The Next Step

This piece first appeared in Occupy!, an OWS-Inspired Gazette, now available for free in print and as a PDF download.

It’s amazing how things can change, how fast. One month ago, on September 17th, I dragged myself to Wall Street with a sense of obligation: yet another demonstration I felt a duty to attend, though I had little hope it would amount to anything significant. Not much was happening when I arrived so I ate a sandwich I had packed and talked to friends. Two hours later a few hundred of us sat assembling in small groups in Zuccotti Park, talking earnestly and intently about politics and economics, and I could feel something was different despite our small numbers. But with the police closing in on all sides, I gathered my belongings and left, sneaking away as night fell. I was sure everyone would be cleared out by morning.

Occupy Wall Street proved me wrong. I came to the protest tied up by memories of post-September 11 New York, of marches hemmed into “free speech zones” and cops in full riot gear and Patriot Act crackdowns. But most of the people I gathered with at the park instead carried images of Spanish encampments, Greek uprisings, people sleeping at a Wisconsin city hall, and Tahrir Square. The wave of unrest in the Middle East had caused the chattering classes to go on and on about the revolutionary power of social media (how many times did you hear about the couple who named their child Facebook?), but the lesson seemingly learned by a younger generation was that what matters is getting bodies out in the streets. Only then do you have something worth Tweeting about.

In the early days of the occupation, I thought the Zuccotti Park encampment might crumble under the avalanche of criticism levied against it. Individuals who had spent years thinking and writing about progressive politics registered their skepticism about the new movement in public and in private, nitpicking from all sides. People questioned the occupiers’ tactics, complained about the diffuseness of their message, and belittled the lack of demands. Occupy Wall Street, I heard, needed more explicit goals, mainstream support, union backing, internal organization, radical analysis, insurrectionary rhetoric, confrontational spirit, and to inconvenience the targeted class, affecting their wallets or their good times.

Movements need to be challenged, no doubt. But lurking behind many of the criticisms of the occupation in lower Manhattan, I noticed a hint of discomfort, maybe fear. The sudden emergence of a protest movement appeared to make some leftists uncomfortable even as it excited them. Over the years, many of us had become accustomed to feeling like we had the answers, but that no one was listening. And in a way we had come to prefer our untested theories to messy practice. Movements, I realized, are scary for people who like to feel smart. It’s hard to feel clever when you’re trying to rally people to come participate in something; instead, you’re more likely to feel like a nervous party host or a cheerleader or a nag, silly instead of superior. This goes for attending political actions as well as organizing them. As a friend wrote a few weeks ago, “There is something about the anonymity of being a body in a mass protest that grates on the nerves of those who like their names placed next to things.”

While it’s true, as a good number of my interlocutors pointed out, that protests have to be more than just symbolic, lest they be nothing more than a positive experience for the participants—a kind of primal scream therapy for the already privileged—the same could be said of critique. Critique can be as pointless as hanging out in a square playing bongos, just as self-affirming and self-satisfied. Let those of us who tend towards words on the page remember that.

Despite the incredulity and against the odds, Occupy Wall Street held its ground. In less than a month, the protest went from media blackout to front-page news, and grew from a couple hundred souls in a little-known park to an estimated 1,000 solidarity actions around the world. On October 15th, people from Amsterdam to Seoul gathered in public squares, many of them carrying signs identifying with the 99 percent. Young people taped dollar bills to their mouths in Tokyo. Cars burned and windows shattered in Rome. Masses assembled in Madrid. In Greenboro, North Carolina my parents demonstrated wearing snorkels and swimming goggles, their signs declaring them “Homeowners Under Water.” In New York, we crammed into Times Square for a mass convergence. Walking there my friend warned me that she never chants. But when we reached Broadway and saw the streets overflowing with comrades from all walks of life, she lifted her poster above her head, exuberant, and began to shout along with everyone else.

What I saw in my friend—who on one block told me she would not chant and on the next was chanting passionately—was an accelerated version of what I’ve seen in countless others over the last few weeks: cynicism melting away, sprouts of hope shooting up through the thawing frost. As the Zuccotti Park protesters settled in, the critics began to reconsider. Skeptical friends ventured downtown to witness events with their own eyes. Occupy Wall Street was legitimized at record speed: endorsed by numerous unions, visited by assorted celebrities, covered by mainstream media, and spoken of sympathetically by senior White House officials, even the President himself. Few now deny that the movement, as I heard a news anchor say, “has legs.”

More swiftly than we ever believed possible, the occupation at Zuccotti Park has opened up a political conversation and shifted the terrain. A recent poll revealed that 67 percent of New Yorkers agree with the views of Occupy Wall Street protesters and that almost three-quarters of them favor a tax on millionaires. People who have not been to demonstrations in years—or perhaps ever—have taken to the streets across the country. Instead of being ashamed about unemployment and personal debt, people are indignant. Instead of blaming a few “bad apples,” fingers are pointing to the economic system at large. The ultimate sign of early success is that politicians who initially scoffed at the outliers at Zuccotti Park have had to proclaim their allegiance to the 99 percent. Look at Republican hopeful Mitt Romney who first sounded the alarm about “dangerous . . . class warfare” and now says he doesn’t “worry about the top 1 percent” and that, when he looks at Wall Street, he “understands how those people [the protesters] feel.”

When high-profile Democrats like Bill Clinton embrace the Wall Street demonstrations on David Letterman (then advise the movement to throw its weight behind Obama), and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor goes from calling occupiers “mobs” to “justifiably frustrated,” the left needs to adjust and push the envelope accordingly. When influential conservatives are fretting on their blogs that OWS is stealing their thunder (“These people are open to listen to anyone who is willing to take on Wall Street,” wrote blogger and CNN contributor Erick Erickson, “We shouldn’t let unwashed hippies be the only people they hear speaking to their concerns”) we need to recognize, if nothing else, that the Occupy movement has already tilted the playing field and move our goal posts accordingly— further left so we keep dragging the political conversation with us.

At the same time, there are obstacles on the horizon, some internal to the movement. Here in New York there have been concerns that protesters may very well lose Zuccotti Park, not just because Mayor Bloomberg and his allies want to “clean” it but because a small minority of participants have refused to compromise with otherwise supportive neighbors. The local community has asked that the drum circle, which was incessant during the early days of the protest, be limited to two hours a day, a restriction many demonstrators support since the percussion drowns out the general assembly and makes even small meetings difficult to hold on site. After intense mediation, the drummers finally proposed to limit themselves to four. The protest has been more dependent on the goodwill of the community board than most people realize and while there have been productive steps towards a resolution on this issue, new problems are lurking on the horizon. More deeply, the conflict over the noise issue reveals troubling fissures, hinting at a few of the problems that come from rejecting structure and governance outright. A small number of intransigent individuals derailing a larger group is not, to quote the popular slogan, what democracy looks like. The movement calling for the regulation of Wall Street must find a way to regulate itself.

The call of the 99 percent, though, is bigger than Zuccotti Park. Perhaps the movement is strong enough to survive the loss of its inaugural camp—whether because of eviction or the elements—without losing too much momentum. So let’s be optimistic and assume that enthusiasm for Occupy Wall Street continues to grow. Assumptions about organization—namely the obsession with process and the allergy to institution building—will have to be reconsidered if we want to harness this outburst of political enthusiasm and become an actual force to be reckoned with. The general assembly model, which already masks underlying divisions, should be a tool and not a fetish. Leadership, discipline, and coalition building are necessary if we want to create more than an inspirational counterculture. When the media inevitably tires of human interest stories about life at Zuccotti Park, occupiers—whose tactics have succeeded in making a sweeping statement about corporate greed—will need to stretch beyond the boundaries of their camps and move towards other kinds of concrete action, forging alliances with local struggles and community groups to fight foreclosures and defend fair wages, workers rights, public services, et cetera, all the while remembering that occupation was a means, not an end. The goal was never to hold a park but to change the world.

In addition to working through internal conflicts there will be external threats as well. Should the movement continue to amass support over the coming weeks and months, opponents will step up efforts to distract from and damage it, diluting the focus. There will be misinformation, smear campaigns, and malicious attacks well beyond what we have seen (the other morning James O’Keefe, the conservative prankster, was waiting in ambush outside the office of an activist friend of mind). We should be ready for this, all the while keeping in mind how eager we have been to believe the most out-there Tea Party cranks represent the truth of the rightwing. In response we must work harder to steer the message, aiming to keep the important issues front and center: growing income inequality, the corruption of democracy by corporate money, unpunished cronyism, the obscenity of living in a plutocracy, and the free market system out of control.

Through all of this, even as we take care to be strategic and smart, we need to think beyond what is immediately pragmatic and possible. Of course there is no shortage of policy ideas that are in keeping with the spirit of the movement, from instituting a Tobin Tax to reinstating Glass-Steagall to repealing Citizens United to campaign finance reform. It’s the job of policy wonks to hammer out the specifics of these solutions; it’s the job of social movements to change the political atmosphere so they have a fighting chance of being passed. We shouldn’t be tricked into thinking the lack of specific demands is the Occupy movement’s primary weak point. This spring twenty thousand of us marched on Wall Street as part of the “May 12 Coalition” of unions and community groups, which presented the city government with an in-depth proposal of progressive economic reforms. Occupy Wall Street has had a much bigger impact because it is, at least for now, unpredictable and seemingly insatiable.

This, understandably, makes some liberals nervous. The once venerable magazine the New Republic issued an editorial, for example, casting aspersions on the protesters. Liberals should not embrace Occupy Wall Street, they opined, because of its “extremist rhetoric.” Meanwhile the Democratic Party would like nothing more than to redirect all this outrage and energy for the cause of electoral politics. But as the hundreds of events around the world on October 15th illustrated, this movement is not about the reelection of the same old Wall Street servants but about global economic justice and true democracy. The point, then, is not to get the 99 percent to rally to the cause of the politicians, but to get the politicians, afraid of missing the boat and losing votes, to rally to the cause of the 99 percent. Liberals at the New Republic and Democratic Party officials should not embrace Occupy Wall Street if that means clutching it close and cautiously smothering its radical and unruly tendencies. Instead, supporters of the Occupy movement should keep pulling liberals and Democrats in their direction—and with them, everybody else.

The question everybody asks, of course, is what’s going to happen next? Will the movement continue to grow? Or will it peak and fizzle out? That’s a decision all of us get to make together. The potential of Occupy Wall Street is clear, but it is everyone’s responsibility to turn promise into real power. It is not up to “them”—some imaginary cadre of diehard or professional activists—to build a successful movement for “us.” The people who showed up in Zuccotti Park that first day and stayed were just regular folks, people who had no idea what the outcome of their actions would be. They took a chance and by doing so opened up a new, constructive channel for our collective discontent. It is up to all of us to take the next step and invite others to do the same.

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