A balance sheet of Occupy Wall Street

Notes of a participant

ALTHOUGH THE Occupy movement is just two and a half months old, so much has happened in that time that it often seems as though a lifetime has passed. A statement often attributed to the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, “Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens, and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen,” captures the feeling well.1 In this short span of time, the Occupy movement has transformed the terrain of American politics, pushing the subject of economic injustice into American political discourse, forcing politicians and the media to acknowledge and respond to the calls for change that the movement has inspired, and raising the prospect of more and larger protests to come. The movement has destroyed the idea that the United States is a center-right, “Tea Party” society and has created a new culture of resistance in which it is legitimate to fight back.

While the recent evictions of occupations across the country have placed a roadblock in the movement’s forward path, organizing committees continue to meet in cities across the country to plan, strategize, and mobilize. With the economy likely to remain stagnant in the immediate future or even decline further, and the government continuing to shred the social safety net and lay off workers rather than stimulate the economy, it’s virtually certain that the Occupy movement will resurface on an even higher level before too long, quite possibly as early as the coming spring. The current lull in the movement thus presents an opportunity to look back at the development of the Occupy movement and examine some of the key debates and forces that have shaped it so far.

How it started
As many people know, the initial call for Occupy Wall Street (OWS) came fromAdbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, which put out a call in mid-July for an occupation of Wall Street to begin on Saturday, September 17. “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?,” the magazine’s blog asked. “On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.”2 Just a few days later, Adbusters sent the call for action to the email address of New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts (NYABC), a grassroots coalition of labor activists, students, and community members that I helped start in February 2011. NYABC’s most high-profile action was Bloombergville, an encampment set up across from City Hall for three weeks in June to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget cuts, which is presumably what brought NYABC to Adbusters’ attention.

As the individual responsible for checking the NYABC email account, I responded to Adbusters’ email and reported on it to NYABC, a process that eventually resulted in NYABC calling the first New York City General Assembly (GA) on Tuesday, August 2. The first response that I and other NYABC activists had to the Adbusters call was a combination of curiosity, excitement, and concern. The possibility of an occupation on Wall Street promoted by an organization with a national readership and mailing list was incredibly exciting, but a number of problems with Adbusters’ plan were immediately apparent. For starters, the magazine was proposing that the first act of the occupiers should be to choose one demand, with their suggestion being to request that Obama appoint a commission to study how to get money out of politics. Given that Obama is the largest recipient of corporate campaign donations in history and that he has done everything possible during his administration to defend the interests of banks, my response was that this was like asking the fox to appoint a commission to guard the chicken coop. Fortunately, Adbusters put this proposal forward as a suggestion only and weren’t seeking to impose it on the occupation, but it nevertheless raised questions about what the political program for OWS would be.

Perhaps an even bigger problem was that Adbusters, which is headquartered in Vancouver, was not planning on doing any on-the-ground organizing and was planning on doing all the outreach for the event online. The magazine had set a goal of mobilizing 20,000 people on September 17, which was an impossibly high number. A protest on Wall Street on May 12 organized by the city’s largest unions and liberal activist organizations had drawn 20,000 people, but only for one afternoon, not an ongoing encampment, so it was very unlikely that that many people would turn out for the first day of OWS. We were also concerned about relying too heavily on social media, which can often generate significant online activity without it transferring to actual turnout. Facebook RSVPs are always inflated since people use them to show their support for a cause without actually planning on attending the event.  We also had questions about how the occupation would deal with the police and the extreme militarization of public space around Wall Street since 9/11.

Despite these concerns, NYABC was unanimous in its desire to support and explore the feasibility of Adbusters’ call and decided to put out the call for the August 2 GA following an already planned protest against the expiration of the federal debt ceiling. The coalition had previously discussed the idea of calling a GA modeled on those used in the University of California (UC) student movement during the 2009–10 academic year. Adbusters’ call seemed like the perfect opportunity to try a GA in New York City.

On August 2, around one hundred people attended the NYABC demonstration, with about half that number staying for the GA. Besides NYABC members and supporters, most of the other people at the meeting were anarchists. Like NYABC, the anarchists saw the GA as a vehicle for a mass public forum, but they identified the concept with the use of a consensus decision-making process, which they argued had been central to the Greek movement of the squares and the Spanish indignados movement. Because the anarchists were united and insistent on this point and the meeting was turbulent and disorganized, a momentous decision was reached quickly and with little discussion.

Under modified consensus as implemented at OWS, an initial “temperature check,” indicated by waving of fingers up for approval and down for disapproval, is used to gauge general support for a proposal, after which the facilitator solicits questions and concerns from the group. The initial proposal is modified to accommodate these concerns until all participants are satisfied with the outcome. If some people nevertheless remain dissatisfied, they have the option to block, although this is only supposed to happen if they are strongly enough opposed to the proposal to consider leaving the movement if it passes. Another discussion then ensues and the block can only be overridden by a super-majority vote, which was set at two-thirds for the planning GAs but was increased to 90 percent on September 17. Although consensus is supposed to make everyone happier with the outcome of decisions, many GAs both before and after September 17 were among the longest, least productive, and most acrimonious of any I’ve ever attended. The GAs ran extremely long, usually four or five hours, and were often marred by disorganization, miscommunication, and infighting. Although the efficiency of the GA improved as moderators gained more experience with the process, the problems nevertheless persisted.

While the possibility for democratic participation offered by this system has been invigorating for experienced and first-time activists alike, it also has limitations that have gradually become more evident over time, including the length of time it takes to reach a decision, the tendency to avoid difficult questions and seek the lowest common political denominator, and the ability of small minorities to override large majorities, which has made it difficult for the GA to make many important decisions or to act quickly in situations requiring an immediate response. According to its supporters, consensus prevents decisions from being made that would alienate any members of the group, but as the debates within OWS have shown, it creates as much or more alienation as it avoids.

Because of the GA’s inefficiency from the beginning, much of the actual work was done in working groups, not the GA itself, a tendency that continued and was even reproduced within some of the working groups and their sub-committees once OWS had begun. Despite all these problems, however, the pre-September 17 GAs were still exciting and promising because they were consistently drawing fifty to one-hundred committed activists, many of whom were new to organizing.

Even before September 17, OWS was making links with labor, both through the participation of many rank-and-file union members and staffers and through OWS organizers’ support for Verizon workers, who were on strike from August 7 to 20. OWS organizers visited the picket line repeatedly and talked to Verizon workers about the plans for OWS. Two months later, on October 21, Verizon workers repaid this solidarity with a march from Verizon’s Manhattan headquarters to Zuccotti Park. Since Verizon has paid no federal taxes in three years, this was a direct link between OWS’s critique of corporate malfeasance and inequality and workers’ struggle to defend their livelihoods.3

Birth of a movement
The plan for Saturday, September 17, was for people to assemble at noon at Bowling Green, a small park near the southern tip of Manhattan that is home to Wall Street’s iconic charging bull. The protest began rather aimlessly, with people milling around the area unsure where to go or what was happening, but as the afternoon wore on people slowly gathered, and the size of the protest swelled. The initial plan had been to hold a GA at Chase Plaza on Wall Street, but, as had been anticipated, the police had set up barricades to prevent any protesters from reaching Wall Street. The Tactical working group had prepared a contingency plan to relocate to other sites, one of which was Zuccotti Park, so the crowd, now numbering over 500, made its way the third of a mile from Bowling Green to Zuccotti, where a GA was held. I stood in a sea of people that stretched from one side of the park to the other, under a ceiling of leafy green branches. That first GA was inspiring and idyllic, as well as confusing and hard to follow. But the sensation of participating in a vibrant political dialogue with hundreds of other people ready to take a stand against inequality and corporate power was exhilarating.

By the day the occupation began, around 8,000 people had RSVP’d on Facebook, although only 700 or so actually showed up to the protest. While this was a respectable turnout, it was far from the 20,000 that Adbusters had envisioned. The media later helped foster the impression that OWS was a product of social media, but the reality was quite different. OWS eventually reached those numbers at its larger protests, but this only happened after weeks of intense grassroots organizing ahead of time, the creation and maintenance of a physical occupation, and several instances of publicity-grabbing police repression.

Although on the small side by New York standards, the protest was novel and therefore received a disproportionate amount of media coverage, although most of the coverage made light of the protest. In the week that followed, the occupation demonstrated a great deal of militancy and spirit but was searching for a direction or strategy. To fill the time, protesters marched to the stock exchange at the opening and closing bells every day, despite the fact that they were never able to actually reach Wall Street thanks to the police barricades.

The atmosphere in the park in those days was very free and loose. Everyone there was constantly discussing politics and was hungry for ideas, especially radical ones. Anyone could gather a march of a few hundred people simply by walking around the park and starting a chant. People were coming to Zuccotti from all over the city, and even the country, to see the occupation for themselves, talk to the occupiers, and discuss what was wrong with US society. It seemed that there was a different group visiting, protesting, or just hanging out there every day: nurses one day, transit workers the next, teachers, students, community groups, and so on, not to mention the parade of celebrities including Lupe Fiasco, Michael Moore, Roseanne Barr, and Naomi Klein. Every time I went there, I had to keep reminding myself that what I was experiencing was actually real. It was so similar to things I had pictured in my head that it often required a reality check to remind myself that it was actually happening. The mood at OWS later turned more sober and serious, reflecting the movement’s increasing maturity, but there was something special and unique about those early days.

One of the most fascinating things about the park was observing how it changed from week to week and even day to day: a new table here, a new tent there, a different arrangement of sleeping areas, and so on. The occupiers were continually experimenting with and rearranging both the physical space and its organizational structure. As the weeks passed, more and more equipment was brought in—shelves filled with food in the kitchen, a battery of laptops for the media station, thousands of books for the library, multiple information tables, a medical tent, portable generators, and so on. The geography of the park was rearranged constantly to optimize accessibility and provide each working area with the space it needed, and a map was created to assist newcomers in finding their way around.

The organizational structure of OWS also kept mutating. The pre-September 17 working groups had been carried over into OWS and supplemented with new ones devoted to the park’s logistical operations, but it was all very ad hoc at this point, and the committees were constantly being reshuffled to take on new tasks and function more efficiently. There was a lot of confusion as a result, and it could be hard for newcomers to figure out where to get involved, but the system as a whole was becoming increasingly efficient and sophisticated and there was so much new energy and so many new activists there that they compensated for all the weaknesses.

Visiting the huge, high-ceilinged indoor atrium at 60 Wall Street, which became an organizing hub for OWS working groups, was another eye-opening experience. Like Zuccotti, the atrium is a privately owned space that is zoned for public use, in exchange for which the owner receives various tax or zoning privileges. By early October, one could visit 60 Wall at almost any time of day or evening and find anywhere from five to fifteen groups of people meeting, organizing, and planning. Each group consisted of five to fifty people, which meant that often there were as many as 300 or 400 people organizing in the atrium at any one time, numbers that would have been considered good turnout for a street protest just a few months ago.

Although the environment at Zuccotti was electrifying, the future of the occupation was far from assured. In the first week after September 17, OWS seemed capable of going in any number of different directions—being evicted by the police, maintaining itself as a small encampment, dwindling off and dying, or gaining traction and growing. The latter is what actually ended up happening. Ironically, this was largely thanks to attempts by the New York Police Department (NYPD) to repress the movement, which brought it to national attention and made it possible for OWS to rally broad layers of support.

Occupy goes global
After September 17, one of the first events to energize OWS and allow it to connect to other struggles was the rally on September 22 protesting the execution of Troy Davis the previous day for a crime that all the evidence indicates he didn’t commit. Organized by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Amnesty International, the protest drew over 1,000 people and was followed by a march of over two miles to Zuccotti that overcame several attempts by police to stop it from moving forward. It then joined with protesters at OWS for a march into the heart of the financial district. Several of those from the march subsequently became OWS regulars and marches in the following weeks echoed with chants of “We are all Troy Davis,” helping increase the racial diversity of the occupation. But the Troy Davis rally was just a small taste of things to come, as three protests built on each other in quick succession to catapult OWS to national attention, spawning the creation of occupations in cities around the country and the world, taking the movement to a qualitatively higher level.

The first of the three was the pepper-spraying of peaceful protests near Union Square on Saturday, September 21. This protest, one of the first where OWS attempted to march somewhere other than Wall Street, was partly to break the monotony of the daily marches to the stock exchange. On the way to Union Square, protesters took the streets, and the police responded with unbelievable brutality, attacking numerous protesters and arresting close to 100. But the most important event of the day was the pepper-spraying by Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, a high-ranking NYPD officer, of a group of female protesters who had already been corralled inside a crowd-control net. The video went viral on YouTube, garnering well over a million views, and was played on The Daily Show and many news programs, prompting widespread sympathy and extensive publicity for the protesters (although the only penalty Bologna received was a slap on the wrist and the loss of ten vacation days).

The second major event in OWS’s rise to national attention was the arrest of 700 people for blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, October 1, exactly one week after the Union Square protest. The police were out in force and were very insistent about keeping protesters on the sidewalk, but were noticeably more disciplined than they had been the previous week. A constant irony of all the NYPD’s efforts to keep protesters off the streets was that in doing so, they invariably blocked the street themselves. Several thousand people marched from Zuccotti to the Brooklyn Bridge, where protesters initially entered the pedestrian walkway in the center of the bridge. As hundreds of people continued to stream onto the walkway, a growing group began assembling near the entrance of one of the vehicle on-ramps, with only a single row of police blocking their path. As people linked arms and began slowly moving forward, the police wavered, then broke ranks, turned around, and marched across the bridge with the protesters following closely behind them.

The march proceeded across the bridge in an ebullient mood without incident until almost at the halfway point, where dozens of police had set up a barricade across the bridge. The protesters stopped before reaching the police, who ordered them to disperse, after which a standoff ensued. The protesters did a mic check to discuss the situation, urging each other to remain peaceful, and sat down in the road. For about half an hour, very little happened, as each side waited to see what the other would do. Eventually, the police tried pulling a few protesters out of the crowd, but they didn’t seem to want to keep doing that. They repeatedly ordered protesters to go back to the Manhattan side of the bridge, which some people did, but before long the police had blocked off that side as well. Once it became clear that arrests were the only way the police were letting us off the bridge, most people surrendered peacefully to avoid criminal charges. Even so, it took over an hour for the police to arrest all 700 of us. After spending hours handcuffed while being shunted from place to place and then waiting to be processed, we ended up spending several hours crammed four to a prison cell.

The arrests on the bridge brought even more attention to OWS than the previous protest had, continuing OWS’s upward trajectory. The third step in OWS’s journey to national attention was the mass protest called by labor unions for Wednesday, October 5, which was initiated by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 and the Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York (PSC-CUNY). This protest again elicited the sense of wonder I felt at the first GA at Zuccotti, as 20,000 people crowded into Foley Square, a mostly concrete park surrounded by courthouses and federal buildings. Inside the protest, it was virtually impossible to get a view of the entire area or even move, but standing on the steps of the New York County Supreme Court, one could survey the entire scene, which was an inspiring sight. There was a stage, loudspeakers, and speakers at the front of the rally, but no one was paying attention to them. Everyone was looking around at the other people in the protest, taking it all in and processing what it meant that all these people had come out on short notice to support this new movement. On the march to Zuccotti, police allowed protesters out of the park very slowly and forced them to stay on the sidewalk, further slowing the protest, but on this day it did nothing to dampen the mood.

OWS was going from strength to strength, but Bloomberg was already preparing his counter-attack. He had been attacking the protest in the media under various pretexts, perhaps the most outrageous being his allegation that the occupation was a health and safety hazard. Given the total filthiness of the city’s streets in all non-affluent communities and the fact that eight hospitals have closed in New York City since 2007,4 all on Bloomberg’s watch, this was a particularly galling excuse. The ante was upped on October 12 when Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway issued a statement claiming that the protests had “created unsanitary conditions and considerable wear and tear on the park”5 and announced that protesters would have to vacate the park on Friday morning for a cleaning. He claimed that protesters would be allowed back in the park after the cleaning, but the occupiers immediately recognized this as a ploy to clear the park for good. 

To contest the excuse of the park’s poor hygiene, OWS organizers augmented the existing sanitation committee, buying dozens of brooms and other cleaning equipment and organizing volunteers to thoroughly clean the park. The AFL-CIO sent email blasts to their members asking them to go to the park to defend it early Friday morning, and pressured the mayor behind the scenes to back down. The emergency mobilization was a huge success, with several thousand people coming out to defend Zuccotti early Friday morning, a large proportion of them union members. Unable or unwilling to arrest so many people, the police backed off—an embarrassing defeat for the mayor and an exhilarating victory for our side.

The victory of October 14 fueled a massive turnout the next day, when as many as 100,000 people crowded into Times Square. Actions took place in over 100 cities in the United States and close to a thousand around the world.6 Ironically, the media described this day of action as the spread of the Occupy movement around the world, but in reality it was European groups that had originated the call months earlier. Going back even further, OWS had been inspired in the first place by the European protests and the Egyptian revolution. As Elizabeth Schulte and Alan Maass wrote in Socialist Worker, it was “an example of the slogans of the indignados from last spring echoing across the Atlantic to the U.S., and bouncing back again.”

In New York, several different actions took place in the morning, including an antiwar march organized by the United National Antiwar Coalition, a protest at a Chase bank organized by the OWS Labor Outreach Committee, a student rally in Union Square, and more, each of which numbered in the low thousands. All the actions converged in Times Square at 5 p.m., where the park was packed and the crowd spilled out into the side streets. The police had set up metal barricades, but the size of the crowd allowed protesters to remove the barricades easily. The organizers had not planned a traditional rally with a stage and list of speakers, so people set up mic checks at various locations around the square and protesters got up to tell their stories about how they had been affected by the economic crisis. The atmosphere was electric. The size of the Times Square rally and the number of simultaneous protests around the world marked it as the high point of the Occupy movement, which it still remains today.

Throughout this period, the GA continued to operate under modified consensus, but many activists who once supported it were becoming increasingly frustrated with its unwieldiness. In early November, this frustration resulted in the creation of a “spokescouncil” made up of representatives (or “spokes”) from different OWS working groups. Before the eviction, the spokescouncil only dealt with logistical issues central to the physical occupation. While this improved logistical operations at OWS, there was still a vacuum of leadership in situations requiring an immediate response, such as acting to defend OWS and occupations across the country against eviction, which neither the GA nor the spokescouncil took a lead in doing. The spokescouncil has now been expanded to all OWS groups, but it still has not taken on the needed role of political leadership.

At the same time as OWS was expanding through this escalating series of protests, activists were also building solidarity with the labor movement. The Labor Outreach Committee organized a grassroots campaign in support of locked-out Teamsters Local 814 workers at Sotheby’s auction house. Using tactics inspired by the Occupy movement, activists infiltrated auctions and disrupted them with mic checks, protested at businesses owned by Sotheby’s board members, and received strong support from students at Hunter College and Columbia University, all of which gave a taste of what a radicalized, energized labor movement could be like.

While the expansion of OWS into a mass movement was not inevitable, discontent over the economy and the government’s failure to do anything to help ordinary people was certain to break out some time—although exactly when, where, and how this would happen was impossible to predict. That said, OWS had several thing going for it that put it in an excellent position to tap into the broad discontent over the economy and the government’s response that was simmering just below the surface of American politics. First, the choice of Wall Street as the target rather than an elected official or government office was right on a number of levels. It identified the economy as the central issue, recognized the financial industry as the source of the economic crisis, took advantage of Wall Street’s incredibly low approval ratings, and tapped into many people’s feeling that the government had become totally coopted by corporations and the rich, all of which made Wall Street the perfect target.

The choice of “we are the 99 percent” as the movement’s slogan was another stroke of genius because of its political clarity about the source of the attacks facing workers by identifying the ruling class, “the 1 percent,” as the source of the crisis and as being inevitably opposed to the interests of “the 99 percent.” The 99 percent figure is not entirely accurate because it ignores the layer of middlemen, managers, and professionals that is not part of the 1 percent but that reliably does its bidding—a category that also includes the police—but it identifies the class enemy in raw, immediate terms, a major departure for American politics.

The tactic of occupation was also an important component in OWS’s appeal because many people had been inspired and radicalized by the revolutions in the Middle East, the protests in Europe, and the occupation of the Wisconsin capitol building, all of which  featured the occupation of public space in a central role. Since this tactic was being used in all the leading struggles around the world, it was only natural for activists in America to try to replicate its success. From the Wisconsin occupation to the start of OWS, there was a whole series of planned, attempted and actual occupations, including Bloombergville, the October 2011 occupation in Washington, D.C., planned by antiwar groups, the May 12 protest on Wall Street that had had originally been planned as an unpermitted mass teach-in, an occupation outside the New Jersey capital to protest anti-union legislation, and more.

The Occupy movement’s stunning success in cutting through the state of politics-as-usual and building a movement on a scale not seen in decades was made possible through an alliance of overlapping constituencies with different political viewpoints (including within each of the groups), each of which was able to supply an essential ingredient that the movement needed to succeed. Utopian anarchists were the core of the physical occupation of Zuccotti Park; movement activists organized support for OWS and linked it with existing organizations and struggles; labor unions and liberal groups brought mass numbers to the movement, gave it media credibility, and physically defended it; and large numbers of ordinary people, many of whom had never participated in political activity before, visited the park, attended rallies, and in many cases became organizers themselves. This coalition is reminiscent of the global justice movement of the late nineties, but with the difference that this time the US working class is under direct attack and fighting for its own survival, which brought the movement broader appeal and increased urgency to fight.

Debates and controversies
While many new activists drawn to the Occupy movement are still in the process of figuring out what they think, OWS has also brought together people from a wide range of political philosophies, including liberalism, anarchism, socialism, and libertarianism. The presence of different schools of thought has given rise to a number of important debates within the movement, with each political perspective having a correspondingly different strategy for the movement. Since each group’s strategy lent itself to different areas of work (albeit with many areas of overlap), each group has tended to become most active and influential within the area that is most closely connected to its own strategy and goals.

For anarchists who want OWS to be a prefiguration of what a liberated society would look like, the encampment itself was key (the occupation is the demand), so most anarchists have focused their efforts on the internal maintenance, organization, and functioning of OWS. Liberals see OWS as a way to achieve progressive legislation, either by pressuring politicians to pass reforms or by electing Democrats or independent candidates to office, which has led many of them to seek ways to channel OWS into institutional channels and the Democratic Party and to oppose the movement’s more ambitious demands. They have also attempted to avoid “divisive” issues such as defending the rights of immigrants or fighting economic discrimination against minorities. Underlying these positions is the fact that liberals want to do away with the system’s “excesses” without challenging the social and economic conditions that create these excesses.

For socialists, on the other hand, OWS’s greatest potential lies in its ability to initiate a mass movement organized from the bottom up and aimed at bringing about changes that impact people’s daily lives. This perspective differs from the liberals’ vision in that it achieves political power through the disruption of business-as-usual rather than trying to change the political system from within, and from the anarchists’ vision in its aim to improve peoples’ lives in the here and now by changing the system, not to create a model of a future society “autonomous” from existing society. Socialists want to build a movement based on class solidarity and a commitment to combatting oppression wherever it exists and to link the struggle for immediate demands with a vision of a different society.

One key debate that has emerged is the question of whether or not the movement should adopt demands. Anarchists who wanted OWS to prefigure a future society were opposed to demands since they focused on reforming the existing system, which anarchists argued would result in the movement’s cooptation. The opposition to demands also appealed to many people who may not have fully shared these goals because, like the use of consensus, it created a situation in which people were free to form their own opinions and debate ideas openly, rather than having a ready-made political platform handed down to them. Also like consensus, the absence of demands served a purpose initially, but as time has passed its drawbacks have become more apparent, making it harder for activists to join forces and show solidarity with existing struggles and to use the Occupy movement as a platform to press for changes that would address people’s most immediate needs. For these reasons, some occupations and OWS working groups have issued demands autonomously, with Occupy Detroit calling for a moratorium on foreclosures, Occupy San Francisco calling for an end to tuition hikes and budget cuts in public universities, and the OWS Demands working group calling for a national jobs program, which has also been endorsed by the Labor Outreach Committee, the Unemployed Committee, and the OWS en Español Committee.

The question of the role of the police has been another contentious issue at OWS, with many Occupy participants arguing that the police are part of the 99 percent and that they can be convinced to disobey orders and side with the protesters. While the many incidents of police brutality, evictions, and constant harassment have weakened this sentiment, these views are still far from exhausted. On the night of November 14, while police were violently clearing Zuccotti Park and forcing protesters out of the area, some participants were still trying to reason with the police by convincing them that their economic interests lay with the protesters, not with the 1 percent. However, as some people pointed out, the more we protest, the more the 1 percent needs the police.

Another issue the movement has struggled with is how to cultivate more racial diversity within the movement and relate to minority communities, which face even higher levels of unemployment and hardship than the country as a whole. OWS has been criticized for a lack of diversity and for not addressing the needs and concerns of people of color, a criticism that is partly true but that has often been exaggerated. One of the first protests to galvanize OWS was the September 22 rally for Troy Davis, which, together with the mass labor rally of October 5 organized by New York City’s predominantly minority public-sector unions, brought large numbers of people of color into the movement, many of whom subsequently returned to Zuccotti for repeat visits, making it a space that was much more representative of New York City’s racial diversity. A People of Color Caucus was formed at OWS to address these concerns, and GAs were established in Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, the Bronx, and in minority neighborhoods and cities across the country, such as Detroit and Oakland. Occupy Brooklyn, Occupy Harlem, and other encampments have protested stop-and-frisk and police brutality, the latter of which is an issue that participants in the Occupy movement have experienced personally on a level that most white people never do but that is common for African Americans and Latinos. So while it’s true that OWS could have more racial diversity, there has also been a consistent engagement with issues of racial oppression and a concerted attempt to improve diversity. Looking slightly further down the road, because people of color are suffering more from the economic crisis than any other group in the United States, it’s only a matter of time before working-class people of color begin organizing themselves in large numbers, which would do more to improve the racial politics of the movement than any other development could.

One belief that has been key to the Occupy movement’s capacity to break through the established gridlock of political discourse has been the recognition that the government and both major political parties are answerable to the rich. While many participants in the Occupy movement see the Democrats as the lesser evil compared to the Republicans and will therefore vote for and in some cases even campaign for Democrats in 2012, even supporters of the Democrats are critical of their role and many have questioned the role of the Democratic Party as a result of their participation in OWS. This sense of disillusionment was reinforced by the fact that in most cities, it has been Democratic mayors who called in riot police to suppress the Occupy camps.

Among the political forces present in the Occupy movement, the most pro-Democratic are the union leaders and liberal groups like MoveOn. The entrenched labor leadership continues to line up behind the Democrats, as seen in the endorsement of Obama’s 2012 presidential run by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) the day before the November 17 day of action, in which they invoked the rhetoric of the 99 percent to justify endorsing Obama.Within a few weeks of this announcement, other groups of Occupy protesters mic-checked President Obama in New Hampshire and protested one of his fundraisers in New York City, illustrating the division within the movement over this question. And many rank-and-file union members are becoming increasingly disenchanted and willing to work outside the bounds of official political channels, a process that is being encouraged by OWS.

Labor’s support for Occupy has been unprecedented and can be explained by the extremely dire situation in which labor now finds itself, which is a result of its decades-long policy of collaboration with employers and support for the Democrats, who play at being friends of labor while repeatedly stabbing unions in the back. While the labor leadership has rushed to support OWS, it has still not abandoned the strategies of employer collaboration, lobbying, and backing Democrats that got it here in the first place. It will be up to rank-and-file activists to force a more militant approach, which the Occupy movement provides an invaluable model and ally for doing.One way to get a sense of what it would mean to apply the lessons of the Occupy movement to the labor movement is by looking at the Sotheby’s campaign discussed above and the activities of Occupy the DOE (Department of Education), which was formed during a teachers’ grade-in at Zuccotti Park initiated by activists affiliated with rank-and-file groups in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Occupy the DOE brought together activists from the OWS Labor Outreach Committee and existing opposition groups who had been fighting school closings, high-stakes testing, privatization, layoffs, and attacks on teachers’ job security for years. Repeating a previous takeover of a Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) meeting in January 2010, Occupy the DOE members took over a PEP meeting on October 25. If activists can bring together the Occupy movement and militant union members and swing a substantial portion of public opinion behind them, that combination will have tremendous power.

Because of labor’s ability to shut down vital public services and cut off the flow of profits, the labor movement has tremendous potential power. Occupy Oakland pointed the way toward harnessing the power of labor for the Occupy movement. The labor movement is far from ready or willing to undertake a general strike at this point, but the fact that it is being raised and seriously discussed by activists all across the country, is a good sign for the future.

“You can’t evict an idea whose time has come”
The defense of Zuccotti on October 14 was a high point for OWS, but in the following weeks a growing wave of police evictions swept the country, including the brutal late-night assault on Occupy Oakland on October 25 that left Iraq veteran Scott Olsen in a coma. Oakland activists responded by re-occupying the park the next day and calling for a general strike in Oakland on November 2. Although no unions actually struck, many workers called in sick or walked off the job to join the protest, while the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 used a provision in their contract to shut down the port rather than cross the protesters’ picket line. This did not stop the evictions, however, which continued throughout November and into December, including Occupy Oakland, which was re-evicted on November 14.

In New York City, it was clear that Bloomberg was preparing the ground for another eviction attempt through a campaign of media smears, with Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post leading the charge alongside Bloomberg himself. Very early on Tuesday, November 15, the expected attack occurred. I received an emergency text message at 2 a.m. that the park was being surrounded by police and hurried down to the park. Upon arriving, I joined a small group of one hundred protesters trying to reach the park who were being stopped by police half a block away as protesters inside were being beaten and arrested. Over the course of the next half hour, the police violently pushed the crowd several blocks up Broadway to the southern end of City Hall Park, at which point the crowd split up into even smaller groups and marched around downtown as police continued to harass them.

The confusion that was evident the night of the eviction in terms of how to respond to the police did not abate in the coming days or weeks. The next day, protesters attempted to take over a vacant park at Houston Street and Sixth Avenue but were quickly removed by police. There was no call for an emergency protest the next day, a result of the fact that the movement had no effective way of making rapid decisions when necessary.

Although no protest against the eviction was organized, a previously scheduled national day of action called by unions and supported by the Occupy movement was set to take place on November 17. The origins of the call are obscure, but it seems to have come from the Campaign for America’s Future and Rebuild the Dream, two liberal groups with heavy labor funding. A national coalition of unions and liberal groups made plans to hold “bridge actions,” protests on bridges in cities across the country meant to dramatize the country’s crumbling infrastructure and raise the demand of a national jobs program focused on transportation, infrastructure, and green jobs, which the unions and liberal groups were planning on mobilizing for in a big way. In New York City, OWS expanded this to an entire day of actions, organizing a mass disruption of the New York Stock Exchange in the morning and meet-ups and speak-outs at major subway stations in the afternoon, culminating in a rally at 5 p.m. in Foley Square and a march across the Brooklyn Bridge.

From the start, things did not go entirely according to plan. The morning action succeeded in gridlocking most of the financial district for over an hour, but failed to even enter the stock exchange, much less stop the opening bell, and had the unfortunate unintended consequence that most of the core OWS organizers of November 17 were arrested during the action. The evening rally at Foley Square was larger than the one that had taken place there on October 5, but not as large as the one in Times Square on October 15. People gathered in a steady, seemingly endless stream over the course of an hour. The police were once again fanatical about the need to keep the protest on the sidewalk, enforcing it even more strenuously than on previous marches. On the protesters’ side, the day’s events were meant to be “lightly marshaled,” but SEIU Local 1199 instead fielded hundreds of marshals who worked alongside riot cops to keep the streets clear.

Inside the park, a stage had been set up with giant speakers ringing the park, despite the fact that the OWS working group that had planned the protest in consultation with unions and liberal groups had chosen to set up five small stages around the park that could be used for mic checks and speakouts. The platforms were there as planned, but the unions, led by SEIU, brought their own equipment without consulting the OWS working group with whom they were supposedly collaborating. Because so many OWS organizers had been arrested in the morning, no one was available to intervene with the unions. The speakers from the stage were rank-and-file union members and efforts were made to appeal to the spirit of OWS, including mic checks done over actual microphones, which totally failed to catch on with the crowd. The crowd was noticeably quieter and more timid than at previous OWS rallies. Whereas the October 15 protest had come on the heels of the successful defense of Zuccotti Park, November 17 followed the eviction of the occupation, which exerted a noticeable influence on the mood of the crowd. Other factors contributing to the crowd’s relative complacency were the fact that the police were even more numerous and better prepared than they had been on previous rallies and that the speakers and music provided by the unions set a passive mood at the rally rather than the more active sense typical of OWS protests.

At the conclusion of the rally, the march began its short route around City Hall and then over the Brooklyn Bridge, led by a group of ninety-nine labor and community leaders who performed a preplanned civil disobedience by sitting down in the bridge’s traffic lane in emulation of the October 1 protest on the bridge. However, police control of the square was so tight that the crowd was only allowed out of the square in a trickle and was forced to remain on the sidewalks, so that instead of feeling like the mass march that it was, protesters were dispersed in small groups. Eventually, the police allowed people through more quickly, but by then the protest had already become disoriented and fragmented. Whereas the march across the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1 had been triumphant, up to and including the moment of arrest, on November 17 the march was quiet and subdued. The high point of the march was a giant projection on the side of the Verizon building in Manhattan, dubbed the OWS “bat-signal,” which projected text including “99%,” “Another world is possible,” a list of cities where occupations had taken place, and more. And despite all its shortcomings, the protest drew many people to their first OWS rally, and many activists reported that their workplaces were more energized by and aware of this protest than any previous one.

November 17 was a good day for OWS, but it didn’t erase the damage done by the eviction, since Zuccotti had provided a central hub where different struggles could link up, new people could find ways to join the movement, and people could draw strength from each other. Bloomberg declared that Zuccotti would be reopened to the public after the eviction, but the park remains surrounded by barricades on all sides with police controlling the single access point and reserving the right to search the bag of anyone who enters, which has put a chill over the once vibrant space. Similarly, at 60 Wall Street security guards are prohibiting people from sitting on the floor or posting signs or agendas on the walls, making it difficult to use as an organizing space. Since the eviction, OWS organizers have often pointed out that the movement has expanded beyond the physical occupations to develop self-sustaining working groups and become more rooted in communities and other struggles. While this is true, the physical occupations in New York City and elsewhere also had advantages that can’t easily be replaced. Another obstacle is that many occupations in smaller cities never established the same links with unions and other groups that OWS did. Without support from unions and community groups, OWS could never have defended the park from eviction on October 14 or drawn out tens of thousands of people on October 5, October 15, and November 17. Such linkages and alliances are crucial, and it will be up to activists across the country to forge them if the movement is to continue moving forward. 

Despite the loss of Zuccotti, most OWS working groups with political functions have continued meeting, organizing and planning actions since the eviction with hardly a break. Many of the logistical groups are continuing to meet as well, to provide support to the former occupiers and find new outlets for their efforts. The movement continues to expand and move forward in numerous ways. For instance, the student movement is growing increasingly strong, as seen in the massive protests at UC Davis and CUNY, where the largest protest in sixteen years took place on November 28, when a thousand CUNY students protested the Board of Trustees’ plan to raise tuition by $300 per year for the next five years. On December 6, housing activists held a block party in East New York, Brooklyn, took over a foreclosed home there, and turned it over to a displaced family. The spread and influence of the Occupy movement can also be seen in the growing list of politicians and executives who have been mic-checked in the last month, including President Obama, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, Republican strategist Karl Rove, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and presidential candidates Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul.

Occupy has initiated a mass movement against corporate control of government and economic inequality and changed the political culture in the United States, giving millions of people who are fed up with getting the short end of the stick the sense that they are not alone. The difference between the pre-Occupy era and the present is palpable. Even so, what we’ve seen so far is only the beginning. We are watching a new left, rooted in the working class and ready to fight, come into existence. As the slogan that has been seen at many recent protests goes, “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.”

  1. This is likely a paraphrase of one or several statements Lenin made about the way in which mass struggles, and especially revolutionary periods, accelerate the rate of social change and shifts in social consciousness compared to “normal” times.
  2. #OCCUPY WALL STREET: A shift in revolutionary tactics,” Adbusters blog, http://www.adbusters.org/blogs/adbusters-blog/occupywallstreet.html.
  3. Karl Bode, “Study: Verizon Hasn’t Paid a Cent in Taxes in 3 Years: Verizon, Comcast, AT&T Huge Beneficiaries of Loopholes, Subsidies,” DSLreports.com.
  4. Carl Campanile, “Gov’s Medicaid cuts may kill 10 city hospitals,” New York Post, www.nypost.com, January 22, 2011.
  5. David W. Chen, “Protesters told to vacate park, for its cleaning,” New York Times, Octobe 12, 2011.
  6. Faith Karimi and Joe Sterling, “Occupy protests spread around the world; 70 injured in Rome,” CNN, October 15, 2011.
  7. Elizabeth Schulte and Alan Maass, “Occupy goes global,” Socialist Worker, October 17, 2011.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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