The start of Occupy’s spring?

March 21, 2012

A core of Occupy Wall Street activists showed their commitment in protests last weekend--but our movement faces challenges.

ON MARCH 17, the six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, activists organized a celebration and attempted a 24-hour re-occupation of Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan.

By early evening, there were as many as 1,000 to 2,000 people in the park. Demonstrators held a General Assembly and were buoyed by speeches by Cornel West and Michael Moore, who had been speaking at the Left Forum conference being held nearby.

However, by late evening, the numbers of protesters in the park had dwindled to a few hundred. As they laid down cardboard and blankets, and prepared for a march, the NYPD moved in--with their all-too-familiar brutality.

Police announced that the park was closed, and everyone had to leave. Activists, who have been participating in regular trainings, pointed out that they were in full compliance with zoning regulations. The NYPD's response was to attack with overwhelming force and arrest scores of activists.

OWS activist Cecily McMillan was so brutalized in the process of her arrest that her ribs were cracked, and she suffered a seizure. Police refused to allow volunteer paramedics from Occupy get near her, and it was 15 minutes before an ambulance arrived. She remains hospitalized as of this writing.

When protesters began a march up Broadway, they were met with similar police violence--thrown against metal shutters, stomped in the neck and beaten with their own megaphone. NYU student Nisha Bolsey described seeing one marcher--a medic--thrown so hard against the door of Bolsey's dorm that the glass was broken.

The NYPD is clearly attempting to send a message to our movement: If you attempt to re-occupy space, even that to which you are legally entitled, we will use any level of force necessary to stop you.

By every account, the protesters on Saturday were not only completely peaceful, but also in full compliance with the law. We must stand in solidarity with the protesters who were brutalized and organize against police repression. There are planning meetings and actions throughout the week that will culminate in an anti-police brutality march this Saturday, which needs to be as big as possible.

At the same time, however, last weekend's actions highlight the need to assess the state of our movement and how we can take it forward.

Many of the most committed activists, who have continued to organize through a difficult winter, believe that last weekend represents the reemergence of the Occupy movement of last fall. OWS activist Max Berger, writing for, described this as the coming of the "American Spring"--an image that is widespread among the core of the Occupy movement in New York.

There are a series of actions planned for this spring that activists hope will put Occupy back on the map--weekly solidarity marches, direct action trainings, a spring "assembly of assemblies" and, most importantly, actions for May Day are all in the works. At the start of the week, a new encampment of a couple hundred people has been established in Union Square Park--though as this article was being written, police were threatening to evict the encampment, even though the park has no restriction against people being in it 24 hours a day.

The plans for this spring are positive developments. But we need to be realistic about the state of the movement.

Neither the actions last weekend nor the plans for the coming weeks represent a revival of the Occupy movement on the scale we saw last fall--when several times more people were involved on a daily basis than were at Zuccotti at the height of the March 17 demonstration, and even larger numbers came to demonstrations and other actions.

The actions that have taken place so far this year have been almost entirely confined to a relatively small core of activists. We have not yet seen wider layers of people coming into the actions. Thus, the strategic questions of what it will take to rebuild our movement are paramount.

IT IS certainly possible--and even likely--that we will see a higher level of struggle this spring, at least compared to the last several months. The basic conditions that produced Occupy Wall Street and galvanized widespread sympathy for the struggle--above all, the pent-up anger with the greed, corruption and power of the 1 percent--still exist.

And over the course of the winter, hundreds of Occupy activists have continued to organize in New York City.

In some cases, they have successfully infused existing struggles with new energy and excitement. So, for example, housing activists have been deepening and expanding their efforts, with successful blockades of foreclosure auctions and ongoing plans for eviction defense. Housing activists from several different community groups are coming together in an attempt to form a new citywide coalition and develop new leadership.

Similarly, the Rank-And-File Labor Committee and the Labor Outreach Committee of Occupy Wall Street have organized important actions in solidarity with workers at Verizon and Sotheby's and members of the Transport Workers Union on New York's buses and subways.

Some activists in the May Day and Immigrant Workers Justice groups have built new connections. And there have been important campaigns against police harassment and school closures.

These examples represent only some of the organizing that has been taking place in the last several months. Throughout the movement, there is a high level of dedication and commitment, which is critical to taking new steps forward.

But this work has not yet been connected to an overall strategy for how to advance the struggle. And unfortunately, the movement remains largely inaccessible to new people who might want to get involved. For those who are already connected to activist circles or a working group, there is plenty of organizing getting done. But there is nothing yet that serves to bring in those not already participating.

The idea that we are entering a new American Spring is based on the hope that if we continue to pursue the tactics that worked in the fall, we will eventually re-connect with the mass sympathy that existed then as well. In particular, activists look to the inspirational example of occupations and a radical vision (not tied down by demands) as catalysts for the movement.

But there are two problems with this view. First, the specific activities that created the initial success of Occupy Wall Street won't be easily reproduced--especially now that the forces of the state are prepared to do everything they can to prevent the reoccupation of public spaces, as the NYPD showed last weekend.

Attempts to recreate the Occupy of last fall through attempts at renewed occupations will exhaust our forces as we face mass arrests and repression, and the resulting need for jailhouse solidarity, medical support and legal defense. In a growing movement, these can help to galvanize people and draw in new activists. But at a moment like this, they can easily become very draining on the limited number of activists able to sustain them.

Even more problematic, the insistence on militant tactics like occupations as the key to rebuilding the movement can point Occupy activists away from the type of organizing work that needs to be done right now.

The challenge facing us is to find a way to reconnect with the broader layers of working-class people which gave Occupy Wall Street its mass character. At best, the overemphasis on militant tactics--as a result of which, confrontations with police and the threat of violence are constant threats in the current circumstances--means that we will miss opportunities to build more modest struggles around issues people care about, like housing, school closures and police brutality. At worst, by setting the bar for participating in the movement so high, we could push away the people we most need to reach.

MOST OCCUPY activists are sincerely committed to rebuilding a mass movement, but aren't sure how to do so. However, there are sections within the movement that have embraced our marginalization. These activists see themselves as the "radicals," who must oppose anything that dilutes struggle.

So, for example, as planning for a spring "assembly of assemblies" got underway, one activist expressed concern over the focus of reaching out to labor and community organizations. Writing on an OWS listserve, he argued, "Most, maybe all, of these are of course going to be the traditional, irrelevant, failed Old Left and liberal organizations and professional activists that OWS should be blasting away with a cleansing stream."

In an article for Truthout, J.A. Meyerson echoed such ideas when he argued that the protests last weekend set the stage for a "radical spring" that will be more militant and confrontational than ever.

But this analysis doesn't account for the fact that the numbers at Occupy events are still small compared to last fall--and it doesn't offer a way for the movement to grow. The question for us shouldn't be how "radical" the movement is, but what is the best way to bring into action those who are most directly affected by the abuses of the 1 percent.

What we need is a strategic reorientation. First of all, we need to recognize that the police have the ability and the will to use overwhelming force against us. For a period last fall, the cops were thrown onto the defensive by the size of the movement and the widespread support it had. But they have clearly regained their confidence to crack heads. No amount of street actions or legal training will be enough to overcome this, until the size of the movement grows substantially.

I've been on too many marches where we end up running from street to street, as the police separate us into smaller groups, and then beat and arrest us. We can't compete on that terrain right now. So we need to think about how to build the confidence and organization among larger numbers of people to participate in Occupy actions.

This means connecting to immediate struggles around housing, school closures, budget cuts, police brutality, workplace struggles and many other issues, to provide support and also to offer a broader vision of radical change.

One important opportunity to do this is May Day, which has taken on an important prominence among Occupy activists. However, all of the discussions about how to take our movement forward have arisen in the planning for May 1.

Here in New York City, there were long and frequently heated debates about whether to endorse a call for a general strike on May Day. Broadly speaking, there were three basic positions on the question.

The position that represented the largest number of people was that an actual general strike was not possible on May 1, but that we needed a big, bold action to excite people, and therefore, we should support the general strike call. A second position, largely advanced by labor and immigrant rights activists, as well as members of the International Socialist Organization, was that the general strike call was a mistake because it would make it more difficult to bring in other forces like unions. A third position, supported by insurrectionary anarchists, was that we shouldn't care what unions think, and that the general strike had to be "re-conceptualized" to mean not workers withholding their labor, but any kind of radical action.

Because the organizing meetings were run on consensus, there was no way to fully resolve this debate. Instead, a compromise was reached in which OWS committed to "stand in solidarity with calls for a general strike, a day without the 99 percent and more."

Most activists were relieved to be able to move beyond the contentious discussion and begin organizing. But because the underlying issues weren't resolved, they continue to emerge on practical questions, and have to be decided at that level.

One of the most positive developments is that a coalition of labor, immigrant rights and Occupy activists have come together to plan for a mass solidarity march on May 1. The initial slogan for this march is "Legalize, unionize, organize to fight the 1 percent." This represents a tremendous opportunity to bring together activists from a wide array of struggles and unite them in a demonstration based around the Occupy slogan of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.

However, there are a large number of activists who see the march as a secondary priority--and who believe that a permitted, mass march is "boring" and doesn't represent the new energy of Occupy. Attitudes about whether to participate or not vary, but these activists share a sense that Occupy Wall Street's contribution to the struggle is to escalate and radicalize through civil disobedience actions that directly target the 1 percent.

There are a number of problems with this position. At the most basic level, it means that many Occupy activists won't commit themselves fully to building the demonstration. OWS activists have energy, creativity and a range of connections that could help make this protest large and successful.

More problematically, the attitudes of these activists open the door to actions that could undermine our efforts on the day. For example, if there is an attempt to lead more militant actions out of the mass march, this could put more vulnerable participants such as undocumented immigrants at risk of arrest. Or if small groups of individuals decide to block workers from getting to work as part of the "general strike," it could alienate potential supporters.

THE CONDITIONS for an "American Spring" most certainly exist. There are deep reserves of anger at the unremitting assault on our living conditions and most basic rights--and a continuing sympathy for Occupy Wall Street and what it represents, although it remains passive. And there is a core of hundreds of dedicated organizers that has emerged from this struggle.

But the road to renewing the movement on a mass scale isn't clear or easy. Simply repeating the tactics of September and October won't accomplish the task. It may be that the revival of the movement will revolve around some unexpected event or action that has the power galvanize support on the level of last fall.

The most important step we can take for now is to increase our own organizing capacity. This will require patience and a willingness to employ a range of tactics, even those that many activists consider a step backwards. Above all, it will require participating in the concrete struggles by working-class people around immediate issues and building coalitions with organizations, including unions, that working-class people look to.

None of these are simple tasks, and they will require discussion, debate and mutual collaboration. But together, they constitute a process we have to go through to build the mass, militant movement we all want to see.

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