More than a Symbolic Gesture: Occupy Wall Street and the Rise of the American Autumn

“…small gestures accrue, and democracies and revolutions are made up of the myriad gestures of the small.” –Rebecca Solnit

THIS IS REAL. The handwritten, cardboard sign affixed to a light post in front of Philadelphia’s city hall would have been meaningless on any other Thursday evening. But on the first day of Occupy Philly, this otherwise innocuous message perfectly captured the current political moment here and across the United States. Beginning on September 17th with Occupy Wall Street, a new and dynamic social movement has arrived and is capturing the imagination of millions of people in towns and cities around the world. This is real.

Two weeks into the encampment in the heart of New York’s financial district, I was able to experience Occupy Wall Street firsthand. There was an infectious, almost revolutionary buzz in the air of Liberty Plaza, formerly Zuccotti Park, when I arrived on September 30th. The social alienation of the city disappeared in this utopian space of solidarity and mutual respect. There was music and dancing where I entered, plentiful free food being served, news updates communicated via the call-and-response people’s mic, a free lending library, and lots of people standing and lying around, well, occupying.

That evening there was a march to the nearby police headquarters demanding the resignation of NYPD chief Ray Kelly in response to the previous weekend’s police brutality and unlawful arrests of peaceful demonstrators. Those police attacks catalyzed broad support for the occupiers, multiplying their numbers after the first week. Even more inspiring was that night’s general assembly, a directly democratic decision-making body. Report-backs from the various committees were made along with an emergency announcement about police blocking the critical mass bike ride two blocks north of the occupation. It was just amazing to see so many people working through decisions and communicating in a horizontal, participatory way.  

The following afternoon, Saturday October 1st, I participated in the now-infamous march from Liberty Plaza over the Brooklyn Bridge in which over 700 of my fellow marchers were kettled by police onto the bridge and arrested en masse. Standing on the pedestrian walkway above the trapped group, we offered hands out to people who risked their lives climbing up to safety to avoid arrest—a choice that no one in a free society should ever have to make. The march eventually continued into Brooklyn as 40,000 people who could not be there witnessed this outrage in real time through a livestream video feed. A friend in Italy told me they watched it on the news there. The whole world was watching.
When I returned to Philadelphia, however, I received an email from another friend informing me that what is happening in New York, and in cities all over the country now, is “a symbolic gesture, at best.” This was in response to a short message about the mass arrests the previous day.

Reading these dismissive words I thought about Boston, where 3,000 had demonstrated against its Bank of America headquarters that same Saturday. In the second day of Occupy Boston, 20 people were arrested—some of whom were members of families whose houses had been foreclosed by this financial institution; a bank that has received billions in bailout money and millions more in tax breaks. Losing one’s home is real. So is taking risks to tell one’s story, to fight against such staggering injustice.

I also thought of what was just beginning to happen in Philly. The previous Thursday evening, the initial planning meeting for our own occupation had to be relocated from Wooden Shoe Books, where I volunteer, to a spacious church in the center of the city. We initially offered our space for a meeting that we envisioned in our small basement space with a dozen or so interested organizers. We announced the meeting on the newly-created Occupy Philadelphia Facebook page and within four days, over 250 confirmed that they would be “attending.” The night before the scheduled meeting the venue had to be changed. 150 of us still met at the Wooden Shoe and marched 10 blocks up to the church with reporters interviewing us while unmarked police cars blocked traffic along the way. Two hundred more people showed up at the church for that first meeting where we reached consensus on not occupying federal land, for legal concerns, and about meeting again the following Tuesday to decide on a specific location and start date for Occupy Philly.

This second meeting was so well publicized by all of those involved, with assistance from local media, that over one thousand people turned up to participate, packing the church beyond capacity this time. After two hours of discussion and debate, the massive group reached consensus on starting the occupation that Thursday, 9:00 am at city hall. Energized by this accomplishment of reaching these decisions within such a massive group, the church erupted into chants of “This is what democracy looks like.” A mere 36 hours later, the plaza on the west side of Philly’s city hall was occupied. A real, physical space was created—a space surrounded by very real structures of corporate and political power in the sixth largest city in the nation. Occupy Philly is real.

Why this is different. Why this is significant.

“You got me spiritually break-dancing on the way here. Because when you bring folk together, of all colors, of all cultures, of all genders, of all sexual orientations the elite will tremble in their boots. And we will send a message that this is the U.S. Autumn, responding to the Arab Spring.” –Cornel West, September 27, 2011 at Liberty Plaza

It is impossible to ignore this new movement. What started a month ago with a relatively small group in New York has spread to hundreds of occupations in large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles to countless small cities and towns. According to the website Occupy Together, the movement’s central “hub for all of the events springing up across the country in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street,” there are over 1,400 occupations that are in effect or in planning stages right now. Some of these occupations are being organized in countries outside the US. They all share a unified desire to hold the wealthiest 1% accountable to the rest of society, and to shed a light on how the remaining 99% have been affected by the free market fundamentalism that led to the financial crisis of 2008. Occupy Wall Street has sparked a mass mobilization in the US and abroad that many believe should have begun three years earlier.

It is important to look back at the political, and now historical, context of that particular moment when the economy crashed. Outrage at the corporate bailouts was funneled into electoral campaigns instead of truly grassroots organizing from below. Barack Obama was elected based on the promise of “Change you can believe in,” and then proceeded to assemble a team of economic advisors, including Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who played significant roles in creating the very crisis that the administration inherited. After suffering from nearly three years of broken promises and comprising gridlock with the Republicans in Congress, the people have had enough. The current moment is a window of possibility before the 2012 election spectacle forces its death grip on American politics. People are taking things into their own hands and becoming politically engaged outside the limitations of corporate-controlled parties. One of the many challenges facing this movement is to remain relevant through 2012 and beyond.          

The creation of truly democratic, physical spaces to organize is one of the most important and exciting things that has come out of Occupy Wall Street. The dozens of parks and plazas that have been reclaimed and redefined over the past month are filling a void. Most communities in the United States do not have a public place for people to converge, organize, or just discuss issues that affect their lives. The media coverage of the occupations has largely missed the significance of this, an element that is far from merely symbolic.

Providing a public space for organizing and debate is a healthy contribution toward a democratic society. It also contains a revolutionary potential. Drawing a lineage from the Egyptian Spring and that movement’s popular phrase “the road to factory occupations lies through Tahrir Square,” Conor Tomas Reed writes in “Solid Ground at Occupy Wall Street”: “This city and country’s own road to vibrant job actions, grassroots community control, opposition to legal lynching, and all other kinds of mechanized violence may lie through these Liberty Squares now blossoming everywhere. Egypt’s lessons acutely demonstrate that liberated squares must lead to liberated workplaces, neighborhoods, and eventually liberated cities.”

For many involved with the movement, this larger aim is itself the primary “demand”—a new society. But critics and journalists have been frustrated by the lack of specific policy proposals coming out of Occupy Wall Street. It has been the greatest challenge and the greatest strength of all of this. The 99% umbrella has meant that people from all different kinds of backgrounds and from a wide-ranging political diversity have become inspired to become part of this historic struggle. Many people involved have never been to a protest before, while countless others have been burned out on activism for years and are finally discovering something to become excited about again. It has created a unique and powerful situation where people who agree on issues of economic inequality can come together and bring their own particular issues to the table.

This has been its biggest challenge precisely because of this political diversity. In Liberty Plaza and outside of Philadelphia’s city hall, you will see huge American flags and pro-police messages alongside anti-capitalist ones and calls for decolonizing these cities that have already been occupied from imperialist conquest for the past 500 years. With such a wide-range of opinions and experience with activism, along with understanding around structural oppression, these spaces have often become messy and contentious.

But this diversity of demands and concerns is simultaneously why what is happening is so powerful and unprecedented. As Adrienne Marie Brown has pointed out: “Humans have a multitude of cares, of passions…trying to lockstep us into one predictable way of being is the essential desire of corporations, because if you can predict what people will want and do, then you can profit off of coming up with appropriate products and activities for them. This movement is instead making it as easy as possible to enter, no matter what passion brought you to the square.”

What happens after the occupations will determine whether this will truly become a popular uprising causing the elite to tremble. If alliances are formed in these liberated spaces, in both communities within cities and between the occupations, ones that strengthen organizing efforts for social justice then the movement will succeed. In this process, it has the potential to delegitimize the farce that is the corporate state, specifically the 2012 election cycle—the political circus controlled by the 1%.

If nothing else, Occupy Wall Street has sparked a much needed debate in this country. As Brown concludes: “…it seems the central demand is to build and expand a conversation that is long overdue in this country, a conversation which doesn’t have simple cut and dry demands. We are realizing that we must become the systems we need – no government, political party or corporation is going to care for us, so we have to remember how to care for each other.”

This is real.

Matt Dineen lives in Philadelphia where he writes and volunteers at Wooden Shoe Books.  Contact him at passionsandsurvival(at)gmail(dot)com