Lessons Learned After One Year of Occupy D.C.
|October 23, 2012||Posted by Sam Jewler under Opinion|
After a year of occupying, Sam Jewler reflects on Occupy D.C., what it did right, what it did wrong, and its prospects for the future.
A one-year anniversary is an appropriate time to look around and, with some degree of closure, celebrate growth, and acknowledge the ways in which we’ve gone astray. Occupy, as a singular entity, is dead. The strategy of occupying has obviously run its course, and, as Occupy DC’s one-year anniversary demonstrated, the tactic of marching as a primary form of direct action – without being part of a concerted campaign – is spent. But even if the tactics associated with the name have lost much of their usefulness, there’s no turning back from the networks and relationships that have formed under its banner.
The weekend around Occupy DC’s one-year anniversary, from September 29 to October 1, presented a snapshot of both potential and pitfall for those who consider themselves part of Occupy (a significantly diminished number over the last ten months, at least in DC). As I’ve written about elsewhere, a direct action as part of an Occupy Our Homes DC campaign that Saturday seemed to work as an effective rallying point for local activists, while inspiring and attracting passersby. The following Monday, the day of the one-year anniversary, started off with a relatively energized early morning march on corporate targets downtown, but over the course of the day descended into an aimlessness that led one organizer to leave early and write a blog post called “What is Occupy? And how does one leave?”
We had become a parody of our former selves. We were protesting for the sake of protesting, with very little mindfulness of the kind of organizing that has to happen in order to create real change. Shutting down traffic lackadaisically and without purpose, we were – not in ideology, but in lack of tactical skill – scarily analogous to the march of a dozen neo-Nazis, which got its message through to approximately nobody when it marched down Pennsylvania Avenue last month.
The counter-protest against that neo-Nazi march, however, was significant for Caty McClure, one of the original organizers of Occupy DC (K Street), who took a big step back from Occupy-related activities over the last half-year.
“The anti-Nazi march energized me and turned my head around so much,” she says. “We didn’t call it Occupy DC. Nobody called it Occupy DC. But it was all of us; it was all of our friends, plus more people who lived in the neighborhood, who got a flyer or saw it on a listserv or whatever. We can still basically be Occupy, but without the name we have so much more freedom.”
In Chicago, where mayor Rahm Emanuel prevented Occupy Chicago activists from setting up a physical occupation, the word was always more of a label than a tactic. “What it forced us to do,” says activist Dan Massoglia, “was to reach out beyond the downtown of Chicago and organize in communities throughout the city and partner up and work with other social justice movements there.” The activists lent support to a campaign to save the city’s mental health clinics from austerity cuts, drawing attention to the issue through their Occupied Chicago Tribune, social media networks and direct actions such as barricading themselves inside a clinic and bringing hundreds of protesters in town for anti-NATO protests to a march for the clinics. They also supported the ultimately successful Chicago Teachers Union strike, and are branching out into smaller campaigns around the city.
“Get into the communities and get out of the financial district,” Massoglia says, echoing what many Occupy activists have come to feel, even if they don’t yet know how to go about it. “If you focus on the center of financial power in a physical sense you’re excluding the people who never get close to that center.”
In the wake of the widespread occupying, the conversation on how to make direct actions strategic has flourished, often with controversy – from rapper Boots Riley’s critique of window smashing in Oakland, to the debate between writer Chris Hedges and anarchist theory collective Crimethinc on the legitimacy and usefulness of black bloc tactics. These conversations tend to orbit around tactics more radical than those often seen in this country, leaving out more traditional ones. Robin Jacks, who has been active with Occupy Boston, and helped organize a successful campaign against a newsletter that propagated ugly attitudes from within the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association, gets a unique perspective on this dynamic from her work as a babysitter.
“Families aren’t going to come to a march where the police are going to come and bust people,” Jacks says. “So if we started doing things that were more open to the public, if we had a diversity of tactics… I think Occupy loves to talk about diversity of tactics but does not apply a diversity of tactics to any extent. Either we keep having marches with like 20 people or we could try to have one big march that’s really awesome.”
Myth of Occupy exceptionalism
It’s been said many times, and rightfully so, that much of Occupy’s value has been its creation of whole new networks of empowered activists and organizers – and the education of those people. It’s also been called “a strange form of political gentrification” because of its widespread exclusion of the most poverty-stricken members of the 99%. Any revolutionary movement has to take such a critique seriously and figure out how to truly empower those who have been excluded by society as a whole.
“I think a lot of us came into it with this mentality of we’re this one big family and we all agree on these things, and we’re going up against this monolithic evil,” says McClure. “And I think a lot of us started to realize that this evil is not only not a monolith, but it’s everywhere, and it’s in us too. We have oppressive behavior. People that we think of as ultimate heroes had it – the Black Panthers had a lot of misogyny; the women’s movement had a lot of racism.
“We all had this sense of ourselves as being special, and I think it’s really important that a lot of us learned that we’re not that special; a lot of us have these really oppressive behaviors that we have to deal with. And also that this is real work. If you came in thinking that this was the be-all, end-all, I think it’s really good for you to realize that it’s not. We just learned so much. I don’t think you can learn from anything as well as you can learn from falling on your ass.”Occupy participant and law student Robert Stephens II, who first became known for his impassioned monologue about his parents’ impending foreclosure in the first week of Occupy Wall Street, refers to the past year as a moment, not a movement. “There was a rupture that released a lot of energy that has really changed not just the discourse,” he says, “but changed people’s lives over the last year.”
Many of these new networks, united and empowered by countless direct actions and collective projects, are doing impressive work. In DC and in many other cities, Occupy Our Homes campaigns are shaming banks and winning renegotiations with struggling homeowners – a duty the government was once expected to enforce. At American University, a group of students who met in large part through their interest in Occupy DC, are now picking up steam in their Quebec-inspired organization of a student union, moving past an obsolete student government to organize their peers around a tuition freeze and a student bill of rights. In DC, the Voices of the 99% radio station has been airing multiple shows per week since October 2011. The media collective that brings you this article has put out tens of thousands of newspapers over the last year and given dozens of people a way to hone their skills in reporting, editing, layout and more, free of corporate influence and profit motive.
“While it may have been radical and powerful last fall to simply stand up and declare who we were (“The 99%!”),” writes Allie O. in The Boston Occupier, “we are past that moment, and now we need organization. We need tactics. Above all, we need a damn plan.” What we’re already beginning to see is many damn plans – some local and some national.
In Oakland, activists have created a free community library and vegetable garden, and frequently attend city council meetings, especially to fight back against police violence. In New York, remarkable publications are offering theory and telling resistance stories. The Strike Debt campaign and its thorough Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual hold promise for the three quarters of Americans in debt – a population waiting to be radicalized. On November 15, it will launch a campaign called the People’s Bailout, in which it will raise $50,000 to buy $1 million worth of debt for pennies on the dollar – and abolish it.
Beyond Occupy branding
This growth hopes to parallel the civil rights movement’s transition from a tactic of sit-ins to a blossoming of interconnected organizations.
“I think that the failure is not that the movement has failed,” says McClure. “It’s that we are failing in the way that we conceptualize and talk about this movement. Robert [Stephens] has said this – we don’t call it the Montgomery boycott movement; we call it the civil rights movement. Calling this the Occupy movement – that’s the failing. Trying to box it in, I think is the failing.”
As a tactic for seizing parks and minds, and as a horizontal network of affinity groups, Occupy has made sense. But the branding of it has created an insular, somewhat navel-gazing culture in which the public is supposed to celebrate our anniversary as if activism hasn’t happened before or since. More radical and effective things are happening right now, perhaps inspired by Occupy, but of their own accord – the Chicago teachers strike, the Sunset Park rent strike, the Walmart workers strike, and the non-violent blockading of the Keystone XL pipeline are a few recent examples. Occupy didn’t start the leftist pushback against neoliberalism and austerity – Egypt, Greece and Wisconsin did more so – but it certainly amplified and sustained it. Such a consciousness shift – although anti-oppression messages haven’t gotten the same attention that protests against political corruption have – is the initial movement necessary for revolution.
“We changed the dialogue to a point that it’s almost implied now,” says McClure. “You don’t have to call it Occupy for people to understand that this is part of a broad leftist movement.”
It is more accurate, and more empowering for the global 99 percent, to stop seeing American resistance solely through the lens of Occupy, and to see Occupy for what it is – one part of a local, national and global continuum of resistance against austerity, union-busting, disaster profiteering and other forms of hierarchical, moneyed oppression.
It can be easy to see a causational relationship between Occupy’s horizontalism and its frequent failures of organization, but that analysis ignores the primary advantage of horizontalism: diffusion of power encourages broader participation. Vertical structures can organize poorly and horizontal structures can organize well. The answer lies not necessarily in hierarchy but in persistent outreach and expansion of power in areas where the government has failed to provide for the common person. Without that, “We are the 99%” may lose all meaning.
“Occupy DC was never an organization,” says Rob Wohl, a longtime participant with Occupy DC and now a lead organizer with Occupy Our Homes DC. “It was a space in which people could act politically in a way that typically we can’t. That’s a mental thing. It was a physical space, but we still have the mental space. For me, that’s the legacy.”