The movement du jour has sparked a familiar argument in the opposition: “you are benefiting from what you are fighting against.” Frankly, there is no direct argument against that statement. It’s a fact: the majority of the “occupiers” are sleeping in petroleum based tents made with corporate dollars, in petroleum based sleeping bags made in industrial plants and marching on shoes made of petroleum by the third world. While this might not be the case for every the protester, the majority of them are indeed clothed in the product of greed and capitalism.
So why don’t they live what they preach and wear only hemp and sustainably harvested wood clogs?
Let’s work this argument over, shall we?
Instead of taking the statement head-on, because we can’t, we’ll make it irrelevant.
First, let’s take a very simple and brief historical look:
Let’s go back to the American abolitionist movement. There they were, former slaves and their many sympathizers, walking around the town denouncing the evils of “people selling people to people” and wearing shirts and dresses made of cotton harvested in the south by slaves. How hypocritical! You can imagine the argument was made by the slavery enthusiasts, because it was.
Now let’s jump ahead to the civil rights movement of the 60’s. Here’s a slightly different look at hypocrisy in a social movement: a sea of African Americans and their sympathizers walking through cities in upper middle class attire (the clothing of the oppressor) demanding their rights and justice. This time the “h” word is being called out by a faction of the movement that doesn’t like to see their black brothers and sisters assimilating into the white culture. We call this inner-movement feuding “horizontal hostility.”
Okay, let’s go way way back: Rome. In the Roman slave uprisings (there were quite a few), you had a very oppressed, very poor, very angry class who had been enslaved for generations by the Romans. They were fed up with the endless abuse and violence that trickled down through the society. This slave class had nothing- they weren’t allowed to own. Their every comfort came from their masters. So here’s what they had to do (and I don’t expect there was much moral debating): they bought, stole, altered and pillaged whatever they could of the master class’s products and services to nurture the success of the rebellion. Swords forged by slaves for the profit of the Romans and clothing made and imported from serfs and slaves would be utilized. Everything was the product of the dominant culture, they had no choice.
Jump to current day. The Occupy Movement is a multi-class movement being organized by the somewhat-affluent middle class. They are a class raised in privilege and for the most part disconnected with the earth. Give them some grace. They are a product of their upbringing.
Let’s make this argument break down as simple as it can be with several scenarios:
I’m a protester and I’m camped out in Zuccotti Park. It’s 30 degrees and I’m sleeping in a sleeping bag that I’ve had for 10 years since before I became an enlightened anti corporate activist. Unfortunately, this sleeping bag is probably only good down to 40 degrees and my feet are freezing. I can either A) go home before I get pneumonia or B) use that $200 left from my parent’s last cash infusion to buy a better sleeping bag and stay at the park with my compatriots.
I am a protester camped out in Zuccotti Park (again). I’ve been here for three hours and I’m starting to feel the urge that comes naturally after eating a large bowl of curried lentils for lunch. Unfortunately, I have to make a choice: I can A) Pretend to be a customer at Starbucks and use their warm, clean restroom, B) find the nearest sustainably harvested wooden barrel (AKA “a stink barrel) or C) utilize the Honeypot brand plastic outhouse rented for the Occupation to keep the rest of downtown New York from smelling like the cesspools of New Delhi slums.
So, there you go.
From an internal perspective it can be beneficial to take advantage of the products of the dominant oppressor to maintain solidarity and strengthen the movement by your not-quite-as-suffering presence. An energetic and resilient voice is louder than a shivering, frostbitten, pneumonia stricken one.
From the point of view of the unaffiliated public, its far more effective as a public above ground movement to be perceived as hygienic, approachable and “like them” as opposed to a dirty, poorly clothed, diseased mob. It only works in the favor of the dominant culture to be seen as the weird minority.
I always remember this quote by Lierre Keith: “The task of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much personal integrity as possible; it is to dismantle those systems.”
Thoren Rogers serves on the Board of Fertile Ground Environmental Institute.