Occupy: looking back & ahead

Occupy in 2011 – how was it again that the sight of tent camps in the middle of cities stopped surprising us?

The entrance to the occupation on St James Park, Toronto, last autumn. Photo by Jori Jansen.

"Welcome to the Land of Possibility", at the entrance to the occupation in St James Park, Toronto. Photo: Jori Jansen.

First there was the Arab Spring, followed swiftly by the ‘Spanish Spring’ of the Indignados (the outraged) who took their tents to the squares in the midst of pending local and regional elections in May. Then came the online call-out from Adbusters, an international anti-consumerist magazine and network, to occupy Wall Street on the 17th of September, 2011. The ‘Global Day of Action’ occurred on the 15th of October; protests were staged and occupations began in almost 1000 cities in 82 countries.
As the weeks unfolded, Occupy camps became places of dialogue and experiment. Occupy Wall Street set up a People’s Kitchen feeding thousands of the homeless and its own campers, opened a People’s Library, provided free bedding, shelter and medical care to anyone who needed it, organised public talks, workshops and cultural events, inspiring Occupy groupings globally.

Characterised as a ‘democratic awakening’, the movement has challenged the narrative spun by the financial sector and governments that presented the economic crisis as the result of some mysterious mathematical failure in the financial market, a couple of greedy individuals and/or some irresponsible governments. Occupy, in turn, recast the crisis as the result of a system that persistently allows a few to accumulate wealth over the back of many. Rather than asking ‘how can we manage this system better in order to continue Business As Usual?’, they ask ‘how can we change social relations and tackling existing inequalities?’.

Answers to this question will shape the movement’s priorities for 2012. But of course there are as many answers as people involved: engaging a bigger percentage of ‘the 99%’; scrutinising current social problems and possible alternatives through educational activities; articulating demands against the powerful few in politics and business; creating autonomous institutions, like social centres, activist collectives, alternative media, credit unions and co-operatives in which different values and lifestyles can take shape.

For many, it’s the means of the movement that constitute the ends. Occupy tries to be a ‘movement’ in the very sense of the word: a reflexive experiment in communication, decision-making and collaboration in which new ideas, plans and solutions are continuously generated and another world is prefigured. When I celebrated New Year’s Eve with OWSI was surprised by how many times I heard people expressing the word ‘hope’. That night, people tore down the police fences put up around Zucotti Park after the eviction on the 14th of November. As people danced on the fences piled up in centre of the square, the night felt epic and revolutionary. At 2am this came to a sudden end when the police decided to assert their authority and evacuate the square with a force of hundreds.

Police try hard to ignore a breakdancing protestor after they forcefully evacuated the square. Photo by Jori Jansen

Police try hard to ignore a breakdancing protestor after they forcefully evacuated the square. Photo by Jori Jansen

2012 will be a new phase. In the midst of Burns’ Night festivities, Occupy Edinburgh packed up their tents at St. Andrews square after more than 3 months of occupying. But, ‘you can’t evict an idea’, the Occupy Edinburgh blog states. 5 days later, a new camp was pitched on the Meadows. At the same time, public brainstorm meetings are underway to roll out ‘Phase Two’. Ideas are floating around for flashmobs and ‘roaming occupations’ around the city focused on public engagement and education. OWS is taking a similar path by occupying Zucotti Park every day with ‘culture and ideas’. Eric Light, involved with organising these events: ‘It is with food, music, humor, games, political theatre, creative activities, think tanks and so on that we can continue to inspire and involve others’. OWS is simultaneously working on ‘pop-up’ occupations on squares all over New York. Occupy Glasgow, as well, decided to disband their camps in December and focus on outreach and direct action. The same course, in fact, has been chosen by many Occupy’s globally. But in London, Occupy LSX is still camping at St. Paul’s cathedral while fighting eviction before court. Their ‘Tent City University’ outside of St. Paul’s is a hub of activity. On the 30th of January, LSX’s ‘Bank of Ideas’ was forcefully evicted. Housed in an abandoned office block in Hackney, it was open to the public ‘for the non-monetary trade of ideas to help solve the pressing economic, social and environmental problems of our time’.

As the movement is running the risk of fragmentation, global action is in the pipeline. On the 25th of January, Adbusters called out for a ‘showdown’ this May in Chicago where the G8 and the NATO are holding a simultaneous summit. ‘With a bit of luck’, they wish to pull together the ‘biggest multinational occupation of a summit meeting the world has ever seen’. Here, the movement is set to depart from its current course and make more explicit political demands: a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ (on the financial sector), a binding climate change accord and a three-strikes-and-you’re-out-law for ‘corporate criminals’ are suggested in the Adbusters’ call-out. Other demands will be proposed through General Assemblies and a ‘global internet brainstorm’.  If these demands are not met, Adbusters writes that together they ‘…will shut down stock exchanges, campuses, corporate headquarters and cities across the globe.’

Adbusters' call-out for coming May.

Adbusters' call-out for coming May.

Occupy thus plans to resort to more drastic tactics in 2012. American Politics professor Jason Adams has argued that occupying time would indeed be a better strategy than occupying space, since our economic system is foremost a matter of time, of delivering goods and services ‘in time’ and of ever-increasing production speed for lower labour costs and higher profits. Instead of a ‘disruption of space’, as the occupations were, a general strike is a ‘barricade in time’, Adams writes, following Paul Virilio. Then, Occupy might be able to lift the economic crisis from an issue dealt with only in closed-off international summits to a street-level emergency. An emergency demanding responses far more democratic than the current wave of austerity measures imposed in Europe, the US and other countries. Then, rather than going from bad to worse, things could change for the better.

Wikipedia still lists 2818 Occupy groupings on all continents, while some wither away and others spring up as you’re reading. Whether Occupy will indeed occupy 2012, we’ll have to wait and see. Or, better, we could join the dialogue, the decision-making and the action and help move this movement towards its open ends – as, in the end, we too are the 99%.

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