Building a stronger Occupy movement

February 15, 2012

The central question to ask about tactics is what will advance the movement.

A DEBATE about strategy and tactics is taking place in the Occupy movement, with significant consequences for the next phase of the struggle.

Though the starting point is the tactics employed by a current within Occupy Oakland during a January 28 day of protests that included an attempt to occupy a vacant building, the debate has resonated widely because Occupiers around the country face common questions: How can the movement build on its successes last fall during a slower period now? What kind of actions will take the struggle forward? What should the aim of our activities be?

The rise of the Occupy movement last fall was bound up almost everywhere with the encampments at outdoor spaces like Zuccotti Park in New York City, and much of the everyday activities of the movement--from General Assemblies and meetings of working groups on the one hand, to protests and marches on the other--grew organically out of these organizing centers.

But following successful efforts by city officials to uproot the camps practically everywhere, the movement in most places no longer enjoys a public and visible center of operations to which it can attract allies and new supporters, and from which it can launch actions. So the very practical issue is what comes next--and different currents within Occupy answer that question differently.

Occupy Wall Street rallying in support of a home reclaimed from foreclosure
Occupy Wall Street rallying in support of a home reclaimed from foreclosure (Brennan Cavanaugh)

The latest phase of the debate has crystallized around an article written by left-wing journalist Chris Hedges that attacks Black Bloc anarchists as a "cancer" in the movement.

The resulting flurry of discussion about what Hedges got wrong or right has helped generalize the debate about tactics beyond Oakland, and it has clearly engaged a wide layer of Occupy activists and supporters. But there has also been a drawback: Hedges argued that Occupy must adhere to nonviolence in all cases, and many of the responses, for and against, stayed on the same terrain of abstract principles, applied universally to the movement.

What gets lost is any consideration of the specific conditions, in Oakland or anywhere else, that have to be the basis of any discussion of tactics and strategy--since tactics that make sense in one set of circumstances can be completely wrong in another.

This discussion is a positive and necessary one in any struggle that grows beyond a certain stage. What's important now is to learn from the experiences of the movement and draw the logical conclusions.

Some of the tactics used on January 28 will alienate supporters of the struggle and cut it off from involving wider layers of people. Instead, activists have to think about what built the movement in the first place--the way Occupy spoke for the anger of so many people against inequality, and the way it embraced struggles in every corner of society--and put this at the heart of our organizing today.

LAST FALL, every local Occupy movement--even those that didn't succeed in establishing or maintaining a 24-hour encampment--had an organizing center.

These were the sites of the General Assemblies, and the hubs that connected working groups organizing around different issues. They were the beginning and end point for marches and demonstrations about any number of issues. They were physical spaces where activists, newcomers and veterans alike, could come to plug into Occupy--and that attracted different movements and struggles in search of allies.

The first attempts by city officials--nearly all of them Democrats--to break up encampments caused a backlash in many places, since they were such a clear attack on the right of people to peacefully assemble. But by November--with winter weather approaching as well--the cities were prepared for a coordinated crackdown, mixing police raids on the camps with a public relations campaign about public health and safety.

The repression didn't stop the movement. The GAs still meet. Working groups are busy organizing. January saw some of the most inspiring Occupy-organized actions yet against the foreclosure vultures. Occupy's message about the consequences of the greed, corruption and power of the 1 percent is no less urgent today.

But it's certainly true that with the symbol of Occupy--the encampments--dispersed, the physical reminder of the ongoing struggle is missing for the broadest layer of its supporters, and the path for getting involved is no longer as easy to follow. As a result, the numbers of people who participate in the movement--whether on a regular basis as part of the activist core, or more occasionally when mobilized for specific activities--is generally smaller.

In Oakland, for the November 2 general strike call in response to the savage police attack on Occupy activists that nearly killed Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, some 15,000 people marched on the Oakland docks and closed down the country's fifth-busiest port for the night. The December 12 day of action for a West Coast Port Shutdown drew between 5,000 and 7,000 activists. On January 28, protests aimed at occupying a vacant building to create a new base camp for Occupy drew between 1,000 and 2,000.

The Occupy movement isn't to blame for the smaller numbers, and history teaches us that every movement goes through ups and downs. But it's obvious that the changed circumstances have implications for Occupy activities. On November 2 in Oakland, 15,000 people marched on the port, and the police had no hope at all of stopping them. On January 28, 1,000 to 2,000 people were vastly overmatched by an aggressive police force out for revenge.

Unfortunately, parts of the January 28 protest were organized without any sense that the balance of forces had shifted. During the attempt to take over the Kaiser Convention Center, a group within the march deployed homemade shields for an advance on police lines. This confrontational tactic was not only doomed to fail, but it put the rest of the crowd at greater risk of arrest or violence.

Later on, a small group of activists broke into Oakland's City Hall and ransacked it, including burning an American flag. Needless to say, this was the image featured the next day by the corporate media.

Of course, the media have slandered the Occupy movement from the beginning, and police lash out at peaceful demonstrators, too. Activists can't depend on just behavior from cops or a sympathetic ear from the media.

But the events of January 28--especially the backward vandalism of City Hall--drove a wedge between core participants in Occupy Oakland and the thousands of people who took part in protests and activities before then: union members who took the day off work on November 2, residents in neighborhoods where foreclosures are epidemic.

Those who defend tactics like trashing City Hall or confronting police at every opportunity aren't just guilty of misjudging the balance of forces. They reject the importance of building a wider base of support for the movement and involving broader numbers of people.

CHRIS HEDGES' article "The cancer in Occupy" was a response--and a strong one--to a debate that was already underway following the Oakland demonstration. But it confused more than it illuminated.

Hedges is wrong in many of the characterizations he makes of Black Bloc anarchism--his stand-in target for anyone advocating confrontational tactics. No doubt this is because he isn't very familiar with traditions on the radical left. But Hedges is also wrong in his characterizations of the Occupy movement, which he has been closely associated with from the start.

He claims, for example, that the movement's "steadfast refusal to respond to police provocation" is what "resonated across the country." "Losing this moral authority, this ability to show through nonviolent protest the corruption and decadence of the corporate state, would be crippling to the movement," writes Hedges. "It would reduce us to the moral degradation of our oppressors. And that is what our oppressors want."

This misses the boat. The Occupy movement "resonated across the country" because of its political message--which tapped into widespread disaffection with vast inequality and a political system rigged to uphold the power and privileges of the 1 percent.

But Hedges' larger point is to portray nonviolence as a principle for any movement at any time. Does he think civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who said she kept loaded guns beneath her bed, reduced herself "to the moral degradation of her oppressors"? Did Egyptian revolutionaries who defended Tahrir Square with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on lose their "moral authority"?

There are many more criticisms that could be made of Hedges' article, but these at least illustrate one central problem--he transforms a debate about tactics, in which he makes some valid points about adventurist and ultraleft actions, into a discussion of principles that are supposed to apply for all time.

There was a strong backlash against Hedges' article, for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, many of the responses failed to focus on the most important questions facing the movement.

For example, in his defense of the Black Bloc, anarchist and author David Graeber recounts how he and others involved in the early stages of Occupy Wall Street agreed to "Gandhian nonviolence" and "to eschew acts of property damage" because "we just didn't feel that was an appropriate tactic for the situation we were in."

But Graeber never states if he thinks that the January 28 action in Oakland used appropriate tactics. Instead, he uses a critique of Hedges' position to advance two other points: first, that the police are always responsible for violence, not protesters; and second, that any attempt to agree on particular tactics for an action leads to the prospect of physical violence against those who want to act more "militantly."

On the first point, it's absolutely true that police are responsible for far more aggressive and destructive violence than protesters.

But focusing exclusively on the police sidesteps a question that activists have to ask--do supporters of the movement who have participated in its activities, or can be drawn into them in the future, see the police as the aggressors, or do they think demonstrators are looking for a confrontation, regardless of the consequences? The answer to that question can shape whether larger numbers of supporters can be mobilized, including in defense of the victims of police repression.

Graeber's second point is that any attempt to establish agreement on some tactics as opposed to others for an action "invariably backfires." Instead, such decisions should be a matter of "individual conscience."

This is a profoundly anti-democratic statement. If he's serious, than Graeber can't object if a minority of one, two or a few impose their "individual conscience" to break into City Hall or provoke a fight with police on much larger numbers of people.

The inevitable result of this free-for-all regarding what takes place at a demonstration is that people with the most to lose--workers who can't go to jail or they'll lose their jobs, people with families, immigrants whose status could be questioned, racial minorities with good reason to fear encounters with police--will be pushed away from the movement.

DISCUSSIONS ABOUT strategy and tactics are a vital part of any movement. The seriousness of the debate taking place now is testament to the commitment so many people feel toward the Occupy struggle, and it will continue in much more depth and breadth than this article can summarize.

But the question to keep in mind throughout is this: What actions and campaigns will advance and strengthen the movement as a whole?

It would be disastrous for the Occupy struggle to equate repeated confrontations with police with greater "militancy." Such actions only create more doubt among allies and potential allies about whether the movement has a clear idea of what it's trying to accomplish and how to go about doing so.

In a period where activism has fallen off and the number of people participating is lower, there's a tendency for activists to conclude that only those involved now are ready to take a stand for the struggle--that wider layers of people have given up on the movement, if they ever cared about it in the first place.

The future of the Occupy movement depends on taking the opposite course.

In local movements around the country, people are involved in educating and organizing that may not produce big demonstrations or lots of publicity--but it is bringing more people into the struggle, and knitting together the networks of activists who will sustain the movement over the long term.

Occupy has many opportunities for activism. A struggle against foreclosures and evictions is desperately needed in every city. Occupy activists in New York, Chicago and other cities are working with teachers, students and parents to fight for public schools. February 20 will be a national Occupy day in support of prisoners called by the Occupy4Prisoners initiative, to target the criminal injustice system.

Everywhere, Occupy can reach out to the labor movement in defense of private-sector workers battling corporate greed and public-sector workers whose jobs and working conditions are under attack by the bipartisan austerity drive.

These efforts by activists around the country show the potential for building a stronger movement by focusing on what made Occupy such a dynamic struggle from the beginning--grassroots activism that gives voice to the determination of the vast majority to stand up against the greed and power of the 1 percent.

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