Isn’t That Your Job?

Your week probably did not start at 8:30 on Monday morning with a health care professional telling you that you were gaining too much weight in your pregnancy and that “if you keep this up, you’re going to look like the Michelin girl by the time you deliver.” At least, I certainly hope your week didn’t start that way. I’m sorry to say that mine did, and even more sorry that my response, rather than uttering an expletive or an eloquently worded rejoinder, was to burst into tears.

Of course, pregnancy may well explain that response, as well as my getting teary looking at BoingBoing just now (and damn, that was some fast CSS work on someone’s part) and reading my all the nostalgic Apple posts stream by on FriendFeed and Facebook.

But I didn’t set out, actually, to whine about pregnancy or reminisce about Macs (I’ve done that before) but rather to comment a bit on one of the other events of this apparently tumultuous week, the Occupy This, That, and the Other Place movement that started with Occupy Wall Street. Before the Steve Jobs encomiums started rolling in, most of the posts I saw online this week were either repostings of assorted Occupy signs (hell, I posted a few of them myself) or people complaining about the ways in which the movement, or the people involved, lacked focus, or direction, or goals, or objectives. Frequently these went together — Gosh, I love this sign! I sure wish they had a program!

Watching activism take place on the internet makes me feel very, very old, and weirdly nostalgic for the days when I was handing out flyers that said, “meet on the Pentacrest at noon and the Ped Mall at 5 the day the war breaks out!”, because of course we didn’t know when the war was going to start (this would be the “first” Gulf War), and we wanted to have a plan, and we couldn’t email everyone, much less invite them all to a Facebook event.

The group that made those flyers was called Operation US Out, and I attended its very first meeting, when I was fourteen. We had a program, or at any rate we had five Points of Unity, the idea being that if you agreed with these, you were part of the coalition, regardless of your position on, say, abortion or Israel. The only ones I remember now (1990 was some time ago, and I’d have to look the rest up) were “Troops Out Now” and “End the Poverty Draft,” but the idea was to create some simple demands we could all get behind and rally around, so that we could build a broad-based coalition and gather the maximum possible resistance.

That worked, to a point, the point in question being when a group of mostly women decided that OUSO was being dominated by either men or International Socialist Organization members, or ISO members who were men, and they thus decided to form a separate group called Women Against War. I stuck with the original group, as that’s where my friends were. I knew the people on the steering committee. Of course, they mostly were ISO members, as tends to happen with new activist groups on college campuses with active ISO chapters, if Chicago decides that’s where ISO members should focus their energies. The idea of a Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist group is, at least in part, that you’re creating a vanguard for the revolution, because when the time comes, you’ll need to have people who are organized and know how to get shit done. Consequently, ISO people tend to be very organized and know how to get shit done, and while everyone else is sitting around and dithering about whether the group is anti-war or pro-peace, or whether or not to include demands about Palestine, or what have you, the ISO folks are going around and booking meeting rooms and getting march permits and making and copying flyers and generally, well, organizing. But I digress.

The Points of Unity weren’t, as it turned out, enough to preserve a unified group, and I’m not sure at all that they were ever mentioned or covered in any newspaper story about our actions. As my friend Meg says, you can be sure that at a rally of a thousand normal looking people, the newspaper photographer will find the one guy on stilts, and that will be what shows up on the front page of the paper. I love the guys on stilts, and the people with the giant puppets, and the Radical Cheerleaders, and the people who go around doing guerilla plantings of organic pumpkin seeds, and all the other forms of spectacle we have on the Left, but I do acknowledge there’s a certain problem of media representation.

I’ve since been involved in various other struggles that had programs and demands. Students Against Sweatshops had three very specific demands, all of which had been endorsed by a remarkable list of groups and people and institutions (shouts out, Tom Harkin!). To this day, eleven years later, the University of Iowa has still only met two of them (joining the WRC and drafting a licensee code of conduct — they have yet to drop out of the FLA). The sit-in and its associated spectacle, and the years that followed, were specifically designed in an attempt to bring attention to these specific and particular demands, and they were covered, to some extent, in the stories told about us. But of course they were very complicated and involved understanding things about factory monitoring and labor standards and the right to organize and a great many other things that don’t make a good caption on a picture of a bunch of unwashed college students.

And yet we did accomplish some of our goals. There have been improvements. Mostly those were the result of a lot of grueling, irksome, behind the scenes work. But you know what happened that first day of the sit in? The administration joined the WRC, something they’d refused to do for months. I don’t think they did that due to reasoned demands. We’d already made those. I think they did it because there were a bunch of grubby college kids bike-locked together in their offices. (Well. People weren’t grubby yet. It was the first day, before we started camping out in the hallway.)

I’ve long been a fan of Frances Fox Piven’s Poor People’s Movements. If you’ve heard of Piven, you’re probably either an old lefty or a fan of Glenn Beck. Given that you’re reading this blog, I’m betting on the former, although you never know. I’d like to think my father would read my blog if he were alive, and after agreeing that “main ideas belong in main clauses and subordinate ideas belong in subordinate clauses” and that bourbon is preferable to Scotch, I’m not sure he and I would see eye to eye on anything. Piven’s book is about various mass uprisings of the poor, some of them organized somewhat but most of them simply the result of huge numbers of people reaching a breaking point.

The folks occupying Wall Street do not have a great deal in common with the tenement dwellers who went on rent strikes in Piven’s book, but there’s a quality of unrest that I think they share, and a quality of demanding something — even if it’s an inarticulate, intangible something — but something different from what they have.

I remember way back at one of those early OUSO meetings someone was trying to get people to pin down exactly what our solution to — oh, I don’t know, the global oil market? the problems of capitalism? — was. Another member stood up to speak and said, “You know, I don’t know. But you know, we elect this huge bureaucracy. We elect these people who are supposed to figure out how to make the things we want work. Isn’t that, like, their job?

And to a great extent, I think that’s what the Occupy movement is saying. No, we don’t have a solution to the global debt crisis or the student loan scam or the unemployment rate or anything else. But dude, people in government, captains of industry, leaders of the free world — isn’t that your job? To which I can only say yes, yes it is.