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Thursday, April 17 2014 @ 10:05 PM CDT

Looking Back on Occupy

Occupy Wall Street

There is not much left of the Occupy movement as such — almost all the encampments were destroyed in November or December 2011 and virtually no new ones have emerged. On the other hand, the movement was in no way “defeated.” With few exceptions, the people arrested were quickly released and totally exonerated. The elimination of the encampments simply had the effect of forcing the participants onto other, more diverse terrains of struggle. Countless people all over the country continue to meet regularly, to network with each other and to carry out all sorts of actions — picketing banks, disrupting corporate board meetings, blocking home foreclosures, protesting environmental policies (Monsanto, Tar Sands Pipeline, fracking, etc.),

Looking Back on Occupy

Bureau of Public Secrets

1. Your assessment of the Occupy movement was very positive. What is the overall perception you have of this movement today? What is left of Occupy?

There is not much left of the Occupy movement as such — almost all the encampments were destroyed in November or December 2011 and virtually no new ones have emerged. On the other hand, the movement was in no way “defeated.” With few exceptions, the people arrested were quickly released and totally exonerated. The elimination of the encampments simply had the effect of forcing the participants onto other, more diverse terrains of struggle. Countless people all over the country continue to meet regularly, to network with each other and to carry out all sorts of actions — picketing banks, disrupting corporate board meetings, blocking home foreclosures, protesting environmental policies (Monsanto, Tar Sands Pipeline, fracking, etc.), in addition to more specifically “occupy” type actions such as attempting to take over and reopen schools and libraries that have been closed and abandoned, or “Homes Not Jails” attempted takeovers of vacant housing to provide dwellings for homeless people. One of the most interesting and well planned of these latter types of actions, “Occupy the Farm,” took place just a few blocks from my home last April, when ecological activists took over a large plot of vacant urban land and turned it into a community garden, planting more than ten thousand seedlings in the space of a few days. The gardener-occupiers were driven out after three weeks, but the agitation continues and has resulted in a temporary victory against a planned commercial development.

The Occupy movement already had the implicit goal of “reclaiming the commons” — occupying public squares or parks played on this theme, since regardless of quibbles about permits it was obvious that such spaces belong to the public and are, or at least originally were, intended for public use. But these more recent actions have the merit of challenging the fetish of private property in a more direct manner. That fetish has always been extremely strong in the United States, and the police responses to its transgression have always been more immediate and brutal. But I like to hope that these types of actions will eventually weaken the fetish, just as happened in the days of the Civil Rights movement. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when black people first started restaurant sit-ins, one often heard this argument: “That restaurant belongs to the owner, he has the right to do whatever he wants with it, including deciding who he wants to serve.” But as more and more people kept peacefully sitting in and calmly accepting arrest, the general public was gradually brought around to the idea that there was a “higher law” than property rights — that other rights also had to be respected, such as the right to be treated fairly as a human being. I think this may eventually happen with these post-Occupy invasions of various types of property, as people see the absurdity of there being millions of vacant buildings while there are millions of people living in the streets. Even now many people sympathize with the idea of defending a family against foreclosure, despite the fact that a bank technically owns the home, because there is increasing awareness that the banks have often acted illegally. The notion of reopening abandoned schools, etc., is even more exemplary in that it hints at the notion of a society based on cooperation and generosity rather than on how much money can be made from something.

The two drawbacks of these types of action are that they are risky and that they thus tend to be the work of a small minority (mostly young and mostly male). Occupying public spaces is much more likely to attract the sympathy, the support, and ultimately the participation of multitudes of ordinary people (including parents, children, elderly, disabled). But for those who want to push the limits and don’t mind the risks, taking over vacant buildings and opening them up to public uses is much more challenging and inspiring than breaking windows.

2. Looking back, what do you see as the movement’s most significant features or innovations?

There were several, most of them closely interrelated. Some were genuine innovations, others were inspired by recent struggles in other countries (Argentina, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain).

  • The fact that it appeared in such a sudden, unanticipated manner. In the past, and in other countries, particular issues have sometimes provoked massive gatherings that turned into radical popular assemblies; but in this case the assemblies appeared first, without any particular provocation
  • The fact that its agenda was open and everyone was welcome. It called on people to come together to seek practical solutions to the problems we are all facing, but it did not prejudge what those solutions might be. People put all sorts of differences aside (at least for the time being) and agreed to come together amicably, with love, or at least respect, for everyone who came and spoke up, even people with dramatically differing views. This openness was a radical break with almost all previous radical movements, and it was undoubtedly one of the main reasons that so many people were won over so quickly.
  • At the same time, it suggested a provocative terrain for these gatherings: “exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space.” This uncertain, semi-legal terrain provided just enough edge to keep the discussions from becoming too academic. (There’s nothing like wondering whether the police will move in to arrest you to encourage speaking to the point and sticking to practicalities.)
  • From the very beginning it was apparent to everyone that this was a participatory movement, not just something that you might watch from afar. In most cities and even in many towns all you had to do to find out about it was to go visit the local encampment, look around, ask questions. You could walk right in and immediately take part in the assemblies. This cut through the usual social isolation and spectator passivity, undermining the lies and misconceptions that prevail when people depend solely on what they’ve imbibed from the mass media.

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