Undoing the Politics of Powerlessness

By Yotam Marom

Walking the Tightrope

I’m in a warmly lit apartment on the Lower East Side. It’s a cool night in early October of 2011, the height of Occupy Wall Street.

Torn at the Seams

It wasn’t too long before it came crashing down. It got cold, the cops came, the encampments were evicted, and momentum died down, as is to be expected. This is the story we tell, and it has some truth in it, but those of us who were on the inside know there was more to it than that.

The People Went Home

I spent years being angry about it. I was angry at the people who had attacked the group I was part of from the inside, the people who bullied me into giving up every piece of leverage I had by making me feel like I didn’t have the right to organize the folks I had access to, who punished me every time I was quoted or interviewed, who came to the meetings I facilitated and intentionally disrupted them. The stories are too long and too many to recount here, and anyone who was in the middle of it has their own share of war stories too.

The Politics of Powerlessness

Many of us left that moment bitter, depressed, heart-broken. Some of that is predictable, maybe, on the downward spiral from such a high. Some of it was the product of a lot of young folks experiencing their first tastes of movement and thinking the result was going to be a revolution. But some of it was specific to this toxicity, the sudden snapping of this unbelievable tight rope we had been racing across.

Compassion and Curiosity on the way to Power

It’s October of 2013, brisk and breezy, with the leaves changing in dramatic colors. I’m in a Mexican restaurant in Minneapolis with organizers from Occupy Homes — the same folks now part of the leadership of Black Lives Matter MN. We’re debriefing the retreat a couple of us just held for them as part of the Wildfire Project. Wildfire supports new, radical groups emerging from movement moments with long-term training and support, and connects them to one another to help them become greater than the sum of their parts. We’re tired from a big weekend, and I’m getting feedback on my facilitation.

Undoing the Politics of Powerlessness

Today, when I think about the politics of powerlessness, it feels clear as day to me that the source of all of it is fear. Fear of leaders, of the enemy, of the possibility of having to govern, of the stakes of winning and losing, of each other, of ourselves. And it’s all pretty understandable.

Honoring Fear

I’m at a retreat center in Florida, at the first ever Wildfire National Convening, with 80 members of organizations from all over the country: folks from Ohio Student Association, Dream Defenders, GetEQUAL, Rockaway Wildfire, and the Occupy Homes groups in Atlanta and Minneapolis. It’s the first night, and the organizations are performing skits that explain their origin stories. It’s Rockaway Wildfire’s turn — a group that formed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, merging the relief effort with organizing in Far Rockaway, Queens. Out there, floods fell on top of broken schools, impoverished projects, and a population that was drastically underemployed and over-policed. The folks in the Rockaways were losing their homes to foreclosure before the floods wrecked them, losing their sons to prisons long before the storm came to displace them.

Organizer and facilitator based in Brooklyn. Played leadership role at Occupy Wall St, former Director of the Wildfire Project, founding member of IfNotNow.

Organizer and facilitator based in Brooklyn. Played leadership role at Occupy Wall St, former Director of the Wildfire Project, founding member of IfNotNow.