It was, I think, Barack Obama’s decision to rescue the banks and largely ignore the people that helped to create the political backdrop for Occupy. It was as though Obama’s campaign slogan of 2008, “Yes, we can,” had degenerated into “No, we can’t – at least not for you.” The political backlash this generated from the left, including many of Obama’s progressive supporters, combined with a general anger and sense of economic insecurity in broad swaths of society to create the tinderbox that a small group of anarchists lit when they occupied Zucotti Park on September 17, 2011.
Of course, this action did not go unnoticed by those of us out in the provinces (that is, those parts of the United States that lie outside of New York City). Inspired by its success – in which thousands upon thousands of people set up a protest encampment in which they also experimented with direct democracy and got ample coverage in the mainstream media – we soon started to organize our own encampments.
However, the chronology that Todd Gitlin describes in his book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street was inevitably different for us. Whereas the zero phase of Occupy Wall Street, in which the activists who aimed to launch the movement planned the action, occurred over the summer of 2011, Occupy Tucson’s zero phase started in the weeks following September 17. But by that time Occupy Wall Street had already moved past its first phase, in which it occupied Zucotti Park, and was already in its second phase, in which the movement saw its greatest numbers and greatest successes in terms of demonstrations and public attention. In fact, our first phase only started on October 15, which was the agreed upon date (by consensus, of course) on which a carefully chosen park in downtown Tucson, Armory Park, was occupied.
The sense of anticipation was remarkable. It was as though the energy and spontaneity of the activists in New York City was spreading out over the country and was scheduled to arrive in Tucson on that Saturday date. And when the day came, the experience was of a kind that I – a sometimes activist who had grown up in the long shadow of the great civil rights, student, and anti-war movements of the 1960s – had only ever heard about from the activists of that generation. I found the encampment to be a testament to the power of a spontaneous uprising, as just a few weeks before it would have been difficult to get five people to stand at a street corner and hold up signs protesting income inequality or the corrupt practices of our banks; suddenly, with the establishment of Occupy, there were hundreds of people not only willing to demonstrate against the “one percent,” but willing to live in the rough in a city park to make their point and risk arrest and/or tickets to do so.
But, as I have written elsewhere in the Occupied Tucson Citizen, I also had a chance to experience a very different Occupy, one in which the power of the spontaneous uprising was almost totally lacking. This occurred the following spring, when I was in Prague in the Czech Republic (I work as a translator from Czech, and divide my time between Tucson and Prague) and Occupy Prague got started. Though the camp there, based on my several visits to it, was better organized than Occupy Tucson, and it was located in a park that gave it excellent access to the Czech public, there was little hint of the mass enthusiasm or spontaneity that characterized the American Occupy movement.
Why this difference might have been makes, if you’ll bear with me, for an interesting little case study, since there was probably no less outrage against their government: indeed, given the unpopularity of the austerity measures put in place by the right-wing government of the time, there may have even been more anger than that felt against the Obama administration. But in the weeks preceding the Occupy Prague encampment, unions and activist groups had come together to launch the “Stop vládě” [Stop the government] campaign. In fact, just a week before, this coalition had overseen the largest political demonstration in the history of the Czech Republic to that time and, additionally, had initiated a campaign of public education via information stands set up around the city, leafleting campaigns, and the like. You might say, then, that the Stop vládě campaign stole Occupy Prague’s thunder. Or, at least, that it took away its critical mass of energy and activists.
There was, however, no such thing as a Stop vládě campaign in the USA, nothing to channel or divert (or, perhaps, co-opt?) this pent-up anger and need for action. Obama, after all, was a Democrat, and certainly preferable from most activists’ points of view to any Republican. So trade unions and progressive activist organizations hesitated to organize any such protest or rebellion (though they later – cautiously, strategically, and briefly – supported Occupy, but only with the goal of shifting Obama somewhat to the left).
So all those people who flocked to Zucotti Park, and then to parks all across the country, were unhindered by any pre-established political structures or sets of demands. Indeed, the contrast between the Occupy movement and the Stop vládě campaign is most clearly illustrated by pointing to a comment made by a French friend of Gitlin’s who, upon observing Occupy Wall Street, said that he had never seen such an apolitical movement as Occupy. It is tempting to pass this remark off as ridiculous, given that Occupy encampments were alive with political discussions, but “political” here has a specific and very concrete meaning. Namely, that Occupy was not political in the sense that we never formulated political demands with which we could negotiate with somebody or which we could use as a platform to run on in an election. And in this way, the Stop vládě campaign was the complete opposite of Occupy, as it was really little more than its very specific list of demands, namely: 1) an end to the government’s austerity measures; 2) the resignation of the government, and 3) early parliamentary elections.
The freedom that we in Occupy enjoyed from such pre-defined political agendas allowed us to quickly discard traditional forms of politics and instead develop exciting new forms that generated additional enthusiasm and energy among the Occupiers (since for those of us prone to such activism building a utopian society is a more exciting thought than fighting for narrow, specific goals such as replacing a Martha McSally with a Kirsten Sinema). In this way was born the idea of the city park as an “island utopia” in which “all voices were heard,” there were no leaders, a consensus was necessary to pass a resolution, and procedures of direct democracy were constantly being discussed and refined.
Of course, as will happen to any avant-garde, all of these non-politically political ideas engendered much misunderstanding and mischaracterization. Not presenting a “party platform” of demands was interpreted by many on the outside as “Occupy doesn’t know what it wants.” Or worse, it meant somebody showing up at a GA and presenting a party platform of their own devising, thinking that we, lost children that we were, would eagerly grab on to it. The fact that we were also a movement that proudly proclaimed itself to be “leaderless” also caused much head shaking and tisk tisking. So much so that it sometimes seemed that any problem Occupy encountered was blamed by these naysayers on the fact that we didn’t have leaders – that is, some decisive souls who could make the critical decisions and give us our marching orders.
And yet, perhaps to the surprise of many of us, the whole thing kind of worked, and did so in spite of the fact that these democratic assemblies and working groups were largely made up of opinionated, strong-willed and sometimes maladjusted people from a variety of economic and cultural demographics. That direct democracy can be exhausting is certainly true, and the difficulty of implementing it on a scale larger than a few hundred people cannot be denied, but then and there it not only worked, but any alternative became unthinkable. Indeed, after being a part of Occupy, I, and many other Occupiers, can report that contact with traditional, top-down political groups could seem quite strange and alienating.
Another surprise that Occupy generated as a result of its existing outside of traditional political structures had to do with the degree it became tied in with the issue of homelessness. Abstractly, of course, we knew that the homeless were not only part of the 99 percent, but were the most acutely suffering part of the 99 percent. But in the parks the abstract became the concrete. Not only were the homeless the original inhabitants of the parks that Occupy occupied and so some number joined the movement but, more significantly, the cover provided by Occupy – i.e. that it became possible to set up a tent in a city park, keep your stuff in it during the day and sleep in it at night in a safe environment – proved irresistible to many of the “army” of homeless who are otherwise sleeping on sidewalks, in desert washes or in overnight shelters, constantly being told to “keep moving” by the police.
Occupy made it obvious that, if zoning laws were changed to allow them, large shanty towns would quickly develop around American cities. These would be made up of both the traditional, long-term homeless but also the (hopefully only) short-term homeless, the large numbers of Americans trying to save up some money for a rental deposit or a car, or who have lost their jobs or gone heavily into debt (often because of medical expenses) and been evicted from their homes.
On the one hand, the homeless created further, and considerable, logistical problems for Occupy. But, on the other, some of the homeless came to play key roles in the encampment. But this only intensified the reality that, since the the homeless were close at hand and the struggling, often suburban, middle-class geographically distant from the movement, the focus started to change from the original, broad-based economic agenda of “We are the 99%” to – even when we weren’t consumed with perfecting our direct democratic processes – more specific issues such as the homeless or opposition to some of the draconian anti-immigrant legislation being passed into law by the Arizona state legislature during that time.
All of which gives added impetus to a question recently asked by the Czech writer and politician Matěj Stropnický. In the concluding paragraph to a series of articles he wrote on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street (and which appeared in the Czech bi-weekly journal Tvar), he grants David Graeber’s argument that Occupy changed people’s thinking and showed us what real democracy might look like, but then asks: “[But] wasn’t Occupy‘s goal to change people’s material conditions rather than to just have public discussions about them?”
To which I would answer yes, it was. But I would also argue that there is something of a dilemma here, one that we can address by once again comparing the Occupy movement with the Stop vládě campaign. Occupy, with its unrestrained creativity generated considerable energy, much of which it then “wasted” in concrete political terms. Stop vládě, on the other hand, generated little spontaneous energy, but was well organized and wasted little of the energy that was put into it. Occupy broke the spell of the neo-liberal order and helped create the conditions that gave us the inspiring 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and a somewhat less neo-liberal Democratic party; but in its aftermath we got the presidency (and the legacy of that presidency) of the oligarch Donald Trump. Stop vládě, aided by political scandals that beset the Czech government, helped to bring an end to the austerity measures and consigned the right-wing political parties behind these measures to many years in the political wilderness; but in its aftermath the oligarch Andrej Babiš, centrist in his policies but determined to run the government like it was a corporation, became the prime minister.
What does it all mean? Perhaps: whatever the strategy taken towards economic justice, the obstacles (in this case, the one percent) remain formidable.
Photo of January 2012, Occupy Tucson demonstration by Judy Ray. Used with permission.