Perspectives: The Promise of Occupy

Join us this Wednesday, TH305B @ 1pm for a discussion about Occupy Wall Street.

The promise of Occupy

The Occupy movement is building a new U.S. left–and the fightback we need.

October 19, 2011
Originally posted here

Occupy participants on the march for a better future in New York City (Paul Stein)
Occupy participants on the march for a better future in New York City (Paul Stein)

OCCUPY. IT’S the movement of a new generation–but it’s also the voice for working people of all ages furious at the relentless decline in their living standards and mounting economic inequality.

And as it gathers momentum, the movement is showing that we have the power to resist the endless attacks on us–and win.

After the massive October 15 protest in midtown Manhattan–which drew as many as 100,000 people as part of an international day of action that involved an estimated 1 million–it’s obvious, if it wasn’t already, that the Occupy movement had deepened its social roots and broadened its base beyond the struggle that began four weeks before.

Even the New York Times–normally dismissive of social movements, when it doesn’t ignore them entirely–had to acknowledge what was taking place. “While the protesters seem united in feeling that the system is stacked against them, with the rules written to benefit the rich and the connected, they are also just as often angry about issues closer to home,” theTimes wrote.

Certainly the grievances of working people in the U.S. have been building–not just since the economic crash of 2008, but for decades. National Public Radio, which ignored Occupy Wall Street for most of its first two weeks, felt compelled to recognize the relevance of protesters’ demands in a story which pointed out that wages in the U.S. have been stagnant for 38 years.

This is why the Occupy movement caught fire. A group of some 500 people established the initial encampment in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street, determined to cast a spotlight on the greed and corruption of the “1 percent.” Then there was the brutality of the NYPD–pepper spray in the faces of peaceful demonstrators caught on videotape, and a mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge.

But the spark caught because there was dry tinder in so many places. Add the turbulence in the world’s financial markets in August and news of slowing economic growth–plus a stretch of good weather on the East Coast–and the conditions were prime for the Occupy protests to expand.

The movement didn’t come from nowhere, of course. It was inspired in part by the Egyptian revolution, with its mass mobilizations in Tahrir Square, and the “indignados” movement of Spain and Greece, where masses of youth camped out in public squares. In the U.S., there was the labor-led occupation of the state Capitol in Wisconsin last winter against a Republican governor’s union-busting and savage cuts to social spending.

Occupy Wall Street soon showed that it could call forth the same kind of solidarity seen in Wisconsin. A big October 5 labor solidarity march, with some of New York City’s biggest unions involved, showed that Occupy Wall Street wasn’t the actions of a fringe group, of as the corporate media had portrayed it, but a working class movement, animated by youth but drawing upon the sympathy and support of millions.

Occupy groups that had been weeks in the planning took off with a bang in Boston, Los Angeles and other cities; others sprung up virtually overnight. A new social movement has been born.

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THE ENEMIES of the Occupy movement–and even some of its self-proclaimed friends–sneer at activists for their supposed lack of demands.

That misses the point. As in Wisconsin, the very act of occupying a public space and asserting the freedom to speak out was a powerful magnet for those who had felt isolated and powerless as they suffered the impact of the recession and its aftermath.

Suddenly, those who joined the occupations could shrug off the idea that it was their own poor choices or bad luck that left them jobless or underwater on their mortgage or without health insurance–or all of the above. As Occupy made clear, those centrally responsible for these social ills are the superrich–the 1 percent, as well as the politicians and bureaucrats who do their bidding.

The occupations have become centers of political education, with teach-ins routinely covering topics that range from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ Communist Manifesto to the composition of the local ruling class in different cities to the role of LGBT equality in the struggle. People new to activism and veterans alike have flocked to discussions that bring to life the hidden history of class struggle and radical politics that have always been central to every advance by workers in the U.S.

The occupations are anything but talk shops, however. Activists with Occupy Wall Street, for example, have organized solidarity with labor struggles, including the fight of locked-out workers at Sotheby’s auction house. Other activists protested the auction of a foreclosed home. And around the U.S., the Occupy movement contributed to bigger numbers and a higher energy level at demonstrations marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

By providing a center of debate, strategy and organizing, the occupations have been able to serve as a bridge into activism for people who have never been politically involved before, or even considered themselves political.

Those who are attracted to the Occupy movement’s broad message of opposition to corporate greed and big business’ dominance of politics can meet and work alongside people with similar interests. The numerous debates–from how to deal with police to whether capitalism could ever be a just economic system–are forging networks of young activists who will be central to the many struggles ahead.

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IN SHORT, Occupy is helping to build a new left on a scale unseen in the U.S. in the last 40 years–one that’s rooted in the working class. Zack Pattin, a 25-year-old longshore worker from Tacoma, Wash., who has been sleeping out at Occupy Seattle, summed up this dynamic:

This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen…[T]his is exactly the kind of thing we need to revitalize the working-class movement. It’s an open movement, it has broad appeal, and it is passing radical politics to different sections of the 99 percent. It’s absolutely crucial that the working class, working poor and unemployed get involved and speak out to shape this movement. I only see it snowballing from here.

There are plenty of challenges ahead. One of the most central questions right now, for example, is how to confront efforts by police to break up encampments. Then there are the double-crossing Democratic politicians–from Barack Obama on down–who make sympathetic noises about the Occupy movement, even while pocketing Wall Street campaign contributions.

In general, Occupy activists in every city will have to come to grips with questions about how to sustain the movement and deepen its local roots in working-class struggles, from organizing unions to stopping foreclosures to protesting racist police brutality.

But whatever happens from this point, Occupy has already changed the reference points of U.S. politics. No longer can the hateful, corporate-funded Tea Party claim to speak for the disgruntled majority. Working people are finding their own political voice–and they’ll no longer keep silent.

That’s why it’s so important that everyone who supports the Occupy movement get actively involved–and build the fightback.

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