OWS: A Movement That’s Here to Stay

Socialist Worker Nov 9, 2011

(Photo: SocialistWorker) It was an Arab Spring and a hot summer of struggle in Europe. But autumn has belonged to Wall Street–to Occupy Wall Street, that is.

The Occupy movement is less than two months old, but it has transformed U.S. politics and given vibrant form to the working class discontent hidden for years beneath the surface of society. It has revitalized the rich tradition of public protest in the U.S. and energized a whole range of grassroots struggles–and with the November 2 demonstrations in Oakland, Calif., that shut down the country’s fifth-busiest port, it reintroduced the general strike to the U.S.

And now there are inspiring new initiatives to look to–including a call from Occupy Wall Street in New York, in solidarity with organized labor and other forces, for a national day of action on November 17. This call offers the opportunity to take some of the spirit of Oakland and bring it to cities around the country. It is the crucial next step for the movement nationally.

Occupy’s successes have been hard-won, and are all the more valuable for that reason. Seemingly every week has brought new challenges–but the movement has risen to meet them again and again. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg sicced the NYPD on protest marches in September, the numbers of people streaming to Zuccotti Park only grew larger. When he tried to clear the park in October–for “cleaning,” he claimed–New York’s unions led the way in mobilizing a crowd of thousands overnight to defend the encampment.

On the other side of the country, in Oakland, Jean Quan, probably the most liberal Democratic mayor in the country, okayed a police assault on the Occupy camp that turned the downtown into a war zone–and very nearly killed Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen. But Occupy protesters refused to be intimidated. They returned the next day to retake Oscar Grant Plaza–and voted overwhelmingly for a general strike on November 2 that was honored by thousands of workers, students and more.

Not every local Occupy struggle has won against similar efforts–in whatever form, ideological, political, legal–to squelch them. In Chicago, one of the longest-running local movements outside New York has been blocked in every effort to establish a permanent encampment. In other cities, police have been successful in harassing and closing Occupy camps.

But even in these places, activists report continuing Occupy activities and political discussions that are bringing together networks of people committed to the struggle–in other words, an ongoing movement that is taking new forms to adapt to different situations.

So the New York Times’ claim in an article last weekend that the movement had reached “a crossroads” and “the signs seemed to point toward the end of Occupy Wall Street” is a premature obituary if ever there was one.

In fact, the coming week could be one of the most exciting yet for the movement. In California, November 9 begins a week of action to “ReFund Public Education” in protest of a 200 percent increase in tuition at state colleges and universities since 2008, on top of massive cutbacks to public education as a whole.

And nationally, the day of action initiative out of New York City for November 17 can provide a focus for every local Occupy movement. The list of New York unions backing the call is long and growing longer–the United Federation of Teachers, the Transport Workers Union, Service Employees International Union, AFSCME DC 37, Communications Workers of America and many more.

November 17 is the next stop for Occupy–another opportunity for the movement both to strengthen itself and to reach out to unions, community organizations and beyond.

One way to judge the impact of the Occupy movement is the furious attack on it from different institutions of America’s elite.

These have come in spite of expressions of verbal support from many political leaders–many Democrats, anyway. But actions speak louder than words. Democratic mayors have stepped up pressure on the Occupy encampments around the country. They suffered a setback when the brutal police attack in Oakland caused a backlash, but other cities have continued with harassment, encroaching restrictions and attempts at outright evictions.

Then there’s the escalating slander campaign against Occupy. In Oakland, the tone of the media’s coverage of the general strike changed literally overnight–from a grudging acknowledgment that tens of thousands of people had raised their voices, peacefully but powerfully, transformed into wild claims about the city’s descent into chaos during a post-midnight confrontation between police and a relatively small number of protesters.

In New York City, the ideological offensive is being led by the vile Murdoch-owned New York Post, which published a front-page editorial headlined “Enough!” declaring it was “time to reclaim Zuccotti Park–and New York City’s dignity.” That was followed by a lurid “expos√©” written by a Post reporter who spent a “night amid anarchy in Zuccotti Park,” and who then listed every rumor of dissension and violence she could ferret out.

Every social movement that achieves any prominence becomes the target of this kind of smear campaign, designed to portray activists as freaks and fanatics, and to undermine public support. The hatred of the New York Post should be seen as a badge of honor.

Importantly, though, the media attack has failed in discrediting the movement. Public opinion has swung more and more in favor of the Occupy movement. For example, one recent poll found that twice as many people had a favorable impression of Occupy Wall Street as had a favorable view of just Wall Street.

There are real challenges facing the Occupy movement.

For one, the media’s stories of crime and violence, including sexual assault, at Occupy camps may be sensationalized, but they aren’t whole-cloth fabrications. In particular, tensions have increased where police have steered people with mental or substance abuse problems to the camps in an obvious attempt to stir up conflict.

In New York City, Occupy activists have responded by establishing a safe watch that is providing support to people who have been attacked in sexist, racist or other incidents, organizing community patrols, and working on restorative justice solutions that don’t involve calling on police.

Such initiatives are important to the future of the movement. Instances of violence and harassment may be more isolated than the media claim, but not a single such attack can be tolerated in a struggle that is devoted to challenging inequality and injustice.

In other local movements, there have been splits between the majority of Occupy activists and a minority claiming to be more radical. In Portland, Ore., for example, some activists have formed what they call “The Real Occupy Portland”–and an e-mail in the group’s name claimed responsibility for nighttime vandalism at branches of Chase Bank and Wells Fargo Bank.

Occupy activists shouldn’t fall for law enforcement attempts to involve them in policing those they disagree with. But at the same time, we need to be forthright within the movement in debating tactics and strategies. We need a movement that encourages and values the active and meaningful participation of everyone who has committed themselves to the struggle.

Another question on the mind of every Occupy supporter is what to do when the winter weather hits in full force. In many parts of the country, maintaining a permanent encampment will become a huge challenge.

In New York City, Occupy activists are making plans to hold Zuccotti Park through the winter if they can, and the fact that this is even a possibility is testament to the strength of the movement. But in other cities, at least in the Northeast and Midwest, it will become impossible to maintain an outdoor space at some point.

The question then arises of what can replace outdoor encampments–as, in fact, it has already for cities like Chicago, where activists were prevented from establishing a camp in the first place.

The outdoor occupation of public space has been a vital part of the Occupy movement. At the most basic level, it has been the meeting point for people who may have thought and felt the same things to finally come together. It’s also the go-to site for meetings and teach-ins.

Having a tangible focal point has likewise been critical to Occupy’s success in connecting with other movements and struggles. In New York, for example, Zuccotti Park is the regular destination for demonstrations of all kinds–and the gathering point for marches that confront some target, like One Police Plaza or Verizon’s corporate headquarters.

It will be hard to reproduce these features without a public encampment, and any attempt to do so will depend on local circumstances and the judgment of activists in each place.

In some cities, it may be possible to occupy a public building to serve the same purpose the encampments do. For example, in cities across the country, branches of public libraries are being shut down because of budget cuts. So are schools–on the same night the Occupy protesters reclaimed Oscar Grant Plaza, the Oakland school board voted to close five elementary schools at the end of the year.

Closed-down buildings like these could be indoor sites for Occupy camps–with the demand that they ought to be put to public use again. Of course, these occupations would be challenged by police. But Occupy has won against the cops before, including our defense of outdoor encampments so far. The key to any building occupations will be mass direct action, involving the largest possible number of people, backed up by the broad range of forces that have lent their support to the Occupy movement.

In other places, it may make more sense to establish an indoor space at a sympathetic institution–a union hall or a church, for example. The important thing will be to maintain as open and central a site as possible so people can continue finding their way to the Occupy movement.

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NO STRUGGLE, not even the most revolutionary, ever continues at the same pace until it achieves victory. There are lulls that last for shorter or longer periods of time, followed by renewed action–which can emerge as unpredictably as the first steps.

The Occupy movement will be no different. In fact, the experience in different cities has already reflected this cycle of ups and downs, sometimes in strongholds like New York, but especially in places where the movement is weaker, and thus more vulnerable.

But whatever happens from here, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. The Occupy struggle has already had a transformative effect. It has cast a spotlight on the vast and growing inequality in the U.S., and the corruption of political and corporate power. It has begun the resurrection of traditions of political protest and revitalized existing struggles and organizations–the union movement among them.

And at least as importantly as anything else, Occupy has inspired many thousands of people with the sense that something needs to be done about what’s wrong with society–and it matters what they do about it.

Those effects aren’t going away, no matter what happens to Occupy encampments.

It’s impossible to predict the exact course from here, but anyone who is part of the movement should bear in mind the elements that contributed to Occupy’s extraordinary success so far–above all, the spirit of solidarity and the movement’s connections to many different struggles throughout society. Expanding these existing connections and fostering new ones can continue regardless of the weather.

The list of what we can do next keeps growing and growing every time activists meet. A number of local Occupies have begun organizing against the foreclosure epidemic, including taking action to stop people from being thrown out of their homes. The support of Occupy activists for ongoing and upcoming union struggles is proving invaluable. Occupy protests are challenging politicians for suppressing our right to free speech and to peaceably assemble. And above all, Occupy is continuing to expose the greed and power of the 1 percent.

Those all represent pieces of the movement’s future. But the first steps down the road should be toward November 17.

The November 17 day of action can provide an immediate focus for activism. Workers can rally their coworkers to participate in whatever is planned–members of unions backing the call should use labor’s involvement to build even bigger. Students can start planning for action now, with a series of events leading to the 17th. Every organization and movement that has linked up with Occupy can mobilize.

The Occupy movement is making history–but its greatest possibilities still lie ahead.

This article was first published by SocialistWorker.

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