Past occupations: What’s going on with Occupy in the US?
In Madison, Wisconsin, you can’t avoid politics. The graffiti outside the state Capitol Building, the snatches of overheard discussions in the bars, and the commemorative cards at the radical bookstore all relate to one thing: the events that have unfolded since the rebellion of March 2011.
Against the backdrop of events in Tunisia and Egypt, months before the advent of Occupy Wall Street, thousands of students, trade unionists and generally disgruntled citizens occupied their state senate for 17 days straight, to protest the passing of a bill that would sharply curtail trade union rights. Doctors signed sick notes so people could join. Even the police union declared solidarity with the protest. The Democrats in the Senate left the state to make the house inquorate and delay the bill.
Since then there have been recall elections for the governor and several senators. Although the much-reviled governor managed to retain his seat, the Democrats gained control of the legislature. On the day of my visit, power is being formally transferred. For the activists I speak to it feels like a small victory compared to the aims of the campaign. But the wider win may already have happened. The Wisconsin Uprising of 2011 showed that the spirit of the Arab Spring is not confined to the Arab world. Through their actions they demonstrated that the movement for people power is universal, paving the way for Occupy Wall Street.
I’ve spent the last few weeks touring bookstores in the US, giving talks about tactics adopted by social movements through history. In every city I visit there are visual clues to a much more recent history: that of the Occupy camps. On Wall Street it is the letters ‘OWS’ etched into the back of an empty shop window. In Pittsburgh the privately owned open space renamed the ‘People’s Park’ by the city’s Occupy presence is still fenced off – apparently in breach of local bylaws. In Oakland, dried mud serves as a reminder of the decision of city authorities to leave sprinklers on when the city square was occupied. And at Philadelphia’s biggest Quaker meeting house there are signs of the movement continuing: a flipchart full of thank you messages from activists who had used the space during the Occupy National Gathering the previous week.
Following the Gathering, 50 or so activists opted to walk ‘99 miles for the 99%’ back to Wall Street, generating press attention along the way, especially given the 99 degree heat. But overall there has been a shift away from this kind of symbolic action, towards more dispersed grassroots solidarity work alongside the communities most affected by the ongoing economic crisis.
One such project is Occupy Vacant Lots. The effects in the US of financial globalization are hard to miss, especially the shells of disused factories that blight deprived areas like North Philadelphia. In response, Occupiers in Philadelphia and beyond have teamed up with locals to regenerate the areas in to urban community gardens whilst others have taken to the countryside to establish sustainable farms.
Another project with traction variously takes the name Occupy our Homes or Occupy Foreclosure. An example of this in action began in February of this year, when PNC Bank ordered the Cruz family to return their keys within 48 hours. Instead the family opted to give the keys to the local Occupy movement. They kept 24-hour watch over the building, successfully resisting bailiffs three times. Meanwhile activists trailed Bank Executive Dan Taylor around public events, asking challenging questions.
Replicated across states, and twinned with the actions of the longer-standing groups that assist people to renegotiate their mortgages, this tactic is beginning to have an effect. In parts of California, new alliances have declared Foreclosure Prevention Zones (FPZs) providing a locus for activity, and an opportunity for local politicians to lend their support. Meanwhile, an even more radical (although somewhat quieter) strand of the movement works with homeless people to rehouse them in vacated properties.
In Pittsburgh, new alliances have been built with campaigners for better public transport, resulting in protests escalating from polite petitions to full-scale disobedience. In Maryland, where 1 in 4 citizens has a criminal record, citizens protesting the disparity between spending on prisons and education went so far as to build a temporary school on the site of a proposed prison.
In New York too, the alliance building is clear. Open-air info-shops around the capital direct people to a union picket where utilities workers have walked out on strike for the first time in 27 years, having been locked out of negotiations with management. The workers I spoke to said they are willing to stay out for as long as it takes, whilst the Occupy Wall Street activists present gave solid support. In Wisconsin, Occupy activists are going a step further – supplying not just solidarity but sustenance to workers at Pizza Palermos, out on strike for days on end for the very right to form a union at all.
Despite the groundswell of activity, I get the sense that activists are tired and soul-searching. Over and over I hear some familiar questions: how could it be that so much effort could lead to change happening so slowly? Could it be that the grassroots rebellion from Madison onwards is in the process of being channelled into tactics less troubling to the powers that be and therefore less effective? Or, conversely, should the movement be more willing to engage with hierarchical institutions and hierarchical methods of organizing?
Whatever answers the movement finds, and whatever name it chooses for its next stage, there is undoubtedly a shift taking place. As an activist in New York put it to me: ‘Anger can only last so long. We need to focus that anger.’ Another observed: ‘Occupy has too many groups. If we’re to continue building we need some kind of structure to hold it together.’ A Philadelphian activist echoed the sense of change, observing: ‘At first we just had to announce events and people would come. It was magical. Now we’re really putting in the legwork.’
To my eye, the shift is indicative of the transition that every successful movement must make, from initial consciousness-raising to the harder job of co-ordinating the building of a mass movement, radical and resilient enough to have a realistic chance of effecting change. There might be fewer headlines now, but the words daubed on the pavement in front of Wisconsin’s Capitol building serve just as well: ‘This is far from over.’
Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, 2011. He recently completed a speaking tour of the US.