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Searching for Sustainable Models of Activism, 2 Years After Occupy

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Posted on Sep 19, 2013
Poster Boy NYC (CC-BY)

By Sonali Kolhatkar

(Page 2)

In explaining his own transformation, Harris told me how he got involved in the movement to address world hunger. In the beginning he thought, “Hunger was inevitable because there are no solutions. If there were solutions somebody would have done something by now … but I … realized there was no mystery to growing food, or clean water or basic literacy. I wasn’t hopeless about the lack of solutions; I was hopeless about human nature, that people would just never get around to doing what could be done. [But] there was one human nature I was in control of—my own.”

Harris, who has worked on global child mortality for more than 30 years, pointed out that the number of children’s deaths worldwide from vaccine-preventable diseases has dropped from 41,000 in 1984 to 18,000 today. “Year in and year out, decade in and decade out, RESULTS volunteers were working on that,” he said.

Under the model he devised, citizen volunteers join small groups of like-minded people, obtain training, education and communication skills on a specific problem and an equally specific solution to solve that problem. They break into public consciousness through traditional methods such as newspaper editorials and letters to the editor, and they directly pressure their elected officials—appealing to their sense of justice—to sponsor important legislation.

It’s certainly not as sexy as camping in a public place, holding general assemblies out in the open, marching and chanting slogans. And it does not work for the type of radical change OWS participants might have envisioned. But Harris’ approach offers a staid, yet relatively effective method of incremental reform that works within existing political systems.


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There is merit in both approaches to activism—sometimes society needs the type of revolutionary spark embodied by Occupy Wall Street. And sometimes that spark needs to be followed by sustainable organizing that can foment change in baby steps through arduous work and even traditional channels.

Clearly OWS’ cause is still urgent: Wall Street is booming while wages are stagnant. Congress wants to cut food stamps even though poverty remains at a shocking 15 percent. And worst of all, the very same practices that led to the Great Recession are still legal, if barely.

But the piecemeal solutions are simple even if they won’t overturn capitalism: increasing the minimum wage, preserving and strengthening the food stamp program, prosecuting Lehman Brothers’ executives, passing regulations strong enough to curb recession-provoking practices.

As a warning of how well Wall Street has recovered five years after the crash and two years after Occupy Wall Street, the HuffPost’s Hallman dug into the current whereabouts of 63 Lehman executives and found that “most of them have not sought to hide their former Lehman association. … Remember those iconic images of the Lehman employees walking out with boxes and all their possessions that were beamed around the world right after they filed for bankruptcy? I was personally surprised to find that many of them had taken those boxes across the street.”

What’s to stop Lehman’s onetime employees from repeating their dubious deeds in other venues? “Not enough has been done. The possibility of another Lehman-type disaster is still a reality,” Hallman argued.

In today’s climate, even baby steps could make a world of difference. America’s wealthy elites have enjoyed so much privilege, they may think they are immune to popular discontent.

But if activists can combine the beautiful rage of Occupy Wall Street with some of the tried-and-tested methods of incremental political change, maybe someday justice will rain on Wall Street’s parade.

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