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Launching an IOPS Branch in Missoula, Montana

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Nearly 30 years ago, into the jungle of Chiapas, Mexico walked five people seeking to start a revolution.  Most of us know the results of this fateful decision, and most of us admire those intrepid dreamers.  Unfortunately, most of us under-appreciate this vital step of "walking into the jungle."  Furthermore, most of us start telling the story of the Zapatistas when they announced themselves to the world on January 1, 1994.  However, what happened in those 11 years between 1983 and 1994 is perhaps the most important accomplishment of the Zapatista Revolution, and we are left to imagine (or read: The Fire and the Word, by Gloria Munoz) exactly what did happen. Though no one in Missoula is deluded enough to compare our efforts or work over the past several years to that of the Zapatistas, and we can clearly see the vast chasm between our struggle and theirs, a small group of us did turn to them for inspiration. 

In the fall of 2010, a dozen or so people from Missoula and Hamilton, Montana decided to look at a text written by John Holloway called Urban Zapatismo.  Several of us among the group had been to and lived in Chiapas.  During our time there we lived with the Zapatistas and studied Spanish and Tzotsil (an indigenous language).  After our summer there, we were inspired to try to push ourselves beyond our lives of comfort and convenience.  We attempted launching a Listening Project (a la Zapatista); a community/social center; and many typical leftist endeavors.  However, rather randomly on this particular evening together with delicious food and a good article to read we happened upon a much-needed manifestation: a community of leftists in resistance.

Henceforth from this evening, we adopted a set of principles and values.  We made commitments to attend regular gatherings at each other's homes and eat food together.  We committed to checking in and sharing (perhaps the most important and valuable aspect as we discovered all of us were very damaged).  We committed to learn (we realized many of us just didn't have much shared critique and analysis of what was happening at the root of almost all issues).  We committed to be anti-capitalists.  We committed to being a "battering ram" (agitators) at community events, speakers, films, etc.  We committed to finding others during our "battering ram" activities.  And finally, we committed to seeking ways to change the world.

This group has grown and shrunk and regrown throughout the last 2.5 years.  Some people have taken seasonal work, and others have graduated from college or moved out of town.  But we have maintained numbers upward of 15 people.  Our group's average age is probably around 40 years.  We have decent gender balance.  Our activities have varied throughout, and shifted according to the group's energy levels, interests, shifting critique, or other influences. We have explored being an intentional community, created a couple zines, started a free school on the campus of the University of Montana (only to have it hijacked by Transition Towns), but we've mostly studied and learned as much as we possibly can.

Perhaps one of the most impactful (not necessarily positive) moments in the past 2 1/2 years was the Occupy movement.  Just one year after we began meeting as a community, Occupy sprang to life during the fall of 2011, it was a natural place of our beloved Wednesday Radical Epicurean Club (W.R.E.C.), aka Zoo Zaps ("Zoo" for Zootown, Montana), to participate.  For our intentional community (with no shared physical space...more like an community that intentionally gathers every Wednesday) it was tough because we thought we had found the action component to our work and that we would be able to bring all of our ideas and education into action.  HOWEVER, this is where we learned two important things: 1) Occupy was the "post-ideology" trash heap; 2) We were on to something very valuable as an intentional community being patient and learning and building and practicing our ideas. 

On the positive side of things, among the Occupy crowd we did find several people similarly frustrated by Occupy.  These were people who were willing to look beyond liberal democracy and democratic reform.  They too craved a discussion of the deeper root causes of the issues we face.  But, alas, we suffered many frustrations as we watched Occupy be derailed by process over content and critique.  To many of us, Occupy simply didn't make the case that we were in the streets because of class and the power it denied 99% of us and that there would be no reforming our way beyond it.

When one of our Zoo Zaps community members discovered IOPS, we saw the natural fit and decided it would be a worthy endeavor.  However, our group required time to study and understand IOPS.  We also wanted to be sure we were over our wounds and PTSD of Occupy to want to endeavor back out into the community.  Admittedly, we feared the attraction of those who flocked to Occupy to seek an audience for their conspiracy theories, libertarian revolutions (Ron Paul), and every other stripe in between.  We realize that many of these people are among our community and will someday be those who we must reach, but as far as organizing and moving forward while maintaining our dignity and sanity, we felt we needed another approach than Occupy.

Returning back to our Zootown Zapatistas intentional community to gather strength, study, learn, dialogue, heal, and prepare, we decided on something we called "Class".  It was our own version of Free School.  We took turns facilitating study sessions on various texts, films and videos.  We looked at violence, environmentalism, definitions of basic terms (capitalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, etc.), the Zapatistas, education, and so on.  We read the densest of the dense (Zizek; Butler; Marx), Skyped with a Zapatista comrade and Skyped with the Brooklyn Free School.  We watched films on cooperatives and workplace democracy.  This week we are study another dense text by good ol' Adorno about the "culture industry."

Anyway, to finally answer a question being asked in several blogs about how or why Missoula, Montana was successful in its launch of a IOPS branch, I must begin by saying it's awfully early to determine if we are or will be successful.  For now, there have only been two public meetings, even though we have all been members of IOPS for quite some time.  Secondly, we have all committed to the following idea: Start now, go slow, and don’t stop.  It isn't profound, but it reflects the Zapatista motto of "lento pero seguro" and "poco a poco" (slow but sure and little by little).

From the core group of Zoo Zaps community members we were each able to contact one or two friends from our various concentric circles of organizing pasts and send them personal invites to the first and second meetings.  For this we intentionally picked friends, acquaintances that we knew would basically be on board with IOPS Mission and Vision.  In other words, we cherry-picked our first audience...and we intend to continue to cherry pick for a while until we feel the branch has its own legs and that the energy is coming from the potential of IOPS and not our intentional community. 

The advantages of organizing slowly and forming a group to launch IOPS may be obvious, but just in case, here are a few things observed:

  1. We were able to plan an agenda and have food and video equipment to show the videos from the website. 
  2. We were able to divide up roles (facilitator, greeting/hand-shaker, vibes watcher (the talkatives vs. the quiet), and presenters of the various parts of the meeting.
  3. We know and trust each other and feel supported and confident.
  4. We see at least a core group of people committed for the long haul as we approach 3 years together.

Next, we have found that an important aspect of IOPS in contrast to Occupy is its ability to stick to its values and critique instead of drifting aimlessly or inviting people to join a “process for the sake of a process.”  A lot like the IWW, who are able to hand potential members a copy of the IWW Constitution and allow them to read what it is all about before they decide to join or if they share any values, IOPS is able to do the same.  Similarly, the Zapatistas do not go from community to community and force people to join their movement.  They don’t shy away from being who they are (anti-capitalists) and try to inspire by example.  What this has meant for the Missoula branch of IOPS is that we don't have to fear the derailing conspiracy theorist factor as much when we are able to say what we are about and if those things don't jive with you, you are not forced to be a part of this community.  However, you are always welcome to join should you change your mind.

Perhaps the conclusion is that in order to be successful in launching an IOPS branch you have to take a couple of years to foster a community with good food, open hearts and minds, study, study, study, and be willing to take risks.  Minimally, we might say that it wouldn’t hurt to read about IOPS with like-minded people over a nice meal in someone’s home, but don’t be all business…get to know each other.  The Invisible Committee urged us to “Find Each Other” in their book The Coming Insurrection, and that is what we have to do if we are going to be successful in launching branches.  We need to find each other and begin liking each other.  This can’t happen at meetings alone.  We need to become community, friends, comrades, and foster decent relationships based on trust, dignity, and more trust.  Along with building a critique of the system, we need to build relationships while breaking bread.  In the communities in Chiapas that I have visited and lived in, I discovered a simple truth: they know each, trust each other and even share a Cosmo-vision.  In our multi-cultural and diverse world, such deep levels of trust and common ground are uncommon.  So, that is why we decided to begin there: building community, dignity and trust. 

But I like to think that there are many ways forward, and this is only how it has worked for us up here in the Northern Rockies. 

Discussion 10 Comments

  • Kim Keyser 28th May 2013

    Sounds great (not in the "sounds like you've come far enough" way, but in the sense that you've started walking in the right direction)! Also, I thought this sounded very wise: "Start now, go slow, and don’t stop." That actually gets you somewhere, "poco a poco" and "lentemente", sure, but after having been walking for a while, and stopping for a short break in order to evaluate, one can usually see that one has come amazingly far, and one happy day we will have reached the destination.

    Un abrazo desde un amigo de Noruega. :)

    PS: Spoke to a missoulan (is that how one says it?) from the Workers Solidarity Alliance, which I met in St-Imier last summer, just yesterday, in order to tip him about IOPS Missoula. Seemed like he had some ideological issues with IOPS program tho… (I'll do a small effort in order to convince him, but we'll see). It's a small world, yeah?

  • John Wolverton 28th May 2013

    Thanks so much Jay, for putting out our story!

    Although I did not experience the southern Mexico portion of this essay - the balance is indeed reflective of my engagement with the zoo-zaps.

    So as not to create a false *international* impression of Missoulians and Missoula, Montana: We do not live in a zoo -- Surrounded by enchanting mountains, we dwell in a great little valley town which is living our official subtitle of: "The Garden City".

    JW

  • Lambert Meertens 28th May 2013

    Thanks.

    The Zapatistas welcome tourists: http://www.newstatesman.com/travel/2009/03/zapatistas-mexican-san-oventic. I see the Zoo-Zaps likewise invite tourists to their "territory".

    So good food is key, eh. Maybe instead of an IOPS Handbook (http://www.iopsociety.org/projects/local-chapter-project/handbook-subproject) we need an IOPS Cookbook.

    • Kim Keyser 28th May 2013

      Believe it or not, but my local IOPS-compatible activist organization raised more than 1/3 of the money we needed to set up a bus headed for Norway's fourth largest city to protest the extreme right, by a cookbook fund (from income accrued by sales of the cookbook made and sold by Oslo's "autonomous" youth house)!

    • Kimimila Bostrom 28th May 2013

      First recipe for the IOPS cookbook (caution: it's super cheesy!)

      Ingredients:
      A bundle of Discussion
      Liberal handful of Learning
      Pinch of Ego
      Tears, to taste
      A good sprinkling of Laughter
      Support, add enough to hold the mixture together

      Directions:
      Set aside the Ego. Mix together the Learning and Discussion. Mix well until Historical Context and Ideological Honesty form. Add a sprinkling of Tears and a liberal dose of Laughter to taste. Add Support and simmer ingredients together until Community rises to the top. Enjoy with friends.

    • Kim Keyser 31st May 2013

      LOL. :)

  • Jon Doe 28th May 2013

    This is great advice and analysis. I don't have time to properly reply but I can say that allot of the lessons are mirrored in our experience in NYC, however we have yet to get as far. But basically it don't matter if you are surrounded by mountains or buildings, you have to eat food (and drink (moderate) amounts of beer:) with like minded activists, build relationships, discuss the principals and take time to support one another and "start now, go slow and don't stop"!

  • Dave Jones 29th May 2013

    Thanks for the contribution,Jay. As a Zoozapper,I will also add that our social-izing includes outings, hikes, rafting, ski weekends and the like where, between delicious meals, we just have fun and enjoy one another's company. All work and no play makes a dull revolutionary. Our Mayday Kickball games (Introverts vs Extroverts) are competitive affairs!

  • Mark Evans 30th May 2013

    Hi Jay - I enjoyed reading your blog. It sounds like you have learned some important lessons during your organising experience.

    That said your post did bring to mind an issue that I would like to run by you and anyone else who is interested.

    You write -

    "We need to find each other and begin liking each other. This can’t happen at meetings alone. We need to become community, friends, comrades, and foster decent relationships based on trust, dignity, and more trust."

    Whilst I agree that we need to foster decent relationships based on trust and dignity I'm not sure that all members need to like each other and be friends.

    In fact I feel that IOPS chapters and branches should be able to accommodate members who don't actually like each other at all. For example (and keeping your "community with good food" in mind) we all know people on the left who think that eating meat is murder - and I mean they really do believe it is murder - and we know people on the left who eat meat and feel fine about it - they really do not see a problem. Now let's say people from both "camps" like IOPS and join. Are they likely to be friends? Probably not. Is that a problem? I say no. What matters is can they organise together? There are many many other issue similar to this that we can strongly disagree on but still organise together for a participatory society without the need to be friends.

    If we can not do this and organise effectively then I don't see much hope for building the popular revolutionary movement that is so desperately needed.

  • Dave Jones 1st Jun 2013

    Mark,

    Your point about unity and antagonism is well taken. While strict vegans and carnivores should should still have the capacity to be friends, it is true not all IOPS chapter members need develop that level of closeness in order to "organize effectively" together.

    I am thinking of a stateside phenomenon called Rainbow Gatherings, or the Burning Man Festival, where participants report the overwhelming joy of such unity and closeness, yet drive little emancipatory change beyond that particular, fixed, time and place. Or Zizek's cautionary warning to Occupy Wall Street that when the party is over, the difficult work begins.

    Our local model is great for building a core constituency and affinity group- but as you say,really doesn't translate when expanded to global revolution. Which is why we have proceeded so cautiously I guess. What is needed are institutions and processes that can be replicated, especially radical, plural democracy.