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Occupy’s Legacy: A Massive Burbling of Possibilities

Ethan Earle Sep 28, 2013

I’d like to propose a toast to Occupy Wall Street, which celebrated its second birthday this September 17 with protests, marches, puppet shows and ballet lessons atop the Financial District’s iconic Charging Bull.

Not quite ready to join me in celebration? You’re not alone. Popular sentiment today largely wavers between ignoring, dismissing, making fun of and lamenting the death of Occupy. Nor has the view from the left been a whole lot cheerier. With an old and familiar penchant for criticism, its many tendencies — from liberal to progressive to socialist to anarchist — have caught Occupy in a veritable crossfire of all that it hasn’t done right.

These various strains of doom and gloom perpetuate the idea that Occupy is disappearing and disappointing. This negativity engenders self-fulfilling prophecies and, more importantly, is mistaken. Even those critiques that hold water obscure a simple truth: Occupy has opened a new, fertile terrain of radical thought and action that will yield unexpected and important fruits for decades to come. The Occupy movement, as so many deem it, isn’t so much finished as not yet truly begun.

Birthing Pains

Occupy was born in downtown Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, first conceived as a protest against the economic inequality embodied by nearby Wall Street and the New York financial district. However, from the start Occupy was much broader than any one political issue. An early invitation to the 99% brought a kaleidoscopic range of people to the park to voice their own stories of exploitation and oppression. Equal parts social media and police violence sparked a wildfire that was clearly waiting to happen, and within weeks there were hundreds of Occupations across the country.

Over the next months, millions of people across the United States — more than at any time since the 1970s — came into contact with open political dissent. The slogan “We are the 99%” lent the protests a common symbolic language around which people coalesced, crossing long-standing boundaries in the process. The issue of economic inequality was forcefully reintroduced into mainstream public discourse, with the top 1% of economic elites unequivocally fingered as the villains. Hundreds of thousands of people participated directly, while countless more donated money or food, joined a credit union or otherwise sought to act in solidarity with the multi-faceted politics of Occupy.

And then, as suddenly as they began, the Occupations were over. In November 2011 police swept through and cleared nearly every encampment, injuring dozens, arresting hundreds and generally causing constitutionally-suspect mayhem. Attempts to reoccupy were put down with brutal resolve, and protestors were left unsure how to continue. Occupiers themselves often had no place to go. Some uneasily argued that the timing was actually good, since the coming cold would have soon forced the occupations to voluntarily disband anyway. Most agreed that Occupy would go underground for the winter to organize, prepare and emerge stronger when the weather warmed. But spring arrived and, measured against the grandeur of the previous fall, proved to be a letdown.

While mainstream media had treated Occupy Wall Street like an existential threat from the start, it was at this point that many on the left started to have their own existential crises about Occupy. Should there have been more concerted attempts at reoccupation? Was Occupy hampered by a lack of specific goals, or an unwillingness to engage electoral politics? Should it have refocused on Wall Street and economic inequality? Did it belie a lack of organizational discipline, or the limits of horizontalism? Why couldn’t it have blossomed into a more cohesive movement? Why had Occupy faded out so quickly? Why do the capitalists always seem to win?

A Series of Happenings

Many of these dour assessments are underpinned by an at least tacit, if not explicit, assumption that Occupy is a movement, which isn’t altogether accurate. To judge Occupy as a movement, particularly in popular discourse, is to compare it to the likes of the Civil Rights or Anti-War Movements of the 1960s and 70s. The implication is that Occupy is a phenomenon with a coherent, singular vision and a linear direction.

Rather, I would argue that Occupy, at least during the period of Occupations, constituted a series of transformative Happenings. Borrowing from the art world, Happenings are extended performance pieces without set narratives. They intervene in different natural environments, inviting onlookers to shape their form and participate in their development. In the late 1950s, Happenings became popular as forms of cultural agitation in which mutual collaboration trumped the authority of any one artistic intention. In this way Happenings sought to be radically democratic, breaking through the traditional walls that separated the artist, the viewer and the art establishment.

One of the great tricks of neoliberal culture is to convince us that history has ended, that there is no alternative. The Occupations, as Happenings, were a series of interventions that profoundly disturbed dominant culture and opened a wide array of new possibilities for those who encountered them.

On an immediate level, Occupy changed the lens though which protest in the United States is popularly viewed. It upended a decade or more of single-day protests that had largely disappointed, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest everything from the Iraq War to a woman’s right to choose with little discernible effect on either policy or the mainstream public. More and more, progressives had been left to ponder the old, uneasy question about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if nobody is around to hear it. The “permanent,” aesthetically jarring nature of the Occupations forced Occupy into the self-reflexive media cycle — in which news begets news begets news — and made countless people see and hear something profoundly different.

This power, palpable through all the hundreds of Occupations, enabled people to think of Occupy as a single entity. But as soon as the Occupations ended, this particular façade was lifted and the Happenings’ participants dispersed — a realistic outcome, considering how varied their backgrounds and goals were from the start. Those tethered to the idea of Occupy as a defined unit or identity, or indeed as a movement, were left disappointed.

Certainly, the speed and physical presence that marked Occupy in its first month had in some respects flattered to deceive, and its sudden withdrawal from public space created a vacuum effect. Compounded by the sharp decline in media coverage, sympathizers felt suddenly deflated, as if Occupy had come this close to doing something truly transformative but instead was dead and gone, before it ever really had the chance to change the world. In reality, Occupy’s Happenings had already succeeded by leaving a massive burbling of possibilities in their wake.

Occupy Sandy

Over the past year, Occupy Sandy has been the most visible project to emerge from these Occupy Happenings. When Hurricane Sandy came ravaging through New York on October 29, 2012, former Occupiers were the first non-local responders in many of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Indeed, before the storm had even hit land, the social and working networks created during Occupation were abuzz with activity. The same nimbleness that had permitted Occupiers to join flash mob protests or defend the park at a moment’s notice was employed to rush to the aid of families in distress. The ability to quickly assemble practical resources (vans, buckets, food) proved instrumental that night and in the days that followed. Experience at quickly adapting to uncertain conditions in a moving environment allowed Occupiers to tailor their help more closely to residents’ needs.

From the start, Occupiers engaged the organizations that were already in place in the neighborhoods where they intervened. They visited churches, schools and community centers where relief centers were being set up, asking what was needed and doing what they could to help provide it. This was powerful for many reasons, but especially because it linked the radical ideals of Occupy to existing institutions in poor, and largely black and brown, communities where disproportionately young and well-educated Occupiers had previously struggled to make connections. Now, nearly a year later, disaster relief has long since given way to the arduous task of rebuilding, and ongoing work with organizations that might not share Occupiers’ political views has challenged participants to find new ways to put their ideals into practice.

True to Occupy’s multifaceted nature in the post-Occupation phase, the many groups working under the Occupy Sandy banner have handled this differently. Work in Red Hook, for example, was ultimately torn apart by disagreements over how to engage neighborhood and business associations, other relief agencies and the police. In the Rockaways, where Occupy Sandy has been most durable, the response has been more varied, with different Occupy groups addressing different aspects of the rebuilding process. Some focus on direct services to repair damaged buildings. Others work to help strengthen pre-existing community groups by providing technical, organizational and political support. Still other Occupy groups are more explicitly radical, creating new structures — from community centers to worker cooperatives — that will help Rockaway residents pursue greater economic autonomy and political power.

This has been messy at times — as one should expect of such a large-scale and, let us not forget, young attempt to implement radical visions in a real-life setting — but it has also been beautiful in what it has accomplished. Literally thousands of people have been helped by Occupy Sandy, and their communities have been touched by and imbued with Occupy’s radical politics. Meanwhile, the notion of disaster capitalism — the exploitation of natural disasters to enrich elites at the expense of the poor — has gained traction in mainstream society, and an alternative, in which these same disasters are instead used to build democratic power in low-income areas, has been positively enacted.

Occupy Sandy’s fiercest critics, many of whom actually come from other tendencies within Occupy, have maligned it as accommodationist charity work that diverts valuable energies and holds little transformative power. Aside from being presumptuous, their arguments simply miss the point. They assume that Occupy has one direction it should take (and ostensibly that they have a better idea of what that direction is), when its real strength is an ability to open up new avenues of action within the wider spectrum of the left. And indeed, other Occupy efforts are finding their way into our society in surprising and often potent ways.

Occupy Everywhere

Some of this work continues to operate principally under the Occupy banner. Occupy Our Homes, which has been especially active in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, supports people who are fighting bank foreclosure and eviction. Occupy the SEC has moved away from direct action and into the trenches of legal filings and amicus briefs, serving as an important watchdog in the murky, wonky world of finance. Strike Debt!, which has shed the Occupy moniker but firmly maintains its roots, spreads theory and practice about how debt is used to exploit and debilitate the poor. Through its Rolling Jubilee campaign, Strike Debt! has bought more than $12 million dollars of mostly emergency-room medical debt and abolished it. Other similarly-minded and overlapping groups, like Tidal Magazine and Occupy University, develop and make accessible educational materials for people to learn about the theory that drives these types of projects.

Meanwhile, other Occupy efforts — particularly those oriented toward direct action and street protest — act as the left wing of existing progressive campaigns. In New York City, Occupiers have thrown weight behind wide-ranging community efforts to challenge the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy. Largely organized through grassroots work before Occupy’s time, this movement appears positioned to put an end (for now, anyway) to the heinous practice by which black and brown people throughout the city are arbitrarily subjected to unconstitutional police searches. The recent wave of fast-food worker strikes has also received crucial support from people emerging from Occupy, often working in conjunction with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members and Fast Food Forward activists. Beginning in New York last November with 200 striking workers, the movement has spread outward to over 60 cities and pulled in thousands of workers across the country. At the same time, an array of different Occupy constellations, many going under different names, have joined forces with groups like and Tar Sands Blockade to fight the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

And the work directly linked to Occupy makes up only a part of its impact. There’s been a wave of new worker cooperatives, mutual aid groups and community finance efforts, to name a few. Participants in these efforts have drawn from the lessons of solidarity economy practiced in the park and are now seeking to reproduce more sustainable practices in the world around them. Others have gone to work for a wide range of pre-existing organizations: from radical non-profits to more established NGOs to book publishers and media outlets and, yes, even to the electoral political arena. Who, for instance, could imagine the meteoric rise of mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio — whose campaign has centered on the economic inequalities that make for a Tale of Two Cities in New York — without Occupy having forced these issues back into public debate? And while not every one of these people or groups will fight for the revolution until the end, the rise in radical political energy is already having tangible effects on our economic and political systems and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Sweet Hereafter

Now that we’ve raised our glasses and cleared the air, I’ll close with a more sober assessment of what we can expect from Occupy going forward.

Sobriety of course requires recognizing the problems. After all, the Occupations took shape as microcosms of the 99%, and this mass of humanity naturally brought with it a lot of accumulated baggage, as well as a few demons. To say it another way, while Occupy’s little worlds brought into relief many of the ills of broader society, there were others that it simply reproduced. Many if not most Occupy projects have struggled with issues of race, class, gender and privilege. Prime culprits have of course been privileged white males, and too many meetings still get dominated by those who can stay longest and are most steeped in the language of victory.

And the dangers are by no means just internal. Occupy’s open nature also makes it uniquely permeable to the problems that pervade the world around it. Not surprisingly, this often starts with the market. Most Occupy work is not economically sustainable, forcing participants to work multiple jobs or otherwise exploit their own labor. In this context, the non-profit industrial complex is always knocking at the door, offering paid positions that sometimes allow its converts to take on the system but on other occasions lures them in to simply reinforce it. There is also the lurking threat of active cooptation: corporations, politicians and other powers-that-be seeking to take the edge off this new wave of activism, harness it and use it for their own gain. And of course the most sinister danger: the infiltrators and informants, sadly prevalent in Occupy since the start and to this day.

These are all very real issues. Taken together, they threaten to stifle the more transformative social justice work emerging from Occupy. They also threaten to debase Occupy’s image — and by extension that of radical protest as a whole — in mainstream society.

I ask you to toast with me because sometimes positivity is a political act. We live in a society that is eager to define and desperate to make sense of the messy world around it. Occupy defies this impulse. It is uncertain, constantly evolving and resistant to simple categorization. Will the Occupations return? No, at least not the way they happened in late 2011. But no two Happenings can or should develop in the same way. To bring about radical social, economic and political change, the next wave of Happenings — that is, of mass demonstration and mobilization — will have to look different; it will need to pierce and take hold and shake our society in another unexpected way. And perhaps the greatest danger that Occupy faces is the inability of many of its supporters to simply let it breathe and become.

Occupy has already created an activist base that will bolster the ranks of the next generation of progressive actors. In most cases, they will fight to push their respective projects further to the left. This will be true for activist groups, of course, but it will also include media, academia and government, among others. The extent to which Occupiers will be able to shape and guide these institutions will be key to its ultimate impact. However, where movements usually end — when a sufficient number of participants become convinced that enough has been won — Occupy will go on, precisely because it is something different to each person who was part of it. It can only end when each of their visions for change is realized.

Because of this, if for no other reason, the radicalism stirred up by Occupy will play a key role in the next period of great social upheaval in the United States, which appears quite likely in the context of ongoing austerity and a political and socioeconomic structure cracking under the weight of its own contradictions. And yes, Occupiers will figure prominently in the next great movement in U.S. history. Who knows? It might have already begun, quietly, right before our eyes.

Ethan Earle is a project manager at the New York office of the Rosa Luxemburg Siftung and the author of the study, “A Brief History of Occupy Wall Street,” published by RLS in November 2012.


Radical Reflections, by Matthew Wasserman

Seven Ways Occupy Changed America — and Is Still Changing It, by David Callahan

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Searching for Occupy, by Crystal Zevon

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