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Could National Strikes and Boycotts be Occupy Wall Street's Next Move?

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Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily. by David Harris-Gershon
The tent city along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv stretched for over a mile this summer.

The tent city along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv stretched for over a mile this summer.

This summer, thousands of social justice protesters built tent cities across Israel, occupying public spaces in dozens of cities. Taking inspiration from Cairo’s Tahrir Square – and enraged by skyrocketing costs of living and the growing economic divide between the country’s wealthiest elite and everyone else – protesters responded by being perpetually present, by sleeping. This seemingly simple form of civil disobedience – sleep – is fittingly what awoke within Israel a slumbering populace and brought them, marching and chanting, into the streets. Sound familiar?

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After one month, the Occupy Wall Street movement has remarkably mirrored what occurred in Israel this summer. Occupations have sprung up in public parks and squares across the country as protesters rage against the nation’s wealthiest one percent and the corrupt influence many have over economic policy-making. And these occupations, while executed by a relatively small number of activists, have sparked marches and rallies in nearly one hundred American cities.

On October 15, in solidarity with the Global Day of Change, thousands gathered in countless municipalities across America, with some marking the beginning of additional occupations, signaling Occupy Wall Street’s continued expansion. (Pittsburgh, where 3,500 participated in the city’s first Occupy Pittsburgh march – and which now has 150 people camping in Mellon Bank’s green space – serves as a prominent example.)

And yet, as winter approaches – as brutal weather awaits some of the nation’s most critical occupations, including those in New York and Boston – being physically present, at least outdoors, may become unsustainable.

Which begs the question: how will the movement continue its momentum? Or more simply: what next?

Israel’s social justice protesters may be offering an answer.

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In Israel, seven weeks after the first protester, Daphni Leef, set up camp along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv on July 14, 2011, the largest protest in Israel’s history was shaking a country from its slumbers and pushing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make economic reforms. Eventually, as the rainy season approached and as Netanyahu formed an emergency committee to propose economic reforms that might appease the protesters, the tents came down and the mass rallies ceased. Camping was no longer sustainable – permanently occupying public spaces had reached its inevitable end. However, the protest movement in Israel has not ended. Leef and the movement’s leaders, frustrated by the government’s failing to enact any substantive reforms, are planning something novel: “The People’s Strike.” Scheduled for November 1 – and with nearly 4,000 people already pledging to participate – protesters are planning what would be the first populist strike in the nation’s history. This in a country accustomed to strikes initiated by unions, strikes that are often both stubborn and effective. And so Israel’s youth-driven movement are moving to a new phase – not being present as a form of civil disobedience.

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The United States is a country with a rich history of strikes and boycotts forming critical battle lines during social struggles, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the Civil Rights movement and the Coal Strike of 1902 serving as a shining examples.

As winter approaches, and as occupation (outdoors, at least) becomes difficult in many areas of the country, protests leaders would do well to consider putting such tactics – boycotts and strikes – in the movement’s operational tool box.

To be clear: I am not advocating a retreat from Zuccotti Park in New York City or from Mellon Green in Pittsburgh. The longer a physical presence can be maintained, the longer a visual, perpetual accounting can be sustained, the more enduring this movement will be.

However, those who decide to retreat indoors from the storms of winter can continue fighting by retreating, literally, from those institutions which they view are at the root of many of our economic ills. Protests can broaden by boycotting, for instance, multinational banks, or by establish strikes in the financial industries, in the service industries – in any sector that might temporarily impact a given industry.

This is the experiment that is about to be conducted in Israel: a populist movement of striking, of not being present as a central form of activism.

It’s something Occupy Wall Street might want to consider using more broadly as well.

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