Occupy Wall Street: The Will to Face the Arithmetic
From September 17 until November 15, when it was destroyed in a 2AM blitzkrieg by the NYPD, Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park was three things:
1.) It was a series of unpermitted demonstrations against the financial industry.
2.) It was an ongoing street carnival that occasionally broke out into a march on the New York Stock Exchange, One Police Plaza, Foley Square, and other political and economic targets.
3.) It was a squatters camp, a block long "Obamaville" in the heart of lower Manhattan.
For the sake of my argument, let me first divide the history of Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park into two halves.
From September 17 to October 14, Occupy Wall Street racked up an unlikely and almost unbroken string of victories against Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Police Department, and the corporate media. Every time a police officer pepper sprayed or beat up a protester on camera, it made the NYPD look more like gang of stormtroopers. Every time a media talking head snarled about how Occupy Wall Street had no leaders or demands, it only made the corporate media look more clueless and out of touch. By the morning of October 14, when several thousand people jammed Zucotti Park to protest a planned eviction, Occupy Wall Street was so popular, especially in New York City itself, that the Bloomberg administration wisely decided to back down and bide its time.
From October 14 to November 15, the tide turned dramatically. Confident in their victory over the Bloomberg administration on October 14, Occupy Wall Street's core organizers were lulled into believing that they could go into winter quarters in Zucotti Park unmolested, forgetting that George Washington chose the remote Valley Forge and Morristown, not Princeton or New Brunswick to dig in for the winter and regroup. They brought military grade tents and generators. They neglected to hold the twice daily marches on Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street become less inviting and inclusive as tents replaced open space, campers broke down into cliques, and potential supporters and passers by "occupied" an ever shrinking space in between the NYPD and the gangs of aggressive panhandlers who took over the western side of Zucotti Park.
Above all, Occupy Wall Street's organizers simply lost touch with the majority of people in Zucotti Park. The general assemblies bogged down in process. Conspiracy theories flourished about how the money was being spent. Accusations of sexual harassment went unaddressed by Occupy Wall Street and were, as a consequence, gleefully exploited by the corporate media.
During this time, the Bloomberg administration, and quite possibly the Department of Homeland Security and the Obama Administration were planning the counterattack that would avenge their humiliation on October 14. Their strategy had three components. First, they would let the corporate media do its magic. All the inevitable difficulties that came with any large group of people crammed into a small space would be dwelt on and amplified in vast detail. Every crime that went on near Zucotti Park, every rude word spoken on the corner of Broadway and Liberty, would be the fault of Occupy Wall Street. Second, they would allow their allies to begin the strategy of co-opting the energies that Occupy Wall Street had released. The corporate liberals in the Democratic Party and SIEU looked forward to the impending eviction, knowing that supporters of Occupy Wall Street would have no choice other than to channel their energies into recall campaigns and voter registration drives. Finally, they would move in with a nationally coordinated military strike that would roll up Occupy Wall Street camps all over the country in one swift blow.
By November 15, Occupy Wall Street was only a shadow of what it had been a month before. It could offer only token resistance to the tens of thousands of riot police who moved in against Occupy Wall Street encampments all over the United States. They pepper sprayed and beat protesters. They herded the compliant mainstream media into pens, far away from the action. They almost certainly left feeling satisfied at how easily they were able to destroy the movement that, only a month before, had seemed unstoppable.
Even though the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zucotti Park was galvanized by the eviction into a highly aggressive and largely successful series of direct actions in lower Manhattan the morning of November 17, its liberal supporters showed no such determination. A gigantic march of about 5000 people organized by New York City university students that began in Union Square, feigned an attempt to march down Fifth Avenue, but was halted and penned in by only about 20 police officers on Fourteenth Street. Clearly the student leadership had no intention of challenging the NYPD, even with overwhelming numbers on their side. An even larger march organized by CWA and some of the major unions originating in Foley Square made no effort to march a few blocks downtown and retake Zucotti Park. Instead, the union bureaucrats led over 30,000 people on a slow, penned in and largely ritualistic walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to Cadman Plaza, a march that was designed not to support, but to demobilize Occupy Wall Street.
As of this writing, November 27, there's a very strong current of opinion, if not a consensus among both Occupy Wall Street and its liberal supporters that there's no need to retake Zucotti Park or Oscar Grant Plaza in the spring of 2012. As one sign read near Zucotti Park the morning after the brutal military action on November 15 read "you can't evict an idea."
It's my belief that this is a mistake, that you most certainly can evict an idea. If Occupy Wall Street does not regroup and retake the public space that it liberated during the fall of 2011, it will no longer by Occupy Wall Street. It may, it almost certainly will go on in name, but it will emerge as simply another left wing mailing list, another Move On, another New SDS, another Obama for America or Dean for America.
This may, at first glance, seem counterintuitive. After all, Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park was successful before it set up tents, and started to lose momentum after the tents went up. It was the homeless and socially marginalized who flocked to Zucotti Park after October 14 who were used by the corporate media to demonize Occupy Wall Street and set the stage for the crackdown. The city governments of Oakland, Seattle, Portland and New York evicted Occupy Wall Street not only political grounds, but on trumped up health concerns. The hordes of panhandlers on the western edge of Zucotti Park had become demoralizing. There were attacks on women. There was theft. There were problems with sanitation. Wouldn't it be better if Occupy Wall Street continued as a movement without the difficulties that come with maintaining large squatter camps under the constant harassment by the highly militarized police departments of city governments of major cities like Portland and New York?
Let me phrase my answer as a question.
If the city governments of New York, Portland and Oakland, and, above all, the financial and real estate interests who own the city governments of New York, Portland and Oakland have demonstrated by their willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a military campaign against their own citizens just how much of a threat they considered Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland and Occupy Portland to be, are these physical occupations not worth reestablishing in the spring of 2012?
Let that sink in. The municipal governments of progressive cities like New York, Portland, Seattle and Oakland waged a carefully planned military strike against American citizens. For almost a month, the NYPD drilled underneath the FDR Expressway to evict Occupy Wall Street, rehearsed the massive blitzkrieg on the morning of November 15, almost as if they were a team of Navy Seals drilling to assassinate Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Similar military campaigns went on in Oakland, Portland and Seattle.
We can dismiss their stated reason, health concerns, right off the bat. The homeless have been sleeping in Penn Station and "occupying" the bathrooms of the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit for years. Rousting homeless men from bathroom stalls immediately before rush hour is done by minimum wage janitors in orange vests, not by riot police with clubs and pepper spray.
Whether most Americans realize it or not, their ruling class, the "1%" in the parlance of Occupy Wall Street, is waging a class war against them. Last fall, in 2011, Occupy Wall Street accidentally chose the right battlefield, public space in various large American cities. Occupy Wall Street flanked the usual gatekeepers, the Democratic Party, the big unions, and the traditional "left" organizations and allowed the people, the "99%" in the language of Occupy Wall Street, to put their biggest advantage into play, their numbers, their simple, overwhelming physical presence. This is a war that the "1%" can only win by a swift decisive bluff, an immediate show of overwhelming force designed to terrify the "99%" into giving up the advantageous positions in Zucotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza that they stumbled on last September. Call that bluff, and they lose.
What Occupy Wall Street needs is "the will to face the arithmetic."
The term comes from the American Civil War.
In the winter of 1862, after the Union Army was defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg, President Lincoln noticed a curious fact. Even though the Union Army had suffered almost twice the number of casualties that the Confederate Army had suffered, the Confederacy had lost a much greater proportion of its resources. Every victory for Robert E. Lee was a Pyrrhic victory for the very simple reason that, while the South may have had better generals, the North simply had the numbers. The North had an endless supply of Irish and German immigrants and a vast industrial base the South couldn't match. The South was an agrarian society that might win by a swift and decisive blow, but couldn't win a long war of attrition. Another 10 victories like Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, as glorious as they were, and Lee would be annihilated. Find a general who could, in Lincoln's words, face the arithmetic, and the war was won.
In the fall of 1864, many people in the North were sick of the war that they were on the verge of winning. They wanted nothing more than for the Union Army to go home and "occupy" New Jersey, Michigan, Vermont, and Ohio. Fortunately for the course of American history, Lincoln got lucky. Sherman took Atlanta right before the election, and Lincoln found the general who could "face the arithmetic" in Ulysses Grant, a man who had been, in 1860, at age 40, living in his father's basement and working in the family store. Lee beat Grant in every battle they fought in 1864, and yet, by the spring of 1865, Robert E. Lee's army was a shadow of its former self, a beaten mob of starving wraiths who wanted nothing more than to get back home and work on the farm. Grant's army, by contrast, was still the greatest military machine the world had ever seen. It could have rolled over any army in the world and barely noticed anything but a little thump under its wheels.
Occupy Wall Street has numbers in its favor that make the advantages Grant, Sherman and Lincoln had over Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis look small by comparison.
The official unemployment rate in the United States is 9%. The population is about 300 million. 9% of 300 million is about 27 million people. These are only the people who are officially unemployed, eligible for unemployment benefits and actively looking for work. It doesn't take into account the underemployed, the marginally employed, and people who have become so discouraged they've stopped looking for a job. That makes Occupy Wall Street's recruiting pool closer to 40 or 50 million. That doesn't include people who are employed but soon to be unemployed It doesn't include the fact that the American economy is likely to continue shrinking, even without a catastrophic implosion of the Eurozone.
"Get a job," the corporate media and their supporters shriek at Occupy Wall Street.
Yet there are no jobs. There won't be. "Get a job" means "disappear." It means "you unemployed should suffer in quiet desperation, not display yourselves loudly out in public. They're bluffing. They need you to go away on your own accord. They need to get you out of the streets before you realize your own power because, unless Obama or Mitt Romney can magically transform himself into Stalin, neither will be able to disappear 40 or 50 million people any more easily than he can find those 40 or 50 million people jobs. Both the Democratic and Republican party have only one answer to the destruction of the American economy, repression. Neither the Obama administration nor any potential Republican successor has any intention of pushing a real jobs program through Congress, renegotiating NAFTA, or instituting tariffs to protect American industry against Asian slave labor. They do have every intention of hiring more paramiltarized police.
Every victory for the state repression of the "1%" in the fall of 2012 was even more of a Pyrrhic Victory than the Battle of the Wilderness was for Robert E. Lee. Everywhere the police cracked down on Occupy Wall, Street they damaged themselves. Images of the war zone in Oakland that went out all over the world on October 25 destroyed forever the reputation of Oakland mayor Jean Quan. Similar images of Alameda County sheriffs jamming nightsticks into the bellies of University of California at Berkeley students horrified the world. Directly after the eviction of Occupy Wall Street, the formerly compliant, pro-administration and viciously anti-OWS New York Times and Daily News were shamed into issuing protests against police repression of the press. John Pike, the University of California police man who sprayed down University of California at Davis students with pepper spray and who later become a "meme" on the Internet is now as much of an iconic villain as Lynndie England and her fellow Abu Ghraib torturers were in 2004. He'll never work again as a police man and his colleagues know it.
In 1864, the Democratic candidate for President was a man named George McClellan. Democratic candidates for President have changed very little since then. McClellan, with the Union on the verge of a crushing victory over the South, wanted a negotiated solution to the war and a recognition of the Confederacy. Barack Obama, who, in 2008, had both houses of Congress and a vast army of volunteers, decided, in 2009, to negotiate with a Republican Party no less determined and unified than the Confederacy was in 1862. Instead of calling on the voters who put him into office in 2008, he demobilized his volunteer army, effectively surrendered Congress to the "Tea Party," and pleaded with the Republicans for a negotiated solution. The Republicans responded by asking for his birth certificate.
I'm no Lincoln, Grant or Sherman, but what I do know is this.
Until it was destroyed on November 15, Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park was three things, a series of unpermitted demonstrations against the financial industry, an ongoing street carnival and a squatters camp, a block long "Obamaville" in the heart of lower Manhattan. Every time it was successful, it was successful because it mobilized the greatest number of people, kept itself outside of limiting political categories like left and right, stayed away from constricting lists of "demands" and the traditional political process. Every time it lost it lost because it alienated potential supporters by allowing small groups of people to monopolize the agenda. Whether it was the panhandlers on the western edge of Zucotti Park, or the union bureaucrats in Foley Square, the result was the same, demoralization and defeat.
By discarding any of the three components that brought it to national attention, Occupy Wall Street risks limiting itself. If Occupy Wall Street becomes mainly a student movement, it loses the group that has been its greatest strength, recent college graduates in their mid 20s struggling in a bad economy. If Occupy Wall Street attaches itself to the Democratic Party or even the far left, funnels its energies into recall campaigns, voter registration drives, or even selling communist newspapers, it risks alienating another of its strengths, the libertarian right, the many, many people who occupied Zucotti Park in the Fall of 2011 who wanted, not to put Obama back into office and get Bernie Sanders a leadership position in the Senate, but to "end the fed." If Occupy Wall Street gives up the physical space of Zucotti Park and holds its general assemblies at the Brecht Forum or in some classroom at Columbia or the New School, it risks handing the process over to the usual suspects, the institutionalized left in New York, who will then, inevitably, funnel the energies of people who attend the general assemblies, if they can even find them, into permitted marches and fund raising.
On the other hand, if Occupy Wall Street plans to retake Zucotti Park, Oscar Grant Plaza and their counterparts in Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles in the spring of 2012, it can and inevitably will mobilize numbers of people the police departments in those cities won't be able to face. They won't even want to. Every police officer will be terrified of becoming the next John Pike. Five thousand arrests, 10,000 arrests, 50,000 arrests, at some point, the capacity of even the New York or Los Angeles police will simply be overwhelmed. No city government, even as part of an effort coordinated by Homeland Security will be able to "face the arithmetic." The "1%" have chosen a battlefield they can't hold, a military strategy that depends on the "99%" defeating themselves through fear, the desire to be respectable, or the simple unwillingness to reach out and grab what's rightfully theirs. Call their bluff.
Stanley Rogouski is a 1986 graduate of Rutgers University where he studied under Steve Eric Bronner. He became politically active in the late 1980s as a volunteer for the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador. For two months, during the occupation of Zucotti Park, he served as an embedded photojournalist, and a totally non-objective supporter of Occupy Wall Street.