By Pham Binh
January 5, 2012Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has turned the world upside down and inside out.
Thanks to our efforts, the very meaning of the word occupation has been reversed. As someone who marched against the occupations of Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, this has taken some getting used to.
Dick Cheney’s prediction that occupiers “will be greeted as liberators” turned out to be correct, but not in the way he expected. Where ever students, workers, unemployed people, retirees, or veterans occupy they have been greeted as liberators by the 99% who feel that it is high time this country was liberated from the misrule of the 1%. The “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” passed by the General Assembly (GA) on September 29 sums up our grievances very well and need not be repeated here.
For those of us who have been fighting for years around issues of social and economic justice, political corruption, police brutality, imperialist wars, civil liberties, and the oppression of racial and religious minorities, LGBTs, and women it seems like the country is finally beginning to catch up to us and listen to what we have been saying all along.
This raises questions: Why now? How and why did OWS succeed in galvanizing a mass movement where our previous efforts did not?
Success Requires Failure
Hardly anyone remembers the thousands of people who protested the bailouts in fall of 2008 at the doors of the New York Stock Exchange. The protests were angry but not militant nor defiant. People came, yelled, waved signs, and went home. By morning, the only sign of what took place was the occasional placard left behind and New York Police Department (NYPD) barricades stacked in neat order at the corners of Wall and Broad Streets. Meanwhile, the greatest theft in world history took place without a hitch as trillions of taxpayer dollars went directly or indirectly to financial institutions deemed “too big to fail.” The protests made no difference.
Hardly anyone remembers the tens of thousands who marched from Wall Street to City Hall on May 12, 2011 against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to lay off 6,000 teachers and close 20 firehouses. At the time, the action seemed like a weak echo of the thousands-strong occupation of Wisconsin’s State Capitol building that erupted in February just as general strikes in Egypt brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak. Unlike Wisconsin, the May 12 marches were tame from the start. The union leaders long ago abandoned militant tactics in favor of making sound bite-filled speeches for a couple of hours and providing nice photo ops for their favored Democratic politicians.
Like the 2008 rallies against the bailouts, the May 12 protests were angry but not militant nor defiant. People came, yelled, waved signs, and went home. Again, the protests had no effect.
Something more was needed.
Enter New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts (NYABC), a grassroots coalition of activists from a wide variety of backgrounds: union members, socialist and anarchist groups, and community organizers. NYABC applied the occupy tactic borrowed from Egypt’s Tahrir Square and the indignados in Spain by establishing a permanent encampment called Bloombergville close to City Hall to protest the mayor’s proposed budget cuts. Bloombergville’s name was a reference to Hoovervilles, those Great Depression-era shantytowns that thousands lived in after losing their homes, jobs, and savings as President Herbert Hoover did nothing.
Bloombergville was a dry run for OWS. The police continually harassed the encampment on dubious legal pretexts; drum circles and boisterous musicians helped create spirited, vibrant protests; there was a people’s library and kitchen to provide intelletual and physical sustenance to the occupiers; and Bloombergville organized the first GA in New York City.
Despite these similarities to OWS, Bloombergville did not take off. The protesters numbered in the dozens or hundreds at most. Police harassment was largely successful and did not attract the attention of the average New Yorker. The City Council approved the budget in a 49-to-1 vote at the end of June, eliminating 2,600 teaching positions through attrition, forcing the teachers’ union to make $60 million in concessions, and laying off 1,000 non-uniform city workers.
Bloombergville’s one demand — no budget cuts — was ignored, just as the 2002-2003 anti-war movement’s one demand — no to war — was ignored.
Prelude to Revolution
The Canadian group AdBusters’ July 13 call to occupy Wall Street seemed like a great but whimsical idea: “Are you ready for a Tahrir Moment? On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.”
It was Bloombergville and the network of activists around it that gave the dream legs with over a month’s worth of planning meetings. They seized on the call because there was something electric about the idea of occupying Wall Street, taking the fight against austerity, budget cuts, and rampant inequality right into the bull’s lair, the nerve center of world capitalism.
The Uprising Begins
On day one of OWS, over 1,000 marched through the largely empty financial district that fateful Saturday afternoon, their angry chants echoing off the glass and concrete skyscrapers densely packed together by the area’s narrow streets. Originally they planned to camp out at One Chase Manhattan Plaza, but Zuccotti Park was plan B since it had to be kept open 24 hours a day as part of an obscure agreement between the city and private entities that paid for the upkeep of privately owned public spaces.
Week one of OWS was relatively uneventful as working groups were formed and GAs were held to begin the process of issuing formal statements to the world. Somewhere between 100 and 200 people camped out with sleeping bags. The police waded into the park, manhandled and arrested a handful of people, and took tarps used to cover the electronic equipment OWS used to communicate with the world on the first Monday after the occupation began.
What transformed the occupation into a national uprising of the 99% was two things: unwarranted police repression and the determination of the occupiers to continue on no matter what. Not having a permit would not stop them and neither would metal fences, pepper spray, batons, or flex cuffs.
On Saturday September 24, Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed cornered women near Union Square and it was broadcast around the world from every conceivable angle thanks to camera phones and citizen uploads to YouTube. OWS’s numbers swelled. Over 2,000 people marched on NYPD headquarters on Friday October 1 in protest. The next day came the famous Brooklyn Bridge incident in which the NYPD lured 700 protesters into blocking traffic, cornered them, and arrested them. The outrage triggered by the 700 arrests led 30,000 to march at a permitted union-sponsored rally on October 5, and Occupy exploded with actions in 250 towns and cities across the country, including places like Nashville, Tennesee and Mobile, Alabama.
NASCAR versus Wall Street was probably the furthest thing from the minds of the occupiers who camped out in sleeping bags during week one of OWS but it became a reality in less than a month. Occupy earned itself a capital O.
Once Occupy went national, the same two ingredients that propelled the uprising’s explosive growth — unwarranted police repression and militant, determined protesters — led to the first general strike in Oakland, California since 1946. The strike was called in response to police hitting Iraq veteran and former Marine Scott Olsen in the face with a tear gas canister as they cleared out Oakland’s occupation on the orders of Democratic Mayor Jean Quan and in consultation with federal law enforcement agencies. Occupy Oakland is now calling for another general strike up and down the West Coast on December 12 in reply to the nationwide crackdown on local occupations.
Lessons of OWS
OWS succeeded where traditional protests failed for a variety of reasons, one of the most important being the fact it was not conventional; it was not a single-issue, single-event protest, unlike almost all previous efforts by progressives in the U.S. over the last three decades. There was no end date or end game by design.
Because OWS was designed as an open-ended, ongoing event, refusing to adopt a formal set of demands was extremely wise. It allowed every person, organization, and cause to bring their own demands and shape OWS’s message and avoided the pitfalls that come with making demands, namely having them ignored, ridiculed, picked apart, or co-opted by the 1% or failing to include demands important to some specific section of the 99%. People and the corporate media were both drawn to this seemingly new phenomenon of a protest without demands, an action without goals.
Many people in Occupy feel deeply and instinctively that making a formal list of demands is the first step to defeat because such a list will be used as a yardstick to judge our success or failure. All the 1% has to do is point out the fact that our demands have not been met and people will feel defeated, that marching is pointless, just as we did in 2003 when the government invaded Iraq despite our best efforts. The invasion of Iraq was a fatal blow to the anti-war movement because our central demand meant zero in the big scheme of things.
Back then, people felt defeated, demoralized, and stayed home, but they also began to learn something important: showing up, yelling, waving signs, and going home is not going to cut it. It took years of organizing around other issues and other events for that lesson to really sink in and become the strategic, tactical, and practical basis for organizing.
The important thing is not how long it took to learn this but the fact that it happened.
A second important lesson of OWS is that determined, bold, and peaceful action is more important than lists of demands, formal politics, or theoretically consistent ideas about strategy and tactics. Much of the skepticism from existing progressive organizations during the first month of OWS centered around the fact that OWS had no discernible demands, no clear strategy to win change (lobbying, strikes, boycotts, elections), and no formal leadership. All of these alleged weaknesses were actually strengths, making it all but impossible for politicians and other established or
OWS succeeded above all else because of the willingness of first hundreds, now hundreds of thousands, to act, to stand up, to fight, to protest, to speak, to Occupy. French military genius Napolean Bonaparte described his method as “first engage, and then see,” and this is exactly what Occupy did.
In this respect and unknowingly OWS followed in the footsteps of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The comparison seems implausible but some of the underlying, methodological similarities are undeniable.
The Panthers developed a mass following in the 1960s not because millions of blacks read the party’s 10-Point Program and clamored to sign up but because the Panthers took bold action to meet the pressing needs of their community. One of their first initiatives was to follow police patrols in California with a rifle slung over one shoulder and a law hand to police the police, to make sure the cops were following the law when they dealt with blacks. Similarly, the Panthers marched with arms on the California legislature when it began to consider repealing the law that allowed them to carry rifles in public.
“Practice is the criteria for truth,” as the Panthers used to say. Their militant actions and the spirit of defiance underpinning them earned the Panthers the respect of the Black community and legions of eager followers who were literally willing to put their lives on the line to win their people freedom, justice, and equality. They were the vanguard.
Both OWS and the Panthers took bold, peaceful action and exploited legal loopholes so that when the police moved against them, the cops did so unlawfully.
The last element that led to OWS’s success was changing the target from Bloomberg to Wall Street. Bloombergville did not ignite a mass movement because there was no simmering anger among New Yorkers at the mayor, who until recently enjoyed high approval ratings despite his budget cuts, his fortune, and his union-busting. On the other hand, Wall Street is about as popular as Casey Anthony, and the aftermath of the 2008 bailouts has seen more budget cuts, more layoffs, more tuition increases, more foreclosures, more unemployment for the 99% and bigger bonuses and fatter paychecks regulation for the 1%.
Targeting Wall Street instead of Bloomberg completely altered the strategic calculus of the occupy tactic, providing it with the possibility of connecting with the anger of New Yorkers and the country at large that built up for years on end with no outlet until now.
Bold action against the right target using flexible, unconventional tactics is the secret of OWS’s success, but this recipe is not really a secret. Any close look at the history of movements in this country, from the underground railroad in the 1800s to the occupations of segregated in lunch counters in the 1960s, will reveal the same constituent elements.