From the Sit-Ins to the Occupy Camps

Occupy Oakland Tents City Hall

   (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Watching the developments of the Occupy Oakland camp and activism over the past month has been at turns inspiring, complicated, challenging, and powerful. At times, it seems like finally the world is waking up to say people and our planet are more important than profits. And to demand that we will no longer conduct ‘business as usual’ as the community or society.  Other times, the conversation shifts focus and becomes about the Mayor, or the police, or the pros and cons of a decentralized leadership movement.  It becomes a wedge issue between business owners and activists, between City Council and the Oakland residents who have found community and resources and hope at the Oakland camp.

I’ve also followed the camps in cities across the world- noting that each has its own local flair and culture. And in each city with a camp, there are a wide range of feelings about Occupy.

Something I have started to realize is that the Occupy camps, from the West Coast to Wall Street, themselves are merely one tactic in a growing movement for economic justice. The movement to promote solutions for the 99% is what this is really about. And we need to do whatever we can to keep the focus on the goals of the movement, rather than a debate on the tactic.

I cannot help but see a parallel to the original lunch counter sit-in in the deep South during the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.  When the young activists began the sit-ins, many elders in the struggle questioned the tactic. People questioned whether the sit-ins would accomplish anything. They weren’t sure that having young black students get arrested would get the movement anywhere. Some thought the idea of sitting as an action conceded power too easily. Others felt the strategy was too confrontational, too much too soon.

Those young activists were doing something simple that just was not done at that time.

But the sit-in themselves weren’t the movement. It was simply one tactic in the work to promote equality and justice in the lives of African-Americans. They led to broad student activism in the form of SNCC. Next came the Freedom Rides. Then the huge voter registration drives across the South. And marches and rallies. All of this mobilization, and the huge range of tactics, led to the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement as a whole.

I believe this is an interesting historical lens to look at the current Occupy movements. Among my friends and colleagues, the idea of the camps is widely debated. The occupiers in the camps are doing something that just isn’t done- setting up micro-communities and sleeping in public places. Whether you think that the particular tactic of camping in public spaces is right for you, or for the movement, I think most of us can agree thatthe message and the movement is right-  “We are 99%” is powerful. We want change. And we will work together for greater equality and justice.

Some people are showing that commitment by camping in public spaces. However, thousands of us are showing that commitment by Moving our Money, by attending mass rallies and actions, or by having conversations within our own families about economic disparity. The stories of those too often forgotten about or invisible are being lifted up. The public imagination is looking at how we can become a nation that lifts each other up and brings out the best in all of our communities. A national conversation about unemployment, income disparities, the role of the banks in kicking people out of their homes, and corporate tax loopholes is louder, and growing bigger, than ever before. We have the opportunity to shift resources from systems that harm into services that help. All of this is bigger than tents in public spaces.

That is why I and the Ella Baker Center support people’s rights to use occupy camps as a tactic. They are a visual representation of the broader movement. But at the same time, it is my sincere desire that we remain focused on solutions for the 99% and refuse to get distracted by a debate of the camps themselves.

You’ve probably heard of the concept of keeping your “eyes on the prize.” A song of the same name rose to popularity during the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s and it later became the name of a popular PBS Documentary. The concept, however, is as important now as it was then.

During the heyday of the Civil Rights movement for freedom, there were a lot of distractions. Fights over tactics. Distrust and power plays from within the movement. The real threat of police and State violence against activists. Not to mention the real problems that people were dealing with in their everyday lives- segregation, unemployment, poverty, prejudice, and violence. "Keep your eyes on the prize" was a unifying call to action- to not get distracted from the larger goal- dignity and equality for people.

So people can continue to debate the camps themselves, and the media and government will continue to use the camps as a distraction. But it’s time to make sure we are keeping our eye on the prize. Jobs. Investment into our communities. That includes making choices about where we bank, where we shop, and how we support the local businesses in our backyards. And the ultimate 'prize' of a society where people, and the planet on which we live, are more important than profit.

Share your ideas for next steps in the comments below.