Sunday, December 25, 2011

Occupy Next Year

What’s next for the Occupy movement?

That’s the question on everyone’s lips, which is a huge accomplishment in itself.

But it’s also a huge question with huge import.

Of course the only possible answer is that there isn’t one thing that’s next for the entire movement.  In fact, it’s not even one movement.  The movement in Des Moines or Walnut Creek looks very different, as the media love to point out, from Occupy Oakland, which I’m told is is very different from Occupy Wall Street.  It’s a movement of movements; some are slick, some homegrown; some are revolutionary and others reformist.

There are the signature encampments, and there are all the cool shoots that have sprouted off to the sides – like Occupella, which sings in BART stations and at actions, Aquapie, which was a raft floating on Lake Merritt for a while, Occupy Patriarchy, a website looking at feminism and gender issues in the movement, Occupy Media, Occupy Religion...

But there are certain tropes that have bound the movement together, and those continue to evolve in tandem.  Occupy Brooklyn has been reclaiming foreclosed homes for people to live in for some months, Mandela House is a squat in West Oakland taken by a group of people from Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Bernal Heights just had its first meeting to talk about defending homes in their San Francisco neighborhood from foreclosure by a variety of legal and extralegal means.  The Feminists and Queers Against Capitalism bloc in Oakland has been meeting to plan a building occupation for early next year.

Some people who want to take down Bank of America, because it’s a symbol of the entire catastrophic banking system, because it’s the worst of the worst, and because they think it’s the most vulnerable of the big banks.  Others want to focus on getting cities and universities and other institutions to move their money to local banks and credit unions – apparently Peralta Community College District, which runs the largest community college network in the country, just voted to do that. 

I hear a lot of discussion about how white and middle-class the movement is, and how it needs to be more representative of society, to become deeper in working class and poor communities, to recognize how limiting and exclusionary the 99% rhetoric actually is.  That instead of the 99% we should be talking about the bottom 25%.

Occupy the Castro held its first General Assembly (GAy) on Dec. 17.  Photo courtesy of Michael Petrelis
Occupy Education groups are planning a huge mobilization for March, to fight the trends of budget cuts and fee hikes which are making higher education inaccessible to so many.

Seasoned activists are organizing traditional nonviolent direct actions on a big scale, like January 20 in San Francisco, which aims to shut down “Wall Street West” in a way similar to the first days of the Iraq war in 2003, when an estimated 20,000 people participated in blockades and occupations in downtown San Francisco.

I think the best thing about this movement is it’s “Stop Right Where You Are” quality.  Like the Women’s Movement, like the student movement of the 1960s, it’s caused everyone who is dissatisfied with the current state of things to examine the conditions of their own lives.  As in the early months of the Second Gulf War, everyone is doing different things but many people are doing something.  A group of women from Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, who live in a senior apartment building in the Outer Mission, have adopted their local Bank of America and converge on it every other Thursday with lunch and walkers and lawn chairs and signs.  Bank of America apparently got so freaked out by the sight of so many gray-haired women on the public sidewalk in front of their bank, they locked their doors and called the police.

I do have a few observations of my own, to throw into the hopper.  My usual caveat – I could be dead wrong.  I haven’t been that involved in the movement on the day to day level.

-- Holding public space is important.

It’s far too early for this movement to leave the streets.

Eviction defense is something I’ve been interested in for years.  I’ve participated in a few actions with ACCE (Association of Californians for Community Empowerment, which took over from ACORN) and every one of them was at least temporarily successful in getting the banks to call off the sheriffs and agree to meet with the homeowners.  I’d like to see these actions expanded to include tenants being evicted by big landlords as well.  But these are actions best taken by smaller groups with clear leadership (hopefully from the people directly affected).  They are not the place for ultrademocratic process – if I were ever being evicted, I wouldn’t want a General Assembly of 300 random people deciding by thumbs up or twinkling whether I stay or go.  Ideally, as the idea spreads, people would do these types of defense with their neighbors and friends, in a decentralized way.

Camps and general assemblies give everyone who wants to check it out a place to come.  As groups move indoors and become more about strategic campaigns and secret plans (even my affinity group decided not to put our January 20 target on the action website, because we don’t want the bank to be forewarned), they are likely to become smaller and narrower.  That isn’t always true – March 20, 2003, as I’ve already said, was massive, but that was a pretty special situation, because everyone wanted to respond to the breakout of war.  We didn’t have to do the work of letting people know when, what or why, just where and how.  I don’t even know where Mandela House is.  I went to the first open planning meeting for the Feminist & Queer Bloc Occupation, but it wasn’t the first meeting.  I came in feeling less invested than those who were in it from the start, who obviously will have more influence than the rest of us in decision-making.

This is the “old” way, the left sectarian or community organizing model.  What was bright and shiny (as well as sometimes infuriating) about Occupy was its open and transparent structure and process, the “horizontalism” and leaderlessness that the media and some Old Leftists loved to complain about.

-- Talking and listening to each other is important.

There’s still no hard and fast political unity in these movements.  People are very much into the talking and processing.  They still get hundreds of people coming to general assemblies, dozens coming to workshops on everything from “Capitalism 101” to the history of Haiti.  To cut that off and decide that we’re “doing” one thing or another (and not something else) would, again, lose people and would also lose the energy for creating political space.

At the same time, the movement needs to find opportunities to listen to people who it hasn't heard yet.  I was talking the other day to Richard Brown, former Black Panther and political prisoner.  He said something that surprised me:  "When the Panthers were just doing police monitoring, the community didn't really support us.  It was only when we started listening to the community that we really began to create the programs that served the people."  Of course listening to so many voices may sound like cacophony for a while, but themes will likely emerge that make sense and drive the movements in organic directions.

-- Specific campaigns need to be very carefully thought out.

I don’t quite understand what taking down Bank of America would accomplish, other than proving that we could.  Presumably if BofA goes down, Wells Fargo or Citibank or Chase is going to buy it up at the end, getting even richer and more powerful.  They’re not going to go, “Oh, these people are so powerful, we’d better start paying our fair share.”  If it’s a precursor to taking down all the banks, what’s our plan for that, and more, what’s our plan for after-the-fall?  Are we talking about nationalizing banks?  If so, why not cut to the chase (not to be confused with Chase) and start a campaign for nationalization.  If we’re talking about community control of the wealth, how is taking BofA down going to get us there?  And what about the jobs?  BofA has laid off a ton of workers, cut a lot more to part-time, but it’s still a huge employer – 300,000 employees worldwide.  And while they’re not unionized and not great office jobs, they’re better jobs than, say, working at WalMart or making robocalls to sell insurance, and a whole lot better than being unemployed.  How are we going to explain to the workers why we want them to lose their jobs?

Same goes for shutting down the Port of Oakland (to be fair, I haven’t heard anyone suggest making it the long-term target).  I get that the Port gets a lot of money from Oakland and doesn’t give back, that it spews a lot of toxic stuff into the air and water, that it’s a hub for weapons going to repressive regimes and imported crap going to WalMart, but it’s also a hub for some of the last remaining well-paid, unionized jobs in the area.  If we decide we want it out of Oakland, we had better have a good answer for the people who ask what’s going to happen to them when they lose those good jobs.

-- This is not a poor people’s movement nor a People of Color-led movement.

There are poor people in it.  There are people of color in leadership (oh, but it doesn’t have leaders …).  But those are not its roots.  Its roots are among college educated young folks who are 1) frustrated about not getting the jobs they studied for; 2) inspired by the movements of Egypt, Tunisia, Spain and Greece; and 3) pissed off about their college debt.  Its secondary roots are among people facing foreclosure or people who have been foreclosed, which means that they had homes to lose.  Its tertiary roots are among organized labor and professional (paid or unpaid) activists.  It never was and is not likely to be a movement largely composed of unemployed blue collar people, or women whose welfare has been cut off.

To suggest that it reach out to the groups that have been working with those populations is certainly a good idea.  In fact, at least in Oakland and San Francisco, the nonprofits that do that kind of community organizing have been quite connected to the Occupies.  To suggest that it turn itself over to those groups is not a good idea.  Those groups, after all, have been working for decades and failed to galvanize a mass movement like this one.  So have the international solidarity groups, who periodically point out that the 99% here is the 1% to the Global South.

Middle class white people in this country having a movement that’s empowering to them is not preventing working class or poor people, here or elsewhere, having their own movements.  It’s not as if there have been huge movements of poor people, people of color, feminists, queers, in this country being ignored for the last ten years.  The movements have not been there.  No doubt if we built one, we’d be ignored for longer than OWS was, but hopefully the example they set – not picking up and going home because the mainstream media ignored them -- would help to embolden and inspire us.

It doesn’t make sense to criticize the people in the movement(s) for being who they are, and not who they aren’t.  We’ve always known that effective community organizing has to come from within the affected communities, and this movement has shown that once again.  People who have been building small cadres for the last bunch of years should be able to take the energy of this movement to spring to the next level.  If they can’t, that’s not the failure of OWS, it’s their own failure.  If they come to OWS for solidarity and support and don’t get it, then that’s another story.  But that chapter remains to be written.

-- FWIW, my suggestion for the immediate future, in addition to the great things laid out above that are already happening, is this:

Keep having general assemblies and action councils but move them into indoor public spaces.  Take over the lobbies of banks, shopping malls, movie theaters, Whole Foods, for teach-ins, speakouts, meetings.  Post the locations on the websites.  If they lock the doors of the place we’ve picked, which would be a big inconvenience for a business that depends on being open to the public, pick another nearby and leave a few people outside with a banner to tell people where to go.  If you get inside, it gives them the dilemma of ignoring you, and then you get to have your meeting, or calling the cops which creates a spectacle.  And hopefully some of the customers in whatever place we’ve picked would decide to come check out the meeting and get involved.  It would be sort of a flash mob without the need for choreography and rehearsals.

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