April 16, 2012

What We Lost Five Months Ago

Five months ago yesterday, I awoke for some reason in the wee hours of the morning and checked my email—a police raid was underway at Zuccotti Park! Flinging myself onto the A train, I arrived to find the Park blockaded. Arrests, beatings and the police trashing of the Occupy Wall Street! encampment were well underway. Occupiers and supporters tried to regroup nearby.

What I remember most vividly, though, is not that chaotic night (and morning, and afternoon), but my visit to Zuccotti Park the day before. For me, it puts in bold relief just how much we lost when Bloomberg unleashed the NYPD on Occupy Wall Street! We lost a beacon, a base camp, a school of struggle, an experiment in social change and, perhaps most important, a huge intake valve for a broad new social movement.

The Last Day At Zuccotti Park

I showed up on November 14 late to a noon-hour talk my friend Professor Mike Zweig was giving. He spoke to dozens in the northeast corner of the park using the mic check method in explaining how class works in the US, He then delivered advance copies of his book, The Working Class Majority, to the professional and amateur librarians operating the library, 5237 volumes and counting, now in its own tent. The information, food serving and medical operations were all better housed and organized than they had been even a week before, and a Zuccotti Park Fire Department had popped up, staffed by volunteers with real firefighting experience.

Hundreds of people milled around talking or working on some project with a purpose--hard-core occupiers, frequent visitors like myself, folks there for the first time. An unofficial stencil and spray can operation put slogans on shirts on one side of the park and on the other, a full scale silkscreen operation was turning out free t-shirts, raising from donations the money the General Assembly had voted to front to buy shirts and supplies. On line to get one, I chatted with a retired Black clerical worker, 75 years old, making her third visit to the park from New Jersey. She agreed with me that right after actual tents had gone up in the park about a month ago, some of the openness and welcome of the encampment had been lost, and that it was now back.

Before I left, I chatted with a hard-hatted IBEW member and a dude from the Labor Outreach Committee. The three of us talking in our union jackets attracted several others who wanted to discuss potential labor participation on an upcoming November 17 action. We joked about the tour buses which kept driving by, having now added Zucotti Park to their lower Manhattan circuit. On my way out, I paused to join in on “16 Tons” and “For What It’s Worth” with four or five folks around a guy with a guitar. Occupy Wall Street! was in full flower.

That night, the hammer came down


One big loss OWS! suffered is obvious: visibility. Once the initial mainstream whiteout of the movement had been broken by the pervasive reach of the Internet and social media (and by the ham-handed early attacks of the NYPD), Zucotti Park and the scores of sister occupations it sparked around the country were all over the news.

Partly it was that the message resonated so clearly with millions across the US (and around the world). As the economic meltdown took a bigger and bigger toll on working people, the banks got bailed out and the rich got richer. Ordinary people told their stories of losing their homes, of being laid off and unable to find work, of being impoverished by medical conditions, of being burdened by massive student debt they have no prospect of repaying. They spoke to--and for—countless others in the same sinking boat.

Partly it was that the scene was so mediagenic. The visual contrast between suited, buttoned down Wall Street brokers and lively young folks had complimentary soundbites—“Get a job, loser!” versus “Ya wanna look at these copies of the 217 job applications I have submitted since I graduated college in the Spring? Not a bite so far.” Drum circles and bemused tourists from rural Finland, anti-capitalist occu-dogs and the busy library, crocheting classes and visiting celebs showing support—there were loads of human interest stories.

And, of course, producers at news shows could always hope that the cops would brain out again and pepper spray some more female undergrads or beat another city council member bloody. Zuccotti Park was on the news every day. The word spread, and interest grew. While the Occupy! memes—the 1% vs the 99% and the concept Occupy [fill in the blank]! survived the shutdown, media interest quickly petered out without the occupations as a focal point.

Base Camp

The principal target of OWS! was clear: the Wall Street banksters who had trashed the financial system and gone on to pocket obscene salaries and bonuses for their efforts, and the political system which did their bidding, most notably providing a government rescue because they were “too big to fail.” Still, there were plenty of other issues that folks there were incensed about. Many of us had histories of activism, going back decades in the case of some of the elders.

What we had a Zuccotti Park was a kind of base camp, in the military sense, located within easy striking distance of our enemy. It was a concentrated pool of hundreds of activists of varying backgrounds who could also be mobilized to support struggles by sections of the 99% around the city. In the early weeks, OWS! protesters headed out from the park to swell postal union rallies defending post offices in poor neighborhoods and to help infiltrate and disrupt ritzy sales of high end art in defense of locked out members of the Teamsters working for Sotheby’s auction house. These actions in turn helped sway the leadership of many NYC and even national unions to throw their support to OWS!

Other important struggles that drew serious support from Zuccotti Park-based fighters were the struggle against racist police violence, including the NYPD’s notorious “stop and frisk” policies, the fight against tuition hikes in the City College system and numerous tenant struggles and anti-eviction fights. Short term mini-occupations of banks, government offices and other targets started becoming common.

And like any base camp, it had a logistical operation, to keep the forces fed, healthy and supplied. It provided reinforcements in the form of medics to tend those injured in clashes with the police and lawyers to make sure nobody stayed in the hoosegow a minute longer than necessary.


Another thing any guerilla army worth its salt does is train and educate its combatants. OWS! did this in any number of ways. The library was just the best known. There were non-violence, first aid and legal know-your-rights trainings. There were classes and guest speakers.

But more than anything else, education came in the ongoing discussions that were at the heart of the OWS! experience. Folks talked and argued—one-on-one, in small clumps, in organized.working groups or at the General Assembly--about immediate issues facing the encampment and larger questions of direction and the goals of the movement. And, through this collective process they learned.

A case in point is the question of the police.

Many, many Occupy! newbies, caught up in the 99% concept, were convinced that the cops were our natural allies. The thousands and thousands of hours young occupiers wasted earnestly explaining to individual officers in the detail surrounding Zucotti Park why they should side with us are enough to make a stone weep. But the tide shifted—police attacks on the occupation probably played the largest role. Direct experience will do that.

Then there was the presence of Black and Latino high school students who were gravitating to the park and explained the facts of life to the naïve. So did the news that JP Morgan Chase just donated $4.6 million to the NYPD, a move they assured everyone had nothing to do with OWS! Nobody was paying to poll occupiers but I‘ll bet a shiny new quarter that understanding of the real social role played by the po-po was far deeper by November 14 than it had been only two weeks earlier. And it took another big jump that night.

Petri Dish

Not only did occupiers, full time and sometime, learn by doing, they learned by doing new things. The creation of a living community and all its institutions, from scratch, by people who not only didn’t know, but often had, at least on the surface, little in common with, each other was an amazing process to experience.

The General Assemblies with their democratic debate and near-consensus decision-making took place very night. Anyone could come, anyone could speak. This gave participants an enormous investment in the project. Yet the social pressure of the collective—and the ban on amplification and the resulting development of mic checking—meant that folks from some outfit with a name like the Proletarian League for the Immediate Reconstitution of the Fourth International (Bolshevik Fraction) couldn’t derail the proceedings with a lengthy explanation of how OWS! should concentrate planning the insurrection.

And the practical problems we faced were, some of them, very deep and involved conflicting interests among the people, like individual power-tripping, factionalism, drug abuse in the encampment and the harassment of women occupiers. The last two were severely exacerbated by the police and shelter personnel, who directed homeless folks and people just released from prison to the Zuccotti Park. I can’t claim these problems were handled impeccably, but for the most part we did a better job than the larger society whose laws and norms we were challenging with our practice.

Some dynamics seemed built in, and in our two month stay in Zuccotti Park were never perceived as grave enough to demand the full focus of the group. One was the question of white privilege: whose upbringing, assigned role in society and assumptions about how the world works, and should work, made it relatively easy to take part. Another was the fact that longtime, fulltime occupiers saw themselves as the movement and, on the other hand, even frequent visitors would talk about OWS! in terms of “they” and not “we.’

Could all this daunting stuff have been worked through? I don’t know, but in the effort a great deal would have been learned—about how to build a different society, where other values than greed and commodity fetishism reign.

Strange Attractor

The most important thing that the encampments did was to provide a steady influx of new people into the Occupy! movement, many of whom had never even thought of engaging in active protest before. Zuccotti Park during the daytime and evening hours was always full of visitors. Sure, some folks came to scoff and a few, the sorry souls, in the hopes of seeing a real live female nipple. Most arrived supportive or genuinely curious, and left apparently little changed. But every single day, folks came for whom their visit was a transformative experience. I know because I spoke with them. Some became full time or sometime occupiers in the shadow of the Wall Street towers, others went home to other cities to get involved there.

Zuccotti Park and the other encampments around the country became a port of entry, the Ellis Island for a New Left in the United States. The constant influx of new folks kept the movement yeasty and vital. They came because they felt that here was an alternative to living in the old way, an alternative they were welcomed to, an alternative they could have a hand in building. They identified with the Occupy movement because it held the promise of a better world,

The constant inflow of new people, frequently very naive and often with odd ideas about the nature and the source of the real problems in this society, also kept the movement inoculated against a very real problem. This is core cadrification—the tendency for leading elements in a social movement, especially in times of high conflict and rapid change, to outstrip their base and jell into a small group with more advanced analysis and more militant tactics. This can easily result in the phenomenon of “slamming the door behind you”—scorning as hopelessly backward folks who hold the same views people in the core may themselves have held not so long ago.

Tactics And Strategy And The Big Question Now

The attack on Zuccotti Park and the nationally coordinated attacks around the same time on other Occupy! encampments in city after city were more than an effort to reinstitute the social order, business as usual. They targeted the encampments precisely to disrupt the effects just discussed.

When you don’t have a strategy, your tactics become your strategy. And Occupy Wall Street! was from the outset a tactic—admittedly the most successful tactic in recent memory. It was simple: occupy a public or semi-public space in a well-traveled area close to the centers of financial and political power and create an alternative center there where ordinary people can gather to challenge the powers that be.

Now Zuccotti Park and most of the other centers have been taken from us. And as various recent efforts to rebuild—Union Square in NYC, the abandoned warehouse in San Francisco—show, the enemy will not make it easy to repeat the tactical triumphs of last fall.

So where do we go from here? I don’t pretend to know, but I suggest that one yardstick by which to evaluate any of the possible futures being discussed and debated for the Occupy! movement is to what extent they can perform some of the functions that the Zuccotti Park encampment and its sisters coast to coast did.

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