Something is happening, but we don’t know yet what it is.
The first half of 2012 saw a wave of people-powered actions protesting foreclosures, evictions, racial profiling, student debt, union busting, climate change, war and other problems of the 99 percent. They were conducted by local and regional convergences of Occupy Wall Street, community, labor, and environment groups, and individuals who just showed up.
The actions reached a crescendo in April and May, following the “99% Spring” program, which aimed to train 100,000 activists in the history and techniques of nonviolent direct action. Thousands protested (and some were arrested) at Wells Fargo in Des Moines, GE in Detroit and many other corporate annual meetings. On April 24, for example, community, labor, environment and other groups, along with Occupy San Francisco, entered Wells Fargo’s annual general shareholder’s meeting, mic-checked CEO John Stumpf, and held up the meeting by laying out the grievances of the 99 percent against the bank. Downtown bank janitors struck and joined the action. On May 1, 30,000 New Yorkers and people in 125 other cities joined May Day protests initiated by Occupy, unions and allies. Calling NATO the “armed wing of the 1 percent,” thousands protested the NATO summit in Chicago in late May, demanded an end to the war in Afghanistan and called for a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial transactions. That same weekend a thousand people from around the country paid an uninvited visit to the Bethesda, Maryland, home of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner demanding a financial transactions tax, principal reductions for underwater homeowners and an investigation of the bankers who caused the mortgage crisis.
These actions are continuing, albeit at a slower pace. On June 17 in New York, for example, a line of thousands stretching for twenty blocks marched silently down Fifth Avenue to protest the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies; 299 organizations, notably unions, civil rights groups, student organizations, Occupy Wall Street, Common Cause, religious groups, gay and lesbian activists, and representatives from the Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Arab and Jewish communities endorsed the actions.
While protests are nothing new, many of these actions represent a new formation based on direct action by a broad coalition targeting not so much the government as the centers of power that control and manipulate the government. This new formation is not just Occupy Wall Street, but it’s not the progressive wing of the Democratic Party either.
And while the elections in November make it tempting to interpret the significance of these actions primarily in terms of their impact on the electoral process—indeed, Occupy’s language of inequality has already altered the rhetorical landscape—there is much more to them than that.
A Non-Electoral Opposition
Movements based on nonviolent direct action, like the labor movement in the 1930s and the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s, have often served as the equivalent of an “opposition party” in America. Such a “non-electoral opposition” can play some of the critical roles of a political party, bringing together different constituencies around common interests and presenting a critique of existing policies and institutions—and alternatives—to the broader public.