Some humble realizations on the 2009 NYC student movement and “Occupy Everything”

by Kate

November 11, 2011

The roots and precursors of the current #occupy movement are many; too many to trace here. But one clear antecedent of the “occupy” meme itself is the brief, but militant, student movement in New York City in 2009, when antiwar/anti-imperialist students at the New School and NYU staged take-overs of campus buildings, demanding disclosure of war-related research and the resignation of President Bob Kerry, declaring “Occupy Everything, Now!”

At the time, my take on the movement was supportive, but critical of militant tactics that I thought isolated the students from activists at other New York City colleges and in community movements and which resulted in increasingly dire consequences to activists themselves, in the form of threats to their academic careers and brutal police repression that, at the time, provoked mostly derision and schadenfreude from mainstream observers. I argued that students should drop the obsession with security culture, reach out to other students and heed the sage words of Boots Riley and the Coup, to “bring the people with you.” To me, the defeat of these occupations was at least in part the result of their misplaced militancy and lack of strategy for building power.

I stand by my sentiment that broad, winning movements are preferable to small, defeated ones. But recent events have caused me to rethink some of my earlier criticism. In many ways, the occupation of Zucotti Park that was the initial proverbial “spark” of the current upsurge resembled these previous occupations in form, style and content. In fact, the initial occupation, in comparison, had jettisoned the only careful, conservative part of its predecessor—the seemingly manageable, well defined targeting of university administrations by student activists. Instead, a motley crew of occupiers, some local, some not, decided to lay claim to a privately owned park and direct their loud moral outrage at, of all things, Wall Street, and the 1%–the ruling class on whom they had little apparent claim.

Left veterans of many stripes, myself included, expected a quick and brutal defeat. The NYPD was more than happy to oblige this expectation. Instead, outrage and support for the movement exploded in response to standard anti-protest tactics of the NYPD. Brilliant lefty analysts like myself were shocked, excited, and racing to join the occupation—along with students across the city, union members and officials and freshly-minted occupiers around the nation and the world.

The difference? It was not a more careful coalition-oriented organizing strategy, nor a carefully-calibrated level of militancy, nor a healthy fear in the face of police brutality. 2011 is simply a different moment than 2009—but not so different that the change in “objective conditions” was immediately apparent, even to interested observers, until well into the occupation of Liberty Square.

This humbling realization has led me to some revised conclusions. While in no way intend to detract from the importance of debates inside the occupy movements around
matters of
internal conflict and solidaritywithin the 99%,, I would like to offer the suggestion that in moments of low struggle and frequent defeat activists and lefties may have been too bogged down in criticizing ourselves and each other in the beleaguered hope that the perfect organizational line, strategy or tactic would move us from being small isolated and embattled islands to a true “movement of movements.”

Instead the lesson of Occupy, now, for me is that movements in motion don’t wait for the perfect spark to light them or for the perfect strategy to grow. The task for brilliant lefty strategists in the current movement is to move—and to hopefully bring along the friends we’ve made during the long, dark, past, and make new, even imperfect, friends.


One response to “Some humble realizations on the 2009 NYC student movement and “Occupy Everything””

  1. Wes Strong Avatar
    Wes Strong

    Well said, Kate. Couldn’t agree more. We can’t wait for the perfect spark, we have to work with the one we are given. Tried and true strategies are just as successful as ever, in fact more, since new energies are flooding into actions to support workers, communities, and oppressed people. Its about harnessing the new energy to build a new movement for social and economic justice that offers a vision of how to achieve both.

    The encampments play a role as a symbol, though they themselves do not often achieve much politically, they can achieve a few basic things that will help build the movement. People are know starting to see that we can win through struggle, or at least those who thought we couldn’t are stating to realize that. And those that have been fighting for decades are excited to have this energy supporting their struggles as well.

    However, there still are problems of priviledge and democracy in the occupy movement, including red/black baiting, limitations of discussion on racism, sexism, and other oppressions, etc. I think it becomes the job of those that have been around longer to make sure these issues are raised through struggle, and most importantly to do it on the move (like you say) so that we don’t get too bogged down in critizing the low level of consiousness among some sectors of the working class.

    When the left has nothing to fight for, it fights itself. The energy brought out by the occupy movement has given us something to fight for to build a new movement. I’ve been buried in local work since this popped up, its offered a lot of hope to folks here in Hartford (which doesn’t have a history of strong political activism and has a long history of rigid racial segregation and separation between white movements and movements of color) which in and of itself is a humongous victory. Glad to see other soli folks talking about this movement and providing some analysis.