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“Thank You Anarchy” Author and Wall Street Occupier Nathan Schneider on the Movement’s True Power

Nathan Schneider, author of the just-published ‘Thank You Anarchy, Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse’ tells Truthout he has been changed irrevocably by the movement, of which Zuccotti Park was only the beginning, and he craves the just, humane and free society that the occupation modeled and inspired.

Nathan Schneider in Zucotti Park during its occupation. (Photo: Claire Kelley)

Thank You Anarchy, Notes From the Apocalypse is a new, brilliantly candid and detailed inside account of the Occupy Movement as it grew to natural prominence and then was displaced by brutal police action around the nation. Support resistance journalism by contributing to Truthout and receiving the book with a minimum contribution. Click here now.

What did it look like from the inside of the Occupy Movement as it reached its zenith in Zucotti Park and around the nation? Despite its pummeling eviction from public spaces, what is its legacy? How did it put the issue of economic injustice in even the corporate mass media?

Truthout discussed these issues and more with Nathan Schneider, author of the just-published Thank You Anarchy, Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse (foreword by Rebecca Solnit).

MARK KARLIN: Rebecca Solnit, in her foreword to your detailed recollections of the Occupy movement – particularly at Zucotti Park – defends the uprising from those who felt it failed. Solnit speaks, as you do at the end of Thank You, Anarchy, of the sparks that were kindled by Occupy, of it being a transformative moment. Your book shares that perspective in its final reflections, doesn’t it?

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: I hope so. The book’s subtitle contains the word “apocalypse,” and I tried throughout to capture what I witnessed of that word – as in, the literal meaning of the Greek root, which is “unveiling” or “revelation.” An apocalypse changes us irrevocably. We see something that, after recognizing it, won’t let us go on with life as before. I saw this happen for so many people through the Occupy movement. They saw the depth of injustice – economic, racial, political – in US society more than they ever had before. They experienced a lot of violence at the hands of the police. And most importantly, they had a revelation about their capacity to transform politics from the ground up through resistance. Politics no longer had to be about just the options offered by politicians; it could be more of people’s own making, made of their hopes and needs.

MK: How does a spontaneous emergency response network such as the Occupy Sandy response network in Brooklyn and other boroughs represent one of those sparks?

NS: Occupy Sandy arose at a time when many people – including some Occupiers themselves – had concluded the movement was over and dead. But the combination of a crisis and the quick deployment of the Occupy networks and infrastructure – much of which developed after the eviction of most occupation sites – made for a stunning rebirth. In this sense, it wasn’t at all spontaneous. Occupy Sandy was made possible by organizing work that people had been doing during the months when the conventional wisdom held that Occupy was over. This is a useful reminder that powerful organizing and what happens to gain media attention aren’t always the same things.

MK: Do you think that some critics are too harsh on Occupy’s collapse as a public presence due to a national police pummeling because they argue it never got to the critical mass to topple the status quo, as happened in the Arab Spring (although, of course, things are pretty much back to where they started in Egypt)?

NS: First, it can’t be understated that Occupy was the subject of a national crackdown – from the Homeland Security trucks I saw patrolling the financial district the night before it started to the near-simultaneous wave of evictions coordinated by mayors. Second, however, I think it’s fair to say that the movement hit the big time without having the organizational framework to involve people at all levels of society. Same with the sit-ins at Tahrir – that’s why it was only because the Egyptian labor unions mounted a nationwide general strike that Mubarak came down. It was because the Muslim Brotherhood and the military had the strongest organizations that they emerged as the main contenders for power. For its part, Occupy did a magnificent job creating a spectacle and activating a new generation of young people. Now, I think a major burden lies on the part of existing radical and progressive organizations in this country to follow through on the Occupy rupture, to translate its rhetorical victory into more substantive victories that will transfer wealth and power away from the 1%.

MK: If the Occupy Movement can be judged by the fear it awoke in its targets, as Solnit suggests, didn’t it succeed in being a serious fear to Wall Street and the current 1% economic dominance – given its anchor in NYC and nationwide presence in cities – and their concern that the message of economic injustice might spread like a virus?

NS: As rhetoric, as performance, Occupy was spectacularly successful. The ways it reshaped the terrain of political discourse could be clearly seen in how President Obama painted Mitt Romney as a 1 percenter in his reelection campaign, and in Bill de Blasio’s wildly effective strategy for clinching the New York mayoral race. The message of economic injustice did spread like a virus. But a message goes only so far. What’s needed now is the deep organizing that can create a shift in the balance of power.

MK: Yet, many of those who actually participated in the Occupy Movement felt a sense of disappointment, of not having achieved something grander in the way of social and political change. This is what you have referred to as a stage in revolutionary efforts. Can you expand upon that?

NS: Transformative movements take time, and they go through phases. The powers that be would prefer that we forget this – and think that, as we were wrongly told about Egypt, revolutions take a few spectacular weeks or don’t happen at all. Occupy’s success in 2011 was just a beginning, a first stage, and it could never have been anything else. That’s why many Occupy veterans who haven’t succumbed to disappointment are now spread out across the country engaged in community organizing campaigns on a range of issues related to Occupy’s concerns – homes, the environment, racism, money in politics, student debt. They’re trying to lay the groundwork for what’s next, and they’re trying to build local power for vulnerable folks in the process. This stuff is not the kind of thing that attracts media attention like police clobbering protesters in New York City, but arguably it’s more important.

MK: Can you talk a bit about how you chose the title of the book, Thank You, Anarchy?

NS: I first used a similar title, “Thank You, Anarchists,” for an article in The Nation during the height of the movement. At the time, it was common for liberal commentators to claim that Occupy was all well and good but it was in danger of being ruined by the radicals and anarchists. From my experience seeing the movement unfold close up, I knew this was ridiculous. The ideas and practices of radicals were precisely what made this movement so exciting for many people. I changed “anarchists” to “anarchy” for the book to reflect that anarchist ideas and practices were adopted by many people who still didn’t identify as anarchists, specifically. Later in the book, however, as the movement began to unravel and suffer disappointments that resulted from some pretty sophomoric versions of anarchy, the title takes on a more sarcastic tone: “Gee, thanks, anarchy. Thanks a lot.” There’s that, too.

MK: You describe in great detail how the occupation of Zucotti Park came to be, which was the national coming out for the Occupy Movement. I was surprised to see how many different actions that became interrelated led to the specific occupation of public space at the footsteps of Wall Street. What led to that final step of reclaiming the commons for change?

NS: In the summer of 2011, something was in the air. For Waging Nonviolence, I was covering not just the meetings that led to Occupy Wall Street but also the efforts of several completely distinct groups to mount some kind of major prolonged protests in the United States that fall. I’m not sure that at the time I would have guessed that Occupy would be the one to create the big rupture; others were better organized and better funded. In retrospect, I think what made Occupy work was the combination of direct-action tenacity, with tremendous internet savvy, with an expansive capacity for imagination brought by a critical mass of artists. Together, these factors made for a pretty dangerous brew.

MK: What are your thoughts, in retrospect, on how to actively engage the working class in the struggle for economic justice?

NS: I think the answer has to begin with more questions: What does “working class” even mean anymore, and who is part of it? Gone are the days of factory workers ready and waiting to be turned into union members en masse. Today we have the not-working-enough class (the main constituency of Occupy), and the working-too-much class (who had to choose between going to the General Assembly and putting food on the table), and the working-under-the-table-with-threat-of-deportation class (who couldn’t risk being arrested at an Occupy march), and the hoping-these-loans-will-pay-off class (who risked financial ruin if they let Occupy distract them from getting good grades) and many more. Gender and race operate in ways that conventional class theory doesn’t take into account. The power of the “99%” meme was in that it elided the unspoken forms of alienation that prevent us from organizing against capitalism today. It was convenient for conveying a sense of unity. But as people doing deep grassroots organizing know, reality is more complicated than that.

MK: How did the meme of the 1% vs. the 99% come to be? Why do you think that was the key message that actually broke through into the mass media?

NS: In the context of Occupy, David Graeber generally takes – and receives – credit for presenting the idea at the first planning meeting. (I didn’t start coming until two meetings later, so I didn’t see that myself.) The meme really began to take hold thanks to the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr blog, which was set up by two early organizers and which became very popular, modeling itself off of the We Are All Khalid Said, a meme that helped launch the Egyptian uprising. But the rhetoric of the 99 and 1 percents was in the air already. It was in the title of a documentary a few years earlier, and the liberal economist Joseph Steiglitz used it in a New York Times opinion piece. I don’t think Graeber was aware that, in June of 2011, an Anonymous subgroup called A99 – explicitly referring to the notion of the 99 percent – had made an earlier and totally separate attempt to occupy Zuccotti Park. So while particular people brought the term into the Occupy movement at particular times, I think chief credit for the meme and its effectiveness goes to the zeitgeist.

MK: It’s the autumn of 2013. What legacy did the occupation of public space, the heady uprising of hope and the unleashed energy of resistance leave with you personally?

NS: Through the movement I have the privilege of being connected with hundreds of talented activists and organizers around the country, many of whom are doing amazing things that I and my fellow editors try to keep tabs on at Waging Nonviolence. I came out of Occupy inspired, having been reminded firsthand that courageous, imaginative struggles for justice can have an impact. I also feel an ever-harder-to-ignore craving for the just and humane and free society that Occupy briefly and imperfectly modeled to become more of a reality.

Thank You Anarchy, Notes From the Apocalypse is a new, brilliantly candid and detailed inside account of the Occupy Movement as it grew to natural prominence and then was displaced by brutal police action around the nation. Support resistance journalism by contributing to Truthout and receiving the book with a minimum contribution. Click here now.

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