Thursday, December 31, 2015

'Hopelessness is the Enemy of Justice' An Interview with Bryan Stevenson

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'Hopelessness is the Enemy of Justice' An Interview with Bryan Stevenson

Dean A. Strang

Monday, December 28, 2015
The Progressive

    Most trial lawyers engage, daily, with the emotions and vices that underlie human conflict—anger, jealousy, greed, spite. Some do more than engage: They adopt these vices. Bryan Stevenson is the rare exception. He has dedicated his life to healing anger and fear, and bringing light to the darkest corners of our criminal justice system.

Harvard graduate, MacArthur fellow, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson is vibrantly bright and thoughtful. He exudes hope. He lives much of his life among the dispossessed and hopeless.

  I first met Bryan Stevenson more than twenty-five years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. He was shepherding a small group of smart young lawyers through the grim reality of post-conviction work in death penalty cases in Alabama’s courts. 

  Today, he speaks to large groups and travels the country. Stevenson calls on us to hurry after him through the death rows, prisons, impoverished communities, and despairing neighborhoods he serves, and to nurture, within ourselves and without, the emotions and virtues that heal.

   His new book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, is a bestseller. I visited with him when he came to Madison, Wisconsin, where he had been chosen as the University of Wisconsin’s “Go Big Read” author. Hundreds of people turned out to pack a giant lecture hall and several adjoining spaces to hear Stevenson speak.

Q:The message of hope in your book is unmistakable, but I suspect that the origin of the book lies in part with anger. I’m wondering if that’s right.

   Bryan Stevenson: I think of it as a burden rather than anger. I didn’t have to represent people on death row, I didn’t have to do the kind of work that I do, and I never wanted my choice to become something that made me angry. When I stepped into this world, I saw that we were all burdened by a certain kind of indifference to the plight of poor people. We were burdened by an insensitivity to a legacy of racial bias. We were tolerating unfairness and unreliability in a way that burdened me and provoked me. The book is an effort to confront this burden.
I’m persuaded that if most people saw what I see on a regular basis, they would want change.

I don’t think anybody who had been with me when I was holding a fourteen-year-old boy who was crying hysterically because he had been raped and abused in a jail cell would want him to stay in that cell. But our system of justice is so isolated. We’ve created these walls and barriers that shield what happens in our courtrooms and in our jails and prisons and in the margins of society with such effectiveness that most of us go through our lives with no consciousness about what these things really represent.

Q: Working in the justice system, what caught you off guard about these burdens?

Stevenson: It was the sense that people could actually know what the right thing is and still feel obligated to do the wrong thing because of politics or some other collateral concern. That was something I didn’t really anticipate. But it is structural and systemic.

Q: You say outsiders would be appalled by the unfairness that you encounter within the justice system. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who are insiders in the justice system who don’t appreciate that they, or we, have to take responsibility for change. Why?

Stevenson: We’ve all been acculturated into accepting the inevitability of wrongful convictions, unfair sentences, racial bias, and racial disparities and discrimination against the poor. I think hopelessness is the enemy of justice. We have too many insiders who become hopeless about what they can do. The defense attorney who has given up on talking about the presumption of guilt that gets assigned to people of color. The judge who has given up on trying to insist on the rule of law even when it’s inconvenient and unpopular. The prosecutor who has been corrupted by the power that he or she has accumulated through mandatory sentencing schemes. You can be a career professional as a judge, a prosecutor, sometimes as a defense attorney, and never insist on fairness and justice. That’s tragic and that’s what we have to change.

   We’ve made finality more important than fairness. We shield even clear violations of people’s rights if [objections] aren’t raised at the right time in the right way.

Q: After wrongful convictions are overturned, apologists often say, “Look, that proves the system works.” That’s an infuriating claim for many of us who work in criminal justice. In your book you’ve assigned instead the term “provocative” to that claim. What do you mean by that?

Stevenson: In April, I walked out of a Birmingham city jail with a man named Anthony Ray Hinton who had spent thirty years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. He was locked down in a five-by-seven cell twenty-four hours a day for thirty years. The evidence of his innocence was presented to the state in 1999. The prosecution had said a gun they found in his mom’s home matched bullets found at the murder scene, and based on that evidence and that evidence alone, they convicted him. We got the best gun experts in the country to look at that gun and those bullets and say, “These do not match, that man is not guilty.”

  The state fought us even after that evidence was presented because the prosecutors were more comfortable with the prospect of executing an innocent person than with acknowledging that they had put an innocent man on death row.

Eventually we got the U.S. Supreme Court involved, we got the case overturned, and he walked out of jail. It was a really glorious, wonderful moment. But I’ve spent a lot of time with Mr. Hinton over the last six months, and what we have done to him is nothing short of criminal.

    That’s what’s provocative to me—that we can victimize people, we can torture and traumatize people with no consciousness that it is a shameful thing to do. And it’s not the first time we’ve done it. The greatest evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude but rather the narrative of racial differences we created to legitimate slavery. Because we never dealt with that evil, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865, it just evolved.

Q: If we were to replace a culture of assigning blame in the criminal system with a culture of humility, a recognition that mistakes are bound to happen, would that get us anywhere?

    Stevenson: I absolutely think we need a paradigm shift where we’re not motivated by fear and anger. We’ve got politicians competing with each other over who can be the toughest on crime. Whenever society begins to create policies and laws rooted in fear and anger, there will be abuse and injustice.

     We have to step away from the politics of fear and anger and start asking ourselves the more basic question: What are we trying to achieve? If we did that, then we’re not going to put people in jails and prisons who aren’t a threat to public safety and spend billions of dollars warehousing them when it doesn’t accomplish anything. We’re going to use those dollars to actually promote care and treatment.

    That paradigm shift is something that we have to have all the way through the system. Our police officers become warriors who are using the fear and anger paradigm to battle against whole communities. We don’t need police officers who see themselves as warriors. We need police officers who see themselves as guardians and parts of the community. You can’t police a community that you’re not a part of. That paradigm shift is part of how we create true custodians of justice. If you’re just the person with power, exercising that power fearfully and angrily, you’re going to be an operative of injustice and inequality.

Q: You’ve spoken powerfully about the persistence of racism and fear in the criminal justice system. Expand on that.

Stevenson: I don’t think there’s any question that our system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. The presumption of guilt and dangerousness that gets assigned to some people is going to compromise their ability to get to a fair outcome. I also think our comfort level with tolerating disparities based on race has made us comfortable with all kinds of other disparities and all kinds of unfairness.

     The Bureau of Justice is now projecting that one in three black male babies in this country will go to prison.

    That is unbelievable. It wasn’t true in the twentieth century, it wasn’t true in the nineteenth century, it became true in the twenty-first century. And we’re not talking about it. For Latino boys, it’s one in six.

    We need to start talking about the forces that are creating this kind of reality. I’m still shocked that we have these data that are so disturbing—a 640 percent increase in the number of women being sent to prison [from 1980 to 2010], almost 70 percent of whom are single parents with minor children and most are not going for violent crimes.

Q: Would you talk about how this relates to the legacy of slavery?

  Stevenson: I think there is a contempt for the human dignity of people who were enslaved. You couldn’t see them as fully human and so you didn’t respect their desire to be connected to a family and a place. That was the only way you could tolerate and make sense of lynching and the terror that lynching represented.

   We did horrific, brutal, barbaric things to people during these lynchings, mutilating bodies and cutting off extremities and taking parts of the body as a souvenir. What kind of a society does that? Only a society that doesn’t think of that person as fully human. That disconnect means you’re necessarily not going to respect their aspirations of identity, family, and connectedness.

   And that’s true today. We haven’t dealt with that fundamental disconnect, that fundamental contempt for these people because of their race or their ethnicity. That, to me, is the essential problem.

  Can we get our society to begin to acknowledge the cruelty, the barbarism of these institutions and what that means and what that says about us?

Q: Your grandfather was murdered by teenagers when you were a teenager yourself. Did that draw you to, or initially repel you from, the work that you’re now doing with juveniles in prison?

Stevenson: When my grandfather was murdered, the question my grandmother and family members were asking was: Why would someone do that? We were more preoccupied with the circumstances that would create children acting in this way.

  There are many places in this country where the majority of children are traumatized by the time they’re four and five. They’re in households where they see violence and where people are always shouting. They need the same kinds of interventions that our combat veterans need when they come back from war. Unfortunately, our current system only thinks in one language, which is punishment.

Q: How do we make it more acceptable to speak of love, compassion, mercy, or redemption in our system of justice?

  Stevenson: I think we have to affirm the things that matter to us. We have a relationship to one another. We can’t have a healthy, strong relationship until we learn to say, “I’m sorry.” I don’t know any two people who’ve been married or in a strong relationship for a long time who haven’t learned to say, “I’m sorry.” We haven’t learned how to do that when it comes to dealing with the shameful parts of our history.

   The other thing is we have to believe in things we haven’t seen. Part of what constrains us is that we haven’t actually seen what a loving system of justice looks like because we’ve been so fearful that that’s not going to be as harsh and punitive as we think it should be.

   Ultimately, I think we have to want more. We have to aspire to something that feels more like freedom than what we have in this country. We’re not free, we can’t relate to one another who are different without bumping into each other and creating these tensions and fears.

   There is a better, freer place that we can achieve in this nation, but we’d have to want it.

   I use this Reinhold Niebuhr quote in my book: “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” If you love your country, then you need to be thinking a lot more critically about what justice requires. If you love your community, then you need to be insisting on justice in all circumstances, and that’s not something we’ve done. 

   This interview originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of The Progressive magazine. Dean A. Strang is a criminal defense lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the author of Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

The Laws and Rules That Protect Police Who Kill

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The Laws and Rules That Protect Police Who Kill

David A. Graham

Tuesday, December 29, 2015
The Atlantic

    Although 2015 will go down as the year when the United States began grappling with the problem of police violence, it ended with a trio of defeats for reformers.
First, a jury in Baltimore was unable to come to a verdict [1] in the trial of Officer William Porter, one of several officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Several days later, a grand jury in Waller County, Texas, decided that there had been no crime committed in the death of Sandra Bland in a jail cell there [2]. Finally, and most gallingly to many observers, on Monday a grand jury in Cuyahoga County decided not to indict [3] two officers in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

   Taken together, these cases—and particularly the Baltimore and Cleveland cases—demonstrate yet again the difficulty involved in holding police accountable when civilians are killed. Even as there is greater awareness  [4]about the toll that police killings take, police are seldom prosecuted, and when they are, they are seldom convicted. That was the case before Michael Brown’s death in August 2014, and it remains true today. The reasons for that are various. Prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges against police, because they rely on officers to gather information and serve as witnesses in other cases. Juries tend to be deferential to officers. There are also legal protections [5]: In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court ruled that events “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Finally, even when the facts seem clear-cut, the law grants police wide latitude. Although many people who watched dash-cam footage of Bland’s arrest  [6]were horrified by Trooper Brian Encinia’s conduct, police experts who reviewed the footage, including some who criticized Encinia’s judgment in no uncertain terms, generally felt he had acted within his legal authority. Many departments employ “use-of-force matrices,” which detail what steps an officer may take during an incident, in some cases giving them the right to use more aggressive action than might be necessary or seem justified to an outside observer.

   This was particularly apparent in the Rice case. The boy was shot by an Officer Timothy Loehmann just seconds after he arrived on the scene, sent by a dispatcher who told him there was a report of a man pulling out a gun and pointing it at people. Surveillance footage of the death galvanized and appalled the nation. The 12-year-old being gunned down by the officer so abruptly seemed to exemplify overuse of deadly force, while the ensuing events—Rice’s sister was prevented from reaching him, and officers did little to save his life—clinched the case as a signal injustice. As more information emerged about Loehmann [7], including his abbreviated, troubled career with another Ohio police department, there seemed to be widespread recognition that he shouldn’t have been wearing a badge and that he had acted inappropriately when he shot Rice.The problem is that although Loehmann’s actions may have seemed obviously inappropriate to a layman, that doesn’t mean that they actually violated the law. Three independent reports, commissioned by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty all found that the Loehmann and his partner Frank Garmback had acted within proper protocols and rules for officers. (One report used particularly unfortunate and offensive language [8], likening Rice’s loss of life to the potential end of Loehmann’s career.) The grand jury’s decision not to indict is simply the latest evidence that no statutory crime may have been committed.

   In announcing the grand jury’s decision, McGinty made that argument: What happened was terrible, but I can’t prove it was a crime. “The state must be able to show that the officers acted outside the constitutional boundaries set forth by the Supreme Court of these United States,” he said, and while Rice’s death was a “tragedy,” McGinty said [9], “it was not, by the law that binds us, a crime.”

    That isn’t to say that McGinty couldn’t have procured an indictment—if not necessarily a conviction—if he’d taken a more aggressive strategy. The DA has come in for harsh criticism throughout the case. He took an extremely long time to bring the case before a grand jury—so long, in fact, that Rice’s family and activists dredged up an obscure Ohio law [10] to get a municipal judge to issue at warrant for the officers, circumventing the McGinty’s process. (They received an unsatisfying split decision: A judge ruled that there was probable cause to arrest the officers, but that the law did not actually authorize him to issue warrants.)Activists and other observers accused McGinty of issuing the three independent reports as a way to justify a future failure to indict—a suspicion that Monday’s announcement will only reinforce. McGinty also failed to convict Officer Michael Brelo [11] in the 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, two residents gunned down after a mistaken chase. In short, McGinty seems at best soft on police and at worst ineffective as a prosecutor. “It has been clear for months now that Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty was abusing and manipulating the grand jury process to orchestrate a vote against indictment,” Rice’s family said in a statement.

   But one tough lesson of the William Porter case is that however lethargic McGinty’s approach may have seemed, a more aggressive approach is no guarantee of different results. Whether prosecutors move glacially and timidly or quickly and boldly, it’s hard to hold police accountable because of the way the law is written and the system works. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby did practically everything differently: She moved with incredible speed to bring charges against the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, and she brought an aggressive slate of charges—including a depraved-heart murder charge against one officer. She quickly obtained indictments from a grand jury and prepared to take the cases to trial.

    But once the first trial began, the difficulties facing prosecutors became clear. A central element of the state’s case was an accusation that Porter had failed to restrain Gray with a seatbelt. Yet Porter’s team mounted a convincing argument that although Porter may have violated written policies, what he did was in line with general practice for Baltimore cops. The law was murky enough that it was tough to obtain a conviction, and some analysts felt that prosecutors were lucky to get a hung jury rather than simply an acquittal.


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hope and Despair: Can the Planet Be Saved?

(photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/Zak Bickel/The Atlantic)
(photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/Zak Bickel/The Atlantic)

Hope and Despair: Can the Planet Be Saved?

By Rebecca J. Rosen, Adrienne Green, Li Zhou, Alana Semuels, and Bouree Lam, The Atlantic
30 December 15

Experts on ecology, conservation, and climate change offer their reasons for optimism and pessimism going into 2016.

  The two words “climate” and “change” are so routinely strung together that just saying them as a pair—“climate change”—seems to somehow obscure the full weight of the phenomenon they describe, to say nothing of its consequences. But in those moments when one pauses to consider the ramifications of human activity on the planet for generations and generations ahead, things can feel beyond bleak. And yet: This past year saw the nations of the world reached their first-ever agreement on an ambitious plan to rein in emissions, perhaps the most significant progress yet made on this issue.
We reached out to some of the leading scholars of climate change, conservation, and ecology, and asked them what, as the Earth begins yet another trip around the sun, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Robert Glennonprofessor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona

Reason for despair: I despair that we don’t consider water to be scarce or valuable. A century of lax water laws and regulations has spoiled most Americans. We turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cable television or cellphone service. When most Americans think of water, they think of it as similar to air—as infinite and inexhaustible. In reality, it’s both finite and exhaustible.
Because we don’t respect water as remarkable, we use needless quantities for frivolous purposes, such as growing grass in the desert. And because we don’t pay the real cost of water (only the cost of the infrastructure to provide it), we remove the incentive to conserve. Perhaps most important, our innovation economy has encouraged engineers and inventors to create water-saving technologies that extend our supply; but the price of water is so low that few of them have viable business plans.

Reason for hope: We have a suite of options to confront the crisis and prevent it from becoming a catastrophe. These options include conservation, which remains the low-hanging fruit; reuse of treated municipal effluent; and desalination of ocean or brackish water. We can also price water sensibly to encourage conservation, while protecting access to water for persons of modest means. Finally, we can use the power of market forces to encourage a modest reallocation of water from low to higher-value uses. A low single-digit percent reduction in agricultural water consumption would solve the municipal and industrial water-supply problem. Modernization of farm irrigation systems, paid for by cities and industry, would protect the viability of rural communities and secure needed supplies for the urban sector.

None of these options requires a radical change in our behavior, but they will require the moral courage and the political will to act.

Margo Oge, former director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality of the Environmental Protection Agency

 Reason for despair: Climate change is the biggest challenge our planet faces. The science is clear, the risks are real, and the phenomenon’s impact on every part of our planet is increasingly visible. In mid-December, nearly 200 countries met in Paris to secure a historic agreement to reduce the impacts of the global threat. The negotiators for every single country involved have accepted that we need to take immediate and substantive action on this threat. Back at home, however, Congressional Republicans continued their decades of denial. In a symbolic rebuff of global urgency on the issue, both the House and Senate voted to repeal President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. By the time our legislators—a few hundred people—finally accept the overwhelming scientific evidence about the threat, I despair that time will have run out for future generations. I fear that killing, or endlessly delaying, the nation’s serious efforts to mitigate this threat will be catastrophic: rising seas swallowing island nations, floods wiping out towns and villages, unprecedented heat waves and drought destroying crops and lives, and even global instability that provokes wars.

Reason for hope: What gives me optimism is watching our country take a positive role in the Paris international-climate agreements after decades of foot dragging on the issue. When the United States leads, other countries follow. This means that the U.S. efforts to secure strong climate actions in Paris and at home will make a hugely positive impact globally on carbon emissions. The United States has, in fact, long been a leader on environmental technology innovation. In the 1970s, it was American car-emission standards that led to the development of catalytic convertors. These devices were the first to ever clean up the toxic soup coming out of cars’ tailpipes.

  The rest of the world followed America. Today you can’t find a car without one.
After we banned leaded gas, Europe and the rest of the world came along. In 2009 we initiated another world-leading effort, regulations that will cut automotive carbon pollution in half as well as double the fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles by 2025. For decades, American environmental efforts have led to innovation, saved lives, and created jobs. As a result of these regulations, our car industry is today undergoing a technological and economic revolution. Our automakers are building the most fuel-efficient vehicle fleet in history and are already ahead on a trajectory to doubling fuel economy by 2025. The world needs the United States to continue and expand its technological leadership in mitigating climate change.

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University

Reason for despair: One thing that brings me close to despair is the fact that, just in the West, we seemed to have turned a corner in regard to meat eating and factory farming—both are now on the decline—the resulting reduction in animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions is being swamped by the growth in meat eating in China and other parts of Asia. Nevertheless, I don’t despair because the situation is not hopeless. As long as there is hope of change for the better, I’m too busy trying to bring about that change to lose myself in despair.

Reason for hope: More and more people are seeking fulfillment in their lives by turning away from the consumer lifestyle and instead living in accord with their values. The emerging movement known as effective altruism is one outcome of that, and it is having an impact. I’m encouraged by the tremendous progress made over the past 25 years in reducing extreme poverty and improving life expectancy worldwide. Infant mortality, for example, has been cut by more than half since 1990, despite rising population. If we continue to put more resources—our intelligence and our skills, as well as our money—into using reason and evidence to make the world a better place, then I am confident that we can make even more progress over the next 25 years.

Elizabeth Marino, assistant professor of anthropology​ at Oregon State University

Reason for despair: As an anthropologist working alongside indigenous communities in the United States, it’s hard not to see climate change as another wave of violence inherent in the colonial ideal. Colonized geographies like communities in Alaska, small nation states in the Pacific, and large nations in sub-Saharan Africa all share the heaviest burdens of a rapidly changing climate, all share vulnerabilities to those changes produced by unjust economic and political systems, and all are limited in social and cultural expression by the narrow-mindedness of what is deemed culturally acceptable by the “West.” These burdens are all part of climate injustice.

But even aside from this new form of colonial violence, I despair because, more than any other crisis, climate change needs alternative cultural models for framing problems and non-Western solutions.  Unfortunately, many accept as “natural” merely one set of ideas borne from very particular “Western” worldviews: the necessity of growth; monetary value as determinant of inherent value; the nature/culture dichotomy; competition as the driver of production; technological “fixes” as paramount. I despair when the solutions and rhetoric around climate-change mitigation and climate justice are embedded in these presuppositions; when the world stays narrow.

Reason for hope: The rest of the world is talking back. We see organizers using hashtags such as #pachamama, #indigenouscop21, #AOSIS, and #indigenousenvironmentalnetwork. We have growing innovative collaborations among scientists and Native American leadersand we see strong non-state-based international alliancespolitical organization, and advocacy by non-Western leaders. It's going to be an interesting century.

Juliet B. Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College​

Reason for despair: Despair? Yes, it is there. Not because I don’t think that eventually we will have a low- or zero-carbon world. We will. But how can one not despair at the certain destruction we’ve already ensured with the warming and chaos that is now built in to the climate system? This month flooding in my husband’s home city of Chennai reached second floors, with more than 1.8 million people displaced. In one 24-hour period there was nearly 11 inches of rainfall. California remains in the grip of a powerful drought. It is 60 degrees in Boston, in  December, in what’s likely the world’s warmest recorded year, a distinction which may be eclipsed 12 months from now. All the while, the politics of hatred are rising, like the sea levels.

Reason for hope: COP21, the UN talks in Paris, ended with a degree of hope that is unprecedented in the world of climate. Despite the absence of a binding agreement or emissions promises that have any hope of avoiding catastrophe, there has been almost delirious optimism, even from many environmental activists. (Not from all, of course. James Hansen and Bill McKibben have been outspoken in their criticisms of the weaknesses of the treaty, and they’re right.)

  But I find four major reasons to be hopeful. The first is that China is acting decisively to reduce emissions from coal. The second is that renewable energy is now an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels, and will be even more so if we can eliminate the $450 billion a year in subsidies for the dirty fuels. The third is that the fossil-fuel companies are without doubt on the defensive. From the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline to government investigations into Exxon’s cover up of its own climate research, the behavior of this industry is finally on view. True, it is still quite powerful in Congress, but the combination of science, economics, and exposure is sounding the industry’s death knell. As we’ve already seen with coal, I predict that oil and gas won’t survive the mounting pressure to “keep it in the ground.” And that brings me to my fourth reason for hope: the growth of a global grassroots movement for climate justice and ecological sanity. It has taken a long time for us to get here, but it’s now unstoppable.

Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice and a senior research scientist at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks​

Reason for despair: Living in Alaska, the only Arctic state in the United States, I am witnessing the fast-forward of geologic time. My despair increases as I watch Arctic ecosystems collapse. The recently negotiated Paris Climate Agreement includes aspirational language to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

   But in Alaska, winter temperatures have already increased 3.5 degrees Celsius since 1975. Ice and snow, iconic elements of the land and sea in the Arctic, are disappearing. The winter of 2014-2015 was the lowest snow season on record in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest urban center. Glaciers are losing 75 billion tons of ice annually. Arctic Ocean sea ice has decreased by 36 percent in the last three decades.   

   For indigenous communities in Alaska, these changes are life-threatening. Kivalina, Shishmaref, and Newtok, are three of the most imperiled communities. Each has chosen to relocate as a long-term adaptation strategy because sea ice no longer protects their communities from hurricane-force storms that eat the land on which they live. In presentations to U.S. government agencies and Congress, Shishmaref residents plead:
The no action option for Shishmaref is the annihilation of our community …
We are unique, and need to be valued as a national treasure by the people of the United States. We deserve the attention and help of the American people and the federal government ... Shishmaref, we are worth saving.

   Due to intense and prolonged advocacy efforts, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and President Obama traveled to Alaska this past summer. Despite these visits, no community knows when or if it will be able to relocate to higher ground to protect their unique way of life and connection to the land of their ancestors. The gross injustice of their experience adds to my despair because those who have done the least to cause our climate crisis are bearing enormous losses. Their experience also shows that we are completely unprepared to respond to the humanitarian crisis which will be caused by rising seas forcing millions of people from their homes, their heritage, and the places they love.

   Reason for hope: Solidarity—the recognition that all of humanity is connected to each other and to the Earth—gives me hope. This understanding that we are one people living on a shared homeland is embedded in the climate-justice movement.

    The Arctic, the harbinger of dramatic environmental changes, reminds us of this connection. Decreased Arctic sea ice affects the polar jet stream and contributes to the drought in California and the epic flooding and snowfall events in lower latitudes. The melting of Greenland threatens coastal communities all over the world. More than 50 percent of Greenland was melting in July 2015. In protests across the planet, people are standing together, across countries, Indigenous nations, ethnicities, age, gender, and class to demand that our human rights be protected, that the Earth’s ecosystems be protected and that those least responsible for our climate crisis be provided the resources to adapt and protect their lives.

Gernot Wagner, senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund

   Reason for despair: Climate change. It’s the perfect problem: more global, more long-term, more irreversible, and more uncertain that virtually any other public-policy problem facing us. Climate change is a lot worse than most of us realize. Almost regardless of what we do on the mitigation front, we are in for a whole lot of hurt.
On the policy front, we have now talked for more than 20 years about how we need to turn this ship around “within a decade.” Not unlike the ever-elusive fusion technology, that hasn’t happened yet. Global carbon emissions declined slightly this year—for the first time ever without a global recession—but the trends are still pointing in the wrong direction. Worse, turning around emissions is only the very first step. It’s not enough to stabilize the flow of water going into the bathtub when the goal is to prevent the tub from overflowing. We need to turn around atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That means turning off the flow of water into the tub—getting net emissions to zero and below. It doesn’t help our efforts that many people seem to confuse the two. A study involving over 200 MIT graduate studentsfaced with this same question revealed that even they confuse emissions and concentrations—water flowing into the tub and water levels there. If MIT graduate students can’t get this one right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

  Reason for hope: Climate change. Many signs point to some real momentum to finally tackle this momentous challenge.

    The Paris Climate Accord builds an important foundation. It enables transparency, accountability, and markets to help solve the problem. Many governments are moving forward with pricing carbon: from California to China, from Sweden to South Africa, we see ambitious action to reign in emissions in some 50 jurisdictions. Meanwhile, lots is happening on the clean-energy front. That’s particularly true for solar photovoltaic power, which has climbed up the learning curve—and down the cost curve—faster than most would have expected only five years ago. That has also provided an important jolt for sensible climate policy. Then there’s R&D for entirely new technologies. Bill Gates leading an investment coalition with $1 billion of his own money is only one important sign of movement in that direction. The excitement for self-driving, electric vehicles is palpable up and down Silicon Valley, to name just one potentially significant example. In the end, it’s precisely this mix of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and, of course, Washington that will lead—and, in part, is already leading—to the necessary revolution in a number of important sectors, energy and transportation chief among them.

C 2015 Reader Supported News

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What Really Caused the Implosion of the Occupy Movement—An Insider's View

Published on Alternet (

What Really Caused the Implosion of the Occupy Movement—An Insider's View

By Yotam Marom [1] / AlterNet [2]

December 23, 2015

I’m in a warmly lit apartment on the Lower East Side. It’s a cool night in early October of 2011, the height of Occupy Wall Street.

    What a ****ing whirlwind it’s been. Two months ago I had just moved into my parents’ basement, feeling deflated after the end of Bloombergville [3] (a two-week street occupation outside city hall to try to stop the massive budget cuts of that same year), convinced this country wasn’t ready for movement. Now I’m in this living room with some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met, at the shaky helm of a movement that has become part of the mainstream’s daily consciousness. It’s my first time feeling like the Left is more than a scrawny sideshow, and it’s surreal. Truth is, I wasn’t much of a believer until I was caught up in the mass arrests on September 24th, until Troy Davis was murdered by the State of Georgia and I felt the connection in my body, until more people came down and gave it legs. But now it’s real. The rush of rapidly growing numbers, recognition from other political actors, and increasing popular support and media acclaim is electric and overwhelming. It feels a bit like walking a tightrope.
I’m a leader, and people know it, but no one says it. It’s a strange feeling. I’m not the only leader, of course — there are many. In this room, we’re a wide range of people. Some of the folks go back to the Global Justice Movement, but most of us have met in the middle of the whirlwind, building the kinds of relationships you can only build in crisis or struggle. Some of the room is seasoned and experienced, some very new to this type of thing, but all of us have demonstrated leadership early on (some before the thing even really started) and come in with lots of relationships. Between us we lead a number of working groups, drive some of the major mass actions, play formative roles in much of the media being pumped out, and more.

    The meetings are closed, and we all feel kind of bad about it, although this is another thing we don’t talk about often. There isn’t much coherence to how we ended up here in the first place — one person invited a few over and the next invited a couple and so on, until the room was full. It was as arbitrary a time to stop inviting people as any, but this is how things often happen in movement moments. We justify the boundary by reminding ourselves that we are certainly not the only collection of people meeting like this — there are many affinity groups and other kinds of formations — and that we are here to plan and strategize, not to make decisions.

    But we also know that there are a lot of movers and shakers in the room, and that this affords us a disproportionate ability to move things through the rest of Occupy. We know the age-old pitfalls of people making plans in closed off rooms, and it’s not lost on us that — while this space is also led by some of the most powerful women and folks of color in the movement — most of us are white, middle class, and male. If someone had asked any one of us directly, we’d likely have agreed that, collectively, we have quite a bit of power and aren’t being held accountable to it.

   But for the most part, we keep that nagging feeling under wraps, so we can continue the work. There is a confidence we seem to share that we are filling a void, meeting a real need, putting everything we have on the line to keep momentum going. We seem to agree, even if quietly, that movements don’t exist without leadership, that the general assembly has been more performance art than decision-making forum since the first couple of weeks, that leaderlessness is a myth, that we need a place to have sensitive discussions hopefully out of reach of the surveillance state. And in truth we know our jobs aren’t glamorous by any stretch of the imagination; after all, a good deal of the efforts of the folks in the room are aimed at getting occupiers port-o-potties and stopping the incessant drumming.

    We know we’re breaking the rules, but for the most part we conclude that it must be done. And besides, we’ve broken the rules our whole lives — it’s how we ended up here.

Torn at the Seams

   It wasn’t too long before it came crashing down. It got cold, the cops came, the encampments were evicted, and momentum died down, as is to be expected. This is the story we tell, and it has some truth in it, but those of us who were on the inside know there was more to it than that.

    Truth is, we hadn’t planned that far ahead. Probably because not many of us thought it was going to work. As the folks at Ayni’s Momentum trainings [4] will tell you, all movements have a DNA, whether it’s intentional or not. When movements take off and decentralize, they spread whatever their original DNA is, and while it’s possible to adjust it as it goes, it’s sort of like swimming against a tide. Our DNA was a mixed bag. The title had the tactic (Occupy) and the target (Wall Street) baked into it, the 99% frame demonstrated some level of shared radical politics, and the assemblies represented a commitment (an obsession, perhaps) to direct democracy. But we didn’t have too much more than that. As Occupy grew and spread, its DNA evolved to its natural conclusions: On one hand, a real critique of capitalism, powerful mass-based direct action, a public display of democracy. On the other hand, an infatuation with public space, a confusion of tactic for strategy, a palpable disdain for people who weren’t radical, and fantasies about leaderlessness. And then there were the questions we had never answered at all, which were begging to be explained now that we were growing: How would this transform into something long-term? Who were we trying to move? What were we trying to win?

   But there’s more to it than that too. There was, alongside the external pressures of growth and definition, an internal power struggle, as there so often is in moments like this.

   It happened in many circles of Occupy, and it happened to the group I was a part of, too, in that Lower East Side apartment. Some of the folks in the group got frustrated, and pulled away. They accused the rest of us of being liberals (this was a curse-word), said we were co-opting the movement for the unions, claimed that even meeting like this was a violation of the principles of the movement. Those claims were false, but they were hard to argue with, because most of us were already feeling guilty for being in closed off rooms. So we shrunk. Sort of like when an over-zealous white “ally” trips over other white folks to call out an example of racism; the first to call it out sits back smugly, having taken the moral high ground and pointed a finger at the others, and then the rest clench their jaws and stare at the floor guiltily, hoping the storm passes over them.

   We tried to stop the split. We slowed down. We spent time trying to figure out what the right thing to do was. We tried to be honest about how much of this had to do with differences in politics and how much of it was really just ego on all sides. Some of us tried to reach across the aisle, to mend broken relationships. But in the meantime, the folks who had taken the moral high ground had begun building a separate group. That split happened in October in that living room on the Lower East Side, perhaps in other circles in the movement around the same time; by November it was playing out in the movement more broadly, until in December there were distinctly different tendencies offering different directions to the movement as a whole. It would be overly simplistic to trace the overall conflict inside the belly of Occupy Wall Street to the dissolution of this one group or even to in-fighting more broadly, but at the same time, it was a significant factor. All movements develop mechanisms for leadership and coordination, whether formal or informal, and they suffer real setbacks when those systems collapse.

    Of course, in the midst of the squabbling and the confusion about our direction, the state came crashing down on us. We became a real threat and the men in suits and uniforms who make decisions about these sorts of things realized that that the benefit of being rid of us outweighed the negative press they would get for the state violence necessary to do it. They were right. The mayors got on conference calls to coordinate. The newspapers turned on us. They dragged us out of parks and squares all over the country, arrested thousands of people. We did our best, but we weren’t organized, disciplined, or grounded in communities enough to stop it in the end. Ultimately, we weren’t powerful enough. Without the park, we were rootless. It got cold. We had no way to huddle together, to learn from what had happened, to support one another through what had become an existential crisis. We met in union offices instead of public squares, and the organizing core shrunk. We went from actions in which the whole base participated to projects different collectives tried to drive on their own, and ultimately, that dwindled too. By the following summer, the true believers who insisted that Occupy was still going strong had become an endangered species.
But the truth is, it wasn’t the state, or the cold, or the media. The real problem underneath it all was a deep ambivalence about power. In fact, all of the things that made Occupy Wall Street brilliant had this paradox built into them, this politic of powerlessness woven deep inside, like a bad gene or a self-destruct mechanism.

    For example, the mantra of leaderlessness came from a genuine desire to avoid classic pitfalls into hierarchy, but it was, at the same time, a farce, and divorced from any sense of collective structure or care for group culture. It foreclosed on the possibility of holding emerging leaders accountable, created a situation in which real leaders (whether worthy or not) went to the shadows instead of the square, and made it impossible to really develop one another (how, really, could we train new leaders if there weren’t supposed to be any in the first place?). Similarly, the refusal to articulate demands was brilliant in opening radical possibilities and sparking the popular imagination, but it also meant we didn’t have a shared goal, meant the word winning wasn’t even part of the movement’s lexicon. In many ways, it was an expression of a fear of actually saying something and taking responsibility for it, and it encouraged the often-repeated delusion that we didn’t even want anything our enemy had to give, that Wall Street and the State didn’t have any power over us. The vigilance against co-option came from honest history of movements falling prey to powerful forces hoping to dull or divert their aims; but it ultimately became a paranoia more than anything else, a tragic misunderstanding of the playing field and what it was going to take to build popular power. Instead of welcoming other progressive forces and actually co-opting them, purists shamed “liberals,” cultivated a radical macho culture more focused on big speeches at assemblies and arrests in the streets than the hard organizing behind the scenes, and turned Occupy into a fringe identity that only a few people could really claim to the exclusion of the hundreds of thousands who actually made it real.

    Occupy Wall Street created a new discourse, brought thousands of people into the movement, shifted the landscape of the left, and even facilitated concrete victories for working people. But at the same time, a substantial chunk of its leadership was allergic to power. And we made a politic of that. We fetishized it, wrote articles and books about it, scorned the public with it. Worst of all, we used it as a cudgel with which to bludgeon each other.

   Sure, the cops came for us — we invited them, after all. But we were the problem: When the state tugged hard enough, we tore at the seams.

The People Went Home

    I spent years being angry about it. I was angry at the people who had attacked the group I was part of from the inside, the people who bullied me into giving up every piece of leverage I had by making me feel like I didn’t have the right to organize the folks I had access to, who punished me every time I was quoted or interviewed, who came to the meetings I facilitated and intentionally disrupted them. The stories are too long and too many to recount here, and anyone who was in the middle of it has their own share of war stories too.

   But more than anyone else, I was angry at myself for letting it happen. I spent months waking up in the middle of the night, replaying the different moments I had capitulated to cool kids and given up real opportunities to grow the movement out of fear that I’d be iced out if I didn’t. And the truth is, I had no excuse. I had already learned this important lesson at the New School in 2008 when a couple hundred of us occupied a building to get a war criminal thrown off the board, win back student space, and push forward student self-governance and responsible investment: Bad politics don’t go away on their own, you actually have to fight them.

   Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, and it’s certainly unpleasant, but it’s true. In those moments, when we refuse to engage in these fights because they feel childish and below the belt, we forget that the majority of people are standing in the middle, wondering what the hell is going on and looking for people they can trust. When those of us who are thinking about power and trying to grow the base don’t step up to that challenge, the folks in the middle assume that the people bringing in toxicity are the leadership, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it. They find no other voices providing leadership they can feel a part of. So they go home.

    And that’s kind of what happened. The state upped the ante, raised the heat on us. **** got ugly, and directionless, and toxic. The self-destruct mechanisms went off, the politics of powerlessness played out to their logical conclusions. The folks best equipped to offer leadership in that moment didn’t step up. So everyone went home.

     And as I think back on the mistakes I made — among them, this grand mistake of shrinking from the responsibilities of leadership, however personally costly — I can’t help but feel a little bit ashamed. We did a tremendous amount. But we could have done more. We could have lasted longer, brought more people into the movement, established more powerful institutions, won more material gains. If we understand the prison industrial complex and climate change and wealth inequality and the foreclosure crisis as hard and tangible threats to people’s literal survival, then we have to see, with equal clarity, that our movements are nothing short of an attempt to save lives. And we could have saved more lives.

The Politics of Powerlessness

    Many of us left that moment bitter, depressed, heart-broken. Some of that is predictable, maybe, on the downward spiral from such a high. Some of it was the product of a lot of young folks experiencing their first tastes of movement and thinking the result was going to be a revolution. But some of it was specific to this toxicity, the sudden snapping of this unbelievable tight rope we had been racing across.

   From there, I went wandering. I bumped straight into the movement’s social media call-out culture, where people demonstrate how radical they are by destroying one another. It felt like walking into a high school locker room. In this universe, we insist on perfect politics and perfect language, to the exclusion of experimentation, learning, or constructive critique. We wear our outsiderness as a badge of pride, knowing that saying the right thing trumps doing anything at all. No one is ever good enough for us — not progressive celebrities who don’t get the whole picture, not your Facebook friend who doesn’t quite get why we say Black Lives Matter instead of All Lives Matter, not your cousin who mourned the deaths in Paris without saying an equal number of words about those in Beirut. Instead of organizing these people, we attack them. We tear down rather than teach each other, and pick apart instead of building on top of what we have.

    And of course, the politic of powerlessness doesn’t only live on social media, but in our organizing spaces as well — and it’s in the realm of identity that so much of the battle takes place. We confuse systems like white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism with individuals we can use as stand-ins for them. We use the inevitable fuck-ups of our potential partners as validation that we should stay in our bunkers with the handful of people who make us feel safe instead of getting dirty in the trenches. We imagine identity as static and permanent, instead of remembering that all of us — to borrow terminology from organizations like Training for Change [5] — have experiences of marginalization that can help us support one another, and experiences of being in the mainstream that can help us understand the people we want to shift. We forget that, while identity gives us clues and reveals patterns, itdoesn’t fully explain our behavior, and 

    it certainly doesn’t determine it. We abandon the truth that people can transform, that ultimately we all — oppressed and potential oppressors alike (if such simplistic frames should even be entertained) — can and must choose sides. So we shirk this ultimate responsibility we have as organizers: To support people in making the hard and scary choices to be on the side of freedom. In all of this commotion, we turn inward. We forget the enemy outside, and find enemies in the room instead, make enemies of one another.

   And here, just as from Occupy Wall Street, the vast majority of people — those great many on whom this system relies and the very same ones we will need to organize to make it come to a screeching halt — grow tired. So they go home. And we lose.

Compassion and Curiosity on the way to Power

   It’s October of 2013, brisk and breezy, with the leaves changing in dramatic colors. I’m in a Mexican restaurant in Minneapolis with organizers from Occupy Homes — the same folks now part of the leadership of Black Lives Matter MN [6]. We’re debriefing the retreat a couple of us just held for them as part of the Wildfire Project [7]. Wildfire supports new, radical groups emerging from movement moments with long-term training and support, and connects them to one another to help them become greater than the sum of their parts. We’re tired from a big weekend, and I’m getting feedback on my facilitation.

   The organizers tell me to step up. They notice that in the training, I didn’t tell my story, shared very little of my experience at Occupy or elsewhere even when directly relevant, evaded every opportunity to offer opinions on their strategic plan even when asked, deferred to the group on everything. They say they know I have more to offer, that they asked me to come here because they trusted me, that they demand that I bring more of myself next month. They want to invest in me, they explain, because they need me to be my most powerful self so I can support their members in that same transformation, and so I can go out and help build a powerful network for them to be a part of.

   The feedback makes me a bit blurry. I can’t remember the last time anyone told me they wanted me to be powerful. I’m a straight, white, class-comfortable male in the North Eastern United States, certainly not part of the groups most impacted by the systems we are fighting. I’ve spent the past few years duking it out with the voices in my head — on one hand knowing I have something to offer in this important moment, and on the other hand internalizing deep shame about where I come from and guilt over the mistakes I’ve made along the way as a result. In the midst of those mistakes and in the face of a movement culture that seemed to see me as a threat, I internalized the message that the best thing I could do for the movement was to mitigate the damage I’ve done by existing — that my job, really, was to disappear. There are historical reasons for this dilemma, and current reasons that our movements have adopted these knee-jerk responses to what it perceives as power or privilege. But in the end, the impact was that it made me less effective, whether as an ally to other oppressed people, a leader in Occupy, or a facilitator with Wildfire. This is part of the politics of powerlessness, I think to myself as I sit in this restaurant booth in Minneapolis, and it has found its way into my bones.

   But the demand to become powerful comes from the folks to whom I am most accountable — heroes who are defending themselves from foreclosure, occupying already-foreclosed houses to keep people off the street, taking over local political offices to try to use eminent domain to take back people’s homes, and asking Wildfire for support — so it feels different this time. I go home to New York and I do the work. I go through all sorts of transformative processes to remember where I come from, to try to understand the conditions that made me internalize those self-sabotaging politics. I find partners who want to win more than they want to be right, who forgive me and help me forgive myself, who invest their time and love and energy in me while holding me accountable and demanding I do the same for them. I re-commit to using everything I’ve been given in the service of the movement.

   Along the way, I start to internalize wisdom taught me by a mentor and coach from Generative Somatics [8], an organization that fuses emotional healing, physical practice, and radical politics: People do what they must to survive. Our behaviors — even the self-sabotaging ones — are our bodies’ responses to threat. Our instincts are clumsy at times, and they often cut us off from our better options, but credit where credit is due: these instincts, at some points, probably saved our lives. Instead of hating those traits so much, we might be better off tipping our hat to them, thanking them for the safety they have provided us, and letting them know that we don’t need them anymore — that we want to practice something new instead. It doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior in ourselves or the movement; it means understanding where it comes from for the sake of changing it.

   This is our task as organizers and revolutionaries: to become our most powerful selves and supporting the whole movement in that same transformation. In the service of that goal, my anger thaws into compassion and my self-righteousness becomes curiosity, and it’s with this lens that I start to look at the movement with fresh eyes. I wonder what really caused the implosions at Occupy in the first place, and why those behaviors persist across the Left. I start to try to figure out where the politics of powerlessness come from, what needs they meet for us. And as I dig below the surface, I can’t help but notice the shifts that the Black folks rising up across this country have already offered the movement; so many enormous contributions in the struggle for freedom, but even something as small as hats that say power on them are a challenge to the politics of powerlessness, a reflection of our ability to make and practice new rules for ourselves as we transform.

Undoing the Politics of Powerlessness

  Today, when I think about the politics of powerlessness, it feels clear as day to me that the source of all of it is fear. Fear of leaders, of the enemy, of the possibility of having to govern, of the stakes of winning and losing, of each other, of ourselves. And it’s all pretty understandable.

   We call each other out and push one another out of the movement, because we are desperate to cling to the little slivers of belonging we’ve found in the movement, and are full of scarcity — convinced that there isn’t enough of anything to go around (money, people, power, even love). We eat ourselves alive and attack our own leaders because we’ve been hurt and misled all our lives and can’t bear for it to happen again on our watch. We race to prove we are the least privileged, because this is the only way we can imagine being powerful. We turn our backs on people who don’t get it, because organizing them will not only be hard but also painful, because we will have to give up some of our victimhood to do it, because it will mean being vulnerable to the world we came to the movement to escape. Our ego battles are a natural product of a movement that doesn’t have a clear answer for how leadership is to be appreciated and held accountable at the same time. Our inability to celebrate small victories is a defense from having to believe that winning is even possible — a way to avoid the heartbreak of loss when it comes.

   And perhaps most importantly: Our tendency to make enemies of each other is driven by a deep fear of the real enemy, a paralyzing hopelessness about our possibilities of winning. After all, whether we admit it or not, we spend quite a lot of our time not believing we can really win. And if we’re not going to win, we might as well just be awesome instead. If we’re not going to win, we’re better off creating spaces that suit our cultural and political tastes, building relationships that validate our non-conformist aesthetic, surrendering the struggle over the future in exchange for a small island over which we can reign.

   The politics of powerlessness is a defense mechanism, meant to protect us from our worst fears. And as I’ve been learning, it never works to hate one’s defenses, to bang our heads against them, to bend them into submission. No, the way we change is by really getting curious about their source, and trying to address their root causes. Of course we’re afraid. Fear is a totally grounded response to what is happening around us. We need to sit with that. And we need to find new practices for dealing with our fears, because in the end, those hard truths are precisely the reason we need to do away with the politic of powerlessness.

   This defense mechanism, which may have saved our collective lives somewhere along the way, has outlived its usefulness. It has become a barrier to the success of the movements being born around us, the flourishing of our people, the world we want to win. We are standing against a series of crises one more terrifying than the next, stemming from systems more towering than ever before, guided by people who are happy to kill many of us to preserve their wealth. If we don’t get powerful soon, we’re going to lose. And in this case, losing means not only the immense oppression, exploitation, and repression this system guarantees; it also means the extinction of our species. Challenging the politics of powerlessness and replacing it with something that can win is not an academic question; it is truly a matter of life or death. We had better get our shit together, and quick.

We need to replace judgment and self-righteousness with curiosity and compassion. Those are the tools that will help us support each other in the face of the crises ahead, and they are the qualities we will need in order to truly understand the very many people we still need to organize. They will help us become facilitators instead of polemicists, teach us to build instead of tear apart. Flexing these new muscles, we must convert a politic that punishes imperfection into one that uses everything at its fingertips to win — that compels each and every one of us to turn our gifts into weapons for the sake of freedom. We need to build groups — collectives, organizations, affinity groups, whatever — because groups are what keep us in the movement, they’re what keep movement moments going, where we transform, how we fight, and the best way to hold each other accountable to the long struggle for liberation. We need to win small victories that open up space for bigger ones, and we must celebrate them, because that’s the best inoculation against a politic based in fear that nothing is winnable. We have to develop powerful visions for the world we want, so we can put those small victories inside a broader strategy that strikes at the roots of the systems we face. We must all engage in the hard and transformational work to become our most powerful selves; after all, it is truly the only way we even stand a chance.

Honoring Fear

   I’m at a retreat center in Florida, at the first ever Wildfire National Convening, with 80 members of organizations from all over the country: folks from Ohio Student Association [9]Dream Defenders [10]GetEQUAL [11],Rockaway Wildfire [12], and the Occupy Homes[13] groups in Atlanta and Minneapolis. It’s the first night, and the organizations are performing skits that explain their origin stories. It’s Rockaway Wildfire’s turn — a group that formed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, merging the relief effort with organizing in Far Rockaway, Queens. Out there, floods fell on top of broken schools, impoverished projects, and a population that was drastically underemployed and over-policed. The folks in the Rockaways were losing their homes to foreclosure before the floods wrecked them, losing their sons to prisons long before the storm came to displace them.

   The skit begins, the lights go down. We hear the pounding of feet against the floor, which sounds unmistakably like heavy rain. And then a chorus of howling that sounds like the violent wind that battered the New York area that October in 2012. Then heart-wrenching wailing, like a child crying. Pounding and howling and wailing that get more and more intense like an orchestra building up to its crescendo. Suddenly, I’m crying. The sounds catapult me back to the hurricane, but also to the fear I carry with me of the many more hurricanes surely on the way, and the children and parents and friends we will have to protect when they come. Suddenly the sounds come to a crashing halt, the lights go up, dimly, and I realize most of the other people in the room are weeping too. There is silence, the kind of hanging stillness you stumble on rarely, when a room full of people dedicated to the struggle are all quietly reckoning with the fear we carry in us every day and the doubts we have about whether we can do what must be done. Then one of the actors breaks the silence with the last line of the play, delivered soothingly to her child, as if she has read the minds of the 80 fighters gathered here: “Don’t worry, baby, don’t worry. We’ll be alright. Momma’s gonna start a revolution.”

    The fear is real — palpable and also grounded. In addition to good organizing, it will take some small miracles to win the world we all deserve. It’s better to acknowledge that than to try to bury it. At least it’s honest. And who knows, maybe there is something about fear that — when we turn and face it — can be grounding instead of handicapping, can help us sit in the stakes rather than live in denial, can compel us to take the risks we need to take rather than to hide, can drive us to be the biggest we can be instead of shrinking. Or at least, that’s my hope.

   And when I’m in doubt, I remember the most important lesson I learned at Occupy Wall Street: We don’t know shit. The secret truth is that Occupy Wall Street wasn’t supposed to work. But it did. It created a whole new world of possibility. That possibility is here — we can feel it in the very heart of the movements being born around us. And we have been invited; the only question, now, is whether we will rise to the challenge.

 Yotam Marom is an organizer, facilitator, and the Director of the Wildfire Project [14]. More of Yotam’s writing can be found at [15]. Maybe someday he’ll learn how to use twitter @yotammarom. We all have dreams, don’t we?



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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs