The 99 Percent Organize Themselves

The 99 Percent Organize Themselves

Besides sleeping in a park, what should those of us sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street be doing to advance the well-being of the 99 percent?


In mid-October I spent two days and a night with Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park. Since then I’ve read a barrage of advice for what OWS and its companion movements around the world should be doing. But I’ve been haunted by another question: What should those of us who are sympathetic to OWS (according to polls, roughly two-thirds of Americans are), but are not going to relocate to a downtown park, be doing to advance the well-being of the 99 percent?

I got one part of my answer as I groggily logged on to the web at 5:30 the morning after I returned home from Zuccotti Park. When I left the park, its private owner Brookfield Properties had announced it would clear the park “for cleaning” and enforce rules preventing tarps, sleeping bags and lying down. Mayor Bloomberg said the NYPD would enforce those rules, effectively ending the encampment.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the eviction. When OWS put out a call for support, thousands of people began to converge on the park for nonviolent resistance to eviction. Unions called on their members to protect the encampment. The president of the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council lobbied the city to cancel the crackdown. Lawyers prepared to bring suit to protect the occupiers’ First Amendment rights. City council members and other New York politicians lobbied the mayor to halt the eviction. Against all expectation, Mayor Bloomberg announced that Brookfield was abandoning the “cleanup” plan and the company announced it would try to reach an accommodation with the occupiers. The mobilization of supporters had forced the mayor and the park owners to back down. I had my first answer to what the rest of the 99 percent can do: protect the occupations.

Since then, there have been similar mobilizations to protect occupations in cities from Atlanta to Oakland. Many have involved a similar combination of public officials, trade unions and rank-and-file 99 percenters just showing up to defend their rights. In one extraordinary case, law enforcement officials themselves were responsible for saving the Occupy Albany encampment in Academy Park across from the State Capitol and City Hall. As protests grew, Police Chief Steven Krokoff issued an internal memo stating, “I have no intention of assigning officers to monitor, watch, videotape or influence any behavior that is conducted by our citizens peacefully demonstrating in Academy Park” and that the department would respond “in the same manner that we do on a daily basis” to any reported crime.

According to the Albany Times-Union, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, under pressure from the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo, thereupon directed city police to arrest several hundred Occupy Albany protesters. The police refused. The Times-Union reported that “State Police supported the defiant posture of Albany police leaders to hold off making arrests for the low-level offense of trespassing, in part because of concern it could incite a riot or draw thousands of protesters in a backlash that could endanger police and the public.” According to the official, “The bottom line is the police know policing, not the governor and not the mayor.” Meanwhile, Albany County District Attorney David Soares informed the mayor and police officials that, “Unless there is property damage or injuries to law enforcement we don’t prosecute people for protesting.”

A 99 Percent Movement?

I remember well how the movement against the Vietnam war, so powerful among the youth on America’s campuses in the 1960s, was largely isolated from the rest of the country. Something very different is happening right now, however: the Occupy movements have been building alliances through direct action mutual aid. And 99 percenters are connecting with them and utilizing their spirit and methods to contest their own injustices. The result is that OWS, instead of becoming isolated, is morphing before our eyes into what some are calling the 99 Percent Movement.

When Rose Gudiel received an eviction notice for her modest home in La Puente, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, she announced, “We’re not leaving.” She and her family hunkered down while dozens of friends and supporters camped in their yard, determined to resist. When thousands started to gather outside Los Angeles City Hall to launch Occupy LA, Rose Gudiel went down and told her story to one of its first General Assemblies. A group from Occupy LA joined the vigil at her home and some stayed to camp out. Next Rose Gudiel and an Occupy LA delegation protested in front of the $26 million dollar Bel Air mansion of Steve Mnuchin, CEO of OneWest, which serviced her mortgage. The next day they held a sit-in at the Pasadena regional office of Fannie Mae, where Rose Gudiel’s 63-year-old disabled mother, made an impassioned plea to save her home and nine protesters were arrested—all broadcast that night on the TV news. The next day Rose Gudiel received a letter from the bank saying her eviction had been called off and soon she had a deal for a renegotiated mortgage. Housing advocates are now considering a campaign called “Let a thousand Roses bloom.” MSNBC commented that Rose Gudiel provides “an example of how the sprawling “Occupy” movement—often criticized for its lack of focus—can lend muscle to specific goals pursued by organizations and individuals.”

An alliance has been developing between the occupations around the country and many different layers of organized labor. In New York a group from OWS joined a march of 500 to a Verizon store held to support the contract campaign of Verizon workers. “We’re all in this together,” 53-year-old Steven Jackman, a Verizon worker from Long Island, said about Occupy Wall Street. In Albany, New York, Occupy Albany joined a protest outside the State Capitol featuring a roasted pig wearing a gold top hat, sporting a gold chain and chomping on a cigar. The adoption of OWS themes and language was apparent. A local union official said, “The corporate pig’s been out there, taking a bite out of America, out of the 99 percent, for years and I’m inviting all of the 99 percent of America to come on down today and take a bite out of the corporate pig.”

The collaboration of OWS and labor can take some unusual forms. To support art handlers of the Teamsters’ union, activists from OWS started showing up at Sotheby’s auctions, masquerading as clients. They would suddenly stand up and, instead of offering a bid, disrupt the proceedings with loud denunciations of the company’s labor practices. OWS activists likewise went to a Manhattan restaurant owned by a prominent Sotheby’s board member, clinked on glasses for silence, and then denounced the company as a union-buster. Jason Ide, president of the Teamsters local that represents the art handlers, told the Washington Post that the Occupy tactics surprised and inspired him and his members—so much so that the workers have become regulars at OWS. “Now is this rare opportunity for labor unions, and especially the union leadership, to take some pointers,” for example by considering the civil-disobedience approach taken by Occupy demonstrations.

Meanwhile, a close working relationship has developed between climate and environmental activists and the Occupy movement. A number of environmental activists, including Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, were early endorses of the Occupy movement, and a delegation from Occupy DC marched to join a rally against the Keystone XL pipeline. Next a group of students and climate activists organized an “#OccupyStateDept” action and occupied the area outside the Ronald Reagan Building overnight to protest the Keystone XL pipeline—and to secure admission to a hearing on the pipeline the next day. Ethan Nuss, who had stood in line for fourteen hours, told the hearing, “Every day I wake up and work for a vision in this country of a 100 percent clean energy economy that will create jobs for my generation when my generation is facing the largest unemployment since the Great Depression.” Bill McKibben urged pipeline opponents to join the Occupy DC encampment and invited Occupy DC to join the upcoming anti-pipeline action at the White House.

Bringing It All Back Home

Just as workers, community residents, students, and even housewives in the 1930s adopted the “sit-down strike” to address their grievances, so the robust but nonviolent direct action of the Occupy movements is being adopted by diverse communities and constituencies to address their own concerns. For example, a hundred students and teachers recently occupied a New York Board of Education meeting to protest budget cutbacks, layoffs, large class sizes and overemphasis on standardized testing. After the city school chancellor and school board members fled the meeting, the crowd held an impromptu “general assembly.” Her voice amplified by the echo of the “people’s microphone,” an elementary school student named Indigo told the assembly,

“Mic check. I’m Indigo, and I am an 8-year-old third grader, and I’m sad Ms. Cunningham is doing work for free. I don’t think it’s fair that teachers are getting laid off. The thing that would help me learn more would be if we had smaller classes. My teacher, Ms. Lamar, has to shout to be heard.”

99 percenters are also bringing the OWS message back into their own communities. For example, OWSers joined a protest in Harlem against “stop and frisk” racial profiling by law enforcement officials. Soon, activists began holding Occupy Harlem General Assemblies. And civil rights and labor groups, including the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the National Action Network and the New York State and New York City chapters of the NAACP organized their own rally in City Hall Park and marched to the Zuccotti Park to show their support for the OWS movement.

Occupy College provides another example of how 99 percenters are taking the Occupy message—and mode of self-organization — into other arenas. It is organized both to support the occupations around the country and around the world, and to address the specific issues affecting college students like the cost of education and the burden of college debt that have been important themes of the Occupy movements. Occupy College has established a website and is initiating national solidarity teach-ins in early November at colleges around the country.

While there has been a lot of debate in recent years about face-to-face vs. Internet organizing, in fact the Occupy and 99-percenter movements have brilliantly combined the two. While many Occupy groups and General Assemblies have been highly local, there is also widespread self-organization occurring on the web by groups such “Knitters for Occupy Wall St” and “Knitters for the 99 Percent” linking people all over the country who are making warm clothes for the occupiers. Here are some ways 99 percenters might want to think about organizing with their own real and virtual communities:

  • Bring a speaker from your local Occupy group to a meeting in your living room or to whatever organizations you belong to.
  • Organize a General Assembly in your neighborhood to discuss the issues of the 99 percent. Discuss what is upsetting people and decide on some concrete action to address it.
  • If your PTA supports teachers’ jobs and programs for low-income students, get them to visit their political representatives and also do a joint action with your local Occupy group.
  • If your church’s food pantry or homeless shelter needs money, hold an action at your local bank offices demanding that they feed the homeless in “their” community. If they won’t, ask your elected officials to take a look at the benefits they receive from “their” community. (Remember, according to Mayor Bloomberg it was the threat of city council officials to look into benefits received by the owners of Zuccotti Park that led them to back off their efforts to shut down OWS.)
  • Create a Facebook page for your own equivalent of “Knitters for the 99 Percent.”
  • Create a group to monitor local media and to protest when they favor the concerns of the 1 percent over those of the 99 percent.
  • Organize public hearings in your town about what’s really happening to the 99 percent and how the 1 percent’s power is affecting them.
  • Create your own temporary occupations in your own milieu addressing concerns about housing, jobs, media or whatever else concerns you and your fellow 99 percenters.

While the connections that have developed with unions are of great importance, we need to remember that the great majority of 99 percenters don’t have unions. Self-organization of non-union workers is a crucial next step. Take some of your co-workers down to visit your local occupation. Invite someone from your local Occupy group to meet with people from your workplace. Discuss what support you can give each other and the 99-Percent movement.

The Power of the Powerless

There is clearly a bigger movement growing out of the Occupy movement. But how will it develop? Some expect it to become like the Tea Party, a pressure group within the political party system. Others imagine something like the Tahrir Square demonstrations that toppled the Mubarak regime in one concentrated upheaval.

Neither of these visions takes enough account of the role of “secondary institutions”—schools, religious congregations, workplaces, communities, ethnic groups, and subcultures—in American society. The cooperation and acquiescence of these institutions provide the “pillars of support” on which both the government and the corporations depend—and through which their power can be humbled. And they provide arenas in which people can make change that will genuinely affect their lives long before they are powerful enough to defeat corporate control of national politics.

In our top-down, corporate-controlled political system, even our political parties and local governments can be considered secondary institutions. Those who are active in political parties and organizations can play a role supporting the Occupy movements and addressing the needs of the 99 percent. You can invite a speaker from your local Occupation group; support them in the street; and insist your organization’s leaders and the politicians it supports take a pro-Occupation stand. You can identify ways in which your organization and those it supports acquiesce in the interests of the 1 percent and demand that they stop.

The same is true of local governments. In Los Angeles, for example, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting “the continuation of the peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights” of the Occupy LA.

Beyond that, local governments and political parties can start pursuing the interests of the 99 percent and stop supporting those of the one percent. In Los Angeles, for example, the same night the city council voted to endorse Occupy LA, it also reaffirmed its support for a “Responsible Banking Initiative,” which would leverage the city’s over $25 billion in pension and cash investments to pressure banks to invest in the city. Moving city funds to nonprofit development banks is also being discussed.

In Brooklyn, Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez proposed a millionaire’s tax to raise $4 billion to prevent the cutting of vital social services. Absent such a tax, he proposed a $4 billion fund to be voluntarily contributed by 400 companies in the financial sector each contributing $5 million to $10 million for three years to create jobs, fix infrastructure and build affordable housing. He did not say how the companies would be persuaded to contribute, but his proposal was made at the start of a march from the Brooklyn Borough Hall across the Brooklyn Bridge to Wall Street.

I remember when, during the Vietnam War millions of people joined the monthly demonstrations and “work breaks” known as the Vietnam Moratorium—only to have the national leadership shut it down and move into electoral politics. Although some politicians and labor leaders have called for OWSers to campaign for Obama or the Democratic Party, such a shift is unlikely to happen to the Occupy movement. For those who want that to happen, their best strategy will be to make Obama and the Democratic Party something the Occupy movement (and the rest of the 99 percent) believe is worth supporting. Start freezing foreclosures, taxing the rich, creating new public works jobs and housing the homeless. Build an alternative to corporate greed and they will come.

Winter Soldiers

The occupations have been incredibly successful. But nothing can fail like success. Z magazine founder Michael Albert, just returned from conversations with protest veterans in Greece, Turkey, London, Dublin and Spain, reports he was told that their massive assemblies and occupations at first were invigorating and uplifting. “We were creating a new community. We were making new friends. We were hearing from new people.” But as days and weeks passed, “it got too familiar. And it wasn’t obvious what more they could do.”

Besides boredom (rarely a problem so far), winter is coming. I can testify just from sleeping out on one rainy night in October that, whatever the occupiers’ determination, it’s going to be tough. Some will need to create sturdier encampments better protected against the elements. Some will need to come inside.

When a threatened army successfully repositions itself it is a victory, not a defeat. What matters is that the social forces that have made OWS and its kin continue their feisty, imaginative, nonviolent reclaiming of public space by marches, occupations and other forms of direct action without getting pinned down in positions they can’t sustain. That way they can continue their crucial role in inspiring the rest of us 99 percenters to organize ourselves.

For that, they need help right now from the rest of us 99 percenters. In New York, there is now a campaign to let the protesters stay and set up tents. Elsewhere possibilities for using indoor spaces where occupiers can “come in from the cold” (with or without official permission) are being explored. Occupiers need both material aid and political pressure from unions, religious groups and ordinary 99 percenters to make the transition to the next phase.

In 1932 at the pit of the Great Depression, labor journalist Charles R. Walker visited “Hoovervilles” and unemployed workers’ organizations around the country. He predicted:

There will be increasing outbursts of employed and unemployed alike—a kind of spontaneous democracy expressing itself in organized demonstrations by large masses of people.” They will “march or meet in order, elect their own spokesmen and committees, and work out in detail their demands for work or relief. They will present their formulated needs to factory superintendents, relief commissions, and city councils, and to the government at Washington.

What Walker called a “rough and ready democracy” is what OWS and its progeny around the country are creating today.

The unemployed councils Walker described lasted only a few years, but from them sprang the Workers Alliance, a hybrid of a trade union for workers on government public works projects and a welfare rights organization. It in turn was a crucial springboard for the industrial union movement that would transform the US economic and political system.

The Occupy movement is not unlikely to last forever, nor would it be a good thing if it did. It could be forgotten like so many movements of the past. But it instead it could be remembered as the progenitor of the 99 Percent Movement. That depends on the rest of us 99 percenters.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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