Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street can learn from the Singing Revolution



In lower Manhattan, they have been out there in the street for more than a month and winter is starting to approach. Last night it was 48°F (8°C) and drizzling. Surely it must warm some of those huddled under grimy blankets to hear they have been adopted by the President, the Tea Party, Baby Boomers and Birchers, but whether tepid and self-serving endorsements, or grueling vigils, can sustain their movement a year from now is still anyone’s guess.

Drawing strength from the rage of the masses is not a formula for longevity, especially in a consumer culture, where rage shifts seasonally.

Tom Hayden and Mark Rudd in 2007
 Just ask the veterans of the great uprisings of 1968. We still wonder, what became of our revolution? Rather than being adopted by everyone, it unified the opposition, and while it made some milestones, especially in the popular culture, it missed its political mark by a wide mile. Some of the heroes of the Strawberry Rebellion went on to become politicians and pundits, and while they could lay claim to some modest, incremental gains, the dragon they tilted against grew exponentially more horrific, and now looms over us like a scene from Revelations.

In a recent piece for CounterPunch, Mark Rudd wrote:
While reading I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the organizing tradition and the Mississippi freedom struggle, University of California Press, 1995), I realized that much of what we had practiced in SDS was derived from SNCC and this developmental organizing tradition, up to and including the vision of “participatory democracy,” which was incorporated in the 1962 SDS founding document, “The Port Huron Statement.” Columbia SDS’s work was patient, strategic, base-building, using both confrontation and education.  I myself had been nurtured and developed into a leadership position through years of close friendship with older organizers.   
However, my clique’s downfall came post-1968, when, under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation (Weatherman and the Days of Rage, Oct. 1969) and then armed urban guerilla warfare (the Weather Underground, 1970-1976). We had, in effect, moved backwards from organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously, that that would build the movement. At the moment when more organizing was needed, in order to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing.  
This is the story I tell in my book, Underground. It’s about good organizing (Columbia), leading to worse (Weatherman), leading to horrible (the Weather Underground).  I hope it’s useful to contemporary organizers as they contemplate how to build the coming mass movement(s).
We came across Rudd’s retrospective in the midst of teaching a Permaculture Design Course in Estonia last week and it occurred to us that Rudd’s lessons were well grasped in important — though perhaps least expected — places. An October 13th AP interview with Poland's former President and Nobel laureate, shipyard striker Lech Walesa, touched on some of those lessons learned.  If political communism could be toppled by strategic protest, is capitalism immune? "We need to change, reform the capitalist system," he said, because we need "more justice, more people's interests, and less money for money's sake." Walesa said he supported the Occupy Wall Street movement and intended to join the protesters.

Lech Walesa
Walesa, looking today like a cross between Captain Kangaroo and the Monopoly oligarch, founded the Solidarnosc labor party in 1980, inflicting fatal wounds upon both the Soviet Empire and on communism as a political system. He found himself thrust onto the world stage but was smart and humble enough to recognize that it was the moment, not him personally, that was the pivot point for the brewing revolution.

As we described in our post of May, 2010, White Nights and Chicken Skin, the Estonians seized on Solidarnosc’s momentum in 1991, with The Singing Revolution. As Soviet tanks attempted to roll back Estonian progress towards independence, the Estonian Supreme Soviet together with the Congress of Estonia proclaimed the restoration of the independent state of Estonia and repudiated Soviet anti-freedom legislation. Surrounding the Parliament building in Tallinn, Estonians of all walks, using the social networking tools of the day, spontaneously dropped their activities and converged, linked arms, sang and forced the hardliners out. By serving as human shields to protect radio and TV stations from the Russian tanks, these singing revolutionaries brought Estonia its independence without bloodshed. A counter-coup attempt failed amid mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow.

Teaching permaculture at a newly formed ecovillage outside Tallinn, one cannot help but be struck by how creative and fully engaged Estonian young people are now. In one session we related to them how the Wall Street protesters had circumvented the New York City police ban on loudspeakers to keep an open dialog going between thousands of people engaged in reinventing civilization. Henrick Hertzberg, writing for The New Yorker, described the process:
[T]he General Assembly [is] a daily mass meeting, open to all, which is the closest thing OWES has to a governing body. Because any kind of amplified sound in forbidden, bullhorns included, the meetings are conducted in an ingenious way. A speaker says a few words, then pauses; the audience repeats them, loudly and in unison; the speaker says a few more; the chorus repeats; and so on. If the group is unusually large, the repetitions radiate out, like a mountain echo. The listeners register their reactions silently, with their hands. Four fingers up, palms outward: Yay! Four fingers down, palms inward: Boo! Both hands rolling: Wrap it up! Clench fists crossed at the wrists: No way, José! There is something oddly moving about a crowd of smart-phone-addicted, computer-savvy people coöperating to create such an utterly low-tech, strikingly human, curiously tribal means of amplification—a literal loudspeaker.
Something equally creative happened amongst our hip translators who were struggling to keep up with the unusual words our teaching cadre was using. There is already a term in Estonian for permaculture. It is the onomatopoeia, 'Permakultuur.' That didn’t really cut it for these inventive youth. They came up with a new word that more expressed the essence, instead of the English-sound. It was Jåtkuloomine – literally, evolving nature; continuing creation. The example sentence the translators offered was “The key for the survival of Estonia is creation of the continuous creation.”

Other words they coined to capture deeper meanings:
Toidusalu — food forest; literally, a more beautiful forest. Example: My table is abundant and it is provided for by my food forest, that does not feel hurt by my pruning.

Metsaviljelus – agroforestry; literally: a cultivated forest – holistic forest farming.

Lohmu — swale, but not just a contour ditch. Literally: hollow-bump; empty and fill; scoop and mound. Example: Its cool to pick the strawberries on the hollow-bump and listen to the frogs singing.

Åkk — humanure, literally: “the good stuff;” pure organic. Example: The most convenient way to dig out the åkk is with a pillkopp, but alas! it is missing from the toolkit of continuous creation! Perhaps this is an Estonian contribution to Jåtkuloomine (a pillkopp is a bucket used to clean outhouses, having a 2 meter handle, sometimes with a rope)!
To the stalwarts in Zucotti Park and around the world, the Singing Revolution, and the veterans of other freedom movements, might provide this advice:
  • Have a vision of a positive, compelling, realistic future.
  • Work towards cultural sustainability, resilience, and regeneration. The politics will follow.
  • Educate others, especially your oppressors, in the need for fundamental change in the face of peak energy, climate chaos, environmental degradation, overpopulation and the economic upheaval and restructuring that is merely a symptom of all those converging crises. It ain’t about the rising cost of tuition, or your rent or groceries. It’s much deeper that that.
  • Tell the stories of your vision, and your willing sacrifices, to anyone who will listen, and do it colorfully, with poetry, art and music.
  • Motivate, inspire, organize, and network among all the youth, using open space technology, social media, and any other tools you can muster or invent.
Above all, choose peace and non-violence and let the world be your witness. The key for the survival of not only Estonia, but Jeffersonian democracy, is creation of the continuous creation. 


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