Two Years After ‘Occupy’ — Joy Arises, Rules Fall Apart

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This post originally appeared in Tom Dispatch. You can read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction to the post there.

Occupy Wall Street
An Occupy Wall Street demonstrator is arrested in Zuccotti Park after a march to celebrate the protest's sixth month, Saturday, March 17, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

I would have liked to know what the drummer hoped and what she expected. We’ll never know why she decided to take a drum to the central markets of Paris on October 5, 1789, and why, that day, the tinder was so ready to catch fire and a drumbeat was one of the sparks.

To the beat of that drum, the working women of the marketplace marched all the way to the Palace of Versailles, a dozen miles away, occupied the seat of French royal power, forced the king back to Paris, and got the French Revolution rolling. Far more than with the storming of the Bastille almost three months earlier, it was then that the revolution was really launched — though both were mysterious moments when citizens felt impelled to act and acted together, becoming in the process that mystical body, civil society, the colossus who writes history with her feet and crumples governments with her bare hands.

She strode out of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City during which parts of the central city collapsed, and so did the credibility and power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI that had ruled Mexico for 70 years. She woke up almost three years ago in North Africa, in what was called the Arab Spring, and became a succession of revolutions and revolts still unfolding across the region.

Such transformative moments have happened in many times and many places — sometimes as celebratory revolution, sometimes as terrible calamity, sometimes as both, and they are sometimes reenacted as festivals and carnivals. In these moments, the old order is shattered, governments and elites tremble, and in that rupture civil society is born — or reborn.

In the new space that appears, however briefly, the old rules no longer apply. New rules may be written or a counterrevolution may be launched to take back the city or the society, but the moment that counts, the moment never to forget, is the one where civil society is its own rule, taking care of the needy, discussing what is necessary and desirable, improvising the terms of an ideal society for a day, a month, the 10-week duration of the Paris Commune of 1871, or the several weeks’ encampment and several-month aftermath of Occupy Oakland, proudly proclaimed on banners as the Oakland Commune.

Weighing the Meaning

Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear is a sign of their recognition that real power doesn’t only lie with them.  (Sometimes your enemies know what your friends can’t believe.) That’s why the New York Police Department maintained a massive presence at Occupy Wall Street’s encampment and spent millions of dollars on punishing the participants (and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more, in police brutality payouts for all the clubbing and pepper-gassing of unarmed idealists, as well as $47,000 for the destruction of the OWS library, because in situations like these a library is a threat, too).

In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a “we” that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency.
Those who dismiss these moments because of their flaws need to look harder at what joy and hope shine out of them and what real changes have, historically, emerged because of them, even if not always directly or in the most obvious or recognizable ways. Change is rarely as simple as dominos.  Sometimes, it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly turn out to be flowers that emerge from plants with deep roots in the past or sometimes from long-dormant seeds.

It’s important to ask not only what those moments produced in the long run but what they were in their heyday. If people find themselves living in a world in which some hopes are realized, some joys are incandescent, and some boundaries between individuals and groups are lowered, even for an hour or a day or — in the case of Occupy Wall Street — several months, that matters.

The old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come. It is, in fact, more than possible. It is something that participants have tasted many times and that we carry with us in many ways, however flawed and fleeting. We regularly taste failure, too. Most of the time, the two come mixed and mingled. And every now and then, the possibilities explode.

In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a “we” that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency. New possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society reemerges and — at least for a little while — shines.

Utopia is sometimes the goal. It’s often embedded in the insurrectionary moment itself, and it’s a hard moment to explain, since it usually involves hardscrabble ways of living, squabbles, and eventually disillusionment and factionalism, but also more ethereal things: the discovery of personal and collective power, the realization of dreams, the birth of bigger dreams, a sense of connection that is as emotional as it is political, and lives that change and do not revert to older ways even when the glory subsides.

Occupy Wall Street - Unions in Zuccotti Park

Members of Local 100 of the Transport Workers enter Zuccotti Park in support of the Wall Street protestors, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, in New York. The "Occupy Wall Street" protest is in its second week, as demonstrators speak out against corporate greed and social inequality. (AP Photo/Louis Lanzano)

Sometimes the earth closes over this moment and it has no obvious consequences; sometimes it’s the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall and all those glorious insurrections in the East Bloc in 1989, and empires crumble and ideologies drop away like shackles unlocked. Occupy was such a moment, and one so new that its effects and consequences are hard to measure.

I have often heard that Freedom Summer in Mississippi registered some voters and built some alliances in 1964, but that its lasting (if almost impossible to measure) impact, was on the young participants themselves. They were galvanized into a feeling of power, of commitment, of mission that seems to have changed many of them and stayed with them as they went on to do a thousand different things that mattered, as they helped build the antiauthoritarian revolution that has been slowly unfolding, here and elsewhere, over the last half century or so. By such standards, when it comes to judging the effects of Occupy, it’s far too soon to tell — and as with so many moments and movements, we may never fully know.

Preludes and Aftermaths

If aftermaths are hard to measure, preludes are often even more elusive. One of the special strengths of Thank You, Anarchy, Nathan Schneider’s new book about Occupy Wall Street, is its account of the many people who prepared the fire that burst into flame on September 17, 2011, in lower Manhattan, and that still gives light and heat to many of us.

Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street appeared in the fall of 2011, it was clear that the national conversation had changed
We know next to nothing about that drummer girl who walked into a Parisian market where many people were ready to ignite, to march, to see the world change. With every insurrection, revolution or social rupture, we need to remember that we will never know the whole story of how it happened, and that what we can’t measure still matters. But Schneider’s book gives us some powerful glimpses into the early (and late) organizing, the foibles and characters, the conflicts and delights, and the power of that moment and movement. It conveys the sheer amount of labor involved in producing a miracle — and that miraculousness as well.

Early in Thank You, Anarchy, Schneider cites a participant, Mike Andrews, talking about how that key tool of Occupy, the General Assembly, with its emphasis on egalitarian participation and consensus decision-making, was reshaping him and the way he looked at the world: “It pushes you toward being more respectful of the people there. Even after General Assembly ends I find myself being very attentive in situations where I’m not normally so attentive. So if I go get some food after General Assembly, I find myself being very polite to the person I’m ordering from, and listening if they talk back to me.”

This kind of tiny personal change can undoubtedly be multiplied by the hundreds of thousands, given the number of Occupy participants globally. But the movement had quantifiable consequences, too.

Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street appeared in the fall of 2011, it was clear that the national conversation had changed, that the brutality and obscenity of Wall Street was suddenly being openly discussed, that the suffering of ordinary people crushed by the burden of medical, housing or college debt was coming out of the shadows, that the Occupy encampments had become places where people could testify about the destruction of their hopes and lives. California passed a homeowner’s bill of rights to curtail the viciousness of the banks, and in late 2012 Strike Debt emerged as an Occupy offshoot to address indebtedness in creative and subversive ways. Student debt suddenly became (and remains) a topic of national discussion, and proposals for student loan reform began to gain traction. Invisible suffering had been made visible.

Change often happens by making the brutality of the status quo visible and so intolerable. The situation everybody has been living in is suddenly described in a new way by a previously silenced or impacted constituency, or with new eloquence, or because our ideas of what is humane and decent evolve, or a combination of all three.  Thus did slavery become intolerable to ever more free people before the Civil War. Thus did the rights of many groups in this country — women, people of color, queer people, disabled people — grow exponentially. Thus did marriage stop being an exclusive privilege of heterosexuality, and earlier, a hierarchical relationship between a dominant husband and a submissive wife.

When the Silent Speak

Occupy Wall Street allowed those silenced by shame, invisibility or lack of interest from the media to speak up.  As a result, the realities behind our particular economic game came to be described more accurately; so much so that the media and politicians had to change their language a little to adjust to — admit to — a series of previously ignored ugly realities. This, in turn, had consequences, even if they weren’t always measurable or sometimes even immediately detectable.

Though Occupy was never primarily about electoral politics, it was nonetheless a significant part of the conversation that got Elizabeth Warren elected senator and a few other politicians doing good things in the cesspit of the capital. As Occupy was, in part, sparked by the vision of the Arab Spring, so its mood of upheaval and outrage might have helped spark Idle No More, the dynamic Native peoples’ movement. Idle No More has already become a vital part of the environmental and climate movements and, in turn, has sparked a resurgence of Native American and Native Canadian activism.

Part of what gave Occupy its particular beauty was the way the movement defined “we” as the 99%
Occupy Wall Street also built alliances around racist persecution that lasted well after most of the encampments were disbanded. Occupiers were there for everything from the Million Hoodie Marches to protest the slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida to stop-and-frisk in New York City to racist bank policies and foreclosures in San Francisco.  There, a broad-based housing rights movement came out of Occupy that joined forces with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) to address foreclosures, evictions, corrupt banking practices, and more. Last week a conservative warned that “Occupy may soon occupy New York’s City Hall,” decrying mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio’s economic populism, alleged support for Occupy, and opposition to stop and frisk (while Schneider warns that the candidate is a liberal, not a radical).

Part of what gave Occupy its particular beauty was the way the movement defined “we” as the 99%.  That (and that contagious meme the 1%) entered our language, offering a way of imagining the world so much more inclusive than just about anything that had preceded it. And what an inclusive movement it was: the usual young white suspects, from really privileged to really desperate, but also a range of participants from World War II to Iraq War veterans to former Black Panthers, from libertarians to liberals to anarchist insurrectionists, from the tenured to the homeless to hip-hop moguls and rock stars.

And there was so much brutality, too, from the young women pepper-sprayed at an early Occupy demonstration and the students infamously pepper-sprayed while sitting peacefully on the campus of the University of California, Davis, to the poet laureate Robert Hass clubbed in the ribs at the Berkeley encampment, 84-year-old Dorli Rainey assaulted by police at Occupy Seattle, and the Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen whose skull was fractured by a projectile fired by the Oakland police. And then, of course, there was the massive police presence and violent way that in a number of cities the movement’s occupiers were finally ejected from their places of “occupation.”

Such overwhelming institutional violence couldn’t have made clearer the degree to which the 1% considered Occupy a genuine threat. At the G-20 economic summit in 2011, the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said, “The reward system of shareholders and managers of financial institution[s] should be changed step by step. Otherwise the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ slogan will become fashionable in all developed countries.” That was the voice of fear, because the realized dreams of the 99% are guaranteed to be the 1%’s nightmares.

We’ll never know what that drummer girl in Paris was thinking, but thanks to Schneider’s meticulous and elegant book, we know what one witness-participant was thinking all through the first year of Occupy, and what it was like to be warmed for a few months by that beautiful conflagration that spread across the world, to be part of that huge body that wasn’t exactly civil society, but something akin to it, perhaps in conception even larger than it, as Occupy encampments and general assemblies spread from Auckland to Hong Kong, from Oakland to London in the fall of 2011. Some of them lasted well into 2012, and others spawned things that are still with us: coalitions and alliances and senses of possibility and frameworks for understanding what’s wrong and what could be right. It was a sea-change moment, a watershed movement, a dream realized imperfectly (because only unrealized dreams are perfect), a groundswell that remains ground on which to build.

On the second anniversary of that day in lower Manhattan when people first sat down in outrage and then stayed in dedication and solidarity and hope, remember them, remember how unpredictably the world changes, remember those doing heroic work that you might hear little or nothing about but who are all around you, remember to hope, remember to build. Remember that you are 99% likely to be one of them and take up the burden that is also an invitation to change the world and occupy your dreams.

Rebecca SolnitRebecca Solnit author most recently of The Faraway Nearby spent time at Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and wrote about Occupy often for TomDispatch in 2011-2012. This essay is adapted from her introduction to Nathan Schneider’s new book, Thank You, Anarchy (University of California Press).
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  • Anonymous

    I was proud of Occupy and inspired by them. In the past 15 or so years, I have often wondered why so few people in the U.S. turn out in the streets to protest, to raise questions, demand answers and seek solutions to the myriad problems this country and its people face. I am a partially disabled senior citizen who would have happily joined them in the streets if I were able, but since I couldn’t I was happy to support them in other ways as they gave voice to so many of the concerns we share. They inspired me to become more active in contacting my political representatives at the local, state and federal level and in signing petitions and joining in online forums working on a multitude of issues (many of which Occupy spotlighted). Thank you to all those of Occupy and to the rest they have inspired to action.

  • Terry Paul Conn

    I was on the North Avenue Bridge in Milwaukee during that national day of protest. And know why Milwaukee’s known for one of the least violent protest in the country.
    It wasn’t that the Milwaukee’s 5th district police were gearing up in riot gear and loading up with teargas. Arming themselves with pepper spray and nite sticks to storm the protesters. Sending them, the protesters, to jail or the hospitals first.
    It was the action of a man who saw what was about to happen and approached the officer in charge. He boldly told this police leader that the President was very concerned over this nationwide peaceful protest. And that he was there to observe and would be emailing the White House to let them know what transpires here that day.
    The police commander looked at this man for s long moment. Then walked to the command area. Within 10 minutes the geared up police officers geared down. Took off their gas masks. After about an hour later Chief Flynn aloud the protesters to keep the North ave. Bridge, with the Chief stating to the media let them freeze their butts off, meaning the protesters.
    And now, years later, I can’t help but wonder. What happened to those who were arrested, beaten. Those who dragged into court. Good peaceful citizens whose lives were changed because they took action and spoke up for the 99% in solidarity to oppose the wrongfulness of the 1%. Those who dared to make a stand in support of their statement.
    What is the balance achieved between fines and lawsuits. What repercussions were, are being felt by those who participated.
    What has changed, for the better or worse. Did we make a difference. Or were we suppressed.
    In Milwaukee, not much has changed. Although the focus has been on Governor Walker aversion to singing within the state capital freedom of speech doesn’t include singing in the state capital over the lunch hour. Noon to 1 pm. A token few get arrested. Post bail and return when they can. There are plenty of singers to full the gap. Hey, its peaceful and mostly in tune and on key most’ish.
    But still freedom isn’t free I guess. No more than a couple of people sharing an ideal without a permit can get you arrested. More than a few is now a riot.
    I feel that Governor Walker should feel honored. Their making up songs about him. Be lucky they are not tap dancers or clogging.
    I say next protest we join hands and start walking. Standing or staying in one area gets you arrested. By holding hands and walking&talking we are not having a parade. We are simply on tour and all anyone who wants to join our walk&talk just has to take a hand and be willing to give a hand.
    I can just imagine.
    An organization that I work with is veterans for peace. We We look for peaceful resolve. You are welcome to join us. Lets make ourselves a line.
    In closing I feel that I should point out, I did email the White House the next morning after the North Ave Bridge thing in Milwaukee. And am proud to have made the national press by being in the photo of the. 99% on the bridge.
    I do like keeping my word to that police commander. After all it kept me from an obstruction charge.

  • Ally

    It will never be over……..people continue to wake up to their condition and seek like minded spirits to banish the oppressors. Anger is building up in those who once laughed at the protesters, anger at themselves and their government for not seeing sooner what has happened to our country…….Americans are coming in droves to take it back…….keep up the noise and awake our sleeping giants.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    Signs Of The Times

  • DavidW

    Lets take another step further. Concurrently with the public protest and added lexicon that OWS has contributed to the change we’ve experienced, we need to push the 1% by competing with them directly by investing and owning cooperative enterprise to compete with them in the marketplace. Take market share away from them, vote with our dollars to keep our wealth, wealth that we create each day within our own communities within our communities.

    So #DontTaxMyCU and if you haven’t move your money into your local Credit Unions, do it and fight the banking lobby which is trying to hobble their small competitor. Find and invest in your local food co-ops. Start a worked owned business or patronize one, such as the Arrizmendi businesses in the Bay Area. Let’s build our new economy and economic democracy around the germ of these businesses. Let’s step up on the work OWS has done and get a better view of what else has to be done.

    Our political democracy rests on a foundation of our economic justice.

  • Alpha Wolf

    Sadly, Occupy was geographically located and squandered the trillion dollar opportunity that the initial flood of publicity generated.

    While the finger of blame is pointed at the 1%ers, it was the state that removed the occupiers and you need to go back to the Communist Manifesto for the proper analysis. “Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class….the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

    I’m sure the Marxian Economist Richard Wolff would be happy to enlighten us. While I know Marxism has been thoroughly discredited in America, Marx, who was Critiqueing Capitalism, offers a powerful analysis of our current situation , and Dr. Wolff does a good job of articulating and advocating his theories. What I didn’t understand is why he was introduced on Moyers as an “Economist” rather than a “Marxian Economist,” because he is very open about his beliefs and describing himself as a Marxian Economist elsewhere.

    At least since Rousseau, radicals have looked back romantically at populist movements, but we must not forget that the French Revolution quickly devolved into the terror followed by Napolean, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions turned into Stalinism and Maoism, the Arab Spring turned into Syria, Egypt and Libya, which is currently chaos, and the Students for a Democratic Society became the terrorist Weather Underground.

    Let’s hope the positive seeds planted by OWS in shedding a light on inequality in America bear fruit in coming years and don’t take a darker turn…..

    Don’t look back!

  • Rae Gillette

    Sadly, while the media in other countries stayed focused on the revolt, the corporate media in the USA did not do the same. I live in the Pacific NW and I haven’t read anything about OWS or any of its off shoots for months now. To bad we don’t Have the liberal media that the right claims we have. Things could be very different. I did read a small article about Occupy Home Loans, resisting repos and helping with funding to keep homeowners in their homes. That was short lived, however, I hope and pray Occupy is out there somewhere. In Boise, Idaho we had one of the few demonstrations that did not result in arrests. We were legislated out of existence by the good conservatives that hold this state in thrall. Grass was more important than grass roots. How did we anger the powers that be so thoroughly? We fed the homeless in our camp on state property.