Occupy Wall Street strikes deep chord, challenges rulers

From the new November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Occupy Wall Street strikes deep chord, challenges rulers

by Gerry Emmett and Susan Van Gelder

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, since beginning in New York City’s Zuccotti Park–renamed Liberty Plaza–on Sept. 17, has spread to hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. and linked with the occupation movements in Europe. On Oct. 15, Occupy demonstrations took place in 951 cities in 82 countries.

The occupations are open manifestations of long-simmering discontent over growing economic inequality, no end in sight to Depression-level joblessness, looming environmental collapse, and a political system totally hostile to the cries from below. Wall Street became a symbol of the unity of economics and politics under the domination of a small elite.

Behind the slogan, “We are the 99%,” lies the reality of state-capitalist warfare against the working class that has grown more brutal for each new generation of young people. These slogans represent a widespread, visceral rejection of what exists–a world of dehumanization and pain.

The movement strikes a deep chord in a U.S. society that has suffered under capitalism’s ongoing crisis for decades. The brutal police assault on Occupy Oakland, Oct. 25, said it all. In a disgusting editorial “justifying” the assault, in which Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was critically injured by a police projectile, The Oakland Tribune pointed out that the movement’s demands were expanding to include justice for Oscar Grant (see “Remember Oscar Grant,” p. 10 in the pdf version) and support for the Pelican Bay hunger strikers (see “SHU prisoners: We want to be treated like human beings!” and “Voices from Pelican Bay SHU hunger strikers“).

This is the ruling class’s nightmare. In response, local governments from Oakland to Atlanta have shown themselves hardly different from Tunisian or Egyptian autocrats. When challenged by their own people, they are informed by no democratic tradition, and respect no human rights.

CREATING A NEW COMMUNITY

Bay Area revolutionary Ken Knabb caught something important about this moment of history in writing about Occupy Oakland’s response to the police attacks: “…even under these brutal conditions, the mood was not entirely grim….Somewhat like in the early civil rights movement, there is a feeling that the old order is now on the defensive and that its ignorant and brutal reactions are a reflection of its inability to grasp the new community that we and countless others around the world are trying to create, and that we are already feeling in our hearts.” (“Yesterday in Oakland,” Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets, Oct. 26.)

The extension of OWS to Occupy the ‘Hood, Occupy Harlem, Occupy Public Education and support of prisoner strikes–the Georgia prison strike, alongside Arab Spring, ushered in this year when revolution returned to the world stage–is an electrifying development. What began as a disproportionately white movement, in contrast to the actual population of cities like New York and Chicago, has become increasingly representative, though it still has a ways to go.

As great as the new stage of activism is, the many contradictions which have arisen in the movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya show the need for theory and a full philosophy of revolution. The unity of philosophy and revolution can mean all the difference in creating a long-term, viable movement to humanize this planet, a truly epochal new beginning.

AUTUMN IN NEW YORK

The spirit of Egypt’s Tahrir Square continues to inspire Occupy Wall Street. In New York, the self-organization of protesters extends to a tent city with a supply of food, daily General Assemblies at which ideas and activities are discussed and voted on in an exercise of direct democracy, and a newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal. In the words of one New York participant, Steve:

“I’m impressed with the self-organization. People are taking responsibility. Sixty to 100 stay all night. What is crucial is the self-activity, the absence of a hierarchy. It will have to become ‘sustainable’ but in a way different from the party-to-lead. There is a diversity of views on the problems and the solutions. They are now looking for people to give ‘teach-ins.'”

Another participant, Sharon, described the support from New Yorkers like herself: “The protesters include a lot of unemployed college students. There is construction nearby, and the ironworkers have expressed sympathy for the protest.”

This sympathy is widespread and can be expected to grow. For each encamped protester, thousands more sympathize on social media or support it by participating in daily actions and donating generously (over $400,000 to Occupy Wall Street alone, some of it from as far away as Egypt). Millions are fed up with decades of capitalist crisis which has been addressed only through cuts in every kind of human services, attacks on public education and transportation, and the growth of the prison-industrial complex. The Occupy movements are linking resistance groups together.

The incident in which a Black veteran, Shamar Thomas, stood down a dozen white New York police officers in defense of occupiers is representative of a broad and deep support for the movement. Thomas spoke absolute truth when he said to police officers decked out in riot gear ready to confront unarmed non-violent protesters,

“They don’t have guns! It doesn’t make any sense….There is no honor in this! There is no honor in what you’re doing to these people!”

The racist Right, the Tea Party, Fox News, the Republicans (and Democrats!), the Koch brothers, and the neo-fascists that have arisen from history’s underworld will not be going away soon. While racist and anti-Semitic Ron Paul’s supporters have hung around the movement, they don’t gain much hearing and are becoming increasingly marginal.

Clarifying our ideas and our vision of a needed new society beyond capitalism is crucial for fending off co-optation from any quarter. It will be important to continue that process. Ensuring the movement’s self-development includes holding onto and developing the concept of “leaderlessness” as a way of reaching for a new relationship of theory, practice and organization.

MIC CHECK! MIC CHECK!

The experience of freedom and self-determination found in the Occupy movement includes a tremendous sense of fun such as the “human microphone.” Begun to cope with a New York City ordinance against amplification, hundreds of people repeat what General Assembly speakers say so the larger crowd can hear it. As Denise, a poet and participant in Chicago, said, “There is something really beautiful about people formulating their thoughts that way. And sometimes it falls into total chaos, and that can be a wonderful thing, too.”

That sense of adventure and playfulness was evident on Oct. 16 when the Chicago police were closing in to arrest hundreds of people from Occupy Chicago who had moved into Grant Park “after hours.” Suddenly, hundreds of people were singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the police lines: “Is this the real life, is this just fantasy…?” A beautiful way to put what was happening in perspective. It was a measure of how deeply humanist the movement is–its refusal to be “scripted,” like its insistence on “leaderlessness,” marking an important advance in consciousness.

The predominance of young people expresses anew what the Constitution of News and Letters Committees holds: “…even though the youth are not directly involved in production, they are the ones whose idealism in the finest sense of the word combines with opposition to existing adult society in so unique a way that it literally brings them alongside the workers as builders of the new society.”

The police brutality shown in New York, Oakland and elsewhere will dispel illusions about the role of the police as part of “the 99%.” Paul of Occupy Memphis was harassed simply for reaching out to the city’s homeless. He said: “They provided no reason for our detainment other than that we were with ‘them,’ so we were getting checked out too. That’s how many of our homeless brothers and sisters in the downtown area are treated by police all the time.”

REALITY AND THOUGHT

The experience of radical freedom and self-determination has been the root of all revolutionary, dialectical critique of the modern world. While many have criticized the Occupy movement for not having concrete demands, it would be truer to say that the movement has–to its great credit–refused to be limited by any particular demands. Thus it comes together with the struggle of prisoners, with the homeless…with no limits but those of the imagination. While the movement is in part about reclaiming public space, it is also–in an even deeper sense–about reclaiming history.

At the same time, occupations in different localities, which are networked and yet autonomous, are debating specific demands. At Occupy Chicago the debate has touched on whether the road to universality moves through particular grievances, demands and goals. So a debate on an anti-war resolution becomes a discussion of slavery and racism in U.S. history. Most important is to continue the process of self-development that does not allow any list of demands to be a limit or endpoint.

Participating in the democratic debates at the General Assemblies is a revolutionary experience. As one participant told N&L:

“This is a different way of running an organization, partly because of the commitment we feel to being truly democratic. We are all a part of this, my voice is important, I’m part of making the decisions here. There is no hierarchy and we try not to separate any of this from discussing ideas. All of this becomes part of making the decisions.”

The participation of the occupiers in labor and peace demonstrations reflects a search for a total change. The Oct. 5 march of tens of thousands in New York was the first in which large contingents of labor union members joined occupiers. There and elsewhere, labor marchers have been inspired by the new possibilities they saw opening for workers. In the words of Paul Geist, a Marxist-Humanist from New York,

“Today the unemployed person says, ‘I’ll take any job.’ The worker speaks of the meaninglessness of her work. Teachers are being treated like children, made less human as people try to quantify their work. Each element of society is affected differently, so dialectically there is no one magic word. But the moments are meeting up, these as well as gender and race–how can they be united? Each one’s experience is part of the Universal that has to concretely include all those moments. How do we make a totality, a concrete universal?”

‘ITS OWN WORKING EXISTENCE’

It is necessary to see what is new. The importance of a happening like Occupy Wall Street is not bound by any specific demand that might be made, but by the experience of new human relations that it embodies, which can open pathways to a future beyond capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the oppressions and bondages of class society. The dialectic of the needed American revolution depends on the coalescence of Black freedom struggle with labor’s struggle against capitalism, and, as the desperate acts of Oakland’s police have shown, even the authorities know that that coming together is now possible.

This experience of new human relations is the same way in which Tahrir Square embodied a radical challenge to world capitalism that cut to the heart of modernity itself. (See “Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya shake world order,” News & Letters Mar.-Apr. 2011.) Far from merely hypothetical, this challenge is embodied by headscarved young women from places like Yemen and Somalia who imagine the ending of capitalism and sexism; it is found in the words of Mitch from Occupy Chicago, who said, “What we’re really dealing with is all the oppressiveness of 10,000 years of history. We’re trying to work out a new way of living in freedom.”

In this sense, the significance of the Occupy movements is expressed in their own working existence, as Karl Marx wrote of the 1871 Paris Commune, “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people.” Raya Dunayevskaya pointed out the same thing of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, another experience of human beings seizing their own freedom.

While Occupy Wall Street isn’t a repeat of the Paris Commune, nevertheless, the deep affinity is real. For it to flourish, we must resist all the forces that would stifle our movement, from police attacks to the idea that the masses are backward. We need no condescending “saviors.” Self-emancipation is the task of the masses alone. It is equally important for the Occupy movement to recognize that the masses’ self-development and search for deep social transformation, new organizational forms and philosophical grounding are reaching for so totally new a relationship of practice to theory as to forge a unity of philosophy and revolution.

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