At 9 a.m., as most of us clocked in to work for the 1%, occupiers in New York City clocked in to work for the 99% by assembling in Bryant Park to take action against the members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful corporate lobbying group that literally writes legislation. The call to “shut down the corporations” on #F29 came from Occupy Portland weeks ago. Actions spanned the nation and coincided with anti-austerity protests in Spain and Belgium. Targets included Pfizer, Bank of America, Wal-Mart, AT&T, and others. Three Wal-Mart warehouses in Mira Loma, California were closed by the time occupiers got there.
The mood was festive and defiant, a real achievement given the cold, the rain, and the turnout (about 100). After leaving Bryant Park, occupiers spoke on the people’s mic in front of Pfizer before returning to the park for drumming, chanting, singing, and a teach-in by America’s top muckraker Matt Taibbi on Bank of America, the next target of the roving march. Taibbi spoke under an umbrella, discussed the ins and outs of mortgage-backed securities fraud, and noted how the 1% hedge their election bets by giving generously to both parties.
No matter who wins in November, the 99% lose. Two parties, 1%.
The most popular chants of the day:
“Robbers, thieves, protected by police!”
“A, anti, anticapitalista!”
“From New York to Greece, fuck the police!”
“Evict us, we multiply! Occupy will never die!”
The last of these was chanted loudest and most insistently. But is it true?
From the beginning of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) on September 17, 2011, the mainstream media and some in the progressive community have speculated endlessly about Occupy’s demise. We were on our last legs before we were even born. They focused on allegedly insurmountable difficulties: first the lack of “demands,” ideology, or agreed-upon political strategy, then Occupy was too middle class, white, straight, and male to gain traction with workers, women, LGBTs, and people of color who make up most of the 99%, and now they point to the fact that we’ve been evicted from most of our encampments.
The wiseacres failed to understand something very simple: stumbling is not falling, as Malcolm X said.
Look at it this way: when Gadhafi’s government went postal on the Libyan people in early 2011, was it the end of the Libyan revolution? No. Gadhafi’s failed to extinguish the flames of revolution with Libyan blood despite his best efforts. Instead, he created a subterranean fire by driving the organizing underground into neighborhood cells in Libya’s capital Tripoli. With NATO fighters screaming overhead and an offensive by militias from the west, these cells launched a carefully planned uprising on August 20, the day the Prophet Muhammed captured Mecca, adding Gadhafi to the list of dictators ousted by the Arab Spring cleaning and giving heart to the Syrians who quickly began to chant, “Bye, bye Qaddafi, Bashar your turn is coming.”
Similarly, the end of the encampments has not meant the end of Occupy, it has made our process much more painful, protracted, and difficult. Occupy’s form has changed but not its content.
Although Occupy is animated by an anarchist ethos, we benefited greatly from having the centralized one-stop hub for protesting, reading, eating, sleeping, arguing, living, and organizing that encampments provided. The fact that it worked before is the main reason why people keep trying to recreate the encampments. Success breeds success, and people stick with what works until they find something that works better.
The problem is that the two major attempts to re-camp after evictions didn’t succeed. Roughly 1,000 people tried to create a new OWS encampment on Trinity Church’s small lot on Sixth Avenue and Canal Street on December 17. Occupy Oakland attempted a similar action on January 28 and were rebuffed by the police. The “secret” indoor location they sought was surrounded by cops before 1,000 occupiers even got there. What followed were hours of skirmishes, melees, and police kettles that led socialist Chris Hedges to scapegoat the Black Bloc for Occupy’s difficulties, provoking a long-overdue debate over our strategy and tactics.
OWS succeeded not simply because “the time was ripe” (that’s hindsight bias talking) but because the encampment tactic was unorthodox, seemingly new, unique, intriguing, difficult to categorize or understand in conventional terms, without demands, an end date, or even a permit, one part Paris Commune and two parts Tahrir Square.
The network of organizers that came out of OWS’s direct precursor, Bloombergville, shifted targets from New York City’s mayor to Wall Street using the same encampment-as-miniature-ideal-society tactic, found a legal gray area surrounding privately-owned public spaces, and made history by boldly going where no one had gone before. And they did it with a fifth of the numbers that the abortive Trinity Church and the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center occupations had.
OWS was propaganda of the deed on a grand scale and a smashing success, inspiring and mobilizing the masses in a way we haven’t seen in four decades. Now there are occupations like Occupy Martinsburg, Virginia, made up of a couple dozen people — libertarians, liberals, socialists, atheists, and an anarchist nun. Their t-shirts read: “Occupy Martinsburg, Birthplace of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.”
No wonder Mitt Romney stays away from NASCAR fans. He’s afraid they’ll mic-check him.
OWS succeeded not simply because “the time was ripe” but because its actions and methods in the context of the time were right. Doing the wrong thing at the right time never got anyone anywhere and it certainly never ignited a popular uprising.
That said, the encampment tactic came with baggage too: trying to provide help for the mentally ill, dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, combating sexual assaults, and creating one convenient spot for the cops to swarm, arrest, and destroy. Had the camps not been exploded from without they might have imploded from within.
The basic difficulty with trying to recreate the encampments is that the 1% are ready for that. Liberty Park has fences stacked and bundled up under lock and key, able to be deployed at any minute, plus the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) monster 20-foot surveillance tower that was erected in October of 2011 is still there. If we’re going to go the encampment route, we need either a lot more people to surprise and overwhelm them, a different location that is works better for us, or both.
Evicted, we’ve multiplied, creating general assemblies in the boroughs where the 99% live and work. We have pop-up occupations. OWS working groups meet a few blocks from Liberty Park at the 60 Wall Street Atrium, in churches, and in union halls where dreams and aspirations of a May 1 general strike are being turned into practical mobilization plans by a coalition of occupiers, anarchists, socialists, union members, and immigrants’ rights organizers.
Sure, the number of individuals actively involved in Occupy activities is smaller than during the peak of the encampments, but it’s a hell of a lot bigger than it was prior to OWS. We are learning how to advance and retreat, occupy and protest, fight in the open and in the underground, accumulating lessons and experience along the way. Survival was our key task after the evictions, and now building active bases of popular support where we live and work is the key.
The evictions decentralized Occupy by force, spreading us thin on the one hand but giving us the opportunity to build bases where the 99% naturally reside instead of having them come to us. Take Back the Bronx (formerly Occupy the Bronx) has led thousands to protest the murder of unarmed teenager Ramarly Graham in his own home by the NYPD after a stop and frisk encounter. Occupy Atlanta saved a black lesbian Iraq war veteran’s home and a local black church from foreclosures and occupied AT&T’s corporate office with Communication Workers of America in response to hundreds of planned layoffs. The specter of Occupy has haunted the docks since the November 2 general strike in Oakland and the December 17 West Coast port blockade and spooked grain hauler EGT into giving up on breaking International Longshore Workers Union Local 21 using Coast Guard ships.
We lost our encampments just as we were finding our voices and taking our first steps after a long slumber, but we have only begun to sing and dance.