Holding Space as OWS Camps Come Under Assault
by Randall Amster
As the Occupy Movement gains strength and garners worldwide support, the predominant anti-OWS tactic of authority is becoming clear: decimate as many Occupy camps as possible, in the hope that this delivers a fatal blow to the movement’s momentum. It is an outmoded, heavy-handed tack, one that starkly illuminates the gap between the casual brutality of the 1% and the core aspirations of the 99%.
And it will ultimately fail.
At each turn, the sweeping of the encampments — many of which have become little “utopian experiments” in themselves and working models for an alternative society — has only served to galvanize the resolve of Occupiers and drive even greater numbers out into the streets and parks. Mass arrests aim to make activists pay a personal price for their open defiance, but they also yield greater degrees of movement solidarity and radicalize demonstrators across generational and cultural lines.
People who struggle together, win. Not overnight, and not without travail. But in the end they do prevail.
The clichés and well-worn slogans abound, yet each one rings with the time-tested truth of human dignity: “You can’t kill an idea.” “People have nothing to lose but their chains.” “This is what democracy looks like.” “We shall not be moved.” “All we are saying is give peace a chance…”
We’ve heard the refrains before. Still, this is different: a global peace movement that is about more than merely warfare, speaking broadly to the pervasive “structural violence” of injustice and inequality that comprises the foundation of our archaic system. As the social and ecological fabric of our lives reaches a critical point of no return at every level of engagement, so too are people acting from the realization that the power to alter course is vested in each and every one of us, and in our communities as well.
No amount of force can deter people seeking survival, meaning, and the natural longings of hope for the future. “Holding one’s ground” becomes the operative premise — not in an aggressive way that replicates state power but with a presence of body and mind that demonstrates the unshakable force of “people power.” There is no single way to manifest this spirit; for some it is standing firm on the front lines, for others it is rebuilding after a sweep, and for still others it is remaining peaceful and compassionate even and especially in the face of extreme provocation. All are equally powerful tacks.
Holding space, inner and outer, is the fulcrum. In the wake of systemic assault, seemingly coordinated at the highest levels and indicative of the elites’ concern about the widening impact of the movement, the spirit of resistance is demonstrated with small acts of bravery and large mobilizations of open defiance. Individually and collectively, the movement bends but refuses to break, absorbing the system’s blows and transforming them into stimuli for evolutionary growth, popular support, and bonds of solidarity.
Successful movements throughout history have understood this. It is the essence of nonviolence, to “win over” undecided observers and even antagonists by virtue of courage and compassion. It does not mean that everyone in the movement agrees on tactics or that a pledge of nonviolence ought to be imposed, but rather that the movement as a whole is in fact nonviolent in seeking to overcome the structural violence of a dehumanizing and despoiling system based on avarice and aggression.
The pictures tell a thousand words. At Occupy Oakland, as a massive throng of police descends on the plaza where an encampment has braved numerous assaults, a handful of peaceful spirits sit in silent meditation and meet the arresting officers with knowing smiles and engaged compassion. The images are reminiscent of Tiananmen Square circa 1989, or Tahrir Square circa 2011. Perhaps the scale is smaller, but it is in those little moments of exchange that the entire story of a struggle is being told.
One of the Oakland Meditators is a gentle soul named Francisco “Pancho” Ramos Stierle. He’s a community organizer, nonviolence practitioner, free-economy proponent, inspiring speaker, urban permaculturist, tireless activist, unwavering friend, and in many ways the living embodiment of all that a genuine liberation movement filled with “peaceful warriors” aspires to be and become. Pancho is now facing deportation charges in addition to those in connection with his nonviolent demonstration — a doubly ironic result, in that someone whose life’s work is actually about building secure communities could be deported under a program that is perversely termed by officials as “Secure Communities.”
Even more to the point is that Pancho’s story provides a bridge between the Occupy Movement and immigration issues. At root are basic questions of human dignity and mutual respect, of fashioning a world in which people matter more than profits and where everyone has a voice in determining the conditions of our collective lives. The symbolic Occupy camps are also models of this vision in practice, just as Pancho’s symbolic dramatization of peace in the face of force is a guidepost for our own actions.
Tents can be dismantled and people can be imprisoned, but ideals and values are indelible. Holding on, holding fast, holding space — all transcend mere physical location and the impetus of control. It is, in the end, the power of peace that sustains a movement over time and that renders its foundations unbreakable.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor for New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).