Occupying Leadership: What will it take to accomplish real change?

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi, the young Tibetan monk who set himself on fire last week, are more alike than might first meet the eye.

Tim DeChristopher outside a Salt Lake City, UT Federal Court

DeChristopher, one of the founders of the group Peaceful Uprising, took direct action to disrupt the sale of wilderness to mining companies in a closed Federal auction.  He ended up in prison, but he also did a tremendous amount to raise public awareness about the issue of land sales to corporate industry, and inspired the PeaceUp folks to greater activism.

Jamphel Yeshi also took a dramatic personal action at huge cost to himself—he lost not just his liberty, but his life. He and the 30 other monks who have taken this drastic step in the past have succeeded in letting the world know how deeply the Tibetan people are suffering under Chinese repression, and how passionately they yearn for autonomy to practice their religion and preserve their culture.

A monk looks at posters of Jamphel Yeshi in Dharamsala, India

Dramatic personal action is definitely a good tool to use in raising public awareness about an issue.

The problem with it is that one leader standing alone is an easy target—and if the action is a suicide, that heroic action is always going to be a one-time event.

That the Occupy movement has so far eschewed the single, high-profile leader model is a sign of the solidity of this nascent social movement.

Despite demands from the media and others for a leader to step out of the shadows and announce himself (the leader is always presumed to be male), Occupy has held firm to its founding principle of being a “leaderless movement.”

Occupy Oakland GA

This is true in the way the different “chapters” of Occupy, springing up at will anywhere in the world, are completely autonomous from the Occupy Wall Street folks who initially launched the movement last August; and it is true in the way that any passerby can join a General Assembly and have a chance to speak and influence or inspire the group. It’s true in the various Occupy online platforms that give anyone with an internet connection the ability to communicate with the world, and it’s true with the Occupy media, which are collective and often anonymous publications of strategies, theories and praxes of resistance.

I feel a tremendous sense of loss and rage that obvious, powerful leaders like Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi are driven by frustration with the system and anger at injustice to commit acts of activist resistance that are either outright suicidal, or land them swiftly behind bars.

We in the West howl about human rights violations every time the Chinese throw another idealistic young activist in jail.

But we do the same thing here.

We reward the best and brightest of our young people as long as they play by the rules of the game and never question the wisdom of their elders in setting up those rules.

The Ivy league grads who will go on to become Goldman Sachs executives or corporate CEOs or weapons systems engineers—they are our golden children who can do no wrong.

But those young people who look out at what is and see the waste, the greed, the desecration of the planet, the horrendous danger in which the old game has placed us, as we cross the threshold of the 21st century into the new era of global heating, overpopulation, extreme inequality, toxic chemical poisoning, militarization…those young people are considered by the power elites to be annoying, pie-in-the-sky, unreasonable idealists who need to grow up and get a job.

In other words, they need to shut up and join the system.

The reason the Occupy movement is gaining steam is because the system no longer has enough places for all the smart, talented young people we are producing.

We can’t all join Goldman Sachs, now can we?

We can’t all join Greenpeace either.

When young people can’t pay off their student loans and can’t find jobs, and their parents can’t help them because they themselves can barely keep up with the mortgage payments…these young people are naturally going to be much more open to the possibility that something is quite wrong with the established system.

That’s where we are now.  That’s why suddenly we have not one or two extraordinary young leaders like Tim DeChristopher or Jamphel Yeshi stepping up, but a whole tide of young people who have the time, the talent and the energy to tackle the problems of our American society, and our global human civilization, head on.

One General Assembly at a time, they are creating a new vision of society and a new model of leadership.

It couldn’t be more different from the corrupt talking heads they grew up watching on TV.

It is, as Tom Hayden shared with us eloquently this week in The Nation, a return to the SDS and SNCC vision of true participatory democracy in action.

This spring and summer, it’s the numbers that will make all the difference.  They can’t lock up a million idealistic Americans whose only crime was to want to change our country for the better.

Did I say a million?  Let’s make it 10 million, all across the country, coming out and taking a stand for new rules to the game of life that are based above all on respect for the planet and her creatures.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, says the Scripture.

No wiser words have ever been spoken.  Let’s stop the hypocrisy and start practicing what we preach.  Let’s do it soon, before any more brave young leaders have to martyr themselves on our account, trying so desperately to wake us up.

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  1. I have decided to register an objection, Jenny. I have reacted with anger seeing those pictures of the burning monk, and people discussing his facial expressions. I find that repulsive, ghoulish, not to mention disrespectful.

    I wanted to read this essay, but I will not, since it is not possible to not gawk at the man’s agony, nor avoid the photo gawking at me. The Spectacle has turned him into a commodity already… why do you participate in it? I can hear them now… that monk, yeah, oh well. Next!

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  March 31, 2012

      Is it better to turn away and pretend we didn’t see him? He certainly made a spectacle of himself (no disrespect intended; I mean this literally) and wanted the world to see, react, understand. I think I honor him by my willingness to meet him halfway, in cyberspace at least, and pay my respects to his memory.

  2. You can’t meet him halfway, what kind of self-delusion is that?

    And don’t give me a black and while choice. Nobody is talking about turning away. I think the dead and dying ought to be given at least some discreet distance. This way, it’s just like the accident on the highway… people can’t help but slow down and gawk. And then move on and forget the ghastliness as soon as possible.

    Pay respects to his memory by looking at what his action means, not by staring at the action itself, and forcing others to stare also.

  3. Oh and one more thing. Yes, he made a spectacle of himself. Does that entitle *you* to make a spectacle of him?
    Nuff said.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  April 1, 2012

      I hope some others will comment on this issue too. Maybe I’ll take it up with my Human Rights, Activism & the Arts class next week. To me, it seems plain that Jamphel Yeshi immolated himself publicly to make a public statement of his death, and in dwelling on it and sustaining the image of his resistance, I am honoring his effort, his life, his death, and all he stood for.

      This is quite different from, say, what the soldiers at Abu Ghraib did when they took pictures of helpless prisoners and circulated them on the Web. There I would agree with you that the spectacle was a further degradation.

      But not in Jamphel’s case.

  4. I hope you do take it up with the class. I don’t think I would compare it to Abu Ghraib and degradation. It’s more like… using the detailed image to feed the Spectacle. Disrespectful and counterproductive, yes, but not degrading, no. Another example would be… let’s say some prisoner fasts in protest and dies. And people around the web spread her dead emaciated face, and use it to make a point. Ugh. (But then I come from a culture that does not hold with displaying the dead before they are buried, either.)

    Sorry… people are not means. Only ends. Kant wuz right. And their suffering does not entitle us to turn it into icons in order for us to make our points, to tell our stories, far removed. Their suffering should not be on display for our own purposes!


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