The meaning of Occupy Wall Street

Participants in Occupy Wall Street talk about what's inspired them about the protests--and what they hope for the movement's future.

AS THE ISR goes to press, hundreds of people have maintained a more than month-long encampment near Wall Street in New York City, and many thousands more have participated in the protests and marches of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Occupy movement has captured national and international attention, and people in more than 1,000 cities, towns, campuses, and more have followed the example of the New York demonstrators.

Occupy Wall Street has become a source of hope and inspiration—for the activists who organized its first demonstrations and those who joined in after it was underway, for people new to political action and veterans of previous struggles. SocialistWorker.org asked a range of participants in Occupy Wall Street in New York City to talk about their experience and what they hope for the movement’s future.

So far, attempts to shut the occupations down have failed. For example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered that Zuccotti Park, better known to the protesters by its new name, Liberty Plaza, be cleared for cleaning on Friday, October 14—an obvious attempt to shut down the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement and its supporters gathered in force and Bloomberg backed down.

The next day, an international day of action brought out hundreds of thousands of people accross the globe in big cities such as Tokyo, Barcelona, and Rome, as well as small towns like Saranac Lake, New York.

No one can say how far this movement will go, but it clearly represents a new phase in the rebirth of struggle, and with it, of a new radical left in the United States.

Chris Hedges

Veteran journalist and author of numerous books, including, most recently, Death of the Liberal Class. This contribution first appeared in The Occupied Wall Street Journal

THE LORDS of finance in the skyscrapers surrounding Zuccotti Park, who toy with money and lives, who make the political class, the press and the judiciary jump at their demands, who destroy the ecosystem for profit and drain the US Treasury to gamble and speculate, took little notice at first of the activists on the street below them three weeks ago.

The elites consider everyone outside their sphere marginal or invisible. What significance could a young woman named Ketchup, who worked in a Chicago theater cooperative and paid her bills as a waitress, have for the powerful? What could she and those in Zuccotti Park do to them? What threat can the weak post to the strong?

Those who worship money believe their buckets of cash, like the $4.6 million JPMorgan Chase gave last week to the New York City Police Foundation, can buy them perpetual power and security. Masters all, kneeling before the idols of the marketplace, blinded by their self-importance, impervious to human suffering, bloated from unchecked greed and privilege, they were about to be taught the folly of hubris.

Even now, three weeks later, the elites and their mouthpieces in the press continue to puzzle over what we want. Where is the list of demands? Why don’t they present us with specific goals? Why can’t they articulate what they need?

The goal to us is very, very clear. It can be articulated in one word—REBELLION. We have not come to work within the system. We are not pleading with the Congress for electoral reform. We know electoral politics is a farce. We have found another way to be heard and exercise power. We have no faith in the political system or the two major political parties. And we know the corporate press will not amplify our voices, which is why we have a press of our own. We know the economy serves the oligarchs. We know that to survive this protest, we will have to build non-hierarchical communal systems that care for everyone.

These are goals the power elite cannot comprehend. They cannot envision a day when they will not be in charge of our lives. The elites believe, and seek to make us believe, that globalization and unfettered capitalism are natural law, some kind of permanent and eternal dynamic that can never be altered.

What the elites fail to realize is that the rebellion will not stop until the corporate state is extinguished. It will not stop until the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, those being slaughtered in our imperial wars and tortured in our black sites, stops. It will not stop until foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students no longer have to go into massive debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops, and our relationships with each other and the planet are radically reconfigured.

And that is why the elites, and the rotted and degenerate system of corporate power they sustain, are in serious trouble. That is why they keep asking what the demands are. They don’t know what is happening. They are deaf, dumb and blind.

First published in The Occupied Wall Street Journal as an article titled "This rebellion will not stop."

Arun Gupta
Co-founder of the Indypendent and the Occupied Wall Street Journal

PERHAPS THE most wondrous aspect of the growing Occupy Wall Street movement is that there are lessons for everyone. For the 99 percent, it’s that we still have agency, power, and imagination. For the ruling 1 percent, you can’t throw people into despair and deprivation and not expect a social explosion. For the mainstream media, you can’t fit genuine democracy into five-second sound bites or look for anointed leaders. For the right, you can’t cheer revolts and uprisings one minute and condemn them the next.

Now, for the left, where I reside, one of the many lessons we need to embrace is dispensing with economism and material reductionism. These days, the left tends to treat politics as a matter of biological reproduction: housing, food, health care, transit, jobs and education. The implication is these are the amino acids from which the DNA of human society is constructed. We have created a politics largely bereft of spirit and hope, but pocked with sinkholes of impotence and bleakness.

Occupy Wall Street is a rejoinder to that in a way that has breathed life into the dialectic. It began with an idea—Occupy Wall Street!—that took form with the liberation of a physical space—Liberty Plaza—which brought into being the people—“We are the 99 percent”—that has allowed the transformation of public and political space through mass unpermitted marches and a permanent organizing space in the heart of global capitalism, and which in turn has interjected a simple idea in the national dialogue—that almost all of our society’s problems stem from the extreme concentration of wealth and power in the top 1 percent.

This is why base and superstructure are a dialectic (and intertwined), rather than a one-way movement between discrete forces where we treat consciousness as a mere outcome of material conditions. Of course, we have witnessed this many times in the last year. Tunisia and Egypt affirmed that agency, solidarity and persistence can overturn the dominant powers.

The strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement—its lack of organization—is also its weakness. While the plutocrats are shaking in their Guccis and politicians are less eager to play Sweeney Todd with social programs, this formless movement needs to create some sort of form to exercise real power beyond the symbolic and performative.

Because Zuccotti Park and other occupations popping up around the country are open social and political spaces, groups can go in and create poles to organize around. But building a movement with a vision and coherent politics means listening carefully to people there, speaking directly to their politics and grievances—and more important—passions and desires, while gently steering them to a radical analysis. The distrust of leaders and organizations means any attempt to impose an agenda will fail. But if radical politics grows organically out of the General Assembly, working groups and informal nodes of power, then it will gain wide legitimacy and force.

There is no one end goal, just as there is no one demand, because there is no one problem stemming from the crisis of global capitalism. One encouraging sign is how various occupations are already targeting banks, but many other targets could be chosen.

What must be avoided is the pursuit of reform, which is based on the notion that the system is fundamentally just and only needs to be tweaked with policy changes. This is the perspective of every compromised force within the Democratic Party from ossified labor unions to reformist NGOs to clientelist community groups, which are glomming on to Occupy Wall Street to push their agenda and return disgruntled Democratic voters back to the fold in 2012.

This movement will achieve victories by rejecting the ballot box, staying in the streets, constructing new narratives and keeping the heat on the oligarchy. Most of all, we must keep changing consciousness, people’s notion of themselves, society and possibility. That is what will push this movement forward in ways we can barely imagine.

Penny Lewis
Assistant professor at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and member of the executive council of the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty union at CUNY

WHAT HAS been the highlight of OWS for you so far?

THE HIGHLIGHT for me hasn’t been a moment, and it hasn’t been down in Zuccotti Park itself exactly, but is a direct effect of their actions there and around the city. They’ve shifted the discussion to where it belongs. And I think they’ve given people—certainly me—a sense of hope and inspiration. They challenge the rest of us to get out of our comfort zones.

For years, so many of us have wanted something to happen, some kind of spark. And what OWS makes clear is that we have to be our own spark. We all have to up our game. It’s now time for everyone else to jump in and get to work, and for everyone who’s already been working on these issues to grab this opportunity to make our movements larger and more powerful.

WHAT WILL it take to move the movement forward from here? How can OWS win change?

I SEE these two questions as related. Overwhelming numbers of people who are negatively affected by the kleptocratic nature of our society are completely unaffected by this movement as of yet. In a sense, the challenge is to really realize “the 99 percent.” The spark that can work so well for someone like me—who is lucky enough to have work, to be a union member, to already be part of networks working for social change—does not necessarily work across communities of the unemployed, the less organized, the more isolated.

The movement I’ve seen thus far is still very white and still relatively young. I don’t think the burden on making this movement grow rests on OWS—it rests on all of us in our unions, our communities, our organizations, institutions, networks, what have you, to generate the inspiration and sense of commitment they’re modeling at OWS beyond the circles it’s spreading to now.

I think this is related to the question of goals. Again, I’m less concerned with the goals of OWS. But I am concerned with the goals my union creates, the goals of community organizations I’m a part of, etc. OWS has correctly pointed out fundamental problems in our society—outrageous inequality, lack of opportunity, corporate power and the corrosion of our democracy.

The movements we grow and create—and I think we need to see these as plural—have to engage at this deep a level. So even as we pursue discrete goals—like, for instance, progressive taxation, student loan forgiveness, meaningful jobs programs—these need to be pursued with the understanding that such remedies are partial, only part of a longer-term struggle we must engage to realign the power relations in our society.

This isn’t a one-off thing. I read that a historian called this “the Obama generation declaring their independence from his administration.” If that’s true, I hope it becomes the Obama generation realizing that no administration is ever going to deliver the kind of social change we need, especially not through the mechanism of voting for them once every two or four years. It was never in Obama’s hands. It’s our long-term independent fight.

Isham Christie
Student and activist at CUNY Graduate Center and member of the planning assemblies for the September 17 launch of Occupy Wall Street

WHAT HAS been the highlight of OWS for you so far?

I HAVE been involved with OWS since the very beginning. For me, the fact that people showed up on September 17, the fact that we have Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza, the fact that the encampment has sustained itself for more than three weeks now and is spreading like wildfire is a brilliant highlight.

Before the beginning of the occupation, the organizers—or at the very least myself—had no blind certainty that Occupy Wall Street would work. We simply had fidelity to the possibility that OWS would work, acting in such a way as to actualize the possibility of “success” and mitigate the possibility for “failure.”

The relative “success” and growth of the occupation corresponds to another highlight—the movement’s level of self-organization. People have consistently and creatively stepped up to do amazing things at the encampment. People just sweep, organize the library, plan actions, organize teach-ins, work on the OWS phone book, etc., without being told to except by their own will and imagination.

There have been many times when a specific idea arises in my mind to make the camp better—and I go back, only to find it already completed. This is the true sense of OWS as leaderless. It is the horizontal structure that allows for everyone to be empowered to step up and do the work that OWS needs.

Beyond the occupation itself, the self-organization of various social struggles in their relation to OWS has been truly inspiring to see. The support and participation of various struggles and identities in OWS opens the possibility for a broader movement, which unites particular social struggle for a more universal movement for emancipation. And the chorus is beginning to form.

HOW CAN OWS win change?

ESCALATION AND (inter)national infrastructure. The Union Square march, the Brooklyn Bridge march, the Foley Square rally and other actions have been instrumental in building support for OWS, and were a learning experience for many. The incidents of police brutality caused widespread condemnation of the police and support for our movement.

The next step now is moving from protest to resistance—in other words, using civil disobedience and individual fiscal withdrawal to disrupt the financial institutions. The clarion call was answered, and people are stirring. We now need a strategy for, and call to, occupy schools and workplaces, and directly challenge financial capital.

At least three websites—OccupyTogether.org, OccupyColleges.org, and TakeTheSquare.net—are a beginning of building hubs or networks of resistance. The process of developing circuits of (inter)national communication, coordination and inspiration needs to continue in order to build a (inter)national strategy for challenging the given socio-economic order.

Doug Singsen
Student and adjunct instructor at CUNY Graduate Center, member of the International Socialist Organization and participant in Occupy Wall Street from its planning stages

IT’S HARD to separate out one high point for me since the whole experience has been a fabulous roller-coaster ride. I’ve had to travel a lot in the last two months, but I’ve spent as much time as I could, first in planning meetings for September 17 and then at Occupy Wall Street—and I’ve been excited by every minute of it.

This might be obvious, but for the movement, I think the high point so far was the October 5 mass labor/community rally. The most powerful thing about OWS has been not the encampment itself, but the way it has energized people to support it and begin fighting back on their own.

The mass rally was important because it brought out the widest layers of people, drawing in huge numbers of workers with a very multiracial mix—probably the most diverse manifestation of OWS so far. It also penetrated the mainstream media in a big way, which is important for reaching people who aren’t already plugged in to left-wing or alternative media sources, and because it legitimized the idea of the occupation in the eyes of a lot of working-class people who probably hadn’t paid it much mind before.

The biggest impact of OWS is its role in initiating a mass movement against corporate power and economic inequality. OWS has fundamentally shifted the political landscape in the United States, creating the greatest potential for a working-class fightback in decades. It’s a truly historic, once-in-a-generation event. But we need to recognize that OWS on its own is not likely to win victories. That will require a whole series of interlocked campaigns and struggles over the course of the coming months and years.

Right now, what I think OWS needs to do is to continue making links with existing struggles and do everything it can to encourage the growth of occupations in other cities, both of which are already happening.

One specific thing that I think would be useful would be a national day of action modeled on the October 5 march in New York City, where mass numbers of people turn out on the streets simultaneously across the United States. That would escalate the movement to a higher level of mobilization and fuel an even stronger ongoing development. This Saturday, October 15, has been called as an international day of action, but it’s not clear how large or widespread it will be in the United States—although it should be quite big in Europe.

I think the most important thing is that we recognize that OWS is the hub of an emerging movement, not an end in itself.

Jackie DiSalvo
Professor at Baruch College, member of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY and member of the Occupy Wall Street Labor Support/Outreach Working Group

V.I. LENIN once said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Until Occupy Wall Street, the discourse in the United States was dominated by the right-wing agenda which identified deficits as the main problem and proposed to solve it by cutting social programs for the people and taxes for corporations and the rich. With Tea Party candidates taking over the House of Representatives and state governments, it did indeed seem that the Right had won the fight for public opinion and was on its way to reversing the New Deal.

Then I visited Madison, where the first US occupation was a labor occupation, and I felt as if I was in a different country—one with a real labor movement with labor struggles at the top of the progressive agenda. And the widespread support in Wisconsin for that militant action challenged the dominant narrative.

Following it, the occupation of Wall Street has demonstrated that for much of the American populace, the main problem is not the deficit, but economic and political inequality. For me, the most important thing has been this re-orienting of the political landscape, seen in the reception of OWS: in its growing numbers (15,000 marching on October 5); in the spontaneous spread of occupations around the country (with organizing meetings in over 1,300 locations—Occupy Huntsville? Occupy Dubuque?); in the positive responses of passersby on Broadway, and in the rush of unions to offer their support (a unanimous vote by the AFL-CIO Executive Council). We are discovering that while the 1 percent and THEIR government and media are in control, the people are more on our side than we’d ever imagined.

Where do we go from here? As we capture the imagination and arouse the hopes of workers, we must achieve a growing, mutual influence between the radical occupation movement and the labor movement. We must broaden our base, reaching out to workers and supporting their struggles, as we have been doing in New York City, while the unions must learn from the democracy, militancy and creativity of OWS.

The fatal flaw of the ruling class is underestimation of the people, as seen from Egypt to Dubuque. My own hope is that the occupation movement will support various progressive struggles against the 1 percent, without narrowing its agenda to just achieving particular legislation. Reforms and even electoral successes are likely to result anyway, as the rulers fall all over themselves with concessions as they try to limit the appeal of the movement. This, after all, is a struggle for a restructuring of power; it is a class war. And if we are far from ready to win that battle, we have at least begun to fight it.

Will Russell
Graduate student at Hunter College, member of the International Socialist Organization and participant in Occupy Wall Street from its planning stages

AS ONE of the hundred or so organizers of September 17 and OWS, I can only speak for myself when I say that OWS has reached my expectations and far surpassed them. What we accomplished in our planning assemblies was the establishment of the embryo of an occupation and a General Assembly, but they were the material, historical forces acting behind us that have pushed OWS into the forefront of the revolutionary imagination across this country and abroad.

People have been incensed by the greed of the banks, which sparked and fueled the global financial crisis, and the complicity of the government in bailing out those who put us in the situation we’re in, while the working class and the poor pay the costs of it. Normal people are outraged by the perpetual wars, the inability to deal with the climate and environmental crises, and the racist criminal injustice system that carried though the legal lynching of Troy Davis. All of this rage has been focused and channeled onto the symbolic center of the capitalist state where all this injustice emanates from: Wall Street.

The highlights of OWS are too many to name. It has been such a pleasure to witness the self-organization of the participants in OWS, who have taken it upon themselves to perform the basic functions needed to maintain the small community set up in Liberty Plaza, whether cooking, cleaning, town planning or the maintenance of the now thousands of books in our library.

Participating in the formation of ties between OWS and labor has been a formative experienced for me, as has been my small parts in facilitating connections between OWS and other struggles such as SlutWalk, the Campaign Against the New Jim Crow and the anti-nuke and anti-fracking movement.

With the growth of the Occupy movement across the country and the stabilization of it in New York City, OWS is currently at a critical moment where issues of organization and information flow, which will naturally arise from the growth of such a diverse movement and need to be dealt with.

Any person, especially the working poor and minorities who may be not privileged with so much free time, must be able to show up and quickly understand how they can get involved and feel empowered to contribute their talents. Strides have already been made in this direction, but there is much work left to be done.

We need a deepening of our already firm and shared commitment to democracy, which will emerge from improvements in organization and communication and a serious debate about the virtues and limits of consensus versus majoritarian democracy. It is from there that we will be able to better engage serious political questions about OWS, such as the issue of demands and what those should be, and a solidification and blossoming of ties between OWS and ongoing, on-the-ground struggles for justice and fundamental structural changes to our society.

Sherry Wolf
Long-time activist, member of the ISR editorial board, and author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation

WHAT HAS been the highlight of OWS for you so far?

THERE’S NO question that the October 5 mass labor march to OWS was a political turning point, since the collective, multiracial power of New York’s unionized workers was on display. It was electric.

That said, I think my experiences of tabling and selling Socialist Worker in Liberty Plaza have been the highlight. I have been selling this newspaper and talking socialist politics with people for nearly 30 years, but never before in the midst of revolutions and mass upheavals around the world happening in real time.

It dramatically shifts the nature and urgency of conversations, which tend to be about whether and how a revolution could happen here—at least among a significant core of our audience.

We all feel that we are now part of a global rebellion, and we really are. The square has transformed the experience of isolation and fear so many unemployed workers and students feel. In a society that has so crassly destroyed most town squares, radical young people have recreated a giant one at the foot of the Empire’s economic hub. It has collectivized many debates and created a temporary antidote to the alienation we all feel in this society.

WHAT WILL it take to move the movement forward from here?

LABOR IS not simply one force among many. In Egypt, for example, it was the action by 6,000 Suez workers who shut down the canal and strikes by tens of thousands of textile, airport, transit and other workers that landed the decisive blow forcing Hosni Mubarak out in early February.

The current development at OWS of leftist rank-and-filers getting their unions more involved in marches and of things like teachers’ “grade-ins” is a good sign. It must be cultivated and expanded.

The occupation’s multiracial character is notable. Daily occupiers as well as allies who visit regularly need to link up with the shoots of struggle against the prison-industrial complex, and the disproportionate toll the crisis is taking on Black America. Whether it’s fighting evictions in Bed Stuy, the Black working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, or standing with postal workers facing mass layoffs from a workforce that is 21 percent Black, we must see these acts as practical extensions of OWS.

HOW CAN OWS win change?

THE FORMER slave and abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, had some magnificent advice for us. He said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

I am sympathetic to the argument that demands early on might have stifled the dynamism of the movement. Perhaps that’s true, I don’t know. But we have reached the moment when OWS, through its working groups perhaps, must put forward concrete demands.

Whether it’s taxing the rich and putting a number to it, wiping from the books all student debt, ending foreclosures or any of a number of things that people debate all the time in the square, they must be advanced and argued for, so that millions can take them up and figure out how to push them through actions.

We may not win the demands we make, but if we do not make demands, we certainly can’t win them.

I will admit that the political energy of OWS is intoxicating, and I am more hopeful than ever that I may live to see the changes we’re fighting for, but this is just a start. The United States has just joined the global rebellion after years of relative dormancy. This is just a small taste of where we need to go. But it tastes so good.

This article first appeared on SocialistWorker.org.

 

Issue #73

September 2010

From Reform to Rebellion

Image and reality in the Bolivia of Evo Morales
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