The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2012

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JUL-AUG 2012 Issue

OCCUPY and 350.ORG—You Come Down Here and Embrace!

On Henry Street just uptown from Foley Square in Manhattan, there is a church called Mariners’ Temple. One Sunday we were among hundreds of folks listening while Mother Henrietta Carter preached. She stood up there, white-robed, and gestured out across the assembled faithful. “We need to see some embracing today,” Mother Carter said, and then she explained that two families were blessed just recently with newborn babies, in the same week.

She boomed out: “I want you two families—come down here and embrace each other! We’ll wait! Oh, you come down here! I know you two families been quarreling about something, you don’t speak much anymore. Oh we all know about it. Now—You come down here and you embrace each other. You bring those babies with you!”

The two families slowly came to Mother Carter and embraced. They were in tears. People called out “Praise!”



As you see from the title of my little sermon, I am asking the people from two movements, and Occupy Wall Street, to do the same.

Photo by Erik McGregor.

These two groups are difference-makers in the world. Over the last year and a half, who has had a better impact in our country? OWS and 350 share the view that entrenched power is only stopped by people power. In fact, they both call themselves “movements,” right up front in their introductory remarks, like they’re writing their own history. They both have galvanized thousands of citizens who hadn’t necessarily planned to work so hard for the earth, to make so many new friends so fast, to feel such exhilaration.

But it is time for the two families to “come down here and embrace.” I have frequented both worlds, and communication between 350 and Occupy is spotty at best. It is true that 350’s leader Bill McKibben did an uplifting job mic-checking in New York within a few days of the founding of Liberty Square, and then he marched with OWS on October 5th. And there are Occupy people everywhere, certainly in many of the environmental organizations. There are even OWS people working in big banks.

Although there is some embracing by individuals across the border between 350 and OWS, a recent march from the United Nations to the Federal Energy Commission offices on 34th Street was all too typical. This was a spirited protest against the Jersey-to-Manhattan Spectra Pipeline by the Occupy “Environmental Solidarity” working groups in NYC. There was no one from with us. At the same time, lots of OWSers in New York can’t answer the simple questions about the Keystone XL pipeline—the focus of 350’s biggest campaign last year. So you have two activist groups both opposing natural gas pipelines and they don’t seem to know much about each other. Ships passing in the night. Why?


What Each Has To Give

Now you might say that the organizations of the left always splinter apart, so why be surprised. And you could say that 350 and Occupy are two very different animals and can’t be expected to get along. I disagree. We have a life-and-death emergency here on this planet. 350 and OWS desperately engaged in this emergency. So we must do what gathers the most power. We should work together. Amen?

I gently suggest that should pay far more attention to Occupy right now, after the police violence that took away our town squares. Just to cite the most obvious fact: There was the intoxicating unity among progressive people who journeyed to Zuccotti Park last fall from September 17th to November 17th, and this happened in city after city and town after town. There were 2,600 encampments at the height of the movement. The energy in those eight weeks is renewable!

So what can OWS offer Occupy discovered that living together in public space is a protest form with a big impact. The ingredients are famous now. Starting democracy over with hand signals and consensus and no leaders. Feeding each other. Making libraries, media, and signs. Spending the day together in the commons. We had forgotten that all radical change in the U.S.A. has involved some form of living in public.

The other thing that we shared in our cashless temporary nirvana was the danger of being surrounded by police who work for the one percent. We locked arms, sang, tended to the wounded, and got legal help. There is a clear solidarity among the OWS veterans after experiencing the violence of entrenched power. This has hardened the muscles of the Occupy community. As OWS becomes more involved in eco-justice issues, these young, urban radicals share membership with the coming-back-to-life of Earth First! Yes, Occupy people have a great deal to share with the organized and funded NGOs like


Fracked New World

The Church of Stop Shopping performed at many Occupy communities in the time last winter when police forces were criminalizing OWS. We watched the Occupiers turn and look back at where they came from, and re-take their own worlds again, going home and making working groups in living rooms and church basements. How will we return? When and what will we Occupy? We are in a state of new action.

Now we face the Spectra Pipeline. The 30-foot-high pressure pipe is designed to bring natural gas from the Pennsylvania fracking fields, by way of Bayonne and Jersey City, routing along Jersey highways before tunneling under the Hudson River and surfacing at Gansevoort Street in the West Village. All the municipalities and community boards on the pipeline’s route have voted no. Even the Port Authority is resisting. But the key underwriter, J. P. Morgan Chase, and Spectra Energy are huge outfits, and encouraged by the Bloomberg administration, New York state and federal regulators have given a quick go-ahead. This is one of several pipelines of the super-flammable gas approaching New York City, and symbolically marks a triumph of the eminent domain of this latest fashionable fossil fuel.

The manufacturer of this pipeline has a history of explosions and leaks, but this is not uncommon for these wild-catters. 75,000 fracking wells now pierce the farmlands and prairies of the United States, the fastest change of our landscape since the Interstates roared across the country in the ’50s. Aquifers are poisoned, cancers confirmed—especially lung cancer by the off-gassing of Radon—and fires erupt every week.

As can be expected, greenwashing arguments have been put in play in order to blunt some eco-activism. Fracked gas is cleaner than heating oils and coal. Mike Bloomberg’s support of the pipeline uses this talking point. The tragic result is that, as we near 400 carbon units per million and see mass extinctions in the biosphere, including unprecedented die-offs of forests and coral reefs, here we are bringing in another fossil fuel. The fracking result: Renewable energy is slowing down in the United States. This pipeline should not wind its way through towns, under state parks, and into our city, period.


Renewable Activism

I urge people to call Occupy people and vice versa—we are resisting the same fracking one percent. I have concentrated on the passion and creative work in public space that OWS can bring to traditional environmental advocates. Of course Occupy has much to learn from as well. If some of the stateside 350 actions seem like parking tickets compared to the beating OWS has taken—there is exciting work going on within the 188 countries seeing 350 actions. OWS has the challenge now of discovering the new commons and 350’s international world of activists make their “350” choreographies on beaches, out in fields and forests, and even under water, as we saw in the famous Maldives town meeting in scuba gear. 350 seems to find new Zuccottis around the world.

The worldwide creativity of 350 encourages us to find new commons in the seams of our cities, where the people can find us but the police don’t think to look. I gaze upon the cityscape of New York, and 350 helps me see Occupies on rooftops, ferries, subway platforms, fire-escapes, and the river! The Spectra pipeline reminds us of the Westway fight, when Marcie Benstock and her army of West Village activists brought the public space of the riverbed into court. We will re-meet one day back in our Liberty Squares, but first we must journey through unexpected public spaces for a time, gathering citizens along the way.

350 and OWS allow us to call them “movements.” So they have some chutzpah—and good for them! But that’s what the consensus of history calls the social change that works—like the Civil Rights and gender equality movements. And I don’t think that Occupy and 350 can do it alone. They will be a movement if they team up—and if the rest of us eco people join, too. This is close to our last chance. The CO2 emissions continue to climb. The surreal weather and extinction waves accelerate. Survival won’t happen unless we all “come down here and embrace!” Amen?


Reverend Billy


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2012

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