(Originally published on ZNet, October 4, 2011)
Writing for Ourselves
The occupation of Wall Street is now in its third week. Thousands of people have worked and fought for it, have given it their time, their bodies, their ideas, their blood. People have used their bodies as shields, sent letters of solidarity, marched, slept out, donated, tweeted, and more. There are thousands more still who have not been with us, whether because of geographical reasons or because they are busy struggling elsewhere.
I have been involved, in some way, with the occupation on Wall Street since the first planning meeting a number of months ago, and I have been out there almost every day since the occupation actually began, though mostly keeping quiet and working on the sidelines – often critically. I have participated in assemblies and working groups, done outreach to community organizations, pushed demands, been to dozens of meetings, gone hoarse from chanting about the banks, been bruised by metal police batons while marching for Troy Davis, and had about a million incredible conversations – at the occupation at Liberty Plaza itself, in other political contexts around New York, and even in jail with the 87 friends I made during the mass arrests of September 24th. I am not an authority, and others have struggled and sacrificed much more than I, but I have learned a lot; enough, I think, to begin sharing some of it.
The struggle is still very much underway; those of us who can, who have that privilege, should be out in the streets, so now might not be the time for the most thorough analysis. It is, however, important for occupiers to be writing in our own words – to reach out to the many around the world who want to be a part of this in some way, to offer our own analyses (infinitely more powerful than those provided by pundits from far away), and to counter the media black-out we are experiencing. Though the press is now somewhat intrigued by us, and alarmed by police brutality, it still has very little to say about the actual content and processes of this occupation: the spontaneous working groups that emerge to deal with any issue that comes up, the remarkable de-centralization, the actions we have carried out in solidarity with labor struggles around the city, the public education taking place at the occupation, or the incredible display of direct democracy practiced in the camp.
Maybe it’s because they don’t care, or maybe it’s because we are a threat to their sponsors (and we are). But, honestly, maybe it is because we speak a new language, one we have to translate it for them.
What We Have Already Won
I have to admit, I was skeptical. I saw too many young white college kids and not enough grassroots organizers from New York, not enough of those communities hardest hit by neoliberalism and austerity. I was pushed away by some of the cultural norms being adopted and found myself at odds with the lack of demands, not to mention the sometimes over-emphasis on process. Having helped organize Bloombergville (a two-week occupation against the budget cuts in NYC) only a few months earlier, I found it hard to believe this would be significantly larger or be able to mobilize the kind of mass support it needed in order to make an impact. I didn’t see how this would aid in the overarching aim of building a movement, beyond a single uprising. But I was wrong about some of those assumptions, and – though we are still far from being a huge, unified movement with clear goals, led by the most oppressed layers of society, with the capacity for long-term struggle – things have steadily improved.
First of all, the occupation has lasted more than two weeks and it’s growing every day. Many tens of thousands of people have participated in this occupation in some way or another – from the thousands who have slept out or marched or stopped by, to the thousands of pizzas ordered for us, the thousands of dollars sent our way, and the thousands watching the livestream and emailing and calling and tweeting. Add this to occupations being planned in something like 70 cities in the US alone, not to mention those happening in other countries (both those in solidarity with us, and those that were our inspiration). Labor, student, and community groups from around the city are joining, and they bring with them serious organizers and community members from the most oppressed and marginalized communities in New York. They also bring their own concrete demands, which are easy to support because they are obvious, as they have always been.
Next, we have taken steps to define ourselves, to write documents to that affect, and to move toward a collective consciousness that is bold and uncompromising. Those documents that define us take forever to write, because we all participate in their writing (yes, it’s a bit of a drag, but revolutions aren’t so easy when we are fighting for the type of liberation that demands self-management). Now, to be clear, I have always been a strong proponent of clear demands – because they help define our struggle, point the way to actions we want to take, give us tools for measurement, communicate with people outside of the occupation, and represent those busy struggling elsewhere. However, I do want to point out that we have been able to continue to grow and bring new communities in despite a lack of demands, and that those people and groups will bring their own. I also think our demands really aren’t as mysterious as some people are letting on; I think our critics are playing dumb. Let’s cut the crap. We wouldn’t be on Wall Street if we didn’t already have an implicitly unifying message: We hold the banks, the millionaires, and the political elite they control, responsible for the exploitation and oppression we face – from capitalism, racism and authoritarianism to imperialism, patriarchy, and environmental degradation. We have a diversity of grievances, complaints, demands, principles, and visions, but it is clear that we have planted ourselves in the financial capital of the world because we see it as one of the most deeply entrenched roots of the various systems of oppression we face every day. Come on. The clue is in the title: Occupy Wall Street.
Every day, the occupiers see themselves more and more connected to a movement – a movement around the country and the world, but also a movement through time, stretching from the giants who came before us to the future giants we will be. Every day more people from different communities join, and in their attempt to represent themselves, they bring their people, their demands, their languages, their struggles. Every day more grassroots organizations – struggling around housing or healthcare, for adjunct professors or postal workers – join the fight, bringing with them the clear message that this movement must be grounded in the hard organizing work that took place before this occupation and will continue after it. This deepening of consciousness and realization of the connection between the different struggles we wage will be among the most important things to come out of this.
We have already taken back some space – space for new forms of democratic participation, for the type of initiative and creativity discouraged by the status quo, for autonomy within solidarity, for experiments of self-management and equity and solidarity, for a type of rebellion that rejects permits, pens and sidewalks, one that demands streets and bridges instead – someday also buildings and governments. It will be hard, I hope, for us to go back to the pens in the future, having tasted what it’s like to stand among thousands in the pouring rain on the Brooklyn Bridge, and that’s quite a liberating step forward.
These are enormous victories not only in the consciousness of a new generation of fighters, but also in the creation of a new narrative – one that refuses to accept the myth that Americans don’t struggle, that we can be bought off with TVs and iphones, that things really aren’t so bad and we’re willing to let injustice happen because we get a bigger piece of the bounty our military and capitalists extract from others. No, we are rewriting the story, telling it ourselves, tweeting and tagging it, filming and singing it, writing it with our arrests and the bruises we get from the terrified and bewildered police who will eventually have to either join us or get the hell out of the way. And the story will be an important force not only in this struggle, but in the many to come. We will tell the story while we are at work and school, on the picket lines, in marches, at our next occupations and sit-ins, in jail when the bosses get frightened enough to tell their henchmen to arrest us in the hundreds as they did on October 1st, and the story will help us remember and imagine our boundless potential while we fight on.
Battles to Come
Occupations are an incredibly important mode of resistance, an expression of a dual power strategy. On one hand, they give us the space and time with which to create an alternative, to practice, to learn, to create new relations, to become better revolutionaries, and to experience community. At the same time, they serve as a base camp from which to wage a struggle against the institutions that oppress us, to knock down the oppressors, to protect that alternative, to liberate more space. Both are important. And yes, we face challenges in each realm.
Internally, we have to make sure we are modifying our structures to meet the needs of the people participating in them as we change and grow. We have to make sure that the de-centralization we are fostering actually empowers those who aren’t already conditioned by this society to speak a lot and lead and give directions. We have to find and create a new and diverse ways for people to participate, especially those too busy or too threatened by the daily brutalities they already face to be able to join us in occupations or marches. We have to continue to work to formulate a message together – not only because it will attract and represent others or clarify our multitude of voices for the outside world, but also because the process will be educational for us and it will ground us in the real struggles we have inherited from being part of a movement together. Above all, perhaps, we must continue to educate ourselves and each other – about everything from the systems of oppression we face, to the history of various peoples and struggles, to strategies for winning and practical skills to carry them out.
And perhaps even more important than learning about the ways we are kept down, is learning and exploring the world we might want instead, one without capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and authoritarianism – an economic, political, and social model that is solidaristic, equitable, self-managing, ecologically sustainable, liberating, intimate, warm, and creative. We have to spend some of this precious time developing the values of the society we are fighting for, so that we can imagine the institutions we will need to build in order to live them out. We have to do this because that’s what it will take to defeat the age-old mantra that there is no alternative; we have to do it because imagining that alternative will give us hope and strength to struggle, because it will define the different ways we can fight and the different institutions we need to build for ourselves now, because it will give us the foundation on which to build a movement beyond one or even a hundred occupations. We must do it because dreaming is part of what gives us the strength to actually create those institutions we want to live in, as we fight to knock the rotten ones down.
Externally, then, it is simple. We have to draw clear lines from the oppression heaped on this society to the agents responsible for it. If Chase bank is foreclosing on homes, we need to foreclose on Chase Bank. If the city government is cutting schools and homeless shelters, we need to shut it down. They want quiet streets, un-interrupted work-days, pristine bank branches, functional government institutions, productive workplaces, docile schools, and lines of unflinching shoppers. They want business as usual, and that’s what we have to take from them. Liberty Plaza is not the struggle; it is the home for the creation of the alternative, and the staging ground for the fight that takes us out into the streets, to make business as usual truly untenable.
We win when we build diverse movements led by the most oppressed people in society, capable of proposing an alternative, laying the seeds for it, and taking the power necessary to transform it from the alternative to the norm. We win when we raise social costs to the point that those hopeless few elites find themselves left with no carrots to wave before us and no sticks big enough to do us any harm. We win when we show no signs of weakening, when we refuse to go home. We win the movement grows and grows and grows with no sign of letting up. We win when losing is not an option, when winning is the only way to really be human.
Yotam Marom is an organizer, educator, musician, and writer. He is a member of the Organization for a Free Society, and can be reached at Yotam.firstname.lastname@example.org.