As Slingshot goes to press, the hundreds of occupations inspired by Occupy Wall Street are struggling to transition tactically from tent cities to other actions that will help the amazing momentum behind the movement to continue and expand. Many occupations have been swept away by police raids and those that still exist face severe challenges from internal dysfunction and winter weather. But the political moment that made the occupy movement possible is not about a particular tactical expression. It can and will continue without tents. In fact, moving beyond tents may help the movement expand since the residential aspect of occupations have eaten up so much energy on camp logistics.
No matter what tactics gain support next, the movement has to stick with the key aspects that have made it so extraordinary:
• Re-defining what is possible. Now isn’t the time to retreat to what may seem “realistic” and limit our ideas or demands to areas defined as acceptable by the system. Two months ago, none of what we have already achieved seemed within reach. The occupy movement is strong when it stretches the world to create its own reality. It is hard to think or write about what to do next precisely because at long last we’re in uncharted waters and we don’t actually know what is possible. We need to prolong and expand that sense as much as possible and see where it goes. We need to fight anything that is going to end this moment, narrow it, or concede to reality. The most important battlefield is in each of our heads and our collective consciousness — moving beyond the voices from the system that try to limit our imagination.
• Provoking dialogue and discussion. In just a couple of months, the occupy movement has dramatically shifted the social landscape by opening long-overdue debate over wealth and power inequality and whether the capitalist system is working for the average person. One of the most powerful parts of our General Assemblies has been break-out groups where we talk to people we’ve never met before about what is wrong with the world, and what we can do to create something new. These discussions have spread throughout society and millions of people are talking about class, power and injustice in new ways and for the first time in our lives. This explosion of dialogue is powerful. We need to do whatever we can to keep the conversation going and broaden it. Start some conversations with strangers at the bus stop, your neighbors, your family, co-workers, etc. These discussions are extra exciting and fruitful right now.
• Keeping the focus on the big picture and avoid getting sucked into reformism or single issue politics. Almost since the beginning, media pundits have asked for a list of demands — “what do they want?” To the credit of the occupy movement, we’ve mostly avoided reducing our movement to a laundry list of reforms. The key insight of the movement has been that the political / economic system is bankrupt and is the problem. This isn’t just a protest so we don’t want any crumbs the system can give us. We have to resist any effort to hijack the movement by pursuing single issues or to serve particular political parties or union leaderships.
• Maintaining horizontal structures such as the General Assembly and avoiding the development of leaders or bureaucracies. All of the three points, above, will be easier if we maintain the radical decentralization of the movement. How can we build the sense of community and equality we feel at the General Assembly into the fabric of everyday life? The goal isn’t just about running a particular meeting or structure with participatory democracy. Ultimately, these structures change how people treat each other and how each of us approaches the world. Decentralized structures change our assumptions — are other people hostile competitors or our community?
All of us are empowered to expand decentralized spontaneous actions to more neighborhoods and new groups of people. It’s up to each of us to take initiative to make this happen — everything that has happened so far has happened without any central leadership deciding it should happen, but rather based on individuals and small groups taking action on their own. Right on!
In Oakland, a number of specific tactical ideas are under discussion as of press time. No doubt more will be dreamed up by the time you read this in towns and cities around the world. No doubt you can think of some other ideas and do them yourself:
• Kittens. Early on, a speaker at the Oakland General Assembly pointed out how all our energy was focused on the few blocks surrounding the occupation, and how much better it might be if we spread our energy around the city talking to folks, organizing and agitating. What would we look like if we were kittens — adorable but with claws — climbing all over the place and getting into everything, as opposed to the herd-like formation of traditional marches?
• Neighborhood assemblies. The Occupy Oakland general assembly often involves 400 or more people. For larger cities like this, it may make more sense to break up into smaller neighborhood assemblies or subcommittees of the citywide General Assembly. The Occupy Oakland General Assembly originally met every night, but after 2 weeks switched to four times a week. The nights without a citywide General Assembly could be a time to decentralize.
• Direct action and strikes. The initial occupations disrupted business as usual and brought people who were dissatisfied with the system together. Once we found each other, our sense of isolation and powerlessness vanished. In Oakland, the occupation has been the launching pad for numerous marches and actions against banks and other oppressive institutions. This can expand. While taking direct action, we need to figure out ways to target disruption against the rulers and minimize collateral damage where possible. The Oakland general strike is also a model for future wildcat (non-official) job actions that hit the 1% where it hurts — against one company or industry, or in one city, region, or nationally.
The system is fragile economically and politically. It is up to us to figure out all the ways in which its legitimacy is compromised and exploit those soft spots. Banks, corporations and mainstream electoral politics aren’t offering answers, but our direct actions can.
• Building occupations. Occupations don’t have to be in public parks. Many occupations around the country are experimenting with occupying bank-owned buildings or other buildings needlessly sitting empty because of the failures of the economic system. Closed factories? Closed schools, parks or other public buildings? These actions are highly symbolic and, when successful, provide space safe from the weather with doors to help limit access to individuals bent on disrupting us.
• Foreclosures. Another campaign under discussion is to research foreclosed buildings about to go to auction, or families about to lose their homes, and show up to disrupt the process (with the families blessing, of course.)
• Re-occupation. Since the second Oakland police raid on November 14, many have discussed how to re-occupy the original site downtown. Occupations have numerous components: the general assembly, space for informal discussion, libraries, medic tents, kitchens, kids areas, art supplies for making signs, media tents and residential tents for sleeping. One option under discussion is to continue activities during “legal” daylight hours and develop mobile versions of infrastructure like food, media, etc. — doing everything the occupation did prior to a raid except without residential tents.
Such a strategy could focus our energy on the best parts of the occupation — communication and community — while de-emphasizing the residential aspect, which is the most problematic for us to maintain for our own internal reasons.
In pursuing these transitional tactics, we can consider what have we learned over the past couple of months during these occupations, and add aspects that have been missing.
The current eruption of protest is more than just unfocused anger at recession and austerity. It reflects a widespread sense that the system is not working, growing out of the last 40 years of stagnant wages while corporate profits soared. For years, the 1% busted our unions, eliminated living-wage jobs, and privatized social resources with very little resistance. Now, finally, resistance seems to be breaking out all over all at once.
Now is a great time to start diverse discussions about the horrors of capitalism beyond just wealth inequality.
Capitalism has systematically sucked meaning, community and stability from our lives. With all the consumer items and labor saving inventions, we’ve lost our humanity. People want to cooperate and share with those around them, but capitalism requires constant competition, increasing isolation and loneliness, a relentless speed up, and a race to the bottom.
Capitalism is good at making more stuff, making it cheaper, and doing so with fewer people. As people psychologically adapt themselves to these economic goals — attempting to measure satisfaction with material wealth rather than with our connection to ourselves, other people and the world around us — we gradually drive ourselves insane. Consumerism, corporate jobs and mediated suburban life are meaningless. Human beings need more than computers and bank balances — we need freedom, emotional intensity, and un-managed, challenging adventures.
Moreover, capitalism is killing the planet. Some of the amazing energy behind this movement may be coming from an underlying, almost subconscious sense of despair about the environment. How much of our emotional energy is going to suppress and deny our awareness that the climate is changing, that rivers and oceans are dying, that forests and wild places are shrinking? We have to ignore these things to maintain our sanity as we do what is necessary to exist within this system — driving to work, plugging into the grid, buying our food from industrial farms far away.
The occupy movement can blow the lid off all kinds of un-discussed, unspoken aspects of our economic and political system. While the rhetoric of the 99% is theoretically weak, it is also charmingly and subversively inclusive — folks from many different walks of life with different ideas have to grudgingly agree that they are, in fact, part of the 99%. Most politics and the culture war, etc. have been all about looking at the world based on different assumptions and ideological positions. Occupy changes the lens from “what precisely should happen” to “what position in the system do I occupy and what benefits me?”
What is going on is fundamentally not a left-wing version of the tea party. The tea party has always remained firmly rooted in system-defined limits of what is possible. In fact essential to the tea party are assumptions that the structure of the markets are “natural” and inevitable, and that the US Constitution carries religion-like weight. To the contrary, the occupy movement is all about rejecting tired structures and ways of thinking that are no longer serving us.
The occupy eruption is so extremely exciting because we’ve broken our isolation and sense of powerlessness. We’re finally discussing topics long ignored. And we’re not assuming we’ve lost before we’ve even started to fight.