The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Occupy Wall Street: 5 Lessons for Networked Movements

 

By Sasha Costanza-Chock (@schock), Christine Schweidler (schweidler@riseup.net), and Charlie DeTar (cfd@media.mit.edu)

An image of a world map with lines representing networked connectivity, with corporate icons such as Google, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube floating over the map.

Note: This is an English translation of an article that originally appeared in 2013 in La Vanguardia Dossier: “The Power of the Networks:” http://www.lavanguardia.com/internacional/20131217/54397298092/el-poder-de-las-redes-sociales-vanguardia-dossier.html

 

On 17 September 2011, a small group of activists took over New York City’s Zuccotti Park. They triggered a surge of protest camps that, in three short months, spread across the country and then around the world. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was inspired by the global protest wave that began in Tunisia, then swept the Middle East and North Africa. It was echoed by the Spanish Indignad@s, the Greek anti-austerity uprisings, #OccupyGezi, and beyond.

The initial action was planned by a transnational group of seasoned activists. OWS received a boost when it was publicized by Adbusters magazine, then built additional momentum when the loose global network of hacktivists known as Anonymous endorsed the S17 action in a widely circulated video. Mass media coverage of OWS began after video clips of NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying a kettled group of unarmed young women went viral.  On October 1st, social media, newspaper, and broadcaster attention spiked as the NYPD corralled and arrested hundreds of people as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge.

For the next three months, OWS occupied Zuccotti Park, organized marches and actions throughout lower Manhattan, and generated significant attention across social media, print, and broadcast news. Encampments spread to nearly every major US city, including Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, and many more (both in the USA and internationally). Within six months, over 6,500 Occupiers had been arrested while protesting. Occupations, General Assemblies, and Working Groups sprang up in over 1000 cities and towns; Occupiers camped, marched, and engaged in a wide range of protest activities centered broadly on wealth inequality. Occupy especially emphasized prefigurative politics: a thousand counterprojects, designed to demonstrate alternate ways of organizing daily life, flourished in the spaces opened by the movement.

Over the next few months, Occupy faced growing and systematic repression, infiltration, and police attacks. The US Conference of Mayors and the Police Executive Research Forum held conference calls to coordinate actions against Occupy encampments across the country. For the most part, local police forces implemented repressive actions; however, we now know they were coordinated at a high level. Documents uncovered by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund in December of 2012 revealed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, multiple police agencies, and representatives of private banks worked together to surveil and repress Occupy under the umbrella of an entity called the Domestic Security Alliance Council.

After the raids, most Occupy General Assemblies struggled to continue their work. The mass media moved on, and the movement receded from public consciousness as the U.S. Presidential race of 2012 gained steam. Although Occupy is no longer in the public eye, activists from the movement have developed many important new groups, networks, and projects. At the end of this article, we’ll discuss a few of these. First, we’ll share a few key lessons from Occupy for future networked social movements.

 

1. We Are Many! It’s Beautiful, and It’s Really Hard Work

Who were “the 99%?” The first lesson from Occupy is this: We Are Many! The movement was diverse, and diverse movements must struggle with inequality along intersectional lines including race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Contrary to popular belief, participation in Occupy was diverse. Right wing pundits attempted to reduce the Occupy movement to a narrow sector of society: unemployed, privileged college students, who were admonished to ‘take a bath, and get a job.’ The Occupy Research General Demographic and Political Participation Survey (ORGS), conducted by Occupy Research, as well as numerous other surveys of the movement, told a different story. It’s true that on a national level, OWS was majority white. At the same time, Occupy participants were of diverse age, race, educational, and class backgrounds. Men, women, genderqueer and transgender folks, straight and LGBTQ people, full-time and part-time workers as well as unemployed and underemployed people, students at all levels of education, renters and homeowners, families, the elderly, and more – people from all walks of life identified as Occupiers.

Guess what? Leadership was also diverse. Occupy was not led only by young, straight, white men. Results from the ORGS survey, as well as extensive writing on the topic (especially by Occupy Oakland), reveal that the core organizers of Occupy were even more diverse than the general participants. For example, a disproportionate number of LGBTQ folks led working groups in many camps. People of Color (POC) took key leadership roles in the most powerful and visible Occupy camps, especially NYC and Oakland. Moreover, many POC felt that their experience was erased when others wrote about the movement as “mostly White.” It is essential to challenge accounts that erase the role of POC, women and queer folks from movement history.

Having an inclusive frame is only the first step towards real inclusion. ‘The 99%’ provided an incredibly powerful mobilizing frame. It was broad enough for nearly everyone, even as it specified class struggle. This was quite a feat in the context of the United States, where class talk has been nearly erased from public discourse. At the same time, this universalizing, biggest-possible-tent message masked important experiential differences. We need to recognize that there were real problems with racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and class privilege within Occupy. Protest camps everywhere face problems including homelessness, racism, sexual abuse, and gender based violence. These problems are rooted in powerful structures of social inequality and aren’t easily solved. In the future, we hope that networked social movements learn to confront their own tendencies to reproduce broader structures of social inequality.

Occupy was always global. The original organizing group of OWS included Spanish, Egyptian, and other transnational activists. This shouldn’t be surprising; social movements have been organizing transnationally for literally hundreds of years. For example, just look at the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, multiple feminisms, the LGBTQ movement, the immigrant rights movement, the Global Justice Movement, and more. At the same time, it’s true that the transnational circulation of struggles has accelerated due to both increased access to networked communication technologies and falling transportation costs.

Occupy was also deeply local. The movement didn’t take place in a vacuum. Occupiers were part of a deeper social movement context, and this varied greatly from place to place. Local organizing histories were often critical to strategy and tactics, and influenced the trajectory of each Occupy in unique ways. In Oakland, California, the existence of vibrant, radical local movements (from the Black Panther Party to Causa Justa/Just Cause, to name just two of many examples) shaped Occupy Oakland. Seasoned activists brought a deep knowledge of organizing, a sophisticated analysis about the intersections of race, class, and gender, and experience with tactics including direct action and the General Strike. They helped radicalize Occupy Oakland and organize some of the key movement victories, such as shutting down the Port of Oakland.

 

2. Prefigurative Politics: Powerful, but Problematic

Our second lesson: prefigurative politics are powerful, but very difficult. It’s hard to build the new world in the shell of the old, when the old keeps pepper-spraying you in the face.

Rather than demanding reforms or fighting for a place within the existing political system, Occupy operated in the mode of prefigurative politics. Occupiers strove to create alternative systems and directly solve peoples’ needs, ‘building the new world in the shell of the old.’ Encampments provided housing, meals, libraries, sanitation, communications infrastructure, and self-governance in the form of directly democratic General Assemblies, all outside of existing political and economic systems. These practices were not just support structures for the ‘main show’ of protest activity – they were integral aspects of the movement.

Even most small organizations today tend to employ a small number of appointed leaders who direct the activity of followers. Occupy’s General Assembly (GA) demonstrated a different model, and attempted to build the leadership capacities of all. Rotating facilitators work to support each member of the group to become a skilled and equal participant in the deliberative process. The consensus model (complete with hand signals, facilitation roles, and proposal procedures) has a long history, but for many Occupiers, the GA offered a first introduction to these techniques. Armed with this experience, they are now introducing consensus process to new groups. Group-centric leadership, or “leaderfulness,” seeks to avoid both the concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals and the tyranny of structurelessness.

Despite its initial success, the General Assembly also held Occupy back. Consensus is tough to scale. Occupy was the first attempt in the USA to apply a directly democratic, consensus-based assembly model on a mass scale. The Global Justice movement in the 1990s, the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s, and successive waves of feminism all used horizontal consensus practices, but focused on developing networks of small affinity groups rather than mass assemblies. Even “modified” consensus, which allows proposals to pass with a small number of blocks, can become frustratingly slow or ineffectual when enough people with differing goals participate in a single large assembly. With an under-specified baseline of shared values, it is difficult to exclude participants whose views are incompatible with the movement.

Along these lines, militant ethnographer Jeffrey Juris argues that Occupy, and the new global cycle of protests more broadly, operates by a ‘logic of aggregation’ rather than the ‘logic of networking’ that guided the Global Justice Movement. He argues that attempts to gather the broadest possible public tend towards eventual collapse; whereas models of small autonomous affinity-groups with spokes councils allow for deeper, longer term, coordinated action.  Future movements might find focus more energy on linking General Assemblies (aggregation) and tight-knit Affinity Groups (networking).

 

3. Transmedia Organizing: From Mic Check! to GlobalRevolution.tv

The third lesson: Occupy was a transmedia mobilization, from Mic Check! to GlobalRevolution.tv. The mass media often emphasized the digital tools used by Occupiers. Breathless reporters snapped pictures of protesters with Apple computers and iPhones, then used these images to delegitimize the movement on thinly coded class grounds. In reality, Occupy struggled with internal digital inequality. Digital inequality both shapes, and is shaped by, larger structural inequalities, and many in the movement recognized this fact. Social media were indeed a critical space, but Occupiers produced and circulated media across every platform they had access to. They created a great deal of analog and ‘low-tech’ media, even as they worked with cutting-edge technologies and ran hackathons to create new tools and platforms. Media, Press and Tech Working Groups systematically built presence on Twitter and Facebook, shot and edited videos, operated 24-hour livestreams like Globalrevolution.tv, organized print publications like the Occupied Wall Street Journal, built websites like OccupyTogether.org and wikis such as NYCGA.cc, and coded autonomous movement media platforms and tech infrastructure (see Occupy.net). Members of these WGs also worked with the press, from independent reporters and bloggers to mainstream journalists. OWS thus engaged in transmedia organizing: cross platform, participatory media making, linked directly to action, shaped by a large number of movement participants rather than by a few spokespeople. Future movements have much to learn from this approach.

Occupy changed the news agenda, but was still misrepresented. In a country where it’s not acceptable to use the term ‘class’ in public conversation, Occupy managed to draw attention to wealth inequality for a period of several months. Yet the movement was portrayed by the mass media as simultaneously violent, disorganized, and idealistic. For one thing, prefigurative politics are hard to explain to non-participants. The prefigurative orientation of Occupy, which denied the legitimacy of the existing political process, was also less legible to mainstream journalists who sought to situate the movement within the usual frame of electoral politics. When persistent efforts to identify “leaders” and “demands” fell flat, journalists painted a picture of the movement as simply disorganized.

Additionally, police used tactics first developed by the military to help control and shape press coverage. For example, some police forces invited journalists to ‘embed’ during raids on protest camps. The Los Angeles Police Department restricted journalists’ access by using a  ‘press pool’ during the eviction of Occupy LA. These techniques, and the type of coverage they produce, weren’t unique to Occupy. Recent communications scholarship reveals that since the Civil Rights era, the mass media in the USA have largely abandoned humanizing coverage of social protest, and adopted a ‘violent conflict’ frame instead. Put another way, newspapers and TV news (still the primary news sources for most people) no longer provide real coverage of movements, their grievances, and their proposals; instead, they broadcast gripping images of clashes between protesters and police that draw attention, but alienate viewers from protesters.

 

4. Movements Change Lives: A Lot of People’s Lives a Little, and Some People’s Lives a Lot

Our fourth lesson is this: Occupy Changed Many Lives Forever. The Occupy Research General Survey indicated that Occupy was about half of the participants’ first movement experience. Social movement scholars tell us that for some, this will have a long term transformative effect. This is known as the biographical impact of social movements. Social movement scholar Doug McAdam developed this idea extensively by analyzing the long term, life-course impacts on Civil Rights activists who participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Not every Occupier will become a lifelong activist, but some will. For many, participation was shallow: they ‘liked’ or shared information about OWS via social media, or visited an Occupy camp at some point. Contrary to the ‘Slacktivism’ critique, however, most careful studies show that shallow participation doesn’t tend to replace more meaningful forms of engagement. Instead, of a large number of people who engage in a ‘shallow’ action, a few will go deeper. Online organizers, as well as marketers, call this process ‘conversion,’ or sometimes, the ‘ladder of engagement.’ Ultimately, a very large number of people’s lives were touched a little bit by Occupy. A smaller number of Occupiers will continue to be deeply active in future movements. Just as activists who cut their teeth on the Global Justice Movement (and other movements) were key to OWS, newly politicized Occupiers, bolder and wiser for their past experience, will help shape future mobilization waves. As we’ll see in our final section, this is already taking place.

 

5. Occupy is Dead. Long Live Occupy!

After the protest camps were dismantled by police, most of Occupy’s General Assemblies struggled to continue working. The loss of a single central gathering space was a significant drain on movement energy, and all of the major encampments are now gone. Organizing continues, although much of it is subterranean. Many Occupy activists created new groups, networks, or projects, some under the ‘Occupy’ umbrella and some with new names. Others joined and even reinvigorated existing community organizations, and helped them grow. Here, we only have space to mention a few of the many ongoing initiatives Occupiers are involved in:

Occupy Sandy: It turns out that months of self-organizing a protest camp pays off during a disaster. When Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard of the USA in October, 2012, state agencies and professionalized disaster aid nonprofits struggled to figure out what to do with an army of volunteers. Occupiers, in contrast, rapidly put their skills to use and organized Occupy Sandy, a “grassroots disaster relief network that emerged to provide mutual aid to communities affected by Superstorm Sandy.” Occupy Sandy mobilized 50,000 volunteers to provide over 300,000 meals, rebuilt over 1000 homes, and provided in excess of a million dollars of donated supplies. Many volunteers from Occupy Sandy are also now organizing for the housing rights of low-income people, who have been targeted for displacement by ‘redevelopment’ projects that came in the wake of disaster relief. They are fighting what Naomi Klein calls ‘Disaster Capitalism.’

Strike Debt: Self-described as an “offshoot of OWS,” Strike Debt is a group seeking to educate the 99% about injustice in the debt system and to take direct action to combat it.  In addition to promoting “debt resistance,” where people with unjust debt take a principled stance against repayment, Strike Debt is operating a “rolling jubilee.” Named after the Middle Ages tradition of the Jubilee year, Rolling Jubilee seeks to absolve people of their debt by buying it in the debt market. They pose that because of the way the debt market works, debt can be abolished for less than a tenth of its purported value. To date, the project has raised funds to abolish more than $12 million in debt.

Occupy Our Homes: One of the key triggers for OWS was the housing credit collapse and the home foreclosure crisis. Occupy Our Homes organizes to block foreclosure evictions and keep people in their homes. The group works with dozens of neighborhood organizations that help communities fight foreclosures and build local power.

101 More Things Occupy Has Done: Occupy has done far too much to do justice to here. OWS popularized mass public assembly and mic checks; demonstrated process transparency; spread the meme of the 99%; created spaces for movement theory and reflection; changed the national conversation about inequality; built international momentum during the global cycle of struggles; inspired a new generation of activists; increased visibility for the movement against racial profiling; challenged – and in some cases changed – protest policing practices; helped publicize the American Legislative Exchange Council and convinced corporate sponsors and legislators to abandon it; pushed NY Governor Cuomo to tax millionaires; defended hundreds of people from foreclosure; campaigned against student debt; created alternative schools, farms, worker owned cooperatives, street fairs, creative culture jamming, and mutual aid projects; helped convince hundreds of thousands of people to switch to credit unions and local banks; and “scared the shit out of rich people.” Occupy Wall Street was built through the efforts of pre-existing movement networks, served as an ongoing street school for thousands of new activists, and will resonate through future movements for a long time to come.

 

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