I came across a great and inspiring article at Good.is about these folks:
I’m sitting with an Afghan, a Bangladeshi, a Senegalese, a Bulgarian, some Italians, and a Turk on a bench in an abandoned lot in Rome. Last year, this lot was filled with half a dozen vats of marmalade made from wild oranges collected by Roman citizens for a fundraising effort to support a group of Malian immigrants. The decaying edifice that looms behind us was once a textile factory under Mussolini and now hosts several immigrant families who fled Rosarno, where they had been the victims of hate crimes. It also hosts kick-ass dance parties on weekends.
In front of us, an African man, who just taught us Bambara (the primary language of Mali), transcribes words on a whiteboard to help an illiterate Afghan teach us Pashtun via an Italian interpreter. It’s just a typical day at the Centro Sociale Occupato Autogestito Ex Snia Viscosa, fondly known as Ex Snia. In English, CSOA translates to Occupied and Self-Managed Social Center. “Occupied” because it’s run by squatters who took a government-owned space and turned it into a variety show of community ventures.
I’ll come back to this idea of a “self-managed social center” in a little bit, and shift attention to the Occupy movement here in the U.S.
As coordinated mass evictions of Occupy encampments and winter weather have combined to, at least temporarily, bump the movement out of the headlines and into a kind of hibernation, it seems a good time to take stock of what’s been accomplished, what’s left to do, and how to best go about doing it.
It’s perfectly understandable, though ultimately inaccurate, to look back at the months of protests and conclude that absolutely nothing has changed. The 1% has been untouched, none of the incompetents and crooks behind the market crash have been held accountable, the Citizens United SCOTUS decision stands and continues to corrupt our electoral process, and our government is broken and gridlocked.
However, the very fact that “1%” and “99%” have become the de facto shorthand for income inequality, that the struggle made it to the headlines as long as it did, are significant and welcome accomplishments all by themselves. Change takes time, the movement is in its infancy, and the criticisms of the movement for not having clearly-defined demands, a criticism I’ve soundly rejected, is misguided and misses the forest (i.e. long-term prospects of a lasting movement that takes the time to really organize from the ground up) for the trees (i.e. knee-jerk, instant gratification desire for a ready-made platform).
Besides, there are thousands of people still occupying encampments all over the country, despite the impending cold, rain, and snow.
What’s Left To Do
Despite all the positives of the Occupy movement, in some ways I think the protests have had the unintended consequence of distracting the 99% temporarily from what might be a more effective way forward, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The expression of anger and desperation over the outrage of income inequality was inevitable, and it will continue to be welcome and necessary to speak out. I’d never advocate for letting up in this area. As I wrote back in October, the key to movements like this and the Arab Spring revolutions is staying power.
The 1% and the corrupt politicians who protect them have to know that we’re on to them and that we’re not going to let them get away with criminal greed forever. Starting with the current effort to amend the constitution in order to overturn the Citizens United decision, there’s much work to be done in the political sphere.
But, there’s something else we can do…
How To Go About Doing It
In June 2011 I wrote about a conference held here in Bellingham by The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), pointing out that when our local, state, and federal governments fail us, there’s no law against communities organizing themselves around the idea of living and banking and shopping locally, creating new markets and businesses and jobs locally, maintaining our infrastructure locally, educating our children and supporting the needy locally. And, as individual local living communities become more and more organized, they can cooperate and collaborate with other like-organized communities both on a regional and national level, which is the very work that BALLE tries to facilitate.
Of course, when peak oil and climate change really hit the fan, we probably are going to be forced the hard way to be more self-sufficient on the local level anyway, but there’s clearly so many things we could be doing now to prepare, reducing our dependency on government and imported goods and services.
Granted, there are enormous hurdles. Conducting a Buy Local campaign is a piece of cake these days, but developing a local economy that can fund its own education, health care, and infrastructure programs is a downright herculean task to say the least. And while you could say that it’s utterly impossible, I’d argue, with the help of Margaret Mead, that small groups of committed people, agreeing that local living economies are not only possible but imperative, absolutely can make it happen.
Now, Back To Italy
See, there’s something deliciously subversive about this idea. It essentially amounts to the creation of an independent, parallel society. And that’s what those folks in the self-managed social centers in Italy are doing when they occupy a space that no one else wants, when they build a community there, when they start helping one another, when they start to grow some food and teach each other languages and fix bicycles for free.
Here’s more inspiration:
“You can’t put an elephant in a little vegetable garden,” explains an impish old man who introduces himself as Signore Carciofo (Mr. Artichoke). He is one of the original founders of Ex Snia who revived the junkyard lot in 1995. Mr. Artichoke expands on his adage: When he was 14 and working for the Marshall Plan, he watched foreign dollars change his country from a sustainable society of small communities and small economies to an engorged mega-market entirely dependent on foreign finance. “The land is what gives Italy its worth,” he tells me. “To save Italy, we need to give the elephant back to the zoo and start planting to stimulate the garden’s regrowth.”