A Year of Occupy
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A Year of Occupy
The following article is a look back at a Year of Occupy from someone who has been an active participant. While noting the history of the movement in a rough way, it draws primarily upon the writer’s firsthand experience with the local manifestations of Occupy. The local movement started in a series of meetings last September in Norfolk, VA, and burst into full bloom on October 6 of last year. What remains of the local group is planning an anniversary event for October 6 of this year. Any omissions, mischaracterizations, mis-statement of facts, bowdlerizations, calumnies, disinformation or misdemeanors are the responsibility of the author alone, who is striving mightily herein to NOT live up to his nom-de-plume.
“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness, and our ability to tell our own stories…” – ~Arundhati Roy
Arab Spring, American Fall
It will be a year ago this weekend that a group called Occupy Wall Street made an encampment at Zuccotti Park and captured the imagination of the world. The largest collective national protest in 40 years inspired other Occupy camps to spring up like mushrooms after a summer rain across the FSA in imitation and tribute. Many were inspired by visitors to Zuccotti, who came like pilgrims to look, march, participate, and understand. In the space of just a few weeks the repressed and frustrated found their voice, and expressed it in “mad as hell” Howard Beale moments across the country.
Also inspired in part by Egyptian mass protests in Tahrir Square, Occupy protesters put forward the main issues of social and economic inequality, corporate greed, corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector. The OWS slogan, “We are the 99%,” addresses the growing income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. Lack of justice on the part of Justice Departments was also an issue, as the Feds failed to prosecute those who had brought about a global crisis of monetary insolvency. (Far better, it would seem, for the attorney general to focus on free speech demonstrators and whistleblowers.)
Protesters were forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, with a coordinated raid on other Occupy camps following on shortly thereafter. While there have been unsuccessful attempts to re-occupy the original location, protesters have turned their focus on occupying banks, corporate headquarters, board meetings, college and university campuses, along with Wall Street itself.
So what has Occupy achieved?
Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out
It’s fair to say that occupy has changed the conversation. Within the space of a year, we tend to forget how in a country deeply resistant to notions of class, where everyone is” middle class”, the development of any sort of class consciousness is quite remarkable. Most Americans find it difficult to stomach the sight of the 1% being bailed out and then earning obscene profits while they, or their family, friends, and neighbors, are looking for work without success.
The escalating income inequality evident from the 30 year class war begun under the Reagan Administration against the working people of the US reached its apex at the presence of Occupy. Phrases like “The 99%,” “the 1%,” changed the national conversation and the prevailing narrative forever. Occupy’s mission was to expose how the 1% are controlling our fates through the financialization of all aspects of economic and political life. The evidence is abundant: the middle class is drowning in loans, student debt, fraudulent mortgages, and a democracy being sold to the highest bidder, all while our environment is turned into yet another toxic asset, and those assets which we hold in common are sold off to the highest bidder as well.
November saw a coordinated attack on camps all across the country. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was one who admitted to being on the phone with the Department of Homeland Security. It seems clear that Homeland Security orchestrated a coordinated set of attacks led locally by increasingly militarized local police departments. Armed with budgets swollen by several years of homeland security grants coupled with outright gifts of military and paramilitary gear, local police decided to move on Occupy encampments such as the one in Norfolk, clad in full riot gear and tearing down tents with paramilitary zeal. What had been cordial relations between occupiers and the police quickly became hostile in an astonishing fashion.
Occupiers were arrested; trumped up charges brought, later dismissed in court.. As with the attack on Zuccotti, the assaults on the camps were often staged at hours where they would attract the least attention. And where the local press ran a story, the thrust of the story was predictably on the side of “take a bath and get a job.”
What is interesting is the timing of these attacks on the camps. During the month of October, as camps were beginning across the country, much of the effort concentrated on a quotation mark move your money” effort, asking people to move their accounts from the large banks to smaller, community banks or credit unions. The move your money day was November 6. By some estimates Bank of America lost $4 billion of deposits in the month of October as a result of this effort. More people moved gtheir bank accounts in the month of October than had moved in all of 2010. Shortly afterwards that the coordinated assault on the camps began.
These attacks created new memes. New York Mayor Bloomberg got to claim that he controlled his” own private army”, the 7th largest in the world.
And in another show of disproportionate force on the West coast, Lieut. John Pike became famous as “pepper spray man” as he was photographed employing blinding pepper spray on sitting, peaceful protesters at the University of California Davis. (In one small scrap of justice, it should be noted that Lieut. Pike and UC Davis have parted company as of this past summer.)
Much as been made about Occupy being non-political. The easy peg on which to hang Occupy is as the lefty counterpart to the Tea Party. Yet Occupy has never been embraced by the Democrats, and with good reason. Most Occupiers distrust Democrats as fully as they do Republicans.
Given the Democratic party’s reliance on campaign contributions from the very sources the Occupy movement opposed, along with its support of bailouts for the financial sector, the Dems were never going to give their full backing to the Occupy movement unless the movement became a viable force politically. Any astute political observer knew the Democratic establishment would not work to achieve the goals of the Occupy movement, particularly at the national level. Hillary Rodham Clinton raised nearly $20 million from Wall Street when she was a senator. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has received more than $5 million from the same sources since 2007, and Barack Obama received more than $15 million from the investment industry during the 2008 election cycle. This year, the Democratic National Committee has raised more than $10 million from the securities and investment community, the same people against which Occupy takes to the streets.
Some wanted the Occupy movement needed to put forth its own slate of candidates in primaries and local races — as the tea party began doing in 2008 when it became disillusioned with Republicans — to either replace the Democrats who wouldn’t support their positions or to force incumbent Democrats to adopt the views of the movement. Of course the teahadis were subsidized by the Koch Brothers and other reactionaries as useful minions able to advance their far-right agenda.
Of course, the Occupy movement could not offer its own candidates or alternatives because it never offered a clear, coherent vision or plan of action. Those who wished to turn Occupy into a co-optable political movement asserted that abstract ideas and clever slogans had to give way to concrete proposals and electoral agendas.
Like the people at the heart of the Egyptian revolution, those spearheading the Occupy movement were the youth, the intellectuals and academics, people with lofty ideals but with little practical experience in governing. Without a mechanism to turn ideals into policy, many would say Occupy is simply spinning its wheels.
A Winter of Discontent
The violent crackdown on peaceful dissent, and the relative brutality of police tactics, especially when confronted with peaceful protesters, became an issue of concern for Occupiers as much as it was ignored in the mainstream media. The mainstream media had hung Occupy on the news peg of the “black bloc anarchists,” whose presence among occupiers is almost always synonymous with infiltrators, either of the Homeland Security or the local police variety. (It became an article of faith among our local Occupy groups that anybody exhorting other people to violence head de facto identified himself as an infiltrator, pink hair or not. And, although I can’t prove this, I believe to this day that our local Occupies were rotten with them.)
The escalating criminalization of dissent has gone hand-in-hand with an increasingly ubiquitous surveillance society. In the wake of the PATRIOT act, we have become complacent, and have watched silently as cameras become ubiquitous at the same time that our rights to privacy are diminished. Even the recent case in which a New York judge has ruled that Twitter must give the court three months worth of tweets from a user in a pending case involving an Occupy Wall Street protester is yet another chilling trend. The freedom for corporations to act as persons increases, while the freedom for private individuals to act likewise diminishes. And the power of government to abet the aims of corporations, while inhibiting the aims of individuals continues unchecked.
As Aaron Cynic has said,
Plenty of people might dismiss connecting these requests and other instances that highlight targeted suppression of dissent as mere paranoia. Such tactics have a chilling effect on legitimate dissent, and the efforts by multiple law enforcement agencies to question, detain and arrest activists of varying stripes points to a much more dangerous world. More than a decade ago, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that when it came to dissent in troubled times, Americans should “watch what they say and what they do.” Rhetoric like Fleischer’s and quick quips today from politicians like “if you’re not doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t be worried” shows an increasing acceptance of the criminalization of dissent, and points towards a disturbing future.
Such rhetoric is now become the norm.
It in spite of the increased emphasis on security Occupy groups remained active in supporting a variety of demonstrations and movements. Throughout the winter and early spring, our local groups supported actions protesting NDAA, the prospect of war with Iran, staged a very successful Mayday action in coordination with many other Occupy groups throughout the country, and had a very successful statewide General Assembly in Roanoke. A dedicated and committed core of volunteers kept the flame alive over months.
Circular firing squad
Occupy polity is messy. Decisions in this leaderless organization are made by the Gen. assembly which consists of all those people who identify with the local occupy organization, who gather together to share announcements, to deliberate on proposals initiated by workgroups, and to otherwise mount the virtual soapbox and share what is on their hearts. A general assembly is not a Rotary breakfast. The advantages of the leaderless group are obvious: it is far less easy to co-opt or decapitate. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to get things done. One or a few individuals with agendas can derail the work of the group.
There is also a great deal of concern about co-optation. During this past summer we saw the schism between OWS and the 99% Declaration, which was another group that sprung up from OWS but split with them along fault lines of concern. The Adbusters people, for example, attacked the 99% Declaration as the product of “the same cabal of old world thinkers who blunted the possibility of revolution for decades.” Not surprisingly, the 99% Declaration was led by a former lawyer for Goldman Sachs. It’s ironic that having given birth to the notion of “the 99%,” Occupy finds subsequent movements eager to use the 99% moniker and elbow the originators out of the way, often to achieve political objectives. The truth is that many occupiers are disgusted with both political parties, including this writer. I hold with Gore Vidal who, in 1970, observed that “the Democrats and Republicans are the left and right wings of the Property Party.”
What has happened locally, especially in Norfolk, is that many of the original founders of the local Occupy movement, many of whom were Ron Paul libertarians, fell away from the movement, either from disaffection with what seemed to them to be a progressive left agenda, or for Occupy’s refusal to endorse any party or candidate. In any event, those people are gone and their energy is missed.
Without camps around which to coalesce, the survival of local Occupies becomes challenging. It is made even more so by the impact of marginal personalities, group dysfunction, selfishness, jealousies, and gossip, and all of the other many human frailties to which most of us are all too prone. Locally, one person who is a garden-variety bully, has disrupted the proceedings of two Occupy groups (and is now working on a third) with lurid tales of intrigue, lost love, and defamation of character. Moreover, in an organization that resists being an organization, and which behaves far more like an affinity group, affinities get strained by gossip, whispering campaigns, he-said-she-said, and the sort of thing one might have thought best left behind in high school.
On a personal note, I can be depended upon to utter one phrase in most situations: “Be who you say you are; do what you say you’re going to do.” It is both galling and frustrating to have the work of a group be hijacked by somebody’s failure to execute. But what do we do, dock their pay?
The future of Occupy depends solely upon the ability of local groups to generate and maintain enthusiasm for the cause. As noted above, it is very difficult to sustain enthusiasm in the absence of a campsite. Many municipalities have gone out of their way to make it difficult for occupied groups to camp by passing ordinances restricting camping within city limits, etc.
Our colleagues in Occupy Roanoke have a different and productive example. They enjoy good relations with the local police and are in good odor with the local press. They are well funded, fully fuctional, and smart.
One of the ongoing conundrums of Occupy is that in order to realize “a better world is possible,” we have to behave in different ways, and we are ill trained to do so. Few have the vision and discipline necessary to set aside personal agenda and ego. Raised in a culture of craven materialism, where every transaction and relationship is financialized, in a culture that elevates the Cult of the Individual, “competition” is normal. We are marinated in the values we wish to change. It is cooperation, and self-sacrifice, and putting the other first, that is essential. Some might call it servant leadership. A communitarian spirit is a concept so alien and foreign to most of us that it might as well be Martian.
As Thom Hartmann has said in The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight, and in a different context, “We need new stories.”
It may be that the Occupy moment has come and gone. The changes in the prevailing economic narrative remain. What we do about them is anybody’s guess, but in an era where the PATRIOT act has been amplified by the National Defense Authorization Act, enhanced crackdowns on whistleblowers and troublemakers, greatly enhanced surveillance, the use of drones, a militarized police, and at this writing, a Middle East in flames, it remains to be seen what happens next.
For my part, I can say that as a result of Occupy, I have met some of the finest and most remarkable people who it has ever been my pleasure to meet. I have built associations with other activists working on causes which for which we share a commitment. And in a quite unforeseen development, I even met the woman with whom I now share a home and a life, which came as an unbidden blessing.
So much good has come from Occupy, and whatever good that may yet come will be a result of the collective effort of all of us. Herein lies the challenge:
“The obvious point is that most social activists look constantly to the state for solutions to social problems. This point bears labouring, because the orientation of most social action groups tends to reinforce state power. This applies to most antiwar action too. Many of the goals and methods of peace movements have been oriented around action by the state, such as appealing to state elites and advocating neutralism and unilateralism. Indeed, peace movements spend a lot of effort debating which demand to make on the state: nuclear freeze, unilateral or multilateral disarmament, nuclear-free zones, or removal of military bases. By appealing to the state, activists indirectly strengthen the roots of many social problems, the problem of war in particular…” ~ Brian Martin, ‘Uprooting War’