Occupy: Beyond the Occupation

Occupy protesters had blocked the Seattle port’s entrance for most of the day when police began throwing flash-bang grenades. It was approaching evening on a bitterly cold winter’s day in 2011 and many were still nauseated from pepper spray when the explosions went off. They scattered from their lines as the police went in heavy to clear the road, dismantling makeshift barricades and pulling apart human shields.

Occupy organiser, Alex (not her real name), recalls it clearly: “We called the port ‘Wall Street on the Waterfront’; this was coordinated between Oakland, LA, Portland and Seattle. The callout came from Oakland after an Iraq War veteran (24 year-old, Scott Olson) was hit in the head by a teargas canister while participating in an Occupy demonstration. A month later, people marched to the port with a sense of ‘We need to shut this thing down!’ That day was a huge landmark for Occupy.” It was December 12th, when the West Coast Port Shutdown halted commerce.

This was Seattle, but similar stories can be told of the way the Occupy protests were dismantled by the law and order forced in states as diverse as the USA, the self crowned king of free speech, to more authoritarian states such as Mongolia or China-controlled Hong Kong. The Port Shutdowns were just one occasion when thousands of people rallied to the name ‘Occupy’, a resistance movement that started in one state quickly spread into surrounding communities and began crossing borders.

The 2008 financial crisis revealed how entwined politics and politicians were with the banks and financial institutions, which for many showed the system was unsustainable. Occupy originally started in September 2011 with small-scale sit-ins outside New York’s Wall Street district. Within a month, the movement had gone global.

Almost every major city in the developed world had its own branch, with hundreds of thousands rallying to the cross-continental movement under the banner ‘We are the 99%’. It went from nothing to a political brand which made mass civil resistance against the established system not just appealing, but possible.

That was a year-and-a-half ago. Now the pickets have been cleared and the occupations moved. The squares may be empty, but the name ‘Occupy’ still carries various connotations, and the question ‘what did the movement actually achieve?’ still remains.

“It radicalised a lot of people – it gave a taste of something exciting and, a sense of what they could do”, says Nathan Schneider, an activist who reported on Occupy Wall Street from the beginning. “There was a feeling that expression and resistance were intertwined. There was a sense that we needed to build a culture.”

Alex remembers the energy of the early days of Occupy in Seattle: “People gathered downtown, around the mall. Even I felt it; that feeling of ‘oh damn, I can stay up and talk to people I don’t know.’ And that was very powerful – those moments where I won’t ignore you, and we want to learn about each other. Occupy really facilitated that sense of empowerment.”

Occupy was civil resistance made big. It was designed to be a spectacle – a theatre with a political message which made sure people noticed whether they wanted to or not. Edward McGlone worked as a campaign manager for the Democratic Party, and was involved in politics when Occupy was at its peak. “I think the biggest change Occupy contributed was the narrative shift, and kind of established it as a unanimously recognised fact: the rich are benefiting from the economic structure, and the poor are not” he said.

But the honeymoon did not last. It wasn’t long before reality set in, and cracks in the movement began to widen.

Freedom and equality was one of the most appealing aspects of Occupy; there was no set leadership and everyone had their say. But with this meant there were also no set ideals of what the movement stood for. The culture of ‘We’re all in it together’ purposefully did not define what the ‘it’ was. After the initial rush, this quickly became a problem.

“If you’re protesting civil rights or Vietnam, you’re protesting one thing” said Alyssa Anderson, a postgraduate student in New York who studied Occupy from its genesis. “But when you’re talking about corporate greed, or immigration reform, it’s much harder to wage an effective campaign against these slippery subjects.”

This lack of focus caused continual problems. The focus on being leaderless and un-oppressive often meant cohesive decisions could not be made on even the most basic of principles. For example, there was no-one to maintain that violence would-or-wouldn’t be allowed. Non-violent parts of the camp felt uneasy imposing their beliefs on those who wanted to radicalise or provoke reactions from police to gain headlines; it was free to all, even if this was a fundamental ethical disagreement.

There were also those who wanted to rename the movement ‘Decolonise Occupy’, as Occupy was too indicative of imperialist oppression. These, and many more cases, resulted in indefinite bickering and passive infighting, with the actual purpose being lost in the fray.

As time wore on, people began to feel let-down; “I was excited by it, particularly when it started,” said Edward. “But I’m disappointed that it hasn’t led to significant change as far as citizen activism in elections”. He has a point; voter numbers in the 2012 Presidential Elections were noticeably lower than four years earlier. Occupy, did get more people politicised, but by shunning mainstream politics also lost track of real-world political action. “You can change the narrative, but if you don’t do anything to hold people accountable to that shifting public opinion, it doesn’t do much. The narrative can be co-opted. You need to get out there and actively campaign against people who are not fulfilling your views of things that are not right.”

One main criticism of Occupy is that there will always be those who can’t afford to protest. As Alyssa notes, good intentions do not always create good results: “There was a big focus on education as a way of liberating yourself and of imagining different realities, and I think that shows the type of people who were taking up this movement originally. But it was stigmatising to many people in the low-income group – the cause was picked up by faces that weren’t representative of their problem. There seemed to be a disconnect, and that made some people uncomfortable.”

The media eventually painted the movement as ‘middle-class white kids protesting their student loans’, or a ‘Gap Yah of misery tourism’. Although these summations are a generalising, they weren’t completely inaccurate. “The 99% slogan was very popularist, but too vague” says Alex. “It brought people out, but also that was a certain demographic. I don’t think enough white folks understood that; [they were] like ‘Yeah, we’re all 99%’, but you’d also had black folks saying ‘Hey, you didn’t give a shit about me, and now I’m part of your 99%? We’ve always been experiencing this stuff that you only recently experienced from 2008!’”

“It was a major issue” says Nathan. “This was the type of movement that they could participate in that others couldn’t. In some ways to it’s a credit that the movement imploded and self-destructed with that recognition, and whole decision making structures collapsed as a result of whether it was inclusive enough. It became the movement’s Achilles Heel.”

Another weakness was the sheer reliance on physical presence. Although diverse, Occupys generally took the same form: they relied on being a spectacle, loud, visible and in-your-face. When the inevitable evictions happened the movement lost its foothold. Though this wasn’t always seen as a loss; while many would cite government oppression, locals also began to tire of the protesters after the initial novelty wore off, particularly in New York where space is so contested.

But even if it hadn’t been for removal, did Occupy have the stamina and continuity to maintain its attention? As Ezra Klein noted, the short-lived romance was cut short before reality hit; “As the initial excitement wore off and the cold crept in, only the diehards – and those with no place else to go – were likely to remain. The numbers in Zuccotti Park would thin, and so too would the media coverage.” Ironically, the legacy of Occupy might be tied to government intervention. The political evictions, particularly the ones with aggressive policing, allowed the Occupiers to leave on a high.

There is still a niche for continuing the momentum of action. There may no longer be a movement called Occupy, but its impacts are still felt by activists. It’s now up to them to figure out how to work post-Occupy.

Edward believes an attitude-shift necessary; “I think rebranding away from Occupy is going to be very important. From inside political circles the perception was that Occupy had effectively turned into a homeless camp; you’re not engaging, you’re just sitting out there. We’re actually making the fights and the compromises to make changes, so while it might seem condescending, I think that condescension comes from frustration.”

In some circles this is already happening. Activists are trying to learn lessons from Occupy, both the good and the bad. The movement faced many issues, but also led to new networks and connections. Occupy allowed for people with the similar interests to join together, and contacts made during that time have the potential to combine that form of civil resistance with realistic political activism and goals.

As Nathan sums up: “It connected people who were interested in doing radical work, many of whom are continuing in other guises. It’s not so identifiable, but this is continuing in a thousand different places.”


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