I first heard about Occupy Wall Street in August, when I visited my former home of Madison, Wisconsin. Shortly after protesting in the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda against 13% pay cuts for state workers, and being impressed with the energy and creativity of the protesters, I attended the Democracy Convention nearby. Some of the speakers at the Convention were inspiring, but others were repeating the same vague rhetoric and tactics I’ve heard for many decades.
As I was doodling, a young speaker mentioned that Wall Street would be occupied starting September 17 (Constitution Day), and I sat bolt upright. It took only about two seconds to understand the rationale of Occupy Wall Street, so most Americans would be able to grasp its message without complex explanations. Americans have historically put on great marches and uprisings, but have rarely stayed in one place to make their demands. OWS seemed to draw from the examples of past occupations in Manila, Beijing, Belgrade, Kiev and Cairo.
Above all, spreading occupations around the country and world would mobilize our home communities, rather than expecting us to spend time and money to travel to (and be repressed in) a central place. We could educate our own local towns and cities, and they could show support by joining and bringing food and supplies. So far, I have been just as impressed by the Occupy movement back in my current home of Olympia, Washington, as I have been of the mass protests back home in Wisconsin.
The 10-Year Delay
OWS is the natural follow-up to the Seattle WTO protests, but this follow-up has been delayed for a decade. If we remember back to the WTO protests in 1999, and the clashes at global free-trade summits in 2000-01, we can recall that the anti-corporate movement was reaching a critical point. Summit-hopping had reached its limits, because only younger people could run from police, and the police were learning how to brutalize enough protesters to prevent a repeat of the Seattle victory. The movement was starting to talk about spreading the movement by bringing it to their hometowns.
Then 9/11 happened, followed by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the war on civil liberties. Most activist and community organizers drew back from directly fighting corporations in order to fight the State that wages war for the corporations. Now we are back to taking on the banks and oil companies that are at the root of the crisis. What we are now seeing is an anti-corporate movement on almost exactly a 10-year delay.
The rebellions of 2011 are not merely a response to the recession of 2008, because they focus on a lack of true democracy, which will still be our main problem after the economy recovers. (Climate change and prisons, for example, will still be there even if the recession ends and the Tea Party is defeated.) The current uprisings should have happened—and may have happened in some form—in 2002 or 2003, if it wasn’t for 9/11 and Iraq.
Waiting out the movement
Now the political leadership wants to wait out OWS, anticipating that it may split or discredit itself, be whittled away by police raids, or that the oncoming winter will drive the protesters away. Much more likely is that police raids (like the brutal attack in Oakland) will draw in more public support for OWS, and that cold temperatures will convince protesters to find warmer buildings to sleep in, such as banks and Capitol rotundas.
Here in Olympia, the legislative special session to cut the state budget begins on November 28. With enough people inside the Capitol, and enough supporters outside singing and resisting, the legislators may have to find another place to meet. (Perhaps they would have to apply for a permit to meet, and Occupy Olympia could set conditions for issuing a permit. If the people are exercising sovereignty, we can do it in creative ways that turn the authority around.) Like in Madison, colleges and high schools could have their own feeder marches (walking or biking) to the central protest site.
The Occupy camps have an unprecedented opportunity to get out into their community, and connect with existing grievances and issues in the neighborhoods and workplaces (such as the rallies against police brutality last weekend). In our area, we have seen major strikes by Tacoma teachers and Longview longshore workers. We can also connect with the concerns of people outside the labor movement, including Iraq/Afghanistan veterans who have been abandoned by the military, Indigenous peoples who are trying to “unoccupy” their nations, and single nonpolitical moms just trying to feed their kids and keep them safe.
The Occupy camps are also an ideal venue for continuous teach-ins, for the participants to share knowledge and skills, and draw lessons from social movement in other times and places. It sucks that the only way to get an education in this country is to pay huge amounts of money. In the Occupy movement, different generations can share ideas on effective tactics and strategies, rather than just repeating stale and predictable slogans from the past. Younger folks can educate older folks about how strategies from the 1960s or 1980s may not be as effective in the age of Facebook, Twitter and hip hop. Older folks can tell younger folks about past strategies that have been effective or ineffective, and the State’s predictable pitfalls to avoid.
The first pitfall is the electoral morasse. With an election year coming up, there will be intense pressure from Democrats to put down the protest signs and pick up the ballot box. Historically, this has been the worst possible choice to maintain momentum–holding the protest signs high is the best way to influence elections. Only pressure from the streets has secured real reforms, and both Republicans and Democrats have to be pressured to move on anything. The Environmental Protection Agency was established under the Nixon Administration, not because Nixon loved nature, but because of a powerful and growing Earth Day movement. In Wisconsin this year, the Democratic establishment channeled the massive protests into the Recall campaign, which so far has failed to wrestle state government from the Republicans. Whenever anyone asks me about Wisconsin now, they ask “how is the Recall going,” rather than “how is the movement going?,” even though political campaigns are just part of the story.
Elections are one of many available tactics–only one tool in the toolbox–not a strategy. Very few OWS supporters are going to actively work for Obama in 2012, but some may become volunteers for Senate or House races, and some of those local races may actually make a difference. But we cannot put all our eggs in one basket, and have to use the full range of tactics, including direct action, strikes, and cultural work. Together, we can think up newer, creative tactics and strategies that are not predictable, and therefore not as easy for the State to co-opt or repress.
The second pitfall is reliance on the Internet. The 2011 rebellions have drawn in youth around the world through the use of Facebook, Twitter, etc. But social network technologies tend to reach a certain ceiling, leaving out many older and working-class people that either do not have a computer or are not technically savvy. The new social media also tend to ignore the listservs of organizations, campuses, etc. that only a few years ago were the main mobilizing forums on the Internet.
It is easy to look at all the hits on your Facebook group page, and think you have a vibrant and thriving movement, but it generally will not move beyond a limited demographic circle. A Facebook group page (or listserv) is not a substitute for face-to-face community organizing. Posting on a blog is not a substitute for postering in laundromats, bowling alleys and barbershops, or posting PSAs on local radio stations.
The third pitfall is the narrowing of the movement’s culture and language, not through a conscious policy, but inadvertently. When they encounter “insider” language, people who are not in the “in-group” end up feel excluded from the movement, and will probably never tell you why they left. Sometimes the in-group is defined by class, race or age (or a combination), and sometimes by a more subtle use of “insider” terms that are not shared by people who are still part of the mainstream culture. To be successful, this movement needs to include people who watch TV and shop at big-box stores.
For example, at OWS general assemblies, “twinkling” (shaking all fingers in the air) is a sign of approval. Although “twinkling” was originally intended to be inclusive (for the deaf and hard-of-hearing) it can end up excluding people who are not culturally clued into this movement “language.” To put it another way, 99% of Americans clap when they approve of something, and they should not be meant to feel they are breaking the rules. If the OWS movement is to be truly intergenerational, and to bridge class and racial barriers, we need to be conscious of the tone we set. Occupy Olympia has set an inclusive tone, and welcomes people from all walks of life to its Heritage Park site, including an Elders’ Circle tent.
Activism and organizing
Activism and organizing are not the same thing. Activism is the action taken by the people who are already convinced, but activists will become isolated if they fail to enlarge the movement through organizing. Organizing is the art of convincing the unconvinced, but organizers will have little effect if they do not offer effective ways to make an impact through activism. A balance of organizing and activism can help avoid both social isolation and the political/legal "hoops" we are always made to jump through.
Activism is a way to set our own agenda, instead of simply responding to crises. Organizing is about attracting new people into the movement to keep it alive and kicking.
For the first time in my life, there is a movement in the United States that has a real potential to break through old, naïve illusions, and strike that balance between depth and breadth. It may be for the capitalist bloc what the Prague Spring and Polish Solidarity eventually became for the Soviet Bloc. The Occupy movement may be giving us one of our first glimpses of a future world.
Dr. Zoltan Grossman is a professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and a longtime antiwar and social justice organizer. His website is at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and he can be reached at [email protected] He is a civilian Member of the Board of G.I. Voice, an antiwar veterans group that runs the Coffee Strong resource center for soldiers outside Fort Lewis: http://www.coffeestrong.org