Occupy hibernates, prepares for spring

On Occupy Wall Street
by Lainie Cassel*
When the Canadian-based anti-consumer group, Adbuster’s, placed a call for activists to occupy Wall Street earlier this year no one could have predicted what would arise. Yet, months later, what has become known as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement (OWS) has spread to dozens of cities nationwide - mobilizing masses of people and drawing attention to the growing gap between rich and poor.

Filled with its own complexities and contradictions, attempting to narrowly define OWS is a useless exercise. And although criticized by the mainstream because of the movement’s vague demands and festival-like character, no one, not even corporate media have been able to deny OWS’s tremendous impact.

Despite the movement’s growth throughout the country, however, its own contradictions can be best understood in its inability to effectively address the question of race. Beginning as a largely white and middle-class movement in many cities, such contradictions have kept it from mobilizing people of color communities – those most affected by the current economic crisis and who make up a majority of New York City’s residents.

While such limitations have held the Occupy Movement static in some cities, it has rather been the violent reaction of police officers nationwide that has inadvertently led to the movements swelling. Forcefully evicting occupiers from encampments in nearly every major city, the dispersal of the Occupy Movement poses a number of challenges ahead.

From Tahrir to Zuccotti

The recent uprisings in the Arab World, Spain and Greece have undoubtedly had an impact on the political imagination of today’s youth. With Internet technology allowing them to communicate across borders and watch live as protests manifest themselves worldwide, a new global movement has been born.

In the United States, as in Europe and the Middle East, this movement is largely a reaction not only to the global economic crisis, but also to the inequalities that it has created. This is most evident in OWS’s language of the 99%, which was created as a tool to mobilize large sectors of the American people against the so-called “1%” - a term used to describe the corporate leaders, hedge fund managers, etc., who have been the primary beneficiaries off the neoliberal policies implemented in the last couple of decades. Forcing countries to privatize resources, while making cuts in social spending, the US and International Financial Institutions have applauded governments that have taken on neoliberal agendas, despite their increasing rates of poverty.

While mostly affecting the poor, neoliberalism also has a big impact on the middle class. In many countries this has meant that a growing number of middle-class citizens are no longer benefiting off of the current system. As wealth becomes more concentrated in fewer hands and corporations increasingly depend on cheap labor, opportunities for the middle classes have slowly disappeared. In the US and Egypt, this is most apparent in the coalition of youth and labor activists who have expressed similar grievances with unreliable employment, debt and poor wages.

However, by focusing conversations on the needs of the white and middle class, protesters have had a hard time reaching out to communities of color. Kenyon Farrow, a Brooklyn-based activist who writes on issues of race, stated recently, “Comparing debt to slavery, believing police won't hurt you, or wanting to take back the America you see as rightfully yours are things that suggest OWS is actually appealing to an imagined white (re)public.”

Additionally, it is communities of color who have been the most hit by the economic crisis, while historically facing unemployment and poverty rates much higher than the national average.

Leaving out dialogue that centered the needs of these communities kept many activists (and potential activists) away from the occupation. Brooklyn-born resident and OWS participant, Tanzeem Shaneela argues, “The idea of a united 99% is problematic because it creates a false sense of unity, which disregards issues of race and inequality that exist within the 99% itself.”

Shaneela’s critique was also part of a larger push by activists in occupations nationwide that saw racist dialogue and “left colorblindness” ingrained within the movement.

While the issues around race have led to the creation of people of color working groups in nearly every major city, it has also led many activists disenchanted with the downtown Manhattan occupation to begin organizing in their own neighborhoods. These local occupations, currently happening in the Bronx, Harlem and parts of Brooklyn, are attempting to address the more immediate needs of communities of color, especially around issues of gentrification and racist police tactics.

Additionally, the November eviction of OWS from its home in Zuccotti Park (or “Liberty Square” as some protesters named it) has put more attention on New York City’s outer boroughs. Recently a large group of occupiers in Brooklyn successfully took over a foreclosed home in support of a homeless family. Part of a nationwide campaign to occupy homes, many see this is a necessary step for the movement if it is going to sustain itself long-term.

“The Whole World is Watching”

Like most movements worldwide, the reaction of the police has been a central focus of OWS. In New York City, the police faced a particular challenge because of OWS’s proximity to the most important financial district in the world. Referred to by Mayor Bloomberg as “the seventh biggest army in the world”, New York City’s Police Department (NYPD), however, has had no reservation in violently shutting down protests.

On the other hand, the new popularity of smart phones and consumer video cameras has made it easier to report police abuse. With the ability to upload videos almost immediately to the web, protesters have been successful in curbing police violence by filming every attack against them and chanting out loud in unison during protests that “the whole world is watching!”

The videos uploaded to YouTube quickly caught the attention of corporate media, forcing them to report on the incidences, and leading many people to sympathize with the protesters.

“A Movement With no Home”

The dialogue around race, along with the upsurge in police repression has moved some cities towards a more radical direction. The occupation in Oakland, California, for instance, has been successful because it has been able to draw connections between the tactics police used against occupy protesters and the police murder of a young black man, Oscar Grant, in 2009.

Building on momentum and organization produced during and after the post-Oscar Grant shooting, the occupation has led to mass mobilizations against police violence, along with the successful shutting down of Oakland ports. In an attack on the 1% and their “watchdogs” (a term used by protesters to describe the police), these mobilizations have put Oakland at the forefront of the US occupy movement.

Back in New York City, similar calls to disrupt economic activity present a much larger task that Occupy organizers have thus far failed at implementing. And with the recent dispersal of OWS, it has become easier for local precincts to control, threaten and arrest participants – often targeting those carrying cameras.

These new set of challenges, along with a cold winter approaching New York City and much of the country, will prove to be a real test for those attempting to sustain the movement long-term. However, with the time to reflect and move forward, many are hoping OWS will be able to revive itself in time for next spring.

* Lainie Cassel is an independent journalist and filmmaker based between the Bronx, New York and Caracas, Venezuela. You can visit her website at CaracazoMedia.Org.