The occupation heard around the world

October 25, 2016

Five years after the autumn of Occupy Wall Street, Jen Roesch tells the story of the fight that called out the 1 Percent--and explains what the 99 Percent can learn from it.

FIVE YEARS ago, Occupy Wall Street exploded onto the American political landscape.

Where did this movement come from, and what made it so popular? What did it achieve? What has changed since and what hasn't? And what can that tell us about the challenges and possibilities facing us today, on the verge of a third term for a Democratic president committed to neoliberal austerity?

To start with, we should remember how powerful Occupy was.

Like other recent struggles, it rose and fell quickly, so that it can seem like a distant memory even to those who participated in it. For those who radicalized in its aftermath, it can be hard to grasp how quickly it spread, how far it reached and how dramatically it raised expectations, having given voice to the accumulated bitterness seething beneath the surface.

The enduring image of Occupy is probably of young people--the kind of people Hillary Clinton sneeringly dismissed as "children of the Great Recession, sleeping in their parents' basement"--camped out in Zuccotti Park, blocks from the world's financial nerve center.

Occupy Wall Street protesters on the march in New York City

This is, in fact, how it all began. The encampment was organized by a mix of anarchists, socialists and other young activists who were, indeed, children of the Great Recession, facing a future of crushing debt and low job prospects.

But what made Occupy a movement was its ability to connect with an audience beyond those willing or able to camp out in Zuccotti Park. Several developments in the first weeks made this possible.

AS OCCUPY began, the state of Georgia was preparing to execute Troy Davis, a Black man whose powerful insistence on his innocence and condemnation of the racist death penalty inspired a struggle to save him. The fight for Troy Davis can be seen as a prelude to the Black Lives Matter movement, but it also played an important role in the early development of Occupy.

The day after Davis' execution--after a heartbreaking four-hour delay during which the Supreme Court considered and then declined to hear new evidence--an angry, multiracial crowd of some 1,000 people gathered at Union Square and then began to march. The fight for Troy had developed largely separately from those planning Occupy, but activists saw an opportunity to connect the struggles. They led the march to Zuccotti, where the two groups joined in a chant of "We are all Troy Davis."

Not only did this demonstration connect Occupy Wall Street with a more multiracial, working-class audience, but it also established a pattern for local struggles to look to Occupy for support.

Activists seized the initiative to build on these types of connections. In particular, the Labor Outreach Committee organized support for labor struggles--including against some of the most potent symbols of the 1 Percent.

The most important turning point, however, was initiated not by protesters but police.

As the encampment entered its second week, it remained small. But when New York police attacked a peaceful march from Zuccotti and pepper-sprayed a group of young women already captured in a net, the event was caught on video and went viral.

Suddenly, Occupy Wall Street was nightly news, and the media slowly began reporting stories connected to the grievances that motivated it: unpaid medical bills, homes foreclosed on, rising student debt, lost jobs, the fears of a generation with no future.

Moreover, Occupy gave a clear target for people's anger: The parasitical 1 Percent that had wrecked the economy and millions of people's lives, but never paid any price. The idea of the 1 Percent ruling over the 99 Percent--phrases that still echo today in U.S. politics--was born in mainstream consciousness.

Another slogan on one of the many brilliantly creative posters during Occupy captured the way that the movement gave a name to what too many people had understood as their personal failure. It read: "Dear Capitalism, It's not you, it's us. Just kidding, it's you."

BY LATE September, Occupy enjoyed mass sympathy and began to assume a mass character. It was a topic of workplace conversation, and thousands of New Yorkers began coming down to the encampment before or after work. The nightly assemblies, where political and organizational questions were discussed, swelled to more than 1,000 people.

Planned and spontaneous marches took off from Zuccotti Park on a daily basis. Although the movement had no official demands, it became a gathering point and a vehicle for diverse groups to find one another and articulate their own demands.

This dynamic also allowed thousands of people to enter the movement and make it their own. By October, as many as 5,000 people were meeting weekly in over 100 different working groups that had outgrown the boundaries of the park.

The movement had already spread out of New York City, first to Boston, then to Chicago and Los Angeles, then the Bay Area and many smaller cities and college campuses, until Occupy was a local phenomenon across the country.

The Transport Workers Union became the first union to endorse Occupy, and others followed suit. In early October, the movement expanded further as a coalition of unions and community groups organized a solidarity march of more than 20,000.

Occupy had become a mass movement, reaching deep into the working class, transforming people's sense of possibility and developing impressive levels of self-organization.

For those who went through its early days, it was a lesson in just how rapidly people's ideas and the political atmosphere can change--and in what it looks like when our side is on the offensive.

On October 13, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intension to clear Zuccotti Park. In less than 24 hours, 300,000 people signed petitions opposing the eviction. The unions called for a mobilization to defend the encampment, and by 5 a.m., thousands of people, many of them union workers, were ringing the park, many of them committed to getting arrested if the cops moved in.

When news spread that the city had caved and the encampment wouldn't be cleared, the sense of confidence was palpable. This set the stage for what would be Occupy's largest show of strength in New York.

On October 15, as part of a global day of action, a small group of activists called for an unpermitted "dance party" in Times Square. Not a single flyer was produced for this demonstration. But as thousands began to stream into the heart of New York's tourism district, it was clear that this protest would exceed all expectations. The multiracial crowd ultimately numbered more than 100,000 people.

The Times Square demonstration was built through word of mouth--people organized to come with neighbors, fellow students or co-workers. Whole families came in defiance of threat of arrest. Parents hoisted young children on their shoulders to see history being made.

THE SUCCESSES of the movement were rapid and dizzying, but they weren't sustainable.

Occupy activists were only beginning to discuss how to build the organizational infrastructure and roots needed to defend the encampments and deepen the movement when the Obama administration moved decisively against them. In November, the Department of Homeland Security coordinated an offensive with mayors across the country to clear the Occupy encampments.

Despite mass sympathy, the movement wasn't developed enough to withstand the attack. The encampments had served as the centralizing mechanism in a movement that prided itself on lack of formal leadership. Without them, there was no way for people to find their way into the movement or for activists to debate and agree on plans of action.

Despite attempts to revive the struggle, within the year, it had become clear that the movement wouldn't recover from this defeat.

But the protesters who defiantly proclaimed, "You can't evict an idea whose time has come," were right about something else. Occupy left its mark on U.S. politics and exposed the fault lines of class anger that have deepened in the intervening years.

In its wake, the idea of the 99 Percent versus the 1 Percent has become common sense. Crucially, the paralyzing sense that individuals are to blame for their own suffering has been replaced by an understanding that millions of working-class people are sinking together.

It's impossible to imagine Bernie Sanders running for the Democratic presidential nomination as an open socialist and getting 12 million votes without the experience of Occupy, which laid the groundwork for many of the themes on which he would run. His campaign tapped into the same discontent, and gave class anger the opportunity to take center stage like it did for those two months in the fall of 2011.

OCCUPY WALL Street marked a watershed moment in the re-emergence of mass struggles and radical politics in the U.S. So what can an assessment of its record and history tell us?

A lot of analysis of the Occupy movement has centered on what are seen as its unique organizational and tactical forms, tactical audacity, rejection of hierarchical structures and independence from existing organizations, which are seen as bureaucratic and ossified.

The reality is much more complex than this suggests.

It's true that the most prominent and influential activists--the leaders of the supposedly "leaderless movement"--took inspiration from the developing "movement of the squares" internationally and shared many of the beliefs expressed in other struggles: a rejection of political parties; a commitment to horizontal democracy; and a focus on reclaiming public space and cooperative living as an alternative to making demands on the state.

And some of Occupy's unique features did help to facilitate its growth in the early stages. The occupation of public space was important, ideologically and organizationally, in helping people who had no organization to find one another. Its communal nature appealed to people as an antidote to the intense alienation of modern capitalism.

Occupy's focus on direct democracy gave people an immediate sense of ownership and a feeling that their voice mattered. This could be felt in the mass general assemblies, even when they went on for hours, or with the "people's mic," where speakers would have their words repeated and amplified.

But Occupy's truly indispensable ingredient--the thing that gave it power--was its mass character.

This was achieved through a complex interaction of younger activists focused on direct action, new people making their way to the movement and finding a role for themselves, and long-standing organizations, including unions, liberal groups and the left. None of this just happened. All along the way, there were compromises, political debates, uneasy alliances and tactical retreats.

For a period of time, the constant influx of new people to Occupy allowed the movement to avoid difficult questions while racing from one boldly successful action to another.

But to withstand the inevitable repression--let alone to translate Occupy's broad appeal into material gains--would have required a much higher level of democratic, accountable organization and leadership. It would have required prioritizing space for political discussion and a mechanism for deciding on strategies, tactics and demands.

By the end of October, many participants were beginning to see this need, and political discussions opened up about how to move forward. But there were few mechanisms for organizing those discussions--and then they were cut short by the eviction of the encampments.

IT WOULDN'T be fair or accurate to say that the encampments could have withstood the repression if Occupy didn't have these political weaknesses. This was an assertion of resistance in the context of 35 years of working-class retreat, which wasn't going to be reversed by two months of street protests, however inspiring and widely felt.

But certain aspects of Occupy's politics did become a barrier to drawing lessons from the movement's experience.

In the confusing first days following the eviction, the informal leadership networks that had run the encampment and made many of the pivotal decisions scrambled to figure out what to do next. There were no structures that could bring the thousands of activists who had been developed through the movement into that discussion.

Instead, a dwindling and increasingly passive majority of activists waited for urgent directives, frequently by text message, to know where to go. There were fierce debates, but these took place almost entirely behind closed doors. Meanwhile, Occupy's liberal and union movement allies were trying to figure out how to channel the energy into electoral campaigns like Obama's re-election run.

A demonstration held just days after the evictions showed that it could have been different--close to 40,000 people turned out. But the march had a strikingly different feel, as union marshals kept a tight grip to direct people away from Zuccotti Park, avoiding any attempt to retake the park.

There were more radical activists, of course, but they didn't have a strategy or a mechanism for giving an alternate lead to the thousands who turned out because they were ready to continue the struggle.

It wasn't only a lack of organization that proved to be an impediment. There was also the assumption that the movement had succeeded because of its focus on militant tactics and the occupation of public space.

This led to repeated unpermitted actions and confrontations with police in the hopes of sparking a new round of struggle. Instead, demoralized and increasingly exhausted activists were further isolating them from the mass base that had made the movement successful.

Thus, Occupy's ideological impact far outstripped its ability to translate that into sustained organization. The failure to create a vehicle (or vehicles) for political development and collaboration among a substantially enlarged layer of new activists was the biggest loss.

The absence of this kind of organization has helped set a pattern for struggles since then: The scarcity of democratic, collective organizations makes it hard for new people to find their way into the left--or to use the lulls between protests to develop next steps and expand the base of movements.

As a result, struggles in this period have been largely episodic and usually fueled by spontaneous explosions from below. The rebellions we've seen in the wake of police murders epitomize this dynamic.

At the same time, there has been a political advance since Occupy, reflected in larger numbers looking for more serious answers about how to build an alternative to the relentless misery caused by the system. This questioning can be understood as a response to the political trajectory of the last five years.

OCCUPY WAS part of an international wave of rebellions sparked by the global economic crisis and 35 years of neoliberalism. The highest peak was the Egyptian Revolution, which toppled a U.S.-backed dictator in power for three decades in a matter of days. The world's ruling classes, still recovering from the near-collapse of the international financial system, were temporarily destabilized.

This fed excessive optimism in the power of spontaneous struggle and a dismissive approach to organization. But the ruling classes recovered and pushed back with repression and austerity. From the counterrevolution in Egypt to the debt crisis in Greece, their side has drawn a hard line.

At the same time, though, the class bitterness that fueled Occupy has only intensified, fueling new eruptions of struggle and forcing bigger political questions--about class inequality, racism, the nature of our political democracy and the system itself--into the discussion.

In this context, some of the ideas that dominated during Occupy appear as insufficient at best and naïve at worst. After all, what does it mean to "not recognize the power of the state" when people are murdered by police daily? The idea that we should not have demands is hard to reconcile with the growing urgency to win basic reforms like student debt forgiveness. And there is an increasing recognition of the need to find ways to build durable movements and organization.

Against this general backdrop, two developments have had a particular impact on the political landscape since Occupy.

One is the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which brought the issue of racism to the fore and shifted mass consciousness about police violence and other questions. It's important to appreciate what a dramatic shift this is: During Occupy, most protesters saw the police as part of the 99 Percent. Today, there is real potential to build a multiracial, working-class movement that combines a fight against racism and class inequality.

The other development is Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, which gave the language of socialism to the radicalization and provided new ways of understanding what had often been seen as isolated struggles.

In the last year, there has been a greater willingness to see the connections between different struggles and oppressions, and as central to a broader working-class fight against capitalism.

All of this means that not only the ideas of socialism, but also the question of socialist organization--something dismissed at the high point of Occupy--have been placed back on the political agenda.

The last five years have shown that even truly titanic struggles can't confront the power of global capitalism unless we are able to build mass, working-class parties that can organize our side. This is not just a practical task, but a political one, in that it must offer an alternative.

This project can draw on the best that Occupy had to offer--its militancy, its rediscovery of the power of collective action from below, its creativity and mass participation--while fusing that with a renewed sense of seriousness about working-class organization and politics. That is the challenge--and the possibility--before us.

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