Breaking Up With Occupy
BK ROT’s first employee was Miguel, a high school junior with a round face and a quiet voice (who requested to be identified by a pseudonym). He grew up in a village near Puebla, Mexico, and moved to New Jersey at age 11. He’s been in Brooklyn for only a few months. Eventually he wants a job caring for animals in the wild. On the day of his first compost pickup, he wears a pink bandanna on his head.
At the first stop, Miguel and Sandy Nurse get off their bikes and root through a cluster of trash cans to find the green biodegradable compost bags. As they pick up the bags, Nurse grimaces at the smell, and Miguel laughs. Neighbors standing together on the sidewalk watch in silence, and Zak Solomon records a video of the scene on his smartphone.
According to Nurse, Solomon recognized that Occupy was losing steam before she did. “I was still kind of in the midst,” she says. “But he’d been through this a couple of times.” Having seen movements come and go, he knew it was time to get out of this one. He saw how corrosive the activist culture was becoming as people turned against one another and turned away from society’s real crises.
Not that he is out of it yet. Solomon continues to fight felony charges resulting from the New Year’s Eve protest party in Zuccotti Park more than a year ago. He is trying to go back to school for a master’s in social work, but no school has admitted him yet. In the meantime, he’s doing an internship, coaching a youth football team and driving a moving truck. “I’m in a holding pattern right now,” he says.
Among other things, Nurse and Solomon share an analysis. They see a contradiction between organizing among people who see issues like predatory lending and police brutality as abstractions, as do many activists in Occupy, and the fact that those who confront these issues every day are too burdened to be able to organize. The two have gradually drifted out of activism and into developing practical skills that can help people around them survive. They endured the bitter arguments about race and governance that rattled the Strike Debt group throughout the winter and spring. They’ve since broken their last ties to Occupy-affiliated projects, which seem to be falling apart one after another.
“We all came from the same traumatized network,” says Nurse. “People were very raw.”
One thing she likes about BK ROT is its sense of accountability, which never seemed to be there in Occupy. She has to be fair to the teens who work for her, to her subscribers and to the organizations that let her build compost bins on their land. She’s also glad to be doing something direct and useful, with her hands and legs. In Occupy, she says, “practical things were always put on the back burner. The abstract stuff—the big, the visionary—always pushed them to the side.”
Even so, she says, “I feel like I was a part of history, with others. I feel really proud of what we did there. I’m even proud of the mistakes.” Something like Occupy will come again, Nurse believes, and in the meantime she is trying to take care of herself so she can be ready for it.
After delivering the compost to handmade boxes in a cramped churchyard, Nurse gives Miguel his first check. He’s happy that he’ll be able to buy more minutes for his phone. After he leaves, Nurse smiles at Solomon. “We’re in the same boat,” she says—just trying to keep up with minutes.
In the tradition of better-known step programs, Bill Moyer’s system offers a circular remedy for despair: learn about the steps. Because then you’ll know that even in the middle of Stage Five, the Perception of Failure, you may already be in Stage Six, when your movement’s message has swayed the majority of public opinion. And that is just one step away from Stage Seven—Success.
Could this be the case with Occupy? Within weeks of its genesis, polls suggested that a majority of Americans supported the movement. More recently, President Obama’s second term has witnessed a renewal of rhetoric about income inequality. New Wall Street prosecutions are making headlines, and the Justice Department is taking steps to adjust drug sentencing practices that overwhelmingly harm poor people of color. None of these count as revolution—each is glaringly superficial—but they’re wins that can be chalked up, in part, to an Occupy-induced mood.
The fecundity that has always been part of Occupy presses on, though in a less breakneck manner. The movement’s chief finance pundit, Alexis Goldstein, appears on national television from time to time, such as in a recent episode of Real Time With Bill Maher alongside Barney Frank. A controversial new “Occupy Card” is soon to appear, offering a slick quasi-alternative to conventional banks. Many onetime Occupiers have continued their work with quieter, deeper kinds of organizing: resisting police brutality, setting up worker cooperatives, helping small towns resist the expansion of fracking and oil pipelines. They’ve also been filing reports from the trial of Bradley Manning, traveling to occupied Gezi Park in Istanbul, facing arrest in North Carolina’s Moral Mondays protests and occupying the Texas Capitol to protect abortion rights.
The movement has even maintained a fledgling presence in New York’s Financial District. A few Occupiers were arrested in late July for falling asleep in Zuccotti Park, and several blocks south the movement’s symbolic nemesis, the Charging Bull statue, is still kept in a protective cage of NYPD barricades.
Moyer and his eight stages strike a tone that’s alluring, and maybe too good to be true. “Although movements in the majority stage appear to be smaller and less effective,” he explained, “they actually undergo enormous growth in size and power. The extensive, seemingly invisible involvement at the grassroots level gives the movement its power at the national and international levels.”
No prosecuted banker or presidential talking point, however, seems to undo the pessimism about the fate of Occupy among those who created it. Most of them are simply trying to figure out how to survive.
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