2011-10-01 "Five Things That #OccupyWallStreet Has Done Right (excerpt of a chat)"
#OccupyWallStreet protests are now well into their second week, and they are increasingly capturing the public spotlight. This is because, whatever limitations their occupation has, the protesters have done many things right.
I will admit that I was skeptical about the #OccupyWallStreet effort when it was getting started. My main concerns were the limited number of participants and the lack of coalition building. One of the things that was most exciting about the protests in Madison - and the global justice protests of old such as Seattle and A16 - was that they brought together a wide range of constituencies, suggesting what a broad, inclusive progressive movement might look like. You had student activists and unaffiliated anarchists, sure; but you also had major institutional constituencies including the labor movement, environmentalists, faith-based organizations and community groups. The solidarity was powerful. And, in the context of a broader coalition, the militancy, creativity, and artistic contributions of the autonomist factions made up for their lack of an organized membership base.
With #OccupyWallStreet the protest did not draw in any of the major institutional players on the left. Participants have come independently - mostly from anarchist and student activist circles - and turnout has been limited. Some of the higher estimates for the first day's gathering suggest that a thousand people might have been there, and only a few hundred have been camping out.
That said, this relatively small group has been holding strong. As their message has gained traction - first in the alternative media, and then in mainstream news sources - they have drawn wider interest. On Tuesday night, Cornel West visited the occupied Zuccotti Park and spoke to an audience estimated at 2000. Rallies planned for later in the week will likely attract larger crowds. People will come because the occupation is now a hot story.
#OccupyWallStreet has accomplished a great deal in the past week and a half, with virtually no resources. The following are some of the things the participants have done that allowed what might have been a negligible and insignificant protest to achieve a remarkable level of success:
1. They chose the right target.
The #OccupyWallStreet protesters have been often criticized for not having clear demands.
They endured a particularly annoying cheap shot from New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante, who (quoting a stockbroker sympathetically) resurrected the old canard that no one who uses an Apple computer can possibly say anything critical about capitalism. Such charges are as predictable as the tides. Media commentators love to condescend to protesters, and they endlessly recycle criticism of protests being na?ve and unfocused.
I am among those who believe that the occupation would have benefited from having clearer demands at the outset - and that these would have been helpful in shaping the endgame that is to come. But protesters have largely overcome the lack of a particularly well-defined messaging strategy by doing something very important: choosing the right target.
Few institutions in our society are more in need of condemnation than the big banks and stockbrokers based where the critics are now camped. "Why are people protesting Wall Street"? For anyone who has lived through the recent economic collapse and the ongoing crises of foreclosure and unemployment, this question almost answers itself.
The protest's initial call to action repeatedly stressed the need to get Wall Street money out of politics, demanding "Democracy not Corporatocracy." Since then, many protesters have been emphasizing the idea that ?We Are the 99 Percent? being screwed by the country?s wealthiest 1 percent. At Salon, Glenn Greenwald writes:
Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power - in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions - is destroying financial security for everyone else?
So, yes, the people willing to engage in protests like these at the start may lack (or reject the need for) media strategies, organizational hierarchies, and messaging theories.
But they're among the very few people trying to channel widespread anger into activism rather than resignation, and thus deserve support and encouragement - and help - from anyone claiming to be sympathetic to their underlying message.
Notably, young protesters have been able to convey the idea that their generation, in particular, has been betrayed by our economy. This idea was picked up in remarkably hard-hitting commentary at MarketWatch.com, which reads like more like something you?d expect to find in the socialist press than on a business website.
2. They made a great poster.
I write this partially in jest. There is a joke among labor organizers that if you are spending all your time obsessing over the quality of your posters or handouts, rather than going out to actually talk to people, you are in big trouble.
In this case, however, there?s some truth to the idea that posters matter. When you?re not mobilizing an established organizational membership, but rather trying to capture the imagination of unaffiliated activists, protest planning is more akin to promoting a concert than staging a workplace strike. And if you?re doing that kind of promotion, how cool your call to arms is makes a difference.
#OccupyWallStreet has benefited from a series of great posters and promotional materials.
Foremost among them is a lovely depiction of a ballerina dancing on top of Wall Street?s famous bull statue, created by the veteran leftist image-makers at Adbusters. The text below the bull reads simply: "#OccupyWallStreet. September 17th. Bring tent."
The poster hinted that the event would be exciting and creative and audacious. It suggested that culture jamming and dissident art would be part of the adventure. And it pointed to another thing the protesters did right:
3. They gave their action time to build.
Most protests take place for one afternoon and then are finished. Had #OccupyWallStreet done the same, it would already have been forgotten.
Instead, planners told participants to get ready to camp out. The event operated on the premise that challenging Wall Street would take a while, and that things would build with time. In fact, this is exactly what has happened. It took a few days for alternative press sources to catch on, but now the occupation is a leading story at outlets such as Democracy Now.
The extended timeframe for the protest has allowed for the drama of direct action to deepen, which is my next point about the protesters:
4. They created a good scenario for conflict.
By claiming space in Zuccotti Park (also known as Liberty Plaza), #OccupyWallStreet set up an action scenario that has effectively created suspense and generated interest over time.
Participants there have invoked Tahrir Square. On the one hand, the comparison is silly, but on the other hand, the fact that occupations of public space have taken on a new significance in the past year is another thing that made #OccupyWallStreet a good idea. If the authorities allow them to continue camping out in lower Manhattan, the protesters can claim victory for their experiment in "liberated space." Of course, everyone expects that police will eventually swoop in and clear the park. But, contrary to what some people think, civil disobedients have long known that arrests do not work against the movement. Rather, they illustrate that participants are willing to make real sacrifices to speak out against Wall Street's evils.
The fact that police have used undue force (in one now-famous incident, pepper spraying women who were already detained in a mesh police pen and clearly doing nothing to resist arrest) only reinforces this message. When will the police finally come and clear out the occupation's encampment? We don't know. And the very question creates further suspense and allows the protest to continue gaining momentum.
5. They are using their momentum to escalate.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, the #OccupyWallStreet effort is using its success at garnering attention in the past week and a half to go even bigger. Their action is creating offshoots, with solidarity protests (#OccupyBoston, #OccupyLA) now gathering in many other cities. Protesters in Liberty Plaza are encouraging more participants to join them. And they are preparing more people to risk arrest or other police reprisal.
It might seem obvious that a protest movement would treat a successful event as an occasion to escalate. But, in fact, it is quite rare. More established organizations are almost invariably afraid to do so: afraid of legal repercussions, afraid of the resources it would require to sustain involvement, afraid of bad press or other negative outcomes.
Such timidity is anathema to strategies of nonviolent direct action.
In this respect, the fact that #OccupyWallStreet has not relied on established progressive organizations ends up being a strength. Its independent participants are inspired by the increasing attention their critique of Wall Street is getting, and they are willing to make greater sacrifices now that their action has begun to capture the public imagination.
This can only be regarded as a positive development. For the more that people in this country are talking about why outraged citizens would set up camp in the capital of our nation's financial sector, the better off we will be. #OccupyWallStreet protesters have gotten that much right.
I don't know why cranky anarchs need to shit on this. I think it would be easy to find fault with Occupy Wall Street. At the same time, they have liberated a space in NYC for 14 fucking days! And Wall Street is a great target. More anarchists need to plug into this.
contrary to what you think, i think the occupation will get better over time. especially *because* anarchists were involved from the start and didn't let it be taken over at the beginning by Parties or other authoritarians. the thing that is worthwhile about this is that PEOPLE ARE COMING TOGETHER DAY AFTER DAY TO FIGURE OUT WHAT IT IS GOING TO TAKE TO CHANGE SHIT, AND WHAT THAT WOULD LOOK LIKE. It worked in Argentina in 2001 (popular assemblies). it worked in oaxaca. etc... etc.... what, just because there hasn't been people smashing up banks first, or kicking the cops out first, that it is not the same? it's the same. and those things will likely come in time as people realize what change is going to take.
i support occupations of public space, because all space is controlled by Capital and there is no space for dissent. creating a space for that could lead to anything. what it leads to is how angry people in society are, etc...
they are a good thing. it makes me happy and feel less alone that there are people out there having a public conversation on capitalism.
and I@s, give this some time to build, and after a few more times of police attacking non-violent people, when people start fighting back and it turns uncontrollable, it will seem more legitimate to more people and so more people will join... imagine if this goes on for a while, and the cops do something really fucked and the folks down there go all buck wild and people come to join in the protest, then the boroughs use the opportunity to go all London-riot in their hoods? i could see that happening.
There is broader support entering the movement, the healthcare workers union has been here supporting us and giving donations, the transit workers union of NYC has unanimously voted to support us and is organizing a march with us and the coalition that created the May 12th march on Wall St, which brought 20,000 pple, on Oct 5th, and we are currently outreaching to other unions such as an SEIU local, the largest local in the country. There is also a whole church congregation from Bed-stuy coming to spend a day with us and tons of other churches, leftest groups, local restaurants and stores, teachers, construction workers, and nyc residents of all ages, ethnicities, occupations, religions, etc donating time, money, food, space, other resources, and their bodies and voices everyday to the occupation. So all the people who say we are a mostly homogenous group of middle class youth are only seeing the surface, what's been shown on the outside media outlets because those media people are not actually involved in the organizing and have no idea what's actually going on. We have our own media heavily involved in the everyday workings and networking of the movement that have a lot more to reveal about us then any professional journalist/blogger who paid us a visit for a couple hours(not talking about author of this post, but in general). This occupation is about to blow-up big, and there are more groups signing up as we speak. To all, please wait to see what happens, and find out from the people doing all the work, before making assumptions, and please please join us.
getting the unions involved could be crucial.
once they are involved, it means that if the cops evict y'all in a crazy way from the park, it could trigger workplace actions. could be so sick.
may fucking 68 style.
the local #occupy group in my city is contacting unions too (though there aren't many here).
there are some 60 or 70 cities in the US about to occupy public squares and start talking about how to do some serious revolting.
Folks who are super excited about what's going on in Longview have no reason not to be excited about this. If anything, the situation on Wall St. is more conducive to anarchist participation. The central difference is space for fetishization of militant tactics, many of which we now know never actually happened in Longview.
I think that looking at a broad lineage between Wall St., Wisconsin, Longview, and, potentially, the upcoming actions in Phoenix, could lead to some really incredible analyses and actions that take "everything" into account...
The growing threat to power Occupy Wall Street poses does not rest upon its critique of the financial system or its ability to show the world how the security state of America squelches dissent. It lies in its ability to convince Americans that people have the power, that if they abandon fear and cynicism and step out into the streets they will find community and hope.
The power of Occupy Wall Street is, as Hedges also said, the movement's ability to "break the kind of atomization or isolation that enables fear."
Being a rather skeptical anarchist whose attended a few of the General Assemblies in my town, I can say first hand, the liberal, cop-loving, middle class privileged mindset garbage is ENDLESS at these things. And to that I say, so what? Maybe this thing is a pathetic attempt to do anything. Maybe everything is a pathetic attempt to change anything. Anarchists would rather sit around, jerking off to images of Chile and Greece on their computers than go out and do ANYTHING. I'm sick of anarchists pretending that they're so revolutionary/militant that they would never deign to work with 'norms.' If you're actually too busy organizing something awesome and militant, then great, don't come out to a stupid occupation. But if you're not, why not throw down a little? Come out, see where shit goes. Nothing can happen unless the people there willing to make shit happen show up in the first place and stop acting like the elitist hipsters in black everyone thinks you are.
All the elitist snobbery coming from some anarchists is cracking me up. Do you think you're going to make a revolution without interacting with people who don't have the exact same analysis/critique/style of dress as you? People have illegally taken a space, self-organized in a horizontal way to protest capitalism a block from Wall Street, have unauthorized, confrontational marches (a huge victory for NYC, where 99% of marches are sad, permitted, highly policed strolls down the sidewalk to listen to some Stalinist at a rally), and are contaminating a lot of people with some fairly subversive ideas. Is it perfect, without contradictions or stupid people you wish weren't there? No. Does anyone seriously think they can attend an anti-capitalist protest in the US without seeing liberals, hippies, pacifists, non-political types, or the odd populist Ron Paul type?
These things are places for us to intervene and struggle. If it were the anarchist revolution already then there really would be no reason for us to go, since they wouldn't need us.
this comment is the one light at the end of the tunnel of a long string of poor excuses for dialogue or wisdom in this thread. going by the logic of most of the folks here, it seems the current @ milieu would basically have passed on the entire anti globe phenom.
should we expect a movement or event without anarchist participation become naturally anarchist? isnt a large strength of much I@ analysis the understanding that would active anarchist participation any movement will be recuperated before it even starts? the point is engagement, yall.
of course occupy wall st. is fucking lame and stupid in a lot of ways. so is sitting around doing little to nothing! id still strongly encourage @s to get in on the ground floor of any of these kinds of events in their home town, to see whats possible and see how much sway they can have over events before they devolve too completely into a liberal circle jerk.
and i think it would do well to remember the camps in spain: in madrid where the camps started anarchists brought little to the table, and the movement there quickly ratified nonviolence statements and devolved into a lowest common denominator democracy movement. but in barcelona, where many anarchists participated, and did so more strategically with a more functional critique of democracy, the camps were way less coopted and invited a much deeper level of analysis, critique, and tactical militancy. i dont mean to say that anarchists are by themselves this one key component - but IF this "movement" grows into something, and we sit it out, our dismissals are inevitably going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.