Occupy Wall Street Could Be A Seminal Moment…Or Not

When the London (and other English cities)riots rampaged earlier this year, I read with droll amusement, the armchair activist quarterbacks’ wistful comments in Huffington Post and elsewhere, basking in admiration and awe of what they thought they were seeing.

Viewed from a closer range… like here in the UK …these occurances weren’t demonstrations against Cameron’s austerity programs. They were anything but. They were willful acts of vandalism initiated by a youth so spoiled and entitled that they reckoned they could initiate acts of violence like this, simply because they could.

The police, after all in the UK, are unarmed; and somehow, I don’t think scantily clad, spiked-heeled dolly birds out for a night on the tiles at the local nightclub, tripping over broken glass to stock up on booze just lifted from trashed off licences, made any sort of real social statement – except to illustrate the fact that Britain’s youth suffer from a problem with incipient alcoholism.

Ditto the riots that occurred earlier in the spring in response to Cameron’s government raising tuition fees at English universities. The students who rioted in central London were the sorts whose parents viewed a £9000 fee for a term at a leading university (the equivalent of roughly $15,000) as pocket money. Example: Charlie Gilmour, the collegeboy son of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, an extremely well-spoken multi-millionaire rock musician who happens to be a personal friend and polo-playing buddy of Prince Charles, was arrested for running riot and vandalising a particularly important British memorial and also for banging on the window of a limousine which just happened to contain Daddy Dave’s royal BFF and his wife out for an evening jaunt.

Charlie Gilmour’s doing porridge (Cockney slang for sitting his ass in prison), and Daddy Dave, needless to say, didn’t get the knighthood he was up for in the Queen’s Birthday honours.

More’s the pity.

As a child of the Sixties, myself, who was too young to participate in the activism incipient in that decade, but who, nonetheless, watched with great interest and sympathy, I’ve been somewhat bemused at the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, which is getting zilch coverage from the BBC.

I was raised in the tradition of the worker’s movement with the unions. My father believed in agitating for better conditions in the workplace and for the working classes. Both my parents were more than sympathetic to the Civil Rights’ Movement – and they were Southerners.

The spontaneity of OWS interested me. Spontaneity can be good, sometimes, but I wanted these people protesting to have a goal or a concrete aim or at least a leader who could articulate one and the same – otherwise, they risked getting taken advantage of by people who had their own spurious agenda to promote.

I’m a great believer in history. I honestly do believe that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it, so I took comfort in seeking the words of an old hero of mine from the Sixties, who knows a thing or two about protests and protesting.

Mark Rudd (remember him?) writes:-

In discussions with young people, they often tell me, “Nothing anyone does can ever make a difference.”

The words still sound strange: it’s a phrase I never once heard forty years ago, a sentiment obviously false on its surface. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I and the rest of the country knew about the civil rights movement in the South, and what was most evident was that individuals, joining with others, actually were making a difference. The labor movement of the thirties to the sixties had improved the lives of millions; the anti-war movement had brought down a sitting president—LBJ, March, 1968—and was actively engaged in stopping the Vietnam war. In the forty years since, the women’s, gay rights, disability rights, animal rights, and environmental movements have all registered enormous social and political gains. To old new lefties, such as myself, this is all self-evident.

So why the defeatism? In the absence of knowledge of how these historical movements were built, young people assume that they arose spontaneously, or, perhaps, charismatic leaders suddenly called them into existence. On the third Monday of every January we celebrate Martin Luther King having had a dream; knowledge of the movement itself is lost.

The last sentence rings so true. What does it say about the movement Dr King spurred, when someone like Glenn Beck can appropriate that and lead a congregation of Teabaggers onto the Mall on the same date and in the same place where Dr King gave his immortal Dream speech? What does it then say when Beck and his motley crew can announce that this gathering reflects another Civil Rights’ movement?

Rudd goes on to explain how, in the early part of the decade, many anti-war protesters were quickly demoralised, even though they actually had strength in numbers, that their actions, aimed at what was actually a blatantly immoral and illegal war effort, simply fizzled out. Rudd blames the spontaneity of the action on its defeat, saying that ” very success of the spontaneous early mobilization seems to have contributed to the anti-war movement’s long-term weakness.”

I don’t want to see OWS go the way of this, and that’s what worries me.

Rudd cites Andy Cornell, one of the contributors to Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out, and goes on to elaborate:-

He writes, “activists are individuals who dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they hope will contribute to social, political, or economic change. Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations. Organizing is a process—creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.” In other words, it’s not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they’ve got to move toward “organizing masses of people.”

Aha! Activism = self-expression; organizing = movement-building.

Until recently I’d rarely heard young people call themselves “organizers.” The common term for years has been “activists.” Organizing was reduced to the behind-the scenes nuts-and-bolts work needed to pull off a specific event, such as a concert or demonstration. But forty years ago, we only used the word “activist” to mock our enemies’ view of us, as when a university administrator or newspaper editorial writer would call us “mindless activists.” We were organizers, our work was building a mass movement, and that took constant discussion of goals, strategy, and tactics (and later, contributing to our downfall, ideology).

Thinking back over my own experience, I realized that I had inherited this organizer’s identity from the red diaper babies I fell in with at the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS. Raised by parents in the labor and civil rights and communist or socialist movements, they had naturally learned the organizing method as other kids learned how to throw footballs or bake pineapple upside-down cakes. ”Build the base!” was the constant strategy of Columbia SDS for years.

Yet young activists I met were surprised to learn that major events such as the Columbia rebellion of April, 1968, did not happen spontaneously, that they took years of prior education, relationship building, reconsideration on the part of individuals of their role in the institution. I.e., organizing. It seemed to me that they believed that movements happen as a sort of dramatic or spectator sport: after a small group of people express themselves, large numbers of by-standers see the truth in what they’re saying and join in.

So this is it. It all comes down to organzing, which means planning, hard work, detail-sorting, simple hard graft which takes time. As an example of such organizing which saw success, he cites how the SNCC targeted and achieved success through voters’ rights campaigns amongst rural African American communities in the Deep South of the 1960s.

The Mississippi Delta region was one of the most benighted areas of the South, with conditions for black cotton sharecroppers and plantation workers not much above the level of slavery. Despite the fact that illiteracy and economic dependency were the norm among black people in the Delta, and that they were the target of years of violent terror tactics, including murder, SNCC miraculously organized these same people to take the steps toward their own freedom, through attaining voting rights and education. How did they do it?

Black churches usually had charismatic male ministers, who, as a consequence of their positions, led in an authoritarian manner. The work of the congregations themselves, however, the social events and education and mutual aid, were organized at the base-level by women, who were democratic and relational in style. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, SCLC, used the ministerial model in their mobilizing for events, while the young people of SNCC—informed by the teaching and examples of freedom movement veterans Ella Baker and Septima Clark–concentrated on building relationships with local people and helping them develop into leaders within democratic structures. SNCC’s central organizing principle,”participatory democracy,” was a direct inheritance from Ella Baker.

SNCC preached a gospel of individual efficacy. What you do matters. In order to move politically, people had to believe that. In Greenwood the movement was able to exploit communal and familial traditions that encouraged people to believe in their own light.

Does this sound familiar? If it doesn’t, cop this: It’s the same method employed by Republican Party operatives when they approached the disenfranchised remnants of the old Democratic Party base, who’d been rejected by the new Progressives, some forty years ago.

Such tactics created the Reagan Democrats a decade later. Such tactics resulted in the revolt of the Soccer Moms and Religious Right in the wake of the rise of Dubya Bush. Such tactics resulted in the Tea Party we know know and abhor.

However, with the wisdom of age, Mark Rudd offers admonition, in telling how the movement he and the Sixties’ students built, singularly failed.

However, my clique’s downfall came post-1968, when, under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation (Weatherman and the Days of Rage, Oct. 1969) and then armed urban guerilla warfare (the Weather Underground, 1970-1976). We had, in effect, moved backwards from organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously, that that would build the movement. At the moment when more organizing was needed, in order to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing.


Think about how different our society would have and could have been!

Now fast-forward to today and Occupy Wall Street.

A prescient young person, of the same age as many who seeem to be taking part in the movement which is now expanding to various other American cities, Ezra Klein writes in the Washington Post:-

There is not, in other words, all that much you can say with confidence about what Occupy Wall Street is or isn’t. At the moment, it’s different things to different people. And, depending on your perspective, that may be the nascent movement’s biggest strength or its fatal weakness.

Right now, the protests are at a tipping point. The unions and MoveOn.org are mounting a sympathy march this afternoon. Van Jones’s Rebuild the Dream and Russ Feingold’s Progressives United are blasting messages of support. Prominent elected Democrats such as Rep. John Larson, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; Rep. Louise Slaughter, ranking member on the House Rules Committee; and Sen. Jeff Merkley have all applauded the movement.

What these Democrats and liberal-activist groups are looking for is something similar to what conservatives found in the tea party: an opportunity to recharge and rebrand. Governance exhausts a movement. The compromises sap it of its purity; the institutional ties rob it of its authenticity; and in times when the American people are unhappy, the consequences undermine its agenda. In 2009, that’s where the Republicans were. The Bush administration had left them identified with an unpopular president, yoked to a terrible economy and discredited as a governing force. So they stopped being Bush Republicans and became Tea Party Republicans.

In 2011, elected Democrats and activist groups affiliated with the Democratic Party are in a similar situation. They’ve compromised on their agenda. They’re yoked to a terrible economy and an unpopular president. They’ve watched the grass-roots energy migrate to the tea party right. They no longer hold the mantle of change. And here, all of a sudden, comes Occupy Wall Street, which seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist, and the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” which is something every liberal message man in town wishes he had come up with. You can see the appeal.

That isn’t to say these groups are trying to co-opt Occupy Wall Street. They’re not. Or, at least, they don’t think they are. They just want some of that grass-roots magic, too. They see a space opening up for aggressive, populist organizing, and they want in on it.

That’s not what Occupy Wall Street was founded to offer. Its roots are more radical and anarchist than that.


The effort to create “the sort of society you want to have in miniature” makes it hard to turn your attention to changing the society that’s all around you — and that ultimately limits your appeal. The number of people who want to sleep in the park and overthrow the system is not large. The number of people who want to express their frustration with the system and fight for a better deal might be.

The leaderless, decentralized, consensus-driven nature of the protest will make that process of evolution and adaptation easier. After all, there’s no one in particular who can say, “That’s not what this movement is about.” If MoveOn.org begins organizing under the “We Are The 99 Percent” banner, who will stop them?

One very possible future for the movementat it splits in two: The Occupy Wall Street effort, with its more radical aimds and means, continues, and the “We Are the 99 Percent” movement becomes something broader and more directly engaged with the political process. Another is that it fizzles: The radical protest in Zucotti Park peters out, and the effort to create a more mainstream version fails. Another possibility is that it fractures: Just as there are hundreds of distinct tea party groups organized under separate and competing national coalitions, you could imagine a lot of different efforts organized under one name but representing diverse and contradicting ideas.

Such is the hybrid nature of a movement today, and by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. That doesn’t mean Occupy Wall Street, itself, is wicked – far from it. I’m a purist on this one, and I want a viable movement to emanate from this that will result in our realising the ability to choose legislators with a more Progressive outlook, who will begin to move our Executive Branch in a more Leftward direction.

I’m not disappointed in the President. He does the best he can with the bad hand that was dealt him. Could he do better? Of course. But he’s constricted by the Constitution as much as by the Senate Democrats who, as we speak, are already picking apart the jobs bill he’s desperately trying to push.

And let’s not even begin to discuss the Republicans.

What’s happening on Wall Street and what’s burgeoning in cities across the country could be something good, or it could just as easily be something rancid. It really just depends on who shows up to assume the mantle of leadership in this and how that person defines the goals.

Just remember that there are a lot of opportunists about.