Occupy! At the Crossroads - A look at the Occupy! Phenomenon

A look at the Occupy! movement , taken fron no 79 of Organise! magazine of the Anarchist Federation

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 9, 2013

The Occupy movement was a phenomenon that spread rapidly throughout the United States and was echoed on a much smaller scale in Great Britain. It was inspired by events around the Arab Spring, in particular the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo and by the movement in Spain, the Indignados (Indignants). In the United States it was initiated by the group around Adbusters who engaged in a critique of and action against advertising who issued a call to Occupy Wall Street and was quickly taken up by many others. The Occupy phenomenon in the United States which touched many towns and cities was echoed throughout the world, and appeared on every continent apart from Antarctica! --- From Armenia to Colombia, from Holland to Nigeria, from Hong Kong to Australia, a movement developed in the months after the first appearance in the United States.

As in the USA it was often met with by police violence, harassment and repression. Outside of the USA the Occupy! Movement was a disparate thing and in many cases was only fleeting. In Nigeria it was used as a means to mobilise against a cut in fuel subsidies, forcing President Jonathan to announce a return to a partial subsidy.

It is quite clear that the movement in the United States represents something different from the other Occupy! Movements throughout the world, whilst sharing some of their characteristics. Let’s look at what these movements all seem to have in common.

They all involved the occupation of public space, be that town squares or parks, implicitly questioning the nature and use of this public space. People once met in public spaces where they could discuss ideas. This use of public space has been under consistent attack with greater and greater policing, the use of CCTV, piped muzak and colonisation by advertising. More and more activities have been made illegal in public spaces by the authorities, and the Occupy actions were a challenge to this attack on public space.

“It makes no sense to overly fetishize the tactic of occupations, no more than it does to limiting resistance exclusively to blockades or clandestine attacks.Yet the widespread emergence of public occupations qualitatively changed what it means to resist.For contemporary American social movements, it is something new to liberate space that is normally policed to keep the city functioning smoothly as a wealth generating machine and transform it into a node of struggle and rebellion.
To do this day after day, rooted in the the city where you live and strengthening connections with neighbors and comrades, is a first taste of what it truly means to have a life worth living. For those few months in the fall, American cities took on new geographies of the movement’s making and rebels began to sketch out maps of coming insurrections and revolts.”
From http://www.bayofrage.com/featured-articles/occupy-oakland-

They involved the applying of direct action, rather than indirect action through parliament and legislature.

They all involved the development of systems of horizontal organisation, with mass decision making, direct democracy and meetings taking place at the Occupy camps on a daily and indeed twice-daily basis.

They all to a lesser or greater extent (greater perhaps in the USA) involved a break with complacency, and the idea of the status quo, and of Things As They Are and of There Is No Alternative. As such they interplayed with other movements in conflict with austerity packages and cuts programmes.

They all involved a critique of some aspects of capitalism, above all an attack on corporations and banks. Whilst some in these movements, above all in the USA, had a critique of capitalism as a whole for others this anti-corporatism was not about capitalism on a general level, but important features of it in this particular period. This overriding anti-corporate drive meant that some had not thought through to an overall rejection of capitalism as a whole, whilst others did and do believe that capitalism can be reformed, if what they perceive as its most malicious and harmful aspects can be reformed or restrained. They argue against the dominance of corporations and against it pose the development of cooperatives and small business against big business. They contrast what they see as the decentralisation of this system of operating against the centralisation of big business. Intertwined with this is the group that talks about the 1%, an oligarchy of the super-rich and super-powerful.

This does not mean the end of capitalism but some sort of reform taking power and riches away from this 1% and supplying justice to the “99%”. Other currents involved are those of radical religious groups, Christian and Buddhist, which talk about social justice with no clear critique of capitalism as well as conspiracy theorists who believe in a plot by a small secret and occult group to control the world’s power structures and finance institutions.

All of these tendencies together have drawn notice to the whole system of exploitation that capitalism represents and have thus raised the issue of class society. Which of these tendencies will win a battle of ideas within the Occupy movement is still up for grabs and will be determined over the next year.

One problem related to this conflict of ideas within the Occupy movement was the attempt by some within it to label it as “non-violent” and in so doing raise the old chestnut of the division between “non-violent” and “violent” actions. In Boston, for example, a diversity of tactics statement was agreed upon, supporting different forms of resistance. However the subject was raised again at a general assembly weeks later with a call for a banning of all violent acts against “all beings”.

Other problems were the question of safer spaces (echoed at the Saint Imier gathering where the same problem arose). Because of sexual harassment,homophobia and transphobia, and many felt unable to participate or to continue to in the Occupy camps (this situation was reflected in the Occupy camps in Britain). Similarly many black, Native American and Latino people sensed supremacist attitudes among white activists and began to stay away. There were some honourable attempts to openly deal with the problems in the camps but this is an ongoing problem that has to be drastically dealt with if we are attempting to construct a mass movement that is inclusive for the future.

Other interesting aspects of the Occupy movement involved the setting up of free libraries, in some instances with a dominance of anarchist literature, the provision of free or cheap meals, free clothes and healthcare, and free crèches.

In the Occupy Oakland movement in northern California, links were built with workers with a call for a General Strike on November 2nd 2012 which resulted in a shutdown of the port. There was a call out for a shutdown of all the ports on the West Coast on December 12th and whilst this was not successful, the call out itself was a positive move. Similarly the call by Occupy Wall Street to delay the opening of the stock exchange on November 17th was also a positive move, even if foiled by aggressive police action. Occupy Oakland was probably the most radical of the Occupy actions in the USA. This was down to a number of factors. Following the shooting to death by the police of Oscar Grant in 2009, there had been a series of riots against the police there. There had been a series of student occupations against austerity measures, the protest camp by Native Americans at Glen Cove in 2011, and a number of other actions. As an article at http://www.bayofrage.com/featured-articles/occupy-oakland-is-dead/
noted :

“If we had chosen to follow the specific trajectory prescribed by Adbusters and the Zucotti-based organizers of Occupy Wall Street,we would have staked out our local Occupy camp somewhere in the heart of the capitol of West Coast capital, as a beachhead in the enemy territory of San Francisco’s financial district. Some did this early on, following in the footsteps of the growing list of other encampments scattered across the country like a colorful but confused archipelago of anti-financial indignation. According to this logic, it would make no sense for the epicenter of the movement to emerge in a medium sized, proletarian city on the other side of the bay.

We intentionally chose a different path based on a longer trajectory and rooted in a set of shared experiences that emerged directly from recent struggles. Vague populist slogans about the 99%, savvy use of social networking, shady figures running around in Guy Fawkes masks, none of this played any kind of significant role in bringing us to the forefront of the Occupy movement. In the rebel town of Oakland, we built a camp that was not so much the emergence of a new social movement, but the unprecedented
convergence of pre-existing local movements and antagonistic tendencies all looking for a fight with capital and the state while learning to take care of each other and our city in the most radical ways possible.

This is what we began to call The Oakland Commune; that dense network of new found affinity and rebelliousness that sliced through seemingly impenetrable social barriers like never before. Our “war machine and our care machine” as one comrade put it. No cops, no politicians, plenty of “autonomous actions”; the Commune materialized for one
month in liberated Oscar Grant Plaza at the corner of 14th & Broadway. Here we fed each other, lived together and began to learn how to actually care for one another while launching unmediated assaults on our enemies: local government, the downtown business elite and transnational capital. These attacks culminated with the General Strike of November 2 and subsequent West Coast Port Blockade.”

In addition, there was a strong anarchist presence in both the actions mentioned above and the Oakland occupation, which led on to the insistence, not taken up in other Occupy actions, that there be no police presence within the Oakland camp.

The cold winter and generalised police violence against the Occupy camps have been a factor in stalling the movement, both in the USA and elsewhere. Occupy hoped to relaunch with this year’s May Day mobilisations, following the wave of police violence and extreme weather that had had a demobilising effect. Many camps, including the initial one of Zucotti Park in New York, had been violently cleared by the police.
Certainly thousands turned out for the event. The media had initially covered the Occupy actions and they chose to operate a more or less complete blackout. Where it did report the media declared that the movement was over. If the reoccupation of public space was looked for, it was foiled by the massive show of police strength, large numbers of riot police, armoured personnel carriers and SWAT teams armed with assault rifles showed that the American State was taking the Occupy movement as a serious threat. However what was interesting about these May Day mobilisations was that the Occupy movement was looking for links with other groups and demonstrated with industrial workers and immigrant rights groups on the day. Of course, there was the customary police violence, as well as fifty arrests across the USA. There was fierce resistance on the day too, with street fighting in Oakland that lasted all day, a shield bloc in Los Angeles, an attempt at a wildcat march in New York, an anti-capitalist march in New Orleans and trashing of banks in Seattle.

Is it true as the mainstream media claims that the Occupy movement is over in the USA? Certainly the winter and police violence had put an end to the occupation of public spaces. However there now seem to be moves to occupy buildings and to resist evictions by banks. Whether this remains the Occupy movement or is a morphing into other movement can be seen as a question of semantics. The reclamation of buildings was initiated in the most radical of the camps, Oakland, and has spread to San Francisco, Chapel Hill, Washington DC and Seattle. Other initiatives have been the occupation of farmland. One instance was Occupy The Farm on land owned by the University of California, which as later cleared by the police. In Minneapolis, an Occupy the Homes campaign was set up.

“What is unusual, in fact utterly unprecedented, is the level of aggression and defiance of the law by these activists. Over the past week ... the city has tossed out protesters and boarded up the house, only to see the demonstrators peel back the boards and use chains, concrete-filled barrels and other obstacles to make it more difficult to carry them away,” a spokesperson for Freddie Mac, a company that trades in mortgages told a local paper. Occupy Our Homes has issued demands that banks adjust or write off loans so that people can stay in their own houses.

A similar campaign has emerged with Occupy Our Colleges with the demands that university administrations stop their axing of budgets to protect education. Other initiatives have been a flowering of attempts to apply the horizontal structures of the Occupy camps with their general assemblies to the neighbourhood.
Occupy the Hood movements have emerged in many US cities with Occupy El Barrio specifically looking at Lationo/Latina communities. Similarly there appear to be moves towards rural occupations. Whether these initiatives will bear fruit remains to be seen. The radicalisation of this movement or its continuity is not a given. Nevertheless the atmosphere of apathy has been shattered, with many new people drawn into activity, and many experiencing horizontal organisation and decision making for the first time.

Postscript: Britain

The eviction of the St Paul’s Occupy camp, and the clearing of the School of Ideas building and its subsequent demolition and of the nearby camp at Finsbury Square dealt a severe blow to Occupy London. As a writer in Occupied Times, a paper linked with Occupy London noted:
“When Occupy London first began, we all fell in love at the steps of St Pauls. We felt it was something that had never happened before. Something new, buzzing, and real. For the younger generation, it was our 1968, our delayed Spring of Hope that finally addressed the discontent brewing amid global recession and recurrent collapses. Spring was coming. A spring that would address the hike in student fees, the massive unemployment, and the reasons underlying the august riots. A spring that would create a radical alternative. For those slightly older, it seemed a chance to redeem a slumbering generation whose material safety had lulled them into the belief that economic growth, combined with “development of third world countries” was the best way to secure a good future for us in Western Europe, and – hopefully – for those not quite as fortunate as us….. But perhaps the comfort of our legal status steered us onto the wrong track. Over winter, many remained indifferent, or became disenchanted, and the constant bickering over petty issues drained the remaining few of the energy they had mustered. Resuscitating the camp until the end of February left plans for May unclear, and plans beyond in an uncertain state. International bonds receded as other camps seemed to disappear off the grid. People remained active, but they no longer took the name in their mouth. The mainstream media systematically under-reported, or misreported, any activity. The police were no less systematic in their power policing. Some actions were in the pipeline, but in the eyes of the public, Finsbury Square clung onto a brown patch of what was once a lawn whilst the rest of the movement had vapourised. May came and went, but neither Mayday flowers nor the May12 rent-a-crowd gave the necessary lift. Occupy London, it seemed, was going into a lull.”

Other Occupy sites also disappeared, with the Occupy Edinburgh camp ending at the end of this January. Similarly, the largest camp outside London in Bristol was similarly cleared at the end of January.
The British Occupy camps had many of the same features and pluses and minuses as the movement in the USA. However, they failed to draw the support that the American camps had gleaned and were unable to break from the dominance of liberal and reformist elements within it. One problem was over the question of homelessness. Occupy London issued a statement on homelessness where they said : “Occupy London expresses its support for the massive and growing numbers of homeless people in London and in Britain as a whole.

Having a home is a fundamental human need and right. Only with adequate housing can people successfully contribute to their community in a meaningful way. Many homeless people have become part of Occupy London and through this have found a sense of community and increased optimism. Many occupiers have unintentionally become homeless during their involvement in Occupy London. In essence, a part of the homeless has become Occupy London, and a part of Occupy London has become the homeless. Together we call for social and economic justice.

Occupy London intends to highlight the issue of homelessness and of eviction of homeless persons from refuges such as St. Paul’s Churchyard. We abhor the violence and intimidation that occupiers and homeless people, around the world, have been subjected to.

Occupy London has been providing tented accommodation for between 30 and 70 homeless people staying at the St Paul’s Occupy site. These people will be affected by eviction of OLSX. We believe that the City of London has a duty of care towards them and that they should be offered accommodation that ensures their safety, dignity and freedom – that is, in homes, not hostels.”

However this was not without its problems. As one activist noted (Occupied Times, July 2012) : “If the government or police wanted to know how to derail activists combating their agenda, they need look no further than Finsbury Square. David Cameron’s crackpot ‘Big Society’ idea was designed to relieve the state of its responsibility towards vulnerable people, tasking the people with providing welfare instead. This alone should be opposed, but at Finsbury Square we saw another side-effect of such a plan which further enables the status-quo.

Activists tend to be compassionate people. For most of us, our motivation to organise or agitate comes from wanting more for those worst off in society. When FS started to become more of a refugee camp than a political occupation, some of us were made to feel that we should drop all political activism to care for the homeless. I was told I had no compassion, despite the fact that I already volunteer in a recognised homeless centre, where they have the expertise and resources to genuinely help.

By falling into the trap of providing quasi-help for people at FS, rather than highlighting and combating the source of problems like homelessness (which Occupy started off doing), people played right into the government’s hands. On one hand the protest was quelled, and on the other, people did the state’s work for it.” This view was echoed by other activists in the same article.

Some activists within Occupy in London attempted to forge an alliance with the Sparks electricians who were putting on mass pickets at building sites nearby and the Sparks and their supporters marched up to St Paul’s and addressed the camp from the stairs of St Paul’s. However, these activists were a minority within the camp and there was little enthusiasm for such an alliance in other quarters.

The liberal element now seems to have control of the brand name of Occupy London. Occupied Times continues to appear on a regular basis and contains some interesting articles. It attempts to reflect the broad range of opinions inside or close to the Occupy movement. So, it can contain articles reflecting revolutionary points of view, as for example, the views of an activist in the London anarchist group Alarm.
However on the other hand they print the thoughts of right-wing “libertarian” and advocate of the free market Tibor Machan (Occupied Times, July 2012) apparently just because he was “staunchly opposed to government subsidies for banks and corporations. It similarly gives space in the September issue to Jeremy Rifkin an advocate of reformist and cosmetic measures for the economy and government, whilst in the same issue we are treated to a plea for Occupy in Britain to become the catalyst for a Real Democracy movement with a range of Real Democracy institutions, parties and think-tanks” .

The Occupy movement in Britain shows few signs of being able to develop as it is too much a victim of the contradictions between the various currents. Perhaps certain useful initiatives may emerge and we should continue to hope for any such developments. What we should do as revolutionary anarchists is attempt to establish debate and dialogue with the radical elements within it looking for a way forward.