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.