The loss of unity and polarisation within the Occupy movement

The following is from a long analysis of what went wrong with the Occupy movement. It traces its dislocation to the loss of the unifying encampments, the subsequent polarisation within the movement, and the rise of confrontational tactics that lacked a connection with mass movement.

Excerpted from a long analysis by Jen Roesch:

“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the encampments to the movement. It is not simply that they offered a symbol of direct confrontation and reclamation of public space. In a very real sense, they provided the physical arena in which people could come together to discuss strategy and through which new people could enter the struggle. They substituted themselves for the organisational structures that most activists rejected. At the most basic level, they allowed activists to find one another.

The experience of OWS, the largest and most developed of the encampments, is indicative of the general experience nationally. From the very beginning there was something of a divide between the running of the encampment and the associated “operational” groups and the movement working groups. At the height of the encampment close to 600 people were sleeping there nightly. This involved a massive operation that drew in hundreds of activists. But at the same time, there was a proliferation of movement-oriented working groups around almost every issue; these developed their own trajectory. While originally almost all the working groups met on-site at Zuccotti, most ended up splitting off either to a nearby atrium or even to further off-site locations in union halls or other spaces. In theory, these working groups were chartered by and accountable to the general assembly; in practice, they operated almost entirely autonomously with an uneven level of reporting back to the GA. Very quickly the GA took on a role that was much closer to a clearing house than that of a decision making body.

In fact, it’s worth noting that all of the biggest actions of OWS (the 5 October community/labour rally; the 15 October global day of action; and the 17 November labour march) were planned outside of the GA—and, in some cases, almost entirely outside of OWS. For example, most of the organising for the first mass rally on 5 October was carried out by people involved in the “Beyond May 12th Coalition”—a coalition of community and labour groups that had organised a march earlier that year. Two out of the three mass actions were driven in large part by the organised NYC labour movement with young labour-oriented radicals forming a bridge between OWS and the unions.

All of this meant that the movement was very diffuse and that there were no clear centres of decision making. However, as long as the encampment existed there was a practical centre that provided a space for different activities to overlap, for people to enter into the movement and for some level of cohesion to be sustained. There were also particular working groups that helped to provide this cohesion. For example, the facilitation committee met daily before the GAs and planned their agenda; additionally, every major action passed through the direct action committee (even if the centre of organising was frequently elsewhere). Even as what could be described as multiple occupy movements developed, there was a very clear identification with OWS that united everyone.

The reason this history is important is because it underscores how much was lost when the camps were evicted and the centrifugal pulls got exacerbated in the wake of that eviction. The movement was simply not developed enough to withstand the impact. In NYC this was exemplified by the response to the eviction itself. Despite a growing awareness that Mayor Bloomberg was planning to clear Zuccotti, the only real plan for defence involved activists locking themselves down and a text-alert system. On the night of the eviction the police were able to sweep through the park in under an hour and arrest anyone staying. By the time hundreds of people responded to the text-alert system, the area had been cordoned off and police divided and attacked scattered groups of protesters. There was no plan for an emergency response demonstration the next day or for a general assembly to plan the next actions. Most of the key organisers were in jail. Activists made several attempts to gather the next day, but there was no real coordination and so people were left responding to contradictory calls as best they could.

In the first month following the eviction of Zuccotti, the movement was still in a state of flux and it was not clear how much of a loss had been suffered. Just days after the eviction, on 17 November, there was a demonstration of tens of thousands that continued to bring new people into the movement. However, the feel of the demonstration was markedly different from earlier ones. Rather than decentralised “people’s mic” speak-outs, there was a large sound system provided and run by the unions and an incredibly heavy security team making sure that people marched away from Zuccotti. The police and city had regained the initiative. By early January it was clear that the movement had become isolated and was in retreat. In this context, the contradictory political currents that had been held together by a growing mass movement began to separate and polarise.

The movement splinters

The most hardened and politically defined current to emerge was that of the ultra-left, hard anarchists. This current is most concentrated on the West Coast and politically articulated through blogs/groupings such as Bay of Rage, the Oakland Commune, and the Black Orchid Collective.4 However, it also exerts a national influence and is politically connected to the insurrectionary anarchist current that emerged several years ago and was most closely identified with the occupation of the New School in NYC.

Occupy activists had always prided themselves on taking bold, militant action and saw themselves as standing in contrast to the “boring”, permitted marches traditionally called by unions and the left. However, at the height of the movement there was a mass character to the struggle that allowed it to constantly connect with broader layers of the working class. And most activists, even if they expressed concerns about co-optation, saw the importance of developing collaborative relationships with unions and other social organisations. However, as soon as the movement lost its mass character, politics that substituted individual confrontation for collective action began to dominate. While many movement activists gravitated towards these politics out of frustration and impatience, the hard anarchists offered up a theoretical justification and consciously attempted to lead the movement in this direction.

The call for a general strike in Oakland on 2 November had represented a high point of collaboration between unions and the Occupy movement. However, rather than seeing this as an opportunity on which to build, the hard anarchists drew the conclusion that activists could substitute their own militant action for that of workers at the point of production. In this conception, the flow of capital could be disrupted without the active participation of workers in a particular workplace. This could happen either in the process of circulation or through an attack on production from the outside. One collective of writers known as the Oakland Commune expressed the typical logic of this argument: “The subject of the ‘strike’ is no longer the working class as such, though workers are always involved. The strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labour from a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or even sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it”.5

This argument frequently extended to an active hostility to the organised working class. Activists with the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle began in December to formulate a conception of Occupy as representing the 89 percent of workers not organised in unions. While rejecting claims that this slogan expresses hostility towards unions, they portray union members as a privileged caste:

In the deepening of the economic crisis, it is hard to tell poor, unemployed, undocumented, immigrants, people of colour, that we too have a stake in the struggles of union workers, especially relatively privileged workers…When revolutionaries act as if legitimate class struggle only happens through NLRB [National Labour Relations Board]-recognised unions, they ignore the very real and material divisions between union and non-union workers, many of whom see unionised workers as remote and unrelated to their lives at best and as privileged workers who do not understand the realities of the proletariat at worst.

In reality, this insistent emphasis on confrontational tactics focuses the movement on a terrain with which the police and authorities have become quite comfortable. There has developed an all too predictable rhythm to these confrontations: the police wait for the numbers to dwindle and scatter, then attack and divide protesters from one another and use overwhelming force to quickly quell any resistance. In the early days of the movement police violence served to radicalise and bring larger numbers into it as people were horrified by unprovoked assaults on peaceful protesters. Today this dynamic has shifted. The movement is increasingly isolated and has become identified with its most adventurist wing. Activists are trapped in an exhausting and demoralising cycle of confrontation followed by the need for jailhouse solidarity and medical and legal support.

At the same time that the ultra-left, hard anarchist current advanced, many of the most important social forces that helped give support to Occupy, most notably the unions, began to retreat. A critique of the anarchist dismissal of the organised working class should not obscure the reality that there are inherent tensions in the relationship between the Occupy movement and the unions. The union leadership saw in Occupy an opportunity to infuse new energy into the labour movement. But they will also seek to contain that struggle within acceptable bounds and, in particular, would like to harness that energy into their support for President Obama’s re-election campaign. This was glaringly apparent when the president of SEIU, one of the country’s largest unions, issued an endorsement for Obama the day before the 17 November demonstration in NYC. The next day the full weight of the union’s bureaucratic apparatus was on display as it attempted to control and marshal the demonstration. There was clearly a conscious decision on the part of SEIU and its allies to make sure that the 30,000 people on the demonstration did not attempt to march to, let alone retake, Zuccotti, but instead were directed to an outer borough.

While the decentralised nature of the Occupy movement makes it difficult for the unions or Democratic Party to simply co-opt it, there is no doubt that both forces would like to steer activist energies into the 2012 elections. The splintering of the movement makes it much easier for anyone to take the language of “Occupy” and use it to their advantage. Most recently the liberal Democrat non-profit group, in alliance with the major unions, conducted a series of non-violent trainings that they called the “99 percent spring”. More than 100,000 people—constituting much of the base of the movement’s early phase—participated in the trainings. While organisers insist that these trainings are not about getting the vote out for Obama, they do provide a very tangible and organised potential base of support for such an effort. Moreover, they are an indication of where some of the largest and most well-funded organisations intend to put their efforts.”

In conclusion, “What’s Next?”:

“Today the Occupy movement is at a crossroads. If it is to move forward, it must connect with the broad layers of the working class that gave the movement its initial mass character. This would entail a series of more modest struggles around concrete issues such as police brutality, housing, public education and more. This work is being done, and sincerely so, with an increased corps of dedicated activists. But it does not find a political expression in the movement as a whole. Instead the public face of Occupy remains focused on attempts at renewed occupations, unpermitted marches and direct confrontation.

There are two critical obstacles that need to be overcome. First, most activists within the movement look to recreating the tactics that led to the explosion of the movement in the fall. This frequently means an insistence on direct confrontation with the police through unpermitted actions. There is an underlying assumption that police repression will, like it did in the autumn, ignite mass sympathy. Instead it tends to exhaust movement forces as activists deal with repeated rounds of repression and the resulting need for jailhouse solidarity, medical support and legal defence. It also raises the bar for passive sympathy to be translated into active participation. Finally, it can form a real barrier to genuine collaboration with emerging movements, such as those around criminal injustice, where participants instinctively understand the need for a more serious approach.

Secondly, the movement has not managed to replace the critical functions played by the encampments. There are hundreds of activists who are wrestling with the question of how to take the movement forward. But there is no political space in which they can come together and have these discussions. And, even more critically, there is no organisational mechanism for translating any agreed-upon strategy into action. Thus the most destructive actions taken by sections of the movement undermine any of the positive attempts to link up with working class forces. The widely shared political commitment to horizontalism and a “leaderless” movement acts as a block to the development of such structures.

The myopic focus on confrontational tactics and insistence on structurelessness both stem from a widely held belief that OWS was successful precisely because it broke new ground. Most commentary on the movement, as well as the self-assessment of movement activists, focused on the tactic of occupation and the fact that OWS emerged independent of trade union, liberal or left forces. There is no doubt that the occupation—both its existence and its imagery—played a key role in catapulting the movement to national attention. But it is equally true that there were a whole series of conjunctural factors that facilitated this. Some of these factors were truly unpredictable—such as the unwarranted, highly televised brutality against protesters and the resulting mass sympathy. Others were the result of the conscious efforts of longstanding activists, such as early links forged to labour and anti-racist activists.

Regardless of the initial reasons for the explosion of the movement, it tells us little about how to move it forward now. OWS tapped into a deep vein of accumulated bitterness and discontent in the US. But as a movement, it far exceeded the existing organisational and political capacity of the working class. That class has been in retreat for 35 years and suffers the scars of defeat and demoralisation. The monumental events of 2011, from the Egyptian Revolution to the occupation of the Capitol in Madison to OWS, all began a process of reversing that tide. But it is precisely that—a process, which will advance spectacularly at times, suffer defeats at others and need to consolidate its forces.

It is unclear in what way the Occupy movement will revive or even whether, in its current form, it can. But it has fundamentally altered the landscape of American politics and exposed the fault lines of class anger. In that sense, it has made a contribution to the rebuilding of working class confidence, organisation and militancy. There is no shortage of issues around which to organise. And certainly the continuing assault of the ruling class in this country guarantees new upheavals. Recently the struggle for justice for Trayvon Martin—an unarmed black teenager murdered by a racist vigilante—has played a role in galvanising an emerging anti-racist movement. In May as many as 10,000 protesters marched against the NATO summit in Chicago. And as of this writing, the 32,000 members of the Chicago Teachers’ Union are preparing for a potential strike in the autumn. These struggles may not flow through the structures of the Occupy movement. But they are part of the same dynamic that gave rise to it. The most important contribution that those on the existing left and those inspired by the movement can make is to draw the lessons of the most recent wave of struggle and help extend the organisation of this resistance in all directions possible.”