Can an Occupation Movement Survive if it No Longer Occupies a Space? Lessons from Across the Land
This story originally appeared at Salon.
The post-occupation movement is taking shape across America. In New York, Occupy Wall Street is mulling next steps now that Zuccotti Park has been politically cleansed. Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Ore., have been evicted. And other occupations are staring at imminent police action, including New Orleans, Detroit and Philadelphia.
In Chicago, which has been unable to secure a public space, the Occupy movement is trying to figure out how to sustain a public presence through a harsh winter while staging creative actions that capture attention. And while Occupy Mobile in the conservative stronghold of Alabama was shut down two weeks ago without much attention from the national news media, the local movement has not gone quietly into the night, providing one answer to the question: Can an occupation movement survive if it no longer occupies a space?
The answer, based on my visits to occupation sites around the country, is: “Yes, but …”
Mobilized in Mobile
In Mobile, a group of young, mostly white activists initiated one of the country’s shortest occupations recently. After holding weekly demonstrations for a month, Occupy Mobile set up an encampment in the city’s downtown Spanish Plaza on Nov. 5. After voluntarily moving to nearby Memorial Park days later the occupation was broken up close to midnight on Nov. 8 with police arresting 15 people and protesters alleging police brutality.
We arrived in Mobile on a Saturday night after enjoying a grilled shrimp dinner at Ed’s Seafood Shed and an outrageously beautiful fuchsia sunset over the Gulf Coast. Chelsy Wilson, a university student studying anthropology, had invited us to a modest home secreted in the suburbs to meet members of Occupy Mobile. We were curious about an occupation that had taken root in a small city in the Deep South, and when we talked with some of the 20 members they seemed just as surprised, describing a conservative city hostile to most anyone to the left of Michele Bachmann.
Jason Carey, a 28-year-old IT specialist who’s lived in Mobile for 10 years, said an emergency room doctor told him his ribs may have been fractured when he was arrested the final night of Occupy Mobile’s encampment. He claims he was dragged down stairs and felt “someone stomping on me.” A good-looking nerdy type and aficionado of extreme sports, Carey is the seasoned activist and mentor to political neophytes in the organization.
Three days after being evicted Occupy Mobile was back on the streets. It staged an action at ArtWalk, a monthly event in downtown where galleries open their doors and artists peddle their work on the streets.
“About 15 people did a silent protest,” says Carey. “Some people had dollar bills taped over their mouths. I taped a sign over my mouth, ‘First Amendment? Not in Mobile!’ There are well over a thousand people walking around at any time.” Carey says that people usually come to ArtWalk in groups and while “a few people were assholes … dozens of groups initiated discussions with us.”
Emily Schuler, a Mobile native and college student, says the Occupy movement made her rethink her place in society, calling it “one of the best things that has ever happened to me.” Schuler says, “I love Mobile, but it’s ultra-conservative.” She explains, “I always felt like the black sheep because I sensed that the way the world was working was not good … There is a lot of pain and suffering. I think it has a lot to do with the way the system works. Because right now it’s profit over people. And it should be people over profit.”
To the world-weary in New York, a silent protest and proposition that the American system values “profit over people” may seem prosaic. And it would be prosaic were it not happening in a place like Mobile, Ala., and all over the United States. Dozens of occupiers have told us this movement is an “awakening” for them or for others.
One eye-opening aspect of our evening with Occupy Mobile was that none of these people knew each other a month before. The movement has created a new political community virtually overnight.
“We all felt alone,” Chelsy Wilson says. “Now we know that’s not the case. We’re going to try to reach out to other people who feel this wa … People say they have a new hope for Mobile. A lot of us were looking for jobs outside the city, we wanted to move away as fast as we could, and a lot of us have changed our minds. We want to stay here now.”
In smaller, conservative cities, the creation of a new community may be success enough for the movement, enabling a new network to consolidate and spread its message without a public encampment. But for larger cities that already have a strong progressive presence, the experience of Occupy Chicago is more relevant — and more sobering.
Chicago: The problem of good intentions
Occupy Chicago is forging ahead with maintaining a public presence despite never having established an occupation in the first place. It’s not for lack of trying. On two consecutive Saturdays in mid-October, Occupy Chicago tried to take Grant Park, known for Chicago’s head-bashing police plying their trade during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
On the day of the second action, Oct. 22, we caught up with the protest as it was marching to the horse, a statue that provided the rally cry, “Take the horse.” It was impressive compared to New York. A march some 3,000 strong, bullhorns, banners, resounding chants and marshals providing a buffer from the police. Occupy Chicago felt like any of hundreds of demonstrations I’ve been on in the last 20 years. To be fair, the energy and stakes were higher, but it seemed like protest as usual. It was far better organized than Occupy Wall Street’s chaotic peregrinations — and that was the problem.
In New York, Occupy Wall Street actions surge with electricity. No one quite seems in control because everyone is in control. Amoebic blobs of protesters break off and take the streets. Chants are thrown out, and the hive mind picks a winner. It is atavistic, often lacking signs, denied sound systems and shunning permits, but powered by hearts, lungs and passion. Exciting and unpredictable, it attracted greenhorns, drove the cops nuts, paralyzed Bloomberg for weeks and captured the world’s attention. That was why it worked and why the boot came down in the end.
In Chicago, the first time protesters tried to take the space on Oct. 15, 175 people were arrested. We were there for the second round of arrests of about 130 people. I talked to Jan Rodolfo, a 36-year-old oncology nurse and National Nurses United staff member. While preparing to be arrested along with other union members and scores of others, Rodolfo said Occupy Chicago needed “a permanent encampment because it allows the movement to grow by creating a central place for people to come. ”
Another activist said, “It would have been a big victory for the students, unions and other groups putting their efforts into the movement.”
It wouldn’t have just been a victory; it would have created a different movement. What made occupations in New York City and other cities so successful is that they brought new people into the movement in droves. Chicago has strong networks of activists, unionists and community groups, which are all involved in the Occupy movement. What they were missing was crucial: the people who were previously non-political.
This is a key feature of the movement. The occupation space itself becomes a spectacle that attracts newcomers who behave in unpredictable ways and who broaden the movement by bringing in perspectives that challenge the ideas of experienced organizers. This creates disruptive moments, such as Marine Corps vet Shamar Thomas’ shaming of 30 cops in Times Square. Watching his performance, which has been viewed nearly 3 million times, gives me chills and makes me wince seeing him in combat fatigues, dressing down dumbfounded cops.
“How do you sleep at night doing this to people?” he shouted. “You’re here to protect us … If you want to go kill and hurt people, go to Iraq. Why are you hurting U.S. citizens?”
The notion of suggesting that someone should go to Iraq, a country tormented by the United States for decades, to hurt people is beyond the pale. But Thomas’ outburst shows how Occupy Wall Street has touched people deeply and allowed them to see the movement as their own, rather than having to sit through weeks of anti-oppression workshops or spend years studying economic, political and cultural theory that few have the interest in or patience for. In an occupation, people bring their own ideas, that can create radical moments — even for radicals.
As an outside observer, I felt that Occupy Chicago was being held back by organizers’ good intentions. The two attempts to “take the horse” were too stage-managed. Treating Occupy as a regular movement does not allow it to burst the social seams. Additionally, the police were able to use a soft hand to make people voluntarily remove themselves from the park with the effect that the arrestees on the second night were maybe 4 percent of the original march, unlike in New York City and places like Oakland where the crowd would get swept up in the chaos.
Now there is a daily occupation on Chicago’s Wall Street, in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and the headquarters for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade, where lines of protesters snake about creating a ruckus. The police force them to keep moving, so everything has to be on wheels, such as drums and even their donation box.
We met some new activists on the scene. Luke Welker has abandoned his dreams to be a doctor, two courses shy of a bachelor’s degree, because “I lost my sister to drugs and had to take care of my 8-year-old nephew.” Cassie Sheets, a sophomore in creative writing at Columbia College of Chicago, described herself as part of the 1 percent, but said she “stood with the 99 percent” because her advantages were based not so much on hard work as on winning “the ovarian lottery.”
Without a permanent space, however, it makes it very difficult for neophytes to fully join the movement. Protests are held one place, general assemblies another, working groups someplace else. And without the accessories of village life — a kitchen, art and music, tents, a library, healthcare, media production and the rest — the occupation is shorn of the theatricality that draws in hordes of curious who can then participate based on their comfort level, juicing it with new blood.
With harsh weather looming, said the activist who wished to remain anonymous due to employment concerns, Occupy Chicago is looking to find a building space rather than trying to take a public space.
“There is worry sustaining a daily presence through the winter may cause the movement to fall apart,” she said. “If it focuses on a daily presence and it dwindles, then you lose a lot of energy, which could go elsewhere.”
Occupy Chicago claimed a victory on Nov. 14 when the University of Chicago abruptly canceled a talk that day by former Bush administration officials Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The university had threatened “appropriate disciplinary action” against “disruptive individuals” apparently in response to an “Un-Welcome” campaign by Occupy Chicago and university students.
Neighborhood occupation movements that build on existing organizing are sprouting up, such as the African-American-led Occupy the Hood active in dozens of cities and Occupy the South Side, the historically black area of Chicago. According to the New York Times, the Occupy movement in the South Side has bolstered organizing there by drawing in more participants and increasing media attention for issues around foreclosures and access to healthcare.
Another effort gaining support is “Occupy El Barrio” in the Latino neighborhood of Pilsen, which drew a few dozen people to its first general assembly despite inclement weather. The Chicago activist notes this is one attempt to address the fact that the Occupy movement “has not had a strong Latino presence.”
The movement is also coordinating with unions. At a Nov. 11 public hearing, Occupy Chicago and Amalgamated Transit Union workers packed a hall to overflowing to protest the Chicago Transit Authority’s threat to cut services, raise fares and fire 1,000 workers if the union did not cough up $160 million in concessions. Workers joined by the crowd mic checked the authority’s board members for trying “to pit us against our natural allies, our community, our passengers.”
On Nov. 17, Occupy Chicago unveiled its new strategy, dubbed “Operation Chicago Spring.” The stated goal is to do one event a day throughout the winter such as “defending homes that are being foreclosed, sit-ins, flyering, banner dropping, building parks, delivering supplies to the homeless, guerrilla theater and art …”
The announcement quoted Joshua Kaunert, an archaeologist and Occupy Chicago member, as stating, “The question isn’t, ‘where will the Occupation be,’ it’s ‘where won’t it be?’ We will be indoors and outdoors, in every neighborhood and every suburb, at public hearings, protests and community events.”
Occupy Chicago will undoubtedly continue, but how can it seize the public’s imagination? Without a sustained public presence it runs the risk of falling into predictable protest patterns that people may dismiss or ignore.
Many Occupy Chicago participants contend that the reason Mayor Rahm Emanuel is so hostile to allowing an occupation to take root now is that it could become the nucleus of a much larger movement next May when NATO and the G-8 come to town. And they are almost certainly right. Allowing the occupiers a public space now could allow them to recruit tens of thousands next spring.
The image of huge crowds of everyday people confronting legions of cops protecting the conclaves of the rich and powerful who run the world is more powerful than any words. It would draw the battle lines between the 99 percent and the 1 percent in the streets. And it is ultimately in the streets, not in meetings or conferences, where the political struggle will be played out as it has been from the French Revolution more than two centuries ago to the Egyptian revolution today. Holding public space is key.