What happened to the Occupy movement?


Occupy Wall Street was at the pinnacle of its power in October 2011, when thousands of people converged at Zuccotti Park and successfully foiled the plans of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg to sweep away the occupation on grounds of public health. From that vantage point, the Occupy movement appears to have tumbled off a cliff, having failed to organise anything like a general strike on May Day – despite months of rumblings of mass walkouts, blockades and shutdowns.

The mainstream media are eager to administer last rites. CNN declared “May Day fizzled”, the New York Post sneered “Goodbye, Occupy” and the New York Times consigned the day’s events to fewer than 400 words, mainly about arrests in New York City.

Historians and organisers counter that the Occupy movement needs to be seen in relative terms. Eminent sociologist Frances Fox Piven, co-author of Poor People’s Movements, says:
“I don’t know of a movement that unfolds in less than a decade. People are impatient, and some of them are too quick to pass judgment. But it’s the beginning, I think, of a great movement. One of a series of movement that has episodically changed history, which is not the way we tell the story of American history.”

Brooke Lehman, a central figure in the anti-corporate globalization movement a decade ago, says:
“Compared to a year ago, the level of activity is amazing today. There is a whole new generation of high school and college students being radicalised.”

Others note that protests did take place in more than 110 cities on May Day in recognition of worker resistance and solidarity, no mean feat given the hostility to labour among the ruling elite i the US. At the same time, only shameless partisans would deny that the Occupy movement is struggling to reclaim the heights it had last year, and many activists admit this in private. Some argue that police and media hostility act as a one-two punch that can knock out movements such as Occupy, and this is all too true, as explained below. But other movements surmount these obstacles. North of the US-Canada border, hundreds of thousands of university students in Quebec have maintained a militant strike for three months against tuition increases in defiance of whip-cracking politicians, pundits and police.

Lack of ‘space’

The real stumbling block for the Occupy movement is also the reason for its success: space, or now, the lack thereof. Understanding the significance of political space and Occupy’s inability to recapture it reveals why the movement is having difficulty re-gaining traction.

Americans have become so enmeshed in the transience of work, life, housing, play, finance and the proliferation of virtual spaces that it is easy to forget taking collective action in a shared physical space is how social change happens from below. Take the labour movement. The history of industrial workers’ struggle starts with the insight that capitalists are their own undoing, by amassing workers in a common space – the factory – where they become aware of their common interests, as well as their potential power to stop the machinery of capital. The same is true of student movements. The shared educational space can unite students around common grievances and goals. And for the civil rights movement, black churches played a pivotal role.

Now, Occupy Wall Street differs in that it appropriated a private-public park and reconfigured it as a political space. It was a manifestation of the central concept of the Occupy movement: there can be no political democracy without economic democracy. Its potency sprang from the same source as the Arab Spring, Spain’s Indignados and the Wisconsin labour uprising – peacefully liberating public space and governing it through participatory democracy.

Before this social contagion first surfaced in Tunisia in late 2010, the previous moment of a mass global outburst was Feb, 15, 2003, the day of protests against the impending US invasion of Iraq. That was the problem: it was only a day with no bottom-up democratic essence. Not only could Bush shrug it off as a “focus group”, the protests could be twisted as legitimacy for aggressor states – because they allowed space for democratic dissent in contrast to the terror of Saddam Hussein.

Colonised by consumption

Anti-war protest has little impact anymore, because it has devolved into gathering on a weekend in the political capital, marching around empty streets with pre-printed signs, mouthing toothless chants and listening to cliched speeches. It is too predictable and too easy to ignore, by rulers who are insulated from the ruled by dollars and truncheons. On the other hand, occupying space in the heart of a city without end is a challenge to state power.

One activist said of the encampment on Wall Street: “At any moment, you could call for an impromptu march on Goldman Sachs and a hundred people would join you.” The night of October 5, 2011, was a spectacular example of this. After a union-led rally in downtown Manhattan, thousands of people surged through the financial district in breakaway marches for hours. With so many people in the streets feeling the wind of public support at their backs, Wall Street felt fragile and the New York Police Department was under siege.

Keeping a space continually, and using democratic forms of self-governance recreates the commons, which has been colonised over decades by full-spectrum consumption – shopping, eating, drinking, entertainment and paid spectacle. Occupy Wall Street attracted throngs of journalists and the curious because it was a completely different spectacle. It was a miniature society that rejected the private, individualism and capitalism. The scene of hundreds of people exchanging food, art, music, knowledge, politics, healthcare, shelter, anger, ideas, skills and love was unlike anything else in our consumer societies – because not one exchange was lubricated by money (of course the goods were paid for at some point). Within the occupation, thousands shared the experience of having a direct democratic stake in a society they were helping to build from scratch.

These democratic societies, more than 300 of which popped up around the United States by October 2011, propelled Occupy by enticing a huge number of political neophytes to join an organic movement. The real power of a social movement, from the 1960s to the Tea Party, is not to recombine existing activists in a new formation but to bring in the previously non-political. At occupations, experienced organisers marvelled at the ability to have meaningful conversations with people of radically different backgrounds and politics. Having visited nearly 40 occupations across the US, I encountered many self-identified conservatives and Republicans and even a few Tea Party members who said they were part of the 99 per cent.

It was the Occupy movement that created the people – “the 99 per cent” – not the other way around. The range of politics and issues ran the gamut, but having the space for collective discussion gave occupiers the time to coalesce around the idea that society’s problems stem from the concentration of wealth and power among “the one per cent”. Thus, those who lack healthcare, had homes foreclosed upon, are unemployed, stuck in low-wage jobs, are homeless, subject to repressive immigration laws, burdened with student debt, opposed to destructive energy extraction or angered by corporate personhood and a political system corrupted by money could find common cause and unite against a common enemy.

Media blackout

But it wasn’t just anger. Different visions of society blossomed in the space. As Michael Premo of Occupy Wall Street, puts it: “You don’t know how to dream unless you see it sometimes. The occupation unlocked the creative, radical imagination.” Seeing different ways of organising work and community has kick-started innumerable projects around the country, such as urban farming, community centres, workers cooperatives, free schools and housing reclamation.

That’s all changed. While a few scattered occupations remain in the political hinterlands – cities such as Little Rock and Tallahassee – every other one has been booted out of the collective space over the past six months. In many cities, most prominently New York, the general assemblies have disintegrated, because the democratic practice becomes a floating abstraction without the space to anchor it. The space glued the various tendencies together because the decisions were conducted within and concerned the alternate society growing up around them. In cities where the assemblies continue they often draw perhaps one-tenth of the numbers who attended at the peak. Ruth Fowler, a writer who works with Occupy Los Angeles, says: “Occupy is very odd right now. The people who have stayed are the cream of the crap, and the brilliant. The rank-and-file in between are at home.”

Despite new activists drifting away, Occupy has hardly disappeared. Nationwide, it is defending homeowners from evictions and disrupting auctions of foreclosed homes. There is a national campaign to force the government to break Bank of America into regional banks. Students are fighting against tuition increases and school cuts and for a moratorium on student debt. Occupiers are working with unions to battle corporations cutting wages and benefits. And many Occupy groups have joined movements for single-payer healthcare and against environmentally destructive oil and gas drilling.

David Solnit, who works with Occupy San Francisco, indicates one reason why the Occupy movement appears to have faded away, “Any movement has its mass mobilisation and its in-between times… We need a better measuring tape than numbers and public space and whether it’s amplified through media owned by the one per cent.”

Simply put, corporate media are inclined to dismiss a movement that wants to chop up corporations – if not eliminate them entirely. A study by two sociologists backs this up. Surveying more than 2,200 US newspapers, Jackie Smith and Patrick Rafail found coverage of the Occupy movement has dwindled to a trickle since November, despite hundreds of active Occupy groups, thousands of organising projects and extensive May Day activity. Even more telling, newspaper coverage of inequality has shrunk by nearly 70 per cent since autumn.

State repression

One can debate whether or not Occupy is still effective, but there is no way to deny income and wealth inequalities have reached historical extremes or that two-thirds of all in the US – and 55 per cent of Republicans – say “there are ‘very strong’ or ‘strong’ conflicts between the rich and the poor,” according to the Pew Research Center.

The media indifference extends to downplaying state repression. Ironically, force is a measure of success because it’s recognition that the movement is a threat:

In Oakland, police rolled out a tank on May Day
Chicago has increased penalties for protests and made it more difficult to secure permits in advance of the anti-NATO protests
University of California officials are pushing for charges against 11 students and one poetry professor that carry 11 years of prison time and million-dollar fines for nonviolent sit-down protests against Bank of America
Most ominously, the FBI, which was forged in the crucible of the post-World War I Red Scare, is up to its old tricks. Relying on the same techniques it uses to ensnare Muslims in “terrorism” plots, the FBI arrested five anarchists in Cleveland for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge
Most recently, one activist in Salt Lake City claimed three FBI agents showed up at his home, unannounced, asking for names of people planning on attending the anti-NATO protests in Chicago

The repression is aimed at preventing Occupy from reclaiming a space, which novelist Arundhati Roy predicted months ago: “Holding territory may not be something the [Occupy] movement will be allowed to do in a state as powerful and violent as the United States.” Since March, Occupy Wall Street has tried to retake public spaces in Lower Manhattan four times, and four times the police have cracked down. The most recent attempt, the night of May Day, was met by a massive police presence in Wall Street, with cops threatening anyone who looked like a protester with arrest.

Let it marinate

“Cinematic” is the only way to convey the image of public sidewalks and streets blanketed with thousands of riot police, surveillance units, snatch squads, detectives, beat cops, community police, white-shirted commanders, phalanxes of scooter police, four police helicopters overhead and cars, SUVs, buses, trucks and command vehicles flashing emergency lights. All to clear out a few thousand people, mainly youths, who gathered for a democratic assembly and the faint hope they could recreate the magic of Occupy Wall Street.

Even though I spent hours in the area with other journalists, and was threatened with arrest five times, I did not see one mainstream media account describing the opulent display of police force. Nonetheless, despite the unveiled fist of the state that is written out of the media narrative, movements sometimes do find a way to triumph. As shown by Egypt’s democratic uprising, numbers and organisation can force the state not only to back down, it can cause the ruling edifice to fatally crack. This is what happened on October 14, when Occupy Wall Street gathered enough people, allies and media pressure to force Bloomberg and the police to abandon their threat to oust the occupation.

The big question for Occupy is how it can build a dual system of power, as Egyptian activists did over years with revitalised labour organising, a national anti-police brutality movement and politicised youth and women in micro-enterprises that populate urban areas. This requires organisation, but it also gets back to the question of space. Alienation, fragmentation and suspicion is so pervasive in US society that people need secure areas where they can take the time to share stories, to listen and debate, create bonds, forge trust and take action.

The places where Americans can and do gather in large numbers, such as parks, squares, factories, shopping centres, the workplace, stadiums, schools and places of worship are almost all privatised and subject to strict legal and physical regulation. Nonetheless, Occupy’s future success is based on finding forms of space where it can reproduce itself.

Until then, Frances Fox Piven is right that movements take a decade or more to have an effect. It took 22 years from A Phillip Randolph’s aborted 1941 March on Washington to Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 march that signaled the end of Jim Crow. It was a decade from the first national anti-war march in 1965 to the end of the Vietnam War. It’s taken more than 20 years for the LGBT movement to succeed in getting a sitting president to endorse marriage equality.

And just as it took years of labour organising prior to the 1937 sit-down strikes (another form of occupation) that secured collective bargaining rights for unions, the Occupy movement has barely begun.

16 thoughts on “What happened to the Occupy movement?”

  1. This is quite a brilliant discussion, pointing out both the importance of claiming the commons and the difficulties in holding on to it when faced with police determination to crush any such attempt. Occupy represents, I believe, the first attempt of the disparate social elements of the new, digitalized economy to come together, and the fact that we did so in parks shows the limitations of a purely digital approach (even though it is an important element). But how do we do this if the police deny us the public commons, and the other commons (e.g., the shopping mall) are privatized and therefore off limits to a protest movement (ever try leafleting at a mall, much less setting up an encampment?). This is a huge question before us.

    • Greg, when some of us suggested going forward with negotiations on establishing a public place for just such a purpose (which, of course, would not include camping), we were rejected quite resoundingly by the general assembly. The illusion at the time was that we were going to be able to hold on to parks indefinitely, or just as silly: that all of the United States was a “free assembly zone”. Yeah, maybe philosophically, but that isn’t the political reality. It was the sort of consistent and constant lack of strategic depth that played a part in my own feelings of alienation within Occupy. I’m not interested in demonstration for the sake of demonstration… I needed to feel meaningful progress, or at least a framework that might lead to meaningful progress. I imagine I wasn’t alone on this point.

      • The operative phrase at the time was “free speech zone”. I was [am] one of those who was [and who still are] willing to assert as loudly and as often as necessary, that the entire United States of America IS rightfully a free speech zone, as distinct from, say, Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany. Oh, it’s not anymore ? Well then how did it get that way ? And aren’t we expected to do anything about it ? “Free Speech Zones” are remembered from the 2004 election season, when the warmonger and mass-murderer factions found it fashionable and convenient to commission the building of certain ‘temporary’ fenced-in compounds here in the United States. These were high chain-link fences with razor wire atop them. They had gates which locked the people inside them, for the duration of the convention or meeting or whichever other gathering of bloated frightened corporate types – and no mistake, these were indeed actually billed as “free speech zones”. How many people, I wonder, could have seen those built, and known what they were called, without hearing the doublespeak ? I heard it loudly and clearly. The building designating of so-called ‘free speech zones’ indicates that everything outside those zones is NOT a place for free speech. It is a wonderfully convenient precedent to set, for the convenience of the mass-murderers, no ? When you hear that stuff, do please respond to it. Loudly. Sensible people do indeed hear, and yes we respond resoundingly.

        • Frank, if you look back at the GA notes from December 8, 2011, you’ll see that both me and Shannon, when presenting the idea, both use the term “free assembly zone”. Members of the general assembly, particularly those who reflexively opposed the idea, kept using the phrase “free speech zone” which tended to associate the idea negatively with that particular Orwellian innovation of the Bush administration.

          Free assembly is far more restricted in the United States than free speech, and this restriction is not a new phenomenon.

          • Look then at the notes for November 25th. I believe Sherry took the notes for that evening’s session. She wrote down the agenda item as “Free Speech Zone”, and that was the phrase which was used for most of the remainder of that session. I was one of those who spoke to expose the folly and lack of patriotism which is inherent in the term “Free Speech Zone”. And yes, the term “Free Assembly Zone” was used once, later in that session, and it was also used on December 8th and perhaps at other times. I tend to believe that it merits the same treatment as was doled out to the term “Free Speech Zone”. It is intended to accomplish substantially the same end : suppression. And, so free assembly is far more restricted in the United States than free speech ? Why is that ? Do you agree with its being more restricted, and if yes, then why ?

          • Frank, indeed, on some other day that I was not there, someone else introduced something about a “free speech zone”. And on the day that we introduced a proposal about a “free assembly zone”, just like you’re doing in these comments, people kept associating it with a Bush-style “free speech zone”. My point stands: several members of the Occupy Tucson general assembly, including yourself many months later, failed to understand the critical difference between a temporary area, obscured from the public eye, for protesters to be shuffled into arbitrarily at the whim of power-holders (called a “free speech zone” by the Bush administration), and a 24 hour public space actually zoned for political organizing (called whatever we like… “free assembly zone” was merely my own suggestion).

            Why is free assembly, historically, more restricted than free speech?

            That’s easy: because unlimited political association scares power-holders far more than unlimited political conversation. And although free association is necessarily a crowning achievement in a democracy, it is also one of the quickest ways to unravel a democracy. Often rioters know what they are against, but are not necessarily realistic about how to administer what they are for. The chaos of large, angry groups often has the effect of sending many people into the arms of the state. That’s how fascism rises: when people get scared of “the unwashed masses” they find comfort in an authority that promises to break those large groups and restore order.

  2. A space for peaceable assembly has been denied us by the government thus far. The courts are sorting through many cases and that space may be re-established. As yet in Tucson, demonstrated by the nine arrested last week in front of the superior court building, the police are still enforcing a ban on overnight occupation of “any” public space.
    These demonstrations are important, both to show the government’s denial of the liberty of the people, as well as to provide the courts with the opportunity to apply justice. What are the limits of our freedom to assemble? Can we assemble 24 hours on private property with a lease without police interference? Will the courts rulings on the cases before them open opportunities to retake the parks? The sidewalks? Is the space necessary for change to occur?
    The article points to the need for space and I, among many, recognize the need. I believe the space must be in the urban center and be a 24 hour encampment providing shelter and food. It must be open to the least among us for whom survival is a full-time job without an encampment that meets some of the basic human needs.
    There are those that find that an uncomfortable environment to organize in. They must beef up their tolerance, but we must ensure that the space is one in which their personal safety can be guaranteed.
    I have weighed in and welcome feedback. I appreciate Arun Gupta for his insightful coverage of the Occupy movement and for his generous support of Occupied Tucson Citizen. I also appreciate the other voices expressed here. Thank you Greg, Robert and Frank!

    • Ken, I appreciate your voice as well, and respectfully disagree. Our freedom to peaceably assemble must not be predicated on finding food and shelter for the least among us. We can’t solve any fundamental political contradictions by making our first allegiance to social work. Homelessness is an important issue to have solidarity over, but so are the myriad of other left/progressive social justice issues which Occupy Tucson has worked on.

      Homeless people must be free to enter that public space at all times, but giving priority to their use of that space for camping and being served free meals means sacrificing its potential as a space for free assemblies. Requiring that a free assembly zone’s physical space be dominated by the encampments and food stations of the homeless is to require that such a space not feel welcoming to the great majority of Americans who are not homeless (and who, not incidentally, often despise the homeless). It is a bad political strategy, with very little potential of making inroads into mainstream America (which is the whole point of a movement that intends to engage “the 99%”).

      • Let’s pretend we are spiritual beings whose spirit manifests itself collectively as the underpinning of the world we live in. What if we call forth a happening of multitudes, come one come all and then ditch over half of those who step up? How does that play out? Seem like a good political strategy?
        The idea of the 99% as an educational tool is useful. Perhaps useful to help maintain our focus on the many issues which bring most together. But I want to organize with those around me who stepped up when called to change the world. We have ditched more than half of the human beings who stepped up when called.
        Most of them can only lean back in if we establish a full out encampment in the urban center that provides food and shelter.

  3. Re. Robert’s reply to a note of mine, earlier today :

    I remember who introduced the “Free Speech Zone” idea. I think it likely, that they did not agree with it either, but felt that since that was the measure which had been offered them by the Town Council, their role was to bring it before the General Assembly, to find whether it would gain consensus or not.

    As to that critical difference which you mention ? Well yes, I guess I’m failing to understand that it’s at all critical. It just sounds like more doublespeak, and I’m sort of amazed that you’d be saying that one was different enough from the other so as to maybe have merited consensus for the second one.

    Your last paragraph presents an apology for restrictions on free assembly, – an apology based on fear of rioters and unwashed masses. Again, I am rather amazed. I thought we had been listening all these past decades, when the reasons for the riots were told to us by the people. I thought we had been listening all these past years, when the people told us why it was that they were suddenly living in tent cities, and suddenly weren’t able to take a shower every day. These are absolutely NOT the times to be restricting free assembly.

    • Frank, this is my last reply. It’s not an apology. I gave you an explanation: powerholders fear free assembly more than free speech because they fear the people getting together and challenging their power. That’s true by itself. Fear of and discomfort with disorder, whether as extreme as a riot, or much more minor, such as disruptions of everyday expectations (like streets or entrances being blocked), often cause even the general public to side with powerholders. Much of the “99%” are aligned against unlimited free assembly. But that’s not my point at all. You asked WHY, and I tried to give you a historical answer.

      “Free assembly zone” is just a name I was throwing around. I realize it’s bad branding because of how close it sounds to “free speech zone” – it was an idea that I was trying to communicate that just got completely railroaded by misconceptions.

      Call it what you will: what if we had a 24 hour public area to organize and demonstrate? You think that’s indistinguishable from a temporary area, available specifically when powerholders want to keep us away from view? Really?

      Maybe you’re right that a public space, available 24 hours, and critically if in a visible area, for free political assembly and demonstrations would only have set us back from where we are right now.

  4. Robert, I do agree with you that maintaining a continuous camp can be very problematic and distracting, but I also think that it is very problematic not to have any form of permanent presence. Referencing the article, I think what Arun wrote about the fact that workers had their factories (and, historically, they usually lived in areas adjoining the factory where they worked) and students their campuses, and we could add to this peasants (in agrarian revolutions) their villages, but we have nothing without an encampment. Just virtual space and shopping malls, especially here in America. And so we face a serious problem, we need a common space to meet, organize, and so on, and yet that is apparently going to be denied us. Perhaps we can find ways to use the parks that are more transitory (e.g., so they function more as a square and marketplace does in many countries) than an encampment, and yet have some of the same positive effect. I don’t know. But we’ll need something, not just to be a presence to the public, but to be a presence among ourselves.

  5. Kabuki Theater a la bankster-bought wingnuts in arizona and Elsewhere: These criminals-in-suits Are The Cancer. Who the hell else dreamed-up All This oppressive crap, Anyway? These monied interests Must thwart Democratic Transparency wherever It Dares To Exist. Commodification of Life for profit, Scapegoating Immigrants – Deadly Games to Rig Our Constitutional System – To Obfuscate, To Confuse. Their Disdain for the Commons And Its Citizenry (Remember The U.S.S.R., stalin and hitler? Everything they terrorized was made legal!)

    This Kabuki Theater of Fear can Only Work With A low-information, poorly educated – And Over-Worked former-Citizen-Turned-consumers. The Occupy Movements Are SO EF’N IMPORTANT! When These consumers decide to be Human Beings and CUSTOMERS, Again, They Will Have “Occupy” in Their Town, School, Church, Neighborhood, and the god-awful right-to-work states.

  6. This caught my eye : notes on confluences of energy – –

    “Instead of realizing that snuffing popular discontent by strong arm tactics would heat up the Algerian basement and strengthen anything that grows in mosques, the army chose to throttle democracy by cancelling the election of 1991. At a terrible cost too – taking a toll of 200,000 Algerian lives. Embedded in this brief history is the answer to a question: why did the Arab Spring of 2011 not touch Algeria? Algerians refused to be infected by the Arab Spring. They had fresh memories of a brutal civil war.”

    ~ more at ~



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