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Letter to Boston Occupy the T

Dear friends,

Thank you for keeping me informed of what you are thinking and doing. As you know, I am away from Boston and unable to take a direct part in either your deliberations or your actions, but I do have a few thoughts I would like to share with you.

The Occupy movement, in refusing to articulate a list of demands and focusing on the entire miserabilist system, represented a break with traditional protest politics, which consist of petitioning those in power, punctuated by occasional demonstrations that follow predictable patterns, all aimed at bringing about reform through the electoral system.

Having captured the popular imagination by taking over public spaces, the movement is attempting to bring its moral authority to bear on questions of immediate concern to the 99%. The campaign against the MBTA fare hike is an example of this.

The danger is, that in moving from symbolic opposition to immediate intervention, the movement will lose the initiative.  The comment you posted on Occupy the T on January 18 is an illustration of the problem. After reprinting a report from the Globe about a large turnout of T riders at hearings held by the MBTA Board, you wrote:

“Clearly there is mass opposition, and even heartfelt outrage, in the face of the current MBTA cuts and hikes plan. But there is also a dominant narrative being usedby lamestream media and politicians aliketo contain and derail that opposition, by suggesting that, sucky as it is, this T's plans are a ‘fiscal necessity.’”

A few minutes later you added the following:

“Our job as popular educators, as I see it, is to expose the blindspots and the political and economic bias that frames this narrative of "fiscal necessity." Then our job as popular mobilizers is to bring such mass force to bear that the powers that be are forced to change their course, whether they like it or not.”

I cite your comment not because it is so egregiously wrong but because it is representative of a tendency which has become the default: first educate, then mobilize the populace to force concessions.

In the first place, I would not say that as a general rule education must precede action. I recall from the 1960s that often the sequence was the reverse: first throw the pie in the face of the CIA recruiter, then explain why you did it.

Even granting the need to expose the falsehoods by which the other side is attempting to justify their fare increase and service cuts, I do not think the arguments about “fiscal necessity” can be countered by allowing the debate to take place on the other side’s grounds. So long as the public accepts the notion that the T as an institution must operate at a profit, or at least “break even” in the bank’s ledgers, the opposition will be handicapped. People will grumble but ultimately accept the hike and cuts as inevitable. A new approach is needed.

MAKE THE BOSSES PAY!

Since most T riders are on their way to jobs where they produce profits for their employers, why should they pay for the privilege?

DID SLAVES PAY FOR THE COST OF THEIR TRANSPORTATION FROM THEIR HOMES TO THE FIELDS WHERE THEY PICKED COTTON OR CLEARED THE LAND? THEN WHY SHOULD MODERN WAGE SLAVES PAY TO GET TO WORK?

The above approach would bypass the biases built into the present debate over the fare increase and service cuts. It would also be consistent with the impulse of the Occupy movement, to break with traditional politics.

Finally, the boldest slogan is not a substitute for action. What is needed is direct action that moves the center of the conflict from hearings called by the MBTA to the scene where T riders meet T workers—the buses and busyards, subways and T platforms.

THE GOAL IS TO SEIZE POWER IN THE TRANSIT SYSTEM.



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