Looking Back on Occupy
1. Your assessment of the Occupy movement was very positive. What is the overall perception you have of this movement today? What is left of Occupy?
There is not much left of the Occupy movement as such — almost all the encampments were destroyed in November or December 2011 and virtually no new ones have emerged. On the other hand, the movement was in no way “defeated.” With few exceptions, the people arrested were quickly released and totally exonerated. The elimination of the encampments simply had the effect of forcing the participants onto other, more diverse terrains of struggle. Countless people all over the country continue to meet regularly, to network with each other and to carry out all sorts of actions — picketing banks, disrupting corporate board meetings, blocking home foreclosures, protesting environmental policies (Monsanto, Tar Sands Pipeline, fracking, etc.), in addition to more specifically “occupy” type actions such as attempting to take over and reopen schools and libraries that have been closed and abandoned, or “Homes Not Jails” attempted takeovers of vacant housing to provide dwellings for homeless people. One of the most interesting and well planned of these latter types of actions, “Occupy the Farm,” took place just a few blocks from my home last April, when ecological activists took over a large plot of vacant urban land and turned it into a community garden, planting more than ten thousand seedlings in the space of a few days. The gardener-occupiers were driven out after three weeks, but the agitation continues and has resulted in a temporary victory against a planned commercial development. [November note: Since the completion of this interview the immense disaster relief work of Occupy Sandy is yet another very important and exemplary development.]
The Occupy movement already had the implicit goal of “reclaiming the commons” — occupying public squares or parks played on this theme, since regardless of quibbles about permits it was obvious that such spaces belong to the public and are, or at least originally were, intended for public use. But these more recent actions have the merit of challenging the fetish of private property in a more direct manner. That fetish has always been extremely strong in the United States, and the police responses to its transgression have always been more immediate and brutal. But I like to hope that these types of actions will eventually weaken the fetish, just as happened in the days of the Civil Rights movement. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when black people first started restaurant sit-ins, one often heard this argument: “That restaurant belongs to the owner, he has the right to do whatever he wants with it, including deciding who he wants to serve.” But as more and more people kept peacefully sitting in and calmly accepting arrest, the general public was gradually brought around to the idea that there was a “higher law” than property rights — that other rights also had to be respected, such as the right to be treated fairly as a human being. I think this may eventually happen with these post-Occupy invasions of various types of property, as people see the absurdity of there being millions of vacant buildings while there are millions of people living in the streets. Even now many people sympathize with the idea of defending a family against foreclosure, despite the fact that a bank technically owns the home, because there is increasing awareness that the banks have often acted illegally. The notion of reopening abandoned schools, etc., is even more exemplary in that it hints at the notion of a society based on cooperation and generosity rather than on how much money can be made from something.
The two drawbacks of these types of action are that they are risky and that they thus tend to be the work of a small minority (mostly young and mostly male). Occupying public spaces is much more likely to attract the sympathy, the support, and ultimately the participation of multitudes of ordinary people (including parents, children, elderly, disabled). But for those who want to push the limits and don’t mind the risks, taking over vacant buildings and opening them up to public uses is much more challenging and inspiring than breaking windows.
2. Looking back, what do you see as the movement’s most significant features or innovations?
There were several, most of them closely interrelated. Some were genuine innovations, others were inspired by recent struggles in other countries (Argentina, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain).
- The fact that it appeared in such a sudden, unanticipated manner. In the past, and in other countries, particular issues have sometimes provoked massive gatherings that turned into radical popular assemblies; but in this case the assemblies appeared first, without any particular provocation.
- The fact that its agenda was open and everyone was welcome. It called on people to come together to seek practical solutions to the problems we are all facing, but it did not prejudge what those solutions might be. People put all sorts of differences aside (at least for the time being) and agreed to come together amicably, with love, or at least respect, for everyone who came and spoke up, even people with dramatically differing views. This openness was a radical break with almost all previous radical movements, and it was undoubtedly one of the main reasons that so many people were won over so quickly.
- At the same time, it suggested a provocative terrain for these gatherings: “exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space.” This uncertain, semi-legal terrain provided just enough edge to keep the discussions from becoming too academic. (There’s nothing like wondering whether the police will move in to arrest you to encourage speaking to the point and sticking to practicalities.)
- From the very beginning it was apparent to everyone that this was a participatory movement, not just something that you might watch from afar. In most cities and even in many towns all you had to do to find out about it was to go visit the local encampment, look around, ask questions. You could walk right in and immediately take part in the assemblies. This cut through the usual social isolation and spectator passivity, undermining the lies and misconceptions that prevail when people depend solely on what they’ve imbibed from the mass media.
- The occupiers’ unexpected refusal to specify any particular demand. This reflected the understanding that there are innumerable issues and that they are all interconnected; that it is our whole social system, and in fact our whole way of life, that is at stake.
- In contrast to previous radical struggles that would come together for a demonstration about a particular issue on a particular day and then disperse, the occupiers declared their intention to remain indefinitely. This enabled them to settle in and to experiment with various forms of democracy and self-management. This experimentation of course took place within the impoverished conditions of the present society, and was thus awkward and easily subjected to ridicule. But we should not underestimate the powerful effect that even such minimal experiences have on people. For most of them this was the first time in their life that they had gotten a taste of real democracy in action.
- For many of us it was also a illuminating on-the-ground social experience. The encampments brought us together with the homeless people who are involuntary “occupiers” of the streets and parks since they have no place else to go, and who bring with them so many of the problems produced by this society, from economic poverty to every type of substance dependence and mental illness. Getting to know them on an intimate, everyday basis was a sobering experience, but also a rewarding one — sharing a meal or a tent with them, finding yourself in the unaccustomed situation where they are the ones helping you, giving you advice as to how one makes do under such conditions.
- The fact that it spread so widely and rapidly. Many of us were used to the idea that American radical activity mostly took place in the larger cities on the two coasts and had despaired of the vast regions of conservative and clueless Mid-America. In contrast to many other countries, the United States seemed too large and too uncentralized to lend itself to the spread of a radical movement. (France, with its dominant central city, is the most obvious contrary example — numerous times a comparatively small number of people have initiated a revolt in Paris which then rapidly spread to the rest of the country via the existing networks of communication and transportation.) Thus, when I first heard about Occupy Wall Street my initial thought was, “Wow, that looks wonderful! If it continues, maybe it will eventually inspire similar movements in one or two other large cities. That would really be fantastic!” Within three weeks it had in fact spread to hundreds of other cities and towns, including many that were in isolated and conservative parts of the country.
- Despite their geographical separation, the Occupies knew that they were all part of a national (and to some extent even international) movement, and this awareness gave them both confidence and credibility. A few dozen people in a small Midwestern town, whose demonstrations under ordinary circumstances would have been ridiculed by the local population and ignored by the local media, might now be respectfully interviewed due to the perception that they were part of a newsworthy national movement.
- The movement was able to spread like this due to the Internet and other “social media.” As in Tunisia and Egypt, people used Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other interactive forms of communication to organize their actions, to share experiences, and to analyze and criticize their practices in real time. Most revolts of the past had to depend on much slower and clunkier forms of communication (leaflets, phone calls, snail mail) or, worse yet, had to hope that their actions and aims would be reported without too much distortion by the mass media. Now, people saw online videos of assemblies in New York and other cities and immediately decided to set up similar occupations in their own communities, then posted videos and reports about their own actions that might in turn inspire others. This was happening while the mainstream media was not even mentioning the movement. The movement effectively created its own alternative networks of communication and publicity while almost totally bypassing and ignoring the mainstream media.
- This massive interactive communication was sometimes confusing or overwhelming, but it could also be immensely powerful, as when a particular idea or meme suddenly spread to millions of people in less than 24 hours. Instead of relying on a few leaders or specialists, we could draw on an incomparably vaster pool of human knowledge and creativity that no one was in any position to dominate. For any problem, any number of people might come up with a workable solution. At its best this reflected a sort of “communism of ideas” in the sense that people were less concerned with who “originated” some idea, let alone who might “own” it, and more involved in the practical use of ideas, rapidly weeding out the ones that could not pass the test of experience and refining those that could. This collective process also reduced the traditional emphasis on “authors” and “texts.” In my own case, for example, although I wrote a few short pieces during the early stages of the movement, I soon found that most of the points I might have made were already being made by others. Rather than writing an article, all I needed to do was to forward or “share” (via Facebook) what someone else had said (adding a comment if I had some reservations).
- This manner of spreading also had the unforeseen effect of creating an unusual degree of autonomy among the different Occupies. As I noted in my leaflet The Awakening in America, “each of the new occupations and assemblies remains totally autonomous. Though inspired by the original Wall Street occupation, they have all been created by the people in their own communities. No outside person or group has the slightest control over any of these assemblies. Which is just as it should be.” This autonomy was so obvious that no one could have denied it, yet oddly enough I can’t recall anyone else ever noting its importance. Amid all the differences between the Occupies in different cities, no one ever dared to suggest that any Occupy should defer to any other. As I went on to note, this had two great advantages: “the proliferation of autonomous groups and actions is safer and more fruitful than the top-down ‘unity’ for which bureaucrats are always appealing. Safer, because it counteracts repression: if the occupation in one city is crushed (or coopted), the movement will still be alive and well in a hundred others. More fruitful, because this diversity enables people to share and compare among a wider range of tactics and ideas.”
I considered this latter feature so significant that at one point I toyed with the idea of putting out an “Appeal for the Continued Autonomy of Each Occupy.” This would have been amusing because political appeals are almost always aimed at changing something bad, whereas in this case I would have had the easy and pleasant task of urging the occupiers to keep doing exactly what they were already doing. Now, of course, the circumstances have changed in some ways due to the destruction of the encampments, but I think that most of the above features remain exemplary.
3. What new values and experiences did the movement bring to practice?
Far more than I can say here. It would be like asking the same question about May 1968! One of the homemade signs read: “Remember the Sixties? Here they are again!” That was only a slight exaggeration. In some ways it was indeed like a revival of the 1960s counterculture condensed into a few weeks, except that in this case the movement was not based on a narrow “hip versus straight” cultural antagonism. Everyone was welcome, all differences were accepted and appreciated as long as people shared the basic openness and good will. There was a feeling that we had all suddenly awakened, that everything was now being called into question and that everyone knew it. I will just offer a few links that may give a hint of this spirit:.
- A young man at Occupy Wall Street proposes to his girlfriend using the “people’s mic”. (How is the system going to defeat a movement like this, a movement that has become so lovingly embedded in people’s lives?)
- Occupy Atlanta brings together members of rival gangs. (Meeting in the new context of Occupy, two young men who would normally have been deadly enemies become close friends.)
- A homeless man abandons crack addiction after getting involved with Occupy Atlanta. (Near the end the interviewer asks about his former crack addiction. He replies that Occupy has kept him busy, he’s now too busy helping other people to be interested in crack. “You can’t help yourself until you help somebody else.”)
- The silent walk of a university president. (Following the notorious pepper-spraying of students at the University of California at Davis, the hostile university president holds a press conference. Thousands of students gather outside to protest. In a stroke of genius, rather than chanting or angrily shouting at her, they decide to all remain totally silent as she walks to her car. This tactic is a very powerful one, but it requires a degree of collective self-discipline that has rarely been seen since some of the Civil Rights actions of fifty years ago.)
- Giant wall projection in New York. (As thousands of Occupy Wall Street protesters marched on November 17, this is what they saw.)
4. Would you agree that Occupy has changed the perception of the social question in the States?
Yes. First and most obviously, the “99% versus 1%” theme refocused people’s attention to the increasingly extreme economic divisions. Second, the form of the movement gave a hint of how such divisions can and must be overcome — by participatory collective action, as opposed to relying on politicians or other leaders to act for us.
5. Would you say that State repression (especially the unified and coordinated raids against the camps) was the main cause of Occupy’s decline?
Yes. Without that repression, most of the encampments would still exist (though they were beginning to face other problematic issues).
6. Were there other factors?
There were various internal contradictions. In some places there were cultural or racial divisions, or divisions between homeless and non-homeless people. In other cases, there were divisions around tactics — “reformist versus revolutionary” or “nonviolent versus black bloc.” I put quotation marks around these latter divisions because they are somewhat artificial and simplistic. Also, they are not identical to each other: nonviolent does not necessarily equal reformist, and black bloc does not necessarily equal revolutionary. In my opinion being a revolutionary does not preclude working for reforms or other immediate improvements. And though I am not a pacifist, I think that in most circumstances “nonviolent” tactics are more effective than “black bloc” ones. (The situation may be different in countries like Greece, where a large part of the population sympathizes with street-fighting tactics. But this is certainly not the case in the United States.)
Note also that the national electoral spectacle, which began to take center stage in early 2012, has also naturally tended to eclipse other events. When the election is over we will probably see a resurgence of popular agitations that will challenge the Democrats as well as the Republicans. We can already see an example of this in the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, which was struggling directly against Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s former Chief of Staff and now the mayor of Chicago). These kinds of contradictions are now dampened, but they should become more evident after the election in November.
7. From a different angle, do you think the case of the Wisconsin Recall and its failure is an example of how the Occupy movement fell into the trap of Democratic Party and labor union political strategy?
No. The Wisconsin movement, though significant and exemplary in many respects, was not part of the Occupy movement. It began several months before the Occupy movement started, and it was from the beginning focused very specifically on the Wisconsin political situation — on particular Wisconsin laws and on the Republican and Democratic parties that were involved in passing or opposing those laws. So it is hardly surprising that it rallied behind the recall elections. Virtually everyone involved in the struggle wanted to get rid of the Republicans and the laws they had passed, regardless of what other things they may have disagreed about. But this had little to do with the national Occupy movement. As far as I am aware, none of the Occupies ever fell into any sort of “Democratic trap.” Some Occupy participants will undoubtedly vote for Obama and other Democrats as lesser evils, but the Occupy assemblies constantly stressed the complicity of both major parties with the ruling economic system and almost unanimously avoided supporting either party.
There are, of course, heated debates about this issue of voting versus not voting (or of voting for some third party instead of for the Democrats). But this was going to be the case even if Occupy had never arisen. The experience of the Occupy movement simply made it clearer that, whether one chooses to vote or not, electoral politics is at most only one facet of social struggle, that direct engagement in social issues is ultimately far more important and effective. Moreover, despite the fetishisms on both sides in this issue, I don’t believe this is an either-or choice. See the statement that I posted a few weeks ago: Beyond Voting.
8. Do you think some of the spirit and ideas of Occupy has spread to the US labor movement?
Yes, but not as much as we had hoped.
9. How did the traditional union movement, considering its bureaucratic nature, connect with Occupy?
It did not connect very much, though there were some communications and attempted collaborations in New York and Oakland and a few other cities. There was much sympathy from rank-and-file workers, but the union bureaucracies evaded any significant practical collaboration. For example, the New York Transportation Workers Union expressed “support” for Occupy Wall Street, so there was some hope that those workers might strike in its defense, but this never happened.
10. Retrospectively, how do you analyze the attempts by Occupy to block the West Coast ports and the movement’s difficulties in relating to the workers involved?
The first blockade (the Oakland “General Strike” of November 2) was very successful. It was not really a general strike, but it was extremely massive and jubilant. But the longshore workers’ participation was ambiguous — they did not actually strike, they merely used the Occupy blockade as a legal excuse to stay home. The West Coast Blockade of December 12 spread to more cities, but its success was uneven and equally brief, and in most cases I believe the workers’ participation was similarly ambiguous. However, the threat of similar massive support by West Coast Occupies seems to have pressured the bosses into resolving the Longview, Washington, strike a couple of months later (February 2012). That partial capitulation probably reflected the bosses’ fear that workers and occupiers might have established a closer collaboration if the strike had continued.
11. More particularly in Oakland, did the Occupy movement succeed in reaching the black community and, if so, to what extent?
Yes. In fact, it is misleading to speak of “reaching” the black community. The black community was heavily involved from the very beginning, constituting a large percentage of the original Occupy Oakland encampment as well as of the various demonstrations and celebrations.
12. How do you see the relation between Occupy and traditional leftist groups and anarchists?
First of all, it should be noted that the traditional authoritarian leftist groups (Maoists, Trotskyists, etc.) have almost all faded away, and nobody pays any attention to the few that still survive. Back in the 1960s and 1970s such groups had a certain influence and one of our primary tasks was exposing them, trying to convince people not to be taken in by them. This is now totally unnecessary. The Occupy movement was so imbued with participatory democracy that the very notion of allowing some would-be “vanguard party” to tell them what to do would have been jeered by everyone.
The initiators of Occupy Wall Street included some anarchists and other antiauthoritarian radicals, but the great majority of participants there and in the other encampments that sprang up around the country were ordinary people who had had little or no political experience. Many were disillusioned Obama supporters; a few were even right-wing libertarian or “Tea Party” types who also had been angered by the recent Wall Street manipulations and bank bailouts.
During the first few days, many anarchists and other leftists contemptuously dismissed the Occupy movement as mere “liberal reformism.” To their credit, once they realized that this was in fact a major and in some ways unprecedented radical mass movement, most of them dropped their preconceptions and took part in it with an open mind, to see what they might learn as well as what they might teach. But some persisted in seeing the struggle in terms of their old ideological perspectives — as if the most important thing was how many people they could win over to an explicitly “anticapitalist” or “antistate” perspective. As I stressed in the “Awakening” leaflet, I think the dynamic of a popular movement is far more important than its ostensible ideological positions. It is quite natural that people react against particular grievances without waiting until it becomes feasible to envision more fundamental social changes. Moreover, they are unlikely to ever arrive at the latter stage if they have never tested their strength or developed their critical capacities in more immediate struggles. Once they are engaged in this process they will soon enough figure out for themselves if they need to go further. Virtually every revolution in history has passed through such phases. To take just one striking example, in early 1789 the French people were asked to submit complaints or demands that their representatives could bring to a national meeting of the Estates. These “Cahiers de Doléances” (Registries of Grievances) raised hundreds of different issues, but they were virtually all in the form, “The King should change this or that law . . . The King should abolish this or that tax . . . The King should order the nobles to stop doing this or that . . .” A superficial observer might have concluded that the movement was not only totally reformist, but totally monarchist! Yet a few months later the Bastille had fallen and three years later the King had been beheaded.
13. Would it be fair to say that some of these groups are stuck in an old pointless militant bravado which did not work in Oakland, except to disgust and discourage most people from participating?
I don’t think most of these groups had much effect at all, either positive or negative — the movement was far broader and deeper and more alive than any ideological tendency. On the other hand, I think that the militant “black bloc” bravado, which rightly or wrongly was often seen as reflecting anarchist perspectives, did have the negative effect you mention, namely bringing about a drastic decrease in participation. Some people attribute this decrease primarily to the police repression, and that was of course an obviously important factor. But note that the most blatant police repression — the destruction of the Occupy Oakland encampment on the morning of September 25, followed by the tear gas and other police violence later the same day (including the near murder of Scott Olsen) — actually resulted in a huge increase in public support. So many thousands of people called the Oakland mayor or posted denunciations on her Facebook page that the next day the police hardly dared to show their faces (which enabled the occupiers to reestablish the encampment less than 48 hours after it had been destroyed). The November 2 “General Strike” a week later drew more than 50,000 people. And these were not all merely casual visitors; close to half of these people also took part in the illegal and potentially dangerous port blockade the same day, even though many of them were political novices. The mood was euphoric. Thousands of newcomers were visiting the encampment every day. People all over the world were watching. The movement’s audacity and positivity were undermining all the reactionaries’ talking points and there was every likelihood that these events would continue to dominate the public consciousness for at least the next few days and inspire further advances in other cities.
The next day we woke up to see that the media coverage had shifted to a few incidents of “black bloc vandalism.” I and my friends (radicals as well as liberals) all had the same sinking feeling — not because we particularly cared about a few broken windows, but because we suspected that this idiotic side-show would distort the perception of the movement and interrupt its momentum. And so it did. The occupiers were thrown back on the defensive and proved unable to resolve the issue to anyone’s satisfaction. A large majority of the general assemblies recognized that such vandalism was counterproductive, but a sizeable minority blocked any abandonment of the “diversity of tactics” policy. (That policy had originally sounded like a reasonable compromise, but in practice it meant that a tiny minority could crash a demonstration even if most of the participants wished it to be nonviolent. The latter then had the unenviable choice of allowing the minority to hijack their demonstration or being denounced as “Peace Police” if they tried to prevent it.) A month later, following continued obsessive media focus on “irresponsible black bloc violence,” the Oakland portion of the December 12 West Coast Blockade drew perhaps 5000 people. The mood, though still enthusiastic at times, was more subdued and uneasy, and few newcomers were showing up any more. A month and a half after that, the attempted takeover of an Oakland public building on January 28 drew scarcely more than 1000 people. Actions since that time have rarely drawn more than a few hundred. The numbers tell the story. It would oversimplify matters to attribute all of this decline to black bloc tactics, but the connection was undeniable.
Actually, it was more a matter of tone than of tactics, more a matter of bravado than of violence. As always, the real violence came almost exclusively from the police. The black bloc’s supposed violence amounted to nothing more than a few broken windows, a few bottles thrown from a distance and a few make-believe barricades that wouldn’t have stopped a baby carriage. But those macho posturings played into the hands of the ruling order, enabling its spectacle to reframe the struggle. In place of a joyous, welcoming, inclusive and rapidly growing movement coming together to create a new world, we were now offered a rerun of the stale old “militants versus police” scenario. That scenario naturally tended to discourage any other form of participation and to shove most people back into the role of passive spectators. The militants wondered where everybody went, and some of them eventually concluded that the fault lay with everybody but themselves — the “liberals” and “reformists” and “pacifists” and other ordinary people were to blame for no longer turning out to support the heroic minority of suicidal revolutionary martyrs. This is the sort of vanguardist delirium that destroyed the American radical movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s and it is no wonder that most people have no interest in going there again.
I don’t wish to totally disparage the black bloc efforts. Although some of these actions were probably instigated by provocateurs, it is clear that most of them grew out of a sincere and quite understandable rage against the system. It should also be noted that many of those who took part in them had also been involved with some of the most admirable constructive actions in the encampments. The problem is that they do not ever seem to have seriously considered the ultimate effects of their tactics.
In this regard, they might do well to examine some of the “blitz” tactics that appeared during the French anti-CPE struggle of 2006. The French insurgents were certainly aggressive, but they were creatively aggressive rather than merely reactive and impulsive. As I noted at the time: “Mass demonstrations have a greater force of numbers, but they lack the flexibility that enables blitzes to move rapidly and to disperse and regroup as appropriate. This was the main reason for the development of ‘black bloc’ tactics in recent years. But black blocs are often caught up in silly fantasies of street fighting or urban guerrilla warfare. Blitzers strive to evade the system’s strengths and exploit its weaknesses, challenging it on the level of feelings and ideas as well as physical force. While black bloc actions tend to be impulsive, grimly self-important and purely destructive, blitzes contain a larger element of calculation, creativity and humor” (Reflections on the Uprising in France).
14. You were encouraged by the Quebec movement. What common points did it have with Occupy?
Although the Quebec movement did not establish any fixed occupations, it carried on much the same spirit in a more mobile fashion, operating in a similarly open, experimental and nonideological manner, thereby inspiring widespread sympathy and spreading out into the general population. You can see some of the kinship with the Occupy movement in the similarly joyous faces and similarly lively slogans and debates. Even though the Quebec movement began as a particular protest (against tuition increases), it was quickly understood that the whole social organization was being called into question.
15. More generally, do you see Occupy as a moment in a new global movement, raising new political contents and looking for new paths for action in the new period we are entering?
Ken Knabb edits the Bureau of Public Secrets. He was interviewed by the French journal the French journal L’Échaudée.