restaurants, and grocery stores for people in need. Others can donate to local farmers to grow food to be distributed free of charge. Through ongoing conversations about ending hunger, people can learn what works elsewhere and come in contact with their power as they co-create strategies that fit their community context.

In the area of housing, I can’t point to such a powerful success story, though one appears to be in the making. Rosanne Haggerty, founder of Common Ground (, is revolutionizing the field. She has launched a campaign to end chronic homelessness—which affects 100,000 people in the United States—by July 2013. She has mobilized support and built alliances with government agencies, nonprofits, and activists in dozens of cities around the country. Although the project is far from completed, Haggerty’s discoveries already parallel those of Belo Horizonte: she is finding that the problem is eminently solvable and requires more political will than anything else. As New York Times writer David Bornstein pointed out in “A Plan to Make Homelessness History” (2010), housing the homeless dramatically reduces costs relative to the medical expenses of the chronically homeless, most of whom have diabetes, cancer, mental health challenges, or heart conditions and thus cycle through emergency rooms. The high retention rates in permanent, supportive housing have allowed a number of cities to reduce their homeless population, sometimes by more than half.

Just as in Gandhi’s times, constructive program is rarely enough. Creating change on a scale to match the vision also requires acts of civil disobedience. The focus on basic human needs in this case lends itself to large numbers of people being mobilized and in the process taking on the most sacrosanct of institutions in this country: private property.

The Occupy movement faces the challenge of operating without government support and more often than not against government and police hostility. While the encampments existed, homeless people shared the space with activists. Now that the encampments are largely gone, the housing crisis remains a primary focus of the Occupy movement around the country. Activists have formed coalitions with low-income communities and organizations working for housing rights, such as Causa Justa ( in Oakland and San Francisco, and have staged occupations of foreclosed homes, disruptions of banks known to foreclose on many properties, and active interference with evictions.

If the movement succeeds in attracting large numbers of people, actions of an entirely different scale can take place. Imagine masses of people marching to the Central Valley in California, where vast areas are being cultivated by large-scale corporations, to harvest vegetables and other crops and bring food home for themselves and others in need. Imagine organizing a city-wide squatting by homeless people and their allies of all of the unoccupied buildings at once. The same could be done in yet a third area, health, as marchers could take over a corporate warehouse of medicine and distribute its supplies to people in need.

Like Gandhi’s Salt March and the lunch counter sit-ins, these kinds of actions are not purely symbolic. They partake of what Sharif Abdullah calls “highly illegal and highly moral” action, or “vision implementation”: demonstrating the envisioned world while obstructing the continuation of current structures.

Such events would require tremendous acumen in design and implementation, and massive amounts of mobilization, trust building, and training in the core principles of nonviolence, especially love. For this kind of action to lead to significant transformation, marchers would need to be able to love the people they are targeting in their actions. Harvest vegetables illegally and leave some for those who own the field. Raid a medicine warehouse and thank the people who developed the medicine that saves lives.

Without love, whatever gains are made will be short-lived. With it, the Occupy movement can become a caring community that ushers in the world we are trying to create, embodying a vision of what’s possible by enacting that vision daily in its operations. With love, I trust it can draw more and more people away from the institutions we all know are no longer working, not even for the few.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)



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