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