The Occupy Movement: Lessons for Revolutionaries

Occupy Wall Street: Day 14It may be a bit of a cliché, but it bears saying: a single spark has in fact lit a prairie fire. An enormous one.

The last year has witnessed what appears to be the beginning of a new historical period. From the ferment in the Arab world; to the upsurge in Wisconsin; to the outpourings in Greece, Chile, Spain and other countries; and now to the Occupy movement that has spread across the US and beyond, we have clearly left the period that started with the fall of the Soviet Bloc. The last twenty-plus years was characterized by the supposed triumph of capitalism and the crisis of socialism, what the Right called “the end of history”. We have now entered a new worldwide era of popular upsurge. One of the indicators of how pregnant the moment is with possibility is the fact that the Occupy movement spread across the country even while it was still quite modestly sized for a New York City protest. It was only after it started to become a nationwide movement that we started to see many thousands of people hitting the streets of NYC.

This new period was actually in development a decade ago with the brief rise of the global justice movement. However, the 9/11 attacks short-circuited that motion and threw the world into war and repression for ten long years. One result of this decade-long sidetrack is that the contradictions developing within capitalism that the global justice movement sprang up to combat, grew even deeper and more profound, culminating in the current grave economic crisis. This is why the worldwide motion we’ve seen over the last year has been so sudden and broad.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that it took three years from the beginning of the current crisis for large-scale protest to kick off. The Great Depression began with the stock market crash of 1929, but it wasn’t until 1932 that massive political struggle began to flare up. When a crisis begins, people’s first response is in fact to lower their expectations in the face of the new conditions. It takes time for the new situation to be absorbed as the new normality and for the contradiction between reality and people’s expectations to open wide. We have now reached that point.

One of the big differences between the Occupy movement and the global justice movement a decade ago is that rather than reacting to the meetings and agreements being forged by international institutions, the movement now is going on the offensive and targeting the ongoing status quo. This gives us the tactical advantage and creates the opportunity for us to set the agenda.

An important aspect of this movement, is that people are learning that it is, in fact, possible to fight and win. Part of the organizing challenge is that the US public has become heavily demoralized by the last few decades of economic and political onslaught, particularly since 9/11. As a result, people summed up that struggle is pointless because you can never win against a determined state. Think back to spring of 2003 when millions of people took to the street to stop the war in Iraq, and yet the Bush administration advanced with its attack on the Iraqi people.

Now, people are beginning to undo that lesson. For example the victory by thousands of people in NYC on October 14th against the Bloomberg administration’s attempt to expel people from Zuccotti Park using the excuse of needing to “clean the park” taught thousands of people through their own experience that we can in fact win victories by the strength of the organized masses. Even though it was only a tactical victory in NYC and not a substantive one, it is still very important for this reason. Likewise, the ability of Occupy Oakland to retake the camp, after it was dismantled by the city and the police, and in the face of extreme police repression, shows the important potential of this moment.

The Role of Middle-class Youth

One of the contradictory aspects of the movement is that it has begun mainly based among middle-class, mostly white young people. We shouldn’t find this surprising, and we should resist any temptation to dismiss the movement on this basis. Frequently the middle class moves first in a new period of upsurge. They have the education and access to information that allows them to understand what’s going on; they have the time and resources that make it easy for them to move; and they have the motivation of high ambitions that get betrayed by a system in crisis.

Middle-class youth tend to act as a starter motor that, if things develop correctly, creates the political space that will allow broader layers of the dispossessed to take part en masse. We saw this phenomenon very clearly in Egypt. The largest share of the people taking part in the Tahrir Square movement were jobless middle-class youth. As the year went on, the political space that was opened up has increasingly allowed workers broader layers of the working class to organize and step forward into political struggle.

Similar things are happening here. The movement is broadening in many places. In NYC, Occupy Wall Street is still mostly white, but there are now noticeably more people of color and workers participating. This process will be uneven, of course. The participants of Occupy Oakland actually look like the city it’s taking place in, while across the bay Occupy San Francisco remains much more white.

Race, Class & Gender 101

One of the things that will determine how fully representative the Occupy movement is of the 99% is how seriously the participants grapple with questions of race, class and gender within the movement. The fact that the movement has started out mainly white and middle class is, as mentioned, an understandable phenomenon, but it’s also contradictory.

In situations such as this people who are new to political struggle effectively go through a crash course in the politics of race, class and gender, based on a combination of their own first-hand experience in the movement and the political line put out by more experienced organizers. This phenomenon happened on a large scale back when the global justice movement was jumping off, and it’s happening again now within the Occupy movement. There will of course be unevenness; some will cling to a middle-class liberal outlook, but most will to a greater or lesser extent start to develop an understanding of class stratification within the movement and the structural racial exclusion that a movement starting in the middle class presents us with.

These issues are going to manifest in different ways. For example, in response to challenges put forward by indigenous people and others around the very concept of occupation, in a country with the history of stolen land that the US has, the movement in Albuquerque and other places has in some cases renamed their local effort to (un)Occupy. Additionally, local movements have put forward discussion about this history and what it means in terms of the responsibilities of activists today. The experiences in different locales will not be identical, but taking these struggles seriously is uniformly essential.

On the question of gender, it needs to be said clearly that male supremacy and violence against women is as real a problem here as anywhere else in society. Gender privilege operates right at the basic level of who has the ability to safely sleep in a public park without worry. There has already been at least one case of alleged rape, in Cleveland, OH, when the leaders of the occupation there made a woman share her tent with a man she didn’t know. We have to be steadfast in struggling against male domination in all the forms in which it appears, especially against outright violence. We need to make the spaces we create as safe as we can for women, gender non-conforming people and queer people. Otherwise we are complicit in driving out, holding back, and harming valuable comrades in the struggle.

When we put forward the slogan “We are the 99 percent!” the movement needs to accompany it with discussion of the race, class and gender stratification among the 99%. Otherwise we’re perpetuating the sidelining of the more oppressed in favor of the outlook of the middle-class people who started the movement. Revolutionaries must lead the way in helping the movement grapple with these challenges.

The Complexities of Mass Democracy

A prominent feature of the movement that was initiated by the global justice movement a decade ago is the emphasis on mass democratic forms of communication and decision-making. The ubiquitous General Assemblies give people an experience of being an intrinsic part of the proceedings, a sense of their own agency. This participatory character has great value and should be generally supported. However, any decision-making process has contradictions and shortcomings.

One is that the General Assemblies are highly inefficient. That’s okay if you have an occupation lasting weeks or months and want to debate out demands in a highly participatory way. But they’re close to useless for doing things like making on-the-spot tactical decisions in response to a rapidly developing situation. They also cannot scale in size beyond a few hundred people at most. If our movement continues to grow, the current structures will tend to become even more paralyzed. This is the problem known as ultra-democracy. A related problem is process fetishism, in which the fixation on having the most participatory and formally inclusive process becomes so strong that it outright replaces the substantive goal of getting things done.

There is also the potential for the development of informal leadership. As Jo Freeman famously observed, if you don’t have formalized structures of leadership and accountability, you will have informal leaders chosen only by themselves or by outside forces such as the mainstream media. (Google her name and read her famous piece if you haven’t yet.) These leaders will tend of course to be male and white and middle class and to reflect an outlook that goes with such a social position.

The movement needs to evolve a decision-making structure that preserves as much of the participatory culture as possible while becoming more flexible and effective. One way to do this might be to strengthen the committees that have formed to work on particular tasks, whether that be outreach, logistics, or specific issue struggles, and move toward a General Assembly structured more as a spokescouncil based on delegation from the committees. Because the committees are smaller, the face-to-face processes will be more effective in that context.

Committees of the General Assembly are also a key place to develop work around a host of related issues that tie in to the main target of Wall Street and the 1%. For example, in Boston a committee of the General Assembly has joined a local campaign against foreclosures already being carried out by existing groups that are members of Right to the City. This obviously fits right in with the Occupy movement’s political focus. Many other such issue campaigns are certainly taking place around the country and are either being connected to the Occupy movement or are ripe for it.

The Police

One of the biggest and most contested questions is around the role of the police and our relationship to them. The range of political lines on this varies more than on just about any other question. For example, in NYC the relationship with the police has been very hostile on the whole, with repeated acts of vicious police brutality and mass arrest of OWS participants. These incidents, as well as the tragic case of Scott Olsen, a member of Iraq Vets Against the War, who was gravely wounded by a police projectile in Oakland, play an important role in driving up the prominence and popularity of the movement.

The other end of the spectrum can be seen at OccupyLA in Los Angeles. The General Assembly (GA) there has distanced itself from civil disobedience and confrontational tactics and has built up a rather cozy relationship with the LAPD. In a march to the Bank of America a few weeks ago by Refund CA (a mostly union-organized campaign), the leadership in the GA made a sharp point that anyone committing civil disobedience was not representing OccupyLA and would not be supported or defended. Activists of color in LA who have been horrified at the tactical relationship with the police have formed an independent organization the Committee Against Police Brutality to bring an organized challenge in the GA.

While overall the Occupy movement needs to maintain a united front approach and put forward a strategy that can unite the great majority of people involved, we need a bottom-line position around the question of the police. As revolutionary socialists we understand that the police are the troops who enforce the rule of the 1%. It can be challenging to put this analysis forward in places where the police take a supportive stance and even do things like donate supplies and provide advice on tactics. However, we should struggle for a minimum stand on the part of the movement. That minimum should entail not prioritizing the relationship with the police over relationships within the movement, not accepting material assistance from the police, and promulgating the understanding that the basic job of the police is to protect the existing system, even if particular individuals or departments may be sympathetic to reform. We cannot allow concerns about maintaining good relations with the police to divide the movement—especially in racially chauvinist ways—like happened in LA. If this stand cannot be won right away, it should remain a point of attention by more left organizers to try to win it over time.

If the Occupy movement wants to be relevant to more than just the upper layers of the 99%, police brutality is in fact an important issue to take up. In NYC, for example, people are working on the issue, partly in conjunction with the annual October 22 march against police brutality. Part of the planning and preparation for the march took place in part at Zuccotti Park. The work provides an opportunity to relate the firsthand experiences of people involved in OWS around police violence against the movement to the daily lived experiences of police repression by people in poor communities and communities of color and to connect the role of the police to the maintenance of capitalist rule. In other examples, Atlanta renamed their occupied space Troy Davis Park, and Oakland renamed theirs Oscar Grant Plaza as an acknowledgement of this connection.

Even in a place like NYC where the police are doing an impressive job of alienating as many people in OWS as possible, the role of the police remains a matter for political line struggle. Within the core of the movement a solid majority have a clear oppositional perspective toward the police, but at the bigger demonstrations that draw out thousands of people, the liberal perspective often becomes dominant. We see this in competing slogans directed towards the police, like “who do you serve, who do you protect?” or right-leaning chants such as “join us!”. In doing work against police brutality and repression, continually making the connection back to their role in the rule of the 1% is essential.

The United Front and a Left Pole

In terms of how we broadly organize the people within the Occupy movement, revolutionaries have two simultaneous basic tasks: build the united front and build a left pole.

The first task entails uniting the movement around a common program expressing the political unity of the great majority in the movement—simple-sounding in the abstract, but generally very complex in practice. You don’t want to struggle for so sharp a political line that it causes major divisions in the movement, unless for example there are serious questions of chauvinism that have already badly divided the movement and that require a stand be taken, such as what happened in LA. You also don’t want to tail the more liberal ideological trends. How to both unite as many people as you reasonably can while building a movement that pushes and in fact breaks the existing boundaries of what’s considered possible is the trick. It’s worth emphasizing here that being able to break boundaries requires building solid and lasting organization that can express the will of the united front in a focused and sustained way.

Second, create a left pole by building as much unity as feasible among the left forces. Obviously this task presents a lot of challenges given the wide and often antagonistic differences between different historical trends on the left. However, the Occupy movement potentially creates a greater opportunity for unity around a set of real-life tasks than the left has seen in a long, long time. Revolutionaries working in the Occupy movement should set themselves the task of building a common understanding with other leftists both around struggling for such things as the aforementioned stand regarding the police, and also around creating a clear pole of anti-capitalist and revolutionary politics within the broader united front. Different groups are inevitably going to work to build their own organizations, of course, but we should also seek a broader common strategy between groups that are capable of playing with others in a principled way. How high a level of functional unity can be developed, time will tell. We have a greater opportunity to win people to revolutionary politics and socialism now than in at least 40 years, maybe in 70 years. Now is not the time to hide our lights under a basket. Let’s put our views out broadly!

The Democrats

A lot of attention has been devoted on the left to concerns about the danger of the Occupy movement being coopted by the system, particularly by the Democratic Party. On the one hand, this is a real concern. A lot of Democrats are embracing the movement and many of them would love for it to serve the political needs of the party’s partisan agenda. We need to be ever-watchful of this dynamic. On the whole, though, this movement has a radical agenda and culture. The likelihood that it’s going to surrender its program to that of the Democrats is pretty low. This is probably not the greatest danger we face, especially when we have Democratic mayors in many cases authorizing violent police repression against the occupations.

There is in fact an equal danger in a political line that says we should have nothing whatsoever to do with the Democrats in any way. While everyone should be clear that the movement must absolutely set its own agenda, elected officials will be part of a tactical united front in specific circumstances. An important example of this happened in NYC when Bloomberg tried to push OWC out of the park. Elected Democrats actually played a key role in saving the occupation. City Council members made it clear to the private corporation that owns the park that they would make their life hell if the company cooperated with Bloomberg, and so the company backed off and told Bloomberg they would let OWC stay after all. If they hadn’t done this, Bloomberg would certainly have proceeded with the “cleaning,” and the occupation would probably have lost the battle for the park after hundreds of arrests. Clearly some elected officials will have a side role to play. The Occupy movement stands as much chance of dividing Democratic officials against each other as they do of dividing us.

Where to from Here?

The occupations can’t go on forever. They are not a permanent, universal tactic to address everything the struggle will throw at us. This document will not be so arrogant as to propose a specific course of action. Freedom Road doesn’t believe that there are simple formulas for strategy that magically pop out of our political line. What we do want to point out is that the movement needs to start broadly discussing and debating a medium-term strategy. What do we do when the momentum of the occupations starts winding down? What do the locales do that haven’t been able to achieve an ongoing occupation for one reason or another? How do we consolidate whatever gains we achieve and take the struggle to the next level? These are the kinds of questions that the movement needs to be thinking about. All the discussion about the question of demands is only the start.

The Occupy movement is still very young and is a work in progress. It is already making massive waves and holds the prospect of creating a sea change in the political balance of forces in the US. It is making what was thought impossible become possible and getting countless everyday people thinking about the prospects for change beyond limited reforms. Revolutionary-minded people should be making our very best effort to help the movement maximize its possibilities and overcome its limitations. The movement is already facing escalations in repression as the police and city administrations forcibly attempt to disperse one occupation after another. Let’s turn it around and build the Occupy movement into a mighty storm that inundates the 1%!

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