Can an Occupation Movement Survive if it No Longer Occupies a Space? Lessons from Across the Land
By Arun Gupta, Salon
Posted on November 27, 2011, Printed on November 28, 2011
This story originally appeared at Salon.
The post-occupation movement is taking shape across
The answer, based on my visits to occupation sites around the country, is: “Yes, but …”
We arrived in
Jason Carey, a 28-year-old IT specialist who’s lived in
Three days after being evicted Occupy Mobile was back on the streets. It staged an action at ArtWalk, a monthly event in downtown where galleries open their doors and artists peddle their work on the streets.
“About 15 people did a silent protest,” says Carey. “Some people had dollar bills taped over their mouths. I taped a sign over my mouth, ‘First Amendment? Not in
Emily Schuler, a
To the world-weary in
One eye-opening aspect of our evening with Occupy Mobile was that none of these people knew each other a month before. The movement has created a new political community virtually overnight.
“We all felt alone,” Chelsy Wilson says. “Now we know that’s not the case. We’re going to try to reach out to other people who feel this wa … People say they have a new hope for
In smaller, conservative cities, the creation of a new community may be success enough for the movement, enabling a new network to consolidate and spread its message without a public encampment. But for larger cities that already have a strong progressive presence, the experience of Occupy Chicago is more relevant — and more sobering.
On the day of the second action, Oct. 22, we caught up with the protest as it was marching to the horse, a statue that provided the rally cry, “Take the horse.” It was impressive compared to
Another activist said, “It would have been a big victory for the students, unions and other groups putting their efforts into the movement.”
It wouldn’t have just been a victory; it would have created a different movement. What made occupations in
This is a key feature of the movement. The occupation space itself becomes a spectacle that attracts newcomers who behave in unpredictable ways and who broaden the movement by bringing in perspectives that challenge the ideas of experienced organizers. This creates disruptive moments, such as Marine Corps vet Shamar Thomas’ shaming of 30 cops in
“How do you sleep at night doing this to people?” he shouted. “You’re here to protect us … If you want to go kill and hurt people, go to
The notion of suggesting that someone should go to
As an outside observer, I felt that Occupy Chicago was being held back by organizers’ good intentions. The two attempts to “take the horse” were too stage-managed. Treating Occupy as a regular movement does not allow it to burst the social seams. Additionally, the police were able to use a soft hand to make people voluntarily remove themselves from the park with the effect that the arrestees on the second night were maybe 4 percent of the original march, unlike in
Now there is a daily occupation on
We met some new activists on the scene. Luke Welker has abandoned his dreams to be a doctor, two courses shy of a bachelor’s degree, because “I lost my sister to drugs and had to take care of my 8-year-old nephew.” Cassie Sheets, a sophomore in creative writing at Columbia College of Chicago, described herself as part of the 1 percent, but said she “stood with the 99 percent” because her advantages were based not so much on hard work as on winning “the ovarian lottery.”
Without a permanent space, however, it makes it very difficult for neophytes to fully join the movement. Protests are held one place, general assemblies another, working groups someplace else. And without the accessories of village life — a kitchen, art and music, tents, a library, healthcare, media production and the rest — the occupation is shorn of the theatricality that draws in hordes of curious who can then participate based on their comfort level, juicing it with new blood.
With harsh weather looming, said the activist who wished to remain anonymous due to employment concerns, Occupy Chicago is looking to find a building space rather than trying to take a public space.
“There is worry sustaining a daily presence through the winter may cause the movement to fall apart,” she said. “If it focuses on a daily presence and it dwindles, then you lose a lot of energy, which could go elsewhere.”
Occupy Chicago claimed a victory on Nov. 14 when the University of Chicago abruptly canceled a talk that day by former Bush administration officials Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The university had threatened “appropriate disciplinary action” against “disruptive individuals” apparently in response to an “Un-Welcome” campaign by Occupy Chicago and university students.
Neighborhood occupation movements that build on existing organizing are sprouting up, such as the African-American-led Occupy the Hood active in dozens of cities and Occupy the South Side, the historically black area of
Another effort gaining support is “Occupy El Barrio” in the Latino neighborhood of Pilsen, which drew a few dozen people to its first general assembly despite inclement weather. The
The movement is also coordinating with unions. At a Nov. 11 public hearing, Occupy Chicago and Amalgamated Transit Union workers packed a hall to overflowing to protest the Chicago Transit Authority’s threat to cut services, raise fares and fire 1,000 workers if the union did not cough up $160 million in concessions. Workers joined by the crowd mic checked the authority’s board members for trying “to pit us against our natural allies, our community, our passengers.”
On Nov. 17, Occupy Chicago unveiled its new strategy, dubbed “Operation Chicago Spring.” The stated goal is to do one event a day throughout the winter such as “defending homes that are being foreclosed, sit-ins, flyering, banner dropping, building parks, delivering supplies to the homeless, guerrilla theater and art …”
The announcement quoted Joshua Kaunert, an archaeologist and Occupy Chicago member, as stating, “The question isn’t, ‘where will the Occupation be,’ it’s ‘where won’t it be?’ We will be indoors and outdoors, in every neighborhood and every suburb, at public hearings, protests and community events.”
Many Occupy Chicago participants contend that the reason Mayor Rahm Emanuel is so hostile to allowing an occupation to take root now is that it could become the nucleus of a much larger movement next May when NATO and the G-8 come to town. And they are almost certainly right. Allowing the occupiers a public space now could allow them to recruit tens of thousands next spring.
The image of huge crowds of everyday people confronting legions of cops protecting the conclaves of the rich and powerful who run the world is more powerful than any words. It would draw the battle lines between the 99 percent and the 1 percent in the streets. And it is ultimately in the streets, not in meetings or conferences, where the political struggle will be played out as it has been from the French Revolution more than two centuries ago to the Egyptian revolution today. Holding public space is key.
Arun Gupta is a founding editor of The Indypendent newspaper. He is writing a book on the decline of American Empire for Haymarket Books.
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