In nonviolent protest, success or failure can depend on a variety of strategies that can determine the final outcome: whether or not the protesters are able to declare victory at the end of the day. One way that “victory” can be determined, is by planning when participant departures take place and how long a protest will last. This strategic planning can allow protesters to claim the demonstration or protest as having achieved its positive end. The questions of departure timing and duration of a protest are narrow and infrequently examined dynamics of nonviolent protest that deserve further attention and study. How does this timing enhance or prevent successful nonviolent protest? Why does it matter? Lets take a look at the Occupy protests in Portland Oregon.
A large number of people support the ideas behind the Occupy movement. They understand that the current economic system is not sustainable for this country. When 2% of the population enjoys 90% of the wealth, the system is not workable or fair: poverty and despair are the natural result of social and economic disparity. This is a system out of balance and sinking under the weight of its foundational roots: it is mired in patriarchy and economic infelicity.
Hierarchal systems exist in part because the subordinates submit as a result of
seeing themselves as inferiors. Therefore, two steps to challenge and end the
hierarchal system are first, to get the members of the subordinate group to see
themselves as full human beings who are not inferior to anyone; and, second, to
get them to behave in ways consistent with that enhanced view of themselves.”
(Sharp, pg 425).
The protests and creation of the Occupy movement seem inevitable, given global overpopulation and an unfair distribution of wealth across countries and nations. Taxation and inequity are at the root of the problem. In the USA, unfair tax practices are enforced and promoted for the wealthy to enjoy.
Wealthy corporate America protects and insulates its members by encouraging politicians to institutionalize unfair taxes on lower income groups. Many people, often struggling to survive by working 2 and 3 jobs, must shoulder a disproportionate burden of the costs for our nation. This contributes to a growing sense of frustration and anger at the way things are.
And so the Occupy movement came about. Part of the organizational structure of the Occupy protests are being conducted by young, idealistic students who want to make a difference and draw attention to the reality of poverty and despair in America. Using the power of social media and the blessing and assistance of professional organizers, this movement (with roots in Europe) attracted thousands of people to the riverfront in the fall of 2011. After an energetic rally, huge crowds of people with disparate concerns and agendas, marched through the city. Then, in celebration and with determined purpose, they occupied Lawnsdale and Chapman Squares in downtown Portland.
People of all ages, cultures, and communities wanted to bring home the point that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To realize these rights, food, shelter, and security are paramount.
What began as a political movement and celebration sprouted numerous multi-faceted wings. Soon, the homeless were gravitating to the camp sites, as well as multiple local progressive groups and organizations. A community kitchen was organized, doctors and nurses volunteered to run
a community health center at the heart of the occupation and dozens of journalists and writers created a library and communicated with local media and media organizations. The occupation became a city in itself, with all of the ramifications of this reality, including a few overly zealous rabble rousers. As the smell of marijuana burning and accumulating litter became onerous, the city and various organizers were faced with a moral dilemma.
Members of the city council of Portland and those who organized and sustained the protest wondered, Do we take care of and support this seemingly helpless, under-represented, and too-often ignored population or should be focus on larger goals of the city or political movements? As it turned out, the organizers decided that the needs of the homeless, the mentally ill, and myriad dispossessed populations were critical.
The medical tent and communications teams at the occupation continued their efforts to care for everyone participating. More campsites were added, the daily food kitchen was expanded, and meals were planned and prepared to sustain the movement. This attracted more homeless, more organizers, and more police. Eventually crime became a problem. Sometimes the crimes were committed by participants and other times crimes were perpetrated by the local police. The corporate press in Oregon, with encouragement by the city administrators, claimed that the damages to trees and shrubs in the part were a “disaster” and that assaults and problems with underage, runaway teens were increasing.
Student activists were sometimes distracted by these complex issues and some minor exhaustion set in, but social activists rallied and brought in their own media and researchers from local colleges, libraries, and social movements. It was determined that the occupy area actually had some of the lowest crimes relative to many areas of the city and that much of the remonstrations from city hall were political in nature. But the damage to the lawns and parks was very real. And it was clear that the occupation could not continue forever.
The movement and its goals were portrayed in the local media as having “become
convoluted and lost focus.” “One's energy may be deflected to minor issues and applied ineffectively.” (Sharp, pg 442). Issues related to the homeless, minors, and pollution, were becoming serous social problems.
Sometimes a serious social or political movement can be compromised because outside forces undermine it. When this occurs, a restatement and reassessment of the goals of the group are needed. This conversation occurred in the Occupy movement, with regular rallies and General meetings where these problems were discussed at length. These collective meetings were where it was determined that other demonstrations were needed.
When there were planned demonstrations in other sections of Portland, these sit-in's and marches were often very successful in calling attention to needed bridge repairs, inefficient public services, and an inequitable distribution of economic resources. Many of these protests targeted local banks. Sometimes a variety of distractions occurred, but organizers all over the city and the nation were energized by this very public drama. An overly aggressive response by the Portland Police Bureau, instigated by city hall, led to some unfortunate confrontations and avoidable arrests. Inevitably, tensions developed between the movement, city hall, and local law enforcement.
Some of the most disturbing elements in this public political drama were orchestrated by the local corporate press, with the encouragement of agents in city hall, who had become impatient with the ongoing protest at their front door. Attention was called to some factions among the protesters who referred to themselves as anarchists. This corporate verbiage was intended to inflame public passions against the movement and often, at the smaller protest sites at local banks, both protesters and battalions of police stayed active, after other Occupy protesters had left.
What were being hailed as victorious demonstrations by Occupy organizers were being called a series of crimes in progress by law enforcement. The corporate press continued to emphasize what city hall perceived as crime while local progressive organizations and the movement itself understood that the stories of “undesirables” causing strife and conflict for law enforcement were overblown and belied the facts on the ground.
During the Occupy movement and occupation of the two squares, calls to Portland law enforcement peace officers rose 91% in the central downtown Portland area. Some of the 'trouble makers' were the mentally ill homeless population acting out at the campsites, begging, drinking and using drugs. Other troublemakers were overaggressive police battalions, battering demonstrators, spraying tear-gas directly into the faces of nonviolent participants, and making unnecessary and arguably illegal arrests for constitutionally-protected actions.
These troubled and stressful events became lingering problems for the movement, creating strain between organizers, law enforcement, city hall, and everyday people. This drama often diluted the ambitions, goals, and perceived success of the movement.
Probably the most damage these machinations did to the movement was to give the corporate press fuel to create the false illusion that the movement and the engaged and politically- committed students were misguided and essentially troublesome in their efforts to create more economic fairness for our country as a whole. In fact, the 99% of struggling, working, low-income Americans represented by this movement and these demonstration were well-served by focus on these events. Conversations began which had not yet been considered previously. For some this seemed like a new dawn.
Gene Sharp, in his book on methods of nonviolent strategies, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, explains the importance of understanding at what point protesters leave a demonstration, sit-in or march, and declare the event a success for their movement, having increased “cause consciousness” for their movement. This is an extremely important aspect of social protest, because the nature of perceptions of the protest can be so potentially precarious, given the presence of law enforcement officers and the risk of violent physical conflict.
When stragglers or hangers-on stay long after the event is 'over' they run the risk of coming to blows with law enforcement officers, and ultimately tarnishing the over-reaching image of the movement and its participants. But with an ongoing public protest such as Occupy, there is no clearly-drawn line in the sand or ending point. Clearly, there should be, as demonstrated in Sharp's serious, well researched and classic text on nonviolent strategies.
When the integrity, reputation and image of the organizers is the most important element to protect, the importance of understanding the dynamics of a scene cannot be undervalued or ignored. The media organizers and professional groups supporting the Occupy movement (churches, radio stations, Jobs with Justice, unions, local colleges, etc.) understood the
importance of creating and maintaining the public image of the integrity of the protesters and organizers through clear, open, stated goals, presented to opponents in an atmosphere of mutual respect. “Openness will facilitate (but not ensure) the opponents understanding of the nonviolent struggle groups motives, aims, intentions and plans.” (Sharp, pg. 370). Too often, with over-sized battalions of police called out in response to ingenuous remonstrations in the corporate press,
the goals and aspirations of the protesters were lost in the shuffle and avoidable violence ensued.
There are many diverse elements to a successful protest, but probably the most strategic and important is knowing when to end the protest. When two sides want vastly divergent things, there are often attempts to smear the opposing group. To maintain an image of moral impeccability, the nonviolent protesters must create and sustain an image of moral awareness and conviction that cannot be easily demolished. And police officials, as representatives of city hall, must be equally meticulous in preserving the peace instead of provoking violence. This creates a delicate balance, but a necessary balance that must be nurtured and sustained.
When protesters know when they must leave and do so as a group, much like the young protesters in Serbia during the 2000 overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, they can leave a solid image of victory. And media outlets can eagerly and happily disseminate the idea that their protest, sit-in, or march was indeed successful. But when protesters stay long after the goal of the protest or march has been achieved, they run the risk of undermining the entire campaign.
And when city hall can restrain police bureaus, they can communicate directly with protest leaders, instead of sending in helmeted provocateurs who are simply following orders. More real conversations can continue when both sides learn more about the power of nonviolent group dynamics.
It is hopeful that Gene Sharp's insightful and time-proven methods for enduring nonviolence are shared with more people. A more public understanding of his methods and these insights might help create significant social change.
As we struggle for justice, critical voices in the cutting edge: creative arts, literature, poetry and other forms of media, can help us protect and embellish clear messages about achieving these goals. The timing and duration of protests must be critical factors in planning and supporting organized political statements. The collective cultural heritage and political harmony of countless nations across the globe may hang in the balance. We must remain vigilant as we move forward.
Works cited: Sharp, Gene. Waging Nonviolent Struggle. (2004). Extending Horizon Books. Boston.
Theresa Griffin Kennedy is a graduate student, tutor, freelance writer, poet, and contributing columnist for Salem-news.com. This social activist works for social change and justice and has been published in multiple print issues of The Portland Alliance.