Will Occupy Spring Forward Or Melt Down?

photo by Lauriel

By Shamus Cooke

A healthy debate has finally gripped the Occupy Movement: there is now a discussion over strategy. Most Occupiers have learned that raw enthusiasm alone cannot bring victory to a social movement; ideas matter too. Action divorced from strategy equals wasted energy, divisiveness, diversions and unnecessary mistakes. Not all tactics push the movement forward.

Why this debate now? Anyone paying attention can tell that the Occupy Movement has lost momentum; the winter months showcased increasing amount of actions combined with fewer and fewer people. After taking the lead in national Occupy enthusiasm, Occupy Oakland is doing some soul searching after an attempted building takeover resulted in massive police violence.

Some Occupiers claim that Occupy was simply in winter hibernation, waiting for its own Arab Spring. But the movement in Europe has grown during the same winter months. The movements in the Middle East, Russia, and elsewhere too have voted with their feet against hibernation.

A social movement, by definition, requires masses of participants, without which momentum grinds to a halt; the movement ceases to move.

Numbers matter, and Occupy has been shedding numbers for months. A major reason for this is because Occupiers have swerved drastically left, leaving the broader 99% ashore. If this trend isn’t corrected soon, Occupy will resemble the pre-Occupy left: small isolated groups pursuing their own issues, disconnected from the very broader population that must be involved to actually win any significant demands.

This is the original sin of Occupy: without first sinking its roots deep enough into the broader population, Occupy marched quickly to the left, unconcerned with who was following. Hopefully Occupy can correct this mistake in time, since not doing so would be fatal fast.

Hopefully, Occupiers have passed through the movement’s immature adolescence. For example, Occupy must shed its focus on radical-themed direct actions that inevitably attract only a couple hundred Occupiers but no one else. Again, this was the strategy of pre-Occupy that has already proved its lack of worth. Mass direction action is truly effective, but that raises the critical question: how to bring the masses of working people to Occupy, and vice versa?

Europe has already answered this question, having passed through the adolescence if its own movement, and now focused on bringing down unpopular governments. Greece, for example, went through an immature stage of rioting that showcased much bravery but could provide no real answers. Now, however, a massive workers movement has emerged, the entire 99% is directly involved in producing gigantic demonstrations that soon evolved into one-day General Strikes, and then two-day General Strikes. A common demand in Greece is now for an “indefinite general strike” to bring down the government and stop austerity, i.e., the massive cuts to public programs — education, health care, social services — and jobs.

Demands matter. The entire Greek population would not be going on strike against capitalism — at this time — or against corporate greed, etc.

Typically, an effective general strike — one where the entire 99% participates — happens after a prolonged struggle over demands that affect all working people, where they are agitated enough to take action in the streets. A general strike is the culmination of this movement, itself the byproduct of reaching out to and connecting with broader and broader layers of working people.

Throughout Europe working people are inspired to fight against austerity. Workers in the United States would likely also be inspired to fight against austerity. Unfortunately, there is no venue to do this. The labor and Occupy Movements have failed to take on the key issues that actually have the potential to unite the U.S. population in a European style social movement.

Austerity is happening fast in the United States; on a state-by-state level massive cuts are being pushed through while taxes on the rich stay low. Health care, education, and social services are being killed on a city, state, and federal level. Public sector jobs are being slashed in an epoch of mass joblessness. Medicare and Medicaid are undergoing a very public attack and Social Security is on the chopping block.

Yes, Occupy is too “radical” to unite around these demands; while the labor movement has acted too timidly. Some Occupiers avoid these demands because they fear Democrat co-optation; labor avoids seriously pressing for these demands because they don’t want to upset the Democrats. This is exactly the point: the Democrats — with the Republicans — are the ones pushing these cuts. Fighting austerity in the United States directly challenges the two-party system, while engaging the broader population into struggle.

Without struggle there is no movement. If working people do not identify with the issues that Occupy is fighting for, they will not join, and Occupy’s issues will remain unachievable.

Occupy Oakland has called for a general strike on May Day. Unless conditions change fast, it is unlikely to succeed, and more likely it will put further distance between Occupy and working people, since the 99% will not take Occupy seriously if it calls for actions it cannot organize. Occupy would do better to follow Europe’s example: organize around demands that connect with working people, so that the real power of the majority of working people can be mobilized in the streets.

  20 comments for “Will Occupy Spring Forward Or Melt Down?

  1. Bill Powell
    February 19, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    We can’t be all things to all people so we need to contain the negatives if we are to keep them around – identify and use the Veterans for a little order and something that looks like adult supervision to the outside. Black Bloc tactics are losing us support of the 99% because their violence/vandalism isn’t understood to outsiders and it ISN’T TIME YET to go to this means. We can’t have identifiable persons getting us schedules and information without them risking all for this movement. A FB site or?? that makes this information available and something like putting the info for group meeting on numbered 3 x 5 cards to be read by random atetndees will confuse the other side.
    Occupy has to work! And people have to march in protest against the things that are affecting us all – the banksters, the lobbyists, the billions going for political control, womens rights, et al

    • rothstei
      February 19, 2012 at 3:15 PM

      I find it condescending that you think that some occupiers need “adult supervision”.

  2. February 19, 2012 at 11:47 AM

    Great article. I absolutely agree that Occupy has gone too far to the left. Not only the left, but the circular firing squad left. What I mean by that is standing in a slowly dwindling circle and sniping at the people that don’t share a particular dogma. It’s frustrating, and it drives people away.

  3. John Wood
    February 19, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    Most people outside of Occupy already think Occupy is dead. Our win against EGT was too easy, good for the ILWU but bad for Occupy. We could have used the publicity, which would have let people know we were still around.

    As said in the article, we don’t really have an issue around which we can coalesce. Austerity isn’t affecting us in Oregon as it is in Europe and especially in Greece.

    It is affecting our economy, but there is no consensus among the 99% whether our economic woes are caused by austerity or by debt, and no one sitting at home thinks a few people marching around the streets of downtown Portland is going to change anything anyway.

    I love marches and demonstrations, the feeling of belonging to something bigger than oneself, and I participated in the March against war with Iran, but if anyone that thinks that march was anything more that a masturbatory exercise, is mistaken. A couple hundred people marching through the streets of Portland accomplishes nothing. I doubt that anyone watching knew or cared what the march was about.

    There were marches against SOPA, but those marches also accomplished nothing. It was the Internet campaign that stopped SOPA, and maybe Occupy needs to become more Internet savvy spreading our message that way, but I guess first, we need to decide what our message is.

    I joined Occupy because I was calling for people to take to the streets three years ago with torches and pitchforks to go after the Wall Street assholes that ruined the world’s economy. I still think many of them should be in jail. That seemed to be the message of Occupy Wall Street, and I thought it was ours, too. Now, I’m not really sure what our message or purpose is.

    I, too, was hoping there would be an Occupy Spring. I’m no longer convinced there will be one.

    • lester
      February 19, 2012 at 5:36 PM

      If Occupy dies, at least we won’t have to keep using the word “occupy” all the time. Occupy will die off, there’s no way around that. It’s the Darwinian selection of a successful resistance movement, and this one aint it. As soon as it started, it quickly became dominated by status quo special interest groups and their lackeys. At this point, it’s almost entirely populated by people trying desperately to sell their souls but having trouble finding buyers.

      However, the problems that created occupy will continue to increase in severity, so the next evolution of political dissent in America will follow quickly on the tails of the last, and this time it will be filled with people armed with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

  4. February 20, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    Shamus, excellent article. thank you.

  5. Cameron
    February 20, 2012 at 4:50 PM

    Extreme leftism is an issue we can still recover from. We need to be daring, and also willing to use tactics that the general population is already receptive to. If you haven’t done so yet, you should check out my campaign website! http://www.cameronwhittenforunity.com/

    If a few of us dedicated Occupiers worked on reclaiming the city government, it would be an extreme pull to win over the people of Portland, and it would also get the police off our backs. 🙂 We have until May, plenty of time in the world to win.

    • February 20, 2012 at 9:46 PM

      I do not believe in violence, because as activists, we have a wide range of methods that we can employ, in our tool-kit for change. Violence is only one form of direct action. We must continue to explore any and all means to accomplish our goals. As a general political activist, I do not focus in on any particular issue or specific agenda; rather, I believe that my strength comes from working with other individuals and/both organizations, even if I do not completely agree with their mission or vision. The wisdom, lies in our ability to work together temporarily, to cause some sort of intended outcome (for example, I took part in the recent on-line stop SOPA actions on FaceBook). I can only speak for myself, however. It is up to each one of us, to determine what or how we will imprint our brand of action that we think works best. This is when it will really get all the more interesting (:

  6. Hart Noecker
    February 20, 2012 at 5:11 PM
    • Chris
      February 21, 2012 at 7:37 AM

      Not mental, just observant. The author is right: Occupy Portland has been shedding numbers for months. Nothing has ever come close to the first march except the first eviction – and we don’t know how many of the people watching from the sidewalks that night were just there to watch rather than support.

      F29 is going to bomb. Occupy hasn’t just lost touch with mainstream politics, it’s lost touch with the public as a community. Planning for F29 actions is being done in sporadic, poorly-publicized meetings from which no information is being released, which means that no one except those radicals and recreational activists will actually know what’s happening or how to participate until it’s too late. The story people hear on TV that evening or read in the papers the next day isn’t going to be about workers and families rising up to demand justice and revolutionary change, it’ll be about scattered groups of crust punks and hippies violating property, disrupting business, and clashing with police, which will only serve to further cement public perception of Occupy as a vehicle for destruction and unrest rather than the vanguard of a popular movement.

      • February 21, 2012 at 10:03 AM

        I disagree. F29 is well planned. I have even heard State Reps like Lew Fredericks warning people about ALEC. While our demonstrations will always be misconstrued to the public, our message is honed on ALEC, and that’s something that people will finally learn exists. cameronwhittenforunity.com

      • rothstei
        February 21, 2012 at 11:26 AM

        Chris, do you take part in Occupy? At all? Forgive my honest question, but you seem to have a lot of negative pronouncements for the movement, and I don’t know you. This is twice now you’ve said that F29 hasn’t been well-publicized or organized, when in fact that is not true. One hundred people were at a planning meeting 3 weeks in advance. Apparently they got the announcement. Maybe you need to try a little harder. Or maybe, you just don’t like Occupy, in which case, your astroturfing is hilarious.

        I’m going to hold you to the prediction about F29. I suppose we’ll see what happens. But no matter what happens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see you back here, talking trash about it.

        • Chris
          February 21, 2012 at 1:16 PM

          Y’know, Adam, when Occupy started out, there was a lot of talk about the lines that divide us, compartmentalize us, polarize us, turn us against each other – and how Occupy transcended them by addressing problems that affect all of the 99%, regardless of color or gender or class or political inclination. There was a lot of talk about how there would be real, honest conversations about values and governance, free from media spin and hidden agendas and sports-rivalry mentality.

          Now here you sit, trying to figure out whether I’m pro-Occupy or anti-Occupy so you can know whether or not you need to actually address the content of my messages. What a shining example of what Occupy has become: insular, myopic, disconnected from the people it supposedly stands for.

          But I digress.

          Occupy Portland started with ten thousand people. Do you think I’m impressed when you boast about a mere hundred people at the oh-so-well-publicized F29 meeting – no doubt the same hundred radicals and recreational activists who show up at most of OP’s events these days?

          Will any of the labor unions be joining the F29 actions in solidarity? How about allied political groups? Have any actions been planned which will draw enough supporters that they will be able to resist small phalanxes of police or sustain the attention of the mainstream media?

          No, of course not. No such thing has been announced because there is nothing worth saying – either that, or the organizers are so completely incompetent that it didn’t occur to them to shout from the rooftops that they had the support of real, credible people and organizations, and this wasn’t just the culmination of two months of underground circle-jerking.

          By all means, hold me to my prediction. I’m pretty confident about it. If I’m wrong and Occupy is still relevant, great! If I’m not… well, I would say “told you so”, but the shark-death of a badly-needed American populist movement isn’t really good news for any of us, and the fact that I called it will be small comfort in the years to follow.

          • rothstei
            February 21, 2012 at 10:02 PM

            All I wanted to say was that you seem pretty anti-occupy for a pro-occupy person. If, you indeed are.

            As for the content of your arguments, I would say that if you are indeed pro-occupy, and are concerned about the lack of relevance you perceive, perhaps you should do something about that. Coming to an F29 organizational meeting would be a start (check the calendar, as I recommended the first time.)

            I suppose we’ll see what happens in a week.

  7. February 21, 2012 at 3:32 PM

    Hey, why do I gotta be the poster-child for the supposed “meltdown”?

    Just for the record, the rumor of our demise is greatly exaggerated.

    I, for one, plan to continue building coalitions with activists, cyclists, artists and those who think we can “Do It Better!” I take this article as a challenge to continue doing just that.

    • Hart
      February 21, 2012 at 11:29 PM

      If it wasn’t for Occupy I wouldn’t know Dan Kaufman or any of the other Bike SWarmers, I wouldn’t know about Portland Action Lab or Portland Rising Tide. There wouldn’t be a bustling headquarters of organization at St Francis. The camp phase is done, we’ve gotten more refined and while there may be less drop in marchers or spectators, the number of focused, committed activists continues to grow. Dan, I don’t mean to direct this comment at you as though you don’t know this, just wanted to add to your sentiment . Anyone writing that Occupy and the affinity groups are melting down just isn’t paying very close attention.

  8. Jeremiah
    February 21, 2012 at 10:41 PM

    Occupy is one movement, strong as ever, and the biggest problem it has now are the naysayers dragging down those still giving their best effort and intentions. Occupy never represented one group or one set of ideals and it still doesn’t. You decide what you support, and then you show up. The people who think anything is dead are the people who stopped showing up. Europe has several different countries with higher per capita populations than America, with differences in the specifics of the corruption and the corrupt. We can’t focus on any negative. If you want something done, make a proposal and ask people to show up. Not just ideas, ideas that become actions. If you’re not doing something, you have no place criticizing those who do. If you think things are too far to the left, come to a GA or form a spoke and Speak UP. Standing back and criticizing with out action or accountability is how the country got screwed up, and it will screw up Occupy too if you don’t knock it off. Just like JFK said, you’re part of the problem or part of the solution. The only thing that will be dead is the circulation of the Occupier if its not part of the solution.

    • rothstei
      February 22, 2012 at 12:47 AM

      Hey, man, The Occupier publishes all opinions, and cements itself to none! 🙂

  9. Jeremiah
    February 21, 2012 at 10:45 PM

    Also, the ‘recreational’ activists were the ones who stopped showing up, not the ones that still do. Occupy has never been about following the herd, so those that do have wandered away. And any movement worth its salt will diversify in order to become more inclusive, as Occupy is doing, though I can see how someone ignorant in society in general would confuse it with ‘division’.

  10. Lex
    February 23, 2012 at 9:22 PM

    Mr. Cooke,

    You write:

    “This is the original sin of Occupy: without first sinking its roots deep enough into the broader population, Occupy marched quickly to the left, unconcerned with who was following. Hopefully Occupy can correct this mistake in time, since not doing so would be fatal fast.”

    The nature of ORIGINAL SIN, in distinction to actual sins, is that it cannot be corrected. Original sin, if we are to use such concepts, is something that must simply be accepted. Hope, which you also bring up, is to find redemption precisely despite one’s original sin.

    Your suggestion of a discussion of strategy is commendable, but you should take your metaphors more seriously and learn from the unconscious messages that they provide for you.

    Dare to struggle. Dare to win. (Or lose.)

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