What Bloombergville achieved

July 25, 2011

Doug Singsen and Sarita Flores, two participants in the Bloombergville encampment outside New York's City Hall, discuss its successes and shortcomings.

FROM JUNE 14 to July 5, activists in New York City organized a sidewalk encampment across from City Hall, dubbed Bloombergville, to protest the draconian cuts and layoffs proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Inspired by the much larger occupations in Wisconsin, Egypt, Spain and Greece, a stretch of sidewalk in the heart of downtown New York was reclaimed and transformed into a vibrant communal space for political protest and organizing.

Now that several weeks have passed since Bloombergville came to an end, it's possible to step back and look at its successes and shortcomings, and the lessons we can take from it.

Although Bloombergville was modest in size--with crowds for rallies rarely exceeding 150 and no more than 50 people staying overnight--we believe it was important for a number of reasons.

The presence of Bloombergville near City Hall made it possible to directly challenge the budget in ways that otherwise would have been impossible. For instance, when an agreement on the budget was announced between Bloomberg and the City Council, activists at Bloombergville were able to mount a protest despite the fact that the press conference occurred at midnight and had been announced just an hour beforehand. Politicians were caught off guard--an NY1 reporter tweeted from inside the press conference, "Protesters have come up the steps and are yelling, banging and chanting loudly outside front door of Tweed. Feels like Tweed is under attack."

A rally against budget cuts at the Bloombergville encampment in New York City
A rally against budget cuts at the Bloombergville encampment in New York City (Danny Katch | SW)

Bloombergville's unconventional approach garnered much more press coverage than a traditional protest of the same size would have--the encampment was covered by the New York Times, CBS New York, CNN.com, Democracy Now!, NY1 (New York City's 24-hour TV news station), AM New York, Amsterdam News, The Indypendent, El Diario, Common Dreams, DailyKos, FireDogLake, AlterNet and more. This attention made it possible to get the message of "no cuts, no layoffs, no compromise" out much more widely and over a longer period of time than a single protest could have.

Another advantage of Bloombergville was that it was able to serve as a base camp for supporting other protests on issues including war funding, a financial transaction tax on Wall Street, rent control, hydro-fracking and more, and to serve as a pole of attraction for a new layer of people interested in joining the fight against budget cuts.

ONE REASON Bloombergville was able to continue was its participatory democratic process and points of unity.

Every evening, a general assembly was held to report on and discuss the days' events, plan future events, and make other decisions about the functioning of the encampment. The general assemblies were open to everyone, giving all Bloombergville participants a voice in the encampment's organization and decision-making--and therefore a sense of connection to the encampment that spurred people to sacrifice their time and energy.

While most of those at Bloombergville embraced this model from the start, a minority wanted to retain control within a smaller group. Challenging this position--and eventually winning a more open process through democratic debate--was an important step in maintaining the viability of Bloombergville, since without this it would have been harder to retain the support of newer members of the community.

In order to deal with this and other points of disagreement, Bloombergville participants created points of unity that elaborated a common commitment to democratic decision-making, mutual respect, and sensitivity to race, gender and sexual preference. These points of unity were continually discussed and revised to respond to new situations and experiences.

Another issue that arose was whether to end the encampment once the budget deal had been passed.

Everyone involved with Bloombergville valued the sense of community it created and the political role it played, but some Bloombergville participants, especially those who joined the protest once it began but had not been involved in its planning, proposed continuing it after the budget had been passed. Others argued that while this desire was understandable, the success of the encampment depended on factors that would no longer hold once the budget passed.

The cuts were the issue that had brought all Bloombergville participants together in the first place, and the immediacy of the vote created an urgency in fighting the cuts as militantly as possible. While there was still a need to continue building a long-term struggle after the budget passed, the urgency that had animated Bloombergville would be gone.

Further, while Bloombergville's site across from City Hall was strategically located for a protest against budget cuts, it would become a hindrance once the budget was no longer the target. Downtown Manhattan is a hectic, exhausting location that is ideal for making contact with a maximum number of people--many of them municipal employees who would be directly affected by the city budget--but it isn't well suited for making connections with individuals or communities that would be necessary to provide a fresh infusion of support.

Because of these difficulties, we argued that the movement against budget cuts and austerity would be better served by returning to other forms of organizing, with the possibility of initiating new encampments when the moment was once again right.

Indeed, the encampment did prove to be unsustainable after the deal went through--attendance drifted down and the encampment lost the sense of political purpose that had previously united it. When police and the owners of the building we were camped outside demanded a temporary relocation for a "cleaning," the numbers and will to continue the encampment no longer existed.

The experience of Bloombergville shows that while the encampment tactic was a success in many ways, it cannot substitute for building a mass movement, nor can it call such a movement forth on demand. The actions in Wisconsin, Egypt, Spain and Greece that inspired Bloombergville succeeded in attracting mass numbers of people--but that doesn't mean that the encampment tactic is always the best or only choice in attempting to build a stronger, more militant movement against austerity.

Decisions about tactics for a movement have to be based on the level of development of the wider struggle, the strength of the activists and organizations involved, the potential for building wider support as the action progresses, and the immediate objectives of the movement. Ultimately, the biggest factors are what can advance the movement as a whole and lead to strengthened organizations for the future.

ANOTHER IMPORTANT lesson of Bloombergville was that it revealed the limits of liberalism and of the corporate-unionist strategy followed by the current labor leadership.

Bloombergville was initially planned within the May 12th Coalition, the group that organized the large protest on Wall Street on May 12, which included the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York Communities for Change (formerly ACORN), and many other unions and liberal nonprofit groups.

Although there was an attempt to continue the May 12th Coalition after the protest, the organization was seriously weakened when the UFT and other unions stopped attending coalition meetings or contributing to the coalition. The unions' lack of commitment to building an ongoing movement is a direct result of their aim of building "partnerships" with employers rather than confronting the attacks head on.

The remaining members of the May 12th Coalition organized two small protests and a press conference, but the major action to emerge from the coalition was Bloombergville. However, once the encampment proposal had been finalized, the nonprofit groups began withdrawing from the action--even though they had been among its planners.

While their official explanation was that they were "too busy," the real reason was the refusal of activists involved in Bloombergville to accept any cuts as necessary. This threatened the nonprofit groups' relationships with "friendly" Democrats--who predictably ended up voting for the compromise budget that still included significant cuts. Further, Bloombergville's participatory character made it impossible for these groups to control the protest and demobilize it once a compromise they found acceptable had been reached.

The behavior of both unions and liberal groups shows that building a more powerful movement against budget cuts and austerity is going to require strategies and organizations that go further than current labor and liberal leaders are willing to. To succeed, such groups must keep their independence from the politicians--Democrats as well as Republicans--who are pushing these attacks. Bloombergville was an important first step toward building such a movement.

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