A mass social justice movement does not need charismatic leaders or tent city
encampments to be effective on a national level, according to international
activists in Israel this week taking part in a conference on global
Matt Renner, an Occupy Wall Street activist and development and
communications director for independent news organization Truthout, told The
on Thursday that like Israel’s J14 social justice movement, OWS
passed the stage of nationwide encampments long ago, in favor of smaller
meetings and workshops held behind the scenes – with activists meeting to
discuss ways to keep the protest moving forward in a way that can bring societal
Renner was joined by Miguel Arana Catania of Spain’s M15
movement, who said, “When we had the encampments we had a lot of strength, a lot
of power, but we learned something that is clear – that the strength is coming
from 99 percent.”
The main issue was how to organize this critical mass
of people to bring change, Catania added.
Renner and Catania, along with
Gulnara Aitova of the Russian pro-democracy movement, are in Israel to take part
in the Activists of the World Unite! conference.
Sponsored by Social
Economic Academy and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, it brings together Israeli
and international social justice leaders to share experiences and develop
contacts. Speakers and panelists at the conference include influential
journalists and activists who deal with issues such as nonviolent resistance,
housing protests, foreign workers rights and the feminist struggle.
conference is being held on Thursday and Friday, as the heat of summer returns
in force to Israel – following months of speculation that the nationwide social
justice protests will also return over the summer. Speaking to Renner and
Catania, it was easy to see a long list of parallels between their movements and
Israel’s J14 movement – namely that both started as largely spontaneous
grassroots protests that spread like wildfire, and were centered around protest
As in Israel, the movements made a point of trying to remain
non-partisan and egalitarian, and lacked a clearly political set of demands or a
framework for how to translate a massive groundswell of popular support into
legislative or parliamentary change.
Although the interview was conducted
in English, the sentiments the two activists expressed would have been very
familiar to anyone who covered or paid attention to last summer’s protest
movement in Israel.
J14 was criticized for many different reasons, one of
them being its devotion to being an egalitarian movement without a strong
centralized leadership or charismatic leader.
Renner said he did not
believe this to be a problem, in that “movements of the past had been focused on
one person, and what we’ve seen is that when that person is either taken off the
playing field by assassination or coopted or corrupted, the movement all of a
sudden shrivels. The most important part about the way we’ve been
organizing is that its non-hierarchical.”
Catania was even more clear in
his dismissal of the notion, saying that one of the weaknesses of the Israeli
protest was the prominence of certain leaders, who made repeated media
appearances and became symbols of the movement.
He made the statement
while sitting at a table with J14 leader Daphni Leef, as he was being
interviewed by Israeli media outlets at the conference.
When asked what
they think they can learn from the Israeli movement, which has adopted some of
the slogans and styles of the OWS movement, Renner said he was moved by the
popularity and sheer force of numbers of the Israeli movement.
can get 500,000 people on the street in a country of 7 million that’s a great
accomplishment, and that means your message and how you expressed yourself
worked – so I’m here to learn from that,” he said.
J14 has also been
criticized for being in many ways apolitical, and for refusing to address wedge
issues like the occupation and how these issues affect Israel’s economy and
Renner said he did not think this was a faulty
approach, in that “once you begin investing in the wedge issues you get involved
in the two-party system,” adding that in the US “the way we’ve gotten to where
we are is corrupt, and we [in the occupy movement] have a very non-partisan
approach because everything in America is very partisan.”
similar to what was said last summer in Israel, both Renner and Catania said
they do not support trying to effect change from within the political system,
with Catania saying, “We have to make a new game. This game is not working, the
political system of giving the power to a new person every two or four years is
Renner, for his part, said that many of those in the OWS movement
had been involved as organizers for the Barack Obama presidential campaign
before becoming disenchanted with his administration.
There is a
reluctance to use their grassroots support to play the political game to their
advantage because “the system is corrupt and once you become part of the system,
you become ineffective at best and corrupt at worst,” he said.
added that he supports local organizing through local party chapters and local
More than anything else, however, a parallel can be seen in the
very basic acts of civil disobedience such as camping out in city centers that
founded all of the cost-of-living movements of the past year.
act as if you’re already free to do things you think make sense regardless of
their legality,” Renner said