The Future of Occupy Tacoma
Reflections by Vince Hart
Does OCCUPY TACOMA have a future? That depends almost entirely upon the kind of future that is wanted and upon the willingness of those concerned to accept the essential conditions for attaining such a future and constraining themselves to live and function under those conditions.
I express this view of the situation after fifteen months of almost weekly participation in the now tiny General Assembly (GA) at the First United Methodist Church in Tacoma (probably 56 out of about 60 meetings in that period). I was a late-comer to Occupy Tacoma, having observed it from afar from its first emerging in October of 2011. Out of curiosity I sat in on one of the early GA meetings at the church, where I am a retired clergy member (more on that in a moment); it was a meeting that almost filled the sanctuary (about 150 seats) and went on and on and on. I was little interested in such a thing. Only five to six months later did my own personal journey stir my interest enough to get me to “go see what was going on.” I believe it was the evening of Mothers Day 2012. I found probably no more than ten people present in a fairly large meeting space downstairs. In the words of the classic 60s song: “Where have all the people gone?”
During the half year between those two GA events, I had to some degree followed the press reports of the fortunes of the “Occupy Movement” around the country and locally. Two strong impressions had emerged:
- After a fair amount of “sound and fury” in NYC and elsewhere, including Tacoma, very little of real substance had changed.
- Somehow, Occupy Tacoma (the encampment and all it represented) had survived longer than any of the others which had come to my attention, and further, it had managed to do so without any significant violence or personal injury.
The first impression saddened and discouraged me, the second intrigued me. I suppose it was that second impression which got me to stick around through the late spring of 2012 and on to this day. I felt a sense of “needing” to be there.
Now the “back-story.” It may surprise many that I am an 82-year-old white male church-going Christian clergyman (retired). Further, during my whole life and professional career I was never a political activist. I did not march or protest or carry signs or even write letters to the editor during the Civil Rights struggle or the Vietnam War era or any of the public controversies that followed.
So why now? Why Occupy Tacoma? It may come as an even greater surprise that it was scholarly study of the Bible, particularly a key portion of the Old Testament, honored in common by both Jews and Christians as holy scripture, and deeply respected as well by Muslims, which got me out of my recliner.
My professional study, training, and experience had brought to the very center of my awareness one key theological-social-political fact: the God to whom our shared Holy Scripture bears witness cares passionately about social justice, especially economic justice. Further, it is a particular kind of economic justice which is at the heart of God’s passion for humankind: an equitable distribution of wealth (the earth’s resources) so that every human being will have ENOUGH for a life of dignity and at least minimal personal fulfillment. This theme saturates the Bible; one would need ideological blinders not to see it (and many seem to wear them in every era). The issue of the “99% and the 1%” is not new: it is as ancient as the earliest Bible accounts of Egyptian imperial oppression 3,200 years ago! And it is a persistently recurring social ill, even among God’s own “Chosen People” who are the primary subject of the Bible.
I had been well aware of that fact for decades without joining public actions for change. So why now? During the summer of 2011, I happily indulged one of my primary sensual, emotional, and intellectual joys: lying in the sun poolside while reading “heavy-duty” scholarly works on the Bible. (Yes, I suppose I am a bit odd that way; but “God moves in a mysterious way, God’s wonders to perform.”)
I “happened” to be reading a very intriguing scholarly work on the “exodus” of the enslaved Hebrew people from Egypt. The author had a marvelous skill in opening to view the sociological dynamic at work in the account, along with the theological testimony that, in often very hidden ways, the Creator God is acting to liberate the oppressed and to overthrow the power of oppressive systems.
Now it also “just happened” that I was reading this as the “Arab Spring” got under way, and it was still echoing in my brain a few months later when Occupy Wall Street started another kind of “spring” in this country. The cry of the oppressed was being voiced at last, and things were beginning to happen! The 99%” were beginning to stand up!
However, as the months rolled on, and as the 2012 national election season heated up, two things seemed disturbingly evident:
- The “Occupy Movement” was fragmented, noisy, yet showing little real impact on “the system” it sought to change. Nationally, it seemed to be waning rather quickly.
- Nothing serious was being said in the election campaigning (debates, etc.) about even the need to consider and address the issue of the distribution of wealth and political power in this country. The “occupiers” seemed to have been completely ignored and discredited, as though they were protesting a non-issue or one that was beyond any realistic change.
Much of the rather pious justification of the status quo and resistance to discussion or efforts aimed at change was coming from “conservatives” who often were very strongly professing their “Christian” beliefs and commitments. I was wondering what kind of self-abridged Bible they were reading. How could they be so seemingly ignorant of the fiery message of Old Testament prophets or the justice and equity calls of Jesus and the New Testament writers?
I wondered if the Occupy Movement might be a means of pressing the politicians to talk about the gross imbalance of wealth distribution, the tremendous needs of the poor, the public policies that make problem worse day by day, and what could be done to truly establish “liberty and justice for all.” I went to a GA expecting that there was some form of Occupy Network across the country, with some kind of strategy to press the issues at least into active discussion in the election campaign. I found no such thing; and yet I stayed.
More than a year later I am still here. Frustrated. Hopeful. Trying to understand what needs to happen to accomplish the changes everyone seems to want. And still trying to figure out “where have all the people gone,” and why. For several months I felt like an outsider looking in; trying to learn the process (the hand signals, etc.), observing the interactions between the few obviously very committed persons regularly present; wondering how my priorities fit in with those of others. One of my first probing questions was: “What is your strategy?” I was still unclear about specific goals, but even where some were evident, there seemed to be little attempt to identify what stood in the way of attaining them, or to develop very targeted actions to get over or around such barriers. Without that, few measurable and satisfying results could be possible. (The issue of strategy was one thing I had learned years before in my early efforts to change the church I served—to be more up-to-date, relevant, and inclusive.)
Being part of an all-volunteer organization which is also trying to change the world for the better (that “institution” called “church”), I also learned that there can be passionately committed persons in the same organization who carry very different views and priorities and find it very hard to work together. Was it just because Occupy Tacoma held its GA sessions in a church that I found the same situation there too? I don’t think so. Yet the similarities are striking and instructive. “Where have all the people gone?” is a question pressing on churches almost everywhere. Churches are also asking questions about their future.
Reflections by Vince Hart
Occupy Tacoma’s Future
I want Occupy Tacoma to have a future, just as I want the congregation which now hosts the GA to have a future. I think both have a very important role to play at this time in our national and global situation. Yet, just because they are both all-volunteer organizations, they are high risk groups of people. These, I think, are some essential elements we need if we are to survive and grow sufficiently to be effective:
- There must be a common sense of purpose which is clear, precise, and strong enough to hold the commitment of what can be a very diverse collection of people. “Mission” is a contemporary buzz-word for this element, though other words may be more meaningful for some. This common purpose may wrap together quite a diversity of individual priorities, but it must have sufficient strength to keep the diverse stuff and people effectively connected. Without it, people will surely drift away to do “their own thing.”
- There must be sufficient commitment and loyalty to the common purpose and the group itself to hold things and people together when the diverse interests, beliefs, and priorities stir tension and are hard to connect and reconcile. “Herding cats” comes to mind. Sometimes only a sense that “I am supposed to be here; my contribution is vital” will successfully keep people engaged fully enough and long enough to discover the value in the differences and to endure the tensions while differences are sorted out and coordinated. Respect for the need to “walk away for a time-out” is essential; but it needs to be coupled with assurance that “I will be back as soon as possible.”
- Where strong differences exist and come into the open, they need to be respected and heard carefully and accurately. Every member of the group bears responsibility for seeing that strong differences and conflict are handled constructively. Consensual guidelines for handling conflict need to be identified and fully honored. Supremely important is that the focus remains on issues and not on personalities.
- Strong personal differences should be explored and resolved privately if at all possible, and certainly not in publicly available communications representing the group. If resolution proves difficult between two individuals or even “factions,” and there is risk of losing the values and contributions of one or both, one or more others should be asked to help clarify issues and resolve the differences. Human conflict is almost inevitable, especially when strongly-motivated diverse individuals are assembled for a common purpose. Unless that conflict is openly explored and honorably resolved, the group may lose human and other assets essential to fulfilling its purpose. Every individual strongly drawn to the group needs to be regarded as essential, however difficult relationships may become at times.