Occupying the Unexpected
The few remaining occupations aren’t easy to find, but visiting one reminds you why Occupy set the imagination on fire. At a late-February “Occupalooza” organized by Occupy Fullerton in Orange County, we talked with Wolf, a 25-year-old transgendered activist, who explained how the group is lobbying the City Council to pass resolutions on issues ranging from Citizens United to predatory debt. We also met John Park, a Korean-American with two kids in college, who launched into a blistering critique of the ideology of free trade. That Wolf has found common cause with a middle-aged immigrant computer programmer speaks to the raw ideological and emotional power of the twinned slogans—“We are the 99 percent” and “Occupy Wall Street.”
At Occupy’s encampments, anyone could walk into the public space, share his or her story, find people with similar grievances and participate in building mini-societies. Creating democratic town squares next to centers of power drew in huge numbers of people who gave the movement life. First-time activists didn’t need to arrive having mastered volumes of social and cultural theory, and they weren’t treated to the same old canned chants and pre-printed signs. The movement didn’t require consultants, focus groups or polls to occupy the center of American politics with a radical left message. As such, Occupy wasn’t just a rejection of Washington and Wall Street; it revealed the failings of liberals, unions and the organized left.
The loss of this public space is an undeniable setback. But even so, the secret to Occupy’s strength remains its ability to disrupt power—an ability retained by Occupy movements working on housing, labor, finance, electoral reform, corporate accountability, the food supply and pretty much any other issue you can think of. It can be seen from Occupy the SEC, which released a stunning 325-page critique of the Volcker Rule, to Occupy Our Homes, which has engaged in at least two dozen successful foreclosure and eviction defenses since November.
These victories are symbolic (putting financial regulators on notice that they are being watched) and real (keeping families in their homes). Giving people a sense that Occupy is winning is vital because victories sustain movements. But this activity is still in its infancy compared with the scale of the problem today (with 4 million families having lost their home to foreclosures since 2007) and the scope of resistance in the past (with some historians claiming that in New York City in 1932 alone 77,000 evicted families were moved back into their homes by activists).
To notch far-reaching victories, the Occupy movement needs allies with millions of members and access to resources. In short, it needs the beleaguered labor movement, which has found a lifeline of its own in Occupy. Labor organizers across the country are recognizing that organized labor has been boxed in by laws and rules that blunt its most potent weapon, the ability to strike, and that Occupiers can take risks that unions are unable or unwilling to. Likewise, by moving beyond the workplace as the locus of struggle between labor and capital, Occupy has introduced creative tensions that benefit unions—even if unions feel their toes are being stepped on. The December 12 West Coast port shutdowns organized by Occupy caused friction with leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who opposed the blockade attempts. But when the Occupy movement started organizing flying pickets to aid the ILWU in confronting agribusiness giant EGT, which was trying to freeze out the union workforce at the Port of Longview in Washington State, the corporation blinked and struck a deal with the union.
Relations between labor and Occupy are being tested further as some Occupiers are pushing for a May Day general strike, which many labor activists call unrealistic, especially without months of education and organizing among the rank and file. Many Occupiers respond, “If not now, when?” and point out that Occupy Wall Street would never have even happened without audacious risk-taking. Occupy and organized labor may also find themselves on opposing sides as unions throw money and troops into Obama’s re-election battle, while Occupy mobilizes to occupy the Democratic and Republican national conventions, as well as to make its presence known on the fall campaign trail.
Certainly some people come to the Occupy movement eager to devote their energy to policy battles, but the heart of the movement desires a different society. Back at Occupy Fullerton, we found a grass amphitheater fringed by palm trees where a house band jammed while a few dozen people grooved to the music. There were Frisbees, sunbathers and stoners. Lupe Barrios, eyeing our camera and notepad, took a break from shaking his booty to chat. He said he was from Tucson, his right calf proclaimed Hecho en San Diego, and he was here for “fun, not politics.” But within a minute, he was talking about how “immigrant rights are workers’ rights” and how his mother “lives in a cage wherever she goes because of social and class oppressions.”
It was festive and giddy and unpredictable. The left is abundant in anger; the Occupy movement has turned that into joy. This country is floundering in despair; Occupy has given countless people hope. It is these emotional truths that make all the difference. If the movement becomes predictable, the faces all look familiar and the organizing feels like drudgery—then it will have lost. For now, no one knows what will happen next. And that’s a wonderful thing.
ALSO IN THIS FORUM
Richard Kim: “The Occupy Spring?”
Michael Moore: “The Purpose of Occupy Wall Street Is to Occupy Wall Street”
Ilyse Hogue: “Occupy Is Dead! Long Live Occupy!”
Bill Fletcher Jr.: “Occupy the Imagination”
Todd Gitlin: “More Than a Protest Movement”
Frances Fox Piven: “Occupy! and Make Them Do It”
Stephen Lerner: “Horizontal Meets Vertical; Occupy Meets Establishment”
Jeremy Brecher: “Occupy Climate Change”
Jonathan Schell: “If Vaclav Havel Met Occupy's Human Mic...”