Approaching its anniversary, the movement isn’t dead. It’s growing up.
By Nick Pinto/Village Voice/published: August 29, 2012
Every Monday for the past six weeks, a crowd of activists has piled into a cramped office space on 23rd Street to plan the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. All of the jokes about leftists and their meetings probably go double for Occupy, a collection of people defined only by the initial protest tactic they shared, a collection of people with political philosophies ranging from anarchism to Marxism to the most moderate shades of liberal reformism. The arguments are frequent, and even when they’re absent, tensions and disagreements seethe just under the surface.
Some of the fights are about tactics: Can the logistically ambitious plans for a swirling “hurricane” of protesters pinwheeling from intersection to intersection through Lower Manhattan really be pulled off? Is a protest framework built around loosely coordinated but independent “affinity groups” a recipe for open-source creative dissent or a tepid vision that depends on a self-organized army of protesters that will never arrive for its success?
Other disagreements are ideological and as old as Occupy itself. Who does this movement belong to? Is it the anarchists who played a critical role in getting it off the ground, and whose philosophical and structural underpinnings were central to what it became? Or is there room for a broader spectrum of the rhetorical “99 percent,” for less radical perspectives that seek incremental reform?
Amid the conflict and tension, something is emerging from the frequently agonizing four-hour meetings. The factionalism that for so long seemed to threaten to tear the movement apart seems increasingly manageable. After a year of precisely these sorts of arguments, anarchists, liberals, and union stalwarts all know the contours of their disagreements, but they’re also better than they’ve ever been at pushing through them.
They’re also increasingly confident that whatever this thing is that binds them together, that keeps them coming back to the next meeting, the next hard-won consensus, whatever they call that shared project, it has a future beyond this first anniversary.
Having weathered a rocky first year during which police repression and its own growing pains led a fickle news media to write it off again and again, Occupy persists—in these meetings on 23rd Street, in a far-flung but well-coordinated network across the nation and the Internet, and, when the anniversary rolls around on September 17, right back in the streets of Lower Manhattan, where it all started.
As Occupy plans its own anniversary and the movement prepares to enter its second year, organizers find themselves in something like the role of particle physicists studying the readouts of a cyclotron: Something bright and hot happened in Zuccotti Park for a few months last fall. What was it? What was the magical formula, the combination of circumstances so powerful it could transform so many people who visited the park and capture the imagination of an entire nation, while reframing the popular conversation and inspiring hundreds of sympathetic uprisings across the country, from Los Angeles to Kalamazoo? Can they replicate it?
Some of the critical ingredients of that first flash are gone, maybe forever. Police and institutional powers seem determined to deny the movement the physical space that was so central to its early days.
Still, even more fundamental conditions of last autumn’s rebellion remain and are only becoming more pronounced. The foreclosure crisis is, if anything, accelerating. The bankers whose crimes provoked the ongoing crisis are still free men, and the prosecutions and regulatory reforms that might prevent this all from happening again are nowhere to be seen.
“The economic conditions are just as bad as they were a year ago,” says Bill Dobbs, an Occupy spokesman. “The 1 percent hasn’t given anything up.”
But is that enough? Can Occupy recapture the remarkable momentum that seemed to spring from nowhere last year?
At their most disheartened, some activists say that the most they can do is wait for the moment when the economic and political situation becomes so bad that public anger finally overcomes the barriers that keep people from taking action.
The obituary of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been written and rewritten hundreds of times in the year since the movement first burst into the national consciousness.
Early drafts were penned when the first tents went up in Zuccotti Park, and more followed in the winter months after coordinated police actions expelled encampments from public parks in virtually every major city in the country.
Through the winter and spring, the energy of many of New York’s Occupy protesters was spent in two ways.
The first was an ongoing fight against the police repression—shutting down public spaces and conducting violent and unlawful arrests virtually every time protesters tried to assemble—that dogged the movement’s every action.
When protesters emerged from their winter hibernation to mark Occupy’s six-month anniversary in March, the gathering provoked a massive police response that led to scores of arrests and injuries.
In the following weeks and months, protesters kept up their fight for their right to assemble, first in Union Square—where police took the unprecedented step of closing the park every night with more than 100 officers and truckloads of barricades—then in the financial district across from the New York Stock Exchange, where the arrests and harassment continued in apparent violation of a federal ruling protecting the right of protesters to occupy sidewalk space.
So determined was the NYPD to deny protesters a space to gather that when a march passed nearby Tompkins Square in May, officers chained the entire park shut, closing it to the public.
The battle over ongoing police repression continues today, though mostly in the legal arena. A host of lawsuits accusing the city and police of violating protesters’ Constitutional rights is just beginning to work its way through federal court; a damning and encyclopedic report by legal scholars released last month catalogs hundreds of specific police violations; and international human rights observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are conducting their own investigation of the repression.
But even as the legal battles continue, Occupy protesters agree more and more that while ongoing police repression might be unavoidable, Occupy’s fixation on its foundational tactic—the physical occupation of public space—is, for the moment at least, a dead end.
“They’re never going to let us have a public space like that again,” one protester told me. “We can bang our heads against that forever, but it’s not going to happen. All it does is draw us more into fights with the police and away from the issues that brought us all together in the first place.”
The second focus of Occupy’s attention over the winter and spring was planning for a major re-emergence on May Day. By many standards, the May Day events were a success. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers packed Union Square and coursed down Broadway.
Less obvious but perhaps more important was the behind-the-scenes coalition-building that May Day organizers conducted, brokering a more or less unprecedented alliance between organized labor and immigrants’ rights groups and drawing unions to embrace May Day, an international day of workers that has been shunned by generations of American organized labor for its radical associations.
But despite these accomplishments, the dominant media narrative had already closed the book on Occupy, and organizers found they were unable to recapture the lightning that had struck in the park. Press attention to the day’s events was cursory at best, leaving many inside the movement dispirited and reinforcing a popular perception that Occupy was moribund.
Nothing to see here, the sober voices of conventional wisdom declared. That moment you might have found exciting is over. What remains of Occupy is a shrinking band of addled and disorganized malcontents, retreading the same rhetorical ground with ever-diminishing effect.
Many Occupy participants now concede that they walked into that trap, and that staking their movement’s credibility and vitality on a one-day spectacular show of force was a strategic mistake.
Occupation, after all, was a tactic, an action that took place for a moment, first near Wall Street and then in many other places around the world. Conflating the tactic with the social energy it represented is one of the easiest ways to misunderstand what happened last year and what is yet to come. If Occupy Wall Street is no longer occupying Wall Street, it’s easy to say the movement is dead.
What the obituary writers fail to recognize is that the spectacle of the occupation was only the most obvious of Occupy’s weapons. Its real strength, its true innovation, was the way that people who found their way to Zuccotti Park—literally and figuratively—related to one another.
There’s one thing people say again and again when they talk about what Occupy has meant to them: “We found each other in Zuccotti Park.”
Most simply, they mean that they learned they were not alone in believing that something is seriously wrong in this country and that knowledge strengthened their resolve to do something.
“People at the beginning were like, “It’s the revolution!” says Tammy Shapiro, a veteran organizer who helps coordinate the archipelago of Occupy groups across the country through interoccupy.net. “When that didn’t happen, a lot of people got disappointed.”
That conviction has burned off, but it doesn’t mean that Occupiers now think of what happened as unremarkable, just the latest in a long line of upwellings of activist energy. There really is something fundamentally new about Occupy, about what happened when people “found each other.”
“I don’t identify as an anarchist,” says a longtime Occupier who calls himself “Winter.” “But some of the anarchist principles that manifest in Occupy are empowering: the fact that we use democracy to make our decisions; that we don’t want to make compromises just to have political impact. We feel like we’re creating another world just in the way that we’re interacting with each other.”
The energy unleashed when these people found one another has given birth to a panoply of projects, some of them local and focused on local issues, others national in scope and organization. The technological infrastructure of sites including interoccupy.net and occupytogether.org are helping these groups grow and coordinate.
Among the most notable of these projects is the national Occupy Homes movement, which operated locally in neighborhoods such as East New York but was most fully realized by activists in Minneapolis, Detroit, and Atlanta. By blocking the eviction of families from foreclosed homes—foreclosures often going forward in the face of banks’ poor documentation and even outright fraud—activists continue to call attention to one of the most direct ways that the crimes committed in the financial stratosphere impact regular Americans.
Strike Debt, a project still in its early stages, looks to build a movement around the broader world of debt—not just mortgages but also student loans, credit card debt, and even municipal and sovereign debt.
Organizers are planning a debt strike in which participants refuse to pay back their onerous loans. They’re also laying the groundwork for a “rolling jubilee,” buying old debt at pennies on the dollar and forgiving it, using the savings to pay it forward in a self-perpetuating cycle of debt nullification.
Another project, Foreclose the Banks (commonly abbreviated to “F the Banks”), began by attempting to pressure prosecutors and elected officials into pursuing criminal charges against the worst offenders on Wall Street. That has been somewhat successful. Protesters claim credit for creating an atmosphere in which the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal is finally being investigated.
“Everybody knew that LIBOR was fucked up back in 2008,” says Alexis Goldstein, a former finance worker who now works with F the Banks. “Occupy made it really clear that in this election year, you need to do something to at least make people think you’re trying to do something about the corruption. That investigation is a direct by-product of Occupy and the political climate that it created. The banks are so powerful that you need that cover for anyone to do anything.”
Still, it has become clear that there won’t be any meaningful prosecutions of the crimes that caused the crisis, so F the Banks is pivoting to a new strategy: a public shaming campaign against bank executives subject to internal investigations. “Wanted” flyers have already been posted on the Upper East Side and other neighborhoods where the offenders live, and there are plans to use projectors to display incriminating information near their homes and at places such as the Lincoln Center.
“The idea is to make sure all their socialite friends see this,” says Aaron Bornstein, an activist involved with the project. “To make them social pariahs.”
Even as the project list of the Occupy diaspora grows, there is a new humility among Occupiers. The early sense of exceptionalism, fueled by the youth of many Occupiers, led some to dismiss unions, nonprofits, Democrats and their inside-the-beltway affiliates, and all the other pieces of the institutional left. These groups hadn’t brought the change Occupiers sought. At best, they were ineffective. At worst, they were complicit in maintaining the status quo.
That dismissiveness and a steadfast resistance to co-option by these groups made Occupy an especially prickly partner for more experienced organizations looking to make common cause with the new activist juggernaut.
The skepticism remains, but one year in, there’s a growing recognition among Occupiers that there is room for collaboration with other groups, coupled with a confidence that Occupy brings something unique and valuable to the table.
“We’re getting clearer about what our role is,” says Dana Balicki, who’s working on the PR side of the anniversary plans. “We’re not just another organization co-sponsoring an event. We’re here to push the hardest and the farthest, to push the envelope, so others can fill in behind.”
That radicalism is tactical as well as philosophical, says Shapiro. “Occupy has a lot of people who are willing to get arrested and put their bodies on the line, and that’s useful.
Unions have found Occupiers’ willingness to join strikes and pickets especially valuable.
“There are very restrictive labor regulations in this country,” says Jackie DiSalvo, a member of Occupy’s Labor Outreach Committee. “When the Communication Workers of America have a picket, there are rules about how many people they’re allowed to have there. But we’re not a union, so when we join them, we can have as many people as we want there.”
Beyond this conception of its role as the political vanguard and protest shock troops, Occupiers say they see an even more important role for themselves in social movements going forward. Occupy’s radically inclusive, participatory structure doesn’t entitle it to dismiss the more hide-bound, hierarchical organizations of the left, they say; it offers an opportunity for Occupy to broker new and closer collaborations among a legendarily fragmented American left.
“More than anything, Occupy is a set of principles and a way of interacting that allows us to create a sort of glue that can bind these different groups together,” Bornstein says.
Occupiers claim direct credit for brokering the coalition of labor and immigrant advocates they helped bring together on May Day, a coalition that will continue to bear fruit in the future, they say. Some believe this new atmosphere of collaboration was also on display last month, when locked-out Con Ed workers attracted an almost unprecedented coalition of unions and other organizations to join their cause.
“A lot of these groups were always aware of each other, but they hadn’t worked together,” Bornstein says. “In the frame of Occupy existing, they see the value of working together in new ways.”
As September 17 approaches, activists across the country are planning to mark the movement’s anniversary with a series of actions centered on New York.
Organizers are also deeply aware of the lessons learned over the past year. They are leery of billing September 17 as another make-or-break one-off spectacle and equally reluctant to be drawn into fruitless conflicts with police over efforts to re-create a long-term physical occupation.
But they also know that the workings of the news cycle mean that the anniversary of Occupy presents the movement with a unique opportunity.
“For months, we’ve been anticipating a renewal of interest by the media,” says Dana Balicki. “We know people are going to be talking about it, so how do we make sure that the story of the 99 percent is not told without us?”
So even through the ongoing wrangling over tactics and ideology (a recent meeting witnessed a heated debate over concert plans: Should Occupy ever seek city permits? Does building a stage to elevate celebrity performers jibe with a horizontalist ethos?), organizers are doggedly hammering out plans for the anniversary weekend.
Starting September 15, bus loads of people from Occupy groups will converge in Lower Manhattan. Some will be coming from as far away as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Many will be finishing off a month-long pilgrimage of protest with stops in Tampa and Charlotte for the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
The September 15 events will be based in Washington Square, with thematic assemblies, direct-action training, and, for those interested, an ecumenical faith service led by sympathetic religious figures, all followed by an outdoor dance party.
Sunday, September 16’s program will be centered on downtown, around Foley Square, where as-yet-unnamed musicians will perform on a permitted stage with a sound system secured by union allies.
On Monday the 17th—the one-year anniversary of when a few hundred protesters first set foot in Zuccotti Park—the morning will begin with protests throughout Lower Manhattan. At the core of the financial district, some protesters will attempt to form a cordon around the New York Stock Exchange and block eight critical intersections, much as they did on November 17th. The stated goal is to shut the exchange down, but organizers are realistic about that unlikelihood. More important, they say, is to make their presence felt, to make the financiers contend with them on their way to work.
Beyond this central core, plans call for broader street actions filling hundreds of intersections throughout Lower Manhattan, with discrete groups shifting from intersection to intersection in a loosely choreographed swirl. Groups visiting from other cities—including Occupy Boston, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Chicago—will hold down intersections.
Others will be filled with protesters from allied organizations: ACT UP, 350.org, Picture the Homeless, Vocal NY, and participating unions.
After the morning’s protest, participants will retreat to a “green zone,” a park sufficiently removed from the action so that people can feel safe from arrest, to relax, regroup, and talk about what happened.
The last scheduled event will be a General Assembly at the Vietnam Veterans Plaza on Water Street, where people can talk in a more structured way about what they think, what they want, and what they’ve learned.
“One of the reasons we do these one-day or three-day mobilizations is just that we know how to do it,” Shapiro says. “But there’s also an intrinsic value to them—not just as a way to flex our muscles and say, ‘We’re still here,’ but because they’re an opportunity for people to meet each other, work together, and build those bonds that carry on afterwards.”
Still, she says, street protest is only the most visible tip of a movement that has grown broad and deep since it first caught national attention.
“There’s so much happening below the surface that the mainstream media doesn’t pick up,” she says. “The fact that we’re not getting seen every day is actually indicative of our maturity. We’ll still be on the street on a regular basis, but we’re also thinking more strategically and long-term.”
Bornstein agrees, noting that most movements for social change take decades to reach fruition.
“This is sort of like 1956, when some people said the civil rights movement was dead because there were no more bus boycotts,” he says. “No, those people who had found each other at the bus boycotts were still working, building the next phase of the movement.”
Looking forward to the year ahead, Winter says he’s optimistic. “What we’re doing is going to continue to grow and morph,” he says. “We may lose the name and the identity of ‘Occupy,’ but I don’t fear that. As long as we have the feeling in our hearts that there are better ways to be together, it doesn’t matter what we call it.”