As I mentioned earlier, the beginning of OWS coincided brilliantly with my attempt to understand the dynamics of nonviolent social change as part of my peacebuilding education. During the fall semester I completed an original field study at OWS, documenting how the movement breaks down structural violence from the inside out. Last week, I attended the State of the Occupation Address to hear occupiers reflect on the last five months. The prevailing message was two-fold:
1. We aren’t making demands of anyone but the 99%. The 1% have let us down too many times.
2. What we need most right now is for more of the 99% to get active.
Related to these ideas, I’d like to post an excerpt from my study – representing both an attempt to archive knowledge about OWS as it unfolded and to synthesize many, many (often intense) experiences into meaningful new knowledge. I’ll follow it with some thoughts from the address that hopefully will spark conversation. This post draws largely on my academic writing, so there are references to a lit review that comes prior, and it is written for an audience across space and time. If you want more info – what/who I’m referencing or what was written in the other sections of this paper – do let me know.
Please comment. Fact check me, offer a different interpretation, let me know if we agree or disagree. I couldn’t write about Occupy any other way.
The Occupy Wall Street movement began with a call to action posted on the blog of the Canadian magazine Adbusters on July 13th, 2011. The blog post described the arising activist tactic used in these movements as creating mass presence in public and symbolic spaces and making clear, concise, and unceasing demands on the governments in question. The post, entitled “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET: A shift in revolutionary tactics,” encouraged North American activists to “deploy this emerging stratagem against the greatest corrupter of our democracy: Wall Street, the financial Gomorrah of America. Here the original vision of the Wall Street occupation was described, along with a request that readers participate in deciding on the specific demand:
“On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices. Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum – that Mubarak must go – over and over again until they won. Following this model, what is our equally uncomplicated demand? The most exciting candidate that we’ve heard so far is one that gets at the core of why the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy: we demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington. It’s time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY, we’re doomed without it.”
The occupation of Wall Street took place on Saturday, September 17th, 2011, as direct action in protest of the wealth-power nexus of the political-economic system of the United States. However, some important changes in the intent of the protest took place between the call to action and the first day of the occupation. On August 2a number of activists gathered in New York City to plan for September 17th via a General Assembly. From the subsequent planning process, the concept of Occupy Wall Street as a movement, rather than simply a direct action, began to develop. Interestingly, the movement that developed directly contradicted the strategic prescription of the original call to action and a later blog post from Adbusters that argued “there is a very real danger that if we naively put our cards on the table and rally around the ‘overthrow of capitalism’ or some equally outworn utopian slogan, then our Tahrir moment will quickly fizzle into another inconsequential ultra-lefty spectacle soon forgotten.” It isn’t clear when the idea to reject making demands of the political-economic system came about, but, as is described below, that was the eventual path pursued. The movement would go on to demonstrate that it was not in fact “another inconsequential ultra-lefty spectacle,” but an expression of grievances and an act of deep noncooperation that attracted the support of people’s movements across the globe.
Although the name makes clear the general intention and target of the protest, conversations about OWS, in and out of the park, consistently echo the same refrains – what are their demands? What is their message? What do they want? Why are they here? Whether these questions come from OWS participants or outsiders (the media, politicians, etc.), the response has been a refusal to formally articulate and consense upon demands. The OWS community is rejecting the very premise of making demands of the 1% as an act of noncooperation.
On September 27th during the afternoon GA, a speaker urged the community to consense upon clear demands of society and to make their message known. The audience largely disagreed with him, but they expressed this not through argument, conflictual rebuttal, or interruptions of boos, yelling, or other loud noise that could divest the speaker of the power of being heard. The hundred or more person assembly expressed their clear disagreement by placing their hands visibly in front of them, pointed toward the ground, and twinkling their fingers, the nonverbal signifier of disapproval. On November 3rd, OWS participants speaking on a panel at New York University described making demands of the existing political-economic system as an act which legitimizes the power of the 1%. Participant Katie Davison described having policy demands as “an assumption that we’re at a table with somebody willing to negotiate with us. Part of the reason why we’re doing this is that the negotiation is not balanced…We don’t have demands, we don’t have specific policies, because there is nothing that the present system has to offer us.” In a workshop in Zuccotti Park on November 27th, C. T. Butler described the demands OWS is making as demands on the 99%. If any group has the power to create what OWS is asking for, it is only them.
The desire most consistently expressed within the OWS community and by OWS actions is for a system of decision-making and a governance structure, and a system for meeting the needs of society, or in other words, an economy, which manifests compassion, egalitarianism, and democracy. As Freire would argue, the only way to create these things is for everyone governed by them to build them. The working groups and assemblies of OWS are building a governance structure and an economy, which has been described by many there as a community of care. The work at OWS is driven by creativity and care for meeting each other’s needs, rather than by profit. The idea that the manifestation of these principles – compassion, egalitarianism, direct democracy, inclusion, horizontalism, and nonviolence –in every social interaction will build the society participants envision is the Occupy Wall Street theory of change. OWS is attempting to rebuild the foundations of society without structural violence so that what results from these foundations will be nonviolent. This is not to say that OWS has realized a complete positive peace (a society without direct, structural, or any other type of violence), or even a complete negative peace (simply the absence of direct violence). But the working hypothesis is that practicing an even distribution of power at the most basic levels will develop the technology of nonviolence and egalitarianism needed to create nonviolent, egalitarian structures.
The above was observed in November and written in December; where are we come February? A significant theme in the discussion at the State of the Occupation Address was the need to mobilize those who aren’t yet involved. Earlier in the above writing I reference the traditional strategy of nonviolent struggle, advocated by Gene Sharp and others, of articulating demands and choosing tactics accordingly. The instinct of Occupy has been to reject this idea that demands made of the 1% are legitimate; rightly so. I think the correct strategy is to ask each other to create the world we need. But because the movement actively departs from so much of what we know about social organization and human interaction, how can we use what is valid in the principles of messaging to mobilize for a new concept of society? Furthermore, how can we meet people where they are and let them know this idea isn’t nearly as radical as it sounds…
My humble, personal experience, in the world outside Occupy, has been that a new ethos is taking hold in America. People are standing up for themselves and each other. The customer is no longer right when they are abusing those in service roles. Employers are starting to hear what their employees really think. Banks are losing their customers, Target faced a serious public reaction to attempts to extend Black Friday, and what could have been completely under-the-radar funding bureaucracy elicited an absolute uproar when the Komen Foundation attempted to defund Planned Parenthood. The message is getting out – it’s up to us to demand and to make what we need. And yet, in the movement, there is still a struggle to mobilize new support and to explain why we’re rejecting the standard practice of making demands.
These things aren’t in-congruent; they’re actually wholly connected and it’s important that we discuss these ideas together. I think what we’ve come to realize is that our demand is there, and it’s pretty simple. Now we just need to embrace that, so we can explain it, message it, demand it, and live it. We need to articulate what we are for: having and living up to high expectations of each other; and move away from what we are against: the power structures we’ve effectively delegitimized. This was asked of us by Dr. Benjamin Chavis at the address, when he encouraged us to strengthen the movement by articulating our positive stances. And so while I’m no messaging or mobilization expert, I’ll end with a suggestion based on what I’ve learned at OWS. Most of what happens here feels like normal society flipped on its head. So this entire time that we haven’t been making demands, we have been granting them. We have been giving each other what we demand: love, fairness, a community of care. Let’s accept that the demand is of each other, but instead of asking it, let’s grant it. This is simultaneously a radical rejection of a very typical American wayof thinking, and a very simple idea to get behind. The demand is for a greater world, and we are giving it. In this way, it’s easy to ask your not-yet-occupying neighbor for help.