Will Occupy Wall Street have more birthday celebrations? The movement marked its second anniversary with a daylong series of events in its New York City birthplace, but with smaller numbers than it has drawn for past events.
Having spent September 17 at series of rallies and marches, I have no interest in surmising the end of a movement into which so many have placed great hopes. But two years on from the electric beginnings of Occupy in Zuccotti Park and its rapid spread to hundreds of cities, it must be asked: What is the future for Occupy? Or has it accomplished its mission, to be supplanted by as yet unformed movements to carry forward the work of building a better world?
The Occupiers and allies ranged from a couple hundred to several hundred at the various rallies and marches — noticeably smaller than 2012’s first anniversary. A credible showing considering the breadth of events that included a march on the New York Stock Exchange, assemblies at Zuccotti Park, a rally in Washington Square Park focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, street theater in Times Square, a rally for a “Robin Hood” financial-industry tax near the United Nations and marches connecting some of these. And all this on a work day.
Nonetheless, such crowds do not constitute a mass movement. The organizing wasn’t helped by fissiparous tendencies; a painstaking effort to reach consensus was undermined by one organizer deciding to do his own thing with his own Occupy group. (An organizer involved in the anniversary preparations told me this was the most difficult organizing he had been involved with in his many years of movement work.)
Despite the “leaderless” ideal of Occupy, there are leaders within the remnants of Occupy and they are not necessarily working harmoniously. There is nothing unique happening here: There is no social movement or large organization where these problems do not arise. But they do not help an organization already on the wane. That Occupy is a dwindling movement is a development with multiple roots, not least of which is the violent repression of it soon after its exhilarating birth.
Speaking truth to power makes those in power angry
There is no mystery as to why that repression was unleashed — Occupy unambiguously critiqued the corporate dominance of our world, the gross inequality that is worsening, the lack of accountability on the part of the financial industry and — perhaps the highest crime — encouraging people to see social divisions in terms of class. Not by explicitly referring to class or using class terminology, but by popularizing the concept with the “1% vs. the 99%” narrative. There is considerable room for debate on the size of the elite that dominates capitalist society (there are those who argue for higher and lower figures than 1%), but that such an elite is recognizable is demonstrated in how quickly the concept spread.
The Department of Homeland Security coordinated the crackdown on Occupy across the United States and the FBI had its hand in the repression as well, branding Occupiers as “terrorists” and plotting to disrupt its events. Both agencies worked closely with not only local police departments but even with the country’s banks. Police eagerly attacked Occupy encampments and actions, such as Oakland, California, police firing tear-gas canisters at point-blank range. The New York City police destroying the Occupy Wall Street library certainly was emblematic.
The anger that fueled Occupy has not dissipated, nor have the issues that animate the movement. We should never underestimate the importance of naming the problem, of clearly opposing what is wrong. No matter the future, Occupy will always be the movement that provided the service of changing the conversation. Overnight, we went from wondering why there was no organized response from the Left, leaving a vacuum filled by the corporate-created Tea Party, to a new orientation in which the actual agents of economic collapse were placed in a metaphorical bulls-eye rather than the traditional scapegoats of minorities, immigrants and government.
The real problem is the system that enables the bankers, not the personalities of the bankers themselves, but even with its emphasis on banker greed Occupy was, and is, traveling on the right track. The same institutions sit atop the economic pyramid; there has been no accountability for those who brought on the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Governments around the world continue to be under the dominance of these same institutions and people. Discouragement that the energy created by Occupy has not led to any change is one factor in the movement’s decline. Even more so, the discouragement engendered by the violent response to Occupy, a resignation induced in many that nothing can change, is a factor — the very purpose of that violence.
Even leaderless groups have leaders
While acknowledging the considerable force of the factors in the preceding paragraph, we nonetheless should examine the structure of Occupy itself. The desire to not replicate past top-down patterns and integrate horizontal decision-making is admirable, but the idea that there should be no leaders doesn’t pass the test of the real world. Occupy has leaders, the same as any other organization, but when they are not acknowledged, accountability is eroded. Decentralization, ironically, opens opportunities for ambitious leaders to promote themselves.
Such leaders may be acting on what they perceive to be the organization’s best interest, or they may be acting in ways to undermine the organization. There is suspicion by some people involved in Occupy organizing that others who they viewed as acting in destructive ways may have been Democratic Party operatives seeking to disrupt the movement. I am in no position to know if that is true, but there is more than ample evidence that the consensus painstakingly created was subject to being disregarded despite the sanctity of consensus within Occupy Wall Street. Having competing events at the same time is one way to shrink crowds.
There is also no doubt that Democrats have variously sought to co-opt it or tried to destroy Occupy. Let us not forget who the occupant of the White House was when the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI unleashed coordinated violence upon it across the country. Such tactics, traditionally visited upon any U.S. movement that makes a direct critique on the system instead of acting for small reforms, are always supplemented with more subtle machinations.
Circling back to the structure of Occupy itself, a discussion of its tactics can’t be avoided. Occupy was reasonably clear about what it is against — but it is never enough to be against something. We also have to be for something.
Refusing to make demands became something of a fetish, even allowing for the slow process of building consensus at long assemblies and the diversity of opinions and backgrounds. Understanding the problem and naming the sources of the problem are the first concrete steps, without which progress is impossible. Concrete ideas and models should follow — goals to work toward.
Unwinding the disastrous policies that have brought the world to its present state won’t happen on its own or by moral persuasion, but through organized work that will have to clear giant roadblocks and face the hostility of the institutions and people who benefit from the current system and the governments they dominate through their wealth and power. The process is called “struggle” for a reason.
Perhaps Occupy is not the organizational model to create a sustained movement. Perhaps newer groups will have to continue the work of Occupy, in conjunction with groups already at work. Whatever its future, Occupy has been an indispensable part of the work to create a better world. We can only hope that it will continue to be there.