Strategy, Discipline, the Right to Assemble, and Occupy Tampa

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As many of the Occupations around the country are experiencing, the rest of America is not New York City. The chief tactic of occupying public space for long periods of time tends to get complicated in cities without the public/private loophole that has allowed Occupy Wall Street to continue for several weeks. This begs the question: does every city really need to emulate New York’s public occupation rather than finding their own creative ways to push the same message about our failing economic system?

Important changes that have pushed our society forward have often come from non-violent direct action. That said, picking the battles should be a cautious decision. In the anti-colonial resistance movement in India, Mohatma Gandhi often called off any action that was not organized and disciplined. He feared that a lack of discipline would diminish the movement’s credibility. This came to mind when I learned of the six Occupy Tampa protesters arrested for “occupying” the sidewalk in Tampa last week. Sick of being pushed around by the police and a set of constantly changing rules, the six protesters set aside the consensus decision process of the group and stayed out on the sidewalk past when the police saw fit. Knowing full well arrest was in store even as negotiations for a public space were underway with the City Council, they took a stand. What was the significance of this sidewalk? Were there stock traders and investment bankers hidden beneath the pavement? No, it was just an ordinary sidewalk and it had nothing to do with a failed economy or the 99%. It had more to do with being pissed off at the police and that's exactly how the media portrayed it.

This does not excuse the the City of Tampa for not making a greater attempt to engage the protesters and maintain open lines of communication with our local chapter of a growing international movement. City of Tampa elected officials take an oath of office to preserve and protect the Constitution and our right to peaceful assembly. In a sprawled out city like Tampa, having a place where the public can meet and talk to each other and air grievances in an open dialogue outside of their homes is an important thing. City officials and the Police Department should help provide that space, not make it impossible to create.

The message of both Gandhi and James Lawson is that their movements succeeded because they placed organization, discipline, and an understanding of strategic goals above self-righteous posturing. They understood that a well-conceived and executed plan tends to trump reckless acts of spontaneous defiance. If what we are defying is a morally bankrupt system that has precipitated the suffering of 99% of us, it's that much more prudent to resist it as if this were the most important chess game ever played, always thinking ten moves ahead.

(Editor's Note: Kelly Benjamin reported on Occupy Wall Street for the first two weeks of it's existence and assisted with creating a dialogue with Occupy Tampa and the City of Tampa Government.)

The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon spreading across the US is both a continuation of a long tradition of civil resistance movements and something totally unprecedented. Its viral diaspora is evidence that it hits at the core of what many Americans feel is wrong with our system. But where it goes from here and if it will lead to significant change in the direction of this country (and the world) is the zillion dollar question no one can answer. In New York last week, I met United Methodist pastor and civil rights leader James Lawson who, having played key roles in the Nashville sit-ins and the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights era, knows a thing or two about successful non-violent resistance movements. Of the many nuggets of wisdom he shared with my class at the Journalism and Civil Resistance conference, was this: “We need to make sure we know the difference between strategy and tactic and that every move operate under the ethos of building recognition and support from a wide population.”

This got me thinking about the movement as a whole, the atrocities in Oakland, and the police confrontations happening across the country. Here in Tampa, our own blossoming local resistance struggle surged onto the scene in early October. The press made a point of highlighting the peaceful dialogue between Occupy Tampa and the TPD early on, but for the last week and a half have focused almost exclusively on their tussles with the City of Tampa and the Police Department rather than their message. This is unfortunate because in a town like Tampa, arguing with the cops over the sidewalk and getting arrested is not the best way to win the masses over, even if a majority are sympathetic to your aims.

About The Author

Kelly Benjamin

Kelly Benjamin is a a community activist and longtime Creative Loafing Tampa Bay contributor who first appeared in the paper in 1999. He also ran for Tampa City Council in 2011...
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