October 6, 2011

Damn, Was I Wrong About Occupy Wall Street!

I was wrong.

And just how wrong I was still remains to be seen.

When the Occupy Wall Street! action was announced and even after it started, I thought it had FAIL written all over it. The core was a few score young, mainly white, activists from the radical youth milieu with plenty of demonstration experience but limited ties in the people's movements and communities of NYC. The messaging was vague, the tactical implications of the call to Occupy! even vaguer. This, I thought, was bound to be a nothingburger.

Now just three weeks later, it is clear that Occupy Wall Street! has slapped the defibrillator paddles to a constellation of social movements which have been on the critical list since at least the run-up to the 2008 election and is drawing thousands new to activism into motion. The spirit, determination and self-organization which characterized the Wisconsin uprising of last winter have gone nation-wide. And this time the struggle is not a desperate battle to turn back an ambush.

Because it has roared into existence so quickly, has spread so spontaneously and is still evolving so rapidly--new slogans and memes supersede the old almost daily--almost everybody I’ve talked to who identifies with OWS! feels that all of us 99%ers are playing catch-up ball, trying to relate to our own upsurge.

Here are three brief points roughed out during hours at Liberty Square (or Zucotti Park or whatever we are calling it today) and then refined at yesterday’s mass march. I offer them for orientation purposes as we attempt to figure out what’s going on--and where to go next.

1. This is fucking broad. Everybody has seen the reports, Over 200 Occupy! actions are underway or planned around the country. School walkouts are spreading. Endorsements are piling up. The media whiteout of the first couple of weeks is gone, and we have entered the "then they laugh at you" phase.

One of my first clues that this had real legs was the attention it was getting from the start on the influential left liberal Daily Kos website. An aggregated site with hundreds of bloggers, thousands of commenters and tens of thousands of readers every day, Daily Kos’s declared mission is to elect Democrats and, where possible, better Democrats. Yet overall it is a fairly left site with many self-identified socialists and a visibly high level of dissatisfaction with the Obama administration. By the end of September, it was not uncommon for a third or more of the top posts (“diaries” as they are known) recommended by member vote to be about the Occupy movement. This is as spontaneous a development as the movement itself, and demonstrates clearly how disgruntled many of the Kossacks, who think of themselves as very political people, are with a purely electoral, “politics of the possible” approach to society and government at this juncture.

An analogy: Probably high schools no longer can afford sodium acetate for their science teachers to demonstrate supersaturated solutions, but older readers may remember this one. The idea is simple. Dissolve in heated water more of a chemical than it can absorb at room temperature. When it cools down, drop in a single crystal and watch the liquid rapidly crystallize into a solid.

Occupy Wall Street! has acted like a seed crystal. It has not caused the mass anger at the way things are going in this country, but it has provided a focus around which that anger can crystallize, mobilizing both folks who have historically been active around issues like the war or the environment and regular folks who have been hard hit by the economic crunch and are both mightily pissed off about it and extremely cynical about about a "democracy" which is so permeated with corporate cash.

Because of this, the occupations also serving as a funnel through which various social movements can take action and respond to attacks. When the State of Georgia carried out its legal lynching of Troy Davis, the protest rally marched from Union Square to the encampment and then headed down Wall Street itself. There the first in a series of escalating police attacks on Occupy Wall Street! took place when the cops busted some young activists near Federal Hall. Last Sunday, several dozen teachers and college faculty showed up for an inspired action. They held a Grade-In, sitting quietly and marking tests and homework, and graphically refuting the anti-union, anti-public education lies of the right wing about how overpaid teachers are and how easy they have it.

Then came yesterday when a wide array of unions and community and student groups mobilized upwards of 20,000 people to march from the seat of city and federal government at Foley Square down to the OWS! Encampment and Wall Street itself.

2. This is a return to the Seattle moment. Pretty much everybody over 25 will remember the heady days of the upsurge against globalization and neo-liberalism as the new century began. It was famously captured in the slogan handwritten on a sign by one demonstrator, "Teamsters And Turtles, Together At Last"! Organized labor and youthful environmentalists and solidarity activists began to unite under the slogan “Another World Is Possible.”

That upsurge was derailed by 9/11, the changed focus of political discourse in the US to discussion of terrorism and what's "American" and the need for a massive anti-war movement. The economic meltdown which began in 2007 started shifting the tectonic plates of US society again, making possible this new thing we are seeing.

The working class majority in this country, and communities of color in particular, are sharply aware of having been screwed, blued and tattooed by the banks and are disgusted with the role their elected officials have played in that. The economic pinch is the unifying factor here--from college grads enmeshed in debt and unable to find jobs, to homeowners facing eviction to 99ers who have fallen off the end of unemployment insurance, to workers facing demands for monstrous givebacks, to poor people threatened by the erosion of basic civil services. That is the foundation for Occupy Wall Street!.

But it is very much to the credit of the folks at the encampment that they realized that workers are key allies they must unite with, and that it was up to them to take the initial steps. Thus, within days of opening the camp, nine activists stood, one after another, and disrupted a sale at the high-tone Sotheby's auction house in support of Teamster union members locked out by the hugely profitable firm. The following week 100 people from the encampment showed up at a rally called by postal unions (including my old local, NY Metro) to defend Saturday delivery and post offices in poor neighborhoods threatened with closings.

The unions too, battered by a decade of losses in membership and influence, facing savage union busting attacks, and painfully aware that there's precious little they are going to get from the Obama administration or a divided Congress, see an opportunity to be part of a broader fight back against corporate power. And so the first steps toward rebuilding the Seattle united front are being taken.

3. This has a profound global impact.
Think back to the early months of this year and how we watched when first the Tunisians and then the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square launched, then maintained and defended occupations that challenged longstanding entrenched undemocratic regimes. People around the Arab world and the globe watched, transfixed, and tried to figure out how to replicate these magnificent uprisings. Even here, it provided massive inspiration and something of a template to the working class and its allies in Wisconsin.

Well, trust me, the US is far more visible on a global scale than Tunisia. From pure self-defense, people across the planet keep one eye on this country at all times. And now they are watching very closely indeed, They want to see what we, the 99%, can do against such a powerful and deadly enemy, one with claws sunk in their own countries, and with their junior versions of our 1% in power at home.

Tbis is very clear in the message from left wing Chinese activists and intellectuals in support of Occupy Wall Street! published here at Fire on the Mountain a few days ago. Describing the repression we face here, they mention how much worse it is elsewhere, like in China, then matter-of-factly say, “There is nowhere left where we can live and die as people.”

We must not turn our heads away from what this implies. The battle launched by Occupy Wall Street! is one in which the stakes are the future of the planet. No wonder Occupy! actions have broken out in more than a dozen other countries, in which contradictions had not yet reached the intensity they have in Spain and Greece, where far more massive battles have raged for months.

This means that what we do in the coming months as the movement unfolds is a contribution to the people of the world. Stepping up is our internationalist duty. To stand aside from this unfolding movement or critique it at a remove is to abdicate that duty, to settle for being Americans, instead of standing with the world’s people.

In closing, I have only argued here the importance of Occupy Wall Street and the movement it has spawned. I have not commented on its shortcomings--like the weaknesses of "leaderless resistance," the chasm between the relative handful of full timers and the millions who will want to be part of the action but whose lives do not permit them to set up camp on a city street indefinitely, the replication of hierarchies of privilege under the banner of horizontalism. I have not addressed the challenges--like doing outreach, preparing for more violent repression, avoiding suffocation in the embrace of the Democratic Party and its allies and fronts, I could write a basic list of things that need consideration as long as this article itself.

Well, these are the kind of questions all of us need to grapple with, and the starting point should be involving ourselves as deeply as possible in this wonderful, contradictory, unexpected eruption. See you at the Occupation!


Unknown said...

Message: there's enough to go around. Corporations are not people. Equal access to the ballot box for all citizens. Public airwaves require public scrutiny & participation.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

Excellent summary of this moment in history. I confess to being a science guy, but the sodium acetate analogy was spot on. Frankly, I saw the potential for this one to grow early on, providing that it resonated with economically insecure boomers like me. Sometimes, I manage to get the call right.

Bella said...

This is a very good piece--I think it put the unions to shame, since they should have been in the forefront. But they "woke up" and smelled the coffee, and realized they needed to get in, despite their fears of anything they don't control. It is great that rank and file union members are joining action on their own, too, and showing independence.

Anonymous said...

Criticism/Self-Criticism is a powerful tool. Thank you, comrade, for modeling it.

Lead, follow or get out of the way. We can shape events. Our veterans matter. Thanks again. For real.

Anonymous said...

very good
now comrade
for those of us newer to the struggle, why don't youi elaborate on the shortcomings.
u can skip the bit about cooptation by beourgeois parties, that i do get