Occupy Cincinnati as a Case Study
— Ursula McTaggart
OCCUPY CINCINNATI WAS “an event, not a movement.” So says one participant, who asks to be known only as James. This activist argues that viewing Occupy — both in Cincinnati and nationally — as a movement, causes it to be seen as something that is now over, diminishing its significance. As an event it was a catalyst that brought new members to the larger anti-capitalist movement — and as such it was successful.
Although I continue to see Occupy as a movement, James’s analysis is useful as it draws attention to the potential future of Occupy, rather than declaring it moribund. Moreover, it highlights the question of whether “occupation” itself is so fundamental to Occupy Wall Street that the end of the physical occupation means the end of the movement — or whether it can genuinely and adequately live on in new ways.
Occupy activists were quick to offer mutual aid to those affected by Hurricane Sandy in New York City, and offshoots like Strike Debt! have been taking the New York City movement in new directions by uniting activists around the issue of debt specifically. In Detroit and elsewhere, Occupy activists have raised successful defenses against home foreclosures and evictions.
Yet the national enthusiasm about Occupy has waned, and such extensions of the movement have failed to gain traction in the media. To investigate James’s contention about Occupy’s future potential, I turned backward to the strategy of occupation itself. Why did it become the defining feature of this movement, and what effects did that have both concretely and in terms of political rhetoric?
In particular, I wondered how and why occupations took off around the country, not just in New York City. In pursuing this question, I conducted interviews with participants of Occupy in southwest Ohio. I approached Cincinnati rather than New York, Oakland or Boston for a practical reason — it is the site of my own local protest. I think it deserves attention not because it offered something entirely unique, but because it demonstrates how the occupation strategy offered special opportunities and posed particular problems in smaller cities, where the national spotlight did not shine.
Cincinnati offers us a glimpse into Occupy beyond New York and the coasts — a place where the movement was of necessity more about building personal connections for further activism than it was about influencing the national political discourse.
A Movement “Renewal”
Cincinnati is a city with a history of serious racial conflict, reflected in an urban rebellion in 2001 after the police shooting of an unarmed Black man. For a major urban center, it is relatively conservative. Hamilton County, where the city is located, typically votes Republican in presidential races, though Obama’s two victories were exceptions.
Despite the region’s conservatism, Occupy Wall Street sparked a significant movement in Cincinnati. Many of the experienced activists I interviewed said that the early days of Occupy were powerful and inspiring. Longtime socialist activist Bob Turansky saw it as a “renewal,”(1) and Sherry Barron said it was “more intense than anything I had ever been involved in.”(2)
After some initial organizing meetings, the Cincinnati incarnation of Occupy began on October 8, 2011 when a large group of marchers descended on downtown’s Fountain Square, determined to stay for the night but uncertain whether it would last beyond that. They expected to face immediate arrest.
The Cincinnati Enquirer placed the number of attendees at “several hundred,” while Turansky thought it more on the order of 750 to 1000, and Martha Stephens said she counted nearly 900 as she watched the march go by.(3) Led in melodic musical chants by Justin Jeffre, activist and member of the band 98 Degrees, the marchers traipsed four miles around Cincinnati’s downtown.
Upon their return, a small group settled in for the night, willing to face arrest, as about 50-75 others patrolled the streets around the square to guard against police brutality. Although police were present, they chose not to make arrests that night, and as the sun rose the protesters felt victorious and energized to continue.
The first move was to abandon Fountain Square. The center of Cincinnati’s downtown, it would have offered protesters the most visibility and the best symbolic statement. An occupation, however, would have set up conflicts between Occupy and organizers of scheduled events in the square, from charities to musical groups to local festivals.
Deciding that such conflict would be counterproductive, the group decamped to Piatt Park, a small public park several blocks from Fountain Square that is little more than a green strip in the middle of a boulevard. There, protesters set up approximately ten tents and began holding nightly General Assemblies.
Campers remained from October 10, 2011 through October 21. In that time, there were 50 arrests, 250 criminal trespassing charges, and tens of thousands of dollars accumulated in fines for staying in the park overnight. In the evenings, participants would line up at around 11:00 pm — an hour after the park “closed” — to receive their citations after the nightly General Assembly.
When police raised the stakes by making arrests on October 21, the protesters filed a lawsuit against the city to keep the park open 24 hours. In the meantime, nightly General Assemblies continued at the park until December (when they moved indoors due to weather), but protesters abandoned the encampment.(4) Eventually, the city agreed to drop charges against protesters and set up a 24-hour zone in the park — with camping prohibited — in exchange for protesters dropping the suit.(5)
Occupation as Movement Asset…
The federal lawsuit illustrated how seriously Occupy Cincinnati took the strategy of occupation.
Occupation is a bold tactic rooted in the sit-down strikes of the 1920s and ’30s.(6) It reflects intense commitment to a cause and requires significant labor to perform successfully. People must take time off work or school, negotiate physical needs for food, shelter and sanitation, and face hardships from police confrontation to weather to boredom. Occupy Wall Street was remarkably successful in maintaining this high-intensity strategy, not only in New York but in many cities across the country.
On a concrete level, occupation was the movement’s greatest asset and its ultimate downfall. Participants in Cincinnati found that camping out forced them to examine both their theoretical and pragmatic politics more deeply.
As Justin Jeffre remarked, “living up in each other’s space forced you to be really open and have a lot more discussions with a broad group of people that you would not normally talk to . . . We didn’t just roll out a list of demands. It seemed almost like a weakness of the movement because it was so broad, but I think what we were doing was having a conversation amongst ourselves.”(7)
The original call for Occupy Wall Street, published by the anarchist magazine Adbusters, asked “What is our one demand?,” leaving open what the demand would be but assuming there would be one. The demand never materialized, though the message of the movement was certainly clear. And while some protesters rejected the idea of a unified demand overtly, Jeffre suggested that protesters were developing concrete demands, just not quickly or easily. They were learning, he said, to reframe their understanding of American politics and the economic crisis.
This reframing occurred for experienced activists as well as new activists, and this is what made Occupy so significant. Dan La Botz, as a longtime activist, had experience with the consensus model taken up by the movement and felt that he knew its problems from the beginning. Yet he was willing to embrace it for Occupy because his fellow activists saw such value in it. He didn’t change his perspective, but he was open to having his views reframed by the group.
Drew Goebel said he was skeptical of prefigurative politics that presented Occupy’s kitchens, libraries and other structures as models of better social structures, but his experience with Occupy made him more open to it.(8) The physical closeness created by the occupation strategy encouraged — and sometimes forced -- participants to reframe their perspective in either ideological or tactical ways.
This collective process of working towards specific demands, flawed though it was, brought an enormous surge of enthusiasm for leftist protest. Moreover, it was only because of the sustained nature of the protest and the ensuing conflicts with police that the movement gained enough widespread, substantive and positive media coverage to spread nationwide.
Initial New York Times coverage of the Wall Street protests was dismissive, and not until protesters began facing police brutality and establishing themselves as a sustained presence in the first week of October did engaged political articles begin to appear.(9) Likewise, NPR refused to cover the protests at all until more than two weeks into the occupation.(10)
As a strategy, occupation was successful in popularizing the protest and bringing the issue of income inequality into the common discourse. In Cincinnati, occupation — and especially the federal lawsuit — kept the protests in the news regularly, a feat that frequent marches would probably not have achieved.
William Powell of Cincinnati Magazine wrote a long feature piece about the movement that was largely positive — and that existed only because of the occupation. Powell began his research for the story two weeks into the protest, indicating that the longevity of the protest prompted him to conceive of and execute the article.(11)
Although the daily Cincinnati Enquirer provided less substantive coverage than Powell did, it nonetheless published 35 articles about the movement in total from October 8, 2011 to March 13, 2012. Of those, only eight were on the general topic of the protest, unrelated to issues of occupation and arrest, which indicates that the conflict surrounding occupation was a major reason for news coverage.
It is impossible to tell what coverage would have been like in the absence of an occupation, but I think it is fair to say that the strategy increased the quantity of press coverage about Occupy Cincinnati.
…And as Liability
For the larger Occupy Wall Street movement, maintaining occupation in many cities around the country was a Herculean task. The commitment required split the movement between those who were willing or able to camp out and those who were not.
Older activists, those with small children, or with inflexible work schedules, were often unable to participate as fully as the young, healthy, unemployed or flexibly employed. This diminished public participation, and it also meant that those who camped out had a different stake in the movement than those who did not.
Beyond internal divisions, police repression combined with the onset of winter eventually made it unsustainable. At this stage, the loss of physical spaces meant a precipitous decline in the movement itself — if we want to call Occupy its own distinct movement separate from the larger global justice movement. Because what we call “Occupy” began with occupation and took the strategy as part of its name, the end of occupations raised the question of whether the movement itself was still alive.
In Cincinnati, General Assemblies continued for several months, and a small group still convenes under the name of Occupy Cincinnati, though all the participants I spoke with had ceased to participate in this incarnation of the organization. Instead, many belonged to a small offshoot known as Occupy Work and Wages, which is currently advocating for a federal living wage law — and in the interim, an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour. They hold differing opinions on whether the movement was over, but the end of the occupation certainly raised this question.
The spread of occupations across the country also led Occupy Wall Street to diffuse its message into a variety of smaller battles. In Cincinnati, tiny, out-of-the-way Piatt Park seemed an insignificant space to wage an enormous battle over. Did a lawsuit for the right to 24-hour free speech in this area increase public awareness of economic injustice, make the movement into a crusade for free speech rights rather than one about economic inequality, or make it focused on small battles rather than large ones?
Moreover, the fact that occupation led to confrontation with police over the rules governing public spaces meant that much of the movement’s press coverage was devoted to the battle over space rather than the battle for economic equality.
While the New York Times published fairly extensively on the issues protesters sought to highlight, the Cincinnati Enquirer published 12 related to arrests, four related to citations, and four related to the lawsuit filed by protesters. Eleven of the total articles were simply reports of the protest itself.
Much of the press coverage of Occupy Cincinnati, in other words, was related to the conflict over Piatt Park. On the one hand, this was useful because it kept the movement in the news, allowed the development of the one long, substantive piece about the movement, and opened a discussion of free speech rights on public property. On the other hand, it muted discussions of the bigger ideas at the heart of Occupy Cincinnati and made it appear that the protest was more about a park, than about economic justice.
Strategy and Rhetorical Event
This problem extended beyond Cincinnati to all of the smaller “Occupy” events around the country. Was it worth it to maintain many small occupations instead of providing support for the one national occupation? Participant Drew Goebel took this position:
“It doesn’t make sense to have occupations all over the country. It makes sense for groups to form all over the country, but the character of their protests and the character of their organizing shouldn’t get stuck on an occupation in a park. My argument would be that the Occupy movements should have developed and implemented a more long-term strategy. The occupy tactic could be more useful if it developed into ‘We’re mad about people getting kicked out of their homes, so we have people occupying homes.’ Occupying workplaces would have been a more productive tactic. The New York one was mostly symbolic, which I would say was a good idea because it resonated with people but you lose the symbolism in downtown Cincinnati because if we’re in a park which is nowhere near the financial centers, it becomes an argument about a park which no one knows exists.”
While I agreed wholeheartedly with Goebel’s point as I listened to and read news of the spreading occupations at the time, I can now see that the many occupations forced the movement to become intensely local, and encouraged participants across the country to be more deeply committed due to the high-intensity strategy.
James offers a more positive way of reading the occupation:
The occupations in New York and Oakland were probably more important than local physical occupations, but what was useful about having a little occupation in every city is that it brought people together and created networks that would never have existed if we were just doing solidarity marches every week. Because we had this physical space in each town, in each city, we were able to meet face to face not only for a demonstration but also we got to know each other, and we started to build a culture around resistance rather than just having casual acquaintances. Everybody became friends. Almost everybody I hang out with on the weekends is from Occupy. That’s because we had that physical space.
As both James and Goebel illustrate, occupation as a physical strategy was both the most successful and the most fragile part of the movement. It might have avoided some its pitfalls and capitalized on its benefits, perhaps, if there had been a firm plan about how to transform Occupy into something sustainable after the occupation came to an end.
But the occupation was not simply a physical presence. It was also a rhetorical event. As such, I think it is important to address the use of the term “occupation” as an appropriation of imperialist language, a point that is largely untouched in the activist community.
Occupy Oakland did have an internal battle over this issue, and although a faction of the group wanted to change the name to Decolonize Oakland, the group chose to keep its name in concert with the Occupy movement across the country.
Despite the debate in Oakland, this discussion did not gain prominence in the movement as a whole or in media coverage. Only one of the people I interviewed, Martha Stephens, mentioned the militaristic connotations of occupation when discussing the movement’s rhetoric, and although she was somewhat troubled by it, she did not ultimately see it as a problem.
“I’m not worried about it being a military term, really,” she said. When asked how she defined the term, she said “I want to say ‘takeover,’ although that sounds a little too harsh.” Instead, she posed an alternative definition: “Be a presence of conscience. In the old days you would say infiltrate maybe. But I kind of like occupy.”(12)
I appreciate Stephens’ definition, and I can see the appeal of “occupy” because of its attempt to declare popular power in the public sphere. Moreover, in the midst of a foreclosure and unemployment crisis, occupation is also language we use to describe our relationship to our homes and our jobs. People were demanding the right to “occupy” their homes and to “occupy” themselves with building political and economic alternatives in a broken system.
Nonetheless, I think that glossing over the imperial connotations of the term is problematic. When I spoke about Occupy Cincinnati at the American Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the term “occupation” was one of the first things that came up, and many in the audience, including Puerto Rican students who had participated in sit-down student strikes in recent years, concurred that the term made them uncomfortable.
There is something to be said for appropriating the language of the oppressors, and this is not a new tactic. However, successful appropriation must come from the oppressed group itself, and Occupy Wall Street was not primarily made up of indigenous or colonized people, nor was it a movement primarily focused on addressing the needs of those groups.
Oppressive or Liberating?
The use of the term occupation, then, connoted aggression and power but failed to address the fraught history of the term. This is especially puzzling because, within the last decade, some of the most prominent slogans of the antiwar movement have included phrases like “end the occupation now.”
“Occupation” and “imperialism” are touchstone words in the activist left to describe American military behavior, so it is hard to claim ignorance about the relationship between the movement’s name and its imperialist connotations.
Moreover, although “occupation” is an appropriate term to describe the type of protest the “occupiers” used, it would have been just as accurate to call it a “sit-in” or to generate some alternative “brand” name riffing on the “sit-down strike” tradition.
Julian Padilla of the People of Color Working Group in Occupy Wall Street argued that occupation could be either oppressive or liberating, depending on whether participants “steal and destroy” or whether they are protesting and seeking power in an ethical way. Nonetheless, he remarked that “I do wish the NYC movement would change its name to ‘decolonise Wall Street’ to take into account history, indigenous critiques, people of color and imperialism.”(13)
Language is important — it is one of the most powerful tools that activists have to change the world around them — and careless choices or choices that are not adequately narrated and analyzed in the public discourse can negatively impact a movement.
Indeed, the Occupy movement was enormously successful in disseminating its rhetoric and transforming the political language of the country, at least in the short term.
The 99% phrase remains part of the common vernacular a year later, reappearing regularly in new ways and with new numbers. The conservative backlash Tumblr site “We are the 53%” spawned Mitt Romney’s comment about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes, and the “47%” subsequently became a frame for understanding the presidential election.
Likewise, “occupy” has become a noun as well as a verb, applied to people and events as code for the issue of economic inequality. The success of the movement’s rhetoric makes it even more troubling that “occupy” has problematic implications because the term has now become a “brand” for leftist organizing. It is not a damning feature of the movement, but is it really the best we could have chosen?
Problems aside, the Occupy movement remains the most profound example of leftist activism in recent history — at least since the antiwar protests of the early 2000s or Seattle of 1999. It held sway in the media for nearly two months, spread across the country, and popularized left-wing dissent in the wake of the Tea Party’s right-wing ascendance.
In cities like Cincinnati, the upsurge was important in recruiting new people to political action. Even with Occupy’s waning influence, participant Kate Gallion is optimistic: “I am convinced that we have ignited a new wave of political action,” she says. “We have broken the ground and empowered people to join up — fight back.”(14)
Speaking of Work and Wages, Justin Jeffre says that “we know a lot more people through Occupy than we did before, so we know that there are a lot more people that are willing to come out.”
“Participant James added that “I thought before Occupy that I was the only leftist in Cincinnati other than like Bob [Turansky] and Dan [LaBotz], but now we have this really well established group of radicals . . .
“I think there’s a lot of potential coming out of Occupy, especially if people can let it die and move on and build radical infrastructure like social centers and that sort of thing and really hunker down and do the actual work of creating a revolutionary movement in this country.”
Jeffre concurred about the importance of building alternative institutions, stressing that he was focused on building the alternative press through the online Cincinnati Beacon.
Although these participants had all been politically active prior to Occupy, the movement gave them renewed energy and optimism about political change. That in itself is valuable.
Instead of mourning Occupy’s decline, perhaps the lesson Occupy Cincinnati activists offer is that we can celebrate it as a reminder of what did happen once and can again. And in small cities like Cincinnati, Occupy offered people the chance to participate in something national, even as they built the local relationships necessary for further activism, whether that belongs to “Occupy” or comes with a new name and a new strategy.
- Turansky, Bob. Interview. 11 Oct. 2012. Stephens, Martha. Interview. 13 Oct. 2012.
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- Barron, Sherry. Interview. 21 July 2012.
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- Wartman, Scott and Amanda Van Benschoten. “’99 Percent’ Occupy Cincinnati.” Cincinnati Enquirer 9 Oct 2011. Web.
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- LaBotz, Dan, interview. 21 July 2012.
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- Whitaker, Carrie. “Occupy Cincinnati Holds Press Conference.” Cincinnati Enquirer 13 Mar. 2012. Web.
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- Alim, H. Samy. “What if We Occupied Language?” Opinionator Blog. New York Times 21 Sept. 2011. Web.
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- Jeffre, Justin. Interview. 3 Oct. 2012.
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- Goebel, Drew. Interview. 4 Oct. 2012.
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- Stelter, Brian. “Occupy Wall Street Occupies Headlines.” Media Decoder Blog. New York Times 12 Oct. 2011. Web.
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- Brady, Jeff. “Wall Street Protesters In It For the Long Haul.” 2 Oct. 2011. Weekend Edition. NPR. Radio.
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- Powell, William. “Winter of Our Discount Tents.” Cincinnati Magazine 1 Feb. 2012. Web.
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- Stephens, Martha. Interview. 13 Oct. 2012.
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- Quoted in Alim, H. Samy. “What if We Occupied Language?” Opinionator Blog. New York Times 21 Sept. 2011. Web.
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- Gallion, Kate. Email correspondence. 12 Oct. 2012.
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March/April 2013, ATC 163