Occupy is back… maybe! I’ve been otherwise occupied (HA! You get it?) the last few days, but I will be at Foley Square today. Solidarity with those protesters who were arrested—oftentimes just for walking on the sidewalk—on Saturday and here’s hoping for humane treatment of protesters over the next few days.
With every anniversary, everyone wants to present their own opinion about what Occupy was supposed to do, and why it succeeded or failed. And I am nothing if not a bandwagon jumper. So here we go.
Now, maybe it’s the former high school and college debater in me, but I can’t move forward on this issue until we address definitions of terms. What do we mean when we define success or failure in the context of Occupy Wall Street?
Some have defined success in terms of Occupy’s ability to stay together as a coherent and powerful organization. In this context, I suppose the movement has failed. Many have drifted away from the original Occupy Wall Street, and Occupy groups around the country have dwindled to a handful of faithful activists in each city.
At this point, a lot of writers have decided to point to in-fighting within Occupy’s organization as the root cause of its dissolution, or its inability to compromise and negotiate with outside political groups.
Yet this seems willfully blind to the elephant in the room: the concerted efforts of police in every major city to harass, intimidate, and straight up abuse protesters and destroy encampments. Any discussion of Occupy Wall Street that fails to discuss how police action both ignited protests and helped to dismantle them is dealing in irrelevancies.
A cop pepper spraying non-violent protesters behind a net led to hundreds of protesters joining in solidarity in New York City. 700 protesters being led onto the Brooklyn Bridge last September by the police only to then be kettled and arrested made Occupy a national movement. The and fiery destruction of the Occupy Oakland encampment by the Oakland PD—which included shooting an Iraq War veteran with a tear gas canister and attacking protesters who tried to help him—alerted the nation to the militarization of its police forces. And the effective criminalization of these encampments made it effectively impossible for Occupy to be a public and constant force for change that many of its critics have demanded. When Occupy re-organized itself in New York City in March in Union Square, the NYPD responded with brute force.
If you don’t talk about any of that, you are not fully addressing what brought Occupy to the front and center of politics in 2011. And if you assume that Occupiers could have negotiated and compromised with many of these politicians in that context, then you are being more than a little naïve.
Yet despite that, Occupy has carried on its activism, and was engaged in the Trayvon Martin protests, May Day Marches in numerous major cities (they were a large part of the 20,000 workers that marched in New York City), and the one year demonstrations this weekend. I consider that quite a record.
Similarly, critics have charged that Occupy has failed to engage with the current political system in any substantive way. And that has, in turn, limited Occupy’s influence. What people are really saying here, to my mind, is that Occupy has failed to get actively involved in Democratic Party politics to make change.
Again, the debater in me needs to dig up the basic assumptions behind this argument and what such folks are saying about Occupy. Firstly, we need to identify Occupy’s goal. While Occupy has refused to release a detailed platform—and for now I’m not going to address that argument—I think we can safely define the general goal of the movement as economic equality and social justice. Different people will define this goal in different ways, but that seems to be the force that brought people together. And those who claim they can’t see that are being willfully obtuse so that they can happily debate whatever strawman they deem fit for any given moment.
The assumption, then, that people are making is that the political system as currently designed is capable of meeting that goal of economic equality and justice. Speaking not as a revolutionary but as a reformer in the mold of the Great Society programs of the 1960s, I would argue that is flat out not true. The Democratic Party has made a conscious decision—one that it made in the late 1980s and early 1990s—at the national level to refuse to recognize their progressive base, and to step on them and walk over them whenever it seems fit to meet the demands of its most conservative members (not to mention, absurdly, the demands of conservative Republicans who have continued to refuse to work with them) or for that matter its very wealthy financial backers, many of whom come from banks headquartered on Wall Street. The idea that, at this point, the Democratic Party that negotiated away the public option to health insurance companies behind closed doors, gutted the financial reform bill, has acquiesced to drone warfare across the world and blatant violations of Constitutional rights at home, and is currently quietly backing Rahm Emanuel over the Chicago Teacher’s Union is absurd. The party—and the corrupt system that sustains that party—needs to be fought or at the least reformed, not compromised with.
I’m not against compromise, by the way. I like compromise, and I like when we can reach deals. But as I discussed a few weeks ago, compromise and bipartisanship for its own sake is meaningless and needs to be recognized as such. And for the record, I’m not opposed to using Occupy as a way to get activists into local offices in their towns and cities, where it might be possible to make real, tangible change. But we cannot assume that the national political structure is capable of supporting our best interests at this time and place. So long as Republicans control Congress and Democratic leaders seem eager to appease them, we will gain nothing there.
Finally, there is the idea that Occupy did not bring about the revolution we all were waiting. Because the system still exists as it was last year, we must therefore be disappointed in Occupy’s efforts.
There’s a certain cognitive dissonance on display here. The same people who urged activists to be patient with the Democratic Party as it failed on a number of its core principals has become remarkably impatient in the face of activist movements that do not involve the traditional political framework. Many Occupiers were Obama supporters, and were even actively involved in President Obama’s campaign. Such people often waited three years for a radical overhaul of a badly broken economic and political system before deciding to go elsewhere to make that change happen. On the other hand, within weeks of Occupy’s formation and ascendance, people were eager to call it a failure. “I woke up this morning, and there’s still poverty! FAIL!” “Went on Wikipedia, and found out Citizens United is still on the books. Wow so much for “We are the 99%, right? FAIL!”
Two problems here. Firstly, anyone who cannot see how our discussion of inequality now was sparked by the Occupy protests has just not been paying attention. Last summer, the whole of our political and media elite had bought wholesale into the story of austerity. “Cut budgets, for surely that is the most pressing matter! Put financial reform, programs for the poor and middle class, our blatantly unfair tax structure, and everything else aside! We need to cut social security NOW or all hope is lost!” (None of these folks seem to have noticed that the U.S. has been in debt for some 95% of its existence as a nation.) Occupy was the first group to start talking tangibly about inequality, and the rest of the media structure got on board.
But secondly, many of these thinkers seem to have convinced themselves that the only way forward for reform is through politics and political parties. It is not.
And this to me is where Occupy has had its greatest success. It opened a generation of engaged citizens—some students, some workers, some from wealthy backgrounds, some from poor backgrounds—to the possibility of reform that does not involve the Democratic Party, but can include marches, sit-ins, strikes, civil disobedience, and formation of our own institutions of thought instead of just ones approved from above, whether by party or by government. I was always inspired by the stories I heard from Occupy Encampments of People’s Libraries, free classes put on by professors, teach-ins, free kitchens that served the poor, and true communities with some basic infrastructure that came out of these groups.
It goes further than Occupy, though. People who marched in those protests have gone on to get involved in their own communities in all sorts of ways worthy of note. This cannot be neglected. The movement to Occupy Homes that have been foreclosed grew out of Occupy. Radicalization efforts within the New York City Teacher’s Union were developed by activists who were involved in Occupy. Occupiers have joined in environmental activism, activism against police corruption and brutality, and even political organization. Occupy helped set up those networks of activism. Occupiers marched against NATO meetings in Chicago, and have continued the banner of radical politics in Oakland. Much of this news, by the way, has continued to be blacked out by a national news media that has never wanted to take Occupy all that seriously.
None of this is to say that Occupy has been the unqualified success that I or many other activists wanted, or that it hasn’t faced its share of infighting. But for many who started their adult lives by volunteering for the Obama campaign or for veteran activists or workers who last year saw no clear way forward for their causes, it has drastically changed the game. Any evaluation of Occupy has to give credit for that.