Decentralization within an organization’s infancy has been noted by a historian as age appropriate.
There were three words drawn with a black marker on a cardboard sign in 2011 that leaned against cold concrete in the former Dilworth Plaza in Center City Philadelphia: Agitate, Educate, Organize.
That sign—which not only spoke to the sentiment of the Occupy Movement years ago, but to the Black Lives Matters movement of the present-day, and, really, to all social movements given that disruption and agitation is germane to protest culture—was among hundreds of others held by protesters who had gathered in the town square to denounce greed and capitalism, which they all said, in their various wording and phrasing, was eroding democracy.
On October 6th, 2011, the first official day of Occupy Philly, I met Ms. Theresa Brown-Gould, who had an artistic response to the issue(s) that catalyzed the mass outdoor convening.
“Art as a social inquiry,” she called it, surrounded by several alluring portraits that “put a face on medical bankruptcy.”
Her goal with the artwork was to tell the story of access to healthcare through the eyes of real people.
One of the paintings depicted an older man with a blank stare. A hard worker, the unnamed man had premature twins, issues with his insurance and was eventually left with a $500,000 medical bill that caused him to relinquish both his rental and primary residence.
“He spent the greater part of his working life trying to survive and keep his head above water,” Ms. Brown-Gould told me.
The majority of the gripe in 2011 among those identified as Occupy Philly participants—or Occupy participants in general, regardless of locale—was related to economics, thus making the banks public enemy number one.
Many direct actions organized by ordinary, like-minded Philadelphians were taken against big banks, most notably among them, Bank of America.
On October 12th, 2011, Mr. Ogbonna Hagins, with his youngest son strapped to his back, led a modest march to a local Bank of America and held a short rally in front of its main entrance, while countless of other activists led activities and workshops in front of, or around City Hall.
It was common during the Occupy Philly day—as I’m sure was the case in other cities—to see various agendas or actions being pushed, planned or promoted by a number of people who identified with the movement, but weren’t seen as the leaders.
In fact, other than the culture of agitation which disrupts business as usual and the focus on humanity – for Occupy, the right to, among many things, live without the crushing weight student loan debt and for Black Lives Matter, the right to live without the crushing blows of brutality police—the greatest similarity that can be drawn between the Occupy (Philly) and Black Lives Matter movement—which was founded by three women of color in response to the death of Mr. Trayvon Martin and really took hold after the fatal officer-involved shooting of Mr. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—is the absence in their embryonic stage of an appointed leader, personality or spokesperson.
Last night I appeared on The Dr. Vibe Show, which broadcast live from Toronto, Canada, and one of the topics were: “Who Runs Black Lives Matter?”
The conversation point was inspired by an article in The Daily Beast titled “Who Really Runs #BlackLivesMatter?”
The post told the story of a Seattle 16 year-old girl named Ms. Nikki Stephens.
Ms. Stephen had taken the liberty of starting a Black Lives Matter: Seattle Facebook page, and when Bernie Sanders’ speech in her city was interrupted by Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, she issued an apology, which the media ran with, promoting the theme: Black Lives Matter apologizes.
The national Black Lives Matter Facebook page then posted a statement saying it hadn’t demanded an apology from Seattle organizers nor issued an apology to Mr. Sanders.
An instance of similar elements occurred in 2011 when Rev. Jesse Jackson visited the site of Occupy Philly upon an invitation from certain faith-based activist within the decentralized movement. As the civil rights icon spoke, an activist who identified with Occupy Philly heckled and interrupted him, and even called him a “fascist.”
A few of the black participants were offended by the white male’s action, but little could be done in terms of discipline or accountability, as an autonomous, do-and-say-what-you-feel climate had been well-established.
For the most part, the aforementioned exist within Black Lives Matter. A few black people who identify as allies to the movement were confused and annoyed by the two Seattle activists who interrupted the presidential candidate who they say speaks truest to their concerns.
While others, like Ms. Erica Mines in Philly, thinks everyone is open to interruption and Mr. Sanders’ record on civil rights—which critics of the Seattle takeover cite as proof that he’s an ally—is irrelevant.
Two weeks ago, on August 10th, Ms. Mines, while blocking rush hour traffic with her comrades in front of the District Attorney’s office, loudly implied that Mr. Sanders’ marching with Dr. King was of no consequence, as a struggle remains and he’s no longer marching.
Despite the perceived internal conflicts that may arise when there’s varying agendas among organizers and no one person in which to issue responsibility, blame and/or praise, Ms. Jo Freeman, who in the 1980s penned a book titled “Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies,” suggest that in the early stages of a movement, “it is the organizer much more than any leader who is important and must often operate behind the scenes.”
Much of the work being done by Black Lives Matter affiliates across the country, as was the case with Occupy, are behind-the-scenes, though the media is there to capture it. In the context of organizing, though, behind-the-scenes could very well mean protesting and agitating, as the real work is drafting and demanding legislation, amassing political power in silence, training new leaders and registering citizens to vote.
Currently in Philadelphia now is a decentralized group of like-minded people called the Philly REAL Justice Coalition, who have been meeting consistently—nearly every two weeks—for a little more than a year. Within that group is many powerful voices and savvy organizers—some of whom have their own organizations—yet, like with the previously mentioned movements, no one seems to long for the proverbial head seat at the table.
Occupy (Philly) was, as Black Lives Matter and the Philly REAL Justice Coalition is now, a movement in its early stages.
So our question as a society should not be “Who Runs It?,” but rather “How Do We Keep it Running in Order to Bring About Change?”
And history, more particularly Ms. Freeman, has provided us the answer.
In her book she writes:
“The need for a preexisting communications network or infrastructure within the social base of a movement is a primary prerequisite for ‘spontaneous activity.’ Masses alone do not form social movements, however discontented they may be. Groups of previously unorganized individuals may spontaneously form into small local associations—usually along the lines of informal social networks—in response to a specific strain or crisis. If they are not linked in some manner, however, the protest does not become generalized but remains a local irritant or dissolves completely. If a protest is to spread rapidly, the communications networks must already exist. If only the rudiments of a network exist, movement formation requires a high input of ‘organizing activity.'”
Occupy was the local irritant that dissolved completely, and Black Lives Matter, according to one of its founders, is establishing local chapters and associations.
How BLM links those chapters through a communications network will determine if, in a few years, the media is using the word “was” in their description, or the names of appointed leaders, personalities or spokespeople who are orating their demands and drafted legislation in the halls of power.
But in the present-day, how we talk to a 1-2 year old movement should be how we talk to a child of the same age. You wouldn’t rush a newborn into telling you their favorite food, would you?
* Tune into 900amWURD or 900amWURD.com every Friday evening during the 6 o’clock hour to hear me relive #TheWeekThatWas*
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™