Human Rights, the Occupy Movement, and Lessons from the Ella Baker Model of Organizing

by the US Human Rights Network

The financial and economic collapse that began in 2007-2008 became the essential catalyst, domestically and internationally, for the rebellion against neoliberalism that we are witnessing today. Neoliberalism, in its very essence is a violation of human rights. According to Elizabeth Martinez of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), the components of neoliberalism include: the rule of the market; cutting public expenditures for social services; deregulation; privatization; and eliminating the concept of the public good and replacing it with individual responsibility.” To implement these repressive policies governments around the world have invested in the construction of massive repressive agencies and criminalized and/or otherwise alienated millions in order to protect the interests of the ruling elites.

The current, national Occupy Wall Street movement received its inspiration from the wave of rebellions that swept North Africa beginning in December 2010 and spread from there to the Middle East and Europe. Here in the U.S., we have been inspired by the actions of tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers and youth who descended on the grounds of the state Capitol in February of this year to oppose a budget proposal that would strip government unions of most bargaining rights. Deeper still, these actions are part and parcel of an escalating wave of resistance to neoliberalism that commenced with the onset of the global financial and economic crisis. This resistance has included acts of civil disobedience to escalating food prices in numerous countries throughout the world, worker occupations of factories in Europe and Asia, housing occupations in the US and Europe, massive student strikes in Latin America (including Puerto Rico) and Europe, and massive demonstrations against the corporate takeover of the world’s water, oil, and other natural resources. Without question, the inequities of the global capitalist system and the harsh excesses of its accompanying neoliberal ideology have become the target of the anger of the vast majority of the peoples’ of the world.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) first took shape in New York City in September and the Occupy Movement has since spread to 70 major cities and 600 communities. Using the slogan “We are the 99%!,” the corruption, speculation, and exploitation of the corporations and banks and their domination of the political system has been the central theme. There have been numerous demonstrations, actions, and arrests which have occurred across the country. On November 2, for example, the Port of Oakland was shut down by demonstrators that included support from Oakland’s largest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, along with the Oakland Education Association (OEA), International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

Many organizations in the US Human Rights Network (USHRN) believe this is an excellent opportunity to introduce the human rights framework into the discussion about the long-term vision of this movement and where it should be headed next. A sampling of some of the engagement of Network members clearly illustrates this point.

Economist, and USHRN Board Chair, Radhika Balakrishnan, along with fellow economist, James Heintz, from Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) Umass-Amherst, recently conducted a teach-in at Occupy Wall Street and produced an article published in the Huffington Post (see that focused on two human rights principles – the obligation of governments to protect our human rights and the concept of government using its maximum available resources to support the realization of our economic and social rights – which are essential to overcoming this crisis. Despite decades of selective affirmation of some of our civil and political human rights, the U.S. has repeatedly rejected the urgency of economic, social, and cultural rights—the very human rights which U.S. capital’s neoliberal agenda has targeted most viciously in recent months.

The Black Left Unity Network (BLUN) and the Labor Working Group of the USHRN held two coordinating meetings, one on October 20th and another on November 3rd, to discuss how to strategically address many of the weaknesses of the Occupy movement as it pertained to race and gender. BLUN and the Labor Working Group will be holding a strategy meeting in early December and calling for Black and Racial Justice orientated organizations throughout the country to engage in People’s Assemblies to help deepen the anti-capitalist agenda of the Occupy movement.

The Take Back the Land Movement (TBLM) has helped to spearhead the December 6th Coalition, which is organizing a national day of action to “Occupy to Liberate” vacant and foreclosed housing throughout the United States to realize the human right to housing in the United States.

USHRN Board Member and Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), issued a statement on the Occupy movement entitled, “Occupy What?”, that addressed the relationship of the Occupy movement with homelessness and inequality and a call to action targeting the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) issued one of the earliest statements of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street Movement linking it with the human rights framework. The statement was entitled, “A Sister Movement? And Expression of Outrage? A Moment of Inchoate Inspiration? – What is Occupy Wall Street?”. NESRI has issued further statements in support of the growing movement and has made some vital links with the struggle for the human right to health and workers. For more information on NESRI’s work in relationship to the Occupy movement visit

In Atlanta, USHRN member organizaton, the Atlanta Public Sector Alliance (APSA) has been using the human rights framework to articulate a radical vision and program for the city through its Human Rights Charter campaign. APSA had concentrated its work on the public sector and the human right of people to education, health care, housing, and transportation access. The central question posed by APSA is, “What would a city look like if it was run based on human rights principles?” Especially in the context of the current economic crisis, APSA believes that its Charter campaign is the best way to build a movement that is strategic, comprehensive, and inclusive. It offers a model of community organizing worthy of consideration by the Occupy movement.

Based on the USHRN’s work to build a people-centered human rights movement, which is premised on the notion that only an informed, organized and engaged civil society can counter corporate exploitation and the regressive acts of oppressive governance, there are two additional points we would like to introduce into the discussion of how this new Occupy movement might grow and develop. We understand that a new generation of activists have to find their own way and develop their own path, but we also believe that there are lessons to be learned from previous generations of work by activists and human rights defenders to transform the current system.

First, we are grateful to feminists of color for teaching us about the concept of intersectionality which is key to understanding how this system operates. Economic or class oppression is not the only form of oppression that exists in our society. The ideologies of white supremacy, male supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and ableism have created sharp divisions in the working class. The 99% is very diverse and complex. Substantial portions of the 99% face other forms of injustice besides economic exploitation and marginalization. In fact, the capitalist system we live under could not run without creating and promoting various forms of division and inequality amongst the 99%. This has been essential for the elite to run their “divide and conquer” strategies, which have served their purposes so well for centuries.

The theory and practice of intersectionality provides the foundation we need to build a human rights movement that addresses the fact that many people face more than one oppression simultaneously. The human rights framework reaffirms that various forms of inequality meet at points of intersection. If we are to build a truly inclusive movement for transformative change, we cannot privilege class over these other forms of oppression. In fact, intersectionality helps us to see how different systems of oppression work, interact, and are shaped by each other. It also helps us overcome the ways in which forms of privilege undermine our efforts from within because it compels us to illuminate those elements of the oppressor within all of us. Awareness of white, male, class, and other forms of privilege will help us construct a movement culture that is truly radical, inclusive, and participatory.

A second contribution that we think is relevant here is the exemplary work of civil rights movement organizer Ella Baker and her work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her life and her work demonstrated the power that arises from standing at the intersection of multiple oppressions. Inside the organization, “the traditional norms of male dominance, white privilege, and class elitism were overturned,” Historian Barbara Ransby says, not using “the master’s tools” made it possible for SNCC to be on the cutting edge of radical change and a driving force within the overall civil rights movement.

Ella Baker is also responsible for promoting SNCC’s development of home grown, local leadership and putting this collective wisdom at the center of the work. What made her work so radical was the encouragement of the group to empower itself. SNCC organizer Bob Moses says that what was learned in Mississippi was “getting people at the bottom to make demands, on themselves first, then on the system, that leads to some of the most important changes.”

Based among those most affected, Ella Baker believed in a radically democratic process where everyone makes a contribution, especially in the decision-making process. As opposed to a “leader-centered” process, she believed in a more empowering “group-centered” one. To her, relationship building was central and her organizing philosophy healed the binary between personal and political by emphasizing the need for personal transformation as part of movement building. It was the belief in the transformative power of organizing, not just mobilizing, and the combining of action with reflection that made her contributions so valuable.

The USHRN is very excited about the potential of the moment and the promise of the Occupy movement. This represents a time when a new generation of radical activists is surfacing, finding its way, and learning its own lessons through the course of struggle. It is a time when important questions about the nature of our political and economic system are being raised. We are prepared to lend our support in as concrete a way as possible. We aim to promote the human rights framework as a way to best advance the interests and demands of the masses of people who are beginning to stand up and fight back!

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