This was written for folks outside of the United States, but it may be a worthwhile read also for those living within the country who are interested in some analysis on the context and dynamics and a generalized history of the “Occupy Movement”.
Something big is happening in the plazas and streets of the United States. Emerging from the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York, a new movement has taken shape that seems to transcend what many organizers have classically envisioned a mass social movement against the economic system looking like… but it’s shaping up to be one!
Below I offer some context to this movement, a description of some of its dynamics and positions, a brief summary of what has been happening since it began September 17th, and my opinion on what this all means.
From Bush to the Tea Party
It is no secret that politics in the United States have been moving further and further to the right since the 1970s. For many, the introduction under Ronald Reagan of domestic neoliberalism and an almost religious emphasis on pro-business policies that would “trickle-down” to the rest of us, marks the beginning of our current situation.
In the last few years the cultural component of this current has manifested most publicly as the Tea Party, which has been riding a wave of anti-Obama sentiment stemming from a mixture of racism and genuine disillusionment with American liberalism. The Obama years have seen a surge in membership in racist hate groups according the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors them.
At the local and State political level, Tea Party billionaires have been successful in winning some popular support as well as several key elections, which have been followed by coordinated legislative attacks on “government spending”, a vague term usually referring to any spending benefiting public health programs, immigrants, unions, students, women, the elderly, and the poor.
In Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama, bills have been passed that require police officers to check the immigration status of people they think could be undocumented, essentially requiring them to racially profile brown-skinned people. These bills also take state funding away from undocumented people and require public schools to check immigration status before allowing children to enroll. In Arizona, the introduction of SB1070, which is now legally stalled, brought a massive wave of street protests. Protests also erupted in Georgia when a similar bill was introduced, but they were unable to stop the legislation.
In Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, among other states, a bill taken from the same think-tank that wrote SB1070 in Arizona, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has been adopted. In Wisconsin, the “budget repair bill”, seeking to break public unions, privatize university control, increase student tuition, and cut funding for Wisconsin’s public healthcare program, was introduced in early February. Hundreds set up an occupation and up to 10,000 rallied daily inside the Capitol building in Madison for a month and coordinated marches of over 100,000 people, the largest demonstrations in the state’s history, to stop the bill from taking effect. Republicans broke so many laws trying to ram the bill through and avoid the protests that the bill has now been legally blocked by a federal judge.
On top of this new wave of right-wing activism and popular reaction, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recent interventions in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan, have increasingly caused many regular folks to see an imperial agenda in United States foreign policy. Afghanistan, now the longest and most expensive war in U.S. history, is still raging, and attempts by Obama to market the withdrawal from Iraq as a success have been met with a bitter cynicism.
Locally, especially since the 2008 “economic crisis” was officially recognized, many people across class lines have been pushed out of their houses by the same banks that benefited from a $1 trillion federal bailout package. Some couldn’t help but notice absurd amounts of “government spending” going to multiple wars with little-to-no popular purpose while people were losing their homes. This foreclosure crisis precipitated the recession and had a wide impact on both the poor and middle class, and it served to bring together those forces in a unified anger against the big banks and financial institutions.
People aren’t just losing their homes, they are losing their ability to get by. The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington D.C., released information recently that found extreme poverty neighborhoods growing by one-third over the last 10 years, and that 40 percent of those living in such live below the federal poverty line.
Alongside that, a recent New York Times poll announced that a majority of the country did not trust the government, and that almost half believe the “Occupy Movement” reflected the majority’s interests. “Not only do 89 percent of Americans say they distrust government to do the right thing, but 74 percent say the country is on the wrong track and 84 percent disapprove of Congress,” the New York Times states.
Arab Spring, American Winter
When the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisian and Egypt, at the same time as the occupations and mass protests in in Wisconsin began, we were paying close attention. Many were inspired by the movements in north Africa and those that soon emerged across the Middle East. Many of us saw photos of Egyptians with Wisconsin-solidarity signs, and it helped globalize the movement’s spirit while internationalizing the understanding of this moment.
While massive protests erupted in a similar fashion in 2006, culminating with the “Day Without an Immigrant” marches on May 1st, they struggled to win popular support in a country with much bottled and exposed racism, as well as struggling to keep up their own momentum. However, they did catalyze many in the Latino community and their allies, and gave birth to a new Civil Rights generation of social activists. Their participation in the current wave cannot be ignored, however, nor can the current movement’s aversion to embracing immigration as a cornerstone issue.
The Wisconsin protests earlier this year, while being viewed as being somewhat unsuccessful politically, were a major social and cultural success. They broke a silence surrounding resistance to the Tea Party’s recent surge, and they sent a message to the people of this country that affective protest must transcend traditional methods and doctrine if they are to be effective. Occupation became a realistic option where it wasn’t before.
The massive student uprising in Chile and the Indignados protests in Spain that started in May further pushed Americans to a place where action was necessary. It seemed like the whole world was beginning to rise up, fairly peacefully too, against long-seated regimes and massive economic systems. The clock was ticking.
It was in this context that on September 17th, a small group of people began an “occupation” of Zuccotti Park, a small concrete plaza in downtown Manhattan. All it took was a simple idea; the global moment was such that people were willing do something out of the ordinary to attempt to move the country to action.
Many community organizers, radical activists, and others who have long been involved in movements for systemic change across the U.S. largely ignored the gathering at first, and some even scoffed at it. “When I first heard about the #OccupyWallstreet actions a few months ago, I laughed. The whole idea sounded naïve,” my friend and Steelworker union organizer Patrick Young writes. “Without any real organizational support, a group of people were going to try to occupy the most heavily policed space in the world. The group didn’t have a clear message; any sort of tactical or strategic unity; and the demands weren’t even defined.”
Some experienced organizers along with many younger people, for whom Adbusters’ call to “Occupy Wall Street” had provided their first step into activism, put their weight into the occupation from day one.
“We all knew there was this poppable tension under the surface of the country,” a friend who came to Wall Street on the 17th tells me. “And this had so far only been manifested by the Tea Party. This is why I went to Zuccotti Park, because I was curious… this call had been circulated in a time of great tension and revolutionary potential… and, what happens if someone plucks the surface and breaks the tension?”
Indeed, what started small began to gather attention. After a week or two, hundreds of people had come to Zuccotti Park to set up camp or attend nightly meetings. The gathering’s commitment to democratic process and daily, consensus-driven general assemblies perplexed and inspired people. The United States is not used to such outpourings of participatory democracy.
The rallying cry of the movement became “We are the 99%”, a slogan referencing the fact that 1% of the population of the United States controls 40% of the wealth. This framing of the debate around economics resonated widely with people here. The idea was and is to bring together as many people as possible under this banner, which exposed an inherent interest in wealth-redistribution and an acknowledgment of a class war that has existed for so long that has primarily been perpetuated by the rich against working people and the poor.
As the movement grew, Patrick Young, who I quoted earlier, concluded that “perhaps the success of Occupy Wall Street can provide a lesson to us ‘experienced’ organizers: Maybe we don’t have all the answers. Maybe it’s possible that this group can go about it all the ‘wrong’ way and still have success in pulling off something really big. And maybe we don’t really have our finger on the pulse of what’s going to resonate with our neighbors, our coworkers and our classmates.”
Challenges for Collective Liberation
While the gathering at Zuccotti Park was growing and its rhetoric was taking shape, very important and well though-out critiques began to be circulated online, mostly via Facebook and Twitter. These critiques challenged the whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity of the gathering at Zuccotti Park and called into question the safeness of the park as a community space.
In one piece, entitled “So Real It Hurts”, Manissa McCleave Maharawal tells of her and a group of fellow South Asian folks confronting racism in the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street in the early days.
“I had heard the “Declaration of the Occupation” read at the General Assembly the night before but I didn’t realize that it was going to be finalized as THE declaration of the movement right then and there. When I heard it the night before with Sonny we had looked at each other and noted that the line about “being one race, the human race, formerly divided by race, class…” was a weird line, one that hit me in the stomach with its naivety and the way it made me feel alienated…
This movement was about to send a document into the world about who and what it was that included a line that erased all power relations and decades of history of oppression. A line that would de-legitimize the movement, this would alienate me and people like me, this would not be able to be something I could get behind. And I was already behind it this movement and somehow I didn’t want to walk away from this. I couldn’t walk away from this.”
After threatening to block the passage of the declaration, the General Assembly agreed to change the document to recognize the race-realities so often ignored by those proclaiming themselves “beyond” racism. Tough conversations and reflection followed, but still, the group refused to turn away form this movement and instead opted to throw their weight into it:
“It was hard, and it was fucked up that we had to fight for it in the way we did but we did fight for it and we won. The line was changed, they listened, we sat down and re-wrote it and it has been published with our re-write. And when we walked away, I felt like something important had just happened, that we had just pushed a movement a little bit closer to the movement I would like to see– one that takes into account historical and current inequalities, oppressions, racisms, relations of power, one that doesn’t just recreate liberal white privilege but confronts it head on.”
Bronx-based hip-hop trio Rebel Diaz went down to Zuccotti Park in the early days and were confronted by a similar racism:
“Besides being stared at and looked at as if we were invading their space, the predominantly young, white and liberal Occupiers sent over one of the few African American men over to talk to us. When we asked them why they didnt approach us themselves and build with us, they replied that “they thought we would get mad because they were white”…
Our intention is not to dismiss it as just this, but the gut feeling was that there is a serious disconnect down there. We left with mad questions! Where was the hood? Where was the poorest congressional district in the USA, from The South Bronx at? Like we say in Hip Hop, where Brooklyn at? Could it be that perhaps the working class couldn’t afford to just leave work and the responsibility of bills and family survival to camp out in a city park? Did folks from our communities not know about this? If people of color were occupying Wall St would we have lasted this long?”
What is so interesting about Rebel Diaz’s critique is that is ends with a call for participation in the occupation while offering a very strong critical analysis that could so often manifest as a decision not to participate.
“Our analysis on whats going in Wall Street is that its very similar to the Syntagma Square uprisings in Greece, and other city squares like the ones in Madrid. In these movements, there is no central leadership, its about something, but then again not really, because the demands arent clear. What is clear is the identification of the common enemy : the greedy banks…
We encourage folks to support the occupations and see them for themselves. Perhaps the topless nude activists, or the drum circle may not be for you, but the idea of having a national dialogue sparked about these greedy bankers and their abuse of the people is important and needed. We plan on going back with more people!!”
Brooklyn-based queer labor organizer Charlene Obernauer struck a similar note when she described her commitment to carry on the occupation while recognizing the need for a great cultural change to occur in the park. Like the previous critiques, her analysis of a racism, sexism, and homophobia present in the park spread fast on Facebook:
“But despite the many amazing organizers who have justifiably left OWS and vowed to never return, many others just won’t walk away. They see the potential of the movement. They hate many of the people and ideologies behind it; they hate the privilege and the arrogance, but they see the potential.
Every organization, every movement, struggles with acknowledging systematic oppression. Movements that deny racism, movements that deny sexism; movements that are completely unaccountable to the very people they claim to be liberating; these movements will fail. Again and again, we have witnessed their failure.”
As Charlene notes, some who came to Occupy Wall Street did make a decision to turn away from this young movement after experiencing some of the things mentioned above, and more. As this movement grows further, it will have to address its early days while continuing to address and be challenged by concepts of anti-oppression and collective liberation.
A Social Movement Emerges
At some point in this time period, most people recognized that a mass social movement had suddenly taken shape, though there are varying opinions about its lack of stated, external political goals and trajectory. However, it is clear to many people that this movement is extremely powerful and rather broad. Many have related that relatives and other people in their lives who have never been politically active before have become quite moved by the occupations.
What Occupy Wall Street has done is catalyzed a country that is extremely angry at the financial institutions and the system of capitalism that we have. This is not to say that these protests are all “anti-capitalist”, rather, they are a strange combination of anarchists, socialists, communists, progressive liberals, conservative-identified libertarians, and even some who identify as Republicans but see the hyper-rich as exploiters of the values they identify with.
That said, the issues being raised at Wall Street and the discussions surrounding them are quite critical of what we on “the left” call capitalism or what some on “the right” call corporatism; a financial system working specifically for the rich and inherently opposed to the interests of the poor; the reliance on currencies based on the gambling of debt; the “bubbles” created and exploited by investors to take advantage of people’s fears and needs (such as occurred during the sub-prime loan crisis here but also in Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere); corporate-plundering of the planet; the looting of the pensions and social security of working people to save collapsing banks, and more.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s spreading. A few weeks after 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, which ironically brought Occupy Wall Street to the forefront of world attention, encampments were established in almost every major city in the country, as well as in cities across Europe and parts of Latin America and Canada. From Des Moines, Iowa to Tampa, Florida and all the way up to Seattle, Washington, people took to their central squares, parks and plazas.
New York and Oakland have certainly become the epicenters of the movement, but major encampments and protests have been ongoing in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and several other cities as well.
In the last two weeks, police repression of the “Occupation Movement” has spread, leading some to see a national strategy by colluding municipalities and the federal government. As of this writing, mass arrests and police violence have occurred in New York, Oakland, Nashville, San Diego, Portland, Denver, Rochester, Chicago, Atlanta, Tulsa, and other cities.
While some cities have struck decent agreements with local occupations, others have brutally attacked them. But, like a good social movement, every police attack and mass arrest has served to bring more people out, and they have helped fortify this movement’s place in American culture.
“You can’t stop a spirit that’s coming alive,” Seattle-based songwriter Jim Page wrote of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests that shut down one of the most important economic summits in the world. “That’s the kind of spirit that’s bound to survive.”
The Oakland General Strike
Early in the morning on Wednesday, October 26, heavily armed riot police violently stormed the Occupy Oakland camp at Oscar Grant Plaza, arresting over 100 people. That night, a march of over 3,000 people took the streets of Oakland, demanding immediate control of the plaza, renamed by the people of Oakland after last year’s police assassination of unarmed Oscar Grant. Mass protests and riots that followed the killing, both against the police and the judicial system that allowed Officer Johannes Mehserle to spend only 6 months in prison for the murder of Grant, radicalized many in the Oakland-area and reinforced deep division between the people and the police.
As night fell, riot police opened fire on the march with various projectiles, tear gas, and concussion grenades. When the smoke cleared, 24 year-old Iraq veteran Scott Olsen lay motionless on the ground, his face covered in blood. Olsen had been struck with a tear gas canister directly in the head, breaking his skull and causing traumatic brain damage.
As others tried to help him, police fired concussion grenades into the crowd, injuring another protester who was also hospitalized when a grenade exploded next to her head. As of this writing, Olsen is in an Oakland hospital awaiting possible brain surgery.
The following night, while multiple “snake marches” tied up traffic in downtown Manhattan chanting “New York is Oakland, Oakland is New York” and Egyptians announced that they would march through Tahrir Square in solidarity, 3,000 people again took the streets of Oakland. This time the crowd ripped down the fence around Oscar Grant Plaza and held a massive general assembly there to discuss next steps.
As the general assembly wrapped up, calls for a “General Strike” went out. The crowd of over 2,000 voted overwhelmingly in favor of the strike and set the date for Wednesday, November 2nd.
That week, people around the country waiting in anticipation for what would happen in Oakland, and solidarity rallies were organized all over the country. If they failed to pull off something major, it could slow the energy of this unfolding movement. When the day came, many people were glued to their computers to watch livestreaming coverage of the many marches.
A number of unpermitted marches took the streets of Oakland starting early that Wednesday. Many businesses closed in anticipation of the strike, and many of them hung signs in their windows supporting “the 99 percent”. Reports of tens of thousands started to emerge… Oakland had done it! They had mobilized serious numbers to defend the occupations and raise their voices against police violence.
While minor property destruction against big banks captured the attention of the violence-obsessed media, the largest and most empowering action of the day was a mass march and civil disobedience at the Port of Oakland. The San Francisco Chronicle estimated the size of this march at 100,000 people.
As blockades went up around every entrance to the port, the 5th busiest in the country, representatives from the ILWU -the radical union that organizes workers at the port,-announced that the night shift had been closed due to the blockades. Many of these workers stood with the people picketing.
The jubilation from Oakland was immeasurable.
The significance of a march of this magnitude pulling off a mass direct action is hard to explain. It took organizers a year and half to pull a crowd half this size in 1999 to shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, and that was a national action! This was local, pulling mostly folks from the direct municipalities of San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland, San Jose, and their respective suburbs.
Even the mass media was forced to recognize the success of the General Strike. “Occupy Oakland Shuts Down Port” read the USA Today headline. “Thousands of Occupy Oakland protesters expanded their anti-Wall Street demonstrations on Wednesday, marching through downtown, picketing banks and swarming the port. By early evening, port authorities said maritime operations there were effectively shut down,” announced the New York Times.
On a week’s notice, 100,000 people had gathered to take a major action against one of the most important economic sites in California!
Around midnight, others from Occupy Oakland reclaimed a foreclosed homeless services center that had been sitting vacant near Oscar Grant Plaza. After an hour or so of stand offs, police attacked. Barricades that had been erected in the streets surrounding the center were lit on fire, and those behind them attempted to keep the police back, while others fled. Over 90 people were arrested and a number were injured.
An Iraq-war veteran named Kayvan Sabeghi was walking home near this time when police stopped him. After asking why he couldn’t walk to his house, Sabeghi was beaten by the police, rupturing his spleen. After 24-hours of being denied medical attention, Sabeghi was transferred to the hospital and underwent surgery. He is the second Iraq veteran in one week to undergo surgery after an Oakland police attack.
On Tactics, Strategy, and Movement Building
The small-scale property destruction and an attack on a Whole Foods grocery store by the Black Bloc during one of the mass marches drew lines between some occupiers. Many anarchists responded with critiques of what they saw as childish, random attacks that risked pushing new people away from this young movement.
Others came out in defense of the Black Bloc, saying that all targets were legitimate and that the actions of the Bloc were advancing a needed “dialogue”. An anonymous post called “The Black Block, a hopefully more interesting critique” described the scene:
“At whole foods it became a giant shouting match between two groups of hundreds of people each. And I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs “they’re just fucking windows!!” somehow these two groups of people had gotten so obsessed with these windows that they were willing to create divisive debate and bad feelings through whole sections of a protest that is already showing itself to be the most substantial internal threat to American capitalism in forty years.
Is it always black block time? For me It’s not about whether black block, or the specific brand of minor protest violence it represents is “good or bad” it’s about whether or not it’s useful right now. The answer might be yes, but IF we aren’t thinking critically about our tactics then we’re…dumb.”
Some involved in the building takeover responded to public criticism of their decision to build barricades to defend their action:
“But we also hoped to use the national spotlight on Oakland to encourage other occupations in colder, more northern climates to consider claiming spaces and moving indoors in order to resist the repressive force of the weather, after so bravely resisting the police and the political establishment. We want this movement to be here next Spring, and claiming unused space is, in our view, the most plausible way forward for us at this point…
We understand that much of the conversation about last night will revolve around the question of violence (though mostly they mean violence to “property,” which is somehow strangely equated with harming human beings). We know that there are many perspectives on these questions, and we should make the space for talking about them. But let us say this to the cops and to the mayor: things got “violent” after the police came. The riot cops marched down Telegraph and then the barricades were lit on fire. The riots cops marched down Telegraph and then bottles got thrown and windows smashed. The riot cops marched down Telegraph and graffiti appeared everywhere.
The point here is obvious: if the police don’t want violence, they should stay the hell away.”
A street-medic who was out in the night actions wrote a condemning “Open Letter to the Black Bloc and Others Concerning Wednesday’s Tactics in Oakland” that caused further discussion.
“My concern was with the ill-conceived tactics used to occupy the building, in that it looked like an anarchist glamorshot instead of a committed and revolutionary act to actually acquire and hold that space. I am tired of direct actions being done in a way that turns them into photo-ops and nothing else. I am tired of watching barricades be built only to be abandoned the minute the cops open fire. In addition, the crowd on 16th around the occupied building was terrifying far before the cops ever showed up. As a woman and queer person I wanted to get the fuck out of there almost immediately as it felt wildly unsafe on multiple levels, and I feel like whoever orchestrated the take-over made choices that specifically facilitated the overall crazy atmosphere. There were fistfights, screaming matches, fires, and just a general vibe that people were out to fuck shit up, and absolutely no attempt on the part of anyone to shut that sort of in-group violence down…
I want better tactics, and I want accountability to the communities that may be impacted by our behavior, and I saw none of that last night.
I saw black bloc kids running from the camp while it was under police assault, and as someone who spent about two hours negotiating and assisting in the care of an ostensibly homeless man from the camp, hit by a rubber bullet in the camp, while black bloc kids ran away to their safe homes and made comments like “at least we crushed the place” and “we’ll just take it back,” I want those kids to be held accountable to the damage that they did, damage made possible by their class and race privilege.”
Another anonymous anarchist responded to the public discourse with an “Open Letter from Anarchist Participant in The General Strike”:
“Do not denounce the courage of those willing to defend themselves and our collective spaces of direct democracy. Just as we shouldn’t denounce the courage of comrades who use their bodies in non-violent resistance. Know your friends, and don’t confuse them as your enemies. Support them. We’re all out here together, don’t let anyone change that. We have a beautiful thing happening in Oakland. LETS KEEP IT UP!”
MC Lynx, an anarchist hip-hop artist and organizer from the Oakland-area chimed in as well, venting a frustration with fellow anarchists:
“The plain fact is that using tactics like property destruction in the middle of a giant protest full of people that have explicitly rejected property destruction or direct confrontation as tactics is disrespectful and the exact opposite of Solidarity. It places other protestors at increased risk without their consent which directly conflicts with our vision of a world where everyone has a say in the decisions that impact them. There is NOTHING Anarchist about such action. Further, it doesn’t win us any friends or do anything to advance our cause or the larger cause of OWS. All it does is alienate people who should be our allies and justify the repression that will be levied against us by our enemies.”
Some folks have argued that more economic damage was caused by ten minutes blockading the port than a night of window smashing. Plus the port blockades were wildly popular… and they didn’t cause any fistfights among their own participants.
Others have argued, morals aside, that the movement was not ready for this type of widespread property destruction, nor did it need it.
Another Oakland hip-hop artist and organizer, Boots Riley from The Coup -who has been quite active with Occupy Oakland-, defended a “Diversity of Tactics” framework while also criticizing the smashing of windows on November 2nd:
“The truth is that while almost everyone I know in Occupy Oakland (including myself) thinks that breaking windows is tactically the wrong thing to do and very stupid, many people do not agree with non-violent philosophy. If you kicked those folks out then you would have a body of folks that wouldn’t have been radical enough to even call for a General Strike…
On November 2nd, a large group of people with many contradictions successfully shut down the city in the biggest action with an overt class analysis in 60 years. People all over the world, all over the country, all over Oakland- are excited by this. If you are threatening to leave because, in the midst of this mass action some people broke windows and we are all trying to figure out how to work together, then you’re missing the point and you’ll be missing out on history.”
The conversation has been so large and widespread that the Occupy Oakland General Assembly canceled one of its meeting to replace it with a public discussion on tactics, violence & non-violence, and accountability within the occupy movement. While this is indeed an “old conversation”, in over a decade of involvement in militant or semi-militant street actions, community organizing, and political discussions, I have never seen it happen in such a broad, mindful, and sustainable way.
Why is this? Because folks in Oakland understand that a lot rests on their shoulders right now, pushing many into a discussion that has too-often resulted in lots of folks packing their bags and leaving street-protests, or worse, political movements. In the past it was overshadowed by a willingness to walk away, now it’s being conducting with an understanding of mutual needs.
Like those critiques mentioned earlier from Occupy Wall Street, those coming out of the Oakland General Strike are heavy with emotion and a desire to not let this movement go away. It’s just too important and too big.
Following the Oakland General Strike will be a day of mass action on November 17 (N17) being led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose experience during the Wisconsin occupation seems to have helped push them in a more grassroots, organizing-driven direction.
N17 will see cities across the U.S. doing major blockades, including an 8:00 AM mass march to disrupt or shut-down the downtown Manhattan business and banking corridor, home to Wall Street.
This is just the beginning. This movement, in words echoed by people all over the U.S., just might be, like economists and politicians have said of the major banks, “too big to fail”.