The life and times of Occupy Wall Street

Issue: 135

Jen Roesch

Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and the Occupy movement that rapidly spread across the country in late September 2011, marked a watershed moment in the re-emergence of mass struggle and radical politics in the United States.1 In a matter of weeks, decades of accumulated bitterness and discontent found political expression and began to reshape national politics. Prior to Occupy the media had been focused on the right wing Tea Party, which most narratives portrayed as a grassroots rebellion against “big government”. Almost overnight the national conversation was refocused on the idea of the “99 percent vs the 1 percent”. This message helped the movement gain mass support and provided a left wing focus for people’s simmering anger.

Coming out of a period in which most struggles in the US had been quickly defeated, the early gains of the movement were rapid and impressive. The occupation of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan began with no more than a couple of hundred campers, but quickly swelled to as many as 600 campers nightly and a regular presence of a couple of thousand people through the day and evening. The occupation movement spread like wildfire with activists setting up encampments in more than 500 cities. And in the early weeks protesters across the country were able to fight off eviction attempts by local mayors and police forces. In fact, at the height of the movement, each act of police repression only served to draw even more forces into the struggle. In the autumn of 2011, tens of thousands of people across the country became actively involved in the movement and hundreds of thousands joined in mass protests.

For a while it seemed to many participants as if the movement just needed to set itself ever more ambitious goals in order to move forward. Success seemed to follow success. However, when mayors across the US decided to move decisively against the encampments in early November, they were able to evict them en masse in short order. It would have been asking too much to expect the encampments to withstand the swift, overwhelmingly violent repressive force that mayors and police departments unleashed on the protesters. Despite mass sympathy for the movement, the social forces were simply not yet deep or organised enough to provide an effective resistance to the state’s assault.

The first response of movement activists was defiance, summed up in the bold slogan “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come”. This confident posture seemed justified as tens of thousands in New York City (NYC) protested just days after the clearing of Zuccotti and activists on the West Coast prepared for a shutdown of the ports in early December. However, six months after the mass eviction of the encampments, it is clear that the movement has not been able to regain its feet. Throughout the winter activists had looked to the spring as a potential reawakening of the movement, with a particular focus on the call for a “general strike” on May Day. While there were some impressive mass marches, particularly in NYC where up to 30,000 people protested, the call for a general strike unsurprisingly went unheeded. More importantly, the movement has not been able to find a way to translate residual sympathy into active engagement in any kind of sustained way.

Today the future direction—and even the existence—of the Occupy movement, as such, is an open question. If activists and the left are to learn from this last wave of struggle, it is important to take this opportunity to assess the experience of the last eight months and the debates that have emerged. Most analysis of the Occupy movement has overwhelmingly centred on what are seen as its unique organisational and tactical forms. Many commentators and participants have focused on the way in which Occupy arose outside of the traditional forms of the left, movement organisations and the unions. They look for an explanation of its dizzying success in its tactical audacity, its rejection of hierarchical structures and its independence from existing organisations, which are seen as bureaucratic and ossified.

This article will argue that such a focus is too narrow to adequately understand the dramatic rise of the movement. Moreover, this focus on the “new” leaves us ill-equipped to understand the challenges facing us today and how to move forward. In reality, the picture is much more complex than the dominant narrative of the movement admits. It is true that Occupy emerged independently of the official trade union and left organisations (though there were both labour and left activists involved in its early formation). Movement activists quite consciously saw themselves as rooted in the developing “movement of the squares” internationally and shared many of the dominant assumptions of that movement: a rejection of political parties; a commitment to horizontal democracy; and a focus on the reclamation of public space and the construction of mass experiments in cooperative living.2

It is also the case that Occupy’s tactical and organisational forms gave it a political space and a flexibility that allowed it to develop quite quickly and broadly. The occupation of public space created a gathering point for new people to enter the movement, to debate with one another and to cooperate in advancing struggles. The lack of demands meant that people entering into the movement could articulate their own grievances within the common framework provided by the slogan “We are the 99 percent”. And the focus on direct democracy, epitomised by the mass general assemblies, helped to give people a sense that they had a voice in the shape and direction of the struggle.

But these factors alone are not enough to account for the movement’s growth. From the very beginning the fate of OWS was bound up with its interactions and connections with longer-standing organisations and struggles. This is most true of the unions, which provided early support and resources. But the movement’s ability to connect with longer-standing struggles, particularly those rooted in working class and multiracial communities, also proved decisive. In all of this, longer-standing activists, including members of the organised left, played a role in helping to build a bridge between the newly emerging movement and these existing organisations and struggles. To adequately understand the development of Occupy, it is necessary to grasp both these dynamics in their interaction.

Rather than seeing the Occupy movement as representing something distinctly unique that can only be analysed on its own terms, it is more useful to understand it as one expression of a growing resistance. Its antecedent can be found in the “movement of the squares” internationally, but there were equally important preludes to be found within the US working class itself. First and foremost was the struggle against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attempt to completely smash the public sector unions in that state. This was the first taste of mass working class action after decades of retreat. Then, just weeks before OWS began, Verizon telecommunications workers up and down the East Coast had gone on strike and gained massive support.

Viewed in this light, the Occupy movement can be seen as one aspect of the process of rebuilding working class political and organisational capacity. The movement made a decisive contribution to reframing the political debate in the US and legitimising militant action. But if we are to move forward, we need a sober assessment both of the movement’s strengths and its weaknesses. This article will attempt to provide such an account of the movement’s development and outline some of the key debates facing it today.

The rise of OWS

No one could have predicted the movement’s success. OWS was not the first attempt to occupy public space in lower Manhattan. In June 2011 activists with New Yorkers Against the Budget Cuts had maintained an encampment in the shadow of City Hall to protest at Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed austerity budget. Over the course of a couple of weeks a core of 100 or so campers dwindled to about half that size. Activists from that struggle were the first to take up the call from Adbusters magazine to occupy Wall Street on 17 September. Throughout the late summer, 50 to 100 activists met in General Assemblies (GAs) and began planning.

The movement’s beginning on 17 September was inauspicious. Adbusters had set a goal of flooding Wall Street with 20,000 protesters. Local activists were more modest in their expectations, but were still hoping for 5,000 to 10,000. Instead, fewer than 1,000 people showed up that day and about 700 people participated in the first GA in Zuccotti Park. As a small core of protesters set up tents and sleeping bags, it was unclear how long an encampment would be able to sustain itself or what impact it might have.

Several factors helped to give social weight to the initially small protest and to catapult it to national attention. The first was a march of 1,000 multiracial protesters in memory of Troy Davis—an innocent black man who had been executed in Georgia the day before. This protest was marked by a militancy that would come to characterise OWS-related actions. The crowd snaked its way through lower Manhattan, evading the police at several turns, and made its way to OWS where it joined in chants of “We are all Troy Davis”. Not only did this connect OWS with a more multiracial, working class audience, but it also immediately established a pattern of local struggles looking to OWS for support. This helped to give the movement a social content and local relevance that it might not have had otherwise.

Activists immediately seized the initiative to build these types of connections. In particular, the newly formed Labour Outreach Committee organised support for ongoing labour struggles in NYC, including at some of the most potent symbols of the 1 percent: Sotheby’s art auction house and the Central Park Boathouse. They also began reaching out to some of the larger unions in NYC for support. This support would become critical to Occupy’s survival in its first weeks.

The key turning point, however, was the New York Police Department’s incredibly brutal and completely unwarranted assault on peaceful protesters. On Saturday 24 September, activists attempted an unpermitted march up Broadway to Union Square. For some reason, the police had decided to draw a line in the sand, and attacked and penned in protesters, arresting more than 100. When one officer, Anthony Bologna, pepper-sprayed a group of female protesters who were already captured in a net, the video went viral and drew mass sympathy for the protesters. Suddenly OWS became mainstream news. And as viewers tuned in, they listened as protesters told stories of what had brought them to the encampment. The stories of homes foreclosed on, skyrocketing student debt, debilitating medical bills, lost jobs and more all resonated with a public still reeling from the impact of the economic crisis.

By the second week the encampment had assumed a mass character. Working class New Yorkers began streaming down to Zuccotti. People came before or after work. Students and those without jobs came and joined in the daily marches to the stock exchange and other activities. Many would carry signs expressing their particular grievance or individual tragedy. The numbers in the park swelled as impromptu discussions broke out in every corner. A “people’s library” was set up and quickly became a centre of political discussion as guest speakers came to address the crowd. People would come and set up a table to promote a particular issue. Visitors would help out in the library or the kitchen or sanitation committee. And the nightly GAs grew to 1,000 or more.

By 29 September the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) became the first union to officially offer support for OWS. Other major unions quickly followed suit. On 5 October, a few days after police arrested 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, a coalition of union and community groups organised a demonstration of more than 20,000 in downtown Manhattan. Meanwhile the Occupy movement spread rapidly across the country with literally hundreds of encampments set up within weeks. The high point came on 15 October, one day after the successful defence of Zuccotti, when up to 100,000 people gathered in Times Square and many more thousands protested across the US as part of a global day of action.

The early weeks of the Occupy movement had an almost giddy quality. The movement was marked by a high degree of spontaneity and experimentation, which was in turn sustained by mass involvement. In the first weeks of the occupation tens of thousands of people came down to Zuccotti Park. Mass numbers engaged in discussions and participated in both planned and impromptu marches that took off from there every day. A significant minority of those people got actively involved in the more than a hundred working groups—with upwards of 5,000 people meeting in the various groups each week. The movement quickly grew beyond the bounds of the park and working groups spread to a public atrium where hundreds of people could be found meeting at any given time.

This meant that the movement very quickly developed its own momentum and seemed to go from success to success. Actions that seemed ill-conceived and that were not well planned still managed to succeed. For example, the largest action that took place during the first two months was the 100,000-person demonstration in Times Square on 15 October. However, this was initially called simply as a “dance party” at Times Square and was meant to be an add-on to a day of action against the banks. No one expected it to turn out the numbers it did. Of course, in retrospect, it is possible to identify concrete reasons for each of these successes. For example, the Times Square demonstration came the day after a successful defence of Zuccotti that saw thousands mobilised, in no small part by trade unions,3 to prevent the forcible clearance of the camp. This gave a profile to the action it would not otherwise have had and built on people’s sense of confidence. But to most participants, the belief was that anything could catch and the more ambitious and bold the better.

This meant that there was very little political discussion within the movement and that real differences between activists were minimised. Despite meetings that were several hours long, most discussions were dominated by tactical and logistical questions. This doesn’t mean that there were no political debates. For example, there were critical early discussions about the importance of being explicitly anti-racist and the need to build solidarity with labour, working class communities and the oppressed. But these were the exception to the rule.

The movement deepens

By late October, though, it became clear that the movement would need to deepen its roots in order to sustain itself and move forward. Wider layers of activists were beginning to discuss how to translate Occupy’s tremendous resonance into concrete gains. And the question of how to defend the camps against possible eviction became increasingly dominant as mayors across the country began to take a harder line.

It was in this context that another turning point took place. On
25 October riot police and members of 17 other law enforcement agencies attacked Occupy Oakland with a qualitatively greater degree of brutality than had yet been levelled against the movement. They used tear gas canisters, flash grenades and rubber bullets against protesters. Scott Olsen, a 24 year old veteran, was struck by a tear gas canister and taken to hospital in a critical condition. Both the scale of the brutality and the particular character of Occupy Oakland gave the movement there an added political and social weight. Whereas OWS was camped in downtown Manhattan in the shadow of powerful financial firms, the occupation of Oakland took place in the heart of a primarily black and Latino city that had been ravaged by budget cuts, unemployment and massive levels of state repression. Protesters in Oakland had named their encampment Oscar Grant Plaza in memory of an unarmed black man who had been shot by police in 2009. While issues of racism, police violence and the gutting of working class and poor neighbourhoods had been taken up by OWS, they took on an increased prominence as the centre of struggle shifted to Oakland.

But it was the response of Occupy Oakland that posed the possibility of taking the movement to a new level. The night after the police attack, protesters retook Oscar Grant Plaza in the largest numbers there yet. By a vote of 1,484 to 46 the general assembly called for a general strike on 2 November. While unions had played a pivotal role in the spread of the movement, this was the first attempt to leverage the organised power of the working class in its defence. Most activists recognised that an all-out general strike would not be organised in less than a week. However, support from several critical labour organisations provided a real basis for the action. While stopping short of endorsing the call for a general strike, both the local labour council and the dock workers’ union expressed support for actions on that day. The Oakland teachers’ union issued a clear endorsement. On the day of the action more than 20,000 people participated. The highlight of the day was a dramatic march of 6,000, led by union members, to shut down the port of Oakland.

The Oakland general strike call, and the work done by activists to connect with labour and community organisations in preparation for it, raised the prospect of developing more powerful connections between the Occupy movement and organised labour. It also began to point a way towards the kind of social forces that would be necessary to successfully defend and advance the movement. However, in retrospect, it is also clear that activists drew very different conclusions about the relationship between Occupy and the organised working class. These differences would become central to the debates within the movement in its post-eviction phase. Unfortunately, many of the political debates and lessons that were beginning to be discussed were cut short by the mass clearing of the encampments.

Impact of the loss of the encampments

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the encampments to the movement. It is not simply that they offered a symbol of direct confrontation and reclamation of public space. In a very real sense, they provided the physical arena in which people could come together to discuss strategy and through which new people could enter the struggle. They substituted themselves for the organisational structures that most activists rejected. At the most basic level, they allowed activists to find one another.

The experience of OWS, the largest and most developed of the encampments, is indicative of the general experience nationally. From the very beginning there was something of a divide between the running of the encampment and the associated “operational” groups and the movement working groups. At the height of the encampment close to 600 people were sleeping there nightly. This involved a massive operation that drew in hundreds of activists. But at the same time, there was a proliferation of movement-oriented working groups around almost every issue; these developed their own trajectory. While originally almost all the working groups met on-site at Zuccotti, most ended up splitting off either to a nearby atrium or even to further off-site locations in union halls or other spaces. In theory, these working groups were chartered by and accountable to the general assembly; in practice, they operated almost entirely autonomously with an uneven level of reporting back to the GA. Very quickly the GA took on a role that was much closer to a clearing house than that of a decision making body.

In fact, it’s worth noting that all of the biggest actions of OWS (the 5 October community/labour rally; the 15 October global day of action; and the 17 November labour march) were planned outside of the GA—and, in some cases, almost entirely outside of OWS. For example, most of the organising for the first mass rally on 5 October was carried out by people involved in the “Beyond May 12th Coalition”—a coalition of community and labour groups that had organised a march earlier that year. Two out of the three mass actions were driven in large part by the organised NYC labour movement with young labour-oriented radicals forming a bridge between OWS and the unions.

All of this meant that the movement was very diffuse and that there were no clear centres of decision making. However, as long as the encampment existed there was a practical centre that provided a space for different activities to overlap, for people to enter into the movement and for some level of cohesion to be sustained. There were also particular working groups that helped to provide this cohesion. For example, the facilitation committee met daily before the GAs and planned their agenda; additionally, every major action passed through the direct action committee (even if the centre of organising was frequently elsewhere). Even as what could be described as multiple occupy movements developed, there was a very clear identification with OWS that united everyone.

The reason this history is important is because it underscores how much was lost when the camps were evicted and the centrifugal pulls got exacerbated in the wake of that eviction. The movement was simply not developed enough to withstand the impact. In NYC this was exemplified by the response to the eviction itself. Despite a growing awareness that Mayor Bloomberg was planning to clear Zuccotti, the only real plan for defence involved activists locking themselves down and a text-alert system. On the night of the eviction the police were able to sweep through the park in under an hour and arrest anyone staying. By the time hundreds of people responded to the text-alert system, the area had been cordoned off and police divided and attacked scattered groups of protesters. There was no plan for an emergency response demonstration the next day or for a general assembly to plan the next actions. Most of the key organisers were in jail. Activists made several attempts to gather the next day, but there was no real coordination and so people were left responding to contradictory calls as best they could.

In the first month following the eviction of Zuccotti, the movement was still in a state of flux and it was not clear how much of a loss had been suffered. Just days after the eviction, on 17 November, there was a demonstration of tens of thousands that continued to bring new people into the movement. However, the feel of the demonstration was markedly different from earlier ones. Rather than decentralised “people’s mic” speak-outs, there was a large sound system provided and run by the unions and an incredibly heavy security team making sure that people marched away from Zuccotti. The police and city had regained the initiative. By early January it was clear that the movement had become isolated and was in retreat. In this context, the contradictory political currents that had been held together by a growing mass movement began to separate and polarise.

The movement splinters

The most hardened and politically defined current to emerge was that of the ultra-left, hard anarchists. This current is most concentrated on the West Coast and politically articulated through blogs/groupings such as Bay of Rage, the Oakland Commune, and the Black Orchid Collective.4 However, it also exerts a national influence and is politically connected to the insurrectionary anarchist current that emerged several years ago and was most closely identified with the occupation of the New School in NYC.

Occupy activists had always prided themselves on taking bold, militant action and saw themselves as standing in contrast to the “boring”, permitted marches traditionally called by unions and the left. However, at the height of the movement there was a mass character to the struggle that allowed it to constantly connect with broader layers of the working class. And most activists, even if they expressed concerns about co-optation, saw the importance of developing collaborative relationships with unions and other social organisations. However, as soon as the movement lost its mass character, politics that substituted individual confrontation for collective action began to dominate. While many movement activists gravitated towards these politics out of frustration and impatience, the hard anarchists offered up a theoretical justification and consciously attempted to lead the movement in this direction.

The call for a general strike in Oakland on 2 November had represented a high point of collaboration between unions and the Occupy movement. However, rather than seeing this as an opportunity on which to build, the hard anarchists drew the conclusion that activists could substitute their own militant action for that of workers at the point of production. In this conception, the flow of capital could be disrupted without the active participation of workers in a particular workplace. This could happen either in the process of circulation or through an attack on production from the outside. One collective of writers known as the Oakland Commune expressed the typical logic of this argument: “The subject of the ‘strike’ is no longer the working class as such, though workers are always involved. The strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labour from a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or even sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it”.5

This argument frequently extended to an active hostility to the organised working class. Activists with the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle began in December to formulate a conception of Occupy as representing the 89 percent of workers not organised in unions. While rejecting claims that this slogan expresses hostility towards unions, they portray union members as a privileged caste:

In the deepening of the economic crisis, it is hard to tell poor, unemployed, undocumented, immigrants, people of colour, that we too have a stake in the struggles of union workers, especially relatively privileged workers…When revolutionaries act as if legitimate class struggle only happens through NLRB [National Labour Relations Board]-recognised unions, they ignore the very real and material divisions between union and non-union workers, many of whom see unionised workers as remote and unrelated to their lives at best and as privileged workers who do not understand the realities of the proletariat at worst.6

There are a number of problems inherent in this line of argument. First, it paints a picture of unions as primarily the preserve of white men. In fact, women and people of colour are disproportionately represented in unions as a result of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, as well as of the organisation of the public sector. This is at least part of the reason why unions have played an important role in many of the social justice struggles of recent years—from the defence of immigrant rights to fights against the criminal injustice system. Second, it ignores the fact that far from feeling hostility towards unionised workers, most non-unionised workers would like to be able to join a union. And, in fact, when unions have taken action, even those representing relatively well-paid workers, they have received widespread support. Perhaps this is because most workers, organised or unorganised, instinctively recognise a reality that the anarchists of the Black Orchid Collective do not—when unions fight and win, they raise the potential for all workers to move forward.

Dismissing the need to patiently win workers over, whether unionised or not, also provides the theoretical justification for an insistence on confrontational tactics. Destruction of property and violent confrontation with the authorities are celebrated as part of the insurrectionary process. For this current, an “unmediated assault on our enemies”, as the Oakland Commune describes it, represents a step forward for the movement regardless of the numbers or character of those involved. The hard anarchists measure the strength of the movement by the willingness of people to engage in such assaults. An article posted on Bay of Rage after the recent May Day protests is illustrative. In it the authors point to what they see as the successful aspects of the day:

No other 24-hour period in recent memory has unleashed such a diverse array of militancy in cities across the country. From the all day street fighting in Oakland, to the shield bloc in LA, to the courageous attempt at a Wildcat March in New York, to the surprise attack on the Mission police station in San Francisco, to the anti-capitalist march in New Orleans, to the spectacular trashing of Seattle banks and corporate chains by black flag wielding comrades, the large crowds which took to the streets on 1 May were no longer afraid of militant confrontations with police and seemed relatively comfortable with property destruction. This is an important turning point which suggests that the tone and tactics of the next sequence will be quite different from those of last fall.7

They fail to mention the fact that each of these actions involved, at best, hundreds of activists. Perhaps more tellingly, they ignore some of the more impressive mass actions that took place on that day. The high point took place in NYC where as many as 30,000 immigrants, union members, students and other activists marched from Union Square back to Zuccotti in a protest that was reminiscent of the early days of OWS. Smaller, but nonetheless significant, marches ranging from 3,000 to 7,000 took place in cities like LA, San Francisco, Oakland and Chicago. But because most of these actions were legally permitted marches, they were not seen as a step forward or a potential basis for revitalisation of the movement, despite bringing the largest numbers of people onto the streets since November. In fact, at an assessment meeting in NYC the anarchists who had organised the Wildcat March (which drew a few hundred people) argued that the mass march was responsible for larger numbers not engaging in militant actions throughout the day.

In reality, this insistent emphasis on confrontational tactics focuses the movement on a terrain with which the police and authorities have become quite comfortable. There has developed an all too predictable rhythm to these confrontations: the police wait for the numbers to dwindle and scatter, then attack and divide protesters from one another and use overwhelming force to quickly quell any resistance. In the early days of the movement police violence served to radicalise and bring larger numbers into it as people were horrified by unprovoked assaults on peaceful protesters. Today this dynamic has shifted. The movement is increasingly isolated and has become identified with its most adventurist wing. Activists are trapped in an exhausting and demoralising cycle of confrontation followed by the need for jailhouse solidarity and medical and legal support.

At the same time that the ultra-left, hard anarchist current advanced, many of the most important social forces that helped give support to Occupy, most notably the unions, began to retreat. A critique of the anarchist dismissal of the organised working class should not obscure the reality that there are inherent tensions in the relationship between the Occupy movement and the unions. The union leadership saw in Occupy an opportunity to infuse new energy into the labour movement. But they will also seek to contain that struggle within acceptable bounds and, in particular, would like to harness that energy into their support for President Obama’s re-election campaign. This was glaringly apparent when the president of SEIU, one of the country’s largest unions, issued an endorsement for Obama the day before the 17 November demonstration in NYC. The next day the full weight of the union’s bureaucratic apparatus was on display as it attempted to control and marshal the demonstration. There was clearly a conscious decision on the part of SEIU and its allies to make sure that the 30,000 people on the demonstration did not attempt to march to, let alone retake, Zuccotti, but instead were directed to an outer borough.

While the decentralised nature of the Occupy movement makes it difficult for the unions or Democratic Party to simply co-opt it, there is no doubt that both forces would like to steer activist energies into the 2012 elections. The splintering of the movement makes it much easier for anyone to take the language of “Occupy” and use it to their advantage. Most recently the liberal Democrat non-profit group, in alliance with the major unions, conducted a series of non-violent trainings that they called the “99 percent spring”. More than 100,000 people—constituting much of the base of the movement’s early phase—participated in the trainings. While organisers insist that these trainings are not about getting the vote out for Obama, they do provide a very tangible and organised potential base of support for such an effort. Moreover, they are an indication of where some of the largest and most well-funded organisations intend to put their efforts.

Where next?

Today the Occupy movement is at a crossroads. If it is to move forward, it must connect with the broad layers of the working class that gave the movement its initial mass character. This would entail a series of more modest struggles around concrete issues such as police brutality, housing, public education and more. This work is being done, and sincerely so, with an increased corps of dedicated activists. But it does not find a political expression in the movement as a whole. Instead the public face of Occupy remains focused on attempts at renewed occupations, unpermitted marches and direct confrontation.

There are two critical obstacles that need to be overcome. First, most activists within the movement look to recreating the tactics that led to the explosion of the movement in the fall. This frequently means an insistence on direct confrontation with the police through unpermitted actions. There is an underlying assumption that police repression will, like it did in the autumn, ignite mass sympathy. Instead it tends to exhaust movement forces as activists deal with repeated rounds of repression and the resulting need for jailhouse solidarity, medical support and legal defence. It also raises the bar for passive sympathy to be translated into active participation. Finally, it can form a real barrier to genuine collaboration with emerging movements, such as those around criminal injustice, where participants instinctively understand the need for a more serious approach.

Secondly, the movement has not managed to replace the critical functions played by the encampments. There are hundreds of activists who are wrestling with the question of how to take the movement forward. But there is no political space in which they can come together and have these discussions. And, even more critically, there is no organisational mechanism for translating any agreed-upon strategy into action. Thus the most destructive actions taken by sections of the movement undermine any of the positive attempts to link up with working class forces. The widely shared political commitment to horizontalism and a “leaderless” movement acts as a block to the development of such structures.

The myopic focus on confrontational tactics and insistence on structurelessness both stem from a widely held belief that OWS was successful precisely because it broke new ground. Most commentary on the movement, as well as the self-assessment of movement activists, focused on the tactic of occupation and the fact that OWS emerged independent of trade union, liberal or left forces. There is no doubt that the occupation—both its existence and its imagery—played a key role in catapulting the movement to national attention. But it is equally true that there were a whole series of conjunctural factors that facilitated this. Some of these factors were truly unpredictable—such as the unwarranted, highly televised brutality against protesters and the resulting mass sympathy. Others were the result of the conscious efforts of longstanding activists, such as early links forged to labour and anti-racist activists.

Regardless of the initial reasons for the explosion of the movement, it tells us little about how to move it forward now. OWS tapped into a deep vein of accumulated bitterness and discontent in the US. But as a movement, it far exceeded the existing organisational and political capacity of the working class. That class has been in retreat for 35 years and suffers the scars of defeat and demoralisation. The monumental events of 2011, from the Egyptian Revolution to the occupation of the Capitol in Madison to OWS, all began a process of reversing that tide. But it is precisely that—a process, which will advance spectacularly at times, suffer defeats at others and need to consolidate its forces.

It is unclear in what way the Occupy movement will revive or even whether, in its current form, it can. But it has fundamentally altered the landscape of American politics and exposed the fault lines of class anger. In that sense, it has made a contribution to the rebuilding of working class confidence, organisation and militancy. There is no shortage of issues around which to organise. And certainly the continuing assault of the ruling class in this country guarantees new upheavals. Recently the struggle for justice for Trayvon Martin—an unarmed black teenager murdered by a racist vigilante—has played a role in galvanising an emerging anti-racist movement. In May as many as 10,000 protesters marched against the NATO summit in Chicago. And as of this writing, the 32,000 members of the Chicago Teachers’ Union are preparing for a potential strike in the autumn. These struggles may not flow through the structures of the Occupy movement. But they are part of the same dynamic that gave rise to it. The most important contribution that those on the existing left and those inspired by the movement can make is to draw the lessons of the most recent wave of struggle and help extend the organisation of this resistance in all directions possible.


1: The Occupy movement was previously discussed in this journal in Trudell, 2012.

2: For more on the politics of the “movement of the squares”, inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt and which spread from Madrid to other cities in Spain, Italy and Greece, see Durgan and Sans, 2011, and Jones, 2012.

3: “The AFL-CIO [union federation] sent email blasts to their members asking them to go to the park to defend it early Friday morning, and pressured the mayor behind the scenes to back down”-Singsen, 2012.

4: For examples of their writing, see their websites at, and

5: Oakland Commune, 2011.

6: Black Orchid Collective, 2012.

7: Oakland Commune, 2012.


Black Orchid Collective, 2012, “Longview, Occupy and Beyond: Rank and File and the 89% Unite”, Black Orchid Collective blog (30 January),

Durgan, Andy, and Joel Sans, 2011, “’No One Represents Us’: The 15 May Movement in the Spanish State”, International Socialism 132 (autumn),

Jones, Jonny, 2012, “The Shock of the New: Anti-capitalism and the Crisis”, International Socialism 134 (spring),

Oakland Commune, 2011, “Blockading the Ports is Only the First of Many Last Resorts”, Bay of Rage website (7 December),

Oakland Commune, 2012, “Occupy Oakland is dead. Long live the Oakland Commune”, Bay of Rage website (16 May),

Singsen, Doug, 2012, “A Balance Sheet of Occupy Wall Street”, International Socialist Review, 81 (January-February),

Trudell, Megan, 2012, “The Occupy Movement and Class Politics in the US”, International Socialism 133 (winter),