#OWS You Don’t Need a Weatherman

Abra Quinn reports from Oakland.

imageOne of the signs at Occupy Oakland’s General Strike today read “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen – V. I. Lenin” The Occupy Wall Street Movement, also known as #OWS in tweet-speak, seems to be one of those moments in history when change, after moving at a glacial pace for years, suddenly hurtles forward.

Occupy Wall Street began officially on September 17th, in a small public plaza called Zucotti Park, in the financial district in Manhattan, New York City. But it was not spontaneous. A blog post put up by a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine called Adbusters, the kind of magazine you idly (and somewhat ironically) peruse in the checkout stand at a really expensive organic grocery store, called for people to “culture jam” by making a public, indefinite protest – largely to hold financial institutions accountable for the economic meltdown we live in today, especially those banks which after causing the mess are now profiting from it through foreclosures. The politics are mushy and hard to pin down, deliberately so. You can’t get much socially broader than “99%”. One of the Adbusters members talked about their vision that a protest that is indefinite leaves time for people to find out what it’s about and get involved in it. He said that they had all been inspired by the changes resulting from the Arab Spring, and by Tahrir Square in particular.

But OWS had roots closer to home, too. February 20th, 2011, University of Wisconsin TAs, students, and ordinary working people in Madison, Wisconsin turned their own filibuster against an anti-labour law into an occupation of the State Capitol building which lasted for about three weeks. The movement to oppose Governor Scott Walker’s ideologically motivated legislation – his bill stripped public sector workers of virtually all union rights, including collective bargaining – snowballed, with demonstrations of over 100,000 people during Wisconsin blizzards. It was the first time since the Vietnam Antiwar movement that such a sustained, vital movement of ordinary Americans had been seen in the streets – and the public spaces – of Madison. It was the first time since the aftermath of 9/11 choked off the anti-globalization movement that people felt, in a twist on Maggie Thatcher’s words – There IS an alternative.

The Battle for Wisconsin ended in defeat, and Walker passed his bill. There is a recall effort, but in the most recent elections most of the key Republican supporters of the bill were re-elected. And this is one lesson that OWS has learned. It does not make legislative demands, which could entangle it in electoral charades. It has not settled on ANY demands, though that very fact leads to strong debate in the movement. Instead, it has taken many tactics from the anarchist and direct action wing of recent movements. It makes decisions via practical work committees and General Assemblies which govern each Occupy site. It uses modified consensus functioning, instead of voting simple majorities. When there is not an effective sound system – and sometimes when there is, it employs “the People’s Mic”, which means that each speaker has to make his or her sentences short enough so that the crowd can repeat them, passing the talk outward. This has the effect of making a well-functioning General Assembly sound a bit like a Call-and-Response church meeting, but that can be good. In New York, Slavoj Zizek had to abide by the People’s Mic – and Judith Butler. Here in Oakland, we were luckier to hear Angela Davis use it this morning, and Boots Riley, of the Coup. But in general, my point is that OWS welcomes spontaneous self-organized actions. And its example, in New York, spread rapidly across not only the United States, but the world. There are Occupations in most of the major cities in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. There are some in Africa – and many messages of support from Tahrir Square.

One thing about which Tahrir Square activists in Egypt can express solidarity with American Occupiers is police repression. There is an uneasy balance between city officials who don’t know what to do with a movement which makes no demands they can grant or deny, and police forces which see any occupation of public space as out of control – whether the occupiers are the homeless, or organized protesters. That balance has shifted several times, and there have been arrests and violent assaults on several Occupy groups, most recently in Oakland, where on October 25th, the Oakland Police Department roughly cleared the encampment at 5 AM, rousting families with children among others, and then, buttressed by cops from around the Bay Area, launched three tear gas attacks that night against protesters in the streets. As they did at the Port of Oakland in 2003, they used every “less lethal” weapon at their disposal to disperse the angry – but unarmed – crowds, including flash bang grenades, wooden dowel bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas. One of their missiles injured an ex-Marine veteran member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Scott Olsen. He was carried by Occupation medics away from the protest and taken to Highland Hospital where, after brain surgery, it appears he has brain damage from the impact of police missiles.

Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly held a meeting the next day and around 2,000 people attended, more than two-thirds of whom voted in favour of calling a General Strike for November 2nd, 2011.

Today, at the General Strike, the scene resembled the early period of the Anti Iraq War movement in 2003 more than it did a classical general strike. There was no carefully organized picket line downtown – though eventually there was one at the Port of Oakland. Instead, speakers talked throughout the day both at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza (the renamed public space in front of City Hall in Oakland) and at the main intersection of downtown Oakland, 14th and Broadway, where the streets were blocked all day long. Feeder marches arrived from a local community college, from UC Berkeley, from a protest outside the Oakland Unified School District building, with many, many teachers informally striking, today, from the Public Library, where a children’s march was organized. And flying pickets, of sorts, were dispatched at intervals to march to bank locations – Citibank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and so on – to “shut them down”. I heard one group of 80 heading off to shut down an unnamed food store that mistreats its workers, and had threatened to fire any who came here to the protest. I suspect that was Whole Foods, but I didn’t hear how that spontaneous march came off. One sign of a reawakening movement is, in my opinion, wit in signs and chants. Signage is uneven, of course, but being Oakland, one of the best chants incorporates our Oaklandish pride: “This movement will not die, hella, hella Occupy!”

The movement is vibrant and strong, across the United States, and increasingly, around the world. It has contradictions, but more than anything else, it has possibilities. For the first time in a very, very long time, there is reason to hope for a deepening radicalization in reaction to the deepening capitalist crisis. Every day the movement grows represents a victory, and every victory persuades new activists to work for real transformation, rather than election promises, and to join together to do so.

This movement will not die, hella, hella OCCUPY!

Web resources: For an excellent description of the Occupy Oakland General Strike today, please see Solidarity’s webzine, where Isaac S. liveblogged the day.

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