Why Occupy?

photo by Todd

by John Wood

At a recent Portland General Assembly, some of us had concerns about how a proposed action might be perceived by the general public. One person countered with (paraphrased) “If we don’t act on something because we’re afraid of how the public will view it, we’re going against everything we believe in.”

If all we are is a small group of dedicated radicals, that’s a great statement. My response was, “We’re representing the 99%. If we’re going against what they believe in or can’t satisfactorily explain our actions to them, this is going to be our movement.” With a sweeping motion, I indicated the twenty-five or thirty of us in attendance at that GA, a larger group than usually attends.

I’ve often said that the anarchists, or whatever other label we wish to use, are our front line soldiers and are essential to the movement, but Occupy Portland is looking more and more like an anarchist movement and less like one standing up for the 99%. Because they are the activists, they show up at the meetings, and it’s their voices we hear. While I agree with most of their goals, I don’t agree that they are necessarily representing the 99%.

I joined Occupy because Occupy Wall Street was protesting against Wall Street, which ruined the world’s economies and stole our money and our future without any of those responsible going to jail. I was all for going after them with torches and pitchforks three years ago. I was also for the movement because it seemed to stand up for the 99% and for the oppressed everywhere, noble goals in my opinion. This was never about camping out in city parks as far as I was concerned, although I loved Occupy having a public presence. I was there for the march on October 6th, and I’ve been there for most marches since then.

I’m beginning to think, though, that all Occupy Portland’s message has become is about camping out and confronting the police. Few people I talk to now even know that Occupy Portland still exists. I’m beginning to wonder if it does.

I wrote an article a while back questioning the authority of the GA to make decisions for Occupy. Since then, I have actively participated in GA meetings, missing only one since. I don’t question the dedication of those that facilitate or attend the GA. At least those twenty-five or so people are willing to stand in the cold to make decisions for Occupy, and others are now able to participate through LiveStream, although, so far, few people have participated that way. Anyway, I’ll give them the right to speak for Occupy. If others want their voices heard, they can come down and stand in the cold or participate online.

I wish I had some answers; I don’t. All I have are questions.

  10 comments for “Why Occupy?

  1. øççüπ
    April 8, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    You sound tired and overwhelmed. Understandable. Change is not easy considering the mess. Something tells me however you don’t have much of a choice but to be a part of the community around you simply from your concerns. I suppose by definition “Occupy” involves all of us regardless of the badges and labels we wear. These are just feathers. We all have them. It’s art. It’s expression. Remembering the single greatest thing that we have to combat is separation is the key. This allows the “Occupation” to bleed into deeper facets of ourselves and the community we make together regardless of how oil and water it might seem on the surface.

  2. Justin
    April 8, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    1. There are many people participating in this movement everyday that want nothing to do with GA. So your implication that one is more involved or is actually accomplishing something just for being willing to participate in a broken system in which a small few pretend to be the voice of many (sounds a lot America’s broken system, seems like little more than empty praise. For two, occupying public space is about so much more than tents and camping. If that is all you took from occupation in terms of purpose then I fear you haven’t thought, or read, much about the real reasons behind occupying public space. Finally, your comment about police. Certainly we should not allow ourselves to become a movement focused solely on conflict with cops. We agree there. But you write as If this has already become the case when it hasn’t. Yes, conflict with cops happens, because they come out and treat our marches with violence on a fairly regular occasion. That doesn’t mean police are our focus. How many actions has OPDX carried out that we’re specifically police brutality events? I can count them on one hand. Compare that to everything we have done and are doing from port and corporate shutdowns to NDAA and solidarity marches, trimet actions, postal service actions, labor actions, public education actions etc etc etc. if you do such a comparison I’m sure you’ll begin to understand why I get so flabbergasted when people claim OPDX has become all about confronting the police. Aside from the fact that confronting and engaging police SHOULD be one of our primary goals. As individuals they may be part of the 99%, but as an institution they have proven themselves to bethe security force OF the 1%. They have proven that they will follow orders and violently suppress constitutional rights in the name of protecting the wealth and power of their corrupt masters. How this does this not directly relate to everything the Occupy movement is trying to fight both for and against.

  3. dvkeller
    April 8, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    John the GA is a decision making body along with the SC. It is not action. The revolution will not be televised. If you are not familiar with the list of events/actions listed below you have not been paying attention. This is a list of events (not all inclusive) that occurred in 2011 (I got tired of cutting and pasting. So limited to 2011). This does not include meetings, caucuses, workshops or occupying a park.

    And may I add that according to the dictionary you are an anarchist. By opposing WS (authority) you are challenging the current “order” of our society.

    In solid solidarity,

    The 99 percent A Teach-in on Occupy Portland 11- 14 -11
    Portland Emergency Solidarity March 11- 15 -11
    STUDENT WALKOUT @ PSU 11- 16 -11
    Council hearing on police oversight 11- 16 -11
    Get On The Bridge 11- 17 -11
    March with Occupy Portland on N17: 11- 17 -11
    March for Universal Health Care 11- 18 -11
    Occupy Colonel Summers Park 11- 18 -11
    Saturday Night vigil 11- 18 -11
    Occupy Portland Day of OccuPeace 11- 19 -11
    PUNK ROCK BLOCK FEST!!! 11- 19 -11
    City Wide March 11- 19 -11
    Meet N Greet 11- 19 -11
    Chaplains Occupy Thanksgiving PDX 11- 24 -11
    OCCUPY FLASH MOB! 11- 25 -11
    Occupy Walmart, Vancouver 11- 25 -11
    Occupy Black Friday! 11- 25 -11
    Occupy Cafe: A Community Conversation 11- 25 -11
    We Know Our Rights Protest 11- 29 -11
    Occupy Cafe – A Collective Vision for “Occupy 2.0.” 11- 29 -11
    Occupy PSU General Assembly 11- 30 -11
    Occupy Panel presentation at Pacific University 11- 30 -11
    End the Camping Ban! 24/7 Daily Vigil 11- 31 -11
    The Art and Images of Occupy 12- 01 -11
    Dogcupy Portland 12 – 03 – 11
    March and Occupation 12 – 03 – 11
    SWARM NOW!!! 12 – 03 – 11
    39th and Hawthorne Stop Bank Red-Lining 12 – 05 – 11
    Peaceable Protesters Court Date Rally 12 – 05 – 11
    National Day of Action to Stop Foreclosures 12 – 06 – 11
    Police Accountability Hearing 12 – 08 – 11
    Citizens Against the NDAA Day of Action 12 – 09 – 11
    OWS Reverend Billy visits Occupy Portland 12 – 09 – 11
    Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed! Rally 12 – 10 – 11
    Your Slice of Occu-Pie 12 – 11 – 11
    West Coast Ports Shutdown 12 – 12 – 11
    Swarmers, We are shutting down the ports! 12 – 12 – 11
    March on EGT offices 12 – 13 – 11
    Chapman & Lownsdale Squares, Leaf Raking! 12 – 14 – 11
    Police Accountability Hearing 12 – 14 – 11
    Occupy Gresham 12 – 14 – 11
    The BIGGEST Occupation Ever! 12 – 16 – 11
    Immigrants’ Rights are Worker’s Rights rally and march 12 – 17 – 11
    OCCUPY SANTARCHY! 12 – 17 – 11
    March Against the National Defense Authorization Act! 12 – 17 – 11
    PDX Occupy benefit concert 12 – 17 – 11
    Hark the 99%ers Sing! 12 – 18 – 11
    Help Craft the Declaration of Occupy Portland 12 – 18 – 11
    Come help make our new home spiffy and clean 12 – 19 – 11
    Tis the Season to Write Letters! 12 – 21 – 11
    Winter Solstice Interfaith Occupiers’ Peace-In 12 – 22 – 11
    Occupy St. Johns Meeting 12 – 29 – 11
    Occupy Verizon Stores 12 – 31 – 11

    • John Wood
      April 8, 2012 at 3:17 PM

      Impressive actions, and I’m not only in favor of each of them, but I participated in many of them. The first thing I noticed about the list, however, is that they were all from 2011. Other than the ALEC protest, what have we done lately? I know you said you got tired of posting events, but please list some of the 2012 events I might have missed. I participated in the ALEC march, which had a decent turnout, and I was there for the Camping Ban protest, but I was disappointed in the turnout for that.

      Don’t get me wrong: I want this movement to succeed, and I am not condemning anarchists; in many ways, I do consider myself one, although I believe that I – we – have to be careful about how we are perceived by the 99%, if we are to call ourselves a movement of the 99%. If they think we are a bunch of radicals that march around causing destruction of public or private property, they will, if they haven’t already, desert us.

      As I said, few of the people with whom I come into contact at work or out in the community, think Occupy is still around. Few hear about our marches around the streets of downtown Portland.

      Granted, because I work evenings, I’m not present at most meetings other than the GA, so I have no doubt I’m missing out on much that’s happening. As I said in the piece, I have questions: I’d like to know what is going on, and I’m sure that others would also like to know if there is any life left in Portland Occupy.

    • Justin Kertson
      April 9, 2012 at 8:55 AM

      I don’t think you have your definition of anarchy straight. I have never heard anyone define anarchy is simply challenging the current political order. You can challenge the current order without being an anarchist. Anarchy, at its most basic, is simply a lack of government. Just because one challenging and trying to overthrow the current political order does not mean that one wants to make sure no new government replaces it. There are many challenge the current government who do so specifically because they believe they have a better idea for how government should be structured and run. That is not anarchy.

  4. Anonymous
    April 9, 2012 at 7:36 AM

    It is becoming something of a refrain among the well-meaning multitudes now energized by Occupy Wall Street that the movement needs to shed its radical origins so as to actually get something done. “If they can avoid fetishizing the demand for consensus,” James Miller wrote in late October in the New York Times, “they may be able to forge a broader coalition that includes friends and allies within the Democratic Party and the union movement.” According to some activists, groups like Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream are poised to turn occupiers into Obama voters. Especially as the 2012 election season starts, the thinking goes, it’s time to get real.

    This actually reminds me of long debates about planning that took place in the NYC General Assembly before September 17, and then again during the early days of the occupation. Many people—myself included‚ though I was there to observe as a reporter—first arrived with some preconceived agenda about what needed to be done given the current political situation and how the occupation should do it: abolish corporate personhood, or enact a Tobin tax, or (as crasser signs would say) “Eat the Rich.” They complained that the anarchists‚ along with assorted autonomists, libertarian socialists and so forth‚ were hijacking the movement’s progress by bogging it down in process. But, after a while, after enough long meetings, they started to come around.

    For some who were experiencing it for the first time, the General Assembly became a cathartic opportunity to unload long-pent-up polemics. Perhaps never having really had their political voices heard off the Internet, newcomers would interrupt the agenda and turn the people’s mic into a soapbox. With practice, though, that would change. They’d find that hewing to the process was better than making off-topic speeches. They heard stories about the assemblies in occupied squares in Egypt, Greece and Spain firsthand from people who had been there. Helping shape the daily decisions of the Occupation started to seem actually more empowering than trying to tell Obama what to do.

    The anarchists’ way of operating was changing our very idea of what politics could be in the first place. This was exhilarating. Some occupiers told me they wanted to take it home with them, to organize assemblies in their own communities. It’s no accident, therefore, that when occupations spread around the country, the horizontal assemblies spread too.

    At its core, anarchism isn’t simply a negative political philosophy, or an excuse for window-breaking, as most people tend to assume it is. Even while calling for an end to the rule of coercive states backed by military bases, prison industries and subjugation, anarchists and other autonomists try to build a culture in which people can take care of themselves and each other through healthy, sustainable communities. Many are resolutely nonviolent. Drawing on modes of organizing as radical as they are ancient, they insist on using forms of participatory direct democracy that naturally resist corruption by money, status and privilege. Everyone’s basic needs should take precedence over anyone’s greed.

    Through the Occupy movement, these assemblies have helped open tremendous space in American political discourse. They’ve started new conversations about what people really want for their communities, conversations that amazingly still haven’t been hijacked, as they might otherwise might be, by charismatic celebrities or special interests. But these assemblies also pose a problem.

    The Occupiers know that more traditional political organizations—such as labor unions, political parties and advocacy groups—are critical to making their message heard. With the “Re-Occupy” action on December 17, they called upon Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal church, to grant the movement an outdoor public space. As the movement enters the winter and so-called “Phase II,” outside organizations seem to be ever more crucial. But unions, parties and churches aren’t the coziest of bedfellows for open assemblies. Precisely what enables these organizations to mobilize masses of people and resources is the fact that they are hierarchical. Moreover, they are financed by, and dirty their hands with, electoral politics—all things a horizontal assembly aims to avoid.

    But traditional organizations that have found new momentum in the Occupy movement don’t need to sit around and wait for the assemblies to come up with demands or certain types of actions. They can act “autonomously” as the anarchists would say, doing what they do best with the good of the whole movement in mind: pressuring lawmakers, mobilizing their memberships and pushing for change in the short term while the getting is good. They can build coalitions on common ground with the Tea Party. The occupier assemblies won’t do these things for them, and it would be a mistake to wish they would.

    The radicals who lent this movement so much of its character have offered American political life a gift, should we choose to accept it. They’ve reminded us that we don’t have to rely on Republicans or Democrats, or Clintons, Bushes or Sarah Palin, to do our politics for us. With the assemblies, they’ve bestowed a refreshing form of grassroots organizing that, if it lasts, might help keep the rest of the system a bit more honest. There will, however, be tensions.

    “Any organization is welcome to support us,” says the Statement of Autonomy passed by the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly on November 1, “with the knowledge that doing so will mean questioning your own institutional frameworks of work and hierarchy and integrating our principles into your modes of action.”

    Kevin Zeese of the Freedom Plaza occupation in Washington, DC‚ though certainly no anarchist‚ is even more militant against the “progressive” establishment: “Bought and paid for with millions of dollars from Wall Street, the health insurance industry and big energy interests, Obama and the Democrats are part of the problem, not the solution.”

    In countries like Spain, Greece and Argentina for instance, networks of local assemblies, often built around occupations, have shaped electoral politics even without forming parties or endorsing candidates. Their focus is on the people in them, not those who would purport to represent them. I was in Athens earlier this fall, just as the prime minister was stepping down and the economy was collapsing, and I found that those in the city’s assemblies weren’t really concerned; they were too busy saving local parks and resisting unfair taxes.

    Spain recently held a general election, and parties across the political spectrum were responding to issues raised by the assembly-based movement which began there in May and which profoundly influenced the organizers of Occupy Wall Street. Even so, the movement called on people to cast null votes. The right-wingers won. Many on the left here will see this as a dangerous precedent, but in the long term and the big picture, autonomists see it as better than being co-opted. There is more at stake than a contest between one status-quo party or another. Occupations and assemblies are not solely an American, Greek or Spanish phenomenon; they’re the basis of a new global justice movement to confront a global crisis.

    As assemblies enter our own politics through the Occupy movement, we should take care to recognize what they’re not and will never be. Even more important, though, is what they’ve already done. They’ve reminded us that politics is not a matter of choosing among what we’re offered but of fighting for what we and others actually need‚ not to mention what we hope for. For this, in large part, we have the anarchists to thank.


    • rothstei
      April 9, 2012 at 11:51 AM

      Great comment. Hey, you should submit articles to this publication. 🙂

  5. Chris
    April 9, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    The concern over public perception is a complicated issue, because public perception is not fixed. One does not merely react to it, one interfaces with it. And so when one considers whether to undertake any particular action, such as reoccupation, it is not enough to point to the negative comments on mainstream news sites, or to the volume of donations and assistance the last occupation had, and try to determine some kind of “support number” that tells Occupy whether or not to go forward with that action. Rather, Occupy must create support by engaging the public and framing its action within the populist value system it is trying to promote – and to do that, it must pursue actions that reflect those values.

    Reoccupation is one such action. It’s not just about “camping”, and it never was; it’s about reasserting the people’s control over spaces that are supposed to be free and public but have become enclosed and controlled by a government that no longer represents us, and then using that reclaimed space to serve the needs of the 99%. The occupation camps were enormously valuable to Occupy’s strategy to rouse and unite the people, which is why they were destroyed with such force.

    And that brings us to the police. I don’t believe it is Occupy’s mission to physically confront the police, but so long as Occupy is working to reform or destroy the institutions that remove political and economic power from the 99% and give them to the 1%, it is the mission of the police to confront Occupy to maintain the status quo. The police will ALWAYS start that fight even if Occupy doesn’t. That confrontation is something that Occupy must accept as a necessary consequence to any effective action against the 1%, and therefore it is something that Occupy must consider and plan for.

    At the same time, the police and the justice system are part of the problem. They kill, injure, threaten, and falsely arrest with impunity, and subject those arrested and not yet proven guilty to needlessly inhumane treatment as a form of extrajudicial punishment. Millions of dollars that could be spent on education or other public services are diverted to militarizing the police and outfitting them with the newest lethal and nonlethal toys for maintaining control over the people, and millions more are spent to disrupt Occupy actions and punish a sample of their participants in order to frighten the rest into quiescence. Courts side with the police, giving them ever more power over the people and denying power and protection to those the police bring in, and in many cases handing them over to a for-profit prison system that influences legislators to pass new and tougher laws to criminalize the public. It is only proper that some Occupy actions should expose this system for what it is and demand that it change.

  6. Anonymous
    April 19, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    Occupy has done a wonderful job of confronting police, having marches, boycotting things, and sometimes breaking some windows, but what I have yet to see is community-oriented programs or actions. If Occupy seeks to be a movement of the 99%, then education and recruitment should be a part of it. Why not engage the community, rather than only confronting police downtown? Sure, publicity is important, mass demonstrations are important, bringing the protest to the homes of the corporations are important, but the 99% are the MOST important, and Occupy has done a very good job of alienating itself from the 99%. Most folks in the 99% need to be educated as to why any of this has any relevance to us — concretely — not just the fact that we are captives of a plutocratic government. The movement is very limited in its scope and needs to address the needs of the majority of the 99%, the first of which is class consciousness and unity. What about media awareness? The 99% are viewing this movement from the outside via local news channels, Fox News, CNN, et cetera, and many have little idea how these media outlets distort reality and ignore the issues.

    I guess what I’m trying to inarticulately say, is that Occupy needs to engage the community directly, bypass the media, and create some good feeling about revolution, about the 99%, about the power of mass action and participatory democracy.

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