Sustainability, Organization and Anti-Capitalism: Talkin’ Occupy around the US

I have just finished a six-week book tour, traveling throughout the United States discussing the new global movements and in particular the effect and affect of Occupy Wall Street on the political and organizing culture in the country. I am happy to share that while exhausting, as we were traveling with a one year old, it was also incredibly inspiring. Every location, from North Carolina to Vermont; Massachusetts to Chicago and many points along the way, had exciting stories to share about the local organizing taking place, and how the Occupy movement, either directly or indirectly, informed local forms of organization as well as tactics being used.

My co-author and I began the tour in Charlotte, North Carolina, and during our first discussion in a local living room, we found ourselves with people from many towns and cities in the region, all of whom had been involved in Occupy assemblies in their regions and who were now involved in resisting the Right as well as making more space for alternative forms of politics. For example, a number of young women had taken over their local NOW (National Organization for Women) chapter, and while still using it to defend women’s rights, they also have been organizing for gay marriage and defending immigrant children from deportation. They do this using the assembly form of organization, and direct action when necessary. As one participant described, “Two nights ago, we held a meeting of the local chapter of NOW — hardly an organization that’s been associated (in at least 40 years) with diverse, energetic, creative, radical politics. But because, like other Democratic Party-associated groups, it had basically ceased to exist this meeting was like no NOW meeting I could have imagined. It brought together young Latina immigrant-rights activists; gay-rights activists; feminists of a new, maybe 3rd or 4th wave of feminism; and people whose principal issues are related to race and racism. And it was all perfectly natural (non-competitive; everyone genuinely being not only interested in, but becoming involved in other issues) – Maybe not everyone was aware of it, but it seemed clear to me that this sort of gathering would not have occurred without Occupy and similar new trends of the last 5-6 years.”[1]

In Chapel Hill we met at the university as well as had an assembly discussion in the same location where Occupy had assemblies, and, well, occupied, in front of the local post office. One of the most interesting things to emerge from the conversation there was how the different organizing that has been taking place around Moral Mondays is now connected and coordinated due to the links that were forged during Occupy. People know one another and network together rather than each organizing in their separate spheres or trying to each separately get more attention or “credit” for the organizing. As an Occupy Winston Salem participant stated, “Occupy forged new relationships between new waves of people in various stages of radicalization.  Especially for mid-sized and smaller cities/towns – Occupy – whether through social media or social circles is still THE hub for broadcasting political actions and/or organizing.”[2] In Greensboro and Winston Salem the discussion moved into the direction of how the forms of organizing and decision making were different now, and in each place grounded in the attempts at creating horizontal spaces. Tony from Occupy Winston Salem again reflected, “Regardless of one’s level of endorsement of less hierarchical political movements, the absence of a strict top-down hierarchy/bureaucracy is what allowed for an unleashing of the imagination of everyday people and activists that was sorely lacking in most political organizations, unions, NGOs. While many of these organizations such as unions may not openly admit it- they were highly influenced by many of the prominent tactics in Occupy and use them effectively today.”

People in almost every town and city where there had been an Occupy group spoke of the challenges they found in creating a truly participatory democracy using a forms of consensus that required all but one or two people to come to an agreement before moving forward. Most people were not clear why they had come to use that form of decision making and found it not only unwieldy, as it took so long, but that it alienated people who felt if they could not stay for the entire assembly. In the end, most people described having learned a lot about process and in their various organizing sometimes use modified forms of consensus or experiment with other forms altogether. In each place the focus remained on each person having the space and time to speak and each to hear one another as well as making sure no one had power over another. This seems like a huge step forward in the construction of alternative forms of participatory and direct democracy – that the group itself decides what forms make the most sense for them in their local contexts, rather than taking from an already existing group.

From the South we traveled North, meeting with organizers, students and people who were curious about how to engage in political organizing. Our conversations were both places to reflect on the movements as well as share in current organizing and help people meet one another so as to connect for future projects. One of the reoccurring themes in the North, particularly in Burlington Vermont and Toronto Ontario in Canada was the defense of the land and organizing against the Tar Sands Pipeline. There are many dozens of groups in towns, cities and villages throughout the US using forms of direct action to block the Pipeline, as well as places, such as Toronto, where thousands have pledged to use whatever means necessary to block the current Pipelines future usage. One challenge that emerged here was that in each place, very few, if any, of the local organizers had direct contact or relationships with organizers in other towns. This was an issue to come up repeatedly, as will be discussed.

In Chicago one of the main points of concrete organizing as related to the form and tactics of Occupy was the defense of housing. A few people who were involved in the housing defense movement shared how they are not only preventing families from being evicted, using assemblies and social gatherings such as BBQs as a way to have discussions, and then direct action to protect the house, but also how they are moving homeless families into empty homes. Out of this discussion reflections on the centrality of race to the issue of housing and who is under attack right now was key.

In almost every space we met people, from assemblies in parks, living rooms, kitchens, and universities the conversations began in a similar way. First, someone would ask what Occupy accomplished, asking the question generally in terms of “success” as understood and measured by the mainstream media or social sciences. In other words, what concretely was “won”. The conversation would then go into what concretely Occupy and related groups had been up to for the past years, from immigrant defense to fast food and retail organizing to climate defense. There would be a sort of quiet and the group would seem to consense that yes, lots was “accomplished”. Then, we would often interject how important the question of dignity is, and that the “changed conversation” is not only about words but how people feel. People around the US often no longer feel it is their fault that they are loosing their homes or jobs – and instead feel a new sense of power – feeling they are the 99%. This is a huge “accomplishment” that once presented people also would readily agree with. From there, and this is what I have found particularly exciting, conversations would move in the direction of what next. Not just how to coordinate locally, but people wanted to talk about organization and structure. How to scale the many movements over – horizontally (as opposed to scaling up). As people and groups realized how much is being done, they wanted to connect to each other more and create more coordinated power from below. And not only was the question of organization and structure central to most all of these conversations, but making the argument that we must be against capitalism was a sort of default logic. While in the past, having organized with Occupy, I felt that there was an implicit anti-capitalism in places and groups, for the most part it was not explicit. Now, people continuing to organize are arguing that the movement must be anti-capitalist and we must coordinate and create structures so as to build the movement even stronger, better, and very fast. This sense of urgency is exciting and bodes well for our collective next steps.


[1]John Cox, active in progressive/left/labor causes in NC for much of the last 30 years.

[2] Tony Ndege, Occupy Winston Salem participant and organizer.

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