If a casual visitor to Union Square Park strolled around its esplanade around 5pm most weekdays, he or she might be amused but not impressed by much of what seems to be going on. Right in the center are some crusty folks, complete with sunburned, unwashed faces, sleep-deprived eyes, a tattoo or two dozen, all sitting huddled close together, in part for warmth, in part because they have no where else to go. Nearby, there's a table with some snappy black and white booklets on anarchism, staffed by an earnest couple dressed in basic black; behind them in a tight circle sit eight or nine people from the Think Tank working group, intently discussing the economic and social costs of fracking. They lean in towards each other, in part because of the three drummers' loud rhythms emanating from a few yards back. A few young people stand taking pictures, excited to be there, anxious to talk to the gray-haired lady with the large peace sign or the old guy dressed as Uncle Sam. A small table holds the vestiges of OWS's library, thirty or so donated books offered free for the asking; three guys are setting up a longer table for the evening meal of rice and beans and veggies. Others mill around, stopping to chat with passers-by.
Not too far away, but as visible as any of the rest, are three cops standing against a white and blue NYPD van. Ten feet further down are two more, then six more, over by the Ghandi statue. An officer, spotted by his white shirt, stands towards the back by the bushes, three more blue shirts next to him. All these police, and not even two hundred people? Weeks earlier, back when a few OWSers popped back up in Zuccotti Park, the police response was swift and violent: three male cops dragging down a young woman at the orders of a female white shirt to 'get the fuckin' bitch,' marks on her neck and bruises on her back still present a week later; another woman soon became famous that night as she went into seizure, left to moan and twitch on the ground as officers stood by, doing nothing. Cameras busted, laptops destroyed, wallets and cell phones lost, handcuffs so tight fingers turned numb from the lack of circulation. Now, when police are approached at Union Square, the friendly banter of last fall has been replaced by the coolness of fair warnings: we'll clear this place later; watch out, it's a new day, you better leave after 11. You hear me? Do you?
Hey, what's going on here? How could such a crusty crew evoke so much police violence, and the threat of more? Why would Florida, holder of the Republican convention this summer, be in such fear of Occupy that they just outlawed things like masks and pieces of string over six inches long whenever a public gathering was to be held? People have been marching for the last forty years at political conventions. Why would NYPD teams raid OWS activists' apartments using three-year-old "open container" warrants as a ruse to search for May 1st demonstration plans, as the NY Times reported on May 2nd? Is Occupy Wall Street so different from all those other political causes of the last generation? And if it is different, is it really such a threat to the powers-that-be?
The short answers to those two questions are: (1) yes, it is very different, something not seen in the United States for over 30 years; and (2) you're damn right OWS, in all its hot mess, is a genuine threat to the established order. What follows is an elder organizer's take on why—and the enormous opportunities and pitfalls that stand before us.
Part One: "We Are the 99%!"...Occupy!
Everyone knows that the combination of the OWS slogan "We Are the 99%" along with OWSers' commitment to non-violent direct action, including occupation of public spaces, crystallized long pent-up frustration and anger across the United States that unleashed hundreds of Occupys across the country. In themselves, however, they neither explain what was different about this mix of ideas and action, nor why they are a threat to established political and economic institutions in ways that make it distinct from other campaigns of the last thirty-plus years.
To begin, the slogan "We Are the 99%" is the first to break through the identity- and issue-based movement activism in over a generation. With its catchy focus on economic and social inequality, the slogan has provided a unifying consciousness that gives different kinds of people and distinct issues a coherent target—the 1%-- and a degree of similarity of purpose—end economic and political inequality and unfairness—that has not been present in progressive movements since the early 1970's.
Joined to non-violent direct action and the retaking of the commons, these messages stood in militant opposition to how political and economic business was conducted. Things were economically grossly unfair, and the political game to make it 'better' was fixed as well. By willingly living under difficult living conditions and the threat of immediate removal by the police, Occupiers with their powerful slogan established a level of authority to counter dominant elites for the first time since the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960's. It is no accident that OWS authority emerged when Congressional approval ratings were at historic lows and banking and finance leaders were perceived by most Americans as greedy and disinterested in the average working person's standard of living.
It is this OWS counter-authority that is the grave threat to American political and economic leaders. For as we have seen over the last year, when genuine authority rests within non-elites—all that crustiness and hot mess—the dominant discourse on "who is in charge" and "this is how we do things" is fundamentally transformed—not simply about the route of a march or how long one can stay in a park, but about everything. A unifying social movement like the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's became a systemic threat to Southern white supremacy after Rosa Parks stayed seated on that Montgomery, Alabama bus, along with the ensuing bus boycott engineered by civil rights leader E.M. Nixon. However, that didn't mean there was one huge transit breakdown engineered by African-Americans across the South. Instead, there was something much more powerful: Black people and their white allies stopped believing that the segregationist world order couldn't be changed. Everyday people began working against a poll tax in one county, eating at lunch counters for "whites only" in another city, boycotting a national Woolworth's chain, not putting their heads down when a white person walked by. Rosa Parks' act shifted the consciousness of a people to look to themselves for answers…that "the way things were" didn't have to be in all corners of their lives.
The violent response (bombings, murders, beatings, daily intimidation) to this shift in African-American consciousness that then arose was not over bus rides. It was because the threat that emerged from southern Black communities was to the dominant discourse of who and what mattered – and it was shifting away from racial segregation and the social and economic certainties it brought with it. If the only issue had been sitting wherever one wanted to on a bus, Montgomery officials would have jumped at the chance. It wasn't.
Occupy Wall Street, while expressed differently sixty years later, represents the beginnings of the same threat: discourse that the American economic and political game is just a little unfair doesn't wash any more. Almost all Identity- and issue-based politics, while often militant and at times effective in having their demands met, could be radical but not transformational: get the (sexist, racist, homophobic) rascal or issue out and/or changed, but the rules stay the same; the game is played at the margins of power, by the rules of the system.
OWS says its time to throw out the game, because the rules are a set-up. Its slogans and growing counter-authority come from this intransigent belief-in-action that wider and wider sectors of the 99% intuit is accurate about their own lives, too. The ensuing unwillingness to not listen to official authority—any authority— in the same way alters not only whether OWSers get to stay in Union Square or Zuccotti Park. Throughout society, managers are not listened to in the same way; school officials aren't believed about those test scores or school closings as genuine 'educational reform'; stop and frisk is at last understood by more and more New Yorkers of every color as a racist program. For the first time, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly is no longer a demi-god to the larger public. Black folks and their white allies from around the country where their hoodies up. The discourse is changing.
The OWS crusties may be a hot mess, but consciousness is different because of what they have stood for…and where. Your mortgage is under water and you're about to be evicted?…OWS foreclosure groups claim your right to re-take your home, and do so. Tired of vertical decision making from elites with no input? Try some of the criss-cross mix of horizontalism where voices are side-by-side. Can't afford a $200 meal down at the Meatpacking District with trendy one per centers? Have a tasty vegetarian meal, served hot and free, each day at 6pm sharp. Want to read a book? Dance a little? Dream? Over there, in the middle of that hot mess, you can.
Unfortunately, with the increasing clarity that OWS has shifted the dominant discourse at least momentarily from elites, the response of those in charge of 'public order' has changed as well. After tactically sensing their error in their early response to OWS on the Brooklyn Bridge and the infamous YouTube video of a white-shirt macing three young white women, police were noticeably mild mannered, even friendly, with the Occupiers at Zuccotti Park. Over time, as it became clear that 'Occupy' was now about far more than a communal love-in downtown, that began to change--- and ended abruptly in the late-night winter clearing of Zuccotti, complete with violence and intimidation of the media so that the clearing would not go viral.
As the brutal arrests on March 17th suggest, this type of police violence can to be expected to continue—and even grow more intense. While it is unlikely to ever reach the level of officially sanctioned murder seen in the South in the 1950's and 60's, the intimidating presence of the security arm of the 21st century state, from police infiltrators taking names in direct action planning groups to physically violent arrests to longer and longer periods of incarceration—are going to increase. Such brutality and intimidation serves a clear strategic purpose: it is to break the will of OWS activists and threaten its public support in ways that allow for the reassertion of how the game is to be played—that the rules are really okay, elites are smarter and know more and act nicer than those crusty, weird kids down at the park.
Fifty years ago, the long March to Freedom was filled with far more violence but the same strategic and tactical purposes by governing elites. Popular media portrayed Rosa Parks as just an uppity seamstress whose feet were tired, not an NAACP secretary who'd been trained as an organizer for ten days the year before at the Highlander Center. Freedom Riders Diane Nash and John Lewis were red-influenced and dangerous radicals, not college-educated, church-going leaders of quiet, unwavering conviction. The Long March to Freedom required courage, commitment, and strategic brilliance to withstand the physical and political assault brought against it. Today's March to Equality will require nothing less.
If we are to march as resolutely and effectively as those who came before us, we also have to pay attention to some strategic dilemmas that they had to overcome--- and that we must, too. The second part of this essay will focus on what OWS's strategic dilemmas are, with some modest proposals on how to perhaps resolve them.
Steve B is a professor and a participant in OWS. His involvement in social movements began during the civil rights era.
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