Occupy that Next Level: Four Ideas for the Movement

From the massive student strike at OccupyCal in Berkeley to the police crackdown of the OccupyWallStreet movement’s birthplace in New York City and dozens of actions and headlines in between — from coast to coast, last week was an important, up-and-down week for the growing Occupy movement. Where the movement heads in the weeks and months to come, however, will be even more critical to the fate of this people’s uprising — and possibly to the fate of equality in America. So the eternal question presents itself again: what is to be done?

After missing out on the fun of the initial two months due to travel, I had my first full-on experiences with the Occupy movement last week. I attended general assemblies in Oakland, marched with debt-straddled students and foreclosed homeowners into banks in San Francisco’s financial district, and participated in that huge, beautiful strike at UC-Berkeley. Everywhere I went there were tents – tents being set up, tents being torn down, tents even floating in the air at one point. Even more, though, there were people, thousands and thousands of them: proud of the bold, game-changing actions they had organized so far, angry at the violent police reaction they had received courtesy of the 1%, and debating (for hours and hours, in mass meetings and countless committees) what to do next.

This is my contribution to that conversation. I am a student of history, a writer and community organizer, and a deep believer in the power of listening. Last week, I listened to literally hundreds of people, both within and outside of the Occupy movement, who all had powerful, personal takes on the situation.  There are many challenges that face the movement, but there are even greater opportunities.  From the Arab Spring to the European indignados, revolution (or at least resistance) is in the air, and here in America, we have a rare political opening for mass social change unlike anything in a generation.

First, I want to acknowledge the power and the beauty that my Occupying friends have created so far. From its humble beginnings in Lower Manhattan barely two months ago, people have taken up the Occupy call in over 100 cities and towns across America and even beyond our borders. In a country where the media usually uses the term “class warfare” to criticize people who merely recognize that income inequality exists, the Occupy movement has successfully – and rightly – framed our ongoing economic and political crisis as the fault of Wall Street and the ruling 1%. Taking over public squares and confronting the private interests that control our lives, the protesters have captured the public’s imagination. Thousands swelling to its ranks, the movement has pulled off massive, before-unthinkable direct actions such as the Oakland general strike of November 2, where over 40,000 people shut down the Port of Oakland, directly impeding one of the key nodes of corporate capitalism.

At the same time as these successes, several crucial questions continue to pop up. Confusion – both amongst the media and some protesters ourselves – about demands, principles, and tactics has led many natural allies and regular folks who are sympathetic to the movement’s goals to refrain from joining in themselves. In response to those sentiments, and in the spirit of solidarity, here are some suggestions for my comrades to consider as we figure our our next steps.

Much of this is already happening, while some of it is deeply controversial. Either way, now is the time to be honest with ourselves and each other. Every idea might not be applicable to your city or campaign, but hey, one of the great things of this movement so far has been to take each other’s good ideas and build off them. Here is where I’m at right now, and it seems like a lot of activists and not-yet-activists are here too:

1. The Tents were Great, but It’s Time for Something New

Over the last two weeks, mayors across the country (apparently coordinated by the FBI) shut down many of the largest Occupy encampments, including in New York, Oakland, Portland, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and more. Police arrested hundreds of peaceful activists, inevitably leaving clouds of pepper spray and millions of dollars in their wake. While I fully condemn the police raids, I also think they offer us an opportunity to move to the next stage: it’s time to Occupy more than just tents.

The tent encampments were the birthplace of the movement, both a powerful symbol of public outrage in front of the banks and city halls and a 24/7 organizing center where people could come to plug in, get information, and even grab a hot meal. Over time, however, the battle came to be about municipal camping policies, rather than the corporate dictatorship of our politics and economy. Some encampments, inclusive of all who walked through their open doors, came to include too many drugs and other harmful activities that hurt the effort to welcome more people into the ranks. It has become clear to many, though unfortunately not to all, that something new is needed.

At an OccupyOakland general assembly last week, many activists called for new Occupations around town: at foreclosed homes to stop people from being evicted, and at the banks themselves doing the evicting. That is, taking the occupations directly to the victims and perpetrators of the economic crimes we live through everyday. This is already starting to happen, as the Oakland movement marched yesterday to one of the five local elementary school slated to be closed by budget cuts — in a beautiful move, the march was led by the first graders and their parents. In Washington, DC the other day, OccupyDC activists took over a former homeless shelter owned and shut down by the city. University student activists across California are taking their their long-running campaign, against massive tuition hikes and the privatization of public education, directly to the banks with strong ties to the UC Regents.

In each city, these actions will and should look different. Many groups are still using the original occupation sites for general assemblies and ongoing organizing/service centers…and then going home at night to rest and fight another day. This approach is more sustainable in the long-term (who really wants to sleep outside come January?), and it attracts more supporters who are down for the cause but not the tents. Look to our European comrades who also used the tactic as an example: los indignados in Spain moved beyond physical tents and their movement has now exploded to every corner of the continent.

2. Acknowledge the Complexity of the 99%

You can’t go to an Occupy march these days without hearing the chant, “We are the 99%!” It’s one of the best things the movement has achieved so far, a sense of unity and recognition that whatever our respective race, income, and geography, we are all getting screwed by the super-rich and their political puppets. It has caught on because it’s true, and also because it invites everyone (well, 99% of everyone) to get in on the party. It’s a broad-based movement trying to change some very broad-based problems.

At the same, we need to recognize that, truth be told, we are not all the same. The 99% includes graduate students and high school dropouts, gentrifying hipsters and gentrified-out families, immigrants and indigenous folks, suburban Occupiers out in Walnut Creek, the good folks of Occupy the Hood, and yes, as we have seen in many of the encampments, some of the over one million homeless Americans. We come from very different places, with different traditions and expectations. These differences can cause tension and alienation amongst activists, let alone uninitiated folks. One huge step for the Occupy movement would be to start recognizing the true diversity of the American 99%, and figuring out ways to use that diversity as a strength rather than another way for the ruling class to divide and conquer.

Last month, the Oakland-based immigrant rights youth group 67 Sueños targeted Wells Fargo for their investments in private immigration detention prisons. A few weeks later, UC-Berkeley students protested outside Wells Fargo again (the exact same branch, in fact) against sky-rocketing student loans. Dare I smell a coalition? This movement is broad enough for different groups to find their specific points of entry, and when we come together in unity, that’s when the fun stuff really happens.

One last thing, but maybe the most important on this point: much has been said of the overrepresentation of white people in the Occupy movement. Hey, it’s true. Especially in a city like Oakland, it is weird, almost painful, to be at a general assembly with at least 80% white folks. But I also know that the general strike was much more diverse. Why? Its demands, framing, and tactics spoke to communities of color who have known about things like police brutality since long before there were tents downtown. The question is who we are talking to, and how.

Let’s keep it real: the original OccupyWallStreet call to action was put out by Adbusters, a small magazine by and for young, white, college-educated (or dropped-out) lefties. It was very quickly embraced by a much larger audience across the country, but still majority white. There are pros and cons to this. The con is that people of color, who generally have felt the effects of the recession much harder than white people, are hesitant to join in, due to a history of exclusion and even betrayal by majority-white labor and liberal movements. At the same time, though, I have heard from some black and Latino comrades, upon seeing all the white people in the streets, a sentiment of “It’s about time!” Similarly, I have always been frustrated by the apathy of many of my light-skinned brothers and sisters. So to everyone who is joining in, I say, it’s nice to see y’all. Just remember: we’re not the only players in this party, and if this is going to really jump off, we’ll need to check some of our privilege and practice real solidarity.

3. Beyond Violence vs. Non-Violence: Let’s Talk Responsibility vs. Irresponsibility

Nothing gets an activist debate going, or media headlines buzzing, like the role of “violence” in the movement. This has been especially true here in Oakland, where small groups of protesters have repeatedly smashed bank windows and other actions that have provoked confrontation with the cops. Let’s be clear: I don’t consider breaking a window to be violence (humans bleed, glass does not), but I do consider it stupid. Shutting down the Port of Oakland on November 2 cost big business, according to their own estimate, $8 million dollars in one day — cracking some glass at Whole Foods or Bank of America costs them pennies. More importantly, it enables the inevitable police crackdown and dissuades a sympathetic public from joining the movement. If we want the full 99% to join in, petty property damage ain’t the way to do it.

The proponents of such actions usually defend them under the catchphrase “diversity of tactics.” I am all for different tactics, but what this phrase’s backers really mean by it is anonymity of tactics and absolution of responsibility. A small group of people throw a couple bricks under the cover of night and black masks, then run away from the cops, leaving the whole movement to take the brunt of the police and media backlash. Whether these folks are hardcore anarchists or police provocateurs, I don’t know. Probably some of both. Either way, I’m done with the “violence versus nonviolence” debate. I’d rather discuss strategy versus stupidity, accountability versus irresponsibility. As I mentioned earlier, I’m all for direct actions that may not be technically legal, especially occupations of banks, schools, and homes. But we need actions that speak to people, that invite them to come on in, rather than scare them away.

For this to happen, folks are going to have to step up and demand the Occupy movement take some clear principles. So far, many people have resisted the idea that there are and should be leaders in the movement. Sorry if this breaks your non-hierarchical bubble but, formally or informally, there already are many people who have taken a lead in one form or another. The question is whether that leadership is as democratic, accountable, and collective as possible. Direct democracy is more than just repeating “Mic Check!” at a general assembly and then approving every resolution that comes forward. It’s making tough decisions, and sometimes confronting your comrades. It’s time for individuals and community organizations within the movement to step up and do just that. Not for the sake of division, but for long-term unity. We have way more to gain than to lose.

 4. If the Police can Coordinate their Actions, So Can We

It is now clear that last week’s crackdown on the Occupations across the country was coordinated by the federal government and local, mainly Democratic mayors. They jointly decided on their message (“the camps have become a public health issue”), their date (all within a couple days of each other), and their action (kick out the tents, and don’t let them return). They made their move together. Now it’s our turn.

Each city’s local Occupy actions and focus are great, but the economic and political problems we are confronting are national – actually international – in scope. It’s time to start making our presence felt on that level. Last Thursday’s national day of action, called by OccupyWallStreet and with coordinated protests in over a dozen cities, was a great start. OccupyOakland‘s call for a West Coast Port Shutdown on December 12 is an even bigger step, and if it can be pulled off up and down the coast, it would strike a huge blow to the powers that be.

Beyond that, we can to start organize internationally alongside the people in similar struggles for democracy and against austerity in Egypt, Greece, Chile, and beyond. Who knows? Maybe we can bring that beautiful idea that “another world is possible” closer to making it real.

For now, let’s take it one day, one step at a time. Things are changing fast. The Occupy movement is still young, finding its legs, its voice, its strength. It has many challenges and contradictions to tackle, no doubt, but hey, so has every movement throughout history. Let’s keep building, and see what kind of history we can make ourselves.