[Marxism] The Secret of Occupy Wall Street's Success

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 12 11:35:13 MST 2012

The Secret of Occupy Wall Street's Success
By Pham Binh
January 5, 2012

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has turned the world upside down and 
inside out.

Thanks to our efforts, the very meaning of the word occupation has 
been reversed. As someone who marched against the occupations of 
Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, this has taken some getting used to.

Dick Cheney’s prediction that occupiers “will be greeted as 
liberators” turned out to be correct, but not in the way he 
expected. Where ever students, workers, unemployed people, 
retirees, or veterans occupy they have been greeted as liberators 
by the 99% who feel that it is high time this country was 
liberated from the misrule of the 1%. The “Declaration of the 
Occupation of New York City” passed by the General Assembly (GA) 
on September 29 sums up our grievances very well and need not be 
repeated here.

For those of us who have been fighting for years around issues of 
social and economic justice, political corruption, police 
brutality, imperialist wars, civil liberties, and the oppression 
of racial and religious minorities, LGBTs, and women it seems like 
the country is finally beginning to catch up to us and listen to 
what we have been saying all along.

This raises questions: Why now? How and why did OWS succeed in 
galvanizing a mass movement where our previous efforts did not?

Success Requires Failure

Hardly anyone remembers the thousands of people who protested the 
bailouts in fall of 2008 at the doors of the New York Stock 
Exchange. The protests were angry but not militant nor defiant. 
People came, yelled, waved signs, and went home. By morning, the 
only sign of what took place was the occasional placard left 
behind and New York Police Department (NYPD) barricades stacked in 
neat order at the corners of Wall and Broad Streets. Meanwhile, 
the greatest theft in world history took place without a hitch as 
trillions of taxpayer dollars went directly or indirectly to 
financial institutions deemed “too big to fail.” The protests made 
no difference.

Hardly anyone remembers the tens of thousands who marched from 
Wall Street to City Hall on May 12, 2011 against Mayor Bloomberg’s 
attempt to lay off 6,000 teachers and close 20 firehouses. At the 
time, the action seemed like a weak echo of the thousands-strong 
occupation of Wisconsin’s State Capitol building that erupted in 
February just as general strikes in Egypt brought down dictator 
Hosni Mubarak. Unlike Wisconsin, the May 12 marches were tame from 
the start. The union leaders long ago abandoned militant tactics 
in favor of making sound bite-filled speeches for a couple of 
hours and providing nice photo ops for their favored Democratic 

Like the 2008 rallies against the bailouts, the May 12 protests 
were angry but not militant nor defiant. People came, yelled, 
waved signs, and went home. Again, the protests had no effect.

Something more was needed.

Enter New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts (NYABC), a grassroots 
coalition of activists from a wide variety of backgrounds: union 
members, socialist and anarchist groups, and community organizers. 
NYABC applied the occupy tactic borrowed from Egypt’s Tahrir 
Square and the indignados in Spain by establishing a permanent 
encampment called Bloombergville close to City Hall to protest the 
mayor’s proposed budget cuts. Bloombergville’s name was a 
reference to Hoovervilles, those Great Depression-era shantytowns 
that thousands lived in after losing their homes, jobs, and 
savings as President Herbert Hoover did nothing.

Bloombergville was a dry run for OWS. The police continually 
harassed the encampment on dubious legal pretexts; drum circles 
and boisterous musicians helped create spirited, vibrant protests; 
there was a people’s library and kitchen to provide intelletual 
and physical sustenance to the occupiers; and Bloombergville 
organized the first GA in New York City.

Despite these similarities to OWS, Bloombergville did not take 
off. The protesters numbered in the dozens or hundreds at most. 
Police harassment was largely successful and did not attract the 
attention of the average New Yorker. The City Council approved the 
budget in a 49-to-1 vote at the end of June, eliminating 2,600 
teaching positions through attrition, forcing the teachers’ union 
to make $60 million in concessions, and laying off 1,000 
non-uniform city workers.

Bloombergville’s one demand -- no budget cuts -- was ignored, just 
as the 2002-2003 anti-war movement’s one demand -- no to war -- 
was ignored.

Prelude to Revolution

The Canadian group AdBusters’ July 13 call to occupy Wall Street 
seemed like a great but whimsical idea: "Are you ready for a 
Tahrir Moment? On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood 
into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades 
and occupy Wall Street for a few months."

It was Bloombergville and the network of activists around it that 
gave the dream legs with over a month’s worth of planning 
meetings. They seized on the call because there was something 
electric about the idea of occupying Wall Street, taking the fight 
against austerity, budget cuts, and rampant inequality right into 
the bull’s lair, the nerve center of world capitalism.

Instead of attacking the symptoms of what was wrong with the 
status quo, like campaigning against budget cuts or fighting to 
win a local living wage ordinance, OWS went right to the root of 
the problem: Wall Street. It was radical, it was bold, and it was 
a far cry from the single-issue single-event organizing of 
Bloombergville, the May 15, 2011 union marches, the 2008 bailout 
protests, the 2004 Republican National Convention, the 2002-2003 
anti-war rallies, the 2002 World Economic Forum protest, or any 
previous action by any section of New York City’s progressive 

As September 17 drew near, anticipation mounted as the hacker 
group Anonymous endorsed the action. It was unclear what exactly 
would happen that day. Would 20,000 people show up in Guy Fawkes 
masks (the Anonymous group’s calling card)? Many local activists, 
jaded by years of unrewarding and difficult organizing, did not 
embrace OWS from the outset because their experiences taught them 
to be skeptical about the prospect of success.

The Uprising Begins

On day one of OWS, over 1,000 marched through the largely empty 
financial district that fateful Saturday afternoon, their angry 
chants echoing off the glass and concrete skyscrapers densely 
packed together by the area’s narrow streets. Originally they 
planned to camp out at One Chase Manhattan Plaza, but Zuccotti 
Park was plan B since it had to be kept open 24 hours a day as 
part of an obscure agreement between the city and private entities 
that paid for the upkeep of privately owned public spaces.

Week one of OWS was relatively uneventful as working groups were 
formed and GAs were held to begin the process of issuing formal 
statements to the world. Somewhere between 100 and 200 people 
camped out with sleeping bags. The police waded into the park, 
manhandled and arrested a handful of people, and took tarps used 
to cover the electronic equipment OWS used to communicate with the 
world on the first Monday after the occupation began.

What transformed the occupation into a national uprising of the 
99% was two things: unwarranted police repression and the 
determination of the occupiers to continue on no matter what. Not 
having a permit would not stop them and neither would metal 
fences, pepper spray, batons, or flex cuffs.

On Saturday September 24, Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed cornered 
women near Union Square and it was broadcast around the world from 
every conceivable angle thanks to camera phones and citizen 
uploads to YouTube. OWS’s numbers swelled. Over 2,000 people 
marched on NYPD headquarters on Friday October 1 in protest. The 
next day came the famous Brooklyn Bridge incident in which the 
NYPD lured 700 protesters into blocking traffic, cornered them, 
and arrested them. The outrage triggered by the 700 arrests led 
30,000 to march at a permitted union-sponsored rally on October 5, 
and Occupy exploded with actions in 250 towns and cities across 
the country, including places like Nashville, Tennesee and Mobile, 

NASCAR versus Wall Street was probably the furthest thing from the 
minds of the occupiers who camped out in sleeping bags during week 
one of OWS but it became a reality in less than a month. Occupy 
earned itself a capital O.

Once Occupy went national, the same two ingredients that propelled 
the uprising’s explosive growth -- unwarranted police repression 
and militant, determined protesters -- led to the first general 
strike in Oakland, California since 1946. The strike was called in 
response to police hitting Iraq veteran and former Marine Scott 
Olsen in the face with a tear gas canister as they cleared out 
Oakland’s occupation on the orders of Democratic Mayor Jean Quan 
and in consultation with federal law enforcement agencies. Occupy 
Oakland is now calling for another general strike up and down the 
West Coast on December 12 in reply to the nationwide crackdown on 
local occupations.

Lessons of OWS

OWS succeeded where traditional protests failed for a variety of 
reasons, one of the most important being the fact it was not 
conventional; it was not a single-issue, single-event protest, 
unlike almost all previous efforts by progressives in the U.S. 
over the last three decades. There was no end date or end game by 

Because OWS was designed as an open-ended, ongoing event, refusing 
to adopt a formal set of demands was extremely wise. It allowed 
every person, organization, and cause to bring their own demands 
and shape OWS’s message and avoided the pitfalls that come with 
making demands, namely having them ignored, ridiculed, picked 
apart, or co-opted by the 1% or failing to include demands 
important to some specific section of the 99%. People and the 
corporate media were both drawn to this seemingly new phenomenon 
of a protest without demands, an action without goals.

Many people in Occupy feel deeply and instinctively that making a 
formal list of demands is the first step to defeat because such a 
list will be used as a yardstick to judge our success or failure. 
All the 1% has to do is point out the fact that our demands have 
not been met and people will feel defeated, that marching is 
pointless, just as we did in 2003 when the government invaded Iraq 
despite our best efforts. The invasion of Iraq was a fatal blow to 
the anti-war movement because our central demand meant zero in the 
big scheme of things.

Back then, people felt defeated, demoralized, and stayed home, but 
they also began to learn something important: showing up, yelling, 
waving signs, and going home is not going to cut it. It took years 
of organizing around other issues and other events for that lesson 
to really sink in and become the strategic, tactical, and 
practical basis for organizing.

The important thing is not how long it took to learn this but the 
fact that it happened.

A second important lesson of OWS is that determined, bold, and 
peaceful action is more important than lists of demands, formal 
politics, or theoretically consistent ideas about strategy and 
tactics. Much of the skepticism from existing progressive 
organizations during the first month of OWS centered around the 
fact that OWS had no discernible demands, no clear strategy to win 
change (lobbying, strikes, boycotts, elections), and no formal 
leadership. All of these alleged weaknesses were actually 
strengths, making it all but impossible for politicians and other 
established or

OWS succeeded above all else because of the willingness of first 
hundreds, now hundreds of thousands, to act, to stand up, to 
fight, to protest, to speak, to Occupy. French military genius 
Napolean Bonaparte described his method as “first engage, and then 
see,” and this is exactly what Occupy did.

In this respect and unknowingly OWS followed in the footsteps of 
the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The comparison seems 
implausible but some of the underlying, methodological 
similarities are undeniable.

The Panthers developed a mass following in the 1960s not because 
millions of blacks read the party’s 10-Point Program and clamored 
to sign up but because the Panthers took bold action to meet the 
pressing needs of their community. One of their first initiatives 
was to follow police patrols in California with a rifle slung over 
one shoulder and a law hand to police the police, to make sure the 
cops were following the law when they dealt with blacks. 
Similarly, the Panthers marched with arms on the California 
legislature when it began to consider repealing the law that 
allowed them to carry rifles in public.

“Practice is the criteria for truth,” as the Panthers used to say. 
Their militant actions and the spirit of defiance underpinning 
them earned the Panthers the respect of the Black community and 
legions of eager followers who were literally willing to put their 
lives on the line to win their people freedom, justice, and 
equality. They were the vanguard.

Both OWS and the Panthers took bold, peaceful action and exploited 
legal loopholes so that when the police moved against them, the 
cops did so unlawfully.

The last element that led to OWS’s success was changing the target 
from Bloomberg to Wall Street. Bloombergville did not ignite a 
mass movement because there was no simmering anger among New 
Yorkers at the mayor, who until recently enjoyed high approval 
ratings despite his budget cuts, his fortune, and his 
union-busting. On the other hand, Wall Street is about as popular 
as Casey Anthony, and the aftermath of the 2008 bailouts has seen 
more budget cuts, more layoffs, more tuition increases, more 
foreclosures, more unemployment for the 99% and bigger bonuses and 
fatter paychecks regulation for the 1%.

Targeting Wall Street instead of Bloomberg completely altered the 
strategic calculus of the occupy tactic, providing it with the 
possibility of connecting with the anger of New Yorkers and the 
country at large that built up for years on end with no outlet 
until now.

Bold action against the right target using flexible, 
unconventional tactics is the secret of OWS’s success, but this 
recipe is not really a secret. Any close look at the history of 
movements in this country, from the underground railroad in the 
1800s to the occupations of segregated in lunch counters in the 
1960s, will reveal the same constituent elements.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Occupied Wall Street 
Journal, The Indypendent, Asia Times Online, Znet, and 
Counterpunch. His other writings can be found at 
www.planetanarchy.net and soon thenorthstar.info, a collaborative 
blog by and for occupiers.

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