Where now for Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement?

16.11.11

When Occupy Wall Street began in September, its great innovative strength — and what enabled it to be picked up on and repeated across America, and around the world — was that it broke with the tired old model of one-day protests, with their limited opportunities for creating bonds and exchanging ideas, and, as I saw it, specifically involved young people, who were educated, but in debt and unemployed, refusing to be the atomized collateral damage of a capitalist system that is discarding more and more of its own people, taking to the streets and public spaces (or “private” spaces that can be claimed by the public), and refusing to go home.

With yesterday’s eviction of Zuccotti Park, in New York, and the ban on protestors camping there in future, part of the “Occupy” movement — the geographical part that involved physically occupying a location — may have been broken, but the impulse that drove large numbers of people, let down by society, to refuse to stay at home and self-medicate in silence and isolation, was not.

Moreover, the boot of authority — wielded, appropriately, by New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg — that crushed the encampment in Zuccotti Park, may, we hear, have also been the spearhead of a national campaign to rid America of its myriad other untidy occupations, with Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, explaining, in an interview with the BBC shortly before a wave of raids broke up “Occupy” encampments across the country, “I was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country who had the same situation,” and an anonymous Justice Department official apparently also explaining that “each of those actions was coordinated with help from Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal police agencies.”

However, even if this is the case, it still does nothing to answer any of the fundamental questions raised by those who have occupied parks and public spaces from New York to Oakland, and from Portland to Miami. Where are the jobs? Why are we still fighting pointless wars? Why are the 1 percent getting richer, while we are left with nothing? As Chris Hedges wrote after the New York eviction:

Welcome to the revolution. Our elites have exposed their hand. They have nothing to offer. They can destroy but they cannot build. They can repress but they cannot lead. They can steal but they cannot share. They can talk but they cannot speak. They are as dead and useless to us as the water-soaked books, tents, sleeping bags, suitcases, food boxes and clothes that were tossed by sanitation workers Tuesday morning into garbage trucks in New York City. They have no ideas, no plans and no vision for the future.

So what’s next?

Intriguingly, as Robert Mackey noted on Monday on the New York Times‘ The Lede blog, Adbusters, the Canadian, anti-consumerist magazine that launched Occupy Wall Street by issuing a call in July “for protesters to ‘flood into Lower Manhattan’ on Sept. 17 and set up a camp modeled on the occupations of Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the plazas of Spanish cities,” issued a new “tactical briefing” on Monday, just hours before the Occupy Wall Street camp was evicted, suggesting that “it might be time for the protesters to ‘declare victory’ and scale back the camps before winter sets in.”

In the briefing, Adbusters noted, “as winter approaches an ominous mood could set in … hope thwarted is in danger of turning sour, patience exhausted becoming anger, militant nonviolence losing its allure. It isn’t just the mainstream media that says things could get ugly.”

As Mackey explained, Adbusters‘ founder, Kalle Lasn, first suggested that it “might be time for a tactical retreat” in an interview with CBC Radio earlier this month, saying, ”Now that winter is approaching, I can see this first wild, messy, crazy occupation phase kind of slowly winding down,” and, in an interview with the Guardian last week, Lasn added, “The other side is owning the narrative right now. People are talking about drugs and criminals at OWS.”

There is certainly some truth in this observation, although it should also be noted that at least part of this perceived problem could have been thrown back at the critics. “Violent anarchists” may be difficult to package for the mainstream, but homeless people, some with challenging mental health issues, and/or drink and drug problems, who have been drawn to Occupy camps throughout the US and elsewhere, are part of the same fallout from a heartless society that Occupy Wall Street was inspired to address in the first place — and I hope that, at some point, the plight of the homeless will once more be raised.

Last week, however, Kalle Lasn, focusing specifically on the need for a positive response to the negative publicity generated by right-wingers, suggested to the Guardian, “Why not, as a grand gesture, declare victory? I love the idea that some diehards will dig in through the snow. This is what happens in movements and revolutions, they have this crazy wild state a the beginning where nobody knows that going on.” And this was followed up in the briefing on Monday that coincided with Zuccotti Park’s eviction:

We declare “victory” and throw a party … to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we’ve come, the comrades we’ve made, the glorious days ahead … Then we clean up, scale back and most of us go indoors while the die-hards hold the camps. We use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum so that we may emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and a myriad projects ready to rumble next Spring.

There is, I believe, something to be said for this, and, in the New Republic last week, Kalle Lasn made a point of telling intern Thomas Stackpole just how far the movement had already come. “They have been successful in launching a heavy duty conversation in America about the state of America,” Lasn said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

It may not get any better for a start, but that’s what the last two months have been — a start. For further progress, the movement must now, it seems, see if it can find new geographical locations, or move into new and previously uncharted territory.

The Occupy movement’s first post-eviction test will come tomorrow, in the November 17th day of action that was called before the eviction, with three aims, as follows (details from the Occupy Wall Street website):

BREAKFAST: Shut Down Wall Street – 7:00 a.m.

Enough of this economy that exploits and divides us. It’s time we put an end to Wall Street’s reign of terror and begin building an economy that works for all. We will gather in Liberty Square at 7:00 a.m., before the ring of the Trading Floor Bell, to prepare to confront Wall Street with the stories of people on the frontlines of economic injustice. There, before the Stock Exchange, we will exchange stories rather than stocks.

LUNCH: Occupy The Subways – 3:00 p.m.

We will start by Occupying Our Blocks! Then throughout the five boroughs, we will gather at 16 central subway hubs and take our own stories to the trains, using the “People’s Mic”.

Bronx (Fordham Rd; 3rd Ave, 138th Street; 163rd and Southern Blvd; 161st and River – Yankee Stadium), Brooklyn (Broadway Junction; Borough Hall; 301 Grove Street; St Jose Patron Church,185 Suydam St, Bushwick), Queens (Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Ave; Jamaica Center/Parsons/Archer; 92-10 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights), Manhattan (125th St. A,B,C,D; Union Sq. (Mass student strike); 23rd St and 8th Ave) and Staten Island (St. George, Staten Island Ferry Terminal; 479 Port Richmond Avenue, Port Richmond).

DINNER: Take The Square – 5:00 p.m.

At 5 pm, tens of thousands of people will gather at Foley Square (just across from City Hall) in solidarity with laborers demanding jobs to rebuild this country’s infrastructure and economy. A gospel choir and a marching band will also be performing.

Afterwards we will march to our bridges. Let’s make it as musical a march as possible — bring your songs, your voice, your spirit! Our “Musical” on the bridge will culminate in a festival of light as we mark the two-month anniversary of the #occupy movement, and our commitment to shining light into our broken economic and political system.

While these events involve direct action, other aspects of the movement’s capacity to survive will have to involve other elements of the movement that have been taking place over the last two months, some of which were highlighted in an article at the weekend by Daniel Massey for Crain’s New York Business.

New territory

In a fascinating article, Massey noted that, even before the eviction, the ad hoc leaders who have emerged over the last eight weeks were “laying plans to spread the occupation to other city neighbourhoods,” and to “build an infrastructure that can sustain the movement beyond the park and make Occupy Wall Street not just symbolic but intrusive” — exactly what is needed after Mayor Bloomberg’s actions.

Yotam Marom, a 25-year-old writer, teacher and musician from Hoboken, N.J., said, “We’re thinking about actions that truly disrupt business as usual in a way that forces people with power to stop in their tracks. We need to be attacking banks, not just by dancing around in lobbies, but by stopping them from doing things.”

Massey added that organizers “are discussing how to halt foreclosures, develop banking alternatives and figure out what the movement means in the world of politics,” and that additional occupations were also under discussion, including ones “aimed specifically at reclaiming foreclosed homes,” which would be a powerful development, given America’s scandalous foreclosure crisis, and the lack of joined-up thinking that involves banks making people homeless, but then leaving houses empty.

Massey noted that one of the movement’s great strengths has been its daily general assembly meetings, which he described as “the hallmark of the movement’s horizontal structure, where issues are debated and decisions made,” and it is clear that, without these, something hugely important will be lost, as Nicole Carty, a 23-year old Brown University graduate, explained. Carty said that her political activism “was sparked by a class on globalization and social conflict,” and said of Occupy Wall Street, “Usually when we think of leadership, we think of authority, but nobody has authority here. People lead by example, stepping up when they need to and stepping back when they need to.”

She decried the movement not as leaderless but as “leaderful,” and added that observers tended to “confuse its non-hierarchical structure with a leadership vacuum.” Crucially, she mentioned not only how the general assemblies were open to the public, but also how its 84 working groups were as well, and while the central focal point of Zuccotti Park may have been swept away, it is obviously much easier for these groups to continue.

As Daniel Massey explained, even before the eviction, while the mainstream media was focused on the park — and had begun to focus on negative aspects of the movement’s existence (crime, for example) — organizers were “quietly building the movement beyond it,” with most of the organizing “taking place elsewhere: at a public atrium at 60 Wall St., in a conference room at the Professional Staff Congress’ lower Broadway headquarters, in various coffee shops that surround the park and, increasingly, in neighborhoods from the Bronx to Brooklyn.”

It is this latter point that I find particularly interesting, as hinted at in the neighborhood aspects of the planning for the November 17 action, and spelled out further in the article. To Nelini Stamp, a 23-year old native New Yorker, described as “a canvasser for the Working Families Party who has become a conduit between the city’s institutional left and the [Occupy] movement,” this involves “expanding general assemblies to workplaces, public-housing complexes and Appalachia, to give people tools to organize themselves.” She explained, “The model of the general assembly can be really important to a lot of people across the country. People have become so disconnected — ‘I’m so stressed out, I can’t pay my bills.’ But if you can teach them that model, they can start talking to each other.”

Already, as Massey noted, “occupations have sprouted up in Sunset Park, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Bronx, Harlem, Washington Heights and Jackson Heights,” with protesters “beginning to talk about providing services to underserved communities throughout the city.” In addition, Occupy’s outreach team just launched Occupy Your Block, described as “a program to link the occupiers to community organizations across the boroughs,” and which, if handled well, could also be significant, and tie in the with the need to highlight and campaign against the epidemic of foreclosures.

As Michael Premo, a 29-year-old multimedia artist who “has been at the forefront of actions protesting foreclosures,” said, “We’ve occupied Wall Street. Now, why is it relevant to your community? We need to be working with communities to contextualize the larger movement within the context of their everyday realities.”

Daniel Massey also spoke to 27-year old Sandy Nurse who has “put her experience growing up on military bases and working in international aid to use by coordinating logistics for Occupy protests,” and spoke about the need to work more closely with the 500 or so other occupations that have sprung up across the country and around the world. “The movement has grown beyond the walls of this occupation,” she said. “We’re seeing the start of a national movement.”

Massey also spoke to George Martinez, an adjunct professor of political science at Pace University and a cultural ambassador for the US Department of State, who was also looking beyond Zuccotti Park. He helped to organize the Sunset Park and Bronx occupations and, with the aim of connecting occupations across the country, “traveled to Detroit and Pittsburgh to deliver supplies and support to occupations in those cities.”

In the New York Times today, many of these themes resurfaced. As the Times put it:

In New York … and in other cities, dozens of organizers maintained that the movement had already reshaped the public debate. They said it no longer needed to rely solely on seizing parks, demonstrating in front of the homes of billionaires or performing other acts of street theater. They said they were already trying to broaden their influence, for instance by deepening their involvement in community groups and spearheading more of what they described as direct actions, like withdrawing money from banks, and were considering supporting like-minded political candidates.

Moreover, “some acknowledged that the crackdowns by the authorities in New York and other cities might ultimately benefit the movement, which may have become too fixated on retaining the territorial footholds.” Han Shan, an activist in New York, said, “We poured a tremendous amount of resources into defending a park that was nearly symbolic. I think the movement has shown it transcends geography.”

The Times also pointed to a concrete manifestation of the movement’s broad influence, noting that union officials in Ohio said that it played a part last week “when Ohio residents voted overwhelmingly to repeal a state law limiting the collective bargaining rights of public workers.” Damon Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO union, said, “They helped define what it was that was going on, and gave people a sense that you can do something about it.”

As the movement grapples with the loss of its symbolic center, I think that the above demonstrates how much it has already grown, and how shifting the focus onto specific economic targets, and community needs, while still maintaining an interest in direct action and general gatherings — means that its future should be secure.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    National strikes is probably the answer!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m trying to imagine it, Charmaine. Here in the UK there’s a major strike in two weeks — on November 30, with the most concerted union activity seen for a long time. We’re moving in the right direction, but we still don’t have a situation whereby an organization — and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be the Occupy movement — can advocate as forcefully for the non-unionized and poorly paid, and for the unemployed, as unions do for their own members.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Yeah many of my friends are going on that one. Union membership has dwindled over the years, I think Maggie made sure their power waned … but yes we have to remain hopeful that another organisation might start the ball rolling. Trying to recall my history here but was it purely union membership that took part in the 1926 strike?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Maggie certainly did do all in her power to hobble the unions, Charmaine, and anti-union bosses have followed up across the board. That said, there are still around 7 and a half million union members in the UK (from a height of 13 million-plus in 1979). As for the 1926 General Strike, the miners were supported in their struggle against a pay cut by the TUC, but, as Wikipedia puts it, the TUC “feared that an all-out general strike would bring revolutionary elements to the fore and limited the participants to railwaymen, transport workers, printers, dockers, ironworkers and steelworkers, as these were regarded as pivotal in the dispute.”

  5. As Deficit Super Committee Fails, “Occupy” Activists in Washington, DC Provide Inspiring Plan for US Economy « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] way forward, as the energy of the ‘Occupy” movement begins to work out how to move forward and to come up with specific policies to effectively tackle the inequalities in wealth between the 1 percent and the 99 [...]

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