Analysis | Year One of Occupy Wall Street: ‘If this is failure, we need more of it.’

On Monday, thousands converged on New York's financial district to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Pham Binh reflects on the achievements and mistakes of the past twelve months and argues that far from being a failed experiment, OWS heralds a decade of revolutions and upheavals.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, September 20, 2012 0:00 - 3 Comments

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Occupy Wall Street protesters march on the streets near the New York Stock Exchange In New York City on September 17, 2012.(Photo: UPI/John Angelillo)

At 8 a.m. on September 17, 2012 (#S17), thousands of occupiers converged on the financial district and attempted to blockade the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Roving marches of hundreds choked off key intersections and over 100 arrests were made by the New York Police Department (NYPD). Fences and flex cuffs were their weapons of choice instead of batons and pepper spray, a reflection of the fact that heavy-handed tactics were a key reason that OWS won so much support, and copycat occupations spread across the country, and the world, in the fall of 2011.

Like any newborn grassroots uprising, OWS and its offshoots have struggled and stumbled due to external repression and internal difficulties. Occupied Wall Street Journal, the wildly popular OWS newspaper, is printing its last issue soon. The mainstream media continues to celebrate Occupy’s real difficulties with headlines like: “1 year on, Occupy is in disarray; spirit lives on.”

As anyone who ever spent time in Zuccotti Park during the encampment phase of Occupy knows, OWS was in disarray from day one. It continually teetered on the edge of implosion due to conflicting forces within or explosion by police forces without.

Organised chaos (or chaotic organisation) was always OWS’s calling card and it succeeded against all odds, against the predictions of professional pundits and the left’s commentariat. #S17 was a combination of winging it and careful planning beforehand by a cadre of local activists who have come to know and trust one another through the offensives and retreats over the past year.

The evictions were a devastating setback. Occupy has struggled mightily to recover from that blow over the past 10 months. Marxist and liberal commentators who argue that Occupy failed because it did not settle on talking points in the form of demands are sorely mistaken. Quite a few local General Assemblies (GAs) passed demands such as ending U.S. wars abroad and reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act that created a firewall between commercial and investment banking. When the police came knocking, these occupations were evicted just as quickly and easily as those that refused to bow to the demand for demands.

“The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organise a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action.” So said Malcolm X.

Police evictions forced a two-month old movement to confront difficulties and challenges it was too immature to deal with, akin to putting an infant just learning to walk in a track meet against trained athletes. Successfully resisting eviction would have required Tahrir Square numbers. Such a feat was simply beyond reach for Occupy, no matter what it said or did, since this country has not experienced sustained class or social struggle on a mass scale for almost half a century.

Occupy’s Byzantine modified consensus process worked well enough when people lived where they organised. During the encampment phase, it was possible to spend hours debating whether buying non-fair-trade trash bags to clean the camp was an unacceptable violation of the principles of solidarity.

As successive waves of people became fedup and disillusioned with GAs as unworkable and frustrating messes, they did not leave Occupy, they joined a working group, set up a People’s Library, took to playing guitars, singing or holding signs aimed at passersby. They found some other way to participate.

The evictions radically changed all this.

Suddenly, you had to be “in the know” to know where GAs were being held, where a working group was meeting, to occupy. An uprising that prided itself and succeeded due to its intransigent inclusiveness suddenly excluded everyone but the most hard core and dedicated.

When the link connecting all of Occupy’s disparate components together was severed by the evictions, the vanguard lost its close contact with the masses. Without a centralised hub, Occupy became truly decentralised, its related initiatives separating from one another and becoming sporadic (May 1, #S17) rather than ongoing (“all day, all week, Occupy Wall Street”).

In many places, post-eviction Occupy collapsed and dissipated altogether under the weight of an ironically bureaucratic horizontal process that did more to limit than facilitate action. The single biggest stumbling block has been the impulse among occupiers to retain the modified consensus process in spite of dramatically changed conditions that rendered what was once workable anything but. We kept playing our favourite wedding song even though we were at a funeral, and thanks to our seeming inability to outgrow old practices and our unwillingness our methods adapt to new situations, turnout collapsed as burnout skyrocketed.

To outside or distant observers, Occupy might appear to be dead or dying, a promising start that failed to accomplish much of anything. Some commentators concede that Occupy “changed the conversation” about class and political corruption in the U.S., but Candidate-President Obama continually talks about “the middle class” rather than the 99%, so even this is limited at best.

The reality is that Occupy brought more change in its first year than the mass movements in the previous decade – the alter-globalisation movement, the Iraq anti-war movement, and the immigrants rights upsurge that resulted in millions of immigrants (many of them undocumented) marching during work hours on May 1, 2006. Occupy saved dozens of homes and a black church in Atlanta from foreclosure; OWS helped end a lockout of New York City art handlers in the union’s favor; $4.5 billion dollars was removed from too big to fail banks and deposited into smaller banks and credit unions; the tide has finally turned against the NYPD’s racist stop-and-frisk program; May Day as a radical workers’ holiday celebrated on a mass scale was re-established by a “general strike.”

These are Occupy’s achievements.

If this is failure, we need more of it.

However, Occupy’s most important accomplishment is spiritual, emotional, inspirational. Its audacious, militant, and creative essence has infected both previously existing campaigns (fighting stop-and-frisk, the rent strike in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the showdown on the docks at Longview) and spawned entirely new, previously unthinkable initiatives like the seizure and reopening of a library in a predominantly brown immigrant neighborhood in Oakland.

Then there is the Chicago’s teacher’s strike and the massive anti-NATO demonstration that preceded it, both of which owe their success to the way Occupy changed the rules of the protest game. As Wall Street occupier Dana Balicki put it, “We’re not just another organisation co-sponsoring an event. We’re here to push the hardest and the farthest, to push the envelope, so others can fill in behind.”

A specter is haunting America – the specter of Occupy. Year one is not even the end of Occupy’s beginning. OWS heralds the coming decade’s revolutions and upheavals that will set the stage for the next big battle globally over who pays the price for the next synchronized recession.

Pham Binh is an Occupy Wall Street activist, socialist, and co-founder of the U.S. left unity project The North Star.

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Bring Back the Encampments, #Occupy the Vote
Nov 14, 2012 21:01

[...] might main just to survive. May Day’s general strike, the Chicago NATO protest, and #S17 were bright points in an otherwise dark sky, and our actions at the Democratic and Republican [...]

Beyond Capitalism, under Trotsky’s Shadow
Mar 25, 2013 20:01

[...] position in the 1920s to justify their hostility to the October Revolution. That Occupy would be unable to outgrow its bureaucratic horizontal process after the evictions rendered that process unworkable [...]

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