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More Than a Protest Movement

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The Occupy Spring: Todd Gitlin
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Occupy must become a full-service movement. It must offer meaningful work to a vast range of supporters, from nonviolent direct-action enthusiasts to occasional protesters at stockholder meetings to signers of petitions and campaigners, in order to drive big money out of politics. It must be more than a protest movement. After a brilliant start, it must continue engaging America in what amounts to a moral as well as a political upheaval. It must think of itself as an awakening that challenges people at every level not to tell Occupy what to do but to ask themselves what they will do, individually and together, to revive values more decent than “enrich yourself.”

About the Author

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology, is chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia. His...

 

It’s not a bad idea to restate Occupy’s core principle: it is a movement on behalf of the thwarted 99 percent against the dominant institutions that fatten the 1 percent. It aims to bring to an end the grotesque state of affairs in which the burden of big money crushes democracy and to depose the forces that produced economic catastrophe, along with their shabby ideas and financial delirium. It knows, in the words of one sign, “The system isn’t broken, it’s fixed.”

To take on a warped state of affairs that has been decades in the making will take decades. Such a tall order requires an organizational evolution. The kind of face-to-face meetings that flourished in the encampments and may yet flourish there again are both necessary and inadequate for a mass movement. Occupy should develop national communication networks that can decide on coordinated actions. Supermajorities, not unanimities, should decide. Technology should be explored to expedite debates in which Occupiers engage one another and don’t just skip from person to person expressing opinions helter-skelter.

In the realm of direct action, it’s crucial to gather new circles of supporters by winning tangible victories. One priority is to fight for live-in victories, as Occupy Our Homes, Take Back the Land and other networks are doing. There has already been, in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Seattle, California and elsewhere, considerable success at creating what are, in effect, functional little encampments that stop illicit foreclosures, auctions and evictions. Committed people in Brooklyn and other neighborhoods are forming electronic networks to mobilize people as needed to prevent evictions.

Occupy Student Debt, which asks students to sign a pledge to renounce their student loans once 1 million signatures are reached, is another good way to go. The impediments are many. The pressure of personal guilt stops many from renouncing what seemed the only conceivable ladder to upward mobility, and student debt has been rigged to be exempt from bankruptcy. But the principle is worth exploring: people who have skin in the game must step up.

It’s promising that Occupy networks are coordinating actions that target particularly egregious and vulnerable 1 percent institutions. (Bank of America, barely afloat on a raft of bad paper, seems one promising candidate. Why should it be preserved?) Proposed actions run from getting depositors to move money from the monster banks (already somewhat successful) to getting pension funds to move their money to pop-up brick-and-mortar occupations to occupying shareholder meetings of various deserving corporations. National coordination would be a help in providing a focus and thus winning the attention of corporate media, which, while reduced in influence, still matter.

Some face-to-face encampments continue to matter, too. Occupiers need to meet and learn from one another, listen, talk, perform, enjoy. The occupations also need to secure themselves against criminal activity that does not serve the movement’s larger purposes. Being in public means not only that; it means that you’re a billboard for the movement, a billboard flooded with media, a billboard that sends messages to lots of people who have little idea what Occupy stands for.

I argued before in these pages [“Occupy Nonviolence,” February 27] that, to paraphrase one recent slogan, the 99 percent must be 100 percent nonviolent. So offers of nonviolent training by MoveOn and other OWS allies should be gratefully accepted. Co-optation fears should be aired, of course, but in the present context, they are marginal and should be laid aside in favor of mutually beneficial work. Moreover, since belligerent, oversupplied police, agents provocateurs and masked resisters of police-state tactics in Chicago for NATO, and Charlotte and Tampa for the conventions, are likely to provoke riotous outbreaks that can tar the whole movement, might there not be particular on-the-spot use for Occupy Marines, Occupy the Police and other Occupy supporters trained in discipline to stand at the ready to contain and nonviolently quell any outbreaks of property damage? Don’t just renounce violence—seal it off.

While talk of a May 1 general strike is catnip for revolutionaries, Occupy aid to worker movements is a prime way to relate to the employed. One example: on February 24, Chicago Occupiers supported a UE local occupying the Serious Materials window plant to stop closure. General strikes should not be declared except by organized or organizing workers.

Finally, the spirit of Occupy belongs in the political campaigns even as activists will disagree about which ones deserve support. Networks in and around Occupy should support candidates who pledge to push money out of politics, to make taxes far more progressive, to regulate banks far more stringently than Dodd-Frank. Occupy will never collapse into electoral campaigns. It need not be phobic about co-optation.

The American people are not shopping for vanguards. They do not await signals to raise the ante for ever more militant action or revolutionary upheaval. What they do await is plausible hope. Winning them to the cause of substantial change requires constant recognition that great things will have to be achieved by the Americans we have, not the Americans we wish to have.

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