The Foot Cavalry of the 99 Percent
In the Old Testament Book of Judges, the prophet Gideon, until then an obscure a younger son from the obscure tribe of Manasseh, is charged by God to liberate ancient Israel from a horde of Midianites and Amalekites, who have descended on ancient Israel to cause great suffering and poverty. After doing the spiritual dance ancient Israelite prophets so often did with God, sacrifices, pleas of not being worthy, signs, you know the drill, Gideon raises an army of 32,000 men, an impressive feat for a young man who, only months before, had been threshing grain in a wine press to hide it from the foreign occupiers. It’s such an impressive number, in fact, God decides it’s too impressive.
“You have too many men,” God says. “I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’”
This Gideon promptly does, reducing the size of his army from 32,000 to 10,000, but it is still too many. “Take them down to the water,” God continues, “and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘this one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” Gideon takes his 10,000 soldiers down to the water to drink. There God tells him to “separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” Only 300 of the 10,000 lap the water like dogs. The rest, who kneel to drink, are sent home. Thereafter, improbably, with this small, elite army of 300, Gideon routes a horde of over 100,000 Midianites.
Let’s start by clearing up some of the hyperbole. Gideon never had 32,000 troops, and the Midianites never fielded an army of 120,000. The economy of ancient Israel would not have supported those numbers. Nevertheless, the anonymous author of the Book of Judges is making an important point. Small, mobile, elite armies often beat much larger, more cumbersome armies. Numbers usually work for you, but sometimes they work against you.
History bears out the observation. Most of us are familiar with the story of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans holding off a host of hundreds of thousands of soldiers under King Xerxes. Cortez destroyed the Aztec Empire with only a few hundred Spaniards. At the Battle of Chancellorsville in the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee pulverized a massive Union army twice the size of his own led by the incompetent Joseph Hooker. Nathan Bedford Forrest continually exasperated Sherman and Grant with tiny bands of elite cavalry along the Mississippi during the Vicksburg Campaign. Osama Bin Laden sent the American empire into a tailspin with 4 planes, 19 trained operatives, and a few box cutters.
Too much organization or the wrong kind of organization can also become a curse. During the American Civil War, the brilliant Confederate General Stonewall Jackson repeatedly baffled great Union armies, which were encumbered with lavishly stocked supply trains and elaborate chains of command, with smaller, poor equipped bands of what became known as “foot cavalry.” Jacksons “foot cavalry,” often barefoot, usually hungry, always driven hard, moved fast, travelled light, and ate what they could along the road. It sometimes paid off in spectacular ways. In a famous incident during the improbable Confederate victory at Second Manassas, Jackson’s troops flanked John Pope’s whole army and overran a titanic Union supply train miles behind the Union lines, enjoying a feast that many of them had never seen before in their lives, then setting the whole thing ablaze. As tempting as those stacks of hams, crates and crates of shoes and clean uniforms, and barrels of whiskey going up in smoke must have looked to the ragged Confederate soldiers, they were a big part of the reason the Union Army lost.
Except for their lack of a charismatic leader, the first 300 Occupy Wall Street supporters who first camped out in Zucotti Park last September 17 bore a strong resemblance to Gideon’s little band of 300 Israelites or Stonewall Jackson’s foot cavalry. They were an elite group, the first and most important requirement being that you had to have the nerve to travel to New York to meet people you didn’t know to establish a camp you had no reason to believe wouldn’t be swept away in a few hours. They slipped in under the radar of the hostile media, the NYPD and Brookfield Properties. They started having general assemblies, their hand signs so easily mocked by the corporate media, their openness such a refreshing change of pace from the tedious dance of steering committees, front groups, and newspaper hawking of the usual suspects on the New York left. They established a presence on the web, raised funds, secured donations of food, and, in the first week, scored a sneering, mean spirited article in the New York Times, the Times writer, like any high school kid, more interested in 5 or 6 women who chose to parade around Zucotti Park bare breasted than in the opportunity to talk about the financial industry that crashed the economy in 2008. In other words, from “they ignore you” to “they mock you” took only a few days. By contrast, in April of 2006, a march of over 100,000 people against the Iraq War led by United For Peace and Justice, a march that filled Broadway from Grace Church in The Village all the way down to the Federal Building in lower Manhattan, got no press at all.
The young activists who arrived in lower Manhattan on that beautiful late summer day last September 17 were entering an arena, Manhattan, renowned for its liberalism, but, ever since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, highly militarized, bleak and repressive, where street protest had a wretched, decade long tradition of almost unbroken failure. Encumbered with celebrity protest leaders, liberal bureaucrats, and authoritarian communist sects, the left in Manhattan had not succeeded in mounting a successful protest movement since the CUNY protests in the mid 1990s. There were no Seattle WTO blockades, no wild antiwar marches similar to the ones held in San Francisco in 2003, and certainly nothing like the populist movements of western Europe or South America. New York had, of course, seen very large protest marches, the mobilization against the Iraq War in 2003, the gigantic numbers of people who came to protest Bush in 2004, the vast immigrants rights marches in 2006, but they were invariably permitted, controlled from the top down, stuck behind police barricades, and ultimately more demoralizing than anything else. Until 2011, a protest march in New York meant standing behind metal cages in front of City Hall or Foley Square while some union bureaucrat screamed empty slogans and old quotes from the 1960s at you from a stage you could barely see over a loud speaker with the amplification turned up so high it made your ears ring. The campaign at the end of 2006 against the murder of Sean Bell by the NYPD, which started out in such a promising way with a series of unpermitted demonstrations in Jamaica Queens ended up as, you guessed it, a permitted, caged, and highly controlled march down Fifth Avenue, a one off event that was forgotten over the Christmas holidays.
On September 24, the Foot Cavalry of the 99 Percent marched. Occupy Wall Street changed, or, to be more accurate, simply ignored the rules that had been developed over the decade by the NYPD in collaboration with the authoritarian leaders of the institutionalized New York City left. In a wild, running cat and mouse game with the NYPD that went on for several hours, snaked past the New York Stock Exchange, around Chase Plaza, up Broadway, then west, then east, then west again on Canal, then back up Broadway to Union Square, the relatively small march of only a few hundred people continually baffled police attempts to corral it. When the police blocked the street, the marchers simply swerved back onto the sidewalk, marched around them, and took the street back on the other side. There was an arrest at Chase Plaza. There were several arrests near Broadway, each time the police trying to stop the march by snatching and grabbing people they thought were its leaders, each time feeling more frustrated that the march simply continued on its way. In short, nothing about the behavior of the people who marched on September 24 conformed to what the NYPD had been led to expect. There were no parade marshals to keep the rank and file in line, no union bureaucrats that you could threaten or cajole. There were simply 300 individuals going in the same direction, right down the middle of Broadway. By the time the march reached Union Square, the NYPD’s white shirted supervisors were so exasperated, not only by the protesters but by the performance of their young recruits, that one of them, a soon to be infamous chief inspector named Anthony Bologna, Tony Baloney, walked up to a group of unsuspecting women and sprayed them in the face with pepper spray. Someone managed to videotape the assault, and the rest is history. In only a week, a small band of 300 activists managed to grab national attention. The NYPD, by contrast, weighted down by their cumbersome, authoritarian chain of command, was now a laughing stock.
I have written previously about the need for Occupy Wall Street to retake Zucotti Park in the coming spring. I need to qualify that, severely. Political strategies, like demands, have to come out of an accurate assessment of historical and economic conditions, not out of the abstract thoughts of a single writer, or even the collective leadership of a political organization. The main difficulty in planning strategy for Occupy Wall Street is that you need to plot the movements of an army that may contain tens of thousands of people, hundreds of people, or only dozens of people. What baffles the police can often baffle attempts at organization.
While I think that the current economic crisis is part of a long term and very deliberately planned (planned by the 1%) structural adjustment that will ultimately destroy the middle-class in both the United States and Western Europe, and thus, provide the objective historical conditions necessary for an insurrection and general strike, that does not guarantee that there will be mass protests in Oakland and New York this April.
Repression and propaganda, while never lasting, do have their effect in the short run. I cannot, like Aragorn in Return of the King, summon the dead from their graves. I’m not a prophet like Gideon nor an inspirational leader like Joan of Arc. I can think about strategy all I want but I do not, like Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville, have four divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia ready to march when I give the order. Just about the only thing I have the power to do is state an opinion, Occupy Wall Street should raise the numbers they need to take back Zucotti Park in the spring, and act for myself, go down to Zucotti Park myself sometime next year when the weather starts getting warm, and get arrested.
If tens of thousands of people show up in the spring the way they did in Times Square last October 15 then the strategy is clear, march on Zucotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza, press down upon the New York and Oakland police with the sheer weight of your numbers, force them to arrest so many people that their system breaks down, and, effectively, remove the corrupt municipal governments which have revealed themselves last November as nothing more than hired thugs for the “1%.”
If only a few thousand, or a few hundred show up, or if large numbers of people show up for a march but do not seem committed to risk arrest or ignore police barricades, then the strategy becomes more problematic. How do you keep a small army in the field? How can you attack and bedevil larger numbers of better equipped troops without simply being annihilated?
“Never fight against heavy odds, if by any possible maneuvering you can hurl your own force on only a part, and that the weakest part, of your enemy and crush it. Such tactics will win every time, and a small army may thus destroy a large one in detail, and repeated victory will make it invincible.”
The above quote does not come from a very politically correct source. The man who wrote them, Thomas P. “Stonewall” Jackson, was a slaveowner, a religious fanatic, a racist, and a traitor to his country. He and Robert E. Lee were guilty of the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans. But Jackson was also a master of using small, relatively ill equipped bands of men to utterly bedevil what had been, until that point, the greatest military force the world had ever seen, the Army of the Potomac led first by George McClellan, then by John Pope, the rapid turnover of commanding generals due, in no small part, to Jackson’s brilliance as a commander.
Admittedly, when Jackson tossed off a quick letter about his military tactics in 1862 to John D. Imbodem, a short missive that’s still studied not only at West Point but at military academies all over the world, he had a large body of heavily armed men under his command, an asset Occupy Wall Street does not currently enjoy, but, slaveowner and religious fanatic though he was, he raises the fundamental questions Occupy Wall Street needs to ponder this winter. What is the enemy’s “weakest part” and how can you crush it? How can the small, loosely organized movement known as Occupy Wall Street attack the thug army of the “1%” in detail, and establish a winning tradition that will transform it into a mass movement that will ultimately bring economic justice to the United States and create the conditions that will allow its allies in western Europe and the global south to overthrow the neoliberal system once and for all?
Occupy Wall Street made a fundamental error late last October when they decided to pack Zucotti Park with tents in the hope that if they built a large enough infrastructure, kitchen, books, military grade tents, medical clinics, it would be too much trouble for the NYPD to clear quickly enough to avoid bad publicity. Occupy Wall Street lacked intelligence of the intentions of the police, any knowledge that for weeks the NYPD had been drilling under the FDR Expressway for a quick demolition of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street also underestimated the compliant behavior of the press, failed to assume that reporters from the New York Times, Daily News, and New York Post would simply walk into restricted zones and remain frozen when ordered to do so by the nearest community affairs officer.
Occupy Wall Street made the killing mistake that Jackson warned about. They massed a small force against heavy odds, a few hundred unarmed campers against the concentrated might of a police force with over 30,000 heavily armed men and a budget over 3.9 billion dollars per year. They had given up the mobility they had enjoyed on September 24. Many of the best protesters from early on in the occupation of Zucotti Park, moreover, had already gone home to the midwest or south, to Eugene Oregon or Muskegon Michigan, leaving a residue of self-promoters, panhandlers and single issue ideologues. No plans were made to defend the park with massed numbers of protesters on short notice, something that could have been achieved, for example, by holding biweekly 1AM “fire drills” by a text alert, a ritual that could also become a valuable tool for organizing and the assessment of resources. How many people would show up at short notice? Occupy Wall Street mistook tents for people, place holders and self-promoters for committed activists.
Occupy Wall Street now risks the mirror image of the first mistake. If going up against the concentrated might of the NYPD was foolish, giving up on the idea of holding physical space would only compound the error that led to the series of disasters last November. Indeed, the worst possible decision that anybody who supports Occupy Wall Street can make is to think of the campaign against the financial industry’s capture of their government as an abstract, “long term” cultural struggle. That would be painfully similar to the way the 1960s New Left retreated, in the 1970s, into unreadable literary criticism, feminist attempts to ban pornography, or “self actualization.”
Occupy Congress, Occupy Libraries, Occupy Museums, Occupy Broadway all risk further scattering Occupy Wall Streets potential resources. Remember, the initial call was to occupy “Wall Street,” the physical location of many, and the metaphorical location of the all of the financial industry gangsters who undermined the economy over the course of the Clinton and Bush administrations and were ultimately treated to an 800 billion dollar bailout and their own man, Eric Holder, as head of the Justice Department during the Obama administration. The initial success came because committed activists from all over the United States concentrated themselves in one location in lower Manhattan, and outmaneuvered a clumsily organized mass army of police. When so many of the initial Occupy Wall Street activists left New York to go back to the rest of the United States to organize in their hometowns, they unintentionally scattered their resources, which had been so effective over a few tightly packed blocks in lower Manhattan, over a vast nation of 300 million people.
As militant and inspiring as it was, Occupy Oakland had not concentrated its fire on a major center of the financial industry, something the San Francisco Bay area surely has in abundance. The actions of the “black block” (whether the result of planning inside of the Oakland police department or of mere stupidity) were the equivalent of a poorly planned assault on an entrenched position and, not surprisingly, the corporate media gleefully lapped it up. Seeing the innovative tactics displayed in lower Manhattan last September overcome the enervating effects of the authoritarianism of New York area leftist politics as usual only to be upstaged by images brought to us by San Francisco Bay area leftist politics as usual was frustrating to say the least.
As iconic as the images were that came out of the University of California at Davis, how much more iconic would they have been had those students been pepper sprayed “occupying” the Harvard Business School instead of at a small, little known state school out west? The actions taken in Manhattan to “occupy” the New School were, at best, an exercise in nostalgia. How many times has the New School been “occupied” over the past decade? Occupy Language, Occupy Love, Occupy any number of abstract ideas makes about as much sense as to “occupy” the hot chicks of Occupy Wall Street, a grotesquely misogynist video that came out in the first few weeks of the occupation of Zucotti Park. They’re nothing but excuses for masturbation, exercises in futility designed to make oneself feel better about having once been part of a now demolished ant hill. They will, almost inevitably, lead Occupy Wall Streets key activists back into authoritarian, ultra leftist sects, cultural politics, or, worst of all, the Democratic Party. How long will we have to wait until we see “Occupy Hope” or “Occupy Change,” if, in fact, they’re not already out there.
In other words, the general lesson we can take from this November is to concentrate, strike, and retreat from the superior force but not to scatter, to outmaneuver your opponent, not retreat in disarray. Let’s return to the first lesson that our old slave owning Confederate general gave to John D. Imboden. If you want to know what Ray Kelly and the police chiefs of Oakland, Portland, LA, and Philadelphia are thinking right now, it’s this:
“Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit so long as your men have strength to follow; for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number.”
Indeed, if you want to know why people at Occupy LA were made to kneel handcuffed for 8 hours, post 5000 dollars bail, and kept in jail for three days, why Occupy San Francisco was broken up, why the propaganda from the corporate media against Occupy Wall Street has continued without a let up, it’s this. The “1%,” having mystified and surprised Occupy Wall Street by their massive night time raids, are now in hot pursuit of a routed, panic stricken army. They are attempting to amplify the panic, create further confusion, and roll up not only the Occupy Wall Street movement, but any will to resist among the movement’s possible supporters while they have the “foot cavalry” of the 99% on the run.
Do I overstate my case? I think not.
Occupy Wall Street is a peaceful, nonviolent movement, but, like it or not, it’s still one half of a class war. You would be in denial if you pondered over the events of last fall and thought of them as anything other than an unsuccessful military campaign, smashed by superior numbers and resources, but walking away in tact with important tactical victories against the propaganda of the “1%,” as a little TET Offensive on American soil. As painful as it is even for someone as cynical as I am (and that’s pretty cynical) to acknowledge it, that’s the way the bought and paid for municipal governments of the “1%” and their heavily armed bands of blue uniformed mercenaries think of it.
Michael Bloomberg, Jean Quan, Michael Nutter, Antonio Villaraigosa, and yes, Barack Obama do not think of you as their fellow Americans. They think of you exactly the way the gutter right wing press has portrayed you, as an annoyance to be laughed at when ineffective, as a deadly class enemy to be utterly crushed when and if you become even slightly effective. At best they think of you the way Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff and current mayor of Chicago described you a few years ago, as “fucking retards.” They will never negotiate with you in good faith. They will never tell you the truth. They will never respond to legitimate grievances with earnest attempts to resolve the problems that created them. You may have voted for them, but they do not work for you. They do not care about you. They care only about the “1%” who funded their campaigns and who promise to offer them high paying jobs after their terms expire. When they think of you, if they think of you at all, and they probably think of you only rarely, they think of you as the dehumanized enemy, as slopes, as gooks, as Hajis, as niggers at the bottom of the slave boat, or as those annoying native American tribes who are occupying the land they want to use for a government subsidized railroad.
You also scare them. They know they won a short term victory. They also remember that the French, in the short run, won the Battle of Algiers. The goal of the “foot cavalry of the 99%” this winter is to maneuver while remaining together as an army, not to scatter but to redeploy in anticipation of the weather turning warm next spring. Every action, like Occupy Foreclosure, that keeps small but mobile groups of Occupy Wall Street activists physically together concentrated against the original target, the financial industry, furthers this strategy. Every abstract pseudo action that can serve as an excuse to demobilize does not. After regrouping over the winter, Occupy Wall Street should assess its numbers. If it has resources sufficient, it should renew its assault on the major centers of the financial industry. If it does not, it should wage smaller, guerilla actions, scatter and regroup, attack the class enemy with the objective of driving recruits into their ranks in anticipation of the fall. If done successfully, there’s no reason to believe that the “foot cavalry of the 99%” can’t inflict on the thug armies of the “1%” not only a Chancellorsville, but a Waterloo.