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The Year Dissent Came Back

A group of Occupy Wall Street protesters evicted from Zuccotti Park reconvene in Foley Square at dawn, in New York, November 15, 2011. (Photo: Marcus Yam / The New York Times) The title is wrong, of course. Dissent never really goes away. And the last twelve months are an arbitrary time period, the United States far from the only country affected and perhaps not even the site of the most significant changes wrought by protest. But it's hard to deny that 2011 should be known as the year that dissent came back with a vengeance to the USA. The Occupy movement has been the culmination of a year of protest in a country that has not often been comfortable with mass political action. The power of people taking to the streets has been so relentless and undeniable that even the most mainstream and willfully blind media outlets have been unable to ignore it.

The title is wrong, of course. Dissent never really goes away. And the last twelve months are an arbitrary time period, the United States far from the only country affected and perhaps not even the site of the most significant changes wrought by protest.

But it's hard to deny that 2011 should be known as the year that dissent came back with a vengeance to the USA.

The Occupy movement has been the culmination of a year of protest in a country that has not often been comfortable with mass political action. The power of people taking to the streets has been so relentless and undeniable that even the most mainstream and willfully blind media outlets have been unable to ignore it.

Occupy has become a banner under which other causes can find expression – not a perfect one, but a remarkably effective one that may yet represent the best hope for mending the divide between class/economic concerns and so-called “identity politics.” A photo taken by Lindsay Beyerstein on September 26 shows a range of grievances already being expressed at that point on just one sign in Liberty Plaza Park: End Corporate Welfare. Stop Police Brutality. No War 4 Profit. Ban Fracking. I Am Troy Davis.

Jesse Myerson, an independent journalist, TruthOut columnist, and active and early participant in Occupy Wall Street, says when it comes to how the movement encompasses other struggles, Occupy “is doing a much better job of that than I would have imagined possible four months ago.” He believes the movement's scope has been difficult for the media to comprehend.

“It makes everything a class and power issue (from the environment to race, gender and sexuality to war to unemployment) and affirms that there is systemic rot that produces all of our grievances,” says Myerson. “It seems all over the place and unfocused, but really it's all over the place and focused.”

But before Occupy Wall Street, in 2011 those other struggles also found their expression on American streets and in the symbolic claiming of buildings that symbolized political power. Struggles in Washington, D.C. against the Keystone XL pipeline, in Georgia against the execution of Troy Davis, in cities across the country against rape culture and victim-blaming. And, of course, struggles to preserve what remained of workers' rights in the state of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Rises

Protests against Governor Scott Walker's legislative assault on the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions began in February and took many forms across Wisconsin. But it was the peaceful yet forcible physical occupation of the Capitol building in Madison that took the #WIunion movement (to call it by one of the most frequently used Twitter hashtags) to a new level and pointed most directly to what was to come later in the year.

This was the first American instance in 2011 of several phenomena that went on to become familiar: The establishment of a functioning people-powered community within a symbolic location as an act of protest, the live video feeds and Twitter updates by independent and citizen journalists, the mutual solidarity with Egypt, and the photos of young people being dragged away bodily (though the police in Madison were a far cry from the brutality on display in other cities later in 2011).

Gov. Walker has claimed (most recently when he was “mic checked” in Chicago) that protesters were mostly the usual suspects—professional troublemakers, militant union activists bussed in from other states. That doesn't square with accounts from people who were there.

Ed Knutson is a 36-year-old internet developer living in Milwaukee who took part in the demonstrations in Madison, as well as both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston. He also develops software solutions for the Occupy movement. He says he saw “a lot of first time demonstrators” in Wisconsin, “spread across the generations.”

A good deal of the people in the Wisconsin seemed to be first-timers,” confirms Matthew Filipowicz, a radio show host, comedian, reporter and activist who attended protests in Madison.

“Most did not seem overly partisan. They just realized that what Scott Walker was doing was a direct attack on them. Their standard of living was under assault, and that caused them to rise up. This had a very middle class, Midwestern feel to it. Firefighters and police officers marched alongside teachers and janitors, and their presence in uniform was a pretty amazing sight.”

What differentiates the protests in Wisconsin from many of those that followed is the hope that, locally, the Democratic Party could make a difference. That conviction powered the summer's Senate recall campaign (with mixed results), and the campaign now underway to recall Walker himself.

The statewide Democratic campaign is running on specifically overturning a lot of what Walker did,” says Filipowicz. “Sure, there's a chance that they'll lie and cave like national Democrats, but this is so localized, and a lot of rolling back Walker's sweeping and devastating changes does require replacing the actual Republicans who did it.”

Knutson puts the relative amount of faith Wisconsinites have in the Democrats down to the state's progressive tradition, although as he points out, “Many have noted that the state senators fleeing to Illinois earlier this year seemed uncharacteristic for a Democrat.” But in his experience, the overall attitude of most #WIunion protesters is in marked contrast to many occupiers, who “distrust the Democratic party due to the influence of money on both major parties.”

Fighting Dirty Energy on Obama's Front Door

While President Obama's support for the rights of public workers in Wisconsin may have been a lot more lukewarm and “even-handed” than many supporters wanted from the man who in 2007 said he'd “walk on that picket line” if collective bargaining was threatened, at least he had the luxury of not being responsible for making decisions on the issue in question – unlike in the case of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Protests against the pipeline saw over a thousand people arrested outside the White House in August, and several thousand surrounding the White House in a human chain on November 7.

Matthew Filipowicz attended the November action, and says that compared to the Wisconsin and Occupy movements, the No KXL / Tar Sands Action protests “felt the most traditional” and “had a very activist-y feel,” although he considers these qualities necessary for the type of big, one-off action that was undertaken.

The pipeline without a doubt united large parts of the environmental justice movement in ways that hadn't been seen in a long time,” says Filipowicz, noting the involvement of First Nation people, members of Occupy Boston's environmental working group, and college students from across the country.

But while the Tar Sands Action brought protest to Obama's front door, many of those who participated still retained a certain amount of faith in the president. “The central 'top down' message by No KXL was something along the lines of 'President Obama, I want to vote and campaign for you, but if this pipeline is approved, I will not in good conscience be able to,'” says Filipowicz. He thinks that if Obama had flat-out rejected the pipeline proposal, “the majority surrounding the White House would have put on an Obama t-shirt and pledged their vote right then and there.”

Of course, that didn't happen. “Obama punted,” says Filipowicz. “He handled the politics of it so poorly that he ended up upsetting everyone involved and got no political bump in either direction.”

Marching from the Margins

The frequent police crackdowns on Occupy camps and rallies have made some worry that the question of policing will distract from the core issues of the movement. But one of the year's other most notable protest movements began as a reaction to the attitudes of police (specifically in Toronto) and then spread to the U.S. and worldwide, becoming a wider condemnation of rape culture.

In an interview with gender theorist Judith Butler for TruthOut, Kyle Bella argued “there is an absolutely clear tie between the demands of Occupy and the demands of the SlutWalk movement. Both seem to work in tandem by laying claim to public space.” Butler concurred: “SlutWalk is another way of working together in modes of solidarity that insist upon walking freely without violence and harassment.”

But Slutwalk also anticipated Occupy Wall Street in the way it encouraged people – especially young women who had not previously engaged in protest marches – to make their own sign and march in the streets, with an element of dressing up, street theater and celebration.

Sady Doyle, who attended one SlutWalk New York organizing meeting and has since was written about both movements and specifically contrasted the two, says that at both SlutWalk and Occupy gatherings in New York and beyond, she spoke to several people for whom it was their first protest.

“I don't see a ton of people giving credit to SlutWalk for demonstrating the potential of protest,” says Doyle. “Occupy seems more interested in comparing itself to the Arab Spring.” She makes the case that many of 2011's protests (not just SlutWalk, but also the protests regarding IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn) have focused on issues of gender or sexual violence.

“But when it comes time to talk about 'protest' and 'the people,'” we suddenly start talking about the non-gendered (read: male-gendered) expressions of that. I don't know if Occupy would recognize a debt to SlutWalk. But it might be fair to say that one exists. Even if that's just in terms of creating a climate where people realize it's okay to take public action in response to public concerns.”

Doyle, who argues that SlutWalk was a much more DIY movement than at least the original NYC branch of Occupy – the founders of SlutWalk didn”t have support from Adbusters or Anonymous – says, “We've seen it struggle and screw up in the ways that unexpectedly huge DIY projects tend to do: For example, with knowing how to respond to wide-scale criticism from the media, or in how it deals with questions of representation or exclusion.”

Some of the criticisms and questions that have been leveled form a less fortunate point of commonality between Occupy and SlutWalk. Lindsay Beyerstein, who, like Doyle, has written about both movements on her blog Duly Noted, feels both have been unfairly accused of marginalizing people of color.

“The crowd that showed up at Union Square [for SlutWalkNYC on Saturday, October 1] was very diverse,” says Beyerstein. “It was by no means an all white gathering.” Both Doyle and Beyerstein say they understand the arguments of feminists of color who chose not to participate because they felt alienated and excluded by the protest. It's not that either movement was perfect, but as Doyle points out, the “one in five hundred” activists or movements that attain a certain level of attention or success are expected to speak for the other 499 whether they set out to or not.

“As far as OWS marginalizing people of color, I think that's manifestly untrue,” says Beyerstein. “On any given day, the crowd at Zuccotti Park looked like New York. There was a Spanish language translating station. SEIU, TWU, and other unions with a large contingent of members of color were strong allies of OWS.”

However, Jasson Perez, an SEIU organizer and member of hip-hop group BBU who has attended Occupy events in D.C. and Chicago, thinks perceptions that Occupy participants are still mostly white and male are accurate. “It's not an issue of fairness,” he says. “It's about owning up to the fact that OWS is a white majority and leadership organizing project. That is not a terrible thing per se, it's just recognizing that – like Students for a Democratic Society did back in the day and owning their own privilege. Once that's done, I think movement building with organizations and projects that are led by people of color, queer-led, and women-led is very possible and won't be problematic.”

Why Occupiers Say “We Are Troy Davis”

Where Perez and Beyerstein agree is the importance of the early solidarity shown for Troy Davis at Occupy Wall Street. “It highlighted the hypocrisy of the USA,” says Perez. “Wall Street steals billions and they get rewarded. Black man gets falsely accused of a crime and is murdered by the state. Luckily, there was OWS on the ground to channel that anger towards organizing.”

Lee Wengraf, an anti-prison activist in NYC, is on the Board of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a member of Occupy Wall Street's Prisoner Solidarity Subcommittee. She believes that the execution of Troy Davis, and the protests that took place against it, “definitely generated momentum for OWS” in its initial week or so.

“The night before the execution, we held a rally in front of City Hall Park as a way to draw in support from OWS,” says Wengraf. The following day, protesters decided to march from Union Square down to Zuccotti Park to show their outrage. “The profile given to the execution of an innocent, African-American man generated a huge amount of anger and many of us saw Zuccotti as a natural place to connect with those outraged against injustice.”

Asked about the issue of race within Occupy, Wengraf is optimistic:

“OWS is the most multi-racial movement to emerge in a generation. That's not to say it doesn't have a long way to go. But the People of Color Caucus and anti-racist activists have played a key role in making sure their issues are heard. The immigrant workers working group, the borough GAs and others have encouraged self-organization, leadership and initiative from people of color in driving the movement forward. This is an opportunity for us to truly reflect the composition of a working-class, multiracial New York. We have to count the fight to re-take foreclosed homes in East New York as one of our major successes.”

She also believes solidarity with Troy Davis and his supporters helped send a message “about the importance of solidarity with a wide variety of movements” which in turn gave OWS some of its remarkable energy from the beginning.

An Anti-War Precedent for Occupation

The extent to which that solidarity extends to those affected by US foreign policy has still not become clear, although some groups have taken part in or endorsed anti-war protests, as Occupy Chicago did on October 8.

But an earlier version of “occupation” was itself an anti-war action. In 2007, activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence, joined by CODEPINK, Declaration of Peace, Veterans for Peace and other national organizations, occupied Congress members' offices and demanded they oppose the ongoing occupation of Iraq.

“Part of the Occupation Project's fresh appeal is its directness,” TruthOut's Maya Schenwar wrote for Punk Planet and Z Mag at the time. “It stands in stark contrast to the traditional marches through the streets, rallies in parks, vigils outside the White House, and even letters or phone calls to elected officials.”

That's extremely similar to what people have been saying about the 2011 Occupations, although it should be noted that even marches, rallies and vigils seem more radical now, given the increased privatization of public space, the measures that city authorities are taking to criminalize protest, and the level of passivity that's expected of citizens – what's known as “point and click activism” or for people to stay home and shop. Similarities between the two movements are only increasing now that Occupy has moved on from establishing camps in public spaces to, for example, chasing down Congress members in D.C. or regularly making a deliberate nuisance of themselves inside Chicago's City Hall right outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office.

Jeff Leys, former coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence who organized for the Occupation Project, says that while most people who participated were already engaged in some form of anti-war work, “It is likely that the Occupation Project was the first time that many people engaged in civil disobedience or engaged in solidarity activity with those risking arrest.”

While Leys is proud of what the Occupation Project did “from Alabama to Alaska and from Maine to Oregon,” he is clear about its limitations:

“The Occupation Project alluded to the costs of war impacting upon domestic priorities like health care and education, but did not put these issues front and center. Also, the constituency was limited by the strong emphasis placed upon civil disobedience. This emphasis was strategic, but it limited the campaign to a smaller subset of people who would participate, as did the campaign's fairly narrow conception of nonviolence.”

Leys sees 2011's multi-issue occupations as having even more potential, the potential “to become one of the critical campaigns that builds a renewed and broad-based progressive politics in this country.” He says 2011 “may reflect a tipping point in U.S. history.”

Global Justice Comes Home

It is impossible to talk about precedents for Occupy without going further back still, to the days in 1999 when a movement mislabeled “anti-globalization” took over streets in Seattle to bring to light the misdeeds of the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, and the injustices of neo-liberalism.

“For many people my age, the Seattle WTO protests marked the beginning of our real political development,” says Ryan Harvey, a writer, musician and organizer with the Civilian-Soldier Alliance. “The 'Seattle Generation' were introduced to global political ideas, economic justice concepts, organizing strategy, mass action, and civil disobedience largely by Seattle. Most of us weren't there though; we just were inspired by it.”

Harvey prefers to call what started in Seattle the “Global Justice” movement, and he does see it paving the way for OWS, though he also argues that “the role the Arab Spring has played is immeasurable” and that everything from the “Day Without an Immigrant” protests in 2006 to even the Tea Party's public assemblies “all got people thinking more about public action.”

September 11, 2001 had a huge impact on the Global Justice movement. A renewed public nationalism and militarism, increasingly repressive national security laws, and two wars of aggression in rapid succession put the American public in a frame of mind far less receptive to popular protest, and put activists on the back foot.

Harvey, however, says that what hurt the Global Justice movement most after 9/11, along with “the crazy political changes,” was “our own inability to recognize our own victories,” referring to OWS participant David Graeber's 2007 essay “The Shock of Victory” as a more detailed examination of this theory.

He also thinks that once the same activists transferred their energy to the anti-war movement, “We failed to connect to the real economics of the occupation.”

“We failed to identify the IMF (which designed Iraq's economy and advised on laws pertaining to it) and Paul Bremer (who drafted the laws that neo-liberalized Iraq) as culprits in any real, mass way. We should have been more on top of that.”

Like Leys, Wengraf and many other activists, veteran and new, Harvey is excited about the Occupy movement's possibilities. He sees the work that was done pre-2001 (and some “key moments” later, such as the 2003 protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement in Miami) as “getting to the bottom of the biggest issues in the world, challenging the foundation organizations of the global corporate movement and winning in the Global South, especially in Latin America.” Now, he says:

“The Occupy movements are taking mass action to address the neo-liberalization of our own cities and communities. Demographically, the movements look fairly similar, largely white, and largely young. But OWS has far wider appeal and there has been more involvement of folks of color from poorer communities in the United States. The movement seems to be shifting further in a direction that will hopefully put more of the power and dialogue in the hands of these folks.”

And Then What?

Most commentators and participants interviewed for this story agree that, of all the movements this year, Occupy is the least interested in engagement with the electoral process. “Some may vote Democrat as a lesser of two evils,” says Matthew Filipowicz, “but I think most people with Occupy realize the whole political system is horribly broken.” Jesse Myerson thinks, “Individual candidates might envision a future similar to the one we envision, but none has the agency to bring it about.” And Jasson Perez believes next year's elections hold out any promise of change only “if we continue to build on the militant civil disobedience tactics that we've been engaging in.”

In a conversation broadcast live from Liberty Plaza Park on October 6, Naomi Klein enthusiastically argued that Occupy Wall Street was an explicit reaction to the co-opting of previous movements. For Klein, both OWS and the No KXL protests had the message: “You can't take us for granted – we might vote for you, but we're not going to work for you if you betray us.” Journalist Allison Kilkenny agreed, saying OWS organizers told her “the actual structure of this… makes it near to impossible to co-opt. Because the Democratic Party can say 'this is Occupy Wall Street's new agenda,' but it won't be true, and everyone will know that.”

Not everyone thinks this is for the best, though. Lindsay Beyerstein thinks the number of Occupiers “who are just plain hostile to the political process” is “too bad.” “Organizing at the local political level is a good way to build a power base that will have the effect of pressuring the Democrats from the left,” she says, “whether OWS engages directly with the Democrats or not.”

And if the Wisconsin protests lost a potential for radicalism when they were channeled into recall campaigns, there are those who worry that Occupy will drift into radicalism for its own sake. Labor journalist Mike Elk has written recently of the dangers of a rift between Occupy and the labor movement, and contrasted that with what the Wisconsin protests did accomplish.

“In Wisconsin there would not have been such a significant mobilization against Walker's attack on worker rights if labor unions had not been involved from the start to provide much of the infrastructure,” says Jeff Leys. He sounds a similar note of caution, saying perhaps the biggest risk to the Occupy movement “is the danger of becoming, for want of better words, 'morally pure' or 'politically pure.'” Leys doesn't think it would be strategically wise for OWS to move into the realm of electoral organizing, but says he's been involved “with far too many efforts that treat electoral politics with utter disdain.”

“There is a notion at times,” says Leys, “that the only way to achieve the ultimate objective is to isolate ourselves from the mainstream political discourse.” But on the contrary, he says: “If we are serious about building a broad-based progressive movement in this country, we need to commit to utilizing every nonviolent tactic at our disposal.”

Ryan Harvey thinks the most important thing is that, “as we debate the meaning and importance of the elections… we must do so in a way that doesn't drive people away from the movement.” While he says popular movements are far more important than elections, he wants to ensure that the ongoing dialogue within Occupy respects “those who back certain candidates for key reasons (Obama for at least making overtures to boost social programs or Ron Paul for his total opposition to the wars).”

This emphasis on dialogue is shared by Lee Wengraf. “People are in the process of defining for themselves a new set of priorities for the society they want to live in, and the coming year will further define what those are and how we want to organize for them,” she says. The most important thing is this:

“2011 has fundamentally changed the terms of the debate: that it's the 99% who will define what change we want, what our world will look like and how to get there.”