Is Occupy Dying to Make Way for What Comes Next? (UPDATED)
I am writing from Philadelphia, where the Occupy National Gathering began on Saturday and will continue through the 4th of July. The purposes of this event, a kind of conference supported by many of the Occupy sites in the USA, include comparing notes on shared concerns of the various Occupations and planning for the future of Occupy. In fact, the National Gathering is to host an all-day "Visioning Process" on July 4th to generate ideas to inform Occupy's future.
I wonder whether Occupy is dying what may be an inevitable (if drawn out) death, from which something new must and will eventually emerge. I suggest this because of the funk that the movement has generally fallen into since the shutting down of the Occupations last fall across the country by police newly equipped and trained to behave like local armies. Many Occupations continued to work for peace and justice, and raising consciousness about income inequality and related issues, in myriad ways after their eviction from public spaces. (For many examples of these sorts of activities, and especially if you are one of the many otherwise intelligent people who think that Occupy is only "hippies" parading around parks, please peruse the last nine months of updates on the websites or Facebook pages of any of the many Occupations).
But here at the National Gathering, I cannot shake the feeling that the movement is withering. I don't know how many protesters are here, but I would guess somewhere between 400 and 600, give or take, so far. Many who are here (my impression only) seem to be, understandably, some of the most activist-minded, diehard Occupiers. Middle-aged and senior persons are much less evident than they were last fall. And including children (and therefore parents of school-aged kids) does not seem to be a priority here -- again unlike (my experience of) Occupy last fall, when we had encampments and momentum.
And there seems to be too much interest here at the National Gathering (and this objection has been raised about other Occupations) in provoking confrontation with the police. This provocation happens at the cost of making the best of the movement -- that it represents an array of the soul-deep grievances of most Americans -- invisible to the very people we need to reach, and who were in the process of being reached last fall. The survival of Occupy is utterly dependent on successfully inviting others to consider that most of us are subject to an insane system, in and through "democratic structures," of corporate influence, militarism, and hostility toward the disadvantaged (from the rise of the prison culture to general indifference toward good and accessible education for all).
At the National Gathering this weekend, there have been several standoffs with the police, leading to multiple arrests and substantial amounts of wasted time. The rationale for the standoffs escapes me. While I understand the need to invite symbolic (and, crucially, nonviolent) confrontations with the power of the state, usually in the form of the police, that show the moral bankruptcy of anxious state power and demonstrate the willingness of nonviolent people to suffer arrest for calmly exercising basic rights (as the Civil Rights Movement did so effectively), I think the priority should be on appealing to the conscience of the police, not goading them. Most police, after all, are firmly in the 99%. I did see a few examples of aggressive, and in one case, out of control, police behavior toward protesters this weekend, and the police occasionally acted in intimidating and perhaps even illegal ways (like blocking a public sidewalk today against protesters, while letting "non-protesters" walk through freely). To be sure, those aggressions and potential illegalities need to be documented and explored for what they teach us about the power of corporate-influenced government. That said, I saw far more protesters aggressively up in the face of police offers or hurling dumb and needlessly personal taunts. Few things will permanently alienate "the mainstream" more quickly than those images circulating through the media and the Internet. The movement needs to be far more circumspect about public confrontation.
Positively, I can report that last night, after tensions with police had been elevated in a local park, leading to ridiculous and even violent cat-and-mouse games over the course of an hour between the tenters and the police, the palpable tension in the air was slowly dissipated by several dozen Occupiers holding hands, forming a large circle in front of the police, and chanting "Om." (There is more to be said about the willingness of a larger group of diverse people to chant "Om" together for perhaps fifteen minutes, but I will save that for another post.)
I continue to maintain that the Occupy movement is an inspired idea bearing some profoundly simple (but not simplistic) claims, with which most people in the USA (not to say the world) agree: economic opportunity is far too asymmetrical; wealth is allowed to be concentrated in the hands of too few; the gap between rich and poor is appalling; the conditions under which many poor children live are immoral; the market is not God; social goods (access to education, health care, housing, and more) should be shared as much as possible.
I do not think that the Occupy movement itself is squandering its own quite "mainstream" agenda (the one I have just summarized above), although picking needless fights with cops does not help. Armed government forces that suppress dissent are playing a role in making Occupy seem "extreme," as are the mainstream media's focusing not on the social matters at stake, but on other "lifestyle"-type reportage that aims to marginalize protesters and make them seem essentially different from "normal" Americans.
This evening, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author (and Harvard Divinity School graduate) Chris Hedges addressed the National Gathering. He reminded us that corporate power in the United States has been the leading edge of a more general loss of the "capacity for the sacred," in which few things anymore have intrinsic value. In principle, almost anything can be bought, sold, leveraged. That is how government works and how we are induced to live our own lives.
But he also reminded us that all great strides for new freedoms in US history have originated from the willingness of everyday people to agitate and suffer for change. Historians show again and again, he continued, that all successful modern revolutions actually began years earlier, in social movements and protests that rehearsed and foreshadowed the revolution to come. Occupy, he argued, may eventually become something different, may morph into future movements we don't yet know, but surely, he said, its success already signals the beginning of the end of the corporate state. The capitalism we have allowed to continue is untenable; it generates too many victims and contributes to too much unhappiness.
What is coming next? I don't know. There is no perfect movement. But I can only challenge myself and my students to not be bystanders.