Ten years after Occupy Wall Street embodied the hopes and outrage of people across the country, Kelly Hayes and labor journalist Sarah Jaffe talk about what we can learn from a moment that launched a new and unruly era of protest.
Music by Son Monarcas
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes.
Today, we are going to talk about the legacy of Occupy, a much maligned social movement that holds some pretty urgent lessons for the moment we’re living in. It takes years, if not decades, to truly read the impacts of mass movements. Last summer’s protests, for example, clearly led to the conviction of George Floyd’s killer. But that judicial outcome was just one short-term impact of the largest mass protest movement in U.S. history. With so much activation and so much energy channeled into existing organizing work, including abolitionist organizing, we don’t know yet what the cascading impacts of those protests might be, because the larger context of those events is still under construction.
Friday, September 17 will mark the 10 year anniversary of the Occupy movement, a movement that has caught a lot of flak over the years, sometimes quite deservedly. But for all its faults, Occupy had a profound impact on the character and intensity of protest in the United States. It also activated a new generation of organizers and shifted the Overton window to the left in ways that are rarely discussed or appreciated.
So in order to explore the lessons and legacies of Occupy Wall Street, amid what’s bound to be a barrage of unbearable think pieces, I am joined today by labor journalist Sarah Jaffe, author of the books, Work Won’t Love You Back and Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt. Sarah Jaffe, welcome back to the show.
Sarah Jaffe: Thank you for having me. I’m trying really hard not to write an unbearable think piece about Occupy, so…
KH: I’m doing this instead.
SJ: Yeah, I’m doing this and another podcast. We’re going to do a Belabored episode on it, so that I think is going to be, yeah. I’m going to try not to write any think pieces, guys. Going to try.
KH: How are you doing, friend?
SJ: I am okay. We were saying before we turned the recorder on that we are talking as a hurricane has just hit New Orleans, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, and we don’t really know what the impact of that is going to be. And the world is on fire in a variety of ways, and so yeah. It’s always a question of like, how am I? How am I? Can I sort through any of these things to even have a coherent self? I don’t know.
KH: Absolutely. And I, personally, I’ve been on sabbatical for the past couple of months, and that was long overdue. And I am grateful I was able to get out into the woods and visit my reservation and do some work on a book that I’m excited about. So I’m incredibly grateful for all of that, but the balance shifts moment to moment.
SJ: It really, really does.
KH: And I am so grateful to have you here with me today, because I can’t think of anyone I would rather have this discussion with about Occupy.
SJ: Thank you.
KH: So, hopping into the Way Back Machine for a moment.
SJ: Oh God.
KH: Let’s talk about 2011, because there are some important similarities, I think, between that time and the moment we’re currently living in. And also some really important differences. One thing that comes to mind for me that definitely resonates today is the old chant, banks got bailed out, we got sold out.
KH: Because once again, we are faced with a major crisis and funds are unlimited when corporations and banks need an infusion, while the rest of us are completely disposable. So can you say a bit about what was happening in 2011, in terms of the political climate here and internationally?
SJ: Yeah, I was thinking about this, this morning, because of course, I was also thinking about the eviction moratorium being overturned by those ghouls in the Supreme Court. And the last time that we were in a cascading crisis of homelessness, home loss, all of that, was in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. It didn’t really stop, it just slowed down after the financial crisis, right? And we had very little conversation about what was actually happening to people for the first year and so on, the sort of Democrats. Obama comes into office, passes one sort of stimulus bill, and stimulus with big air quotes around it. And then gets on to healthcare reform while the reality of people’s lives was just getting worse.
And so by 2011 you’ve had several attempts to start a movement against the banks, against organized capital. You had things like the showdown on Wall Street, on Main Street that was led by groups like People’s Action, and you had organizations that the labor movement had tried to start. But none of it had really taken off. And the thing that had taken off was the Tea Party, about which I’ll share more later, and then all of a sudden… those weird hippy kids decide to occupy what ends up being a park in lower Manhattan.
And at first nobody paid attention to that either, right? My boss at the progressive publication I was working for that will go unnamed, was just like, “Why are you writing about that? Go do something real.” And then they got pepper sprayed by an overzealous NYPD officer and the rest is history.
KH: On that piece about the police violence, I think it’s probably pretty hard for most people to imagine now, who weren’t sort of into Twitter and whatnot at that time, maybe some of the younger folk, a world in which we weren’t inundated with that kind of imagery, of protestors being attacked, and of that kind of violence. And it was an interesting moment, in that the outrage was absolutely justified, and people were moved to get into the streets in very real ways by what they were seeing. And there was also this air about it of, “This is unprecedented. This is unthinkable.”
SJ: Mm-hmm, right, right, right.
KH: I really appreciated Mariame Kaba for responding to that as an educator, instead of just saying, like, “You ignorant, terrible people who don’t recognize what has been happening to Black people for generations.” Instead it’s like, “Okay, here’s a zine. Here’s some history.”
And I think that that was a very important beginning for a lot of folks who were involved in Occupy. I certainly saw that sort of education process taking hold with some people who’d shown up with this very pro-cop attitude. In Chicago, even going so far as to write sort of a love letter to the cops early on for not having beaten us up. Which was incredibly —
SJ: Yeah, or chanting, “Cops are the 99%,” right? And that took interesting forms, right? Because yeah, one of the first people that when Occupy moved into home defense work in Atlanta, one of the first people whose homes they tried to save was a cop. And that was a really interesting moment for them to… and hopefully for him, too. Hopefully it changed his life. But there was this tension where people couldn’t figure out, because their class analysis wasn’t particularly strong, in a lot of cases, and there are reasons for that, like 100 years of American history of beating, expelling, arresting, and executing communists, and anarchists, we shouldn’t forget that. And the way that the conversation, it started out very populist, very basic. We are the 99%, right?
And there’s absolutely a ton of use to that moment, because in America the conversations always about the “middle class,” and “the poor,” and the whatever. To actually claim a broad identity that there was no one below I think was really important, right? That was the usefulness of we are the 99% chant. It sort of named who we were against, and also it didn’t cut somebody off, like, “We need to defend the American worker. We need to defend the factory jobs. Or, we need to defend the middle class.” It was like, “We’re everyone except for those people at the top,” who by now they’re shooting themselves into space in really phallic rockets. But like, at the time they were just collecting blank checks. I mean, they’re still collecting blank checks from the government, let’s be real. But they were collecting blank bailout checks from the government while destroying people’s lives. And it seemed like both political parties had decided not to care anymore. And it really changed the conversation. I remember my friend Mike Konczal was heading down to D.C. to be on a panel about Dodd-Frank, keeping the very modest financial reform that we got after the financial crisis. And this was planned since well before Occupy started, then like three weeks into Occupy, I was like, “I think you should just walk into the room, laugh, and kick over the table.” Just be like, “Yeah, the conversation’s changed now. We’re not debating whether we should keep Dodd-Frank anymore. We’re debating whether we should nationalize the banks and destroy them.” Which we should still be doing, by the way. Not debating it, just doing it.
KH: We should absolutely be doing that.
SJ: Not debating it, just doing it.
KH: Just doing it. But absolutely, and I feel like that experience of radicalization that unfolded for a lot of people around policing, who started out in that sort of typical pro-cop, and even thanking the cops for not beating us mentality, folks did eventually get beaten and have those experiences that come with being persistent about social issues and questioning the order of things.
And so we did see a lot of minds change and I think that was important for a lot of folks who wound up going into local organizing here in Chicago, that we had folks who were going in with a little experience and with that understanding. And those folks were among the people showing up early in support of Black Lives Matter, so you had at least more white people and non-Black people in the mix who weren’t completely clueless about why you don’t thank the cops at protests and things of that nature.
And I think that thanks to Black Lives Matter and the experience that people have had of stumbling through learning what solidarity means, and the relationship to that movement, I do think we’re in a much better position today for mass struggle in some ways than we were then, worse in others.
But in thinking about where we were in the pre-Occupy days and where we are now, I remember something from your book, Necessary Trouble, when Alexis Goldstein who worked in the financial industry back then said she kind of marveled out loud at work at the destruction the industry had caused and said, “How will the public ever forgive us?” And her boss responded, “The public is going to forget, and then everything is going to go back to normal. The public forgot after the Long-Term Capital Management hedge funds imploded and the banks bailed them out, they forgot after the savings and loan crisis. It’s going to be a little rocky for a while, but don’t worry about it, everything will go back to normal.”
I was thinking back on that and about how right now, rather than collectively reckoning with our losses or challenging the system, we’re being rushed back to normal. A normalization process that’s really being helped along by the fact that while normal was pretty terrible, a lot of people are desperate for it after the last year-and-a-half.
SJ: Yeah, I think right now we’re in such an interesting place, because normal is both more desirable and less possible.
SJ: And what I mean by that is of course, the pandemic and over, right? We’re talking, you’re in Chicago, I’m in London, both of which are places that have vaccinated a large part of their population, and we’ve still got the Delta variant, guys, it ain’t over, and as long as we have not vaccinated the entire world, small problem, we’re going to keep having variants that evade the vaccine in various ways. So, you know, normal’s not possible. And also, the climate crisis is just worse than it was, because thank you for however many years of the Obama administration continuing to drill baby, drill. We have less time to worry about that. So normal’s not possible.
But also, I understand why. I miss normal, right? Gosh, I miss being able to go out with friends without worrying about whether the person next to me who just coughed has COVID. Worrying how effective the vaccine is. Worrying about my mother who refuses to get vaccinated. All of this stuff. I would love for that all to go away, would love it, right? But it’s not gonna.
And the truth is, it wasn’t going to go back to normal after 2008 either. That was a systemic crisis in a bunch of ways for capitalism, but also for the way people feel about representative democracy. And I think we’ve seen that. I’m currently reading the book The Great Recoil by Paolo Gerbaudo, who is a comrade of mine here in London, and the book is about the end of neoliberalism and the change in politics that’s going on right now.
And one of the big issues that we saw becoming prominent early during Occupy was people just didn’t believe that their representatives would do anything for them. And how widespread that belief actually was. And so we get into the much maligned generation assembly and consensus process and all of that stuff. But in the beginning it was real, that people had a deep need to feel part of something that actually took their opinion seriously. And actually took their participation seriously, and wasn’t just like, yeah, yeah, yeah, you vote every four years and then they do exactly the same thing as the last guy did.
KH: Yes. And now we’re in this particular moment where more and more people are sort of being forced to walk the plank and experience abject poverty, displacement and social disposal in order to restore the dynamics of normalcy under capitalism. Where you get evicted if you can’t pay your rent and you go hungry if you can’t find work, and you get arrested for the everyday functions of life if you live outside.
So this is a risky moment for the government, that I feel could either blow up quickly or boil over within the next few years. Because even though we never got adequate financial relief in this country, we did see a level of accommodation of people’s needs and survival that the public now knows is possible. Which opens up questions for people about where money goes, and why there’s always another billion for the cops, or a few trillion for a war or for the banks and corporations. And yet we are crowdfunding our healthcare, going hungry and getting criminalized for homelessness. And I think our government must be worried because capitalism is a lot more fragile than they would like people to believe. I mean, just over a decade ago, people thought it might have imploded.
SJ: Yeah, I mean The Economist, right, The Economist which is the best defender capitalism’s ever had run a cover story that was “Capitalism At Bay,” right? I will never forget that one. And I think the thing that happens, right, in moments of mass crisis like that, after 2008, after COVID, is that it’s easy to blame yourself when you’re the only person you know who’s in crisis, right? It’s really easy to buy into the thing that tells you that it’s your fault. It’s your fault that your job is lousy and doesn’t pay you well, it’s your fault that you’re not that good at it. It’s your fault that you’re losing your home because you took out a mortgage you couldn’t afford. It’s your fault that you have too much student debt to pay your rent. All of these are your fault, they’re personal, right? And the thing that happens in moments of crisis is it becomes so prevalent that you can’t feel alone anymore. Because it’s everywhere, right? And you can’t blame yourself. We couldn’t blame ourselves for COVID, it wasn’t our fault, right? There was no way to tell the thousands of people who got COVID in New York in those early days that it was their fault somehow.
And so when it’s not our fault and we can’t be told it’s our fault, and millions and people know that it’s not our fault, the government has to do something about that to tamp down unrest, right? I mean, this is what Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward write about, the way that the government distributes aid in order to essentially avoid unrest. And it’s not an accident that the biggest protest and most disruptive protest, the most cop cars on fire I remember in American history, happened last year during this giant crisis that again, they couldn’t tell us it was our fault.
KH: Absolutely. You mentioned belonging, and I think that’s a really important aspect of the movement, particularly in relation to what you’re discussing here about blame, and sort of the ways that it gets shifted around and the ways that we realize that we’re not alone. Can you say a bit about how Occupy gave people a sense of belonging, and what was your experience of the movement like?
SJ: Yeah. So I was in New York, which is where it got started, and I think… and I remember, I was as skeptical as anyone else. I mean, partly because some of the people who were sending around the Occupy invites on Facebook were people that I had seen try to organize something before, and they couldn’t organize their way out of a paper bag. So I was skeptical and I went down to this thing, and I remember the first thing that I saw was a sign for childcare. And there were no children being cared for at the moment, but I was like, “Huh.” The people who are doing this are thinking about who they want to make space for. And they want to make space for people who have kids. And that’s often something that kind of, I don’t want to say macho, but kind of macho protests movements that are disruptive, they don’t think about that. And that was one of those moments that I was like, “Huh, okay.”
The fact that the food and comfort stations go up early on, right? That there are people making sure that people who come to the park are fed. They have blankets if they’re cold, there are coats, there are things that you need. That all of that is… you know, it’s caring for people’s basic needs in a way that late capitalist society is determined not to do. And that, again, I think when you give people the things that they need and they realize, “Oh, the world can be a place where people just get what they need,” and it’s not denied us because we aren’t sufficiently productive. That’s a really big feeling, and then those early generation assemblies before we got really annoyed at the people’s mic and all of that, it was kind of amazing to be in a space where people are figuring out how to talk in a big group, and to make decisions in a big group and to speak with each other and listen to each other and amplify each other’s voices.
I think there have been so many pieces that I’m actually quite tired of them, about oh, this is the problem with horizontalism, this is the problem with the consensus process, and this is the problem with blah, blah, blah. And everybody who doesn’t care one tiny bit about feminism quotes Jo Freeman on The Tyranny of Structurelessness as if they cared at all. And I am completely over it.
But I often think we have to take these moments and these experiments seriously, not because they represent how we should live our lives every day, because good God, I don’t want to go back to a massive consensus meeting to figure out basically anything. But what it represents in that moment that people need it. And what people needed was to feel like they mattered, and that they were a part of something. And that was what it could be, and you could go down there and you could just say, “Is there a group working on this thing? No? Well I want there to be one. Is there a library? Nope, we’re going to start one. Great.” That’s how sort of all of these things took off. And at its best, it was a place where people’s ideas and contributions could be valued and brought into the whole in a way that we don’t have that experience very often in most of our lives.
KH: Absolutely. I personally… was sort of avoiding Occupy, at first. I was really busy at the time with some art projects I was working on, and I remember a friend of mine kept telling me, “You should go down there. You should check it out, it’s really something.” And I kept saying, “Okay, I’ll do it, I’ll do it.” And then I was on Twitter one day and I saw that the bankers in the financial district above Jackson and LaSalle where Occupy was maintaining its presence here, had thrown McDonald’s job applications out the windows at the demonstrators.
SJ: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep.
KH:And had held up signage that said, “We Are The 1%.”
KH: And that pissed me off so much that I blew off the rest of my day and got on the train and headed down there to join these folks. And what I encountered there, as I strolled up on that corner, was a bunch of people sitting in circles talking about politics. And the vast sort of distinctions in perspective were impressive.
KH: And in a society that is really lacking in fellowship and lacking in places for people to make these kinds of connections and have these kind of conversations — and as we experienced during the pandemic, our social interactions have been so boiled down to consumer activities — that alone, just having that space, where ideas were percolating and people were hearing each other, and again, like you said, we all got sick of the people’s mic, but there was something really profound about everyday people saying something and then hearing this crowd of people say it back to them. Truly being heard. And that did not exist. And the level of indignation that manifested itself in that environment wasn’t something that we had access to as politically frustrated people, because the majority of the NGOs and the politically active groups in that time, it was not a confrontational time in protest. It was not a time when people were getting in other people’s faces and shutting things down.
SJ: Well, the Tea Party was.
KH: Yeah, that’s true. So the wrong people were doing that.
SJ: Yeah, and I honestly… I think the Tea Party gave us something valuable with that. Which is it reminded people that you could do that. You could go yell at your congressman. It actually might be fun.
We had been in such a “nice” period of time, and when we had marches they were just big… because we had big marches in the 2000s, high. Million and some odd people marched against the Iraq war. People marched against Afghanistan, too, although nobody wants to remember that now. There was stuff going on. But it was very choreographed, it was very stage managed, it was very like this is how you do a thing. And we go from point A to point B. And all of the disruption that had been fairly important to the movements of the ’80s and early ’90s, I’m thinking of ACT UP here, that was really kind of gone. And especially once Obama comes in, everybody to the sort of left of Hilary Clinton is just like, “Well, now we have to behave. We have to ask nicely and the Democrats will give us the thing that we’ve asked for if we ask really nicely.” And that of course turned out not to be true. And yeah, people’s actual lives are… you know, I remember, I was talking to a lot of people then who were getting foreclosed on, and whose jobs had disappeared, and the job that they had that paid them enough to live on was gone. And the new job that was available was the night janitor down the street that paid them minimum wage, and they couldn’t pay for their rent and their kids’ food anymore. There was so much of that still going on, and not being discussed. And so to finally have places where people were just acknowledging the reality of the world, right, it made you not feel nuts anymore.
KH: Absolutely. And I feel like in those spaces, political pots were being stirred, right? Ideas were being seeded among people and we were provoking each other, and getting active and being willing to become disruptive and sort of bringing that to the table. So we had this raw political will, and we had a lot of popular support, and we also didn’t have demands.
KH: A lot was made of Occupy’s refusal to make demands. Some people defended it as making a lot of sense, a lot of people didn’t. In reality, we didn’t have the ideological cohesion to make demands, right? Because we had Democrats and anarchists and socialists and a lot of people who were previously unpoliticized. So some people wanted to jail the bankers, or end the Fed, and some people wanted to overthrow the government. So there really wasn’t enough ideological glue for something like a list of demands, but what —
SJ: And it wasn’t like they were going to get met anyway.
Let’s be real. If Occupy had come up with 10 demands, that were like end foreclosures and send Jamie Dimon to jail, and whatever. They wouldn’t have been met anyway. So why bother? The importance of the thing was the space itself. And this is going to sound contradictory because I was talking about climate change and the very short timeline that we have earlier, but this weekend I was talking with a comrade and it was just like, “Yes, sometimes we need the in-between space.” And that’s actually the thing that comes before really massive change. And sometimes we have to sit in the discomfort of, “We don’t know what to do. We don’t have the idea.” And everybody has been to, or if you haven’t, you’re lucky, been to the sort of Lefty conference where somebody gets up and starts telling you that if you just do what Lenin did in 1917 then we’ll have a revolution and everything would be magical. And if you actually read the history of 1917, you will realize that the Bolsheviks had no idea what was going on and Lenin got extraordinarily lucky.
But there was no answer, because if we had the answer we’d have won by now. And so the reality is that we have to sort of sit in these uncomfortable spaces sometimes, and in those spaces, people come together and that’s what creates the answer. It’s not a preordained answer somewhere that we just have to enact step by step. Step one, occupy a park, step two, release a list of demands, step three, victory. That’s not going to work.
KH: Yeah, I don’t think that a lot of people fully appreciate that movements don’t just generate concrete outcomes, they also create new contexts. And what bound people together in Occupy was the energy and imagination and outrage of the moment. It really was a mass radicalization event for the Left, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that socialism and critiques of capitalism were not part of the popular discourse pre-Occupy.
SJ: Oh my God, you couldn’t say socialism. You couldn’t say capitalism. It was shocking to me, again, in 2008 when all of a sudden The Economist is saying the C word. I ran a, oh God, I don’t know where it is now, I ran a Google whatever search to look at the frequency of terms before 2008 and after 2008, and I was just like, “Oh, suddenly people are saying capitalism again.” You could name the system as a system, and naming it as a system and not just the water we swim in, is the first step towards realizing that it can end.
The famous Žižek or Jameson or probably both line about, it’s easy to imagine the end of the world when you imagine the end of capitalism. Well, it’s not actually so difficult to imagine the end of capitalism anymore. Now our real problem is imagining what comes next.
KH: Yes. Absolutely. And the movement may not have been the sort of biblical storm that some people had hoped for. But it undeniably changed the weather. I do want to talk about occupation a bit. As someone who has participated in multiple occupations over the years, I kind of hope the next big thing does not take the shape of an actual occupation.
SJ: I mean, Kelly, we’re getting old. I’m too creaky to be sleeping floors. I need to go home to a bed. The kids can occupy things if they want to. I will show up and send them pizza. But mama’s old hips need to sleep in a bed. I got a bad back now.
KH: I feel you. I’m not that durable anymore.
KH: But I could see how occupation might be a natural consequence tactically, of the COVID housing crisis and climate displacement. But just to give people who haven’t participated in urban occupations a sense of difficultly involved, can you say a bit about the upsides and downsides of that tactic that we saw during Occupy?
SJ: I mean, you are probably much more qualified to talk about this than me. Because I am not really an organizer, I’m just a crotchety old journalist who’s watched a lot of things. I’ve never planned and carried out an occupation. I’ve just shown up after the fact to report on it.
But so the thing about occupying that was interesting was just it stayed. The thing didn’t go anywhere. And at the point when the first Occupy Wall Street marches were announced, they were attempting to actually occupy actual Wall Street itself, and it ended up, occupy a park near Wall Street, right?
But what it did was it gave a location to come to if you were angry. And that was a thing about Occupy Wall Street that is different than a lot of occupations, because a lot of occupation as a tactic are occupying the thing, the place that is strategically significant. So again, when Occupy in a lot of places, most successfully in Atlanta and Minneapolis, moved into home defenses, you were occupying the thing you wanted to save, right? You were occupying people’s homes and you would have 100 people sleeping on somebody’s lawn so the sheriffs couldn’t come and evict the family. That kind of thing is one real reason to do an occupation.
Or the folks that were protesting the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, they marched to the police station in Sanford and they blockaded the police station in Sanford. And that is a specific targeted tactic, like, “We are going to disrupt the functioning of this institution to protest how it works.” So that kind of occupation tactic, I think, it continues to have place, right?
We’re seeing it used in a variety of ways and sort of blockades similarly in terms of pipeline fights, right? Like [Enbridge] Line 3 that’s happening right now. And we’re seeing it in home defense and eviction defense and deportation defense where it’s not quite an occupation but it is an amassing of people to prevent something from happening in a targeted space. And all of these things are sort of dependent on a large number of people refusing to allow things to go on as normal, and physically blocking them if you can.
In Scotland a couple of months ago, there was a sort of famous action on, what was the name of the street? Was it Kenmure Street? Yeah, Kenmure Street, in Glasgow. And people showed up to prevent somebody from being deported, and some people literally crawled underneath the deportation van and held onto the wheels so that they couldn’t move.
And so there are all sorts of uses for that kind of tactic that aren’t camping out in a park, right? Occupy ended up being, I guess, almost less of an occupation and more of an encampment, right? And we saw some of those in the past year, too, when we had homeless encampments in Philadelphia, you had people sort of taking over the vacant police station in Chicago… not in Chicago, in Seattle. But there are all sorts of ways that people will take over a space, repurpose the space, or just hold the space and refuse to let the machinery go on, essentially.
KH: Yeah, and as someone who’s participated at the organizing level in a bunch of occupations at this point, some of which were successful and went well, some of which, you know, ended horribly. We’re talking about… things can break down in really ugly ways over time in occupations. And that’s something people should understand, because as much as we can generate these spaces where we create visions of what the world should look like, right, with having the library and having the free food and sort of creating these manifestations of how we think people should live and provide for one another — all of that can be really powerful, and at the same time, on a long enough timeline, you start to see the reality that, well, we haven’t really built all of the structures that we need to make this sustainable. This is in fact symbolic, in that we haven’t figured out a sanitation system that isn’t reliant on this oppressive state. We don’t actually necessarily have in our community the structures to address violence that emerges, such as gender violence or just disputes between people. We don’t always have the tools we need.
And that if those things haven’t simply naturally happened on their own, those kinds of conflicts and violence will be inserted by the state in order to discredit and break down our projects. So these things emerge on a long enough timeline in the sort of occupation-driven scenarios. And so I definitely want people who have visions in their head of ways that occupations can be beautiful and good to understand that yes, all of that’s real. And also, you have these very messy complications that come up. And also the fact that with an occupation-driven movement, the tactic becomes the objective.
SJ: Mm-hmm, yeah.
KH: And sometimes that makes sense, right? Some of the situations you were describing, you’re trying to hold the house, you’re trying to prevent an eviction, you’re trying to hold a piece of land that is going to be destroyed. But for symbolic purposes, it can get in the way of growth. And kind of keep your momentum in a box.
SJ: Right, and just provoke sort of more conflict with the police over something that is increasing. And again, you talked about the importance of the conflict with the police to be understanding that built a movement for Black lives that wasn’t just Black people, that nevertheless, it sort of became about these endless conflicts that just did have higher and higher stakes because the cops in America have a lot of weapons and they will just keep bringing them to you.
KH: In some ways, I think Occupy Chicago was better off for the fact that we never got an encampment. We took around 300 arrests trying to get an encampment, but Rahm Emanuel was not having it and looking back, I think that was a huge miscalculation on his part. Because if we had gotten caught up in defending the plaza we tried to take, I don’t know that we would have had the presence that we did, supporting the community groups and unions that were challenging him. I think we ultimately had a more powerful impact as organizers and activists in our communities than we would have because in place of the central continuous direct action of occupation, we shifted around the city like a cavalry that could be called in against austerity, and in defense of public education, and in support of housing takeovers. And we picked up knowledge and experience and skills on those fronts of struggle.
And looking back now, I think it was one of the great strategic errors of Rahm Emanuel’s first term, like right up there with going to the mat Karen Lewis and pushing our teachers into a strike. I think Rahm enhanced the political power of his opposition by refusing to allow those of us in Occupy to contain ourselves, because decentralizing us created a power infusion for local movements during a really crucial time. And I think the consequences of that played out for the rest of Rahm’s time in office.
SJ: Yeah. Oh, Rahm. Isn’t he going to Japan or something?
KH: That’s what I’ve heard.
SJ: Yeah, and I think you mentioned Karen Lewis and the teacher’s strike, and I think there is something to be said here, where the caucus that took over the Chicago Teachers Union also grew out of reading groups around the financial crisis. It grew out of the same kind of thing, and we’re going to use the union in this case to create a space where people can come together and talk about this massive crisis that we’re living through, because the rest of the world is acting like we can just go back to normal and that’s not real.
And so in all of these ways, that experience laid the groundwork for so many things that are still ongoing. And yeah, watching… in New York the camp lasted three months including one very exciting morning with the showdown with Michael Bloomberg when all of the unions sent in people, and there were thousands of people at the park, which now it makes me flinch because I’m just like, “Everybody could have gotten COVID!” Oh, right, we didn’t have COVID then.
We were just packed in next to big burly dudes in orange LIUNA [Laborers’ International Union of North America] sweatshirts, and yeah. And Bloomberg backed down because he didn’t want to have a fight with thousands of people in Zuccotti. And so instead they just went in one night, a month and a half later, and cleared it all out when nobody was expecting it and the weather was starting to get shit, so the crowd was shrinking. And that too, that sort of depressed everybody for a while. And then in the spring you saw the beginnings of the Fight For $15, the big marches around Trayvon Martin, the fight against stop-and-frisk, all of these things that had their roots in people who were central to Occupy, were involved in organizing them. And so again, I think… the way we look back on the 1950s and 1960s and the South and just call it the Civil Rights Movement, but really it was a sort of semi-discrete set of different things that revolved around different tactics, so you had bus boycotts and you had sit-ins and you had whatever.
And it’s only with the benefit of years of hindsight that we see that as one continuous movement. I think we’re going to look back, I mean, this is why I wrote my book the way I did. I think we’re going to look back at this period and see this all as the beginning and the struggle to create a class politics again in America, in Western Europe, in a lot of the world.
KH: So I want to talk a bit about some of the disasters we’re experiencing, and examine some of the lessons of Occupy amid COVID and the climate crisis.
KH: Because I definitely want us to consider the power of movements that we are witnessing here and now, not all of which are good. The whole characterization of the GOP as a death cult has been realized quite literally in a wholly preventable wave of mass death that right-wing opposition to the vaccine has created.
SJ: And a real cult with QAnon.
KH: Right. As someone who has followed the effects of climate change in recent years, I have had a lot dystopian daydreams about what a world swirling in apocalyptic catastrophe might look like, and particularly amid the rise of global fascism, and death cults have definitely been part of that imagery. Now we have millions of people in this country, as you say, invested in the cult of QAnon conspiracies and other right wing mythology. And we are already seeing a commitment to those mythologies causing mass death.
I know a lot of people have no sympathy for Republicans who have rejected the vaccine, but I’m also thinking about the children in those households, including the queer and trans children whose lives are hard enough in those environments, and about disabled people who are stuck in the care of some of these anti-vaxxers. So we’re talking about a cultish movement-
SJ: And the service workers who have to deal with them when they come in without a mask on and…
SJ: And also, look, my mother won’t get vaccinated. Here’s me coming out on your podcast. What do I do with that? As me, what do I do with that? And the hard and awful lesson that I think a lot of us have learned in the last 10 years, is that we are the last people who can organize our parents. My mothers takes the opinion of strangers more seriously than she does mine.
KH: And that’s such a horrifying challenge.
SJ: Yeah. Because I’m always going to be her mouthy, bratty kid. And so no matter what I say, no matter how many sources of expertise I can draw on, and I’ve got plenty because I’m a journalist, that means I have a lot of resources on that front, she’s not going to listen because I’m her bratty kid.
KH: And you know, instead of being told to drink poison Kool-Aid, these people have been told to breathe air that carries a deadly virus. And to not take a vaccine that could prevent that virus from killing them. And the death toll from that cultish, collective action is going to exceed any mass death event associated with any cult that has ever existed.
KH: And this situation of collapse and decline that we’re living in, yeah, I don’t think the characterization of apocalyptic death cult is as hyperbolic anymore.
SJ: Yeah. And I think it’s really interesting, right? Because the apocalyptic nature is the important part, and on some level feels like a massive case of denial, right? That you just cannot fathom the horror of this thing. And look, I can’t either. I thought, “Oh my God, this summer I’m going to get vaccinated, I’m going to have a life again, it’s going to be so exciting.” I have spent so much of this summer depressed, burned out, just trying to recover. I get how hard this is to fathom. Just the way that climate change is incredibly hard to fathom. And so people’s reaction to that is sort of understandable, can’t possibly be happening, not real.
KH: Well, we have so many points of escape from processing some of the things that we need to process. If we look at this phenomenon, right, with this sort of cult QAnon, I mean, it’s happening in a context where there’s a splintering of reality that has caused people to enact this unnecessary spectacle of death with an astounding level of commitment.
But I really hope people are processing this in terms of the gravity of our situation narratively, in a world where algorithms are splintering people into like minded pockets of news and opinion. And the political siloing of people with shared interests is on the rise globally, due to the way we consume information. And what’s happening to right-wingers who have rejected the vaccine is obviously an extreme manifestation, but it’s also part of a larger fracturing process that affects us all.
And I don’t think it’s remotely coincidental that algorithms are positioning us to lead increasingly siloed political lives because I think power players in the tech world see the long-term value of having a working class that’s too ideologically divided to act in its own defense in an increasingly chaotic world. Because they don’t want us to come to view capitalism the way many of us view the anti-vaccine crowd right now. But we have to, because that’s the reality.
Capitalism is also a death cult. The difference is the Republicans who are dying are all enacting this from a place of belief. And those of us living under capitalism are enacting it from a spectrum of places, right? Like belief, immediate necessity, fear of the alternative, fear of being punished if we don’t cooperate. So it would be more comparable to some people refusing the vaccine and a lot of people just being denied the vaccine, because authority and capital say so. And if we zoom out, that’s what’s actually happening in the world. That’s capitalism.
SJ: Right, right.
KH: So the challenge is uniting people and understanding that reality so that we can take the kind of action that’s going to be necessary at a global level to address the disasters ahead, and the disasters of capitalism that are unfolding now.
And one problem that we have always had, even across its various factions of extremity, the Right is much better at uniting when it’s time to fight Liberals and Leftists. And widespread solidarity is not our strong suit. So in a moment where we need people who are splintering off into silos at an accelerated rate to be able to unify and to really see some of the same things at the same time, I do think there’s a lot to learn from Occupy and how the imagery of the tent led so many people to project their hopes and dreams onto the same floating signifier. And would demands have been helpful? I think probably. And yet there is something to be said for being able to draw people together at all in these times, in the absence of affinity.
SJ: Yeah. Yeah, I mean it is a question, right? If you put out demands based on the most politically advanced people in the room, immediately you would have turned off everybody who just voted for Obama and still thought he was maybe going to do something good. And you definitely would have turned off the Ron Paul people, which maybe you needed to.
But it really did require, and I think does… and again, what would be my demands tomorrow, if somebody was like, “What are your demands?” I’m like… somebody asked me to write an article recently that was kind of like, “Oh, we want something that’s more radical than the discourse that’s out there. The sort of policy discussion that’s out there, but not overthrow the capitalist mode of production.” And I was like, “Well, I’ve got nothing in-between there.”
I mean, which is sort of a good thing, where people are talking about shorter working weeks, people are talking about universal basic income. There are bills being proposed for these things, there are trials happening in Wales and in Scotland and in Spain. These things are moving. So what do you want me to say that isn’t… that’s in-between universal basic income and overthrow the capitalist mode of production? You know?
SJ: I’ve got nothing. Overthrow the capitalist mode of production, that’s what I got for you.
KH: Same, same, all day. And I also think that something has changed in a sort of strategically useful way. Occupy of course, we never had the cohesion to generate demands, and I’m not saying that would be different today that we’d be able to produce some kind of documents saying, “These are our demands.”
SJ: Look at the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America]. Sorry DSA, love you…
KH: I don’t see us doing that. But, what I do think we have the potential to do in a moment that has not yet been born, is more effectively sort of align behind big ideas that are already sort of hanging in the air.
KH: Because there are some powerful, radical demands out there right now that have momentum. And in some cases, a kind of momentum we haven’t seen in decades, if ever. Free healthcare, student loan forgiveness, defunding the police in favor of life-giving services, making COVID relief programs permanent. And as you said, the Line 3 is unfolding right now while people are hearing about the IPCC climate report and seeing disasters like Hurricane Ida unfold.
And we have millions of people newly experiencing disability due to COVID, as we witness the escalating disposal of disabled people amid climate change. So, I’m not saying there weren’t powerful movements happening during Occupy, because obviously there were, but we are living in an unprecedented moment in a lot of ways. And while whiteness is still very much a problem, we definitely have a lot more white people with an anti-racist analysis than we did 10 years ago.
So I think amid the climate struggle we have a potential for global solidarity in the coming decades, that for one thing just absolutely must be realized, it’s not really optional. But I think those things are possible. And I don’t think that any of that happens just magically.
SJ: No, not at all.
KH: Because a lot of people in streets or because conditions are deteriorating.
SJ: Or because Bernie Sanders ran for president.
KH: But what do you think is possible now? That may not have been possible 10 years ago? What does our mass movement potential look like in the face of what we’re up against?
SJ: Yeah. This is what it’s all about, right? As we organize to win tomorrow what we can’t win today. And I made a sort of sarcastic comment about DSA, so I guess I’ll be more serious about that, which is right, there are thousands of people in America who are now in a socialist organization. That was unthinkable when I was in college.
SJ: I took a class on Marx, and like most people in it were like, “Haha, Marx, got to do this for my political science degree. But, LOL.” And I think to look at that, and to take seriously the struggle of thousands of people in a socialist organization to agree on a platform… this is exactly what I mean about making demands is actually really hard.
It’s easy to have reactive demands, right? Cori Bush camping out to keep the eviction moratorium going. Yes, great, we need that. That’s an immediate thing that we can win. And in winning that, you win the space to talk about yeah, why should people be evicted? When you see people on Twitter who are just like, “Oh my God, if we halt evictions now, then we’ll have to halt evictions forever.” And it’s like, “Yes, correct. That’s what we want. That is actually the demand.”
And those immediate moments make the space for the bigger thing, right? So defund the police, which is a demand that has come from abolitionist organizers that have been doing that for decades takes wing during a moment of mass protests, when people can see exactly how awful policing is and what its consequences are. And it becomes more possible to talk about even though I’m pretty sure almost every city that voted to even marginally defund the police has sort of backtracked in the last year, now that no police stations are on fire.
The way that all of this space is sort of continually created and… I’m in England, I spent the summer in England the last three years, and here sort of like the US, people… a lot of people in the Left who came out of the student movement and out of Occupy over here, then went into electoral politics, into the Labor Party, into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s run for, and then period as Labor leader in two elections where he could have ended up the prime minister and didn’t.
And now that’s over. The Labor Party has been retaken by the right wing of the Labor Party, and it is… everybody is sort of struggling to figure out what next? What do we do next? And in the midst of that comes this summer, the police… or the police, a policeman, he was off-duty when he did this apparently, killed a young woman who was walking home from the Tube and that sparked a massive protest movement, that again brought together groups who had been organizing around violence against women and around police violence, around racism against Black people, against Roma/Traveler people. All of this sort of comes together in this big movement that actually makes, again, a lot of people on the Left who hadn’t been thinking about the police that much suddenly realize that this is central to our struggle and it always has been.
So in those spaces you create possibility that wasn’t there before, and that is created… that is sort of brought into those spaces by people who have been doing the work already. As you mentioned Mariame early on, right, the people who are ready with the ideas and with the… and not just ready with the ideas and like, “Here, I would like to sell you my socialist newspaper,” but ready with the ideas to actually welcome people in, and then say, “Okay, what are your ideas?” And to actually enfold people into movement because again, it doesn’t come from us all having the right ideas, it comes from being forged in struggle. By it, I mean a political line, victory, success, a movement, an organization, any number of those things.
KH: I also think organizers have done a tremendous job over the last decade creating online resources. Podcasts, toolkits —
KH: Zines and books that can help educate new waves of organizers if people were open to political education. And learning from previous seasons and traditions. Those opportunities exist on an unprecedented scale, so that could be a game changer, too.
And on that subject, I will include some links to some of my favorite webinars and trainings, and also some workshops that I plan to sign up for in the show notes of this episode on our website for people who want to avail themselves of those opportunities, which we all should. Please do not wait for a moment of mass protest to learn as much as you can about how to organize, how to resolve conflict, how to extend care-
SJ: Oh, resolving conflict.
SJ: Yeah. Go ahead, go on.
KH: Just saying, to really make transformations, we are going to need a mass mobilization of knowledge in the streets.
SJ: Yeah. And of care. And I think not to sort of continue to beat this drum until I die of it, but I’m going to continue to beat this drum until I die of it, this is something that we learned, and I mentioned the comfort stations and the kitchens, things at Occupy, this is something that was really present in the last year’s protests after George Floyd was killed, right? Where you saw people handing out masks, handing out hand sanitizer, handing out water and food and just the sign that said, “Care Not Cops,” was so… It was everywhere, right?
And I think this is something that bleeds into our politics in all sorts of useful and important ways, and it… a lot of this analysis comes from disability rights organizers and feminist organizers who have taught us, right, that needing care is something we all… we all need care, and none of us get enough of it under capitalism. And COVID has really, really brought that home for us, right? If you’re somebody like me, who was living alone or with flatmates, was single in a way that is legible to capitalism as single, and doesn’t have the support of biological family, you can feel like you’re doing fine most of the time, right, when you’re not on lockdown. And then suddenly you get locked down and there’s a deadly virus and you’re going, “What happens to me if I get sick?” And thinking about that in a real way actually does and should change the priorities of our movements.
KH: Absolutely. And this is something I talk about in that book I’ve been working on, which is that the pandemic really has, I think, ushered in a sort of narrative shift in motion that has to continue, and it’s sort of the narrative shift of our time, which is living in this era of catastrophe, people aren’t going to suddenly rise up against the death-makers because we spit a lot of facts at them about climate change or inequality. We know that for movements to win, sort of the revolutionary story, or the radical story has to defeat the dominant narrative. And the radical story, to me, is a story about people saving each other, and people who will be saving each other for years. And that’s a story that changes in shape across communities and across borders. And depending on whether we’re talking about saving people from state violence or saving each other from flood waters, the consistency of bringing each other food, prioritizing each other’s survival, prioritizing each other’s collective wellbeing more than we put any kind of value on the system and its norms and its order — that is really the story that has the power and the potential to save us. And so that is what gives me hope especially in this moment, is that I believe that story is very alive, and I think we saw really incredible manifestations of it in the last year.
SJ: Yeah, and I think to bring it back to Occupy, right, I’m thinking about Occupy Sandy because again, I think we’re watching and waiting for new out of New Orleans after Hurricane Ida. In 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hits New York and New Jersey, who steps in when, again, the billionaire mayor didn’t care who died, and power was out in high rise housing projects all over the city, trains weren’t running, just massive crisis everywhere. And it was Occupy organizers who stepped in to provide mutual aid, to provide healthcare, it was the nurses union who was going door to door, knocking on people’s doors to make sure they were okay and bring them what they needed in that kind of moment, and it was a challenge, right? Because the same thing you were saying earlier about occupations being that you can get to a point where you think that we’ve replaced the existing society and then you realize, “Oh no, we are not ready for this, because all the people who are doing all this volunteering, they also have day jobs. And they also have responsibilities, and we actually can’t do everything. And there is actually a reason why things are set up on a social level where these are people’s jobs, because it’s hard work that needs to be supported and rewarded.” Rewarded is probably the wrong word, but supported and funded and backed and institutionalized in that way. I remember getting really mad when some Occupy Sandy folks started tweeting #WeGotThis and I was like, “We don’t got this. We absolutely do not got this.” This is really, really bad and it’s going to be really bad for years. And it needs more than what a few hundred people can do as volunteers. And that’s okay, that doesn’t mean we failed. That means that what we’re fighting for has to be big enough to take care of everyone.
KH: I’m wondering, looking back at Occupy, what makes you feel grateful or hopeful?
SJ: Oh my goodness, I mean so many things. I think Occupy breathed so much life into the labor movement, which is my day to day bread and butter. It brought us the groundwork for the Fight For $15, it helped radicalize nurses unions, which have been leading the charge. It provided support and interest in the teacher’s strikes, which have again been leading and strengthening the movement.
It reminded people that the workplace is also a site of struggle because it is a site of class struggle. And I just think that there’s, again, it always feels too soon. It’s been 10 years since the beginning of Occupy, and it still feels too soon to evaluate. Maybe that means I should have been a historian instead of a journalist. But I think part of our aversion to the think pieces, as we started out joking about, right, is that in the Internet media culture in particular, which it’s not that newspapers weren’t ever… newspapers used to come out twice a day, it’s not that a short term news culture is new, but there’s a particular way that the Internet incentivizes the hot take and having the fastest take and having the quickest reaction, and having the snappiest sort of most controversial, whatever. And I want to challenge that in a lot of ways, and one of them is just to be hesitant to make conclusions, and to say, “There are a lot of things that this thing did that were important.” And there were a lot of things that the more we go on, the more we see the connections, right, between the comfort station in Occupy, and the Care Not Cops people with little red wagons handing out bags of hand sanitizer and masks, and any number of these other things. And yeah, I think right now though, in this moment where these big sort of exciting electoral campaigns on the Left-ish have failed, is that I’m glad that there’s a recent legacy of non-electoral politics, and frankly without that non-electoral politics, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders don’t get to where they got to. But there are things to point to, to say, “Okay, yeah, it’s not just about the election.” There are things that we can do right now about the problems, whether they be the really big scary problems like climate change and COVID, or the really immediate necessary problem like your neighbor is about to get evicted.
KH: Yes. All of that. And I am tremendously grateful for the relationships I built during Occupy, I met some of my dearest friends at GAs and committee meetings and marches and I connected with grassroots organizers in Chicago neighborhoods, whose work I probably never otherwise would have engaged with or even heard about in some cases. And that was the beginning of a shift for me, that led me to where I am now, because mass protest has the power to change what’s politically possible, as you’re saying in the world. And also I think what’s possible for us as people. And I also appreciate knowing that large masses of people who lack political affinity can be drawn together to project all of their grievances and dreams onto the same signifiers and have those debates and create messy projects, because that allows us to experiment and fuck with the status quo in ways that are absolutely necessary.
And maybe one of those experiments will help us find the words or ideas that can paste some of our fracturing world views back together enough for us to fight together in a good way until we’ve really won. So I do think we have to learn from Occupy, and every other movement that wasn’t everything we wanted it to be. And every movement that we only think was everything we wanted it to be, because we haven’t read enough about it.
SJ: I promise there is no movement that was everything we wanted it to be. Because it would have won.
SJ: It’s the ontological movement question, right? It’s a movement that would have every possible perfection would also have had the perfection of winning. That is the only time I will ever quote Descartes.
KH: Yes. We learn from what worked about movements that have gone by, and we need to figure out how to build the relationships, skills and infrastructure we need to keep pushing left, in the highly energetic moments and the everyday.
KH: And Sarah, I just want to thank you so much for joining me today, it is always amazing talking to you.
SJ: Thank you. This was so much fun.
KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Sarah also did an episode of the Belabored podcast on Occupy’s ten year anniversary with guests Stephen Lerner and Jonathan Westin. You can check out the episode here.
The Great Recoil by Paolo Gerbaudo
Webinars and trainings:
The Ayni Institute’s Social Movements Course includes “11 self-paced modules (each one between 25 mins to an hour long) that dive deep into our foundational frameworks for understanding social movements, including Movement Ecology and Seasonality.” This coursework is not free, but if you cannot afford to pay for it, you can also check out some of the Ayni Institute’s workshops and programs on YouTube.
Project NIA’s Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) Abolition 101 offers an introduction to PIC abolition.
Spring Up uses “human centered design to generate our courses, emergent strategy to respond organically to the needs of our learning community, and participatory action research to lift up the wisdom of all participants in evaluating and collectively designing the future we desire.” (Some of this content is free and some is available on a sliding scale.)
Just Practice Collaborative created this Mixtape “as an offering in response to the overwhelming number of requests we are getting for training, workshops and support.” With this resource you can “learn from some of the people who have been practicing and thinking about and creating organizations around Transformative Justice over the last two decades.” (This content is not free.)
You can check out upcoming Defund the Police trainings and events here.
Justice at Work: Understanding Power, Oppression, Resistance and Solidarity helps participants explore the relationship between identity and power, while considering legacies of oppression and learning what solidarity looks like in practice. (This content is not free.)
Lastly, I highly recommend checking out Building Your Abolitionist Toolbox: Everyday Resources for a Punishment-Free World, which offers an amazing assemblage of content from Project NIA on topics ranging from Self Accountability and Movement Building to Rape Culture Intervention.