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Organize and Occupy! Stephen Lerner

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The activists of Occupy Wall Street have captured the imagination of the world, focusing a spotlight on economic inequality and the role of big banks

This piece is reprinted with the author’s permission from the Nation‘s website. It was first published on October 19, 2011.

The activists of Occupy Wall Street have captured the imagination of the world, focusing a spotlight on economic inequality and the role of big banks and corporations in hijacking democracy and plundering the economy. What is fascinating is that they have succeeded where so many of us have failed, and they have done it by violating many of the cardinal rules that have dominated past thinking about how to raise and popularize issues of inequality and out-of-control corporate power. They didn’t focus-group, poll and then milquetoast the message to appeal to the middle. They didn’t stay away from conflict, arrests and disruptions out of fear of alienating potential supporters. Nor did they play it safe and set out modest demands and goals so they would seem “reasonable” in the hope that they could influence the politics of the country from the margins.

In some ways, Occupy has more in common with the mass industrial strikes of the 1930s than with most current political and union organizing. It may seem counterintuitive to compare strikes of the old industrial economy to the wired world of online organizing, tweeting and instant YouTube videos, but there are strong parallels. Just as the auto strikes and plant occupations of the 1930s continued until they achieved their objectives, the occupiers have said their movement will go on indefinitely, and it won’t be won in a day, or through a few demonstrations, or by electing more sympathetic politicians alone. They have a center of activity, the Occupy site, which like a picket line in a mass strike is a place anyone can show up at any time to help and get involved. And they have spread their energy far and wide, knowing they can’t win just by being at Wall Street, any more than garment, auto and steelworkers could have won by striking just one plant at a time.

Most important, they have been crystal clear and uncompromising in naming the bad guys: Wall Street and the big banks. Just as workers knew that they had to beat GM and US Steel back then, so Occupiers know we must beat Wall Street if we are to win a fair economic and political system now.

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I’ve spent the past month participating in meetings, marches and actions across the country from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles to Jefferson, Missouri, with students, unemployed Americans, union members and other folks fed up with the gross inequality and lack of opportunity in our economy. And what I have seen again and again is that more people than we ever believed possible are showing up and sitting down, risking arrest in long-planned as well as spontaneous actions in unlikely places from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Jackson, Mississippi. All of this has been magnified by a massive level of media attention. By supporting but not trying to control or co-opt Occupy Wall Street, groups long committed to challenging inequality and the power of big banks can join and strengthen a movement already changing the direction of our country, in a mutually reinforcing relationship.

Over the summer, as Occupy was being conceived, community groups, unions and other organizations, many part of the New Bottom Line—which includes the Alliance for a Just Society, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and National People’s Action—were planning actions across the country starting in September. The actions, involving nonviolent civil disobedience unfolding as weeks of overlapping events, took aim at Wall Street, big banks and runaway corporate power. In Washington State, sit-ins at JPMorgan Chase in Seattle and actions in three other cities coincided with hundreds crashing a meeting of the state’s business elite at the posh Suncadia resort. The action quickly spread to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, and on to Denver and Honolulu.

Just as Occupy Wall Street in New York was starting to penetrate the nation’s consciousness, community groups led by Right to the City in coalition with local unions staged a week of actions in Boston. Thousands marched on Bank of America, and twenty-five were arrested in a sit-in. That night many marchers joined when Occupy Boston was launched, and the next day hundreds gathered in support as people moved into a home that sat empty after a foreclosure. Occupy Boston helped make the march on Bank of America a national story, and the excitement of that march and sit-in helped establish and grow Occupy Boston.

In Chicago, union and community groups joined to “take back Chicago.” On October 10 marchers gathered at multiple locations, with unions and Occupiers merging at the Board of Trade to lead one of the feeder marches for a 7,000-strong march through the Loop to a gala for the Futures Industry Association. That march ended with a mass sit-in where dozens were arrested. National People’s Action members were arrested at the Mortgage Bankers Association meeting, and members of Action Now were arrested delivering garbage to Bank of America.

Coinciding with events in Chicago, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy worked with labor and community groups to engage thousands of people in dozens of actions at banks, the school board and the Occupy Minneapolis site. The week of action painted a picture of how big banks are devastating African-American neighborhoods through foreclosure and hurting schools in poor neighborhoods. Immigrants’ rights groups led a protest against Wells Fargo’s support for anti-immigrant politicians. Close to 1,000 people sat down in the streets outside Wells Fargo as the bank closed its office tower so a delegation couldn’t enter the building to withdraw their money. Minnesotans then marched to Government Plaza, where the local Occupy group is based, and community and union groups stood with Occupy as the county sheriff backed down from arresting protesters camped out in the plaza.

And in New York City, New York Communities for Change called for divestment from JPMorgan Chase, and its long-planned “Millionaires’ March” down Park Avenue was joined by a contingent from Occupy Wall Street. The media coverage made it hard to tell who was leading what, because everything was part of an overlapping movement.

That’s the beauty of this moment: we can supercharge the impact of Occupy and the work of unions, community groups and others if we continue to support one another and learn from one another.

In 1937, when the Flint workers escalated their campaign and rose to national prominence, the elites tried to isolate them by calling them radicals, communists and anarchists. They claimed that the workers’ actions would destroy the economic system. Given the Occupy movement’s sudden rise, it’s no surprise that the 1 percent have started leveling the same attacks today. What really frightens them is that the other 99 percent have realized that we do indeed need to destroy a system rigged in favor of Wall Street, big banks and giant corporations and replace it with one that provides opportunity and social and economic justice for the rest of us. And that we’re prepared to engage in sustained, dramatic, nonviolent action to make it happen.

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