One year ago, a park in New York was taken over by a band of urban survivalists driven mad by the systemic causes and consequences of wealth inequality in America. The occupation and its message were so resonant with the world outside this park that within two months it exploded into a global brand of dissent that rivaled the Arab Spring. It hit its apex quickly; over the course of the winter, fed-up city governments and the elements took their toll on the biggest encampments across the nation. For the better part of the last year, dozens of media outlets have taken turns pronouncing the movement over, with estimated times of death varying from last November to a week ago. Yet this week there were signs of life.
On Monday, I woke up at 5 a.m. to join one or two thousand people who descended upon New York City’s financial district for “S17″, a celebration of Occupy Wall Street’s one-year anniversary. The day was split between guerrilla protests, general assemblies, and general revelry. There seemed to be one police officer for every two protesters posted all over the southern tip of Manhattan, and most had a kind of grimness to them that suggested S17 was in all likelihood going to be the next 9/11. But in fact, as is typical for the model of direct action protests that Occupy often champions, the actions for the day were mainly about making a nuisance of ourselves - clusters of hundreds of predominantly young men and women clogged up streets, held up intersections and made a ruckus. The clusters regrouped near the Wall Street Bull around lunch time, during which people spoke through the human microphone about poverty, social stratification, debt, climate change, the need to protect the commons and a host of other issues that will never be approached during the election debates; someone announced herself as the first formerly homeless woman to ever run for president; and an Elvis-like street preacher who goes by the name Reverend Billy provided a brief sermon on the need to “choose life” and the environment over an economy centered on Wall Street. After recapping the morning and a bit more organizing, the afternoon involved a second wave of protests and attempts to block streets. In the evening, most the protesters reconvened in Zuccotti Park, the site of the original occupation, for the “Popular Assembly,” intended to be the first of a series of weekly meetings, and presenting itself as an alternative to indefinite occupation. Just like most meetings, the Popular Assembly quickly became tedious, and many scattered across the park sharing stories and dancing around drum circles through the night.
By the standards of disrupting business on Wall Street, S17 could not be called a success. This is in large part because NYPD is adept at protecting capital. The police used metal barricades, buses, dogs, helicopters and motorcycles to prevent protesters from entering the places where they were to execute the major planned act of civil disobedience of the morning – a “human wall” that would block people from accessing the New York Stock Exchange. When the roving, autonomous clusters of protesters tried to make life difficult just outside this protected zone by blocking intersections, the police would take a few minutes to realize what was happening and end it through bursts of extraordinary violence and arrests (the day ended with nearly two hundred). There was no disobedience of consequence, and life went on in the area fairly normally, albeit if slightly more slowly.
What was striking about the police charges at the nonviolent troublemakers was how forcefully they showed that concerns about public safety were not guiding their conduct. For instance, a teenager running back and forth across West Street, threatening to stay on the road even when the traffic light changed, was brought into custody by two cops who appeared to be training for the NFL. His entire face was covered in blood. When a skinny young woman chucked an empty plastic soda bottle at a police officer after he pushed her on the sidewalk, she was smashed face-first into the street by no less than four large men. Her entire face was covered in blood. The list goes on and on; I witnessed at least eight such sanguinary incidents myself, and only one of them involved direct provocation in the form of the aforementioned thrown object. This is entirely ordinary for non-state approved protests in America, but it is not something that one gets used to.
Most intriguing of all, there was a near-total arbitrariness at play in many of the arrests. Often when there was a gray area in the legality of occupying a certain space, the police would simply pick off the slower or bolder people like sharks chasing a school of fish. Other times people were randomly grabbed and stuffed in a police bus while marching legally on the streets. (One theory being circulated was that the totally random arrests were for activists who had an established reputation of some kind.) This was something nearly everybody I met spoke about. The genius of this policy is that since one does not know precisely which behavior one has to avoid to be arrested, everybody grows more timid – even those who do not mind being arrested don’t want to be tackled or taken out of action without good reason. By fencing off critical junctures, exercising disproportionate force, and arresting people whimsically, the city was intent on not even allowing for the existence of the spectacle of disobedience.
But history shows that people can perform direct action effectively even when the tactical odds are stacked against them by authorities. The reality is that there are massive limitations to organizing many people with decentralization as a group’s crowning value. Aside from the “human wall,” there were no fleshed out back up plans. What if instead of being fragmented into dozens of free-forming groups, all the Occupiers targeted one bank or one intersection simultaneously? Would the police really have arrested everybody? (Unfortunately that is a sincere question.) What if all the most risk-inclined protesters formed spearheads for a few coordinated clusters, so that the police didn’t just pick them off easily one by one? What if everyone wasn’t waiting for someone else to take a stand?
There was a point toward the end of the night in Zuccotti Park (which was gated and had only two exits) where a large group of police officers in riot gear stormed into the park. There was a ton of commotion; most people flooded out of the park, and those that remained within it surrounded the police wielding a variety of cameras, expecting to capture them doing something inappropriate. It turned out the police were looking for tents, and not much else. As the police filed out of the park, a young man from Chicago leaned over and told me that everyone in Zuccotti was waiting to watch somebody else to do something worth watching.
In fact the city he hailed from exemplified this tendency earlier this year. The much-hyped resistance to the NATO Summit in Chicago — a conference that at one point looked like it might’ve been the site of the next Battle of Seattle — was a crippling disappointment for Occupy. While it is true that Rahm Emanuel loves war and raised over $30 million for security, the major march of the weekend didn’t even come close to materializing into anything substantially more than that, despite the biggest American black bloc contingent I’ve seen in years.
Occupy’s dominant models for direct action, with roots that can be traced to autonomist Marxist and anarchist repertoires of ideology and tactics, is predicated on a laissez-faire view regarding the ideal settings for human enterprise. Occupy, in New York and also within any of its chapters, has a subtle, informal and self-effacing network of leaders who trust people to come to the best organizational solutions for their cause with only minimal external input. More radically, there is an assumption that action is best carried out “spontaneously.” This combination of organizational minimalism and reliance on spontaneity establishes a firm ceiling over the possibilities of its collective action. Occupy’s faith in the swarm, which has been tested for decades by an eternally hopeful global justice movement that rarely makes concrete gains in America, is increasingly becoming indefensible. The anonymity of the swarm allows people to evade responsibility and become a spectator within a mode of politics whose essence is participatory. Seattle is the exception to the rule.
But Occupy is far more than the autonomous and spontaneous ethos that informs its approach to direct action. The tents are gone, but its ability to unite people with disparate backgrounds and different utopias for contentious collective action remains unrivaled. It has created hundreds of offshoots that apply direct democratic organizing principles and its critique of political economy to campaigns on particular issues ranging from gentrification to reforming the SEC. Most the media who declare Occupy dead don’t pay attention to extrainstitutional politics except when they have to. They don’t realize that the modern progressive activist class spends most its time underground trying to make do with very little, and that Occupy’s organizational structure is a Swiss Army knife. Times have been hard, and they still are. Let’s see what happens.
At the end of the day though, there is something inimitable about the kind of communitarian environment Occupy creates when it manages to hold a space. On Monday I spoke with an Armenian American scrap metal collector about the French Revolution; a Brooklyn councilman about legislation to end New York City’s notorious stop-and-frisk policy; Chicago photographers about how to counteract the shuttering of mental health clinics; and a UC Davis student regarding Facebook’s impact on horizontal organizing, to give you a sample. This was not idle chatter with hippie vagabonds – it was strategizing with people who work, and get off work to grind some more. Contrary to the popular rendition of Occupy as a big carnival, most the activists I am personally acquainted with who support Occupy make more time for community and politics than leisure – or they view all three as the same thing.
But the fact that Occupy cultivates vibrant social scenes doesn’t undermine its seriousness – it ensures its effectiveness. Midday when we were exhausted from the morning runs, someone offered me some food, someone leaned against my body for support without asking permission, someone helped me get up, someone gave me a book, someone drew me a map, someone gave me their email address, and someone wanted mine. Everyone was kind to each other. Reverend Billy yelled out “Mic check” – the signature Occupy phrase any individual may cry out to get everyone in the crowd to turn to them and echo their words — maybe three dozen times during his sermon. He called it praying. He was ridiculous and jovial, and I don’t think he’s a real reverend, but I swear for a moment I was a believer.