October 24, 2011

One Key Weakness of Occupy Wall Street!

When you don’t have a strategy, your tactics are your strategy. And the tactic of occupying Zucotti Park in the heart of the downtown financial district of Manhattan has been a stunningly successful one.

The collapse of the Bloomberg administration’s bid to oust the Occupy Wall Street! encampment on Friday, October 14, was a major milestone in the development of the movement. It insured that the flagship occupation would remain intact for weeks to come, as the movement continued to spread and sink roots in cities around the country.

About 600 or so of us spent the night there, amid intermittent rainstorms, a larger than usual overnight crowd. I had planned to be there anyhow, but when the eviction deadline was announced the day before, it set that plan in stone. My computer's inbox before I headed downtown Thursday was filled with unusually short and unusually urgent emails from a variety of lists I am on—-labor, anti-war, community and so on. The messages all boiled down to this:

Get your ass down to Wall Street by 6 ayem tomorrow to stop the eviction of Occupy Wall Street! This is important!

Starting at about 5:00 in the morning, the incredible happened. From every direction, people came walking into the plaza we had spent the night scrubbing and started listening to the discussion of resistance taking place in the General Assembly.

By 6:30 or so, we had quadrupled in size. The word came that the city and Brookfield Office Properties, the corporate owner of the park, had folded like a cheap suit. Folks still pouring in joined our celebration.

We were Too Big To Jail!

The victory was temporary, of course (and also reflected additional factors beyond just our numbers). Bloomberg keeps proclaiming his determination to drive us out, and you know the NYPD has been studying the sometimes brutal police attacks on Occupy! encampments in Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Orlando, Oakland and too many other places.

The victory highlighted the greatest strength of the movement, the responsive chord it has struck deep in millions who have found a voice for their anger, fear and sense of powerlessness as the ultra-rich use bought-and-paid-for politicians to offload the economic crisis onto us.

It has also revealed a very serious weak point--the distance or even disconnect between the occupying core and the hundreds of thousands who are actively supportive.

You could see this in the very emails that mobilized those hundreds and hundreds of people to rise at some revolting hour of the morning to come down to the park. Their tone was: it’s time for US (union members, liberals, environmentalists, whoever) to rally in support of THEM (the protesters), those splendid young people down there.

It’s pretty simple. If you aren’t actually in Liberty Plaza (or some other occupation site), you tend not to think of yourself as an active part of a movement whose very name declares the centrality of that tactic, Occupy Wall Street!

Even some old friends who’ve gone down several times to bring food, or take part in other ways (let alone those who’ve haven’t but have donated money or called Bloomberg or publicized it to neighbors and family) speak of the core group of ongoing occupiers as if it were the movement.

It’s built into the structure of the occupation. The core is mainly young people who have the freedom to spend extended periods of time and a smaller number older folks who can hack sleeping on concrete for days. They help shape them the grooves of daily life which define the occupation so naturally they fit into them most easily. More formally, they are able to take part in the committees and even the general assemblies with a greater sense of how things have been going and how they work. Often, the other stuff people point to as barriers, like cultural differences and the loosey-goosey horizontal structure, are in part manifestations of this structural factor.

I think it is instructive to look for a moment at the Tea Party. Now, cool your jets. I am not, repeat, not, equating OWS! with the teahadists. There are, however, things to be learned by looking at the two side by side. The point I want to make here is that when the Tea Party thing was starting to rip, people who responded found no structural barrier to considering themselves teabaggers. If you went to a rally, or heckled a Congressperson’s town meeting or just liked what you saw of them on Fox News, you were by God in the Tea Party. Buying a cardboard tricorn hat and stapling a bunch of Lipton teabags to it was optional. (Of course, that stage lasted about 45 minutes before rival groups with dues and pricey paraphernalia and minders from the Koch brothers and the Republican National Committee took things in hand.)

We can’t wish our obstacles out of existence and it would be unwise to pretend that they aren’t there. Better to recognize them and deal with them. The more people who think of themselves as part of OWS! and its offspring, as US, the stronger the movement will be, and the harder to attack.

One major step has already been taken--framing of the issue as a conflict between the 99% and the 1%. This is becoming one of the main memes of the movement. From a Marxist standpoint, this is of pretty limited utility as a class analysis, to be sure (though it is in the spirit of Unite All Who Can Be United To Defeat The Real Enemy). In terms of the movement, however, a lot of people are going to find it easier to declare "I’m the 99%" than to assert "I’m a part of Occupy Wall Street!" if they’ve never been to an occupation site.

There are smaller, but very significant things that can be done as well. A single example: There are two stenciling/silkscreening sites in Liberty Plaza. Vistors, whether supportive or merely curious (a lot of tourists come through the encampment), bring a shirt or a jacket or just take their own off, to get it adorned with a slogan—-Occupy Wall Street! seems to be the favorite though several choices are available.

Folks have told me--and I have found myself--that when you are out and about wearing one, on your own turf or just in public, people will definitely come up and ask you about it. I’ve had some heartening and fascinating conversations with neighbors and people on the subway alike which tend to confirm the recent spate of surprising pro-OWS! poll results. "Been there; done that; got the tee shirt…" is, in this case a battle cry, a declaration of involvement in the struggle!

In an upcoming post, I plan to return to this topic, focusing more on what policies and practical steps we can undertake to reduce these structural obstacles. Your thoughts are more than welcome.


Peg said...
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Peg said...

Just updating my earlier comment - inspired to add this -http://bit.ly/pegblog10-26-11-