Occupy Wall Street was at the pinnacle of its power in October 2011, when thousands of people converged at Zuccotti Park and successfully foiled the plans of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg to sweep away the occupation on grounds of public health. From that vantage point, the Occupy movement appears to have tumbled off a cliff, having failed to organise anything like a general strike on May Day – despite months of rumblings of mass walkouts, blockades and shutdowns.
The mainstream media are eager to administer last rites. CNN declared "May Day fizzled", the New York Post sneered "Goodbye, Occupy" and the New York Times consigned the day's events to fewer than 400 words, mainly about arrests in New York City.
Historians and organisers counter that the Occupy movement needs to be seen in relative terms. Eminent sociologist Frances Fox Piven, co-author of Poor People's Movements, says:
"I don't know of a movement that unfolds in less than a decade. People are impatient, and some of them are too quick to pass judgment. But it's the beginning, I think, of a great movement. One of a series of movement that has episodically changed history, which is not the way we tell the story of American history."
Brooke Lehman, a central figure in the anti-corporate globalization movement a decade ago, says:
"Compared to a year ago, the level of activity is amazing today. There is a whole new generation of high school and college students being radicalised."
Others note that protests did take place in more than 110 cities on May Day in recognition of worker resistance and solidarity, no mean feat given the hostility to labour among the ruling elite i the US. At the same time, only shameless partisans would deny that the Occupy movement is struggling to reclaim the heights it had last year, and many activists admit this in private. Some argue that police and media hostility act as a one-two punch that can knock out movements such as Occupy, and this is all too true, as explained below. But other movements surmount these obstacles. North of the US-Canada border, hundreds of thousands of university students in Quebec have maintained a militant strike for three months against tuition increases in defiance of whip-cracking politicians, pundits and police.
Lack of 'space'
The real stumbling block for the Occupy movement is also the reason for its success: space, or now, the lack thereof. Understanding the significance of political space and Occupy's inability to recapture it reveals why the movement is having difficulty re-gaining traction.
Americans have become so enmeshed in the transience of work, life, housing, play, finance and the proliferation of virtual spaces that it is easy to forget taking collective action in a shared physical space is how social change happens from below. Take the labour movement. The history of industrial workers' struggle starts with the insight that capitalists are their own undoing, by amassing workers in a common space – the factory – where they become aware of their common interests, as well as their potential power to stop the machinery of capital. The same is true of student movements. The shared educational space can unite students around common grievances and goals. And for the civil rights movement, black churches played a pivotal role.
Now, Occupy Wall Street differs in that it appropriated a private-public park and reconfigured it as a political space. It was a manifestation of the central concept of the Occupy movement: there can be no political democracy without economic democracy. Its potency sprang from the same source as the Arab Spring, Spain's Indignados and the Wisconsin labour uprising – peacefully liberating public space and governing it through participatory democracy.
Before this social contagion first surfaced in Tunisia in late 2010, the previous moment of a mass global outburst was Feb, 15, 2003, the day of protests against the impending US invasion of Iraq. That was the problem: it was only a day with no bottom-up democratic essence. Not only could Bush shrug it off as a "focus group", the protests could be twisted as legitimacy for aggressor states – because they allowed space for democratic dissent in contrast to the terror of Saddam Hussein.
Colonised by consumption
Anti-war protest has little impact anymore, because it has devolved into gathering on a weekend in the political capital, marching around empty streets with pre-printed signs, mouthing toothless chants and listening to cliched speeches. It is too predictable and too easy to ignore, by rulers who are insulated from the ruled by dollars and truncheons. On the other hand, occupying space in the heart of a city without end is a challenge to state power.
One activist said of the encampment on Wall Street: "At any moment, you could call for an impromptu march on Goldman Sachs and a hundred people would join you." The night of October 5, 2011, was a spectacular example of this. After a union-led rally in downtown Manhattan, thousands of people surged through the financial district in breakaway marches for hours. With so many people in the streets feeling the wind of public support at their backs, Wall Street felt fragile and the New York Police Department was under siege.
Keeping a space continually, and using democratic forms of self-governance recreates the commons, which has been colonised over decades by full-spectrum consumption – shopping, eating, drinking, entertainment and paid spectacle. Occupy Wall Street attracted throngs of journalists and the curious because it was a completely different spectacle. It was a miniature society that rejected the private, individualism and capitalism. The scene of hundreds of people exchanging food, art, music, knowledge, politics, healthcare, shelter, anger, ideas, skills and love was unlike anything else in our consumer societies – because not one exchange was lubricated by money (of course the goods were paid for at some point). Within the occupation, thousands shared the experience of having a direct democratic stake in a society they were helping to build from scratch.
These democratic societies, more than 300 of which popped up around the United States by October 2011, propelled Occupy by enticing a huge number of political neophytes to join an organic movement. The real power of a social movement, from the 1960s to the Tea Party, is not to recombine existing activists in a new formation but to bring in the previously non-political. At occupations, experienced organisers marvelled at the ability to have meaningful conversations with people of radically different backgrounds and politics. Having visited nearly 40 occupations across the US, I encountered many self-identified conservatives and Republicans and even a few Tea Party members who said they were part of the 99 per cent.
It was the Occupy movement that created the people – "the 99 per cent" – not the other way around. The range of politics and issues ran the gamut, but having the space for collective discussion gave occupiers the time to coalesce around the idea that society's problems stem from the concentration of wealth and power among "the one per cent". Thus, those who lack healthcare, had homes foreclosed upon, are unemployed, stuck in low-wage jobs, are homeless, subject to repressive immigration laws, burdened with student debt, opposed to destructive energy extraction or angered by corporate personhood and a political system corrupted by money could find common cause and unite against a common enemy.
But it wasn't just anger. Different visions of society blossomed in the space. As Michael Premo of Occupy Wall Street, puts it: "You don't know how to dream unless you see it sometimes. The occupation unlocked the creative, radical imagination." Seeing different ways of organising work and community has kick-started innumerable projects around the country, such as urban farming, community centres, workers cooperatives, free schools and housing reclamation.
That's all changed. While a few scattered occupations remain in the political hinterlands – cities such as Little Rock and Tallahassee – every other one has been booted out of the collective space over the past six months. In many cities, most prominently New York, the general assemblies have disintegrated, because the democratic practice becomes a floating abstraction without the space to anchor it. The space glued the various tendencies together because the decisions were conducted within and concerned the alternate society growing up around them. In cities where the assemblies continue they often draw perhaps one-tenth of the numbers who attended at the peak. Ruth Fowler, a writer who works with Occupy Los Angeles, says: "Occupy is very odd right now. The people who have stayed are the cream of the crap, and the brilliant. The rank-and-file in between are at home."
Despite new activists drifting away, Occupy has hardly disappeared. Nationwide, it is defending homeowners from evictions and disrupting auctions of foreclosed homes. There is a national campaign to force the government to break Bank of America into regional banks. Students are fighting against tuition increases and school cuts and for a moratorium on student debt. Occupiers are working with unions to battle corporations cutting wages and benefits. And many Occupy groups have joined movements for single-payer healthcare and against environmentally destructive oil and gas drilling.
David Solnit, who works with Occupy San Francisco, indicates one reason why the Occupy movement appears to have faded away, "Any movement has its mass mobilisation and its in-between times… We need a better measuring tape than numbers and public space and whether it's amplified through media owned by the one per cent."
Simply put, corporate media are inclined to dismiss a movement that wants to chop up corporations – if not eliminate them entirely. A study by two sociologists backs this up. Surveying more than 2,200 US newspapers, Jackie Smith and Patrick Rafail found coverage of the Occupy movement has dwindled to a trickle since November, despite hundreds of active Occupy groups, thousands of organising projects and extensive May Day activity. Even more telling, newspaper coverage of inequality has shrunk by nearly 70 per cent since autumn.
One can debate whether or not Occupy is still effective, but there is no way to deny income and wealth inequalities have reached historical extremes or that two-thirds of all in the US – and 55 per cent of Republicans – say "there are 'very strong' or 'strong' conflicts between the rich and the poor," according to the Pew Research Center.
The media indifference extends to downplaying state repression. Ironically, force is a measure of success because it's recognition that the movement is a threat:
- In Oakland, police rolled out a tank on May Day
- Chicago has increased penalties for protests and made it more difficult to secure permits in advance of the anti-NATO protests
- University of California officials are pushing for charges against 11 students and one poetry professor that carry 11 years of prison time and million-dollar fines for nonviolent sit-down protests against Bank of America
- Most ominously, the FBI, which was forged in the crucible of the post-World War I Red Scare, is up to its old tricks. Relying on the same techniques it uses to ensnare Muslims in "terrorism" plots, the FBI arrested five anarchists in Cleveland for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge
- Most recently, one activist in Salt Lake City claimed three FBI agents showed up at his home, unannounced, asking for names of people planning on attending the anti-NATO protests in Chicago
The repression is aimed at preventing Occupy from reclaiming a space, which novelist Arundhati Roy predicted months ago: "Holding territory may not be something the [Occupy] movement will be allowed to do in a state as powerful and violent as the United States." Since March, Occupy Wall Street has tried to retake public spaces in Lower Manhattan four times, and four times the police have cracked down. The most recent attempt, the night of May Day, was met by a massive police presence in Wall Street, with cops threatening anyone who looked like a protester with arrest.
Let it marinate
"Cinematic" is the only way to convey the image of public sidewalks and streets blanketed with thousands of riot police, surveillance units, snatch squads, detectives, beat cops, community police, white-shirted commanders, phalanxes of scooter police, four police helicopters overhead and cars, SUVs, buses, trucks and command vehicles flashing emergency lights. All to clear out a few thousand people, mainly youths, who gathered for a democratic assembly and the faint hope they could recreate the magic of Occupy Wall Street.
Even though I spent hours in the area with other journalists, and was threatened with arrest five times, I did not see one mainstream media account describing the opulent display of police force. Nonetheless, despite the unveiled fist of the state that is written out of the media narrative, movements sometimes do find a way to triumph. As shown by Egypt's democratic uprising, numbers and organisation can force the state not only to back down, it can cause the ruling edifice to fatally crack. This is what happened on October 14, when Occupy Wall Street gathered enough people, allies and media pressure to force Bloomberg and the police to abandon their threat to oust the occupation.
The big question for Occupy is how it can build a dual system of power, as Egyptian activists did over years with revitalised labour organising, a national anti-police brutality movement and politicised youth and women in micro-enterprises that populate urban areas. This requires organisation, but it also gets back to the question of space. Alienation, fragmentation and suspicion is so pervasive in US society that people need secure areas where they can take the time to share stories, to listen and debate, create bonds, forge trust and take action.
The places where Americans can and do gather in large numbers, such as parks, squares, factories, shopping centres, the workplace, stadiums, schools and places of worship are almost all privatised and subject to strict legal and physical regulation. Nonetheless, Occupy's future success is based on finding forms of space where it can reproduce itself.
Until then, Frances Fox Piven is right that movements take a decade or more to have an effect. It took 22 years from A Phillip Randolph's aborted 1941 March on Washington to Martin Luther King Jr's 1963 march that signaled the end of Jim Crow. It was a decade from the first national anti-war march in 1965 to the end of the Vietnam War. It's taken more than 20 years for the LGBT movement to succeed in getting a sitting president to endorse marriage equality.
And just as it took years of labour organising prior to the 1937 sit-down strikes (another form of occupation) that secured collective bargaining rights for unions, the Occupy movement has barely begun.
Arun Gupta is a co-founder of The Indypendent and The Occupied Wall Street Journal. He covers the Occupy movement nationwide for Salon.