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Occupy Everyone: Making Revolutionaries, Not a Revolution


If the dynamic of a diverse safe space in which people dismantle oppressions through conflict resolution is at the root of Occupy's transformative potential, then perhaps there's not a distinct formula that can be reproduced, but simply spread – a culture – that people can choose to adopt.

Occupy Sandy has been lauded as more American than FEMA. Strike Debt, an Occupy offshoot, is pioneering the "Rolling Jubilee" of debt forgiveness to the adoration of publications like Business Insider. While popular in some circles, these initiatives have also led to bitter divisions that ultimately surround the narrative of the Occupy movement.

Some say Occupy died long ago and that these imitations are attempting to export an unperfected product. Some argue further that these Occupy offshoots are destructive, misusing terms like "mutual aid" (masking the actual lack of community) and providing recovery efforts of the status quo (simply replacing government support with charity), distancing Occupy further from its true nature of rupture. Others counter that Occupy has transformed, or perhaps self-immolated, disposing of its clunky general body to make use of its network, carrying out revolutionary work in more agile campaigns. They argue that these campaigns are in the spirit of the movement by promoting neighborliness, self-reliance and community infrastructure over mass institutions.

This is not just a question of credit or labeling; the debate calls for an etymological investigation of the definition of Occupy Wall Street in pursuit of its revolutionary potential. After well over a year, can we make useful statements about what Occupy really was – or is?

I think we can. Occupy is a movement that has brought about revolutionary personal growth for thousands through a dialectical process. It crammed the contradictions of our modern hierarchical society – a diverse group of people – into small parks, creating a horizontal "safe space," in which under-represented folks could share their perspective of these hierarchies. It enacted systems of communal facilitation to use the emergent conflict as fuel for the decolonization of each individual's internalized oppressions. Through this process, it produced people who are committed to inter-relating horizontally (and therefore anti-oppressively) – a cultural idea so counter to the logic of capital as to be revolutionary.

Displacing the State Through Autonomous Conflict Resolution

No doubt, Occupy did more than create horizontal anti-oppressive spaces, and many would claim that reclaiming public space, reviving participatory democracy and redirecting the public narrative around inequality are more central aspects of the movement. However, as Occupy was forced to change contexts, Occupy's anti-oppression and conflict resolution processes seemed to be the most essential characteristics of the movement in terms of what made it transformative for so many people. If activists occupied public space without enacting radically horizontal anti-oppressive relations in the space, it could not be Occupy. But if a movement enacts anti-oppressive spaces in other places besides public parks, it can still be "Occupy," in that it contains the same kernel of revolutionary potential.

Occupy bears many fundamental similarities to the underappreciated alter-globalization movement in the 80s and 90s, and anarchist communities long before that; and it exemplified the anarchist principle of "unity in diversity" perhaps even stronger than its antecedents. Jason Ahmadi, a facilitator trained in non-violent communication and a well-known direct action trainer from Occupy Wall Street, explained to me that, "The fabulous thing about the Occupy movement is that its diversity is both massive and concentrated." According to Ahmadi, diversity often leads to conflict, and conflict can lead to revolutionary growth. "Conflict is natural and beautiful," he said. "What's important is conflict resolution."

Occupy's conflict resolution processes varied from place to place, but most encampments employed some version of consensus decision-making, a painstaking process that ensures that all participants in a general assembly get everything off their chest before anything is settled. This framework was often buttressed by two processes that prioritize traditionally under-represented voices in meetings. "Step up, step back," is an informal agreement that all participants check how their privilege affects their use of the space such that it may be dominating or precluding others from participating, and step back so that everyone can participate. "Progressive stack," is the formal ordering of speakers such that traditionally under-represented peoples, and folks who have spoken less at that particular meeting, speak first.

These are components of a broad intentionality to create "safe spaces," in which each Occupier monitors the ways in which her or his life experiences shape her or his language, bodily gestures and general presentation, such that she or he may be oppressing others – along hierarchies of race, class, gender, political affiliation, ableism, citizenship, and other axes of identity. The aim is to enact a horizontal power structure, in which individuals socialized for dominance relinquish that role and listen, while those who are typically marginalized are able to share their often-unheard concerns.

In modern America, individuals experiencing conflict can numb it with drugs, flee or rely on an external "objective" arbiter rather than building a long-term capacity for dealing with direct confrontations to their perspective.

Although the mainstream narrative wrote off Occupy's conflicts as dysfunction, by refusing the state's persistent attempts to clean up the messy collisions (remember the calls for "sanitation" and "safety"), Occupiers were performing a profound form of direct action. Occupiers were displacing the state by embodying its functions of arbitration and enforcement through community-facilitated conflict resolution.

The Revolutionary Potential of Concentrated Difference

Humans under Western capitalism are categorized, separated and ranked along various axes of identities, like class, race and gender. This affects the way in which people relate to institutions of the state,

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