Not only does the Occupy movement have a rich past and dynamic present, but regardless of being now ignored by the media, it has a potential future. (Based on a presentation given to the Peace And Justice Group of Bath, New York in October of 2012.)
The Occupy movement is more than one year old, and much has happened in the world. Inspired by these years of worldwide revolution, people have decided to come together to offer a new dialogue and a new vision for the country and the world. Not only is there the resistance to income inequality, corporate power, and austerity but the creation of new political and economic forms that offer a brighter promise of the future. This is despite the increased repression of peaceful demonstrations by the police, who in this context are clearly agents of the state rather than protectors of the public. The depiction of this police brutality through the lens of a reluctant and corporate controlled media has made a demarcation between the haves and the have nots much more clear and specific. The world is now fully aware of the conflict between the 99% and the 1% which has been a product of the policies of the past 30 years. The 99% were those who have been most affected by the economic crisis, while the 1% were those who have survived the crisis unscathed due to their inordinate wealth and power. As time passes, and to further cement this awareness, there needs to be a history of the movement to understand where it can go next. This history not only details what happened, but also how and why it happened. The people of the world can never go back to what was before, and so a new topology must be mapped out so that the past mistakes and crimes can never be repeated. The potential for change is strong if the understanding of the movement is strong.
To understand the context of Occupy, there is a need to look at both the long-term and short-term background. One must look at the past and see how various aspects were borrowed for this unique movement. The long-term background is that of the history of social movements and how they operated. It is from the Bonus Army that Occupy made use of encampments. In 1922, a bonus plan was enacted for veterans of World War I. These veterans could not redeem their certificates until 1945, but because of the Great Depression they were in need of having those certificates redeemed sooner. Veterans gathered in Washington and encamped in various public parks and spaces in the Spring and Summer of 1932, demanding their bonuses early. Eventually, the military was brought in under the command of Douglas MacArthur and the camps were cleared out with the possessions of the veterans destroyed. It is from the civil rights movement that nonviolent civil disobedience was adopted. This approach is fairly self-explanatory as a way to reveal the violence of the system while avoiding the continuation of violent recrimination or revenge. Time has shown that this method was possibly the most important reason that the civil rights movement was a success. It is from the events of May 1968 that structural change external to party structure became an important approach. The year 1968 had vital historical significance, including the demonstrations and protests that broke out all over the world that year. But it was the month of May that saw the most powerful protests, especially in Paris. Students and workers, instigated by the suppression of students trying to form a political activist group, took to the streets demanding more than just reform or better political representation by way of a leftist party organization. They demanded power to the people that required great changes in the system where both worker exploitation and the commodification of the culture would be challenged. The movement was in many ways so radical that the Communist Party sided with the government in their attempts to disperse the street action. One will see this goal of change that avoids being coopted by party politics in the Occupy movement during the election year of 2012. It is from the antiglobalization movement that Occupy made use of the style of horizontal systems and organization. This antiglobalization movement, also called the global justice movement or the altermondialization movement, developed in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the ratcheting up of global capitalism where multinational corporations grew in power and influence. This came to a head in November of 1999 in Seattle when a major protest occurred at the meeting of the World Trade Organization. The methods of the protest was that of affinity groups, protestors joining others in street action with whom they trusted or who were there with a common purpose, and independent media centers where computers were hooked up to a power source and Internet connection to relay the news of the protests worldwide. The affinity groups allowed for a great diversity of people to come together against a common foe, motivated by a wide array of issues such as environmentalism, labor rights, indigenous cultures, and land reform. The independent media centers helped the protesters gather information and communicate their own story rather than let the corporate controlled mainstream media frame their narrative, making use of the current technology at that time. The Occupy movement borrowed these methods in terms of their working groups as well as their consistent documentation of the movement through the more advanced communication networks. Overall, Occupy made use of the methods of encampments, nonviolent civil disobedience, demands for change outside of party cooptation, and horizontal organization in order to create a new type of movement that broke away from conventional tactics and strategy.
The short-term background is in the arena of current events and is easier to ascertain. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, a historical moment was created with the first black president in the United States. However, as his administration commenced, Obama became a great disappointment to many supporters through the actual lack of hope and change. Bailouts for banks, delaying the closing of the Guantanamo prison, prosecution of legal medical marijuana dispensaries, and filling his cabinet with people from the corporate world are all examples of broken promises that were made during the campaign. The ongoing military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the escalation of drone attacks, and the amplification of the surveillance powers of the state were in fact all a continuation of the actions of the Bush administration, dispelling any chance that the current administration would be any different from those that preceded it. The image of Obama as something completely different and an agent of change, viewed as a hero by Democrats and as a dictator by Republicans, ended up as a false image that obscured the reality of the status quo controlled by corporations. As this lack of hope and change was occurring on the domestic front, in other countries there were increasing protests against the austerity measures that were proposed after the economic crisis of 2008. In other countries, people took to the streets to block any attempt to place people into more debt and dependency on corporate power while at the same time giving corporations more privileges and free reign over the global economy. Out of this environment came the beginning of the Arab Spring. What started in Tunisia and Algeria came to a head in Egypt with the occupation of Tahrir Square and the first major use of the Internet to convey the message of the people worldwide. Like Tunisia and Algeria, the goal of the resignation of the dictator of Egypt Hosni Mubarak was accomplished and gave a new horizon for the people of the Middle East that demonstrated that they could have democracy on their own terms without the interference of the West. Back in the United States, the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber wrote a comprehensive book on the history of debt that revealed how debt has been used as a form of social control. He explained that when a society has various relationships of reciprocity among its members, that they are cases of finite debt. These particular cases can either develop into a overall mutuality of shared resources where dependency is erased, or it can develop into a more infinite debt where it is impossible to pay the debt back and therefore one can be under the control of another person or group indefinitely. Prof. Graeber had previously been heavily involved in the antiglobalization movement and had written a book on direct action. He had extensive experience in the practices of anarchist organization and extensive knowledge of the way debt is used as an instrument of power and hierarchy that run counter to the mutuality of a society as expressed in the commons. The magazine Adbusters also was an outspoken proponent of the antiglobalization movement in general and a critic of capitalism in particular. In June of 2011 the editors of Adbusters sent a message to subscribers calling for an event in the United States like that of the Arab Spring. There was much discussion, and on August 2nd a rally by New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts was held. The rally was very much like previous rallies, especially those opposing the war in Iraq, where there was a stage with scheduled speakers addressing a passive audience. Many were disgruntled at this format, including Graeber, and they broke away from the rally to have their own meeting. This evolved into various forms of anarchist style planning where all were involved in a horizontal manner rather than a vertical pre-organized rally. The final product of this planning was the actual occupation of Zuccotti park in September.
To understand what is Occupy, there is the need for a concise chronology of the events that occurred. For Occupy Wall Street, September 17th of 2011 was the beginning of the encampment of Liberty Plaza, formerly known as Zuccotti Park. The first assumption was that it was yet another protest that would only last one day. But then something extraordinary happened in that the people did not leave. In fact, more people converged on Liberty Plaza. The media began to pay attention when footage was shown of female protesters surrounded by orange netting and pepper sprayed brutally. Once public attention was directed to the encampment, the media began to try to analyze what was going on. On September 29th, the Declaration Of The Occupation was issued after a deliberative process by its General Assembly. The final line was most significant in that it called for people to “Exercise your right to peaceably assemble, occupy public space, create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.”. It was at that time the most succinct description of the Occupy movement overall. Despite this declaration, the media continued to claim that the protesters did not know what they wanted to accomplish. However, what they failed to understand was the fact that the problems described through the declaration was conceived through the direct democracy organizing the encampment, instead of being predetermined by a preexisting activist group. It was the people who articulated organically their opposition to income inequality, corporate personhood, money controlling elections, and the preponderance of debt. As time passed, the public began to tentatively comprehend that there was also a micro-social cohesion at the encampment. New social forms were created that were not only a prototype for other occupations but for the larger society as well. Food distribution systems, energy systems, a library, a garden, and basic medical services were set up to provide for the increasing amount of people who went to Liberty Plaza. As people came to that particular location to be a part of real structural change, they also had their own occupations in their own locations. By the time October of 2011 came around, there was the emergence of many global encampments. In total, by the end of that month, there was 250 encampments in the United States and over 500 across the globe. Besides the encampment and General Assembly meetings, there were various marches to show the strength and number of the movement. One march across the Brooklyn Bridge resulted in 700 arrests. As time passed, Mayor Bloomberg threatened to evict the protesters due to the need to “clean up” the park. The movement responded by cleaning the park themselves, thus revealing the true intentions of the city government and police department to silence the protest and disperse the movement. Eventually, on November 15th, there was the clearing of Liberty Plaza. But that did not mean that the movement completely disappeared in New York City. People would continue to congregate and reoccupy the park, especially on the six month and one year anniversary of the beginning of Occupy Wall Street.
As one looked beyond Occupy Wall Street, one began to see Occupy everywhere. The initial protest, a combination of encampment and direct democracy, spread across the planet for everyone who was feeling the effects of a system that did not work for the 99% of the population. This was true regardless of whether it was New York or Rome or London. The occupation site that probably received the most attention second only to Occupy Wall Street was Occupy Oakland. Occupy Oakland began on October 10th and tended to clash with the police at a slightly higher frequency than in New York. The clearing of the encampment occurred on October 25th and was notably more violent. A young man named Scott Olsen was severely injured when police shot a tear gas canister at his head, resulting in his skull being fractured. When people gathered to help him, the police fired off another tear gas canister to disperse them. Luckily, he was carried away and healed from his injuries. Others were beaten by the police that night, but it should be noted that Olsen was a former Marine and veteran of the Iraq war, demonstrating that the members of Occupy did not fit a predetermined demographic of being “hippies”. The result of clearing the park was 100 arrests, but that did not mean that Occupy Oakland was dead even though the encampment lasted for a shorter time period as compared to New York. Like Occupy Wall Street, there was continuous activity. On November 2nd there was a General Strike organized by Occupy Oakland that culminated in the closing of the port due to the sheer size of the march. A Move-In Day was conducted on January 28th of 2012 to convert an abandoned building into a community center, but the police once again violently intervened with 409 arrests. All charges but 12 were later dropped. The repressive violence of the Oakland police was so extreme that an adviser to Democrat Mayor Jean Quan resigned in protest and Quan ultimately had to apologize for the police. Overall, Occupy Oakland can historically be defined by both its police brutality and its more black bloc inspired direct action to respond to that police violence.
A sidenote needs to be made about the phenomenon of the black bloc and its relationship to the Occupy movement. Though the black bloc was most visible at Occupy Oakland, and there was no reason that some form of this contingent would not be present at other encampments, it must be understood that the black bloc predates Occupy by several decades. It began in Europe in opposition to the process of corporate globalization in the 1980’s. It became most prominent in the antiglobalization movement of the late 1990’s, but it is a group of activists who are not defined by any membership list or umbrella organization. They are a group united by certain tactics of direct conflict with authority that in most cases results in the destruction of property, usually the property of corporations and banks. Anyone supposedly can be in the black bloc at any time if they engage in these tactics. They wear black clothing, with ski masks or bandanas covering their faces to avoid being recorded, and urge a diversity of tactics within larger protest movements. They believe that their actions can exist side by side with nonviolent or legally sanctioned protests to show that the movement overall is a diverse reflection of the people. It is still up in the air whether or not the black bloc is exclusively a form of insurrectionary anarchism or is made up of more different political positions. There are three ways of looking at the black bloc in relation to protest movements. First, they can be seen as the rodeo clowns of the protest movement, offering to distract the police with their actions in order to make sure the nonviolent protestors are untouched. Second, they can be seen as being mostly comprised of police agents, either undercover police or paid off by the police, whose sole goal is to provoke police action by destroying property. Third, they can be seen as the conscience of the protest movement, revealing the hidden authoritarian aspects of the nonviolent section when they impose a strict demand of nonviolence for all protestors and often labeling them the “peace police”. In point of fact, the reality of the situation is probably a combination of all three perspectives. There is probably a heavy infiltration of police agents among the group, but those who are sincere can try to distract the police while at the same time showing that a uniform tactic is itself a way that those in power are able to regulate an oppositional force without outright violence. By including the debate as to whether property destruction is a form of violence or not, the entire subject of the black bloc is still unresolved and will continue to be discussed and argued over for quite some time.
The Occupy movement also articulated itself in other ways. As Occupy Wall Street reclaimed Zuccotti Park, a tumblr called “We Are The 99%” was created. The format of a tumblr is similar to a blog, with the major difference being that a tumblr is used primarily to post pictures and video rather than text. This tumblr used that format to post pictures of people holding small signs upon which was written text that described their individual economic predicament with the final line being “I Am The 99%”. It was a snapshot of what people were going through, and why the movement was necessary at the very least to bring attention to this crisis. A conservative commentator, seeking to discredit the movement, created his own tumblr called “We are the 53%” referring to the 53% of people who pay taxes. Even though he was attempting to show that the majority of people were economically responsible and prudent while the movement was not, he failed to realize that the 53% he was talking about was in fact part of the 99%. On Facebook, a group formed called Occupy Marines, devoted to the project of retired Marines protecting people in the encampments from police brutality. The group began when Marine Iraq war veteran Sergeant Shamar Thomas was walking home one night on October 15th of 2011 and passed by Liberty Plaza. When he saw the large phalanx of police with their hands on their guns, ready for violence, he excoriated them to not attack people who are peacefully protesting. The interaction was captured on video and posted online. This not only inspired a support group but it also dismissed the myth that the only people involved in Occupy were “hippies”, similar to the presence of Scott Olsen at Occupy Oakland. Another project that branched out from the Occupy movement was Occupy Homes. Occupy Homes is a group committed to the squatting and encampments at foreclosed homes while at the same time protesting at banks holding those failed mortgages. December 6th was planned as a Day Of Action that intensified their work, and their most successful campaigns have been in Brooklyn, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. In these cases, Occupy Homes were able to take their critique of debt found in the overall Occupy movement and apply it in such a way as to be able to keep people in their homes with the ability to renegotiate the mortgages.
Finally, it is prudent to look at the local manifestation of the Occupy movement that is Occupy Elmira/Corning. This movement began with an introductory rally in early November of 2011, and over the course of a year has had several rallies and marches in the downtown area of Corning, New York. These rallies and marches include opposition to the NDAA and a call for justice for Trayvon Martin. The most successful event was held on May 1st of 2012 where students of Corning Community College staged a walk-out in protest of student debt. They were joined by union members as well as Colia Clark who is the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate and Nate Shinagawa who is the Democrat candidate for Congress. That walk-out was followed later on that day by a rally held downtown and a smaller forum on Faith And The Occupy Movement held at a local church. The events were covered extensively by the media and attended by around thirty people at both the walk-out and rally. The initiative of some members of Occupy Elmira/Corning led to the union endorsement of Shinagawa in the primary election. In June and July, a Mission Statement was begun to begin to pinpoint the possible solutions to the problems that were originally stated in the group’s Declaration that was itself put together in January. This was in synchronicity with the National Gathering held in Philadelphia from June 30th to July 4th where a Vision For A Democratic Future was compiled from local input. This was accomplished through a process that allowed small groups of three to bring together ideas, then to meet in groups of nine to prioritize them, and then have spokespersons from five groups of nine meet to compile their lists. This would repeat as spokespersons would meet in larger and larger aggregations to bring it all together without excluding any idea. The most repeated ideas were placed at the top of the list. The product of this important National Gathering was a milestone not only for the national movement, but an inspiration for the local Occupy Elmira/Corning group to engage in concrete action and local change in their second year.
Once the chronology has been established, one can examine how the Occupy movement operates. The movement is made up of two main components, which are the encampments and the General Assembly. The encampments are a direct application of nonviolent civil disobedience where action is taken without preexisting permits or permission from the authorities. When the police attempt to disperse an encampment, various actions are taken that resist without reflecting the violence projected upon the members of the movement. Since there is a rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience, there is a wide array of tactics that can be used. Ultimately, the point of these tactics is to express the concept behind the famous words of Mario Savio, founding member of the Berkeley Free Speech movement of the early 1960’s, where he said that when the machine becomes so odious that people must put their body on the gears to stop it. The encampments also are a reclamation of public space, which has a new meaning in this age of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism seeks to move all aspects of a society toward a market system. This includes public services and public spaces. The privatization of public spaces, usually for the sake of profit, results in people having less and less space to exercise their rights as citizens. The maximization of profit leads to the minimization of freedom. For in all cases of private space, an individual is subject to the wishes of whoever owns the space in question. In the case of public space, everyone is equal since everyone technically is a co-owner of the space in question. When more public space is converted to private space, then people find themselves under the control of other people most of the time in their lives. The encampments therefore became a revitalization of the public square of past generations where discussion and free speech could be conducted. The second component of the General Assembly is simply the practice of direct democracy. This means that democracy is used as the movement’s internal organization and how it conducts itself on a day-to-day basis. Each encampment has a General Assembly where everyone can participate. Decisions are made through consensus where it requires motions to be changed or amended in order to make sure everyone is in agreement with the final product. The process accomplishes the goal of making sure that through discussion people are invested in the process rather than the simple and problematic dichotomy of a majority and minority. Working groups are established that work on specific projects or actions for the encampment and who report back to the General Assembly in order to get approval and inform the group. Overall, beyond being the way the movement is organized, the General Assembly is also a model of direct democracy in action that is quite rare in this age of representative democracy. Each encampment with its General Assembly is an independent unit, and easily demonstrates how direct democracy is not an idealist or utopian concept. It is an expression of the idea embodied by Buckminster Fuller when he said that the best way to convince people of an idea is to create a working model rather than use words to convince them. The process also means that even though the movement is united by common oppositions, that compel people to join together in the encampments in the first place, it is through the General Assembly that the movement works through what it is for. In other words, people come together in physical space motivated by problems they see in the society and once they join together in protest they use the General Assembly to decide what solutions they want to enact. This is in marked contrast to previous protest movements and activism where an organizing group would predetermine what the movement is for and what it is against. Since this is a passive form of political action, and it is organized in a vertical hierarchical way, the Occupy movement has made itself truly distinct from what has occurred before. It is not prepackaged activism, and therefore it can be seen as more sincere, more original, and more true to the zeitgeist. The encampments and the General Assembly are the twin motors of the movement that insure it goes beyond what is assumed of leftist or progressive politics.
When one understands the process, one can then see the purpose of the Occupy movement. Inherent to this movement is the methodology of resistance and creation. It is the combination of two steps where people first resist a prevailing centralized and vertical order and then create new structures that reflect a much more decentralized and horizontal society. An old structure must be taken apart in order to construct a new structure that is different from the first. The couplet of resistance and creation is also the process that moves from theory to practice. One can initially resist with a theory that critiques what exists, but there needs to be the second step where the act of creation can put the theory into practice in a concrete way. Just as resistance fails without creating a new order, theory becomes meaningless without being put into practice. As can be seen in the two components of the movement, the resistance occurs with the encampments and the creation occurs with the General Assembly. Resistance and creation can then be defined as specific to the Occupy movement, since this two step process is so clearly actualized in the encampments and the General Assembly. Even though other movements and individuals can execute both resistance and creation, the counterculture of the 1960’s is a good example, it is much more apparent and deliberate in Occupy. A new dimension of this process can be seen in the specific formation of declarations and a vision statement. Each Occupy encampment used the General Assembly to construct a declaration describing what they are against and the problems they see that need to be fixed. In most cases it was the first product from the direct democracy of the encampments. On July 4th of 2012 a National Gathering was held in Philadelphia where delegates from each encampment or local Occupy group gathered to put together a vision statement that would begin the process of synthesizing solutions to the problems delineated by the various declarations. The formation of a vision statement was conducted in such a way as to incorporate as many ideas from delegates as possible through a nested series of meetings where the most repeated issues were placed at the top of the list. Nothing was removed, in the spirit of a consensus based decision making process. The movement from many declarations to one vision statement is the movement from the description of problems to the development of solutions. The relationship of problems to solutions is in parallel to the relationship between theory and practice. Just as the transition from resistance to creation moves from theory to practice, the transition from many declarations to one vision statement moves from problems to solutions. The national vision statement would in turn inspire local Occupy groups to create their own mission statements that would set out what they as a group would like to accomplish through the movement. Overall, this methodology clearly shows that the Occupy movement is dynamic and able to advance toward real results. It has a clear purpose of resistance that theorizes problems and creation that practices solutions.
The big question is whether the Occupy movement has a future. Many encampments have been cleared by police, and as time passes the General Assembly of many local groups have faded through fatigue or other factors. But the need for change still exists, and Occupy has not completely vanished from the political scene. Its future can be seen in how it has incubated interest in specific movements on specific issues. The first example is that of corporate personhood, one of the primary problems described by the initial encampments and their declarations. The organization Move To Amend, cofounded by 2004 Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, has slowly but surely built up support for a constitutional amendment that would repeal both corporate personhood and the idea that money is free speech. After the rise of Occupy, many local communities have passed resolutions calling for such an amendment. The connection between the national and the local has been assisted by the decentralized nature of the Occupy movement. Many local Occupy groups have spearheaded the passage of the local resolutions as a direct way of dealing with the problem of corporate personhood. The second example is the issue of hydrofracking, where concentrated water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals are used to break up underground shale deposits in order to extract natural gas. The fracking process is very dangerous on an environmental level, and is also dangerous on a political level as a case of corporate power subverting the rights of communities. Since this is a major issue in New York State, organizations have emerged to oppose the introduction of fracking. One such group is Frack Free Nation, represented by Bram Loeb, who are calling for a nationwide ban on fracking as a deliberate pollution of the land, air, and water of communities. This is complemented by local resolutions that ban fracking or clearly state the Home Rule rights of a community. The Occupy movement serves as a meeting point or focus for those who oppose fracking on both a national and local level. The empowerment of both Move To Amend and Frack Free Nation by way of Occupy can be seen in the presentations given at the Upstate Occupy Conference that was held in Syracuse in June of 2012. What this demonstrates is that individual groups and encampments may come and go, but the movement remains to such an extent that it provides a synergy for other issue oriented groups to grow. The physical encampments may be too fragile to last forever, but the direct democracy of the General Assembly has the potential to thrive through the long-term. Over time, the reintroduction of direct democracy that the General Assembly provides will be a long lasting catalyst for change. As time passes, the movement may change but it will continue due to the simple fact that the problems that first brought people together at Zuccotti Park also remain unaddressed by the status quo. And one must always remember that even though the media is no longer talking about the Occupy movement, it still exists. People concerned for the future of their community, nation, and world will still work together. There is no going back.