in Kulturkampf

Occupy and the Great Pool Jump

Occupy didn’t go away. MoveOn.org, just one of several big name organizations now swept up in Occupy, is training people in civil disobedience. I have to say I saw this coming, and began advocating for it the moment I witnessed civil disobedience in person. And it’s a good time to bring attention to the broader agenda — yes, the whole point is to get attention:

Inspired by Occupy Wall Street and the fight for workers in Madison, Wisconsin, the 99% will rise up this spring. In the span of just one week, from April 9-15, 100,000 people will be trained to tell the story of what happened to our economy, learn the history of non-violent direct action, and use that knowledge to take action on our own campaigns to win change.

I need hardly recount what the first wave of Occupy civil disobedience achieved. A nation stuck on austerity, in which poverty and homelessness and unemployment seemed accepted as the natural order of things while times were better than ever for the smallest fraction of America, has suddenly begun to talk about inequality and social justice. That is a vital achievement.

Occupy confronted the oligarchy, but its physical confrontations over public space are what gave it the power to do so. The militarization of American police forces is now a public conversation thanks to activists’ confrontation of it. Occupy is now moving to other issues, like public transit, as when it began upholding homeowner rights and “Move Your Money” during the Winter. Expect Occupy to turn green with Van Jones, and expect things to get loud.

I was recently rereading The Great Pool Jump by Peter deLissovoy, who dropped out of Harvard to go South and work in the civil rights movement. (Full disclosure: I have a family connection to deLissovoy.) He chose Albany, Georgia, a town whose city fathers had sold the public pool to a racist newspaper publisher to keep it segregated. As I keep saying, producerism — the underlying philosophy behind the economic system Occupy condemns — is an old phenomenon. When public space is privatized, it is always for exclusion.

DeLissovoy recounts the experience of Randy Battle, a black youth and volunteer in Albany who led two other young black males in an action: climbing the fence, they jumped into the water and swam to the other side as white customers “hit the air like dolphins” to avoid the taint of blackness. The pool was evacuated, drained, and scrubbed with brushes over three days.

In the 1960s, it was possible for Battle and his friends to die for their actions. Their courage galvanized black youth in Albany, who volunteered in their numbers afterwards. I was struck by Battle’s admission that he was not a well-behaved child, and that nonviolence effectively “saved” him from enacting his teenage rebellion in negative ways. It is high time for such ennobling moments in a new generation.

I have said before that Occupy must be many things over time, however, so it’s important to take note of how Trayvon Martin’s church community has reacted to their tragedy by calling for a massive voter registration drive over Easter weekend. As much as Occupy’s actions so far have changed the American conversation, an agenda that does not shift the balance of real power — political power — will mean it was all just noise.

In Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, author John Atlas recounts the organizational decision to involve itself in electoral politics. Wade Rathke’s successes — especially minimum wage bills — led him to form the Working Families Party with a coalition of like-minded organizations. WFP’s role in Occupy Wall Street has been used to link it to ACORN, and hence Obama vote fraud mythology, since the first days in Zuccotti Park.

No other organization draws such instant right-wing nuttery as ACORN, the now-extinct social justice nonprofit that dared to sound the alarm about mortgage fraud long before derivatives were a household word. Before it became the victim of a high-tech lynching and the culture war scapegoat for our financial crisis, ACORN had been a right wing target for years because of their effectiveness as a community organization and a political one. WFP still exists, which explains the title of Atlas’s book. I still have hope that Occupy will sprout seeds of change as well.

Remember that in the days when pool jumps were dangerous, the right to vote was central to the struggle. Voting rights are under attack in a way we haven’t seen since then, either. If we are to prove that democracy has power, then democracy must embrace power. Let’s all find a pool to jump in; the water’s fine. Just have a plan that reaches the other side.

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