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Why the Civil Rights Model Will Not Work for Occupy

The black civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s is one of the most studied and analyzed social movements in American history – with good reason.  After centuries of slavery, followed by another 90 years or so of segregation, economic oppression, and political disenfranchisement, African Americans managed to reverse some of the most egregious denials of their civil rights in just a couple of decades.

By now, the movement has achieved near legendary status.  Who among us doesn’t recall the iconic images of courageous nonviolent protesters facing down the shocking violence that enforced the Southern caste system?  If we are not old enough to have seen the news reports back in the day, we surely saw the images in documentary films shown at school or on television.

Freedom Riders Lewis & Zwerg. Wikimedia Commons.

Freedom Riders Lewis & Zwerg. Wikimedia Commons.

For many Americans, the strategies and tactics of the early civil rights era have become the gold standard by which later movements, strategies, and tactics are judged.  However, the successful template of one social movement cannot be applied in assembly line fashion to every social movement that follows.  What worked for the black civil rights movement (in the South – the strategy was less successful in the North) will not work for Occupy.  This is due, in part, to a changed political and economic environment, and in part to differing goals and values of the two movements.

The strategy of the civil rights movement began with a legal agenda pursued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), resulting in a number of Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s and 1950s affirming the civil rights of African Americans.  Activists then attempted to nonviolently assert those rights, knowing that segregationists would respond with violence.  The ensuing crisis would compel the federal government to enforce rights upheld by the courts.

So, for example, the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs the Board of Education (1954), which prohibited segregated public schools, prepared the way for the integration of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.  When the nine black students chosen to integrate Central High arrived on the first day of school, they were met by an angry crowd and denied entry by the Alabama National Guard under orders from Governor Orval Faubus.

Ultimately, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to protect the students and compel the integration.  “Mob rule cannot be allowed to overrule the decisions of our courts,” said Eisenhower.  That year, the black students rode to school escorted by armed soldiers in jeeps in front of and behind their vehicle.  Once at school, a soldier was assigned to each student and walked the students to their classes.  Nevertheless, the Little Rock Nine, as they were called, were taunted and physically attacked by white students in places like restrooms and gym class, where the soldiers did not follow them.

The Freedom Rides, begun in May of 1961, employed the same strategy.  The goal of the rides on interstate buses, initially organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was to compel the federal government to enforce two Supreme Court decisions (Boynton v. Virginia (1960) and Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946)) that banned segregated interstate travel.  James Farmer, then director of CORE, explains:

We decided the way to do it was to have an inter-racial group ride through the south.  This was not civil disobedience, really, because we would be doing merely what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do…  We felt that we could then count upon the racists of the South to create a crisis so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce federal law.  And that was the rationale for the Freedom Ride  (Eyes on the Prize, 1987).

The riders were met with savage violence in the Deep South.  Outside Anniston, Alabama, the lead bus was firebombed and the exits blocked.  A loud explosion scared off attackers, which allowed the riders to escape the bus.  However, they were then beaten by the mob, twelve were hospitalized, and the bus was destroyed.  The riders were later evacuated from the hospital as staff feared for their safety from the mob outside.

In Birmingham, despite advance information obtained by the FBI that was “quite specific” (Eyes on the Prize, 1987) about the planned attack on riders, both the FBI and the local police stood down.  Freedom Riders were brutally beaten with baseball bats, pipes, and bicycle chains by a mob organized by the Ku Klux Klan.

Remarkably, Attorney General Robert Kennedy called for “restraint” – not from the Klan and white racists, but from the Freedom Riders.   When SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) got involved and it became clear the rides would continue, Kennedy demanded protection for the riders from Alabama governor John Patterson.   If Patterson would not provide it, Kennedy announced, the federal government would intervene.

The governor appeared to relent and provide protection for the bus leaving Birmingham for Montgomery.  But about 40 miles outside of Montgomery, the squad cars and plane disappeared.  A vicious mob attacked the riders as they got off the bus.  Freedom Rider Frederick Leonard recalled attacks with sticks and bricks and shouts to “Kill the niggers.”  Some riders, including James Zwerg, the first off the bus, were severely beaten.  According to Leonard, Zwerg and others were “damaged for life” (Eyes on the Prize, 1987).

In Mississippi, riders were met only by police, who herded them off the buses, through the bus station waiting rooms, out the back door, and into paddy wagons.  Robert Kennedy had made a deal with local officials:  They would see to it that there was no violence and the federal government would not enforce the Supreme Court decision on segregation and interstate travel.   Consequently, the riders were not attacked by mobs, but were left to the mercy of local judges.  They were sentenced to 60 days in a maximum security penitentiary by a judge who literally turned his back on the riders’ lawyer in court and faced the wall.  That summer Robert Kennedy at last petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue regulations banning segregation, and the ICC complied.

Success took longer to achieve where court decisions and extreme violence perpetrated by segregationists against activists could not be depended upon to force federal action.  The Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56) lasted just over a year.  Although the Supreme Court had overturned segregation in interstate travel, southern bus companies circumvented the law instituting local regulations. As black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., refused to ride the buses until they were desegregated, the NAACP filed suit in federal court.  The bus companies were hit hard by the boycott, but they refused to give in until the Supreme Court heard the case filed by the NAACP and ruled bus segregation unconstitutional.

In Albany, Georgia (1961), the strategy broke down entirely.  Invited by locals to help organize against segregation, SNCC challenged the system in bus stations, libraries, schools, and movie theatres.  But Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had read Dr. King’s book and understood the strategy of drawing out violence and filling up jails.  He prevented violence against the demonstrators and arranged for jails in surrounding areas to accept arrestees.  Meanwhile, the city filed suit in federal court requesting a restraining order to stop the demonstrations.

Stymied, and with hundreds of local activists in jail, black leaders invited Dr. King to help out.  King had other commitments, but spent some time in Albany giving speeches and leading marches.  After almost nine months of action, a federal judge sided with the city, and issued the restraining order.  Coretta Scott King explains the dilemma:

When the federal courts started ruling against us, that created a whole different thing in terms of what strategy do you use now?  Because, up to that point, Martin had been willing to break state laws that were unjust laws.  And our ally was the federal judiciary.  So, if we would take our case to the federal court, and the court ruled against us, what recourse did we have?  (Eyes On the Prize, 1987).

King asked President Kennedy to intervene, but he declined.  Defeated, King left Albany.  (SNCC, however, remained to carry on the fight).

The strategy of some of the most famous actions of the civil rights era depended upon favorable decisions from the federal judiciary and the willingness of the federal government to exert its power – backed by violence, as is the power of all governments – to enforce those decisions.  Note also that the activists’ goal of exposing the violence that enforced the Southern caste system was intended primarily to force a confrontation between the federal and state governments and secondarily to appeal to Northern and international supporters.

The notion, further developed by Gene Sharp, that violence inflicted on nonviolent protesters will eventually win the hearts and minds of individual civil servants, police officers, and others who uphold the system, and that those individuals will then withdraw their cooperation with the system, thereby enabling a victory for the activists, quickly went out the window.  Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (SCLC) explained in a discussion of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott:

We thought we could shame America…  But you can’t shame segregation… Rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide.  Ball teams don’t strike themselves out.  You’ve got to put ‘em out (Eyes on the Prize, 1987).

Occupy cannot employ a strategy similar to that of the civil rights movement for a number of reasons.  To begin with, the focus of the Occupy movement is corporate power – the economic, political, and social inequality it creates, as well as the destruction of the environment it perpetrates.  Supreme Court decisions in recent years increasingly favor corporations over individual citizens.  The most egregious of these is the 2010 Citizens United decision asserting first amendment rights for corporations and thereby banning limits on their campaign contributions.

Indeed, the Supreme Court increasingly appears unwilling to uphold even basic civil rights.  Witness the recent decision allowing police to strip search citizens arrested for any offense, no matter how minor – a practice banned by international human rights treaties.  The Court has also signaled that it may uphold portions of Arizona’s controversial immigration law; in particular, the requirement that police officers check the immigration status of anybody who looks like they might be an illegal immigrant.

With or without favorable court decisions, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Obama administration will not be sending in the 101st Airborne to protect us from corporate malfeasance anytime soon – or even to protect Occupiers against the violence of local police.  A more likely scenario is that the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and federal law enforcement worked with local officials and law enforcement, suggesting tactics and offering advice that resulted in a semi-coordinated and brutal crackdown on encampments late last year.

Even if the contemporary political climate was favorable to a legislative agenda enforced by the federal government, it is unlikely that Occupy would pursue that strategy.  Appealing for concessions from a higher authority is not consistent with the overlapping values and goals of horizontalism and anarchism that shape the Occupy movement.  Horizontalism, as Marina Sitrin explains, involves a concept of power as “something we create together…  It’s not about asking, or demanding of a government or an institutional power.”  It’s a way of relating to one another, as equals, rather than according to positions in a social hierarchy.

Horizontalism, or horizontalidad, emerged in Argentina, after that country’s 2001 economic crisis.  People gathered in the streets, at first banging pots and pans and generally registering protest.  Eventually, taking their cue from the landless movement in Brazil, which organized around the slogan, Occupy, Resist, Produce, Argentineans “recuperated,” or reclaimed workplaces such as factories, schools, and clinics and collectively managed them.  Similarly, anarchism envisions an ideal society organized voluntarily and cooperatively, with no one having power over another.   The bottom-up organizing principle of Occupy, then, is inconsistent with appeals to a higher power.

In their classic text, Poor People’s Movements (1977), Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that opportunities for insurgencies to emerge are not available most of the time, and when they are, those insurgencies are shaped by contemporary social conditions.  In this view, both the civil rights movement and Occupy were and are shaped by the historical moment in which they appeared. I admire the veterans of the civil rights movement and what they were able to achieve.  Contemporary economic and political conditions preclude that strategy for Occupy, but at the same time present different, and in my view, more exciting opportunities, for social change. The possibility of relating to one another in a more egalitarian way, of empowering people rather than seeking relief from a higher power, and of, as Noam Chomsky says, working toward a different way of living “not based on maximizing consumer goods, but on maximizing values that are important for life,” is deeply appealing.  Occupy is the movement for our time – and I am deeply grateful to all of those on the front lines.

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