Mic Check! Bernie Sanders Swallows Occupy’s Microphone
We share a lot of the views and experiences described in the article below from our experience at the Freedom Plaza Occupation of Washington, DC. We also saw Democrats and other establishment groups trying to co-opt occupy. Co-option of occupy is continuing with groups like “Occupy Democrats” — when Occupy was clearly non-partisan and fought off efforts by Democrats to usher the movement into the Democratic Party.
As for the Sanders campaign, like many he spoke about wealth inequality and the corrupt economy long before Occupy. What Occupy did was made inequality and corruption national political issues by showing that there was wide opposition to the Wall Street-dominated economy. People who felt this way did not realize how many allies they had; and people who did not know about these issues understood them with much more clarity. Sanders has taken the rhetoric of the 99% and used it for his own purposes. We are pleased to see Sanders using occupy rhetoric as the task of the movement now is to build national consensus. Sanders is reaching hundreds of thousands of people through his campaign and that helps achieve national consensus. Of course, we have disagreements with him on foreign policy, especially around support for war and militarism as well as for Israel.
This does not mean we are endorsing Sanders, in fact we believe the movement must be independent and a major task is to weaken the power structure. An important part of the power structure is the two party system, including the Democratic Party. This is a party that is heavily funded by Wall Street and big business interests and puts them before the people and planet. Sanders running inside the Democratic Party strengthens the power structure rather than weakens it. There will be no revolution coming from inside the Democratic Party. We see how the nomination process of the Democratic Party is rigged to prevent people like Sanders from getting nominated. The Democrats have successfully prevented an insurgent that challenges the power structure from getting nominated and we expect they will do the same with Sanders. At that point, our task as a movement will be to show how corrupt the Democratic Party is. It will not be Sanders’ ideas that defeat him in the primary, it will be a corrupt political party.
One thing we disagree with the author on is we do not see the movement that ignited with Occupy as over, we see it as evolving into new fronts of struggle. Occupy was a tactic that was in service to a movement for economic, racial and environmental justice. We never sought to re-occupy because that tactic is not always the appropriate one. The movement continues to grow and has more people mobilized than during the encampment phase. And, it will continue to grow when the Sanders campaign is over. We will need to get all we can out of the Sanders campaign and keep building the independent mass movement we need to achieve the transformation that is necessary for people and planet. KZ
There are still barricades around Liberty Square. More than four years after the eviction, New York City and Brookfield Office Properties, the owners of the park, have physically enclosed the space. Cars parked on nearby streets bear the logo of the new NYPD special task force for handling protests, the Strategic Response Group. The government is still concerned about the possibility of occupation, and clearly intends to prevent it from happening ever again.
Occupy Wall Street challenged the legitimacy of the American state. Rather than plead for—or demand—a place within the existing political structure, the occupation created a new way of doing politics. Through a process of direct democracy, the people created a new kind of power. This power, just by existing, was a genuine threat to the dominant power of the media, non-profits, and political parties. Thus, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) had to be destroyed, through a combination of institutionalization—cooption—and brute force.
Now, more than four years later, OWS is a distant memory. All that remains is the history. The question is how this history is going to be written, and by whom. Will it be in the hands of those who lived it, or the state that destroyed it? We the people made a revolution once. Let us not forget.
On September 17th I stood in the middle of Zuccotti Park, with a group of facilitators, and began to hold an assembly. Thousands of people had come out for the call to #OccupyWallStreet, and they were intending to do just that. We talked for hours about whether to sleep in front of the Stock Exchange or to stay where we were in the park. Most everyone there agreed it was the experience of being together, hearing one another, and building an alternative to Wall Street that was important. We decided to occupy Zuccotti Park, and rename it Liberty Square.
That assembly became the New York City General Assembly, and the NYCGA became the governing body of the occupation. All decisions were made at the assembly through a directly democratic process. We used a form of modified consensus, which meant that on any proposal brought before the assembly, we would attempt to reach consensus, but if we were unable to do so, then fall back on a 9/10 majority vote. There were working groups for every aspect of life at Liberty Square including food, shelter, clothing, and medicine. Basic needs were met by and for occupiers. There were no managers or leaders making decisions for us. We made decisions ourselves. It was our space.
During the first two weeks of occupation there were multiple assemblies every day. Occupiers were so enjoying the process that many could not stop speaking. Most of us had never had the experience of being in a self-governed space, where we were responsible only to each other. The park was filled with voices. Conversations would flow from one to the next, and for the first time in many of our lives, we felt like someone was listening. We amplified each other’s voices. Often, literally. When someone spoke in assembly their words would be repeated by all the other participants, who listened and internalized what they were saying. This ritual encouraged the individual voices to become a collective voice. We called this the people’s microphone.
We, the people at Liberty Square had found our voice, and it resonated far beyond the occupation itself. In dozens of other cities occupations were starting and forming their own assemblies. They even used the people’s microphone.
It was time that we all speak to each other, so the New York City General Assembly drafted The Declaration of the Occupation. We wrote, “To the people of the world, We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power. Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone. To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal. Join us and make your voices heard!”
Occupy Wall Street was growing from an action to a mass movement within a matter of weeks. By October there were hundreds of occupations all across the globe. People everywhere were taking the square and creating direct democracy.
The larger we grew, the more attention we received. Reporters came asking for our leaders. They wanted to know what our demands would be. We tried to explain what we were trying to do, but the mainstream media simply was not interested in a story about direct democracy. They wanted a voice that adhered to the frameworks and discourses of institutionalized political power.
Then came the professional organizers. Whether from the unions, one of the many non-profits, the Working Families Party, or more openly the Democratic Party itself, and they came with their own agenda. They attempted to steer the occupation away from the process of direct democracy and toward electoral politics.
Despite all these external pressures, the occupation kept going. We continued to make our own collective decisions, make our own media, and represent ourselves. We refused to be institutionalized.
The New York City General Assembly even drafted The Statement of Autonomy which clearly states, “Occupy Wall Street is a people’s movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people. It is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand. It is not for sale. “
Once it became clear Occupy Wall Street could not be integrated into the state, it had to be destroyed. Whether through emotional and psychological methods such as calculated fostering of internal division or by outright brute force. In most places, it was by a combination of both.
The New York City General Assembly, which was the source of our collective voice, and our political power, was the first target. All of a sudden there were people showing up to the assemblies with the explicit and stated purpose of trying to destroy it. They exploited our weaknesses around internalized oppression and access to resources. These weaknesses were real—they were indeed problems that needed to be resolved—but in fact it became impossible to resolve them under constant efforts to derail the process and condemn everyone making any serious effort to come up with solutions.
Many of us decided it was time for a new democratic model, and spent a great deal of time and energy convincing others to shift gears. The Spokescouncil seemed to be a best approach: rather than a simple assembly, the large meetings would coordinate between smaller collectives and working groups, each with rotating “spokes”. This approach we thought could address growth, scale, oppression, and accountability by building around smaller groups. A spokescouncil was created, but was never really able to operate due to the same calculated attempts at disruption that bedevilled the general assembly.
The facilitators, myself included, were verbally and at times physically attacked. Those of us most committed to building democratic and accountable structure were accused of being authoritarian would-be leaders. These attacks further discredited the decision-making process, as they could be held out as proof that democracy itself was flawed, and made it near impossible to move forward.
In the middle of all this, Liberty Square was evicted. I watched as police tore apart our tents and many of our bodies. Everything we had built was gone in a matter of hours, cleared in sanitation trucks, made “clean”.
In December 2012 a report came out from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund that revealed the extent to which all this didn’t just happen; Occupy Wall Street was targeted by a coordinated effort between Homeland Security, the FBI, private security firms, and local police departments, who set out to infiltrate, disrupt, and evict Liberty Square as well as every other occupation. The state considered Occupy Wall Street to be a domestic terrorist threat—not because of any acts of violence, because by the governments’ own admission there were basically none, but because we were engaging in direct democracy, and in contemporary America, encouraging democratic assemblies is itself considered a “terroristic threat.”
It wasn’t until long after the eviction that I came to terms with defeat. I kept calling for meetings and hoping another occupation would happen, and that we would build stronger democratic structures. But it eventually became clear that Occupy Wall Street was over.
Without the concrete everyday life of occupation it was unclear what decisions needed to be made. Direct democracy was only possible when the people were actually organizing their own lives. The indirect and direct brutality of the state had displaced us and ended our political project.
The Rise of the Party
The Democratic Party had always been waiting in the wings of OWS, waiting for the right moment to reveal itself. The Working Families Party, more of a progressive caucus within the Democratic Party than its own party, already had organizers in our midst during the occupation. However, they never managed to win much influence on the politics of OWS. It wasn’t until OWS was dead that they could fully capitalize on the movement.
Bill De Blasio was NYC Public Advocate during OWS, and he would come to the park to posture against the Republic Mayor Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio later ran for mayor with the Working Families Party in the image of a community organizer who cared about the plight of regular New Yorkers. In his first State of the City Address he proclaimed, “This is a team that knows how to execute its core responsibilities – while never losing sight of the fact that we’re called to be part of a larger mission as well. Because the truth is, the state of our city, as we find it today, is a Tale of Two Cities – with an inequality gap that fundamentally threatens our future.”
During his tenure in office, though, De Blasio has done very little to help the people of NYC. He has backed a housing plan that favors high density luxury condo development over real affordable solutions. He has evicted camps of homeless people while shutting down shelters. He has backed a police commissioner on broken windows policing, an increase of police in the streets, and strategic response groups to handle protests. The progressive vision he promised wasn’t much, but has not even lived up to that.
The race for the presidency is on. Politicians of all stripes are making grand and empty promises to the people. They say they’ll make America great again, and bring new jobs. They say that they are one of us and we shouldn’t think of them as politicians.
Bernie Sanders is running for president. He talks a good game, and, just like De Blasio, uses the rhetoric of OWS in his speeches. In his announcement that he was running he stated, “Let me be very clear. There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent.”
The entire campaign has been built around his outsider, activist, identity. He talks about the need for a political revolution and waxes poetic about taking on Wall Street and meeting the needs of regular people. However, he is in no sense a regular person himself. He’s a seasoned beltway politician that is running for the presidency of the United States.
This is a pattern repeated with each election cycle. Politicians say what they think people want to hear. That’s their job. It sounds good. But they’re still politicians. They can only represent the political and economic interests that pay to put them into office. Because that’s the other part of their job. Politicians are a managerial elite. They cannot represent the people. This is a crisis as old as representation itself.
No one can represent the people, and no one can represent the movement. A real political revolution is not a change of those in power but the creation of a new way of doing politics.
In 2011 there were occupations of squares happening all across the globe. From the Kasbah in Tunis, Tahrir in Cairo, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, to Syntygma in Athens, people were rising up. The space of the square was a symbolic and actual space in which the politics of representation were thrown out in favor of direct democracy.
We the people at Liberty Square in New York City understood we were one part of this global square. We drafted collective documents speaking to the people of the world. We were not a political party. We were just people coming together and taking control of our lives.
Now, political parties are claiming the square for their own power. They are trying to rewrite history and erase the actions of people. Worse yet, they are packaging this history and selling it back to the people. But we know better. We were in the square. We heard each other. We know our power. It’s time that we take it back.