November 8, 2011. I was shooting pool at State College’s best dive bar when the bouncer came running in, his face flushed with excitement. According to TV news, he told us, the Penn State Board of Trustees had just fired football coach Joe Paterno. Though Paterno had already declared his intention to retire at the end of the season, after allegations that he had condoned an ongoing pattern of child molestation by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the trustees decided they couldn’t wait. Paterno would not be coaching that Saturday’s home game.
Occupy-related protests have steadily increased in number and militancy, and so has the resulting police repression. This has only made it more urgent to to identify and understand recent important steps in the transformation of the movement. These steps were most visible in the general strike in Oakland, and the later occupation of the Traveller’s Aid building, and they have begun to expand throughout the country.
A week ago, mayors across the country, working with shadowy law enforcement organizations, coördinated a crackdown on the occupations in their respective cities. Washington DC’s own occupation was untouched. As cops cleared parks and trashed tents and familiar cities made it into the headlines – Denver, Oakland, Manhattan – DC, yet again overlooked, felt like it hadn’t been asked to the dance. My feelings were compounded when a few days later, on November 17 – a day of action in response to the crackdown, with thousands marching on Wall Street – Occupy DC marched in support of a jobs bill with the SEIU, who that day had endorsed Obama for president. As police beat journalists in New York, DC protestors tweeted photos standing with arms around cops, waving. As 30,000 people took over the Brooklyn Bridge, Occupy DC boasted of barely impeding the flow of rush-hour traffic over the Key Bridge in Georgetown.
Getting arrested, at least in my case, was slow and physically draining. Before continuing, I should note that I draw no analogy between my experience of political arrest and the constant harassment and detention that accompany life on the margins. I am not one of the mentally ill who are removed from public sight to make commerce safe; one of the drug addicts who sometimes pound their heads against the paddy wagon walls until blood flows; one of undocumented immigrants who now populate bank-owned, for-profit prisons; or one of those who attract the police because of the color of their skin. I was also not beaten by the police or held without charges. Arrest for political offense, in my case, meant sitting for a long time in Bank of America on November 16, having ABC Live literally watch my back, and waiting in a cold seat in an improvised pen for two hours. That day-after soreness from having my hands cuffed behind my back was my biggest physical or emotional complaint testifies to this difference.
Even if it were to disappear tomorrow, Occupy Wall Street would have already scored a massive victory. It has fundamentally altered one of the dominant narratives that underlies the majority political and economic thought in this country: that as much as Americans might be dissatisfied with politicians, they have no real complaint with inequality, or the economic system that makes it possible and perpetuates it – namely capitalism. Occupy Wall Street ruptured this narrative through the occupations and massive popular support. Before September the sentence, “Americans are dissatisfied with social inequality” would have been debatable to say the least, pertaining only to a small faction of leftists and academics. Now it can be stated as fact, a fact that the existing forces and powers do not know what to say about.
The emergency session of the Occupy Philly General Assembly this past Thursday decided, at around 10PM, to immediately move from Dilworth Plaza, where Occupy Philly is currently grounded, to Thomas Paine Plaza. When the proposal passed, everyone broke into smaller groups, rushed to grab whatever was around, and began moving to the other side of the street. Soon after, the police arrived, confusion descended, and, not having decided on any plan ahead of time, we spontaneously broke into three groups: the first regrouped back at Dilworth, the second was left at Thomas Paine, and the third decided to storm City Hall. At the end of it all, we were forced to abandon our objective, withdraw back to the original encampment, and rethink the whole affair.
Philadelphia has a large population of black, disaffected youth. It also has a black mayor. But when some of these young people began to spontaneously protest the obscene level of urban segregation and systematic poverty of the city with “flash mobs,” it was Mayor Michael Nutter who launched the counter-attack, imposing the disciplinary measure of an earlier curfew in wealthy white areas. Curfews, as George Ciccariello-Maher points out, “have historically served as a racist weapon for the containment of Black bodies” – but Nutter himself made the point by accompanying this measure with an ideological assault on black Philadelphians in general.
After the raid on Zuccotti Park early this morning, what remains of Occupy Wall Street? The library was destroyed and thrown in the garbage; the kitchen and commune that fed and housed hundreds now gone. But what about the general assembly? The police violence demonstrates that the relevance of Occupy Wall Street as a political situation is by no means in its attempts, failures and very real successes at direct democracy. It is instead a question: what is beyond democracy in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street?
The occupations movement is highly structured, and this structure is a focal point for political debates. Decisions are made by the general assembly (GA) through a process of democratic deliberation; it also serves as the basis for the delegation responsibilities and tasks, which are required both to keep people participating and to organize political activity.
All eyes are on Oakland. And rightfully so. Oakland has shown the other occupations how the movement can be successfully escalated. By transforming the occupation of a park into a general strike, Oakland has indisputably emerged as the most militant section of the national occupation movement. All the other occupations across the county are asking themselves how they can follow in its footsteps. But, as strange as it may sound, the best way to reproduce the level of militancy that has erupted in Oakland may actually be to not follow in that city’s footsteps.