The Occupy movement: 'We are here. We have already won.'
I’m writing this from the grounds of Occupy Philadelphia, which has been in residence at Philly City Hall since last Thursday. It is in the spirit and model of the Occupy Wall Street event, and part of the unofficial network being called “Occupy Together.” More than 1,500 cities have some kind of groups organized, virtually all without organizational backing (more details about that below).
Are you involved in an “Occupy Together” event where you live? Do you have thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and similar events? Be sure to leave us a comment below, or contact us directly — we want to promote our members’ involvement!
And if you’re not involved and want to check it out, it’s likely there’s something happening near you — take a look at the directory!
Below, I’m going to outline a quick history and talk about the goals and achievements of these events as I’ve interpreted them, and highlight interfaith participation. In my next post, I’ll look at the process they use for organizing, and touch on their intersection with racial justice movements. I’ll also be interspersing the text with images from Occupy Philly.
Building and drawing on earlier movements
In a June 8 email to subscribers, Adbusters magazine wrote in its “final thought”:
“America needs its own Tahrir acampada now more than ever. Can we get 20,000 people to flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, a democratic assembly and occupy Wall Street for a few months?”
The “people’s wall” at Occupy Philly.Thus began discussions and planning for what would become “Occupy Wall Street.” Soon after, the loose network of activist hackers known as Anonymous endorsed the event.
Quickly, however, the events in Wall Street and nationwide events built far beyond these initial calls. As a result of the decentralized design of the initial calls to action, activists and organizers in many cities felt empowered to begin talking about organizing their own “Occupy” events, and in most cities, planning began without any organizational involvement at all.
Here in Philadelphia, more than 400 people came out to the first event, solely as the result of emails to a few mailing lists. After a few supportive organizations told their members, the second organizing meeting attracted more than 1,000 people. The meetings alone attracted notice, leading to a front-page article in one of the daily newspapers — all before the “real” event had even begun!
The “Occupy” events drew explicitly on earlier movements and actions. The Diggers (or “Levellers”) of 17th-century England were perhaps the earliest example (as well as the 1960s-era Diggers and San Francisco Mime Troupe inspired by them). “Temporary Autonomous Zones” have been attempted with varying levels of success, probably the most successful being the Reclaim the Streets movement in London.
An apt sign for the first day of Occupy PhillyMore recently, the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2003 prompted the Miami Workers Center and the Coalition of Immokolee Workers to support community occupation of empty land in the Overtown neighborhood. Veterans of that project were subsequently involved in creating Umoja Village, vacant land that was occupied in a manner inspired by Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement. These organizers in Miami then established Take Back the Land, an organization “dedicated to elevating housing to the level of a human right and securing community control over land.”
Occupy Wall Street and similar encampments are also drawing on and benefiting from faith-based groups working for social justice. Last Friday evening, many “Occupy” events held Kol Nidre services to mark Yom Kippur. In New York City, organizers framed the event in the context of the Jewish Day of Atonement:
“We’re hoping the people up top can do some sort of teshuva. It literally means ‘return,’ but the whole point is that one specifically in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will admit their wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness,” [Nom, an organizer] said. “We are putting ourselves out there, and so should Wall Street. They should have the opportunity to review their actions and change.”
An interfaith coalition of groups led by Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan have organized a spiritual contingent to the encampment. Rev. Michael Ellick from Judson offered this critique of Wall Street:
“You remind us that our Wall Street Bull has become a false-idol, a golden calf, and a symbol of our spiritual poverty. So we are here, from our Synagogues, and our Mosques, and our Churches, to stand with you, and to remind this country, that there can be no such thing as justice, until there is economic justice.”
He then gave the following “occupation prayer for the faith communities of New York City”:
“O-God-Who-Is-Beyond-the-Captivity-of-Any-Name, let us not just repeat the old teachings in our private Sabbath Country Clubs, but let us pour them out in action like Living Water for all people. Amen.”
Similiar faith-based support is occuring in Philadelphia, where Quakers are providing meeting and kitchen space, and Hare Krishnas have delivered hundreds of plates of food. And clergy at Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago have put together congregational discussion guides on the “Occupy” events for Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.
Opening space for democracy
Banners at Occupy Philly.In their training curriculum for third-party nonviolent intervention, Daniel Hunter and George Lakey talk about “opening space for democracy,” that is, providing the conditions so that social change organizing can meaningfully develop — without prescribing a direction that development should take.
From what I can tell, the “Occupy” encampments are filling a similar role, providing the space for capacity and movement-building.
FOR Executive Director Mark Johnson wrote about how “re-emergent strategic choices” at the Keystone XL Pipeline direct action in Washington, D.C., “will redefine active nonviolence for the next couple of years.” I think similar potential is possible as a result of Occupy Wall Street and related events.
Police gather near Occupy Philly.Moments in the past like this, such as the 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, have provided fertile ground for new movements to develop and grow. The organization of the Seattle WTO protest was largely responsible for the popularization of the spokescouncil and consensus decision-making process, first developed during the fight against nuclear power in the 1970s but now in use across many movements, as well as the particular cycle of contention used in global justice demonstrations. The events in 1999 birthed resources like Indymedia and Riseup, which for years constituted the backbone of much of the grassroots online activism in the United States.
Even more exciting is the possibility that this represents a true “psychic break,” as SmartMeme’s Doyle Canning defines it, “moments when the dominant narrative unravels and there is an opening for a new story to take hold on a massive scale.”
Mae Singerman reminds us that events like these are exactly what draws in and begins to train new organizers and activists:
“Major demonstrations, protest encampments, and other outside the box actions were the first things to draw me into the movement. They introduced me to a worldview I never even knew to imagine previously, to issues of privilege and race and to debates about tactics. Actions and occupations like Occupy Wall Street helped me have a vision that still helps guide me, though I’ve shifted as far as the tactics I choose to use and prioritize.”
Much has been said about the encampments supposed lack of focus or clear demands. But as Subhash Kateel writes, “If any single protest, movement or type of organization had the answer, we wouldn’t see the frustration, pain, anxiety, or anger we see everyday amongst the folks we love.” This is more about building the space for new organizations and movements to be born than it is for advocating around a single cause.
While noting the significant unaware racism happening at Occupy Wall Street (more about that in the next post), Manissa McCleave Maharawal describes the potential:
“I think this is what Occupy Wall Street is right now: less of a movement and more of a space. It is a space in which people who feel a similar frustration with the world as it is and as it has been are coming together and thinking about ways to recreate it. For some people this is the first time they have thought about how the world needs to be recreated. But some of us have been thinking about this for a while now. Does this mean that those of us who have been thinking about it for a while now should discredit this movement? No. It just means that there is a lot of learning going on down there and that there is a lot of teaching to be done.”
Stepping off for the march to Independence Hall.One metaphor offered for the “Occupy” encampments is borrowed from the Allied Media Projects: That of the earthworm, in Adrienne Maree Brown’s words, “processing and aerating soil, making fertile ground out of the nutrients of sunlight, water, and everything that dies, to nurture the next cycle of life.”
Responding to crackdowns on ‘Occupy’ encampments
Gathering at Independence Hall on Day 3.While the Philadelphia city government and mayor have been supportive of the events happening around City Hall, other cities are taking a markedly different tack.
Boston arrested scores of participants in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday morning. While officials in Atlanta have threatened to arrest participants “at any time,” as of today, Occupy Atlanta is continuing. Police in Des Moines arrested dozens over the weekend, “including a former Iowa state representative and a 14-year-old girl.” And while Occupy Wall Street itself has continued, even after two unarmed women were pepper sprayed by a police officer, arrests are continuing for things like chalking the sidewalk.
Despite these threats, the “Occupy” events continue to grow. At the first evening “General Assembly” at Occupy Philadelphia, when more than 700 people gathered for discussion and decision-making, one of the facilitators offered this quote from Allen Ginsberg:
Do not be disheartened. We are here. We have already won.
In my next post, I’ll go into a little more detail about how these encampments are organized and structured, and how dynamics of race and class are (and are not) being addressed.
What are you seeing in your community? What would you like to see? Take a look at what’s happening near you, and let us know!
Graphic from Occupy Philadelphia. Photos by Ivan Boothe.
Update: As of about 6:30 this morning, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) maintained control of Zuccotti Park aka Liberty Plaza Park. Mayor Bloomberg had planned to have the Occupiers at Liberty Park “temporarily” evacuate the park so that it could be cleaned by sanitation services. The OWS movement responded by rallying people to converge on the park this morning at 6am (when the cleaning was scheduled) and protest the evacuation.
I (Matthew Arlyck, FOR Intern) was there this morning as part of a contingent of Protest Chaplains NYC (firstname.lastname@example.org ); students from Union Theological Seminary have recently organized to form a Protest Chaplains chapter here in solidarity with the OWS movement. I will continue to post separately about the particular experience of being a chaplain at the OWS site, but I just wanted everyone to be aware of the good news. The protest this morning drew over 3,000 people, according to the Occupy Wall Street website ; I can definitely say that the park was packed and after the announcement was made the mood was very jubilant!