Occupy D.C. One Year Later

Perhaps a one-year anniversary is the best time to look around and, with some degree of closure, celebrate growth, and acknowledge the need for more. Occupy, as a singular entity, is dead. The tactic of occupying has obviously run its course, and, as Occupy D.C.'s one-year anniversary demonstrated, the tactic of marching as a primary form of direct action -- without being part of a concerted campaign -- is spent.

I write this as someone who quit my job in November for Occupy, spent months sleeping in McPherson Square, did an 11-day hunger strike, and had my name all over the press as a mouthpiece for Occupy D.C. My criticism of Occupy here is as honest as have been my many publicized praises of it over the last year.

The weekend, around Occupy D.C.'s one-year anniversary, from September 29th to October 1st, presented a snapshot of both potential and pitfall for those who consider themselves part of Occupy (a significantly diminished number over the last 10 months, at least in D.C.).

On Saturday, September 29th, Occupy Homes D.C. -- the go-to campaign to mention whenever you get asked what Occupy D.C. is doing -- staged a carefully coordinated siege of almost every one of the 11 Bank of America branches open in D.C. that day. Some groups got their branch to shut down entirely for three hours; others picketed and handed out hundreds of flyers to a receptive audience of passersby. Inspired onlookers doing their morning errands made phone calls on the spot to demand Bank of America renegotiate with a reverend it's trying to evict. One person even asked me how she could get involved with the campaign.

In contrast, Monday, October 1st, the day of the anniversary, constituted a failure of imagination by all of us. About a half dozen people bore the burden of organizing and executing that day of action, but by the afternoon, several had realized its flaws. One left early, and then wrote a piece called "What is occupy? And how does one leave?" The early morning action was, for most, the highlight of the day. A group of maybe 150 people -- significant for 8am in D.C. -- marched through the downtown area, stopping to mic check, disrupt and call attention to corporations and lobby groups such as Monsanto, Chase and the Financial Services Roundtable.

But in the afternoon, our diminished numbers -- many had left for work or school -- and we conducted a march that should never have happened. With energy zapped by the hot sun and the early morning start, we had held an assembly to determine what our afternoon action would be. One person brought up the idea of doing tabling and flyering as an outreach action, but, significantly, it got little visible support and was never brought up again.

We settled upon the Chamber of Commerce and Pepco (D.C.'s universally scorned energy utility) as two worthwhile targets. As we began the march, several of us took to satirizing our weary exercise in incommoding by chanting things like "Three word chant! Three word chant!" and "What do we want? Cats! When do we want them? Meow!" As we trickled into the first intersection, a police officer used his truck's megaphone to urge us to "get our shit together." A useful bit of advice. Later on in the march, most of the group walked right past a union picket line until some of us called them back and got one of the picketers to mic check what they were doing. After that, a construction worker heckled us, and a group of marchers yelled back "Jump! Jump!" at a building full of hardhat workers. Infantile.

We had become a parody of our former selves. We were protesting for the sake of protesting, with very little mindfulness of the kind of organizing that has to happen in order to create real change. Shutting down traffic lackadaisically and without purpose, we were -- not in ideology, but in lack of tactical skill -- scarily analogous to the march of a dozen neo-Nazis, which got its message through to approximately nobody when it marched down Pennsylvania Avenue last month.

It's been said many times, and rightfully so, that much of Occupy's value has been its creation of whole new networks of empowered activists and organizers. It's also been called "a strange form of political gentrification." Occupy participant and law student Robert Stephens II, who first became known for his impassioned outburst about his parents' impending foreclosure in the first week of Occupy Wall Street, refers to the past year as a moment, not a movement. "There was a rupture that released a lot of energy that has really changed not just the discourse," he says, "but changed people's lives over the last year."

These new networks, united and empowered by countless direct actions, are doing impressive work. In Oakland, activists have created a free community library and vegetable garden, and frequently attend city council meetings, especially to fight back against police violence. In New York, remarkable publications are offering theory and telling resistance stories. The Strike Debt campaign and its thorough Debt Resistors' Operations Manual hold promise for the three quarters of Americans in debt -- a population waiting to be radicalized. In D.C. and in many other cities, Occupy Our Homes campaigns are shaming banks and winning renegotiations with struggling homeowners -- a duty the government was once expected to enforce. At American University, a group of students who met in large part through their interest in Occupy DC, are now picking up steam in their Quebec-inspired organization of a student union, moving past an obsolete student government to organize their peers around a tuition freeze and a student bill of rights.

As many have pointed out, this growth parallels the civil rights movement's transition from a tactic of sit-ins to a blossoming of interconnected organizations. "Occupy D.C. was never an organization," says Rob Wohl, a longtime participant in Occupy D.C. and now a lead organizer with Occupy Our Homes D.C. "It was a space in which people could act politically in a way that typically we can't. That's a mental thing. It was a physical space, but we still have the mental space. For me, that's the legacy."

As a tactic for seizing parks and minds, and as a horizontal network of affinity groups, Occupy has made sense. But the branding of it has created an insular, somewhat navel-gazing culture in which the public is supposed to celebrate our anniversary as if activism hasn't happened before or since. More radical and effective things are happening right now, perhaps inspired by Occupy, but of their own accord -- the Chicago teachers strike, the Sunset Park rent strike, the Walmart warehouse workers strike, and the non-violent blockading of the Keystone XL pipeline are a few recent examples. Occupy didn't start a conversation this country needed to have -- Tunisia, Egypt and Wisconsin did more so -- but it certainly amplified and sustained it.
Such a consciousness shift -- although protest against political corruption has been louder than that against racial, sexual and other forms of oppression -- is the initial movement necessary for revolution. So it is more accurate, and more empowering for the global 99 percent, to stop seeing American resistance solely through the lens of Occupy, and to see Occupy for what it is -- one part of a local, national and global continuum of resistance against austerity, union-busting, disaster profiteering and other forms of moneyed oppression.

It's easy to see a causational relationship between Occupy's horizontalism and its frequent failures of organization, but that analysis ignores the primary advantage of horizontalism: diffusion of power encourages broader participation. The answer lies not in hierarchy but in persistent outreach. Without an expansion of horizontal power that creates obvious utility for a broad base of people, "We are the 99 percent" is just old, hollow branding.