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Occupy National Gathering Brings Together Occupiers From Far and Wide

Corporations have retreats, so why shouldn't the Occupy movement?
 
 
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The five-day Occupy National Gathering, which drew to a close on July 4, gave participants a venue to network, prioritize issues and vent their grievances with the movement. The event gave those who felt marginalized the chance to make themselves heard, with many expressing frustration at the preponderance of white males in positions of influence.

The movement’s anarchist roots were readily apparent throughout the five days, with horizontalism and a rejection of mainstream political engagement remaining at the heart of Occupy. Issues of student debt, endangered public education, foreclosure, and big bank power were clearly the dominant concerns, although the national security state, environmental issues and police brutality were also discussed. As with any political function there were a certain number of outlier ideologies, but the 9-11 Truthers and the End the Fed contingents were vanishingly small and exerted little influence. (The latter was reduced from the Ron Paul tents that sprang up at many encampments to a lone crier in a Bob Marley T-shirt.)

The National Gathering was largely concerned with maintaining Occupy’s much-vaunted "horizontalism"—a leaderless, non-hierarchal structure—while reinvigorating the movement’s flagging momentum. On the 4th a visioning process was held, where groups of three people, who didn’t know each other, met to formulate what their ideal democratic future would look like. “Another world is possible, but what does it look like? This is our question for the day,” tweeted Melanie Butler, an activist from the Wall Street occupation. Over the course of the day these groups melded together, combining lists and placing tallies next to issues that were repeatedly prioritized in individual groups’ lists.

The final document is meant to, in the words of Lauren Beller, one of the activity’s facilitators, “give us a better idea of what page everyone is on—a concrete list of goals to help us focus our energies.” (Issues of debt, higher education and home foreclosures were common, while others, like Occupy Mars—for the colonization of the Red Planet—were less so.) But organizers were keen to emphasize that the visioning document should not be confused with a list of policy demands, which Occupy has been criticized for lacking.

“This is a process to create space for dialogue about subject matter we need to bring back to our home occupations,” says Michael Basillas from Occupy San Diego. “We can use these goals as a [basis] for actions, teach-ins, etc. But we don’t want to say this is the document. It is a step in our maturation process.”

The visioning process was run with the horizontal organizational acumen for which Occupy is known. Participants showed an impressive ability to come together to work through the relatively complex process within a direct democratic framework, although the final visioning document was still being compiled by the time most occupiers marched to the free Roots concert a couple miles away.

The final day also featured a spirited assembly by the Radical Convergence, a group that sprang up in reaction to the perceived de-radicalization of the movement, for those who felt relegated to the periphery of Occupy. As one speaker from New York said, he feared “Occupy no longer being a revolutionary movement, but a movement that happened to contain revolutionaries.”

The Radical Convergence assembly also provided a safe, structured space for people of color and women to express their frustration and anger with the movement. Many said they felt that the “process and organizing is controlled by white males,” as was written in one anonymous concern read during the visioning process, and that too little was being done by Occupy to address issues besetting communities of color and women.

“Where is our solidarity? I see solidarity for many great things—Bradley Manning, student debt, Trayvon Martin,” said Lorena Ambrosio, a New Jersey resident and an Occupy Wall Street participant. “But right now women’s rights are under attack by Republicans all over the country. We need clinic dense, feminist education, the state representative in Michigan who was shut down for just saying ‘vagina’—there should have been immediate action.”

The daily encampment at Franklin Square buzzed with discussion of how best to expand Occupy to cover the issues raised on the 4th at the Radical Convergence assembly. But the direct actions and pageantry held during the National Gathering were largely focused on issues of debt and unjust banking practices. Many of the participants sported red felt squares inspired by the massive student protests in Quebec. All in the Red, a new student group from New York, led a march on Sunday to protest the de-funding of public education and the ever-escalating student debt crisis.

While the activists would occasionally slip into well-worn protest nostrums (“Whose streets?” etc.), their education-centered chants clearly got the crowd revved up: “Education is a right, not just for the rich and white.” The march prompted some bystanders to cheer and honk their horns, a relatively rare event as most of the week’s events did not noticeably attract much outsider attention or support.

“Our main goal coming to NatGat was to do actions with Occupy, to show people we exist, that was our main goal,” says Janna Powell, a New York-based All in the Red organizer who “stepped back from Occupy because it’s a little unproductive right now.”

Powell described her efforts reaching out to other student groups at the National Gathering and those within Philadelphia more generally (she named Penn specifically). “[In that] we were really successful. We want to collaborate with researchers, students, educators, and bring [these issues] to the public in creative ways.”

Most of the week’s arrests, of which there were 28, were a result of a spontaneous march on Sunday night, which did not appear to have a particular issue focus. Participants simply described it as a “solidarity march,” although who or what they were in solidarity with was unclear. The small band attracted a police presence at least twice its size, which some protesters then antagonized.

“The march was largely young people from other cities who didn’t have a good realization of their surroundings,” says Amanda Schaikah, a medic and Philadelphia resident who was arrested. “Their occupations have become stagnant and they came to NatGat to go and do shit. It wasn’t smart. We could have been really, really fucked up. There was no knowledge of the city, of legality. You say 'fuck cops,' well, what do you think they are going to do?”

A total of 23 people were arrested at the march, with most released the following morning with fines. Another arrest occurred on the first day during a tense protester-police standoff on Independence Mall, where the National Gathering was initially going to be held. But the 4th and Arch Street Quaker meeting house was made available to the occupiers, allowing them a place to sleep where they would not incur the wrath of law enforcement.

“On Saturday [the police] looked like they were ready to bash some hippies,” said Tricia Shore, a member of the meeting house and a participant in Occupy Philly’s interfaith working group. “That we had a backup plan was a godsend. [This location] deescalated everything.”

Occupiers slept at the meeting house at night and held court in shady Franklin Square during the day. (Some of the protesters were reportedly doing some gardening for the Quakers to thank them for use of the space.) Occupiers from many corners of the country were represented (Occupy Kalamazoo!), bringing stories of the innovative tactics used, mainly, against big banks. Atlanta occupiers dumped the furniture from a foreclosed house outside the offending bank, while Occupy Buffalo, working in coalition with other groups, successfully lobbied the city council to disinvest millions from Chase.

“For me, the most important thing about the gathering was communicating with people all over the country,” said Alexis Goldstein, an occupier from New York and a former Wall Street employee. “Despite the fact that we are all working on very similar things, we hadn’t really connected….There is a value to face-to-face interactions. There is a reason corporations have retreats. If we are going to challenge their supremacy we are going to need to have retreats too.”

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.