Op-Ed, 595 words

Lost Causes Can Win

The Occupy movement relies on people power, which has triumphed in Poland and elsewhere.

Tim Butterworth

It’s a David and Goliath struggle. The Occupiers’ tents are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the financiers. The Masters of the Universe control huge political budgets — the Chamber of Commerce alone spent $276 million to give Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives after the 2010 elections — while Occupiers survive on donated pizzas.

When protesters gather in front of the Chamber’s headquarters and chant, “this is what Democracy looks like,” it’s hard to escape the ironic truth that America’s democracy does look like downtrodden citizens clamoring outside the fortresses of power while the 1 percent push through laws that are crushing the nation’s middle class.


People power can triumph, however. Consider our Civil Rights movement, South Africans’ overthrow of Apartheid, the Egyptian uprising that ousted Mubarak. Plus, David did beat Goliath.

Perhaps the best model for a nonviolent mass revolution in the United States today is Poland’s Solidarity campaign.

The Soviet Union was no pushover. The 50-year Cold War cost the United States $8 trillion in an ever-escalating arms race, and thousands of lives were lost in proxy wars. Then, from about 1980 to 1990, the unarmed Polish Solidarity movement forced a cascade of liberation that helped topple the entire Eastern Bloc. How did they do it?

First, Solidarity put together an alliance of previously existing groups, so it grew rapidly. Within 500 days, Solidarity gained 9 million members, a full third of the working-age population of Poland. By the end of the decade, when they could run in elections, they won 99 percent of the legislative seats.

Solidarity was nonviolent. The movement never gave Moscow an excuse to send in its tanks. Warsaw declared martial law in 1981, arresting the leadership. Nine protesters were killed. A 1982 sweep arrested 10,000 activists, and the defiant priest Jerzy PopieÅ‚uszko was murdered in 1984 by Polish intelligence agents, but the peaceful movement didn’t lead to civil war.

Mass demonstrations and general strikes were Solidarity’s most common action. A total work stoppage, even for just 15 minutes in the middle of a day, with traffic halted at each intersection, sends a strong message.

Solidarity was a federation of regional groups. When the authorities arrested one leader, the organization could go on. It was built on labor unions but won broad international support, from our AFL-CIO to Ronald Reagan, the Pope, and, secretly, our CIA.

In Lech Walesa, a charismatic shipyard electrician with a big mustache, the movement had a blue-collar leader of rock-star status. He stood firm in negotiations and was arrested several times. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, and as a final victory was elected Poland’s president.

Creative resistance flourished, particularly after martial law drove Solidarity underground. New verses were written to old songs. Lights in student dorm rooms spelled messages. Instead of listening to the government’s propaganda-filled news, whole towns would take an evening stroll. A stolen mortar showered leaflets over downtown shoppers.

On top of all that, Solidarity had a striking red logo, which gained world recognition. Designed by two brothers in the second week of the demonstrations, its capital “S” pushes the other roughly drawn letters into a moving crowd, while one leg of an “N” becomes a streaming Polish flag.

Can Solidarity’s magic formula work for the Occupy movement? The actual occupiers are a small group now, but they have a “we happy few, we band of brothers” spirit about them, and wide popular support.

While resisting outside influence, they’re starting to make alliances with unions and other mainstream organizations. More and more communities are joining this movement, which may prove pivotal.

Just imagine what might happen if they get a really awesome logo.

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Tim Butterworth, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, is a former teacher, union negotiator and New Hampshire state representative. www.ips-dc.org
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