Quo Vadis Occupy? Mic Check on the State of the Revolution

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From its early exuberance and success through police suppression, Occupy at one year is graduating thousands of activists and hundreds of new social movements.

What must it have been like to be a banker as Occupy Wall Street achieved national prominence and political centrality a year ago?

Just a couple of weeks earlier, the only street protests around, staged by the Tea Party, were actually on your side, providing a grassroots face for the austerity-industrial complex.

And then, suddenly, because a few anarchists started sleeping in a park, people began to notice that you, not history teachers and farm workers, were the ones who bilked them. Seemingly overnight, there were concerned citizens attending teach-ins about credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and bond yield splits.

There were protests every day in the neighborhood where you worked, the signs and chants justly pointing to the gross over-financialization of the American economy, the capture of state functions by the ownership class, and the increasing wealth inequality plaguing 99 percent of the country.

There were pesky reporters asking obnoxious questions: Who controlled the American political economy, how had everyone accumulated such crushing personal debt and why did billionaires need bailouts, but underwater homeowners were, to quote CNBC’s Rick Santelli, “losers.”

If the sector I worked in accounted for 40 percent of all corporate profits and was only surviving by the good graces of a central bank willing to guarantee trillions of dollars of its loans, the last thing I’d want would be the masses up in arms.

And were we ever! On October 25th, 2011, the day after the City of New York first tried to shut down Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street shut down Times Square, cheering en masse every time a news ticker, visible to the thousands in the street, revealed that the movement had gone global.

In Munich, in Brussels, in Tokyo, in Seoul, in Rome, in Manila, in Vancouver, in Paris, in Mexico City, in Stockholm, in Hong Kong, in Berlin, in Sydney, in Amman, in Taipei, in Santiago, in Tel Aviv – and all across the United States, from Puerto Rico, to Hawaii (where no fewer than five rallies sprang up), to Washington, DC.

All across the American South, including Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. All across the Midwest, including in front of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. And in the Southwest, and out West, in Seattle (the site of the last noteworthy American protests against neo-liberalism, in 1999, just before the Bush-era housing bubble), and even up in Fairbanks, Alaska, people Occupied on October 25th.

In India and South Africa and Colombia and Singapore and Pakistan and Brazil and Costa Rica and Iran and Bangladesh and Malaysia and Singapore, in two different Antarctic locations, and of course in Iceland and Egypt and Tunisia and Spain and Greece and the UK – all over the world, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at more than 900 locations. They displayed signs in all their languages. The common features were the ever-present “99 percent” and the Guy Fawkes masks they wore.

They professed solidarity with one another and very frequently with their American comrades, and in hundreds of locations around the world they called “Mic check” to activate the people’s microphone. They held general assemblies, and they showed enthusiasm by waggling their fingers. They performed street theater, and they tweeted and shared photos and videos and quotations and accounts with the whole rest of the world.

What must it have been like to be a banker on that day?

Well, if the subsequent month was any indication, the bankers felt as though the whole heap was slipping out from under them, because the state and media they own instituted a dissidence-crushing regime straight out of the Petraeus counterinsurgency playbook.

They went to work overtime with smear campaigns, brutal evictions and the implementation of a virtual police state, including counterterrorism units, cavalries of horses, motorcades and air support, to accompany any protest, however small. They entrapped luckless and ignorant young people in alleged “terrorist” plots. They cultivated an image of occupiers as violent, deranged, nihilistic rabble. They nearly killed a marine by shooting a teargas canister directly into his face.

The wild success of Occupy Wall Street spoiled many of us, just as surely as its devastation at the hands of American law enforcement addled us. One year on, though, organizers have dusted off, steeled their resolve and begun a series of projects, affiliations and organizing drives that plan to transform the electricity of the occupations into a sustainable social movement to carry us through the next chapter, in what anthropologist David Graeber memorably called “a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire.”

“I think that a lot of what happened over the last year was a tremendous experiment in radical democracy,” says Jose Martin, a worker-owner of OccuCopy, one of the four worker cooperatives that has come out of Occupy Wall Street. “I hope,” he says, “that the proliferation of these examples of actual bottom-up job creators, as well as socialized production, is going to increase and understand itself as part of a larger radical infrastructure for social movements for years to come.”

OccuCopy is only one of Martin’s ongoing activist efforts stemming from Occupy Wall Street. He also intends to continue spreading the gospel, as it were, by leading “anti-repression, anti-racist, feminist and theory-based workshops for newly radicalizing activists.” Crucial victories in those fields, he thinks, are soon to come. “I think that we are near to defeating stop-and-frisk. There’s a great possibility that we’ll defeat that one method of racist police violence, and that a victory will invigorate people to keep fighting on these fronts a lot more.”

Approaching racism in the criminal justice system from a different angle, Nelini Stamp has headed to Florida to work with an organization called Dream Defenders. “It came out of the 40-mile march we did from Daytona to Sanford, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing,” she says.

Students – particularly students of color – have set up Dream Defenders chapters at six colleges in Florida to confront the school-to-prison pipeline through trainings that provide “different ways people can get involved,” Stamp says, “be it the civil engagement process or direct actions.”

Dream Defenders, says Stamp, combines a “traditional, chapter-based organizational model” with Occupy Wall Street-inspired “horizontal, democratic decision-making processes and direct action.

“Different campuses have autonomous, local campaigns, but “there are a couple of people like myself,” she says, “working to make those state-wide connections.” As Floridians watch juvenile offenders transferred from detention centers into newly constructed private prisons, Stamp’s goal is to “help facilitate a new generation of all leaders. With Occupy, people were ready to get involved. People were ready to do something, and outside being a part of the encampments and the general process, people didn’t really have outlets to plug into.”

Hundreds of other campus activists flooded Columbus, Ohio this summer for the National Student Convergence.

Max Berger, one of the convergence’s lead organizers, is also interested in the question of fusing Occupy Wall Street’s aspirations to horizontalism and local autonomy with best practices from more traditional organizing.

“As of 2011,” Berger says, “we operate under a new set of principles and rules about what’s possible for how you organize people.” The Columbus convergence, he says, has laid the groundwork for further organizing, by establishing a series of working groups – statewide organizing, next convergence, communications hub, messaging, and principles of organization. “It’s premature at this point to talk about a national coordinating body,” he says, “but the goal is to start building at a local level” with Berger and other experienced organizers “serving some of the roles of an organization, without putting in place a formal hierarchical structure – in terms of press, online reach and organizational support.”

Moving forward, says Berger, “there will be convergences locally and on a national level,” but interested student activists “aren’t stepping into something; they’re stepping up.” The challenge, he says, is that “you have to have some kind of common goal or common identity. What do you do with a movement that started out with a bunch of random people showing up at a park together? There’s nothing really holding that together. People don’t understand how they’re part of the same thing. What are the identities we have available to us that people can mobilize around?”

Nicole Carty at least wants to remind activists organizing around different struggles that “we share a common enemy,” to wit, Wall Street. Carty and a small team are in the process of establishing a web site called Where’s Wall Street? slated to go live sometime in October. The web site hopes to act as a hub for “the logistics of solidarity,” says Carty. “Whether people are working on immigration, the environment or prisons, we hope that we can help draw connections, cast the struggles in a new light, and trace them back to Wall Street.”

Activists “on the front lines, actually fighting back against actual problems,” but working on seemingly independent and disconnected initiatives, will be able to use the web site “to support each other’s actions and movement work,” she says.

“This is a young movement,” Carty points out. “As Frances Fox Piven notes, no large change comes from a movement that has been organizing for under ten years.” It is better, Carty maintains, “to consider this the incubation period of a movement yet to come.”

* * *

If I close my eyes and try really hard, I can still summon the exuberance of those early days in the park. Like the morning the UPS store called whoever’s contact information was on the mail box to report that it was overflowing and to request immediate attention. In came several dollies packed high with cartons containing everything from a coffee-maker, to produce, to several hundred of those packets filled with mysterious chemicals that warm up when you shake them. Included were notes: “I don’t have a job, and I can’t get to New York, but I wanted to contribute somehow,”; “Please call me at this number if there’s anything else you need,”; “Solidarity from Halifax,” – that sort of thing.

We were toddlers on Christmas morning, if toddlers wore Guy Fawkes masks and Santa had a grudge against futures traders.

That same morning, if I’m not mistaken, was the day Detective Rick Lee of the New York Police Department, better known as Hipster Cop, turned up at Zuccotti Park. Like an alien in an old-school sci-fi B-movie, Lee asked to be taken to our leader. When the response came that no such person existed, Lee looked at us as though we were the aliens: What is this strange life form, and how can it not have leaders?

It seems that Brookfield Properties, the real estate corporation that owns Zuccotti Park, was interested in negotiating with the rabble, if only we’d send some leaders its way. The rabble insisted that all of our decisions were taken collectively, and if Brookfield’s spokespeople wanted their interests accounted for in those decisions, they were as welcome as anyone to come to a General Assembly and attempt to generate consensus around their proposals. Lee couldn’t understand why we were refusing to see reason, and we couldn’t understand why he was.

Like a lot of occupiers, I am distressed that I only have access to the palimpsest of that excitement, and that accessing even that much requires such effort. And yet, the proverbial million flowers seem like they’re getting ready to bloom. As Carty says, “It’s all coming to a head, and when it does, Occupy will be there.”