A Taste of People Power
The following is Michael Albert interviewing Michael Strom of OWS
Albert: How would you characterize the political commitments of the people most often at OWS?
Like everything at Occupy Wall Street, the political commitments of the occupiers resist any kind of neat or simple description. You have folks who've been there 24/7 for days with no commitments beyond holding the space and building community. And then you have folks who've dropped everything and are committed to doing whatever work is needed "until something changes." Some know exactly what their "something" is, and others are unsure but know this is where they need to be. And then others came on day one with visions of revolution and have been working constantly to bring those visions to life. All kinds of political perspectives--from lifelong, militant revolutionaries to jobless, 20-something liberals to people who've never labeled themselves politically--are represented at Zuccotti.
Within this political diversity, a significant majority seems to recognize that the system itself is the problem. Those who came to the occupation with visions of a new society and/or strategies for getting there have played a major role in shaping the conversations and messaging at OWS. Breaking from business as usual and building radically different, liberating ways of being together have become fundamental values of the movement. This consciousness injects a strong commitment to prefigurative politics into decision-making process and structures, strategic planning, and interpersonal relationships. Of course, there are constant struggles and slip-ups, but that's to be expected as we work to bring our visions of a new society to life in the present moment.
Ultimately, I think this idea--building our visions right now, in this moment--best characterizes the political commitments of the occupiers. An incredible amount of work has gone into creating a political moment where people are recognizing their agency, their ability to make decisions about their own lives and act to make these decisions real. And the occupation provides resources, community, and space to experiment with this agency.
Sure, some people are bound to leave as soon as politicians and banks start making concessions. But others have gotten their first real taste of people power, have seen for the first time the real possibility of changing this system. There are many different visions brought to table, but it is in constantly acting to realize these visions that we refine them, educate each other, and further recognize our agency. This has been messy and has left behind the standard organizing practice of setting demands. But it has created a platform from which huge numbers of people can act on the world in ways that reject complacency and prefigure the society we envision. I'd say that maintaining the space and political consciousness to keep this going is the occupiers' most significant political commitment.
Albert: Can you describe a typical day and evening for folks who are participating? The kinds of things people are doing...
There are as many different "typical days" as there are occupiers. The autonomy and fluidity of OWS are fascinating. People are constantly forming new affinity groups, planning actions, outreaching to different organization and communities, and doing the vital work of maintaining the encampment.
I haven't slept at the camp since the beginning of the occupation, but I go back every day and am consistently amazed by how much things seem to grow and change overnight. Folks have put up tents and developed set areas for certain working groups and activities (medical, comfort, food, library, media, etc.). There are bike generators, a natural water filtration system, solar panels, and a constantly growing number of exciting and innovative additions.
I say all this to highlight how much work goes into maintaining and developing the camp. There are huge numbers of folks committed to doing the too frequently unrecognized dirty work that makes this thing go. These people are responsible for keeping the space clean, scheduling and facilitating the daily General Assemblies, coordinating regular working group and caucus meetings, making sure people are fed, mediating conflicts, and the list goes on and on. Because of this work, the space continues to be a platform from which new actions and projects are constantly launched.
The park is almost constantly filled with people. Some people are part of working groups that meet regularly. Others come to space, see an unfulfilled need, and create their own group to start working on it. And then some just come by to socialize and see the space for the first time.
As the park has gotten more crowded and noisier, people have moved meetings to offices, cafes, and other outdoor spaces in the neighborhood. This presents an interesting set of growing pains. The park no longer has the same welcoming feel it did at the beginning. Tents and cramped space have made things feel more sectioned-off, and there isn't much space for either impromptu political discussions or scheduled working group meetings. But using this as a reason to avoid the space only creates unproductive and problematic divisions. So many occupiers are currently finding themselves in a situation where we have to figure out exactly how we relate to the space and the work that goes on there. This becomes even more complicated as occupations in other neighborhoods draw people to new locations and actions.
Overshadowing all of this is the coming winter. Dealing with the cold and snow lurks in the back of almost every conversation about the future of Zuccotti.
While we wait to see exactly how all of this is resolved, I think that it's essential for folks to continue to visit the camp, meet new people, see how things are functioning, and thank those who are maintaining the space.
Albert: How have the daily marches been decided, and how are they going?
Live I've said, there's a really empowering level of autonomy at OWS. Ideas for actions come from all over the place. In the very beginning, someone had the idea of marching on the opening and closing bells at the Stock Exchange. They suggested it, and it took off. Folks started marching every day. Once we'd held the space for a while, it started occurring to a number of people that we needed to escalate and actually disrupt business as usual. Lots of us had connections to community organizations and unions, so we reached out to see what these organizations needed from us. We had the numbers to help them and were looking for actions that would help give shape and relevance to the movement. Planning took off from there. When we heard of a reinlevant action, we let the camp know and people came out in numbers. Eventually we had a pretty substantial list of actions to support.
The first major turning point was the execution of Troy Davis. People were angry. His murder and made the sickness of this system so frighteningly obvious. A march had been planned, and OWS folks participated in huge numbers. We left the barricades and took the streets. There were brutal mass arrests. And something changed. In what seems to be a theme of OWS, people saw how powerful they could be and wanted more.
At the same time, OWS started getting major mainstream media attention, and eyes turned toward us. People poured in, and community organizations and unions got on board in full force. They sent people, resources, and solidarity statements. And they also started escalating their own campaigns. It was like we blinked and suddenly there were multiple demonstrations and marches to go to every day. Direct action affinity groups formed and started planning more creative and higher-stakes actions. Community organizations and unions approached OWS looking to collaborate. And OWS became an engine of sorts for continued, diverse actions. Now, folks are once again contemplating the need for constant escalation, looking to push harder and take more. I'm excited to see how it grows.
Albert: Are there prospects that OWS will diversify its "targets"? Might we see occupations of empty buildings to provide space and housing also, for the homeless? Might we see occupations moving to campuses, focusing on transforming the situation of students? Could there emerge a focus, as well, on mainstream media - perhaps seeking innovations there?
Definitely. I've found myself in constant conversation about this. People are ready to take our actions from the symbolic to the real, and some have specific plans in the works. What really incredible, though, is the dual power language used to describe these occupations. People are talking about taking space not just as symbolic acts of protest, but as attempts to build real alternative institutions, infrastructures, and ways of being together. It's beautiful. I've heard so many people say that they're done begging for concessions from the system, that it's time to challenge power relations in truly fundamental ways.
All kinds of people are talking about occupying bank-owned, vacant properties. The Indignados of Spain have model where a some floors of an occupied building are made into housing and the others become alternative institutions and political space. People are taking a lot of inspiration from this. It's really amazing how many separate groups are having conversations about replicating this structure.
I can't speak very much to what's going on in the student movement, but I'm hugely inspired by folks fighting for student debt forgiveness. And I've heard a lot of talk about campus-related actions and occupations. Having graduated out of the student movement a few months ago, I'm really excited to see where things go.
As we continue to escalate and transform our strategies and tactics, I'm consistently amazed by how possible dual power feels. Massive numbers of people are actively talking about taking space and building alternatives, and I don't think I could have imagined that back in August.
Albert: What has been your own personal experience of OWS, your involvement, and your assessment?
To be honest, I was initially convinced that Occupy Wall Street wouldn't last more than a few days. I didn't even come on September 17th. I'd participated in Bloombergville, a smaller encampment protest against the NYC budget cuts, and attended several very negative, disappointing General Assemblies leading up to September 17th. On day 2, I decided it couldn't hurt to stop by. So I went and felt something unexpectedly inspiring. The park was big and well-organized, the conversations were exciting and fun, and I was severely underemployed. So I stayed. I slept there for a few nights and watched things grow all around me.
A few days in, I got the feeling that OWS wasn't going anywhere, and I realized it was time for me to start actually organizing. But part of what's been so amazing about OWS is the way it organizes itself. For some reason, this thing has caught on like wildfire. And I'm honestly not entirely sure why. It's shifted many of my paradigms as an organizer. I'm used to campaign-based models that require careful attention to every detail, precise, simple messaging, and a concrete set of demands. OWS has none of those things. It's impossible to know everything that's happening in the park, let alone in the movement overall. Many organizers like me have had to learn to release control in ways that have fundamentally deepened our relationships to participatory decision-making. There are so many moments where the only option is to give in to the beautifully chaotic democracy of the movement.
It can certainly be stressful, but it's worth it. For too long there's been no organized Left in the U.S. There have been many separate groups of Leftists working hard to make change. But now we're coming together and forming an actual movement. And organizing a truly powerful movement is very different from organizing campaigns. But, as a said, the challenge is welcome, and the learning experiences are invaluable.
Like many people involved with OWS, I have my critiques. I often feel excluded or uncomfortable (particularly moving through the encampment) as a queer person. I've heard many disabled people, trans* people, homeless people, people of color, working class people, and women voice similar critiques. This movement needs to become holistic in both messaging and praxis in order to bring about the change it seeks. I also see a problematic fetishization of process at times, as well as occasional conflation of structurelessness and democracy. I think that the movement runs the very serious risk of developing its own class of coordinators and decision-makers. And there's also the ever-present fear of co-option. I could go into more specific detail about each of these, but I think that people's energy is best spent actually working through these issues at encampments and occupations. But perhaps I've just been having too many exhausting online debates.
Even as I'm critical, I'm excited more and more every day about OWS. I count myself among the people who've felt an entirely new sense of power and possibility through this movement.
Albert: What are you expectations, and your hopes, for the coming couple of months?
It's really beautiful to think about a question like this. "Well, how big should we dream?" runs through my head in response. Like I've said, the movement has consistently blown me away and surpassed my expectations. It's making me dream about the future in entirely different ways.
I want to see massive escalation. I want to see people take vacant buildings and properties and build the world they deserve (in the form of alternative institutions). I want to see workers take over their workplaces and form workers' councils. I want to see general strikes and direct actions that disrupt the votes and transactions and back-door deals that drive this oppressive system. I imagine local businesses, cooperatives, workers' councils, alternative institutions built in occupied space, and all kinds of combinations of those things coming together to form alternative participatory economies that function in opposition to the markets and hierarchies of the current system. And I want to see this led by the most marginalized members of our communities.
Do I think all of this will happen in the next couple of months? Maybe not. But the conversations are already there. And what's crazy is that I'm not quite sure how to separate my expectations from my hopes and dreams. Not in this movement.