Occupy, After Occupy
The movement’s real accomplishment, however, has been even more significant than just “changing the conversation.” Because news reporters don’t make a habit of paying attention to grassroots activists the way they follow presidential exercise habits or wobbly stock tickers, they’re not attuned to the sea change brought about by Occupy. But people organizing for economic justice—especially young people—now know one another. They’ve practiced direct democracy in general assemblies and risked their bodies in direct action. They’re talking with each other over networks that they created themselves, as well as traveling together and building their capacity for future action.
“Occupy unleashed this heightened sense of resistance,” says Chris Longenecker, one of Occupy Wall Street’s busiest organizers before taking a break to drive a pedicab in Boston. “We’ve formed really close bonds.” Now those comrades are spread around the country, organizing locally but staying in touch.
Distance and time—as well as involvement in ongoing local struggles—have lessened many people’s attachment to the Occupy label. “I’ve been working with all the same people I worked with in Occupy,” said Kate Savage, who specialized in facilitating assemblies at Occupy Nashville, “only it’s not called ‘Occupy’ for a variety of reasons.” For many issues and on many fronts, onetime Occupiers are finding that the Occupy brand—and all the associations that come with it—can sometimes hurt more than it helps.
Thus, the internally splintering movement shows signs of morphing into a productively subdivided movement of movements. One example of this has been this summer’s escalating wave of direct actions against the worst culprits of the environmental crisis. For the first time, a fracking well was blockaded and shut down in Pennsylvania, and a mountaintop-removal coal mine in West Virginia, at the request of local residents, received similar treatment. The Keystone XL oil pipeline, which inspired protests at the White House last year, now has locals and out-of-towners putting their bodies in the way of construction in Texas. In New York State, the fight is against the Spectra pipeline, which would funnel explosive fracked natural gas into parts of Manhattan.
At each of these protests, Occupy veterans have brought their bravado, their experience and their networks with them. “Lots of folks are going from eco-action to eco-action,” said Longenecker. “They’re building their skill sets.”
The environmental campaigns are only one such beneficiary of the movement. Some Occupiers are serving as hired guns for big unions, helping to agitate in unusually militant campaigns against corporations and austerity budgets. Others are working to draw attention to the massive influx of corporate cash into the electoral system post–Citizens United, while still more are fighting the National Defense Authorization Act and have successfully challenged its most troubling provisions in federal court. Home liberation efforts are taking place around the country—from Occupiers’ support of a high-profile rent strike led by Latino women in Brooklyn to under-the-radar house reclamations in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side. Partly thanks to the light that Occupy Wall Street has shined on it, the NYPD’s use of a discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy has declined dramatically. Meanwhile, the Strike Debt campaign being mounted by Occupiers in New York is developing online memes and public assemblies meant to mobilize those suffering from predatory lending into a mass movement [see Astra Taylor's piece in this issue].
As a popular Occupy Wall Street poster proclaimed last fall, “All of our grievances are connected.” In that spirit, people who were once focused on only one of these issues have started working closely with those involved in others, stitching them together through action into a cohesive platform—even without a governing body or a political party.
Though they’ve been stepping outside their Occupy comfort zones in these campaigns, the people radicalized by the movement continue to reflect and strategize with like-minded comrades. Through Occupy Nashville, Kate Savage became part of the Anarchist Cotillion, a group meant “to support each other in terms of being political radicals,” she said. In New York, a regular reading group on direct action gathers at spaces often used for OWS meetings.
“There’s something every day of every week to follow, so much is going on,” said Joan Donovan, an organizer with Occupy LA and InterOccupy, a network that connects Occupiers around the world online and through conference calls. “Occupy has always felt to me like a social experiment, a beta test for a much larger-scale, global movement.” To this end, InterOccupy may eventually grow into “InterMovement,” making its tools available beyond the subculture of self- identified Occupiers. “The idea of occupation as a tactic—it had an expiration date,” she adds. “But what doesn’t are all the networks we can build.”
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While the uprising in Tahrir Square last year inspired American radicals to believe in the power of civil resistance, it also left us with a terrible misconception. News reports furnished the impression that, with the help of Silicon Valley’s latest gizmos, a revolution can begin and end inside of a month. The outcome thus far in Egypt, however, has been a painful reminder that this isn’t so. In fact, those who’d been preparing for revolution the longest—the Muslim Brotherhood—were the people most prepared to lead it. Here in the United States, the absence of total upheaval by the end of the fall has compelled those Occupiers who didn’t simply give up to recognize that transformational movements happen over the course of years, in fits and starts, through unpredictable outbursts that emerge from a backdrop of patient, nontelevised organizing.
Whether we call it “Occupy” or something else, the spirit that made so much sense to so many of us in the Occupy movement is only finished if we let it be—or if we wait for someone else to do it. Organizing with the people around us to build power and resist corruption is something we can all do, wherever we find ourselves. Imagine people sitting around their dinner tables, for example, discussing how corporate power might be vulnerable and ways of exploiting it. What would happen if some of the ingenuity that we normally put into making viral videos of cats—or weighing consumer choices, or simply complaining—went into building grassroots power or thinking about how to circumvent police repression? If a people-power campaign had as many Facebook followers as your average breakfast cereal, it would be a force to reckon with online. If there were as many people marching in the streets of a given city as regularly fill its football stadium, the whole city would have to listen. Revolution really isn’t as hard as it might seem.
Throughout the spring and into the summer, fresh inspiration came from movements abroad. The students in Quebec filled the streets of their cities night after night, and Occupiers banged on pots and pans in concert with them. In Mexico, another movement named after a hashtag, #YoSoy132, shook up the presidential elections. Members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot went to prison to remind Vladimir Putin that his days are numbered. Occupiers saw their own reflection in each of these, saw their movement as only one part of a larger nexus of movements all over the world.
Just a year ago, few people knew what a general assembly or an affinity group was; now many, many more have participated in one. Thousands have occupied public spaces and been arrested for their convictions who might otherwise have thought the police were there to protect them. Young people who were once merely interested in social change are now committed to it.
“A year ago, the movement was something I could schedule into my life,” said Marisa Holmes, a filmmaker in her mid-20s who was one of the original OWS planners. “Now the movement is my life.”
She and others planning for the anniversary celebrations around September 17 are trying to avoid overpromising, as they did for the one-day “general strike” attempted on May Day. S17, as it’s called, is being thought of less as a turning point than as a necessary milestone, a simple reminder of the duty to keep resisting. Rather than a May Day–style apocalypse, it’s more like a holy day of obligation.
They’re calling for people from around the country to converge on New York City for a weekend of music, art and organizing. Then, on Monday—S17 itself—they’ll show that “all roads lead to Wall Street” with civil disobedience in the Financial District. Until then, organizers are doing Occupy “99 Percent Pub Crawls” through the New York bar scene to spread the word and practice causing trouble.
“It’s largely symbolic; we’re not really shutting down Wall Street,” Holmes said. “That’s more long-term, not something you can do in one day.”
On August 1, I got a text message from David DeGraw, an organizer who led a little-known, Anonymous-fueled attempt to occupy Zuccotti Park in June 2011, before #occupywallstreet was even a hashtag. It said: “Any use for free tents? Have a thousand of them!!”
I don’t think this is over yet.