The Evolution of Revolution

Establishing and maintaining an activist encampment – whether to blockade a nuclear power plant or to occupy a state capital or a city park – is a major logistical undertaking. The Wall Street occupiers learned a lot about doing this from the Wisconsin capital occupiers of last winter, who in turn represent a major progression from the anti-nuclear actions of a generation ago.

In the fall of 1981, I participated in a two-week “blockade” of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on the coast of central California. Nearly 2000 people were arrested during this action, and I was two of them. Occupy Wall Street reminds me of many of the things we did at Diablo that worked, and I also see the OWS crowd improving the things that we didn’t do that well.

The improvement I’m most impressed with relates to communication.

At Diablo, there came a time when money and energy were running out and we had to find a way to end the action and go home. A proposal was floated to declare the beginning of a “Phase 2” of the blockade, and a discussion followed to define what that meant. The consensus process we used gave every individual veto power over any proposal, so we started hearing things like, “We will block any statement that contains the word ‘end’.”

Words that anyone disapproved of were removed and/or replaced. Strong language got weak and ambiguous. A reasonable and well-thought-out statement got watered down into a bland mush that offended nobody and excited nobody. And it burned through hours of our time.

OWS did something right in the way it composed and approved its declaration.* It’s well-written and strongly worded, which can be nearly impossible when writing by committee. I can see the markings of a committee in the list of grievances, but something has improved in the process to keep the well-intentioned saboteurs from muddying the text.

On behalf of the veterans of the Diablo blockade, I will take credit for one innovation in meeting management displayed at OWS: the jiggling of fingers in the air as a substitute for applause. I saw this introduced at the Diablo encampment as the size of the meetings started getting larger. A speaker would say something, and many people would cheer or applaud in agreement. This made it difficult for everyone to hear the rest of what the speaker had to say, and it would disrupt the rhythm and the flow of the meeting.

So someone suggested that instead of cheering, we should wave our hands above our heads to signal our approval and agreement. A “cheer” could erupt without drowning out the speaker we’d be cheering.

It may have been something other activists were doing before. But it shows that at the very least, such actions are networking events. Activists representing a wide range of causes, constituencies and age groups have lots of time to hang out with each other and exchange ideas to solve problems.

Each action gets more organized, and new best practices evolve from this stock pot of activism.

* My favorite declaration came from a blogger at the occupation, which concisely and explicitly covered the most important points. It’s brief enough to quote here in full:

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

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