Occupy Wall Street’s making a comeback: its organizing of services in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and Monday morning’s occupation of Goldman Sachs makes many wonder what’s next for the movement that brought attention to the deplorable inequities in our economic system.
Unrecognized by many of the young organizers of the Occupy movement is the School of the Americas (SOA) Vigil, the longest running protest event in the history of the United States. The School of the Americas Vigil, while smaller than in its heyday of 2001, when tens of thousands of protestors converged on the SOA, remains a beacon against U.S. militarism and intervention in Latin American politics. As Occupy tries to reinvent the 99%, a few lessons from the success of SOA movement would be helpful to ensure that Occupy continues fighting for economic justice for years to come.
1. Outreach is personal.
The School of the Americas Vigil is attended not only by those organizing against the United States’ intervention in Latin America, but by those fighting for labor rights, economic justice, the promotion of human rights internationally, and those that want to shut down Guantanamo, to name a few. The School of the Americas Watch organizers built the movement through articulating the objectives of the SOA vigil to those closest to them and why this event mattered to anyone concerned about gross inequity in the United States. And there’s room for those at the vigil who are passionate about other issues: about half of the workshops held the night before the vigil discuss topics ranging from life in a detention center to organizing in public housing. By reaching out to those you know are passionate about social justice work, the School of the Americas Vigil organizers build a stronger movement. Occupy Wall Street, with its large umbrella mission of promoting economic justice, has the ability to reach out to anyone who sees the mistakes since the recession as negatively impacting the good of the world.
2. Recognize your weaknesses.
Fort Benning, GA, the location of the Vigil, is also home to substantial poverty. At the steps of the fort, where the predominantly white, upper middle class vigil participants gather, is a number of housing projects. Residents sell carnival style food each year to those who attend, but it wasn’t until 2010 that Theresa El-Amin, head of the Southern Anti-Racist Network and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member discussed with the organizers the importance of organizing in the community, and the way that United States militarism unfairly impacts those in poor communities, whose young people are recruited because of their lack of employment options and whose government spends more on training military officials in other nations than improving its citizens quality of life. School of the Americas organizers agreed with her, and since then, she has been working tirelessly to make the work against the School of the Americas a more expansive, diverse, and better movement.
3. Cover all your bases.
At its inception, Occupy Wall Street was resistant to formal structure, determined to represent the voice of the people rather than advance a specific, concrete agenda. As time went on, that power seemed somewhat diluted: as law enforcement cracked down on Occupy encampments across the country, the movement went underground and put its energy into issues like housing foreclosure and, as we have seen in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, disaster relief.
In comparison, the School of the Americas Vigil, which has lasted since 1993, has had years where thousands of people have showed or where only a few hundred have shown: regardless, it continues to occur year after year, bolstered by the School of the Americas Watch’s outreach and advocacy work occurring around the world (including through formal lobbying of Latin American leaders). Fragmentation sometimes seems inevitable after the first wave of a social movement. However, the School of the Americas Vigil shows us that maintaining a variety of multifaceted approaches to achieving your objective, no matter how nebulous, will ensure stability in the movement while still leaving room for the passion that drives such an outpouring of support on the ground.
4. Build relationships with your “enemies”.
The School of the Americas Vigil, perhaps because of the large number of religious participants, is big on “turn the other cheek”. When I spoke to one organizer, she talked a great deal about the conversations she has had with law enforcement assigned to work at the Vigil. At the end of the Vigil this year, the MC of the event took time to recognize the hard work the local police department had put in to make the vigil successful. While others might see this as a cop out or a bow to the demands of a society that increasingly criminalizes dissent, participants in the School of the Americas Vigil say that their interactions with law enforcement, including discussions about why they are so passionate about working against military interventionism, and even, according to one organizer, a shared prayer, is the whole point. By changing the attitudes of those in power, the School of the Americas Vigil creates lasting, if not immediate, change in the way that the United States’ involvement in Latin America and in the way that people working towards social justice are perceived.
5. Be comfortable with contradiction.
The School of the Americas Vigil is not perfect and Occupy Wall Street, no matter what form it takes, never will be either. However, what makes the School of the Americas Vigil so long lasting is the room for contradiction at the gates of Fort Benning. This year, when one man, Robert Norman Chantal, went over the fence that barricades the force, facing a mandatory six months in prison, everyone cheered in solidarity. Year round organizers usually working in Venezuela, nuns and monks who have shown solidarity with Latin Americans since the 1980s, and college students who have never heard of the event until they got on a bus: all stood silently, in solidarity with the thousands of victims of the graduates of the School of the Americas and the victims of American militarism more broadly. There are tactics, events, and groups represented in the School of the Americas Vigil that not all its participants agree with, just as there are with every movement. What makes the School of the Americas Vigil different is the room for each facet, and the discussion of each facet, within the wider scope of the movement.
None of this is to say that Occupy Wall Street is not effective in its current incarnation or that the School of the Americas Vigil is without flaws: indeed, the School of the Americas Watch is at a critical turning point for the anti-war movement and is in the middle of a redefining of its objectives as a broader stance against United States militarism globally. However, each movement is able to gain something from acknowledging the presence of the other: perhaps that way we will have both a stronger fight against economic inequality and United States’ militarism in Latin America.