Discussing the way forward for Occupy

February 8, 2012

Our movement needs to use every opportunity to build resistance to the agenda of the 1 percent--whether that means bigger struggles or smaller ones.

THE OCCUPY encampments of last fall are nearly all gone--cleared, often brutally, in a series of police raids.

Nevertheless, the Occupy movement sticks to U.S. politics like a burr. Even Republican presidential candidates have acknowledged "vulture capitalism" and inequality. Democrats talk tough about how they'll stand up for the 99 percent...if only you vote for them in November.

These signs of the Occupy movement's impact even within the narrow confines of mainstream politics show that the movement slogan is right: "You can't evict an idea whose time has come." The main theme of Occupy--that the hard-pressed majority in society is fed up with the greed, corruption and power of the 1 percent--continues to resonate, shaping the ideas and beliefs of millions of people long after the encampments were raided.

The question now is how Occupy activists can build on last fall's activities, connect with the wider layers of people who support Occupy, and turn that sentiment into further participation--even at a time when the movement is less visible as a result of the dispersal of the camps and its activities draw fewer numbers in most cases. The protests and the General Assemblies may be smaller, but the need for the movement is no less urgent.

Occupy protesters march in New York City

The heart of Occupy from the beginning has been grassroots activism--sometimes small in size, sometimes larger--and this remains the key.

The reason that a few hundred activists who launched Occupy Wall Street in New York City were able to inspire a national and then international movement was because they galvanized and mobilized popular anger over declining living standards, mass unemployment, rising inequality and the corporate domination of politics.

Occupy quickly became a hub for all kinds of protests. Workers fighting for union contracts saw the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park as a natural rallying point. People facing eviction and foreclosure found ready allies as well. Individuals and organizations committed to challenging the politicians' cuts to social services got support from Occupy activists who turned routine bureaucratic meetings into indoor rallies through the "peoples' mic."

That's why conservatives--and even some sympathetic liberals--missed the point when they criticized Occupy for its lack of demands. In fact, the movement was both making a general critique of a U.S. society dominated by the 1 percent, while opening up a political space for all those organizing against the injustices of that society.

Thus, the angry protests against the execution of an innocent African American man, Troy Davis, marched to Zuccotti Park--as did Verizon workers fighting a union-busting company. Occupy the Hood in Boston and Occupy El Barrio in Chicago linked the Occupy model to ongoing struggles in the community. The movement connected veteran activists with newly radicalized people--some young, some not--around the need to organize and act.

Now, with the encampments removed, Occupy no longer has the physical space in most cities to serve as a center for activism. But that doesn't mean Occupy activists need to turn inward and lose their connection to support on a wider scale. It's still possible for the movement to aim to bring together those fighting around different struggles--to support one another and build a united alternative to the priorities of the 1 percent.

The hostile right-wingers who declared the movement dead spoke too soon. And the Democratic Party operatives who think they can hijack Occupy and turn it into an election vehicle are wrong, too. Occupy continues to be a crossroads of activism in many cities, with its various working groups and spinoffs pushing ahead.

One example is Occupy the Department of Education in New York City, which is playing a leading role in the fight against school closures. Various Occupy labor outreach committees have revived solidarity networks in a number of cities--and started them where they didn't exist. From New York to San Francisco, Occupy has provided enthusiastic support for the struggle against foreclosures--and helped to win small victories that have made a huge difference to the families whose homes were saved.

This kind of patient work--even if it doesn't make the front pages--is essential if Occupy is to grow from a movement with mass support into a movement with mass participation.

UNFORTUNATELY, SOME in the Occupy movement argue that these kinds of campaigns aren't enough. They claim the movement needs to "go big" with a bold initiative. One proposal is for a general strike on May Day. Occupy General Assemblies in some cities have voted to proceed with such organizing--which, according to one group in New York City, should include a "five-day weekend."

There are many problems with this proposal. The most obvious is that strikes in the U.S. are at a historic low, the result of a decades-long employer war on labor and decline in union membership. Going from this starting point to a national general strike by May 1 is, to put it politely, unrealistic.

Such a call risks discrediting the idea of strike action when the goal of Occupy and labor movement militants should be to revive the strike as a weapon--and win the strikes that do take place through stopping production and building solidarity.

Those in support of the May Day proposal point to the success of the November 2 day of action in Oakland, Calif.--in response to Occupy Oakland's call for a general strike following a vicious police raid on its encampment and attack on demonstrators, in which a police projectile nearly killed Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen.

Certainly, many Oakland residents skipped work on November 2, and local unions supported the day of protests, though not as a formal strike. Rank-and-file union members led the organizing, and the day culminated in a march of some 15,000 people for a community picket that closed down the Port of Oakland.

The general strike call in Oakland produced an important and inspiring display of solidarity. But the day of action was not the same as a general strike--not of the kind that Oakland saw in 1946, nor the mass actions that shut down the cities of Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco in 1934.

If the term general strike is to mean anything, it must describe the coordinated action of workers in solidarity with one another to shut down production by staying away from work--not as individuals, but through collective action.

Another example for those who favor an Occupy-initiated general strike this year is May Day 2006, when millions of immigrant workers did stay away from work to protest the proposed Sensenbrenner bill that would have turned some 14 million undocumented workers into criminals. With George W. Bush in the White House, even liberal groups usually averse to workers' action, along with some Democratic politicians, jumped on board.

Today, however, the situation is different. Unlike in 2006, when low unemployment made immigrant workers more willing to risk their jobs by skipping work for a day, the high jobless rate will deter such action. And with Barack Obama as president, liberal immigrant rights groups and Democratic politicians are determined to head off any protest that could upset Obama's reelection plans.

A May Day general strike call that hinges on mass participation by immigrant workers is highly unlikely to gain traction. A better way for Occupy to forge links with the immigrant rights movement is to build solidarity with those protesting anti-immigrant laws--like activists on the front lines in Alabama and Arizona--as well people challenging the Obama administration's stepped-up program of deportations.

May Day should be a focus for Occupy, and an important one. Immigrant groups in many cities continue to use that day for protests, and Occupy should support them. It's also important to reassert the history and politics of May Day through meetings, panel discussions and rallies. Occupy has awakened interest in the often neglected history of the struggles of working people and the oppressed, and May Day is an opportunity to bring a new generation of activists into that discussion.

It should go without saying that opposing a call for a general strike on May 1 doesn't mean opposing protest. On the contrary, every city has critical issues that are in need of local actions--and, where appropriate, national days of action. In this regard, the demonstrations planned against the NATO/G8 joint summit in Chicago in May can and should be a focus for Occupy protesters.

THE DISCUSSION about May Day comes amid a more immediate debate about Occupy-sponsored protests in Oakland on January 28 that gained national attention.

The goal of the January 28 demonstration in Oakland, approved in a General Assembly, was to take over an empty building as a new base camp of the Occupy movement and a center for the community. In the main action in the early afternoon, more than 1,000 people marched on the closed-down Kaiser Convention Center, but were stopped from entering by police. A second smaller evening march was cornered by the cops, and hundreds of people were arrested. Later still, a small number of people broke into City Hall and committed acts of vandalism.

The daytime march drew a large and diverse crowd that included families with their children. But the lesson seems clear that its numbers were too small to successfully overcome the forces of the police and take over the convention center.

Moreover, one group among the marchers tried to use homemade shields, giving the impression that a showdown with the cops was the aim of the demonstration, rather than opening up a building for urgently needed social services. Using such confrontational tactics--in the context of a modestly sized demonstration facing an aggressive force of police--needlessly put the whole of the protest at greater risk of violence and arrest.

At the end of the day, a small number of people got into City Hall and ransacked parts of it, including burning an American flag while the cameras rolled. This was utterly irresponsible and ought to be condemned. It handed city officials and the media the perfect opportunity to smear Occupy activists as determined to cause mayhem and out of touch with Oakland residents.

Yet despite these setbacks, some sections of the movement seem to think Occupy needs to take the offensive. Their sentiments were expressed by a statement issued in the name of the Occupy Oakland Move-In Assembly that vowed to escalate the actions--including blockading Oakland International Airport--if protesters were denied entry into the building they were targeting. "If you try to evict us again, we will make your lives more miserable than you make ours," the statement declared.

Given the modest size of the building takeover protest--between 1,000 and 2,000, according to estimates, a fraction of the numbers who participated on November 2--this was pure bluster. Such statements will widen a gap that is developing between the core of committed Occupy activists and larger numbers of people who have supported the movement.

As many as 400 people were arrested on January 28, and many were subjected to atrocious conditions while they were held for days on end before being released. This shows the kind of repression the authorities are prepared to use against Occupy--and our movement has to consider this in developing our strategies.

Certainly even peaceful protests are often targeted by police. But the cops are much less willing to carry out aggressive tactics against big protests, such as the November 2 day of action in Oakland or the mass Occupy protest of 100,000 in New York City last October 15.

Unfortunately, a minority of the movement today has a different approach--one that can only be called elitist. By equating clashes with the police with militancy--and asserting their right to carry out such tactics whether or not the rest of the movement agrees--they are seeking to impose their leadership on Occupy.

Protests should be organized to maximize the numbers involved, not narrow them to a core of people who are willing to battle police or climb into City Hall and declare it as a revolutionary act. Making a principle of confronting police at every turn will only strengthen the hands of the cops and the politicians as they attempt to drive a wedge between Occupy activists and the 99 percent.

The media and politicians are trying to use the Oakland demonstration to discredit Occupy and justify even greater police repression in the future--without acknowledging that by far the most aggressive and destructive violence on January 28 was committed by the cops.

Occupy supporters have to denounce that police violence and challenge the media's distortions about the movement. But we shouldn't sidestep a necessary debate within our ranks about Occupy's direction.

AT ITS height, Occupy mobilized large numbers because it insisted on the rights and dignity of the 99 percent. Its participants were determined to make their voices heard to counter the slanders of politicians and the media. We need initiatives that draw in larger numbers from the millions of people who have shown their sympathy with the movement--not adventurist actions by a minority out to demonstrate their supposedly superior politics and commitment.

Certainly, the struggle will go up and down. In a big public-sector strike, for example, Occupy could be crucial in rallying support for workers and defending public services on the chopping block. The organizing around the NATO/G8 meeting in Chicago could provide a focus for a renewed national debate on the austerity policies and imperial power plays being carried out by the U.S. government and its guests at the summit.

But as much as all Occupy supporters are eager for such big mobilizations, there are no shortcuts. Building the movement from its present circumstances will require systematic and patient organizing. In those struggles--large and small--links are forged, trust is built, and organization formed.

The capitalist class has made it clear that it has a long-term program to impose a deep and permanent cut in working people's living standards. Occupy has to develop a perspective of building the resistance to that agenda at each step of the way--and building a movement that can challenge the system itself.

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