Occupy: A Name Fixed to a Flashpoint

From my article in The Sociological Quarterly‘s new special issue on Occupy Wall Street:

Public Performance and Backstage

We know that Rosa Parks was not merely tired when she refused to give up her bus seat. She was acting with agency, and the appearance of spontaneity was part of an intentional performance designed for strategic effect (Polletta 2006). It was fine&#151intended even&#151for most people to see and sympathize with her as a tired woman who had simply had enough. It would not be fine, however, for students and strategists of social movements to take her performance at face value. We must also look behind the scenes.

Accordingly, it behooves us to explore Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS’s) backstage and not take its bountiful public performances at face value when assessing the movement (Goffman 1954). What complicates matters is that what we might usually think of as a movement’s backstage&#151for example, decision-making processes, general meetings, working groups, planning, and so on&#151is not really behind the scenes with OWS. It is all part of the public performance. To many OWS participants, internal democratic processes were often indistinguishable from external messages. To me OWS’s hyperdemocratic process was an important part of the public message. General Assemblies at Zuccotti Park in New York City operated as a brilliant theater, dramatically juxtaposing a visibly participatory people’s movement against what OWS participants and sympathizers perceived to be a rotted political system that has effectively disenfranchised most Americans. The downside is that General Assemblies were not functional forums for actual decision making. Because they were so cumbersome and easily derailed, many of the most active OWS organizers, myself included, eventually stopped going to them. Thus, much of the real decision making was pushed back-backstage into underground centers of informal power…

Read the full article on The Sociological Quarterly website (no paywall). Check out the full special section on Occupy Wall Street here.

A Practical Guide to Co-option

Also published in Occupy! #4. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

Almost immediately after a small band of activists first occupied Zuccotti Park in September of last year, many in the movement started expressing concern about potential co-option by more established and moderate forces. These concerns have become more central in 2012, an election year. Wariness is certainly warranted. But angst about an over-generalized sense of co-option may be an even bigger problem. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing broad-based institutions. OWS should actively and strategically forge relationships with many of these institutions, while preserving the role of OWS as an “outsider” force.

Good problem to have

In the wake of the initial successes of Occupy Wall Street, establishment Democrats&#151including the White House&#151started clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave. Some Democratic Party strategists asked what electoral use they might get out of the new movement. Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress (CAP) told the New York Times in early October that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”

The hypocrisy of a party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street trying to ride an anti-Wall Street surge was widely ridiculed. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald scoffed at efforts “to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA [Organizing For America].” Greenwald was right, and was echoing a widespread sentiment inside Zuccotti Park and the other occupations around the country. Very few of the committed folks sacrificing time, safety, and comfort to make the occupations and street protests happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.

And yet, something important is missing in many movement conversations about the threat of Democratic Party co-option: namely that this is a good problem to have. This is what political leverage looks like. Grassroots social justice movements haven’t had much leverage for a very long time, and over the past months we’ve finally gotten a taste of it. Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull things in a social justice direction. In a very short time span, Occupy Wall Street dramatically shifted the dominant national conversation from a conservative deficit framework to a critique of economic inequality and the political disenfranchisement of most Americans.  

How often is a genuinely grassroots social justice movement in a position where it’s framing the national narrative, and where the major political parties are reacting to us? Having this kind of leverage is perhaps the most important thing in politics. Without leverage, all you have is a political analysis. Trying to engage in political struggle with an analysis but no leverage is like coming to a gunfight armed only with the truth. Good luck with that!

So, in political struggle, when powerful forces want to co-opt your momentum, that means you have leverage, and that’s a good problem for a grassroots movement to have. Serious movement strategy conversations about the threat of co-option should start with this happy realization. Yes, wariness of establishment and “moderate” forces is certainly warranted. But generalized fears of co-option can have a paralyzing effect on our ability to activate a broad spectrum of allies &#151 especially if we uncritically lump together and dismiss every national organization, labor union, community organization, etc., that engages in any electoral work or even legislative work.

Even if you concede that establishment forces want to co-opt a more radical agenda &#151 well, so what? What does that even mean? It means that different groups and institutions have different agendas, and they’re always looking for ways to further those agendas. NEWSFLASH: We all have this in common! We all have agendas, and we’re partial to our agenda over others’ agendas. It is certainly true that more established institutions tend to command more resources than dynamic new configurations like Occupy Wall Street &#151 and that established groups tend to get stuck in their ways, and even to sometimes actively resist more radical accelerations of change. This is part of the terrain that we have to map and understand. But we should do this with an eye to finding and cultivating allies within institutions &#151 not to dismiss the institutions wholesale.

The worst thing we could do right now is make Occupy Wall Street into a small “radicals only” space. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing large membership institutions, including labor unions, national advocacy organizations, community organizations, and faith communities. Radicals never have and never will have sufficient numbers to go it alone. We have to muster the courage and smarts to be able to help forge and maintain alliances that we can influence but cannot fully control. That’s the nature of a broad populist alignment.

If we are to continue building on the momentum that Occupy Wall Street kicked off, we can’t treat institutions and individuals as if they were one-dimensional characters with simple and permanently fixed motives. Larger membership organizations can be complicated, and their programs and politics are often a mixed bag. The temptation for radicals is to focus on everything they’ve ever done wrong (i.e. all the things that radicals don’t like). But many of these institutions and movements began with premises that are not so far from our own. We have to figure out how to invite them and the people inside them to shift and to change. This includes institutions we don’t align with on every issue and who have disappointed us in the past. Achieving significant changes requires building broad alliances. While of course there are lines to draw (e.g. we should never align with organized racists), generally we can’t afford to be puritanical when it comes to building a broad movement.

One Co-option at a Time

Social movement theorists have a term for the sort of co-option that Occupy Wall Street should prize: infrastructure co-option. Nascent movements become mass movements not by building their own infrastructure entirely from scratch or recruiting new volunteers one at a time, but by “co-opting” existing institutions and social infrastructure into the service of the movement and its goals. The Civil Rights movement went big when existing institutions&#151especially black churches and schools&#151came to identify strongly as part of the movement. Organizers provided opportunities for members of those pre-existing institutions to make this new identification actionable and visible. This was cultivated to such an extent that, eventually, to be a member of certain institutions implied active involvement in the Civil Rights movement. When this happens with enough institutions, the movement gets a huge boost in capacity. And capacity means power.

Over the past few months many organizations and constituencies have been watching Occupy Wall Street, trying to figure out whether and how to relate to it. These organizations&#151including faith communities, the NAACP, MoveOn.org, labor unions, community organizations, and many other groups&#151understand how they and their members are affected by the crises that Occupy Wall Street has named and confronted. Some of them are already engaging in important ways, explicitly as part of&#151or in support of&#151Occupy Wall Street. And many more have long been engaged in work that clearly aligns with the movement’s core values&#151and probably even deserve some credit for helping to lay the long-term organizing groundwork that helped create OWS.

But there are still significant barriers standing in the way of broader constituencies conceptualizing themselves as part of a 99% movement and getting actively involved. The first and most obvious barrier is that many groups haven’t really been asked to get involved. During the first couple months of OWS, if a group wanted to get involved, it was typically a matter of them taking the initiative to approach us and ask what kind of support they might provide. Usually the answer was some variety of “Come down to Zuccotti Park” or “Stand up against Bloomberg for our right to occupy the park.” Often the groups that wanted to support OWS simply showed up. While this kind of involvement made perfect sense when we held the park, it’s clear that we now have to come up with other ways for more people and groups to take action as part of the 99% movement.

This is a critical transition for Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement. Remember that Occupy Wall Street kicked off with a well timed call-to-action, a ripe target, some planning, and a lot of crazy luck. As a result, OWS has understandably had more of a culture of mobilizing than of organizing. It’s been a little like a group of folks who don’t know anything about farming who arrive at a farm at harvest time. There’s delicious food everywhere, and all they have to do is pick, pluck, and gather it. And eat it! “Wow,” one of them exclaims, “farming is awesome! Why would we waste our time cultivating the soil? This food is delicious! I want to eat it all the time! This is working very well. We should just keep doing this &#151 all the time!”

Occupy Wall Street has been something of a harvest moment. It pulled thousands of people out of the woodwork who’d been waiting for something just like this to come along, and who were in a place where we could carve out time from our lives to engage it. But movements need hundreds of thousands if not millions of active participants to become mass movements. It’s difficult if not impossible to activate those kinds of numbers by just taking public action with the hope that other like-minded individuals will decide to join you. We need more on-ramps and more ways to be involved &#151 for folks who might not yet feel comfortable camping out at a public park.

More than any other factor, people get involved in social change because people they know and respect provide an opportunity for them to get involved. In their essay Collective Identity and Activism: Networks, Choices, and the Life of a Social Movement, Debra Friedman and Doug McAdam cite proximity to movement activity as the single biggest factor for why people become active in grassroots change efforts:

Structural proximity to a movement, rather than any individual disposition, produces activism. Although individuals differ in their dispositions, the opportunities afforded by structural location relative to a movement determine whether they are in a position to act on these dispositions. Empirical support for these positions is unimpeachable.

In other words, while many people hold beliefs compatible with Occupy Wall Street, a very small percentage are currently taking action on those beliefs &#151 and a primary factor for why some people have become active is simply that they encountered opportunities provided by people close to them who are already active. This is why our growth has reached something of a plateau. And this is why it is now critical that we meet with folks who are movers and shakers in other social networks and institutions. That’s how the 99% movement can grow at the rate we all know it needs to; by activating whole swaths of society at a time.

But we have to approach those movers and shakers in the right way. Our “asks” of organizations shouldn’t be overly prescriptive. We have to start by establishing relationships. The term infrastructure co-option suggests a kind of functionalist attitude; as if a movement uses existing institutions in order to accomplish movement goals. One could look at the Civil Rights movement, point to core leaders, and argue that they exploited existing institutions to advance their agenda. But such an assessment would be wrongheaded. Civil rights leaders cultivated relationships with other organizations based on shared self-interest. This was a process of courting trust, cultivating deep collaboration and accountability, and making good judgments about the kinds of actions and messages that would resonate with different constituencies. Leaders had to act boldly, but also humbly.

Movement Season & Election Season

All of the above gets so much more complicated in an election year. Occupy Wall Street is an outsider force. It should remain an outsider force this year. If it were to endorse candidates or a particular political party, it would immediately lose all of its value and leverage. Our job is to push from the outside.

But that’s not at all to say that we shouldn’t have a strategy for engaging with the energy and media attention of the election season. We should. And how we do it will seriously affect our ability to continue to grow this movement, to be seen as relevant, to cultivate alliances, and to leverage power to effect real change.

As an outsider force, one of our biggest tasks is to set the terms of debate. For decades now, the terms of debate have shifted further and further to the Right, as conservatives united under a shared anti-government (i.e. anti-social spending) narrative, and progressive forces, fractionalized, waged mostly defensive campaigns to limit damage on an issue-by-issue basis. Interestingly, the rightward direction was probably no more apparent than in the case of the 2010 midterm elections, where the so-called Tea Party shifted the national debate into something of a moratorium on taxation and government spending on social programs and infrastructure. While the Tea Party’s agenda was deplorable, there are some lessons we might glean from aspects of their model (of an outsider grassroots force shifting the debate). To be clear, Occupy Wall Street is not “the Tea Party of the Left.” To our disadvantage, we don’t have nearly the financial backing that the Tea Party enjoyed via the Koch brothers and other major funders. Nor do we enjoy our own major cable news network that mobilizes people to come to our rallies. But to our advantage, because of our genuine independence from big corporate backers, we have been willing and able to tell the whole truth: not just that the government is broken, but that there were particular institutions and people who broke it. In other words, we have been willing to name Wall Street, the big banks, and the one percent as a culprit, and this naming rings true to a lot of people (even including some from the Tea Party base).

As recently as August of last year, anyone watching the mainstream news might think that the national deficit and social spending was the biggest problem facing the nation. That was a pretty impressive feat by the Tea Party. A month later, however, media outlets were at long last shifting their scrutiny to the consolidation of political power by the extremely wealthy, and the corresponding political disenfranchisement of the 99%. That shift should have happened long ago&#151that analysis should have long been commonsense&#151but it’s still an achievement that OWS can be proud of. And if we can keep that as the dominant framework&#151as the new commonsense&#151through the election season and beyond, we will have accomplished a great deal.

But many questions remain. What do we do, for instance, when candidates start to run on platforms that explicitly name “the 99%”? This is already happening. Are they co-opting our movement?

Yes, they are, in some ways. But, really, of all the slogans in the world, “We are the 99%” may be the one most difficult to claim exclusive ownership of &#151 after all, it’s a slogan that invites an overwhelming majority of people to identify with it. Moreover, there’s another way of looking at this: in some ways we are the ones who are co-opting them. At the very least, we are co-opting their speeches with our rhetoric. Once someone starts running on your rhetoric, you then have more leverage over them. You are better positioned to expose them if they’re just giving lip service to your ideas without any intention of delivering. And for all the horrendous limits of the two-party system, still a slate of candidates who get elected pledging to take on the big banks gives us a lot more to work with&#151as an outsider social movement&#151than a slate of candidates elected on a pledge to cut social spending. And more importantly, it keeps the momentum on our side.

Another important question has to do with how we engage allies who do endorse candidates. Many labor unions, for example, are likely at some point to endorse President Obama’s reelection bid. Some already have. And some will surely endorse specific state and local candidates. We’re an outsider force. We should never endorse candidates. But is it possible to ally around specific actions with organizations that also endorse candidates?

It has to be. We join up with others where we can, and we depart where we depart. If we call for an end to corporate personhood, for example, we should welcome as many co-endorsers as possible, including organizations that endorse politicians &#151 and even politicians themselves. Welcoming politicians’ endorsements of our goals doesn’t mean endorsing those politicians. This is an important detail, and it requires a precise threading of the needle. As an outside force, we have to take all politicians to task, regardless of party. But the details of how we do this matter. We need to pressure politicians and candidates, and the best way to do this is to ask them hard questions and provide pressure that pulls them in our direction (or put them on the defensive). If we ask good questions that resonate with the people who hear them, then we’re doing our job well. If, on the other hand, we make general statements like, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’re all the same,” then we’re being needlessly belligerent to our allies and potential allies (without even putting politicians on the defensive). An organization focused primarily on reproductive rights, for example, will understandably be very concerned about whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney occupies the White House. We can take candidates from both parties to task on an array of other issues without spurning their reasons for deciding to endorse a candidate.

+++

Every once in a very long while, an “earthquake moment” hits and shakes the foundations of the political landscape. In an earthquake moment, structures that you long took for granted may suddenly display new features. Perhaps a structure was built on a hitherto invisible fault-line, and the quake splits it right down the middle. Someone who had felt constrained within her institution before the shake-up may now see and seize openings to move the institution in a bolder direction. And this is more likely to happen if organizers from Occupy Wall Street&#151the visible catalyst of the earthquake&#151approach longstanding institutions to strategize together about how they might engage with this moment. An earthquake moment is a time to invite people to engage. It’s not a moment to keep people in boxes, or to draw rigid lines. It’s a moment to hammer Wall Street, the big banks, and the political system that has been fixed to serve only the very wealthy and powerful. Our task now is to activate as many people as possible into action. And this has to include people we wouldn’t necessarily choose to have as our best friends.

Floating Signifier (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 6)

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Andrew Boyd, and Dave Oswald Mitchell

The American flag inspires extreme passions . . . but what exactly does it stand for? To different people it means freedom, justice, imperialism and terror &#151 its meaning shifts wildly depending on context and observer. This emptiness, into which observers can pour almost any meaning or desire, is a large part of the symbol’s power.

For activists, a well-crafted floating signifier can be a powerful tool for catalyzing broad-based action. Subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, for example, deployed the concept of the floating signifier masterfully. Marcos described the masks the Zapatistas wore as a mirror in which all who struggle for a better world can see themselves. The Zapatistas’ iconic black balaclava was not just a necessity for personal security, but became a powerful statement of unity and universality. “Behind our black mask,” they declared, “we are you.”

In 2008, presidential candi-date Barack Obama also made masterful use of floating signifiers. His poetic rhetoric of “hope” and “change we can believe in” inspired a population weary from eight years of misrule. He became whatever his supporters wanted him to be. Obama explicitly acknowledged this phenomenon in the prologue to his campaign screed, The Audacity of Hope: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  

Finding the right floating signifier can make or break a social movement or campaign. When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side, and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.

Indeed, the power of a good floating signifier was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the overnight growth of Occupy Wall Street. Far eclipsing the literal physical occupation in Zucotti Park, OWS resonated so far and wide because it served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To many people, the “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” essentially stands in for the F word. Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something &#151 became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we’d been waiting for. And by having an open process, and not fixing its meaning early with a ten-point program or the like, the symbol was able to continue “floating.”

It’s not that the symbol is empty of meaning. Both “occupy” and “the 99%” carry content that strategically frames public thinking and pulls the political discourse in a clear direction. But a degree of ambiguity is absolutely necessary if such a symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular &#151 too associated with any one current or group within the alignment &#151 it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal. This is why the forces defending the status quo try to nail it down. Their hope is that by fixing it to particular meanings, associating it with particular “kinds of people” and to narrower frameworks, it will no longer function as a popular symbol.

Float on, beautiful signifier. Float on.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

OWS Core Concept Analysis

As the Occupy movement continues to battle corporate (and what I like to call in a broader sense, “institutional”) influence and corruption in our country, I have seen throughout the various Occupations, many varying divergences from one another, regarding the causes they take on.
From women's rights, to gay rights, civil rights and privacy rights. Environmental protection and corruption regulation and accountability…the list goes on. And while I myself am a great supporter of most of these causes and more, I have noticed a largely underdiscussed topic in regards to the movement, its aims and actions.

I'm a former political professional myself, so organization as a trade is something I know to be both art and science. In regards to its science, ideological mapping and tracking has been something of a hobby for a rather long time. With the conventional concepts of left and right rather evident on issue and fringe levels, the more one looks at the breakdown of individual positions and overriding philosophies (their topical contradictions included,) the more one comes to see how complicated and intercorrelated the varying positions and overall political spectrum become.

As such, as I look at Occupy, I see very strong leftist and centrist-pragmatist presence, but generally speaking, the factions which comprise the OWS movement range from the red-anarchists and marxist communists, to free market Ron Paul libertarian conservatives. Mainstream Democrats (who these days are Republican lite in many ways, IMO) make their presence felt, both in camps/GAs, as well as through the party's institutional allies such as major unions and PACs like Moveon. About the only groups or interests not represented in some way in some form are the corporate free-market conservatives and wealthy elites themselves, short of the cameo appearances by outspoken moguls and celebrities.

But the real current I've always found that bound these group together, beyond the general frustration and populist rage that inspired the original protests, is the specific and cross-ideological matter of influence peddling in general.

Each group and individual have, within some respect, their own comprehensive view on how the country should be governed and run. These ideas are varying mixes of philosophical/ideological positions and issue interest based considerations. But either way, the core of their rage, aside from the fallout from the past and present malfeasance by power actors, is that their will isn't even given the chance to be properly argued in power.

With industrial and special interest powers dominating the narratives and debates, politicians roundly ignoring the mass calls for action on the whole range of issues at hand, and corporate media interests spoon feeding crafted messages, its not hard to see why they feel this way. But the important part is not why, but how. How does this come to happen?

Money's influence in politics for a time, became the central narrative to OWS and in many ways still is. It is therefore my opinon that within such an ideologically diverse movement, wherein diametric opposites lived, worked, protested and supported eachother in the name of something greater than their differences, that election and lobbying reform are the only true core issue to OWS. 

What not to do: 100 things to avoid when trying to build a movement for radical change

DO NOT:

  1. forget to say please and thank you
  2. neglect to welcome newcomers
  3. be overly protective about ideas you hope to spread
  4. pretend you can make big changes without building broad alliances
  5. give the finger to your allies
  6. heckle Civil Rights leaders
  7. tell a black person that voting doesn’t matter
  8. tell anyone that voting doesn’t matter
  9. insist on a “diversity of tactics” at the expense of a diversity of participants
  10. ignore patriarchy
  11. assume you are the most radical person in the room
  12. assume that people who look more normal than you are less radical than you
  13. confuse poor personal hygiene with radicalism
  14. confuse the political philosophy of anarchism with weird haircuts and monochromatic wardrobes
  15. forget that most of your revolutionary heroes often wore suits
  16. look like a protester
  17. make a religion out of your decision-making process
  18. meet more than you work
  19. over-saturate working group email lists
  20. mic-check in a space where talking would suffice
  21. get too attached to your tactics
  22. assume that something that worked once will work again
  23. be disinterested in the details of your particular context
  24. fetishize occupying outdoor space
  25. dismiss the value of occupying outdoor space
  26. forget to eat
  27. forget to sleep
  28. act like a jerk because you forgot to eat and sleep
  29. reckon you don’t need to prep before a press interview
  30. fail to get a second opinion
  31. stop using a phrase because it becomes popular
  32. need to be the most radical kid on the block
  33. mistake utopianism for social change strategy
  34. say that “things will have to get worse before they get better”
  35. abhor reforms that would meaningfully improve real people’s lives
  36. fetishize revolutionary violence
  37. confuse a revolutionary moment with an actual revolution
  38. believe a mass movement will ignite spontaneously
  39. fail to map the terrain
  40. gravitate uncritically toward the most hardcore idea
  41. fancy that “autonomy” means you can do whatever the hell you want without consideration for how it might impact others
  42. drink the subcultural Kool-Aid
  43. fall into groupthink
  44. spout jargon that doesn’t mean anything to most people
  45. be fooled into thinking the word “neoliberal” is somehow precise
  46. disdain experience and expertise
  47. have more answers than questions
  48. believe we don’t have leaders
  49. believe that we don’t need leaders
  50. believe that we don’t need organization
  51. be self-righteous about your lack of organization
  52. start a totally redundant working group
  53. make a habit of knocking down people who step up
  54. act like every problem is a crisis
  55. mock people whose political analyses are less developed than yours
  56. fail to consider how outsiders might perceive you
  57. mistake 400 strangers mic-checking in a park for functional decision-making
  58. conclude that hyper-transparency inherently means inclusiveness
  59. over-generalize
  60. lump all your enemies together
  61. choose esoteric targets
  62. mistake the phrase “fuck the corporate media” for a communications strategy
  63. assume bad intentions
  64. assume something is getting done just because it was said in a meeting
  65. lump all your allies together
  66. yell at Kanye when he shows up at the park
  67. slam Miley Cyrus on Twitter for her music video that supports you
  68. think you have to agree with everything an organization has ever done in order to align with them on some things
  69. impose a purity test
  70. set a high bar for entry
  71. neglect to build on-ramps
  72. use “security culture” as cover for your clique
  73. become a “cool kid”
  74. suppose you can build a mass movement from scratch
  75. undervalue resources
  76. flake on important things people are counting on you for
  77. taunt cops
  78. be sectarian
  79. be a narcissist
  80. bang on drums at 2AM
  81. dismiss the complaints of supportive neighbors
  82. burn bridges faster than you can build them
  83. steal things from churches
  84. steal sacred items from churches
  85. piss where you sleep
  86. piss where other people sleep
  87. piss where other people hang out
  88. piss (or shit) on neighbors’ doorsteps
  89. accommodate destructive people
  90. let “damage control” take up most of your time and energy
  91. be an asshole
  92. yell at your comrades
  93. forget to tell your friends that you appreciate them
  94. fail to be cordial toward people who aren’t your friends
  95. be petty
  96. neglect to make good and legible signs
  97. forget to drink water
  98. forget to exercise
  99. forget to brush your teeth
  100. introduce yourself as a condiment

Occupy & Space

Even before Liberty Plaza was raided many of us were asking what was next for Occupy Wall Street. The movement, we said, was about more than holding a space, even one in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. Occupation, I often heard, was a means, not an end, a tactic, not a target. The goal, from the beginning, was to do more than build an outdoor urban commune supported by donations solicited over the Internet. We wanted to discomfit the one percent, to interrupt their good times and impact their pocketbooks&#151or overthrow them entirely.

The dual threat of eviction and inclement weather meant next steps were never far from people’s minds. The camp can’t last forever, we’d say knowingly, while friends nodded in agreement. And yet, when the raid actually happened&#151when Bloomberg sent one thousand police officers dressed in riot gear, and paramilitary helicopters hovered overhead, when the entire encampment was hauled off to the garbage dump and half-asleep occupiers were dragged to jail&#151it was a shock. Circling the police barricades that night many of the faces I passed in the street looked stunned; some individuals crumpled on the sidewalk and wept. The loss of Liberty Plaza was experienced as just that&#151a real loss, a possibly profound one. By dawn photos began to circulate of the park, freshly power-washed, empty and gleaming, almost as though we had never been there, though the police ringing the periphery and the newly installed private security guards gave us away.

No one can really say what unique coincidence of events and factors caused OWS to break into mainstream consciousness when so many well-intentioned and smartly planned protests with similar messages fell flat in the months leading up to it, but certainly the encampments were crucial (crucial though not sufficient, since one protest that took place shortly before OWS actually involved camping). By taking space and holding it OWS has captivated America like no protest movement in recent memory. Yet the crackdowns on occupations across the country have shown it will be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain these bastions of resistance moving forward: We are simply outnumbered, outfunded, and outgunned. While some groups, like Occupy Oakland, have heroically attempted to reclaim the space from which they were ousted, they have been rebuffed each time by overwhelming force. (And there have been more wily kinds of subversion, too: At Oscar Grant Plaza, the original site of the Oakland camp, the authorities have reportedly kept the sprinklers on, turning the lawn into a soggy mess unfit for sleeping.)

Here in New York, though the raid on Liberty Plaza was the moment we had all been waiting for, we were still caught off guard. Most of us had no ready or clear answer to the question of how to move forward without the park. It turned out, though, that a small group had been secretly devising a plan to occupy a second space. They jumped into action, weaving through the crowd, instructing everyone to meet at Canal Street and 6th Avenue. A few hours later a couple hundred people amassed at a site called Duarte Square, a giant empty lot not far from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel owned by Trinity Church. Activists cut a hole in the fence surrounding the space and moved in, carrying large yellow signs, some attached to basic wooden frames alluding to shelter. OCCUPY. LIBERATE. The church had been, and still claims to be, supportive of OWS, offering office and meeting space and bathroom access to occupiers before and after the raid, but they did not appreciate the sudden invasion of their property. By noon the police had been called and clergy members watched, impassive, as protesters were beaten and dragged away.

Since that morning Duarte Square has become a flashpoint of sorts, the quixotic focus of one of OWS’s most disciplined organizing campaigns. On the night of November 20th I joined a candlelight procession following a small fleet of illuminated tents stenciled with the movement’s new slogan: “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.” Those tents, carried high on sticks, playfully reminded everyone we passed that Occupy was not over. Waiters smoking near staff entrances cheered us on as we paraded by, drivers honked their support, and an angry woman outside a bar made the “loser” signal at us, her eyes locking briefly with mine. The march arrived at Duarte Square, where we covered long sheets of paper with pleas directed at church officials, and I felt conflicted. I have no doubt the space could be put to better use by the movement (right now it’s waiting to be developed into a 429 foot tall “residential tower”), but there was something odd about our appeals for sanctuary. If, by some miracle, the church granted us permission to stay there, would it even be an occupation?

In the weeks that have followed Trinity Church has not budged, while a core group of organizers show no signs of relenting in their efforts to take the space, promising another attempt to “liberate” Duarte Square on December 17th, soon after this gazette goes to press. They imagine a new kind of occupation, better organized, more cohesive, and in some ways more exclusive, than the one at Liberty Plaza, and there is much to admire about their vision. In pursuit of it they have circulated petitions, solicited op-eds, and rallied faith leaders to their cause, consistently highlighting the contradictions between Trinity Church’s scriptural duties and its status as New York City’s third largest landholder. “In terms of them being a real estate company, their stance makes sense,” the Reverend at Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, told the press. “In terms of them being a church, it makes no sense. The question is, where are their obligations?” Raising the stakes, a group of three young men, former occupiers, declared a hunger strike demanding access to the vacant lot, which they sat down next to. The church quickly had them arrested for trespassing and, when they returned, arrested them again, underscoring the congregation’s inflexibility on the issue. Meanwhile, many movement sympathizers looked on in confusion. Given the various elements and issues at play&#151the eviction from Liberty Plaza, the lack of open space in which to peacefully protest in our city, the inequities of property ownership, the church’s ostensible sympathy towards OWS, the presence of hunker strikers, and the entreaties to religious figures who were also ruthless real estate moguls&#151the thread was getting hard to follow. Sill I signed the group’s latest petition, not wanting to lose faith.

++ +

So far, in New York at least, energy for protest has not waned. The movement can appear anywhere at any time. There are inventive demonstrations every day, too many for any one person to keep up with, and more in the works. Yet attempts to occupy and hold space beyond Liberty Plaza have has missed the mark more than they have hit it, from the ridiculous and ridiculed takeover of the non-profit gallery Artists Space to the failed occupation of a student center at the New School, which initially had enormous promise yet quickly devolved despite the fact the building was secure thanks to support from sympathetic faculty and administrators.

Without a doubt, the most successful attempt to expand the concept of occupation took place on December 6th during a national day of action called “Occupy Our Homes,” an attempt to refocus attention and outrage on the havoc wrecked by the mortgage crisis&#151a crisis experts say is only half over (around 6 million homes have been seized since 2007, and over the next four years an estimated 8 million more are predicted go into foreclosure). In Chicago, a homeless woman and her baby moved into a foreclosed home with the blessing of the previous owner and the help of more than forty supporters; in Atlanta, protesters made an appearance at foreclosure auctions in three counties; in Denver, activists collected garbage from abandoned properties and delivered it to the mayor; in Oakland, a mother of three reclaimed the townhouse she lost after becoming unemployed while another group held a barbeque at a property owned by Fannie Mae. “To occupy a house owned by Bank of America is to occupy Wall Street,” one activist told me, explaining the underlying logic. “We are literally occupying Wall Street in our own communities.”

In New York, Occupy worked with a variety of community organizations and allies to host a foreclosure tour and coordinate the re-occupation and renovation of a vacant bank-owned property. When we reached our final destination, a small house at 702 Vermont Street in Brooklyn, the new residents, a previously homeless family of four, were already inside, along with a veritable army of activists coordinating the event and scheduling rotating teams to guard against eviction. Tasha Glasgow, the mother, was almost too shy to speak, but managed to express her sincere thanks to everyone assembled. Alfredo Carrasquillo, the father of her two children, including a 9-year old daughter who is severely autistic, held back emotion as he addressed the crowd, making sure to acknowledge the NYPD who dotted the sidewalks and could be seen on the roofs of nearby buildings. “I’m just hoping they don’t wake me up in my bed at 2 am,” he joked. As of this writing, almost a week later, the NYPD has not made any arrests at the house, though they have repeatedly intimidated the people staying there. The neighbors, in contrast, have welcomed the occupiers with open arms, inviting them over for tea and to baby showers held on the block. One woman, who lives a few doors down, said they could use her kitchen a few nights a week since the utilities in the occupied house aren’t hooked up.

Not only does the occupation of abandoned foreclosed homes connect the dots between Wall Street and Main Street, it can also lead to swift and tangible victories, something movements desperately need for momentum to be maintained. The banks, it seems, are softer targets than one might expect because so many cases are rife with legal irregularities and outright criminality. It’s not uncommon for customers to be misled, crucial paperwork lost and documents robosigned. While the mortgage crisis involved credit default swaps and securities and other complex financial instruments, one thing that clued investigators in to the systemic fraud now known to have taken place at Countrywide (right before it merged with Bank Of America) were the extra Wite-Out dispensers on brokers’ desks, the tool of choice for low-fi chicanery: signatures were forged, paperwork faked, and numbers fudged, leaving countless people with subprime mortgages when they qualified for better ones. This duplicity is why banks often change their tune when threatened with serious scrutiny; they count on cases to go uncontested, as the vast majority do, because they often lose if actually taken to court. In Rochester, one bank called off an eviction when they got wind that a protest&#151a blockade and a press conference&#151was being planned.

It’s interesting, given the glowing media coverage Occupy Our Homes received, that the action&#151billed as Occupy’s big leap forward&#151was not exactly innovative. Take Back The Land, which started in Miami, has been rehousing people in foreclosed properties since the mortgage crisis began. Going further back, the same techniques and rhetoric can be traced to the squatters campaigns that took off in New York City in the late ’70s (indeed, some of the squatting pioneers are now mentoring a new generation of activists) and the largely forgotten poor people’s movements of the late eighties and nineties. On May 1st, 1990, in an effort remarkably similar to Occupy Our Homes, homeless activists in eight cities reclaimed dozens of government owned properties, many of which they wrested control of for good. Occupy, in other words, is not breaking new ground, but bringing public attention to the kind of civil disobedience that typically goes under the radar.

But what’s clear&#151and terrifying&#151looking back on the occupation efforts of decades past, is that the potential base of support today is far broader than previous generations of activists could have ever dreamed. With one in five homes facing foreclosure and filings showing no sign of slowing down in the next few years, the number of people touched by the mortgage crisis&#151whether because they have lost their homes or because their homes are now underwater&#151truly boggles the mind.

Occupy Wall Street’s battle is nothing compared to what early civil rights advocates faced. Our predecessors had to convince their opponents to radically shift their worldview and abandon deeply held prejudices. Today, in contrast, public sentiment on economic issues broadly aligns with Occupy Wall Street. Americans are angry at the banks; they are angry about inequality; they are angry at politicians’ servility to corporate interests. The challenge, then, is convincing people that their anger is worth acting on, that something can be done. The path forward isn’t obvious. It’s difficult to organize against something as abstract as finance capital. How do you occupy something that is everywhere and nowhere?

Organizing around the mortgage crisis is a good step, for not only does it link seemingly arcane issues, like deregulation, to daily life and connect grassroots direct action to the action of the legislative variety (like the state attorney generals who are stepping up their inquiries into illegal home seizures and other mortgage misdeeds), it also promises small successes along the way, like offering shelter to a family that would otherwise be on the street. But not everyone is a struggling homeowner or already homeless; not everyone will identify with this particular struggle enough to join it.

Indeed, one problem facing many of Occupy’s early adopters is that, given high rates of student debt and unemployment, they may never have a chance to achieve that version of the American dream. As one of the big yellow signs at Duarte Square put it the morning after the eviction of Liberty Plaza: “I will never own a home in my life.” For these people questions of space and where and how to occupy take a different shape. For individuals who are not part of a student body, or rooted in neighborhood, or part of a union, the need, first of all, is to make a community from scratch, to cohere with a group under a common identity and find common cause. A community in formation was part of what the experiment at Liberty Plaza promised. Liberty Plaza was a space to be together, a space to struggle in and over&#151a space that grounded and oriented the movement, however imperfectly at times.

Space matters for Occupy. But when we seize it&#151whether it’s the sidewalk, the street, a park, a plaza, a port, a house, or a workplace&#151we must also claim the moral high ground so that others can be enticed to come and join us there. Occupy Our Homes made clear the connections between the domestic sphere and the financial sector: The occupation of abandoned bank-owned properties is actually a reclamation, a taking back of that which has been taken away, a recouping of something already paid for through other means (by unfairly ballooning monthly payments and the still-indeterminate government bail out, for example). The focus on Duarte Square, I fear, fails to draw the same kind of obvious unswerving link to the urgent issues that Occupy Wall Street emerged to address. At a direct action meeting a few weeks ago a young man spoke up. “We just need to occupy something,” he said impatiently. “Anything!” But if Occupy Wall Street takes the wrong space&#151or fails to clearly articulate the reasons why it is taking the right one&#151it may end up as lost as if it had none at all.

Also published in Occupy! #3. Occupy! is a semi-regular, forty-page broadsheet newspaper inspired by the Occupy movement.

A Love Letter to the Overcommitted

It usually starts with a lack of sleep. Then I notice I'm only eating carbohydrates, and mostly things which require less than 10 minutes to prepare. I find myself waking in the middle of the night to check my Blackberry, or worse, getting up to read and respond to emails at 3AM. Somehow my email will have strangely tripled in volume, seemingly without my noticing. I'll become nervous, kinda mean in meetings, prone to daydreaming, and tingly when I think about the object of my affection and obsession. Usually about 5 weeks in I wake up, joyful but tired, and realize I've done it all over again: in love with a campaign, I'm inevitably sliding into burnout.

Burnout is a risk in any field but it's especially prevalent in the social justice movement. There are lots of theories for this. Some think it's because we give more than we're ever given back. Others argue it's the working conditions–long hours, a lack of institutional support for self-care, or the tendency for nonprofits to take on more than they can accomplish. I think it's deeper than all that. As activists and organizers our role is to study where our society has failed and then generate creative solutions to fix it. We are students of violence, oppression, and harm. What most people spend their time tuning out we actively work to tune in. This can get depressing, especially when our gains might feel too minimal, or our efforts too small. Often we don't have a space to process our feelings about this, or we feel guilty for having them. Soon physical ailments appear and the stress gets the best of us. We no longer feel inspired and our work becomes stale, unoriginal, and brittle. It's a common story.

Sometimes it becomes a little too common. In my work at Occupy Wall Street I've noticed many people experiencing burnout, and felt myself compromise my own well-being in ways which are unsustainable and unjust. Like many I experience what E.B. White described so well: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Balancing these two needs is the chief tension in my existence.

It has been said we should be actively modeling the behaviors and structures of the world we want to achieve. Do we want to live in chaos? We have that now. Do we want people to overwork themselves? No. People died for the 8 hour workday for a reason. While campaigns are often our medium for change, they are actually somewhat corporate in their implementation: product development, branding, marketing. Yes, they are useful for recruitment and achieving some goals, but ultimately they trap us in a certain way of thinking: we have to do it all right now (!) because the campaign requires it. The campaign must have its pound of flesh!

Alright, well, let's just take a minute here. The revolution isn't going to be next Monday. That campaign you're feverishly working on is a great idea. It can help make some important changes. But burning yourself out on a single campaign isn't going to help anyone. We are in this for life. We will see change in our lifetimes but we won't see every aspect of that vision of a safe world we hold in our hearts. We have to commit to the long haul, folks, a lifetime of working on these concerns in one form or another.

What does that mean for you? It means you need to find a way to make it sustainable. It means the boundaries you've broken down to allow yourself to truly feel, and thus react, to atrocity must be reexamined. It means you have to find balance. Vacations are good, and necessary, but this is a daily practice. It is not enough to throw yourself into the abyss with the idea “well i have this spring break coming…” You have to find ways to play, to relax, and to engage with the world every day. If you don't you're not going to make it in this movement, and dear overcommitted, we need you too much for that.

So, what to do? There are some important practices you can implement within your organizations and for yourself that can help prevent burnout:

1. Self-assessment is crucial. There are many tools for this, but one of my favorites comes from the ACLU.

2. Play. Stuart Brown, who has devoted his life to the science of play, has found that “the process of play allows us to deal with the craziness and allows generation of solutions to problems…in the absence of play we meet life’s paradoxes with bitterness and rigidity that prevents us from really engaging.” Basically, play helps us to maintain empowered strategic thinking. Without it we lose our edge.

3. Create space for reflection. Emotional and physical check-ins at the beginning or end of each meeting, periodic burnout assessments, and planned reviews of goals and progress will help your group become more effective and healthier. Reviews of goals and progress should also include time to amend strategies and adjust practices to meet the needs of group members and campaigns.

4. Create a clear decision-making structure and write it down! Use it to clarify decisions and share it with new recruits so they don’t feel left out. Stick to this process even when everyone seems to agree to something informally. This will create a culture of transparency and participation that will benefit everyone.

5. Avoid informal power structures by developing clear roles with specific tasks. Make it a point to train new people in those roles on an ongoing basis, that way you have folks who can support each other and a way to bring new people into your work.

5. Recognize each other’s work. Offer feedback when people do things, including acknowledging those who do the grunt work. Thank people. Take time to also ask people if they feel supported and give them a chance to make asks of the group. This will help prevent any one person from getting overwhelmed or getting stuck doing backend tasks (like filling out forms) that are essential but often unnoticed.

6. Reconnect with your vision as an individual and as a group. Most people are activists for highly personal reasons and when you connect the group’s work to individual passions it helps foster awareness, empathy, and creativity. You can ask people to talk about their motivations or set aside time for people to get to know each other’s activist histories. This is especially useful as a way to engage new members.

7. Learn to facilitate conflict. You can help the group reach a decision and ease stress simply through developing strong facilitation skills. There are many books on this but the best way to learn is to practice.  Give group members turns practicing. Afterall, you’re going to be meeting anyway so it might as well be a learning opportunity.

8. Be intentional and deliberate about your work by setting SMART goals. (SMART=Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound) SMART goals give the group a shared standard by which to measure progress and review strengths and weaknesses. This is especially useful and necessary when group members need to talk about workload.

9. Utilize solidarity economy practices to reduce stress, meet needs, and create community. Often we're stressed due to our economic insecurity. By working cooperatively and democratically with others we can save money, live our values, and be healthier activists. Join a CSA and learn to cook with others. Join a housing co-op for cheaper rent and shared housework. Shareable has a ton of blog posts on ways you can live a more self-actualized existence through collaboration, and there are many examples of successful long-term activist communities who built themselves through these practices.

These steps can be difficult to take, which is why it may be helpful to work alongside others. In my collective, SolidarityNYC, we've recently begun meeting twice a month for  brunch to discuss the challenges we're experiencing in practicing our values. By meeting to discuss this struggle we hope to make our efforts both sustainable and create accountablity for ourselves when the work is more difficult. Creating an affinity group is one way we can learn together and reinforce each other's well-being.

In addition to this I've learned that leadership development and delegation are important group practices that support our individual well-being. I've also learned what works for me to get what I call head space: long walks, hula hooping (sometimes even on conference calls while on mute so no one knows), singing, dancing, biking, a moratorium on unnecessary media, writing, and nurturing relationships. This has been a long and slow process, so don't beat yourself up if it takes awhile, but know that growing sensitive to your own needs and to those of other leaders is an essential skill to your work. Setting boundaries that allow you to meet those needs is similarly vital. The integration of caring for self and those around you is what will ultimately allow us to sustain our leadership for the greatest possible impact. That's the goal, right?

I love all of you, you know, and I just want you to be happy, healthy, kicking corporate ass, and taking back and building power for as long as you are given the opportunity. We live in a beautiful world with exceptional opportunities for wonder. Make sure you're giving yourself time to access that too. Not a day goes by that I am not overwhelmed with gladness to know you and have the chance to work with you. But I'd be a liar if I said I'm not a little worried about this trend.

So take a break. Recognize someone's work. Cultivate wellness. And know in your heart that we will win eventually.

Cross-posted from Shareable.net

Occupy 2.0: Initial Reflections

99% bat signal

As is now becoming consensus, the overwhelming feeling among those keeping tabs on Occupy Wall Street is that last week's Zuccotti eviction represents a significant turning point for the movement. (A good one, if you're an OWS supporter.) Invigorated and adrenalized, protesters stormed NYC streets and bridges along with their allies across the nation and the world in an impressive display of vitality. In the following days, as if on cue, an increasingly militant police force continued to feed its own developing narrative, highlighted by an utterly perplexing display at UC Davis of all places.
Now that the dust has settled and Occupy 2.0 is officially underway, it's time to reflect, starting with the encampments themselves. What was their value? Obviously, physical encampments were the essential incubators of the movement. Aside from providing the fertile ground necessary for the multifarious exchanges that would forge the ideological bedrock of the movement, camps were a physical representation of the most powerful message of OWS – a full-fledged rejection of the current zeitgeist. If the media wanted to cover it, they could. If interest groups wanted to try and co-opt it, they could try. If celebrities wanted to be seen, nothing stopped them. This wasn't about engaging any of the pre-existing institutions on their terms or seeking their acceptance. It was about creating a real alternative, with its own set of values, completely separate from them.
That said, the shortcomings of physical occupation became more magnified in recent weeks. Health and sanitation complaints, whether justified or not, offered a convenient point of entry for OWS opponents, as did the questionable legality and civility of a 24/7 public occupation. Regardless of the shaky notion of appealing to the law in a country where politicians are for sale and crime is a profitable industry, the fact of the matter is that the absence of a physical presence in Zuccotti Park instantly removes some of the sharpest arrows in the quiver of those seeking to sway public opinion against OWS.
Additionally, the General Assembly, though pure in its intent, was perhaps becoming a victim of its own fetishization. With more occupations now decentralized, new, more agile models of consensus and decision-making will emerge. Last and perhaps most obvious – the energy required to simply maintain the encampment was energy deducted from more important tasks, owing to a subtle yet substantial feeling that the movement had outgrown the occupation tactic. That's not to say physical occupations are a thing of the past or don't have a future in the Occupy movement. Many still remain and more will surely pop up later with different form factors and purposes. But now that the movement’s spearhead has been uprooted, the days of the remaining initial encampments appear numbered.
So where do we go from here? Many will attempt to answer that question, and the answers will be numerous – from good ones to bad ones, arising from face-to-face meetings to forum posts to ramblings in cyberspace. Indeed, the biggest asset, and obstacle, for OWS is processing the embarrassment of passion and ideas and possibilities originating from all corners at breakneck speed – yet there are only so many hours in a day, and only one step can be taken at a time. Some will insist on leadership, deeming it essential in sifting through these possibilities and providing an overhead view of the chessboard. Others will insist the opposite, asserting that to assume a more conventional stance would open up the movement to more conventional attacks. Some may relent in their idealism and try to play the political game one last time, others will simply call for more protests. Either way, decisions will have to be made.
I realize now that I could fill a novel's worth of my own opinions on how I personally think the movement should proceed on various fronts, but I understand that long scrolls tend to scare people away, so I'll save those ruminations for future posts. For now, I'll keep it general and say that the most important thing for OWS to do is maintain its identity. This doesn't just mean avoiding getting co-opted. It means remembering and not straying from the core value on which I feel OWS was founded – awareness.
Why is awareness so important? Because that’s what got us here in the first place. People who count themselves supporters of OWS did not always hold the views they do today. Most can pinpoint a time in recent memory when, though still unsatisfied with the status quo, they still believed the existing institutions could be effectively petitioned to bring about the will of the people. It was only after serious thought and reflection that they arrived at the unfortunate conclusion that the primary objective of these institutions had nothing to do with people’s welfare, and was only concerned with self-preservation.
The kind of thought required to arrive at such a realization had nothing to do with emotion, bias, or laziness. It would have been much easier and preferable to just believe in the current system, and it took a lot of work to dig deeper and truly investigate why all our big problems are perpetually locked in stagnation. That work was guided by a genuine interest in the truth, whatever it was – not a truth we wanted to see manifested. It was also guided by a belief that truly understanding the way things are would naturally inform the appropriate next steps to take, which would in turn lead to the best results for all – both collectively and individually.

So it’s that kind of unemotional awareness, intuition, and regard for truth, whether convenient or not, that must guide OWS into the future. Don't hesitate to call out police brutality, but don't egg it on either, or look for something that isn’t there in the hopes of becoming the next viral video purveyor. Condemn corruption and aberrant behavior wherever it occurs, but be equally eager to condemn it if it occurs within your own ranks. When considering matters such as leadership or specific action items, understand the value of unorthodox structures, but don't simply submit to newly established dogma that says anything remotely resembling established protocol must be automatically shunned, or that a small victory isn't worth pursuing. Give it the same seriousness of thought that led you to acknowledge the viability of the Occupy movement. It's a movement that was founded on truth and honest reflection – not emotional, reactionary, haphazard thinking. Given the incredibly difficult task of reaching a highly indoctrinated society too busy maintaining the operation of the 1%'s well-oiled machine to give serious thought to anything, our own capacity for this serious thought is essential. To betray it now would be to betray the cause. 

 

This post also appears at Primitive Times, a new media platform currently focused on the Occupy movement.

Still Winning: Occupy Wall Street & the World We Want

A Brief Account: The Growth and Repression of OWS

Occupy Wall Street celebrated its two-month anniversary by taking the streets of New York City in a full day of mass direct action. We celebrated the hundreds of occupations that have sprung up across the country and around the world. We celebrated the hundreds of thousands who have participated by marching, carrying out civil disobedience, and putting their bodies in motion. We celebrated the millions of people across the globe united in their willingness to join this movement in whatever ways they can. We celebrated in the many thousands in cities all around the world.

At the same time, much of the status quo goes on. New austerity measures are being passed right under our noses, the homeless remain without homes and the jobless without jobs, the wars carried out in our name continue, wealth goes on being concentrated further and further into a few hands at the expense of the many. And in the face of this movement rising in opposition, the state and capital have responded with violence both physical and ideological, intended to suppress demoralize us &#151 camps being cleared out by riot police, organizers targeted for arrest, teeth and noses broken, kids and grandmothers pepper-sprayed.

It’s only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the violence experienced in marginalized communities or at the hands of American imperialism, but it represents a critical moment in the development of this movement. It is not a coincidence. We are being taken seriously. Maybe we should be flattered.

Reassurance: We Are Still Winning

We are building a global movement, and elites are beginning to mobilize the incredible power at their disposal to do it whatever damage they can &#151 media and scholarship to discredit us, laws and regulations to constrain us, and sheer violence to repress us. Yes, they are paying their think tanks to undermine us, collecting their mayors on conference calls to strategize about us, mobilizing their shock troops to beat and detain us, and whistling to their lap-dogs in the press to tell the stories they want heard.

This is what happens when genuine movements emerge with enough force and potential to be taken seriously by those with power and privilege. This is what happens when movements grow stronger and more diverse. This is what happens when movements take root in the public consciousness. Make no mistake about it: They are fighting us now because we are winning.

In moments like these &#151 when protest becomes resistance and power mobilizes to confront it &#151 it becomes important again to stop and remember why we started fighting in the first place, and what it is we want.

A Reminder: Why We Fight and How We Win

We each come to this movement with our many different scars and traumas, our many goals and dreams. We come from different places, with different needs. We are here together because we share an understanding that our different issues come together, that the systems of oppression we are challenging not only intertwine and coexist but actually produce and define each other, that we can only defeat them by having a deep, holistic analysis and by presenting one another with a real vision for what might be instead. We agree that we need to build something new in the here and now, while fighting those forces that keep us from doing so.

We fight because people’s needs really aren’t being met, because there are simple and systemic reasons for that, because it is unacceptable, and because there is an alternative. We fight because we oppose injustice intellectually, but also because injustice makes us sick to our stomachs. We fight because a system in which homeless people freeze outside of empty homes does not deserve to exist, because a system that allows for people to go hungry while there is an overabundance of food is unacceptable. We fight because the economic and social systems governing our lives have proven themselves to be totally incapable of meeting the minimum criteria for a just and humane society, and because we are sure as hell it doesn’t have to be this way. We fight for other people, but also for ourselves &#151 because none of us get to live out our full human potential within the institutions that dominate our lives today. We fight because another world really is possible, and because we demand it for the people around us, our friends, our kids, and ourselves.

The stakes are high. We have a responsibility not only to fight, but to win.

We win when we build diverse mass movements led by the most oppressed people in society. We win when that movement becomes a dual power &#151 a movement able to prefigure the values of a free society and laying the seeds for it, while fighting the institutions that oppress and exploit. We win when that movement becomes one where groups have the autonomy to carry out their own struggles while finding solidarity in a shared analysis, vision, and strategy. We win when we manage to transform the struggle from the symbolic to the real &#151 a struggle that reclaims land and space in order to truly create an alternative and meet peoples’ needs, one that truly disrupts business as usual and prevents the classes that dominate and exploit from continuing to do so.

Yes, this new world is being born &#151 slowly and painfully &#151 and in order to win it, we have to tell its story.

The Story: Another World is Possible

Perhaps the first story we must tell is about the world around us. These systems that encourage us to compete and exploit, that force us to make war and torture, that compel us to literally wipe ourselves off the planet by damaging it so thoroughly, have no future. They are not only unethical and unnecessary: they are simply and truly impossible.

But the most important story is one of possibility: Another world is possible.

A society that is ecologically sustainable, liberating, intimate, warm, and creative is possible. Not only is it possible, but it must be. We can have a political and economic system that we all control together, one that is equitable and humane, one that allows for people to self-manage and act in solidarity, one that is participatory and democratic to its very roots. We can live in a world where people have the right to their own identities, communities, and cultures, and the freedom and support to express them. We can have a society with institutions that take care of and nurture our youth, elderly, and families in ways that are liberating and consensual. We can have a world where we actually get to live out and express our full human potential. We can, and we must.

We tell a story that shatters the myth that there is no alternative, that people don’t fight back, that we can be bought off. We tell a story that smashes cynicism and identifies it as nothing more than a defense mechanism to protect us from following the rabbit hole that leads to rising up. We tell a story of autonomy within solidarity, equity alongside diversity, peace bound with justice, struggle intimately linked with beauty. We tell a story of how our scars give us the wisdom and courage to change the world.

We tell the story ourselves, tweet and tag it, film and sing it, write it with our arrests and our bruises. We tell it at work and in school, on the picket lines and during demonstrations, at our occupations and sit-ins, in the jail cells where they put us when they are truly afraid of the power we hold. We tell it by fighting in a way that reflects the values of the world we are dreaming of, and by creating as much of that world as we can while we fight.

We are not alone. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we stand among friends.

Conclusion: Hope

Throughout history, people have struggled, risen up, and succeeded. All over the world, there are people fighting, building, and dreaming. All around us, people are laying the seeds of the world we are fighting for &#151 from their bedrooms to their workplaces, from the ways we produce and consume to the ways we teach and learn. All around us, workers are going on strike or taking control of their workplaces, students are walking out or taking control of their schools, communities are rejecting the political and social institutions that oppress them and creating their own. People are taking control of their lives, their communities, and in some places, their governments. And it is only the beginning. A movement is being born, and there is so much beauty in that &#151 so much potential, so much hope.

Then, also, there is hope in you &#151 hope in us. The world is waiting.

Yotam Marom is a political organizer, educator, writer, and musician based in New York. He has been active in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and is a member of the Organization for a Free Society. Yotam can be reached at Yotam.marom@gmail.com  

The Tactic of Occupation & the Movement of the 99%

Download this post as a printable PDF

If we are to launch from a moment to a movement, we will have to broaden the “us”. We must win in the arena of values, and not allow ourselves to be narrowly defined by our tactics.

A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol &#151 with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.

Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying “enough!” This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.

Occupation as tactic

It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.

On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.

But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”

By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular&#151even that they are common sense&#151and connected to a social base.

Occupy Wall Street as “floating signifier”

I want to suggest that the primary reason the tactic of occupation has resonated so far and wide is because it has served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To most people, the “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” essentially stands in for the F word! Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something &#151 became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we’d been waiting for.

Thus, Occupy Wall Street has served as something of a floating signifier &#151 amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and to see their values within the symbol. Such ambiguous symbols are characteristic of new populist alignments. Many objects can serve as the catalyzing symbol, including actions (e.g. the occupation of Tahrir Square or of the Wisconsin State Capitol this spring), individual politicians (quintessentially Perón in Argentina), or even constructed brands (e.g. the “Tea Party”). As the above examples suggest, this phenomenon can be seen in all kinds of broad political alignments, across the ideological spectrum. In all cases though, a degree of ambiguity is necessary if the symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular&#151too associated with any one current or group within the alignment&#151it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal.

It’s important to note that although the signifier is floating (i.e. not peg-able), it is not empty of content. It has to be meaningful enough to resonate. Moreover, different symbols tend to pull things in different directions. Candidate Barack Obama as floating signifier, for example, pulled a lot of grassroots energy into what has turned out to be an establishment-reinforcing direction. Occupy Wall Street as floating signifier, on the other hand, seems so far to be pulling a lot of establishment forces in the direction of the fired-up, social justice-oriented grassroots.

When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.

It becomes imperative then for the forces defending the status quo to tarnish the challenger movement and its symbols &#151 to destroy their popular appeal. This tarnishing strategy is accomplished by nailing down the floating signifier &#151 by fixing it to particular meanings, associating it with particular “kinds of people” and to narrower frameworks, so that it can no longer function as a popular symbol.

This is the phase we find ourselves in right now.

Expanding the “us”

We are engaged in a battle over values and ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people &#151 all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power. This idea has struck a chord and millions of Americans have quickly come to identify on some level with Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.

In this epic battle over values and ideas, our opponents have already mounted a sophisticated public relations offensive to nail down the floating signifier and negatively brand the emerging movement. They are attempting to caricaturize, stereotype and “otherize” the most visible actors&#151the occupiers&#151in order to inoculate more Americans from identifying with “the 99%” and keep them from joining the movement.

“Character assassination” is a primary tactic that the powerful wield against challengers. It’s about tarnishing a person’s reputation, so that no one will listen to anything they have to say. It can be used against groups and movements too. When Mayor Bloomberg attempted to “clean Zuccotti Park”, he was making the first move in an ongoing character assassination campaign that has not ceased. Bloomberg and others have thrown everything in the book at us.

In the face of a character assassination campaign, our task and challenge is to expand the “us”. Our opponents want to portray the movement as a particular kind of person doing a particular thing (e.g. “dirty hippies”). Thus, it’s critical that we continue to bring more kinds of people, visibly engaged in more kinds of things, into the movement. The 99% movement has to be more than a protest, more than an occupation, more than any given tactic, and more than any “type” of person. We must not allow ourselves to be typecast.

The good news is that there’s already a lot in motion to buck our opponents’ strategy. Since September 17 (the start of Occupy Wall Street), the “us” has expanded exponentially. The movement has become far broader than those who are able to participate in physical occupation. The 99% movement is Elora and Monte in rural West Virginia who sent hand-knit hats to occupiers at Liberty Square. It’s 69-year-old retired Iowa public school teacher Judy Lonning who comes out for Saturday marches in Des Moines. It’s Nellie Bailey, who helped to organize the Occupy Harlem Mobilization last week. It’s Selena Coppa and Joe Carter, who marched in formation to the New York Stock Exchange last week with 40 fellow ‘Veterans of the 99%’. The 99% movement is everyone who sends supplies, everyone who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process.

Tactic, message, movement

We are moving in the right direction, but we must keep moving. We can’t let this expansion of the “us” plateau.

In the past week and a half, we’ve seen more and more news stories focusing on the physical logistics of occupation, including the problems and challenges. News outlets are presenting the tactic of occupation as if the tactic were the message and the movement itself. And our opponents are making some headway in negatively branding occupation and occupiers.

To navigate this challenge, it is important that we recognize a few things about our relationship to the tactic of physical occupation:

  • It has already accomplished more than any of us imagined.
  • It is incredibly resource-intensive to maintain.
  • It will not serve us forever (indeed, it’s utility may already be waning).
  • We will have to come up with other popular expressions of the values of this movement.

We have to distinguish conceptually between our tactics, our message, and our movement. Of these three, our tactics should be the thing we are least attached to. In oppositional struggle, it is critical to maintain the initiative; to keep one’s opponents in a reactive state. This is not accomplished by growing overly attached to any particular tactic&#151no matter how well it worked the first time&#151and thereby doing exactly what our opponents expect us to do.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to conceptualize the need to be innovative and keep our opponents on their toes than to actually come up with the right thing at the right moment to make it so. Moreover, it’s wrongheaded to get caught up in the elusive search for the perfect silver bullet tactic. Movements are, more than anything else, about people. To build a movement is to listen to people, to read the moment well, and to navigate a course that over time inspires whole swaths of society to identify with the aims of the movement, to buy in, and to take collective action.

“Occupy Wall Street” is the tactic that has launched a movement for social justice and real democracy onto center stage. It has served as the initial catalyzing symbol. Hopefully ten or twenty years from now, when we look back at all we’ve accomplished together, we’ll credit Occupy Wall Street as a critical moment that helped to spark and then build a lasting movement.

However, if we fail to find other successful tactics&#151and other popular expressions of this movement’s values&#151we will be pronounced dead as soon as the tactic fades. Fortunately, Occupy Wall Street&#151and the tactic of occupation&#151is neither the primary message nor the movement itself.  And, fortunately, we don’t have to invent the message for the movement from scratch.

“We are the 99%” has become a core message of this burgeoning movement. It emerged in tandem with the deployment of the captivating tactic of occupation. The framework of the 99% accomplishes a number of important feats:

  • The 99% frames the consolidation of wealth and political power in our society &#151 the central grievance of this movement and a central crisis of our times.
  • The 99% frames a class struggle in a way that puts the 1% on the defensive (whereas the common accusation of “class warfare” has somehow tended to put a lot of people in the middle on the defensive).
  • The 99% casts an extraordinarily broad net for who is invited to join the movement. Most everyone is encouraged to see their hopes and dreams tied to a much bigger public. Thus it frames a nearly limitless growth trajectory for the movement.
  • The 99% even leaves room for the 1% to redeem itself. There are many striking cases of “1 percenters” speaking out as defectors who are as vocal as anyone that the system is broken and needs to serve the 100%!

The 99% meme is a real winner. Its message and framework may prove better at helping  us weather the winter, both literal and metaphorical, than any one tactic could. It points the way toward a necessary expansion. It encourages us to not just act on behalf of, but alongside of, the 99%; to look beyond the forces already in motion, to activate potential energy, to articulate a moral political narrative, and to claim and contest our culture.

No framework will automatically deliver &#151 not without a lot of hard work and smart decisions. Thankfully, there’s a whole new generation of leadership stepping up to do just that. Together we can turn this moment into a movement that’s here for the long haul.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a grassroots organizer, trainer and strategist. He directs Beyond the Choir. He has been active in Occupy Wall Street working groups for the past month. He posts at occupyWINNING.com and BeyondtheChoir.org.