Occupy National Gathering Debrief (2012)

(The following piece was written on July 17th, 2012)

The sun beat down. It was hot. Sweat beaded off of our heads and bodies as physical proof of the hard work we were all putting in. We gave ourselves over to it. We didnʼt sleep. We didnʼt eat. We traded in our well-being for the good of the group. It worked. The National Gathering (NATGAT) was a time of peace, love, and democracy for everyone gathered in Philadelphia on the week of the 4th of July.

From Seattle to Quebec, Arizona to Kalamazoo, and New York to Madrid, Occupiers came together from the four corners of the country and farther to spend 5 days in the supposed “cradle of liberty”. We came together to discuss the future of our lives, our movement, and our world. These days were organized and divided up into what could be referred to as an Un-Conference model. Blocks of time were structured and purposefully left open for anyone or any group to bring their passion, experience, and ideas to the wider movement. Meet-ups and workshops were on display from subjects ranging from police repression to urban farming to money out of politics. As I meandered through the camp throughout the week I heard such sentiments as: “I never thought of that” or “I canʼt wait to take this back home.” Put simply: we created a space – a public space – for dialogue to happen. And it did.  

Complimenting this open model, the Education/Speakers sub-committee of the National Gathering Working Group (NGWG) reached out and invited renowned speakers such as Matt Taibbi, Madea Benjamin, Chris Hedges, and local Occupy hero Captain Ray Lewis to compliment speakers from around the movement such as Brandi Williams of Colorado, Amalia Montoya of (un)Occupy Albuquerque, and Dani Alvarez-Gavela of the 15M movement in Madrid. These heroines and heroes braved long distances and heat to come share their thoughts, dreams, and criticisms of the movement in a peaceful and open context. I think we all left a little more enlightened by their words and their passion.

Secondly, in a world where we are told to eat the dog that stands in the way of your dinner, people who come from varying and divergent tribes, cultures, and tongues sat down at the table of sister-and-brotherhood together. All of us broke bread together. The power and significance of this cannot be understated. It is a sign of an evolution of human consciousness to share in spite of our traditional, or taught, divisions. For five days, three meals a day were cooked and served by a humbly self-sacrificing food team dedicated to providing nutritious – and oftʼ times vegan – food for all. Given that our number one vision was “Clean Water, Food, and Air” it should not go unnoticed that we were indeed exhibiting the change we want to see in the world.

Not everything was learning, teaching, and eating. One of the hallmarks of our movement is our annex of the streets. When reality is virtual and the vast majority of people in America get their worldview inserted into their bloodstream through the IV of TV, it becomes necessary to remind them of the decaying organic matter of the real world around them. NATGAT would not let this moment pass un-marched. So we hit the streets. Several demonstrations were organized from large group marches for corporate and bank accountability – against such criminals as Wells Fargo, Verizon, Comcast, Fox News, Fannie Mae, and the US Mint – to smaller more targeted actions against UBS bank, the student debt crisis, jail solidarity, and the prison-industrial complex. Some of which were coordinated in solidarity with local community unions and organizations such as the Poor Peopleʼs Economic & Human Rights Campaign, ACT UP!, and local CWA union 132. While we did not bring out a drove of 35,000 like our sisters and brethren in New York, we did execute the majority of these actions responsibly and effectively with safety, legal, and logistical support: sometimes with numbers upward of 800+. The lessons we have learned over the past 10 months were put on display for the people of Philadelphia and the country. And they heard us loud and clear.

Speaking of the lessons learned, I think it would be prudent to speak to the organization and logistical support of the NGWG. In the interest of transparency to those reading this little essay, I want to be perfectly clear that I was a part of the NGWG and involved in most of the planning and execution of the Gathering so my opinion will be biased towards the group. However, that does not preclude my assessment from being honest, intimate and useful for future endeavors. Logistics planning for the NATGAT began around mid-April. It was whispered by many that planning and pulling off a national convergence of the Occupy movement could not be done in two-and-a-half months. Had we not had the benefit of a 15K grant from the Movement Resource Group1, they may have been right. Nevertheless, folks from all over the country – 50ish assemblies at that point – decided that they wanted to gather in Philadelphia, so the NGWG jumped on that desire and rode it all the way to July.

A full description of my involvement in this particular group deserves an essay all its own (forthcoming) but suffice it to say that people all over the country – and in Philly specifically – put their souls into making sure that we could create a safe space for all of the aforementioned events and activities to take place. We divided into sub-committees, worked autonomously in a trustworthy and accountable manner, and – with a good deal of stress I must admit – executed our plans. When safety issues came up: they were dealt with. When the aggression of the Federal Parks Service was inordinate and excessive: we re-grouped and were given refuge by the Quakers at the Friendʼs Meeting House at 4th and Arch. When we pushed ourselves to the breaking point, we overcame. Through sheer force of will and the support of a loving community we lifted each other up and empowered each other to create and implement solutions. Problems are only problems when no one has the will to create solutions together. When the NGWG encountered stumbling blocks we stopped, centered ourselves, reached out the hand of friendship for support, and leaped over them together.

Another lesson learned that is worth considering – is the response and cooperation of the Philadelphia police department (PPD). It is worth noting that Occupiers attended the NATGAT from cities that have suffered from true police repression. Folks from Oakland could probably still smell the tear gas that is forever burned into their nostrils, some New Yorkers are so used to being harassed that they expect it, and tears still stream from the eyes of those burned with pepper spray. NATGAT did not have to deal with any of it. Though we had to take an arrest at the hands of the Punchy Parkʼs Service , which admittedly was backed up by the PPD Strike Force, most of the Gathering was calm and agreeable. When I asked Captain Steve Glenn, the head of Philadelphiaʼs “Civil Affairs Unit – a unit dedicated to “protecting the rights of protestors” – to move a rank of Strike Force bike police away from our camp to keep the tension down he acquiesced. When “Cowboy” Moen – the lead Park Service Ranger and aggressor from the 2nd Bank Repression – threatened the safety of the Veteranʼs for Peace tent at Independence Mall, I asked Capt. Glenn to get “Cowboy” under the express supervision of his superior due to his erratic behavior. What was his response? He did it and “Cowboy” stood down.

Lastly, there was the incident on our July 4th nighttime march to Love Park. There were two shootings – unrelated to Occupyʼs march and activities – that happened in the middle of our route at 15th and 16th streets. The streets and Love Park were blocked off with PPD Strike Force, motorcycles, and horses. So here we had 700+ people marching directly into a crime scene with a line of armed officers directly in their wake. (Now keep in mind the Occupiers from Oakland, New York, and Chicago get really apprehensive about marching into a police line.) But the PPD did a responsible thing. They came and informed me of the situation – since I was a marshal on the march and said “[X happened] so we canʼt go to Love Park. Weʼll block off the streets so you can go wherever you want to go but we canʼt go to the park.” While this caused a great deal of confusion and anxiety (the former for the marchers and the latter for me) we centered ourselves, gathered our heads, and marched to Thomas Paine plaza – a municipal services building across the street from Love Park – and had a community assembly to decide what to do next. The march ended with the people of Philadelphia rallying around our message and our passion at the fountain of Logan Sq. Those same people then marched back to camp with in solidarity. Community, healthy skepticism, respect, and cooperation led to order out of chaos. We proved we could handle ourselves. I think the NYPD, OPD, CPD, Federal Parkʼs Service and countless other irrationally aggressive police forces could learn a lesson from our NATGAT.

Lastly, it is paramount to discuss the July 4th visioning process. The idea behind putting energy into creating a collective vision at the NATGAT was twofold: 1) to create a process in which every voice could be equally heard in an efficient and effective way while at the same time providing the space for common visions to be coalesced into themes that can be replicated anywhere and 2) to create a vision from all those who participated, providing an example of our version of the future to an anxious world grasping for hope. To that end the Visioning sub-committee spent hours, days, and weeks trying to troubleshoot the process so that a) it would work and b) it would provide an example that could be taken up as a mantle in the wider world.

Around 200+ people chose to rally around this idea. So after an introduction from some wonderful people which included a moment of silence for the Lenape people (the native occupiers of the Pennsylvania area), an exploration of what “Independence” and “freedom” mean to marginalized communities in the context of the 4th, and a history of the NATGAT, we dove headfirst into the waters of democracy. It took alot longer than we anticipated but thatʼs because it worked. It takes a good deal of time for people to express their hopes and dreams and then see, out of the context of argument and debate, where they have common ground with others. In a country that praises and lauds itself (and I have even used the language in this essay) as the “cradle of liberty,” we are critically ill in this regard. Folks engaged in the visioning process because they believe that democracy – real true direct participatory democracy – is not only possible but also the better way. Some may call it naïve or “pie in the sky” but to those people I ask you: what is your vision? And why have you not shared it with us? It is no coincidence that No. 5 on our list of visions was “a culture of direct democracy.” People want to engage each other. It is in our D.N.A.

It seems to me that people came to NATGAT because they want to work together on a national scale but we realized that the only way to achieve such goals is to have a strategy. The only way to develop a strategy is to develop goals. The only way to develop goals is to have a vision. In this movement we value community so we in keeping with our principles we value community vision. Through the NATGAT visioning process we now have a way to organically develop our visions so we can organically develop our goals and strategies. I encourage everyone: try it. See what democracy looks like.

 Finally, I think we should zoom out and take a view of the NATGAT from 10,000 feet. What was it? What did we accomplish? Where could we have improved? A lot of these questions will be answered in time by the attendees, the media, and you. But from my perspective the NATGAT was a tremendous success. We, in the NGWG, sought out to create a space where Occupiers from all over the country and the world could come and feel safe to discuss a better future and explore goals, strategies, and campaigns to achieve it. And, again, it cannot be understated that we broke bread together. People from a myriad of cultures and backgrounds were able to come under one roof (the sky is the roof) and explore working together. Our vision and our gathering is proof that we can... and we did.

ADDENDUM: The "Vision For A Democratic Future", the crowning achievement of the Gathering, can be found here.

Larry Swetman
Occupy Philly
National Gathering Working Group
InterOccupy