Occupy’s Rocky Road

Over at Salon, Arun Gupta has a long discussion of all the various strains on Occupy Wall Street; lack of authority/legitimacy from the General Assemblies, the presence of the homeless and finally the presence of so-called “violence advocates” or black bloc protestors.

All of these happen(ed) in the microcosm of Occupy Providence, and all present their own interesting takes. First, I want to make it clear: I have not been involved in any Occupy Providence actions or meetings since December 10th. So, I’m a distant observer. What I do get to read is the online discussion group, which is often informative, but a very small portion of what must be going on.

As far as legitimacy/authority of the General Assemblies, this is something I can’t really speak to, but of those I went to, it often seemed to me that one of the things the General Assembly was becoming when I left is what I like to refer to as a “shit-screen”. These are pretty useful tools for keeping dissent somewhere else. Student government is a common one. Basically, it’s where you go to complain to someone who has an apparent power but in actuality has very little authority over the situation. I’ll never forget the discussion I had with an Industrial Areas Foundation organizer who said that understanding where power is located was a very important thing. “We don’t want to waste our time protesting at a city council meeting only to discover the decision was made somewhere else by someone who isn’t even in government,” he said.

Ostensibly, General Assemblies were created to empower people and to provide some level of governance (however much you might despise that word) over those who joined Occupy. People discussed their grievances with the system, which was necessary to see what issues we should be focusing on, but if you’ve ever stood for three hours in the cold listening to people complain about government, you realize that a coffee shop is a nicer setting and you can also go to City Hall or the State House and cuss out an elected official or a bureaucrat and feel much more satisfied (in no way am I suggesting you do this, many of them have terrible jobs already). General Assemblies often took so long to get things done that we’d quit for a night without really having said much more than we had yesterday.

The homeless were always an issue, but to Occupy Providence’s credit, despite some lofty rhetoric attempting to link the movement to the Arab Spring, veterans of the Tent Cities taken apart by then-Mayor David Ciciline were always present and were probably the most pulled together about the real nitty-gritty of the “occupation”. This lines up almost perfectly with what Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about the true roots of Occupy Wall Street; that it drew more from historical US encampments (the Bonus Army, the Poor People’s Campaign, and most importantly the Tent Cities) than from any Arab Spring Movement. I think that’s about right. America isn’t a dictatorship, it’s a democracy, so we are always going up against a system that has institutions in place to deal with dissent or allow it to be victorious. I always thought we should’ve looked to Chile for our model. Regardless, tent city participants were and continue to be great resources for street-based movements. It should, however, be noted that not a single American encampment movement has yet succeeded.

That argument about what kind of system are we facing leads right into the euphemistically-described “diversity of tactics” discussion, which make no mistake, is going on in Occupies around the country. This was inaugurated with the now infamous attack on black blocs published by journalist Chris Hedges in Truth-Out. Reporter Susie Cagle responded in Truth-Out, along with David Graeber of n+1. Ms. Cagle criticized Mr. Hedges for failing to be there before making his criticisms. Mr. Graeber largely criticized Mr. Hedges for his rhetoric and lack of understanding of the movement, while faultily relying on Gandhi to support his position of allowing violence. My favorite dissection of the debate is this one from MyFiredoglake member danps. Finally, Professor Erica Chenoweth weighed in by providing data showing that non-violent campaigns during the 20th and early 21st centuries were more likely to succeed than violent ones (they get more successful over time).

In no way do I support those advocating for violence, but let’s be clear, majorities of Americans dislike Occupy Wall Street’s tactics. They were against the shutdowns and they are against the encampments. They might support what they perceive to be the goals, but the tactics have been a turnoff. When I was there, there were discussions about shutting down Kennedy Plaza via protest. I never understood that, since you rarely find the 1% riding the bus (they can afford cars and chauffeurs). The people most harmed by a Kennedy Plaza shutdown would’ve been people like me, students, and the poor. If you’ve ever taken public transportation to an appointment, you know the sort of panicky feeling you get as time ticks down. Now imagine that a massive demonstration walks in front of you. I would not be very supportive of whatever they were protesting. That they were protesting economic inequality would probably incense me. Luckily, parts of Kennedy Plaza were only briefly shutdown during the two marches I attended.

I’ve said before that Occupy needs a Valley Forge moment, and I stand by that. In no way should we disparage those who have done the hard work of encamping and protesting for these many months. But many have drifted away. And the remnants have now built an organizational structure they’re fine with, but which is highly confusing for new people. The bar to participation is high, and what I think we’ll find is that more organizations will temporarily ally themselves with their local Occupies rather than join. That’s alright.

What I’d like to see from the various groups that seem destined to arise out of Occupy’s splintering (I believe it will splinter in the absence of a cohesive force, and I believe that splintering is already going on) is one with a bit more discipline. One of the things I love best about the Civil Rights Movement was the Sunday best people wore. People tended to be well-dressed when they went to protest, and this both enhanced their respectability while underscoring the brutality they faced from police.  Too often, Occupy members were derided as hippies, and many were. But some of the most powerful images are of those who were dressed in uniform (airline pilots marching on Wall Street). It’s a lot harder to beat down the well-dressed than it is to beat a bunch of hoodies.

I’ve said before that this is far bigger than Occupy, that the ideas being raised must be taken up by a wider movement willing to allow new groups to the fore. If we simply say, “oh, that’s Occupy’s beat” then we’ve allowed ourselves to fall prey to stand-byerism. If Occupy fails, or if it splinters, then it must be a learning experience for those of my generation for whom this is our first outing into the street and into protest. We can’t go “tried protest, it didn’t work.” It simply can’t be the end of things.

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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