Long Live Occupy: Occupy, three years later
Even though the last three years have seen almost a continuous uprising of people demanding more democracy and less corporate control, with most of it taking place in public squares and much of it calling itself Occupy, people still say that Occupy has disappeared.
Most recently, Occupy Central with Peace and Love was one of the key groups organizing the powerful occupation of the financial district in Hong Kong demanding real democracy.
Occupy emerged as a worldwide force on the October 15, 2011 day of action called by Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Toronto and other Canadian occupy sites were established on that same date along with occupations in countries around the world.
Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Toronto were both rather short lived in their central presence as occupations. Occupy Wall Street continues in various forms like The Rolling Jubilee Fund, a campaign of OWS that buys up cheap debt and forgives it, has most recently forgiven almost $4 million in student debt.
Exposing and exploiting the cracks in capitalism is one thing that Occupy continues to do. During Hurricane Sandy, Occupy Wall Street used its networks to organize relief on a social justice model. It was so effective even the Red Cross started delivering goods to them for distribution. Occupy was also important in organizing community contingents in the recent mammoth People’s Climate March. No one can claim that Occupy Wall Street has disappeared.
Occupy Toronto, on the other hand, has disappeared. But one of its key organizers Lana Goldberg told me: “In the case of Toronto, while the group was evicted after 40 days, some of us continued organizing through Occupy for a year. We organized a series of lectures called Occupy Talks, activist assemblies, various actions like a flash mob, joint rallies like the massive May Day march in 2012, and so on. Even since then, a number of people who were active with Occupy joined other groups in Toronto and are continuing to organize.”
Another Occupy Toronto organizer Sakura Saunders put it this way: ‘I believe that Occupy, Idle No More and Quebec’s student movement showed us that there are hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of people, who want dramatic change but are on the sidelines waiting for a movement that inspires them to hope, and this is what I hold onto in continuing to organize past these moments of heightened activity.”
In my view, Occupy as a movement continues in the particular forms of activism we are seeing emerging around the world. Whether Occupy Gezi in Turkey or Occupy Hong Kong, all these actions have similar qualities. While they include big marches, their focus is on building alternative communities, however short-lived, that are providing the necessities of life, political debate and cultural activities, as well as protests. They are all organized collectively with relatively flat structures, participatory democracy like the general assemblies and a valuing of whatever skills and ability people bring into the community.
Many of these qualities were present in the occupations of the Indignado in Spain and the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, that preceded Occupy Wall Street; but Occupy Wall Street, through both social and mainstream media, spread these ideas around the world. The Arab Spring kicked off a series of peoples’ uprisings around the world, unseen since the 1960’s. Most of them identify as Occupy and communicate with each other. So internationally, one can still talk about an Occupy movement.
Besides inspiring a new form of activism, Occupy has had other significant impacts on society. The most important is naming the elephant in the room created by neo-liberalism, the gap between the rich and the rest of us. The dynamic of redistribution of wealth from the poor and working class to the rich was being documented by think tanks, but before Occupy it had almost no discussion in the mainstream. Instead of being hailed as heroes, the rich bankers of Wall Street are the new villains.
One of the primary jobs of social movements is to change the conversation. Before the emergence of second wave feminism, no one worried about women’s equality. When I was a girl, it was assumed that women and men were different and wanted different things. Same is true of the Black Liberation movement, the LGBT movement and even the workers’ movement of the 30s.
Lana Goldberg, one of the key organizers in Occupy Toronto sees policy changes too: “There were a few concrete policy changes following the Occupy movement, such as increased tax rates on the wealthy in some provinces in Canada and the millionaire’s tax in New York, which are still in place.”
Secondly, Occupy Wall Street made protests cool again. I have spent the last twenty years responding to the manufactured consent of mainstream media that protests are so 1960’s and no longer have any relevance. You never hear that anymore and that’s because of Occupy.
Most people on the Left would agree with these two points but after that we might find some differences. One of the most powerful elements of Occupy to me was the way it practiced inclusion. While I agree with critiques of Occupy Toronto that it failed to practice anti-oppression politics, all of the Occupy communities that I visited included the most marginalized, homeless people and people with serious mental health issues.
Sakura describes it this way: ‘What started off as an expressive political project highlighting inequalities, began to shift its purpose as the people who occupied the camp and took advantage of its resources were increasingly people who lived on the streets. This came with hard lessons, but it also became more of a prefigurative project as we were able to demonstrate mutual aid and meet each other’s physiological and social needs with very few material resources.”
Nevertheless as one Occupy Toronto organizer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: “people of colour felt excluded from Occupy Toronto and that was never dealt with.”
In New York, there was more diversity, but that was because African Americans organized independently through Occupy the Hood, and Occupy Harlem. The General Assembly in Toronto adopted a 100 per cent consensus rule, so a small group of young white men who believed that equality had already been achieved blocked any effort to take special measures for women or people of colour.
Another difference between Occupy in the U.S. and Occupy in Canada was the role of the unions. Surprisingly, in New York, the labour movement played a much more significant role of solidarity than in Toronto. When the Mayor in New York threatened to evict OWS because it was dirty, unions mobilized hundreds of their members not only to help with the clean-up, but to form lines protecting the site from a possible police attack. An attack didn’t happen at that point, no doubt in part because of that mobilization. While unions provided significant resources to Occupy Toronto, the union mobilization in support of Occupy Toronto came the night before the police moved to evict them. Although it was a show of support, few union members stayed until the next day, when a thousand unionists surrounding the park could have protected it from eviction.
Some Indigenous and environmental justice organizers felt that Occupy Toronto took the time and energy of white organizers away from their struggles into one that had little impact.
Finally, a lot of individuals involved in Occupy burned out as a result. People quit their jobs to stay in the camp and worked night and day to keep it going, burning out in the process. Of the three people I interviewed for this article, two — both women — felt Occupy was both important politically and personally positive for them. The third person was both more critical of Occupy and felt burned out by the experience.
Overall, my assessment is that Occupy reflects a new social movement focused much more on class and capitalism than the movements that came before. In the view of this aging activist, it is a profoundly important international social movement that like many social movements and perhaps even more will change and morph into different forms but will be seen by history as a turning point in social change.
Judy Rebick is an author and feminist activist. Twitter: @judyrebick.
Long Live Occupy: Occupy, Three Years Later is reprinted with permission from rabble.ca.
Photo from Occupy Toronto: flickr/Mark Falardeau