To occupy or (un)occupy?

November 7, 2011

Those who focus on the negative aspects of the term "occupy" miss that it has been used for decades by many activists fighting to take back what was rightfully theirs.

IN SOME of the Occupy encampments that have sprouted across the United States after first appearing in New York in late September, the question has been raised as to the appropriateness of the use of the term "occupy" for the movement.

The issue arose, for example, in Occupy Albuquerque, where some participants argued that the word "occupy" was problematic for indigenous people who have lived under colonial occupation for centuries. I also attended an October 23 General Assembly at Occupy D.C. at McPherson Park in which a group presented an argument to the body that "occupy" connoted colonialism, and therefore was an inappropriate name for the movement.

After a long debate, the movement in Albuquerque decided to change its name to "(Un)occupy Albuquerque."

The sentiment that prompted the change is not a bad one--that we must take up all the issues that affect the 99 percent, including colonialism and racism. Indeed, Championing the causes of all the oppressed and exploited only strengthens our movement. Anyone who tries to claim that doing so "divides" our movement is actually promoting division.

If our struggle fails to take up racism in America, then how can it really speak for the 99 percent? If it fails to take up the rights of immigrants, how can it truly speak for all of the 99 percent? If it fails to take up the issues of women's and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender freedom and oppression, how can it claim to speak for the 99 percent? The motto of our movement should be: an injury to one is an injury to all. If the 1 percent can keep one part of the working class and the poor down, it is easier to keep all of us down.

HAVING SAID that, it isn't clear to me why we should concede the word "occupy" to the 1 percent, or consider it a term that only connotes colonialism and conquest.

While it is true that the word occupy can conjure up the European occupation and conquest of the Americas, what Israel is doing in the West Bank and Gaza, or what the United States is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are other uses of the word. Just as the world "strike" can mean something positive (as in general strike), or something negative (as in air strike), so too can the word "occupy" have more than one meaning.

Sit-ins and occupations have been a part of social struggles, and in particular, the labor movement, for centuries. From the occupation of the factories in Italy in 1919-1920 to the Flint sit-down strike of 1937; and from the workplaces takeovers in Argentina in 2001 to the occupation of Republic Windows and doors in Chicago a few years ago, occupations are also something that workers do to fight for their rights, and, in some cases, challenge the state.

In Italy in 1919, 400,000 workers occupied their factories in Turin and other industrial cities. In some places, workers attempted to run the factories under their own democratic control.

In the 1930s in the United States, factory occupations--what workers called sit-down strikes--were a key weapon in the fight for creating mass industrial unions for the first time. The 44-day Flint sit-down strike sparked a wave of sit-down strikes that involved nearly a half million workers in 1937.

When the mostly Latino immigrant workforce of Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago discovered that the company was planning to close down without giving proper notice or paying workers severance and back vacation pay, 250 workers occupied the plant on December 5, 2008.

One of the workers, Silvia Mazon, who had worked at the factory for 13 years, told the New York Times, "They want the poor person to stay down. We're here, and we're not going anywhere until we get what's fair and what's ours. They thought they would get rid of us easily, but if we have to be here for Christmas, it doesn't matter." The occupation, which became national news and garnered a great deal of local support, won its demands in six days.

Occupations have also played an important role in indigenous struggles in the United States, particularly those of Native Americans at the height of the struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969-71 by Indians of All Tribes, the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1972, and the occupation of Wounded Knee by AIM activists in 1973 were all pivotal events associated with the American Indian movement at its height.

The 89 Indian activist who occupied Alcatraz claimed it on the grounds that the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the United States and the Sioux returned all abandoned or disused federal land to Native Americans.

The Indians of All Tribes issued a proclamation just prior to the occupation, which read in part:

We, the Native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of the land, and hereby offer the following treaty: We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for 24 dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man's purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago...We offer this treaty in good faith and wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the white man.

If a particular city decides to change its name to "(un)occupy," that’s not a terrible thing. But it isn’t necessary to concede the word "occupy" to the 1 percent or the military machine that serves them. They have their occupations, and we have ours.

Our "occupy" pays homage to the brave fighters in Tahrir Square, whose decision to hold it at any cost, along with other squares throughout Egypt, was an inspiration to our movement and fighters for justice everywhere.

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