eipcp News
12 2011

After the squares have been cleared: Winter reflections on OWS

Nato Thompson

It is winter and the squares have been cleared. Across the United States, the occupation movement has been erased from public space memory with the routine use of pepper spray, overwhelming displays of militarized force, Mayoral claims of wasted tax payer dollars and unsanitary conditions. While the movement itself continues in sporadic protests, guerrilla actions and moments of civil disobedience, its nodal epicenter of occupations have, at least for the moment, been eviscerated. As we head into the upcoming election year of 2012, the occupation movement in the United States has an opportunity to plan its next move.

What to learn:

The first thing we must acknowledge is that here in the United States, the movement has entered into the public consciousness at numerous levels. Occupy Wall Street has become a complicated social phenomena not only for those watching it from the outside but also for those on the side (and those not sure where they fit). As its manifestations not only multiply, so too do the broad swathe of political positions and methods coming into being under its banner.

*The repeated slogan of “ The 99%” has become the go-to political analysis for the movement. A very simple indicator of class analysis, the phrase has infected every level of discussion in US politics from the local to the national. Already a country obsessed with populism, this simple catch-phrase provides a rudimentary tool in cases both good and bad. Because it is such a broad tool for analysis, the movement has gathered together a motely assemblage of political positions from disillusioned Obama supporters, alt-globalization organizers excited to have another movement off the ground, destroy the federal reserve libertarians and Ron Paul acolytes, wary unionists, not only 68ers, but 76ers, 84ers, and 99ers, left leaning groups desperate for a shot in the arm, and many many more. The fertile ground between libertarians and socialists are shoehorned together in this movement in such a way that the obvious political affiliations have fallen apart.  What can certainly be said is: A conversation is certainly occurring. 

As might be expected, painting with a wide brush has forced a sort of collapsing of specificity (obviously).  While it might be obvious that if you put a group of people together who have widely different points of view, you will find it difficult to organize them. Because of its broad based appeal, the 99% are wildly laborious when it comes to any sort of actions. Without the squares, this exciting motley assemblage is all the more motley.

*The occupation of the squares, which is related but different to the idea of the 99%, was an amazing catalyst for social action. Allowing a point of focus over time, the occupations not only allowed the movement to stay in the news but also provided a physical location for the movement to gain new members and produce dialogue. In addition, as one might expect, inevitably this occupation of space produced the most direct conflict. As YouTube videos of police brutalizing grannies, college kids, and unarmed protesters circulated widely, the movement grew and spread throughout the United States. Initially producing a sort of stalemate with local authorities, as the occupations entered their third month, the public perception of their existence changed from awe to a sort of cynical malaise. While the occupations initially benefitted from their longevity in the public discussion, eventually their longevity backfired. Claims of unsanitary conditions, while at times unwarranted, certainly cast a different public perception of the encampments. The general assembly methods while initially inspiring, began to feel somewhat off-putting. What started as an exciting space for public gathering began to demonstrate its own demographic limitations (as well as pragmatic problematics of scale). Those running the camps began to feel the drain of providing social services without the necessary infrastructure to keep them going. By the time the police raided the occupations, the movement had been suffering from some mental exhaustion. As the anti-terrorism task force advised mayors across the country on how to remove the camps in the dead of night, many in the movement were ready for them to go. Now with these sites gone, the discussion has had to shift.

*The concept of no-demands has been both a productive heuristic device for a broad populace trained in sound bites but also a frustrating part for trained organizers to get a grip on the movement. With an underlying ethos of process over product, dialogue over direction, horizontality versus hierarchy, the movement’s basic anarchist organizing principles have become a widely understood critical element of the movement, but also has had to face some obvious deficiencies in its capacity. The general assembly and the people’s microphone (a method of reproducing speeches by having the group repeat what the speaker is saying so as to amplify the voice) has provided obvious difficulties as the movement encountered issues of scale. A meeting based on the people’s microphone, let alone when it is in multiple languages, becomes an exhausting demonstration in patience. If one has all the time in the world then the people’s microphone might be a great organizing principle. But as the movement lost its initial allure, the glamour of the people’s microphone wore off thus revealing its highly dysfunctional nature. The same can be said of the general assembly. While resembling some greek polis where ideas can be debated and discussed, as scale increases, inevitably there are issues of who is allowed to speak and when. As OWS is obsessed with process and consensus, in the end most proposal are blocked and the meeting sort of winds in circles inevitably.

With the basic features of the general assembly and people’s microphone becoming more or less dysfunctional, the real movement has spread to its subcommittees as well as unaffiliated direct action groups.  At this point it is known that if anyone wants to get anything done, they should just do it and skip the basic organizing meetings. Or join one of the smaller groups.

So where to go from here:

Obviously right now the big question is whether the occupation of the squares should become the focus. There have been actions to take Duarte Square own by Trinity Church in New York City as one space that might work as the new home for OWS.  Some people inside OWS are convinced that this must be the new battle. Since it is a free for all, my feeling is that the movement does not possess enough of a unified strategy to lose the squares. The squares were the space of growing the movement and painfully working through ideas. They lasted in time and they produced conflicts in space. While they have limitations, they are an essential part of this movement. Admittedly, for many, the occupation of the squares is perhaps its own politics. This analysis may be myopic perhaps, but is tangible nonetheless. Without that coalescing together, the movement loses its uniqueness and historic specificity. With the loss of the squares, the movement runs the risk of becoming what it once was: A thousand different causes organizing on their issues and only remotely coming into contact with each other. As much as the maintenance of the physical spaces has become a problem, the lack of a physical site becomes its own dilemma as well. Physical space forced these issues to come together in a fairly annoying but inspiring forum. It is true that the events were often off-putting for many and that is an issue OWS will have to contend with. But if the past can be any lesson, the battle for physical space is where the action is. A behind the scenes agreement will not be nearly as compelling as an arrest laden nightmare where people in power must show themselves for what they are. It will make for exciting news and a mediated platform to highlight the contradictions of space and power.

Also, this next year is an election year which is not all that different than the election of George Bush a decade ago. In that election, many in the alt-globalization movement rallied around Ralph Nader as a third party candidate against Bill Clinton’s successor Al Gore. As is known, Gore lost and many in the democrat party blamed Ralph Nader and the Green Party for putting Bush into office. It is an absurd tragedy -- radicals should not be blamed for the pathetic falsity of American democracy—but it is a tragedy that is looking to repeat itself. The lesson to be learned is to not enter into the elector trap again. Keep the focus on the contradiction of capitalism and democracy and stay away from national electoral politics. The local level of city council members and representatives is ripe for some radicalization, but the presidential level should be seen as it is a dead end. Third party candidates are as much as a joke as the Republicans and Democrats. If anything, the election season should provide an opportunity to demonstrate just how bankrupt this reality show called democracy truly is.

Finally, the movement must make moves toward global solidarity. We cannot help but notice the battles raging in Syria and Cairo. We see the people amassing in Moscow and Tel Aviv. The time of nation states will have to end at some point. We are citizens of the world and we more often than not governments and businesses benefit the powerful over the weak, the rich over the poor, and their own racial prejudice. This kind of condition must be universally acknowledged as a problem and we must put our fate into each other’s hands. Issues that bring these contradictions into stark relief from laws on international finance, to immigration to human rights provide a framework for global solidarity and accountability. Even though there are problematics of universalism, an appeal to justice for every member of the planet will be a good place to begin.

We can rest assured that the occupation movement will return in 2012, but the consolidation of power worldwide is not to be underestimated. The war on terror has always been a war on the people and the further aggregation of wealth toward the weapons that will keep them at bay. A popular chant in the OWS movement is quite revealing as the people scream “Who’s streets? Our streets!” but they do so from the sidewalk as the tenth largest army of the New York Police Department floods the biways in blue uniforms. Corruption is a global empire and it will not let go.