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Sarah Jaffe | Post-Occupied

Is “Occupy” over? Or are its many offshoots learning the arts of community rootedness and power building?

Occupy is a Rorschach; it has been since the beginning. To the question – “Where is Occupy now?” – one receives as many answers as there are activists, as many definitions of Occupy as there are offshoots across the country. It is, most will say, the wrong question. Occupy was a formative moment for the 21st century American left, and for young people growing up under austerity, unsure how to act politically on their debt and frustration. Occupy’s 99% versus 1% sloganeering was a bracing retort to mealy-mouthed paeans to the “middle class.” Yet Occupy did not happen in a vacuum, and any attempt to analyze it in one will fail.

That original moment where Occupy felt huge and magical is gone and no one disputes that; its organizers have settled into longer-haul projects that often do, in fact, have measurable goals. “I remember, I wish[ed] I had more of an imagination, because it seemed like whatever idea we had in that space [in Zuccotti Park] we could make happen, and we did,” says Mary Clinton, a labor organizer who helped plan Occupy Wall Street. “After the eviction, where did we go? We went back to workplaces; we were in schools; we were in communities; we were in the streets; we were occupying homes, doing eviction defenses – workplace organizing, things that are arguably even more challenging to capital.”

The paradox of Occupy is that many of the things that made it succeed also made it splinter.

“The failure narrative is predictable; no matter what we do, there’s a certain timeline where after you pass month three, they’ll start writing the obituaries,” shrugs Thomas Gokey, an organizer with Strike Debt, an Occupy offshoot focused on the problem of personal debt. Organizer Yotam Marom adds, “I think there’s a question of how to prepare people to fail well, and I think that we didn’t do so well.”

The paradox of Occupy is that many of the things that made it succeed also made it splinter. The attraction to a “leaderless” movement was palpable, and the lack of demands made it possible for anyone to join in as long as they agreed with the basic premise that a tiny elite has too much power. Yet the idea of leaderlessness, as so many have written, masks the ways power continues to operate, and the lack of demands wound up as a refusal, oftentimes, to deal at all with existing systems.

The guilty verdict, on May 5, for occupier Cecily McMillan, accused of assaulting a New York City police officer who was arresting her on March 17, 2012, as the park was being cleared, brought up a harsh reminder of the other reason Occupy’s crowds faded. McMillan and her lawyers contended that she elbowed the officer after he grabbed her breast from behind, but video of McMillan writhing on the pavement in an apparent seizure after her arrest was not allowed to be shown in court. Nor did the judge allow discussion of the arresting officer’s record. (He is being sued by another Occupier, Austin Guest, for abuses on that same day.)

Shawn Carrié won $82,500 from the NYPD to settle a lawsuit that included claims that he’d been stalked by police officers and his thumb had been gruesomely – he says intentionally – broken, ruining his future as a pianist. And that’s only one of many settlements New York has paid. The city of Oakland paid out $1.17 million in July to settle Occupy Oakland-related suits. For Carrié, it shows how much people were willing to put on the line. “I think it speaks to the power of the ideas that the movement had and the extent to which the police will go to suppress it.”

Breakdowns around race, gender, sexuality, ability, gender identity and more appeared in Occupy as they do everywhere; questions of privilege were no less explosive in the parks or in the years that followed. Pam Brown, a founding member of Strike Debt, notes that planning effective actions and tactics is hard when not everyone shares the same analysis of capitalism and how its power operates.

There are concrete gains that can be credited, at least in part, to the movement.

Occupy’s diverse internal politics has produced sub-groups across the spectrum. And many activists have joined pre-existing structures, getting a job as an organizer with a union or a community group, or focusing one’s action on one particular issue. To ask, “Where is Occupy now?” is, in some ways, to miss the forest searching for a few specific trees.

Realizing Occupy

There are concrete gains that can be credited, at least in part, to the movement. The most high-profile legislative success belonged to an Occupy working group called “Occupy the SEC.” Alexis Goldstein, a former Wall Streeter-turned-Occupier, helped write that group’s comment letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission that is cited repeatedly in the final version of the Volcker Rule, one of the many rules required by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill that finally, last December, came into existence. The Volcker Rule’s aim is to prevent banks that get taxpayer backing from getting to make risky trades – or, as Goldstein wrote at The Nation, “banks that have a taxpayer-provided parachute don’t get to BASE jump off of mountains for the thrill (and profit) of it.”

Goldstein says, “It’s clear that if nothing else, we shifted the Overton window a little bit to the left. The banks didn’t get what they want because we wanted something else from the other extreme, and so the result was something in the middle.” Regulations about hedging, about the level of bank oversight, documentation provided to regulators and more made it into the final rule, and in several places Occupy the SEC is cited by itself. The work of finance wonks was backed up by a movement in the streets, she says, focusing anger on the banks and bringing media attention to their letter, which they’d never have gotten as a small group of concerned citizens.

Goldstein also thinks that the rise of Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s new socialist city council member, is in part an Occupy victory; Sawant was part of Occupy Seattle and helped relocate that group to the community college where she teaches. Occupy did not embrace an electoral strategy, but the electability of socialist candidates owes something to Occupy’s radical critique. Less radical politicians, too, may owe some thanks to a movement that targeted banks; the popularity of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the moves of Sen. Sherrod Brown and others to introduce new regulations on Wall Street banks’ size and power.

One can count successes, too, in homes defended from foreclosure; in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, Occupy Homes has scored 11 victories over banks to keep homeowners in their homes. Since the second week of Occupy Minneapolis, Occupy Homes MN has been fine-tuning its strategy for saving homes from foreclosure and moving into occupying vacant homes, as well (as of this writing, they hold five).

Nick Espinosa, one of the Occupy Homes MN organizers, explains that they combine physical occupations of the homes with public pressure campaigns, neighborhood organizing (getting the neighbors to support the occupied home in their midst) and political organizing to build a base of support. “We think homes should not sit vacant, that they should be used to house people, especially in a Minnesota winter where people are freezing to death and there are more empty houses than homeless people,” he says.

“Occupy changed the conversation” can feel like cold comfort when each month’s unemployment numbers hit.

The homes work in particular combines a big-picture vision of long-term systemic change with the challenge of making reforms right now that will benefit people immediately and in some cases, save lives. Atlanta, too, has a thriving Occupy Homes movement, and elsewhere it is slowly gaining favor.

This may sound like a far cry from the original vision of the park, where any demand was seen as too small. If Occupy’s critics demand larger wins than these, it is only partly in bad faith. It is also because the moment did really feel grander, bigger, as if anything was possible, and now we have had to bring our expectations back down to earth. No, capitalism wasn’t overthrown; Wall Street’s power still remains – and Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein even still have their jobs. And the perpetual refrain of “Occupy changed the conversation” can feel like cold comfort when each month’s unemployment numbers hit.

Yet people are still struggling together, to build new institutions or organizations, trying to figure out ways to solve the problems that haven’t gone away. Pointing out what went wrong, Strike Debt organizer Astra Taylor notes, is much easier than figuring out how to make it right. The small victories that have come happened because the pressure of a movement of people was brought to bear on a specific target; Occupy the SEC did not need everyone in Zuccotti Park to agree to have weight. Occupy Homes turned the tactic of occupation itself around and used it to win individual campaigns, using the willingness to physically challenge police and bank power to hold homes.

Lessons from Occupy apply to new movements as well. Occupier and longtime organizer Nelini Stamp suggests that Moral Mondays, the series of actions in North Carolina that protest, week after week, the moves made by the right-wing government, learned important lessons from Occupy’s slipups. “Just one time a week, people got arrested, but it was very loving, ‘We have the moral right to do this,’ it wasn’t angry,” Stamp says of Moral Mondays. And in Florida, the Dream Defenders, a movement built by young people – some of whom came from Occupy Tallahassee – calling for justice after the killing of Trayvon Martin, took the capitol building, but made the decision to leave when morale started to slide – before a brutal crackdown or visible failure.

Solidarity or Charity? Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt

The first iteration of Occupy dealt with the issues of community and democracy, building collective spaces that reflected activists’ values. The second iteration’s two most public faces were Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt, both of which tried to organize through mutual aid.

After Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, it is now well known that the Occupy Wall Street network jumped back into action, building community hubs in Brooklyn and Queens that distributed food, clothing and other supplies to survivors in the immediate wake of the storm, and raised money to help with rebuilding efforts. Skills first honed in the park – feeding hundreds and distributing supplies and divvying up donations – translated easily to filling the gaps left by the failures of state and federal agencies and the major NGOs.

The movement attempted to operate out of “solidarity, not charity,” emphasizing the difference between mutual aid and do-gooderism and attempting to be aware of the power relations inherent in most charity work. Staten Island, Red Hook and the Rockaways not only contain some of the poorest parts of New York City; particularly in the Rockaways, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and halfway houses for the recently incarcerated are concentrated, but healthcare services and access to food are sparse.

Both Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt, which together with the Rolling Jubilee bought up personal debt for pennies on the dollar on the secondary market and then abolished it, aimed to use these actions as an entry into further organizing, and each at first at least succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Rolling Jubilee raised over $600,000, and Occupy Sandy raised over $1 million to help hundreds of New Yorkers.

Both Astra Taylor and Pam Brown felt that something had been unleashed with the Jubilee – something that proved that debt was an issue that people connected to, but also something that was outside of their control. “We got so much more money than we ever anticipated,” Brown says. “More than 10 times the amount that we thought was a far reach.” Their critics honed in on the processes for buying debt, raising questions of whether people whose debt was abolished would have to pay taxes on the “gift,” and accountability for the money, and that responsibility both helped pull Strike Debt together and exacerbated tensions within the group.

The idea of the Jubilee had never been that massive debt forgiveness was possible this way – only certain types of debt, such as medical debt, which wound up being the type of debt the Jubilee abolished, are available on the secondary market, and debt in general is a massive problem. Rather, the organizers wanted to raise awareness of the issue (which the success of the Jubilee certainly did) and create some room for organizing. Through an act of mutual aid, they hoped to bring new debtors into the movement. However, although many people donated, few of them joined and became organizers. A tighter-knit core doesn’t necessarily translate into a broad-based movement.

Doing good deeds is a good thing, but, in fact, charity replacing state action is deeply embedded in right-wing ideology that privileges individual choice over collective responsibility.

The questions raised by the Jubilee and its problems, Taylor says, are ones Strike Debt is still grappling with. “Where does power hook up with spectacle? Where does power hook up with good deeds and abolishing individuals’ debt?”

That became a key question both for Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy. For Shawn Carrié, the work on Sandy – which he participated in – wound up distracting from, not contributing to, political organizing. “It’s important work, but the situation is a crisis, and it’s a crisis of capitalism, and [hurricane relief work] is not changing our relation to the economy and society.”

Brown articulates a similar critique of many second-generation Occupy-related projects. “People start to feel really good about the aspect of helping others and forgot that it was actually a political project and not a charity.” Doing good deeds is a good thing, but, in fact, charity replacing state action is deeply embedded in right-wing ideology that privileges individual choice over collective responsibility.

As much as organizers emphasized mutual aid rather than charity, you can’t force people who are facing disaster to hold up your idea of their end of the bargain; the minute you start attaching strings, you’re no better than the aid agencies that demand reams of paperwork before you can get your money. Doing charity wasn’t a bad thing – it saved lives. Thousands of volunteers and thousands of dollars came through Occupy Sandy, and most of those volunteers knew next to nothing about organizing. One of the reasons to provide political training to volunteers going into communities like the Rockaways is that even the most well-meaning volunteers can reproduce white supremacist power dynamics, and it’s hard to ask for trust when you’re unknowingly hurting the people you’re trying to help.

Despite the work people of color did in founding many of these working groups, the movement as a whole was perceived as a white movement, and Strike Debt, too, faced that challenge. Brown, who worked on a Strike Debt report on the debt burden carried by people in areas hit by Sandy, left that group when she felt it was not prioritizing those most impacted by financial disaster – debt, she notes, intersects with other forms of oppression, particularly racist oppression.

“We’re pretty good at spectacle, we’re pretty damn good at charity. We’re good at constructive action. The real interesting question is the question of power and how you have that.”

Just as in the first iteration of Occupy, the masses faded away and left a small core building for the longer term. In the Rockaways, rather like Occupy Homes, organizers have met people where they live and focused on building an institution that will last and earn tangible wins, a community organization called Rockaway Wildfire that is pushing for development projects in the Rockaways post-Sandy to benefit the people who already live there and whose lives were devastated by Sandy.

Astra Taylor says, “We’re pretty good at spectacle, we’re pretty damn good at charity. We’re good at constructive action. The real interesting question is the question of power and how you have that.”

Building New Institutions: Occupy Power

If the original power of Occupy was in part the power of surprise, that is gone. The masses who were drawn in by the original explosion of Occupy or by Occupy Sandy or the Rolling Jubilee are also mostly gone, without an obvious way to tap into a movement other than Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags.

“People say that the core of the movement is the people who are the ones there all the time going to all the meetings, super involved and known publicly as the core of the movement,” Shawn Carrié says. “I think it’s the opposite. I think the people who are the core of a mass movement are the ones who maybe hear about something and show up to a protest because that idea resonates with them; they will come out and even put themselves on the line.”

So what now, with the masses gone? Nick Espinosa says that the key is figuring out how to create new institutions. “I think there’s a natural tendency to be anti-institutional and to want to dismantle systems of power because they’ve been used to exploit and colonize and destroy community all over the planet,” he says. “The reality is that we can’t change the world without institutions that are democratically accountable to the movement and that have real power.”

Building power for the movement means understanding the way power is wielded in the world right now; it means understanding, Pam Brown notes, not just the state and not just corporate power, but the relationships between the state and corporations, between laws and economic interests and the 1%. Power is an infrastructure all its own, and to fight it, a movement needs infrastructure as well.

Wildfire, a training and group development project begun by Marom, Samantha Corbin and other Occupy organizers in January of 2013, works with groups that are organizing around issues, combining political education, organizing training and group development to help those groups become stronger. They began with Rockaway Wildfire, worked with Occupy Homes Atlanta and Minnesota, New York Students Rising, Ohio Students Association and GetEQUAL.

“We can’t change the world without institutions that are democratically accountable to the movement and that have real power.”

“A lot of these groups are post-Occupy groups: they’re coming out of a similar political moment; they speak a similar language; they want similar things; they’re all relatively radical; they use direct action; they’re groups that are confronting crisis or are emerging from crisis,” Marom explains. And perhaps most importantly, Wildfire wants to build a network to put the groups they work with in conversation with one another for longer-term movement building.

Wildfire’s next project is working with the Dream Defenders. Possibly the most visible new organization working on criminalization and racial justice, they are responding to the movement momentum around the death of Trayvon Martin and taking lessons from Occupy as well as Civil Rights organizing. Their leadership, Nelini Stamp notes, is made up of young people of color – those most impacted by mass incarceration, criminalization and unequal access to education and jobs.

Frontline communities are also leading the work around foreclosure and housing. Espinosa, whose family home was one of those saved by Occupy Homes Minnesota, says, “I think bringing the energy of the plaza to neighborhoods was one of the best things and the thing I’m most proud of in terms of the work and our accomplishments since Occupy started.”

The work in particular of reclaiming vacant homes, of helping people have a home who never had the ability to buy one in the first place, is meaningful in terms of whose needs are fore-grounded. “It’s a different base and a different flavor of organizing than we’ve done before,” Espinosa says. The people driving the effort are the people who live in or will live in the homes. Those people too are becoming a political power bloc within Minneapolis – working with community group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and other local organizations, they’ve helped put in a progressive mayor and came within a few votes of being the second city to put a socialist candidate, Ty Moore, on its city council.

The labor movement in the post-Occupy moment is also taking tentative steps toward change. Industry-wide campaigns targeting fast food and Walmart have embraced the one-day strike and civil disobedience as methods and have brought in community members and an analysis of how these low-wage jobs actually hurt the entire economy. Occupiers like Mary Clinton have returned to full-time day jobs organizing workers and have created within New York a solidarity network, 99 Pickets, that supports labor struggles in the city and engages in direct actions that would be too risky for unions to try.

Clinton points out that labor organizing is still time-consuming hard work that doesn’t have the immediate payoff of a march in the street, but it is based in an idea of building long-term power for workers – building unions. “We know what capital cares about, profits and money, and we know we’re in a globalized economy. So how do we challenge that? How do we impact their profit margins, push within that space for real gains for working people? Simultaneously, how do we develop alternatives that don’t just withdraw from the system, but that build power – how do we build those institutions so that we can support the alternative?”

The real question may be whether a bunch of smaller, tighter groups constitute a “movement” at all. The Occupy network proved its ability to react quickly in the wake of Sandy, but often it can seem that people have retreated into their own issues, siloed off from others, disagreeing about priorities.

The technology that made Occupy and other recent uprisings spread the way they did also allows Occupy to function as, Nelini Stamp notes, a sort of informal crisis network – responding to things like the George Zimmerman verdict or Hurricane Sandy in a way that simply wasn’t possible only a short time ago. But movements have to be made up of deep commitments as well as loose ties – or, in Marom’s words, networks have to be made up of groups that are, in turn, made up of people who have a longer-term commitment and stake in the process.

To really represent the 99 percent, it had to get out of the parks and into neighborhoods, put down community roots, and listen to what people need…

That means building for a long game while at the same time responding quickly to crisis moments; planning for five or even 50 years in the future rather than expecting a few months to create major changes. Espinosa says, “I think the challenge of our generation is to reinvent what institutions mean and create new versions of institutions that have failed movements in the past, that are truly democratic and that stick to our values.”

Putting Down Community Roots

On the night after Christmas, I danced in a Minneapolis basement nightclub to a who’s who of local hip-hop, performing under a banner reading “Occupy Homes.” It was a fundraiser for the Minnesota group – 10 dollars at the door and a bucket being passed among the crowd would go to help keep the home defense work going.

On stage, I Self Devine is introduced as a community organizer as well as an MC; he takes the stage after several organizers from Occupy Homes. The stocky man tells the crowd that movements don’t win overnight, but he is there, as everyone else is, because he believes.

Occupy Homes embodies the shift of a movement away from its origins in a park, where demands were seen as too limiting, to the longer, slower, harder work of setting goals and meeting them, of building community power and political.

“Occupy,” in this community, is a verb. Occupy is a tactic, just one of many. The 99 percent is who the movement claimed to speak for, and to really represent the 99 percent, it had to get out of the parks and into neighborhoods, put down community roots, and listen to what people need. Occupy Homes has a core group of organizers and a network of over a hundred that respond to emergency texts and face down the police when they come to evict; they center on the concerns of the people, many of color, who are losing or have already lost their homes; they have a political analysis of both the local problems and the broader national fight and are part of a network of groups doing home defense work.

The problem with disruptive movements is that most people can be disrupted only for so long . . . those being disrupted learn to adapt.

In the post-Occupy moment, we can talk about capitalism as a system, and we can talk about class; we can elect a socialist or a movement organizer to office; we understand that inequality is the problem. We have learned some painful lessons – that something that can feel in a heady moment like revolution may not turn out that way, and that our tactics will not always work. As Frances Fox Piven noted in the earlier days of the movement, protest doesn’t evolve in a linear fashion. “It’s much more interrupted, dispersed, there are periods of discouragement – 1959 to1960 the civil rights movement people thought it was over, after 1962 in Albany, Georgia – this movement is going to be like that too.”

The idea of Occupy, artist and organizer Mark Read thinks, is still out there: “like a ghost; I don’t know how to make it physical.” But as Nelini Stamp says, we should not be worried about reviving it. It was just one in a long line of dominos that will have to fall to make real change.

The problem with disruptive movements is that most people can be disrupted only for so long; participants trickle back to their lives, and those being disrupted learn to adapt. Movements have to adapt and change, come up with new tactics, draw attention (and numbers) back to themselves. A networked movement is better able to do this quickly, and groups that have a real base in communities have a better idea of what people really need. There is no substitute for the organizing, the real hard work it takes to build a real movement.

Movement moments like Occupy, Yotam Marom points out, “don’t come from nowhere. There’s no such thing as spontaneous. They come through hard organizing and conditions and some magic dust that you can’t really explain.” What happens next depends on how prepared people are to choose a direction, and how ready they are to push.

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