A Walmart vendor is selling a poster of Liberty Square, only a few weeks after the Black Friday protests at which Occupy Wall Street participants demonstrated a consistent anti-Walmart presence.
Yet, the big box chain isn’t the only institution capitalizing on the Occupy movement by selling posters these days. The latest attempt came from a group called the Occupy Solidarity Network (OSN), which runs OccupyWallSt.org, a website that calls itself the movement’s “unofficial de facto online resource.”
In early December, Occupy supporters who had signed up for movement updates received an email from the OSN inviting people to buy a copy of the iconic Occupy Wall Street “Ballerina on the Bull” poster for the holidays. Proceeds were to go to an Occupy Solidarity Network (occupywallst.org) fund, managed by Priscilla Grim, Justine Tunney, and Micah White, which the email declared to be the movement’s founders. This fund would apparently “spark and sustain tomorrow's social uprising of the 99%.”
Rather than sparking tomorrow’s uprising of the 99%, it sparked a backlash against the people who sent the email.
Far from gaining the support of Occupy sympathizers, the email solicitation elicited a furor in the Occupy community. A fuming response from Adbusters, the magazine that originally published the iconic “Ballerina on the Bull” poster along with a call to occupy Wall Street, circulated wildly.
(Update, December 29th: Today, a bit more than a week after this here article went live, and almost a month after publishing their pitch for funds, OccupyWallSt.org made some edits to their original post, removing the word "founder" for instance.)
Why so much anger about selling a poster?
There are several reasons. But first, a little bit of context.
OccupyWallSt.org (Storg) was created and used for posting updates and information about protest plans. When the occupation started, it was the first website to herald Occupy Wall Street's arrival on the scene. As Occupy grew in popularity, thousands of people visited the website and signed up for email updates about the movement.
Despite becoming the unofficial, de facto movement website, OccupyWallSt.org resisted integration into the culture of Occupy Wall Street itself, which from the first instant was organized around an open working group model and direct democracy. Rather than engage in this model like most other Occupy-related media properties (such as the Writers for the 99%, MetroOccupied, and the Press Working Group), Storg chose to remain a separate, closed group. This approach was in clear opposition to some of the movement’s core principles. That might not have been a problem were it not the de facto movement website, seeking to capture the voice of the Occupy movement.
With that in mind, let’s break down the reasons that OSN’s fundraising pitch has upset so many of us.
1. What is “our one demand?” Give us money?
Not long ago, OccupyWallSt.org said that if we had one demand, it would be something along the lines of "smash capitalism." Apparently, things have changed in the last few months. Now, it’s about enticing our supporters to buy some feel-good X-mas gifts to fund (a few of) our positions? It’s about resorting to that fundraising culture wherein the principle way we invite "participation" is through clicking the donation button or the petition link?
This year, we are commemorating the Occupy generation....
According to Storg's fundraising pitch--after years of insisting upon no demands, if not a thousand demands--our one demand is that you buy a poster. So three years in, Occupy Wall Street’s one demand has become - just “drop some change”.
Occupy Wall Street is ... not ... an advertising campaign or a brand. It is not for sale.
The merchandising of Occupy has been ongoing: by true allies like the OWS Screenprinters Guild Cooperative, regular people selling stuff on the street, opportunists like Jay-Z, and most recently, that big bad box chain we all hate. But, this solicitation from OSN isn’t coming from some entrepreneurial everyday folks getting their hustle on. It isn’t a collective trying to maintain a cooperatively-run business. Nor is it a transparent call to help the editors of Storg to pay their rent.
If we let it be, "Occupy" will become solely a marketing term used to get people to buy more stuff. It's really RIP Occupy, when our memory is put up for sale, by the self-proclaimed founders of the movement. Whether they realize it or not, in effect the movement’s “de facto website” is calling for us to return to the default setting before Occupy even existed. If we were to actually answer that call, the visionary spirit of OWS as a space-creating, conversation-generating, prefigurative uprising, will turn stagnant and dull and transactional.
2. We are all founders of Occupy Wall Street
Some have called Occupy Wall Street a "leaderless" movement; others have preferred to call it "leaderful." Early on, no one called themselves the “Founder” of Occupy Wall Street. That’s because a few people designed the original call to action, a small (different) group then planned an occupation, and within moments of its inception, hundreds of new people executed that call (and many of the "day-oners" were gone by the third week). Micah White wrote the initial call to action to Occupy Wall Street in Adbusters magazine. Yet after his writing the call and posting some lovely missives on a few websites, what made the movement was the people who showed up (something White himself has said in the past). Everyone who got involved in the months before the eviction — from those who developed the Kitchen to the Press team, the Direct Action working group to the Sanitation crew, from Tech Ops to Outreach — was a founder.
Occupy Wall Street is a people’s movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people.
The Left has a tendency to eat itself alive, and to get distracted from the real fight against the enemy of the 99%: the global corporate elite. At the same time, there is a real danger in letting things slide when individuals declare themselves our leaders or founders in the absence of any consent or accountability mechanisms.
Speak With Us, Not For Us
Case in point: Micah White recently spoke as though he were Occupy’s founder at a massive rally called by Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), whose political leaders have openly acknowledged admiration for certain aspects of the Italian fascist movement. "Hello Five Star Movement! Occupy Wall Street is proud of you!" he declared. "You are the ones who are showing us the way forward...." Does Occupy Wall Street actually support crypto-fascist movements such as M5S, however broad their support in Italy? This is why it is important to hold those who proclaim themselves our founders, to account.
3. A collective resource was mis-appropriated
Those who signed up for the Occupy Wall Street mailing list did not know they would be solicited. Occupy Wall Street participants signed into the website in order to stay updated about the movement; they did not consent to receiving fundraising pitches.
Some of the email lists used, were gathered by Outreach crews that did not consent to soliciting email recipients. Over 10,000 contacts were collected in the park itself, by dozens of people on the ground in the first weeks of Occupy Wall Street, and consistently added to by the newsletter team in the months after the eviction.
Misrepresenting the level of support they have from the wider Occupy movement in order to support their fundraising efforts, the two or three people involved with OccupyWallSt.org are taking advantage of their access to what should have been collective resources belonging to hundreds, thousands, even millions, of people.
4. How will this funding spark a "future revolution"?
OccupyWallSt.org has been collecting funds to support who-knows-what at varying levels of transparency, for quite a while. The money is said to go to the Occupy Solidarity Network's "activist fund," managed by its board members. At present, it's not clear what "activist fund" means or what it will support. Furthermore, the Occupy Solidarity Network is in no way accountable to the Occupy movement. Yet it never explicitly states that anywhere.
Your contribution will spark and sustain tomorrow's social uprising of the 99%... Your money will go towards supporting movements for the common good.
Furthermore, it’s one thing to fundraise transparently for oneself. It’s another to use the movement’s de facto website, with one of the movement’s largest mailing lists, to fundraise for undisclosed projects. In addition to the lack of clarity about how funds will be spent, the solicitation does not encourage any kind of action or personal engagement.
Occupiers have been resistant to turning the Occupy Movement into just another cog in the machine of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. Not everyone in a movement can get paid, and traditionally disenfranchised people tend to get left behind in the rush for funds, recreating many of the inequalities and power imbalances that characterize our current society. As we witnessed with the vocal denouncement of the Movement Resources Group – a fund that sought to funnel 1% money into Occupy projects hand-picked by a closed Board of Directors – movement participants want decisionmaking about resource allocation to be as democratic as feasibly possible, not controlled by a powerful and privileged few.
5. Promotes the false notion that revolutions are sparked by money rather than actual participation
Where once we were called to action, today we are called upon to give money. This encourages a movement seething with passionate innovation, to kick back and retreat into armchair “consumer activism"....and to entrust the self-proclaimed "experts" to take care of that movement-building stuff. Are we to believe that more funds and perhaps a few board members are all that’s required to bring about movements for change? We know that's not enough. For decades the world was soaked in nonprofit money mostly doled out by those who reap the benefits of this deeply unequal and unjust economic system, and no movement for economic justice managed to get off the ground.
Occupy Wall Street is not merely a brand that attracts attention and guarantees faster fundraising. It was, and remains, a call to direct action, a call for person-to-person connection, a call for taking back our Commons from the Web to the streets. We who made this Occupy uprising happen still have the power to turn our moment into a real movement - whether it's called Occupy Wall Street, or something else.