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Reflections on Occupy: Revolutions Are Made by Those Who Intend to Be Powerful

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Photo of a sea of people in Times Square. The CNN building is lit up with the slogan 'Occupy Walls Street Movement Goes Worldwide'

During Occupy watching this sea of people, I thought: We can be powerful. We can win.

Ten years after Occupy Wall Street, I have vivid memories of so many formative moments along the way. I keep learning new lessons from them, even today.

Strategy and action, organization and movement

I remember the day Troy Davis was executed by the State of Georgia. It was September 21, 2011, four days into Occupy Wall Street, which was so new it wasn’t really called Occupy Wall Street yet, just the occupation. An organizer at the rally spoke fire and rage and sadness into thousands of us, and we shouted and wept and swore.

From there, we marched to Zuccotti Park, and as far as I know it was the first time in Occupy that we marched into the streets, taking down barricades and openly disobeying police officers.

That moment of stepping off the curb was electric. It was entirely transformative, did more for us than years of text studies. It made a whole new range of tactics permissible and accessible – even obvious – to the hundreds and then thousands of people who were joining every day with no previous experience of movement. From there we took the streets all the time. A few days later there were mass arrests on Fifth Avenue and a famous pepper-spraying that catapulted us into the news. Days later, 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, and Occupy became Occupy.

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It’s almost too obvious to say, but one of the things that made Occupy was this simple fact: It was based in action. It wasn’t only that – it was a powerful critique of capitalism, a practice in democracy, and more, but it’s impossible to untether any of those things from the raw and unfiltered expansiveness that comes from defying rules and doing with one’s body what feels urgent and purposeful and true. 

Once Occupy collapsed, many of us left broken-hearted, but with clarity that there would be moments like this again. In our analysis, the past forty years had featured a war on Left infrastructure from the Right, even a war on the basic fabric of social connection for everyday people in this country, that had left us weak and flat-footed until sparks flew on September 17. After Occupy many of us began building institutions – community organizations, electoral vehicles, publications, training institutions, cooperative networks, and more – both because these are the types of things that revolutionaries do between movement moments, and because we sensed there would be more movement moments ahead. We believed that we’d be able to drive movement moments further if the Left had infrastructure ready to swing into action when the time was right.

In the course of all that, a whole field of ideas about strategy has flourished. Organizers and thinkers and writers and trainers made interventions, in part based on the failures of Occupy. Many insisted that a strategy requires a grounded diagnosis, clear and attainable objectives, and a coherent plan of action from here to there – that random calls to action without goals or a plan for absorbing people who were attracted to it were a dead-end. Some argued that we needed organizations – even movements, perhaps – with a clear purpose, a path forward, a way to take people in and continually grow. And some made the argument that people need organization – need to be part of thriving groups – in order to stay in the struggle for as long as it’s going to take to win, that groups are how we take action, where we transform, how we hold each other accountable, where we find belonging. Much of my day-to-day work is there, in the support of social movement groups trying to become healthy and strategic, in the work of organization-building, and I believe in it wholeheartedly.

But perhaps there is something missing, out of balance, fallen between the cracks in this time of institution-building, lost in the land of good strategy. I sometimes bristle at the direct action trainings our organizations put people through, at the marshals and emergency contact forms for “risking arrest,” the coordination tables, even sometimes at the long strategic planning processes. Of course there are good reasons for the trainings, reasons for planning and coordinating. Again, much of my work lives there.

And yet I often find myself yearning for something fiercer and angrier, something authentic and less calculated, less thoughtful perhaps. I yearn for those rare and fleeting moments that make our plans irrelevant, that call on us to drop everything and take risks we never dreamed of, that hurt and bend us but also make us bigger and bolder and thirsty for more – those moments when there are too many people to sign up for the direct action and no longer any need for marshals because the people are a tidal wave in the streets and we are safe inside of it. Perhaps these are some of the things we forget when we develop structures and routines, some of the moments we miss while we are planning.

Of course, one of Occupy’s shortcomings was its lack of strategy. Although there was plenty of planning (nothing is truly spontaneous), it didn’t have demands or goals or a structure that could carry it long-term. Occupy was, in many ways, stupid. But it put something into the world, something that harnessed people’s rage and captured their imaginations and unleashed their creativity and gave voice to some of their deepest dreams. Who knows; maybe if it had been smarter, it would have failed.

The lesson here is not that direct action is the only way to trigger movements, nor is it that we should throw away good strategy, or scrap the coordination, or stop building structures that support movement-building and risk-taking in different ways. The lesson is that we need both organizations and movements, both good strategy and instinct, both a plan and irreverence for it.

Choose big

I remember standing on a trash can in Times Square, on October 15, 2011, looking over a sea of people – restless, flowing, vibrant, angry. It was our largest mobilization, timed alongside demonstrations all over the world, and triggering many new occupations around the country. As cops rode their horses into our crowds, we sang and chanted defiantly. The screen on the CNN building lit up in red with the words “Occupy Wall Street Goes Worldwide” and it was the first time I ever felt we were powerful.

I came up in a Left that was defined by never-ending wars, by Bush and Cheney, by a seemingly impenetrable empire. We saw it as Orwell’s 1984 in real life, felt it was our duty to resist. But we never even whispered about winning, never so much as dreamt it. We got our asses kicked, and were used to it. We adapted ourselves to being righteous losers. And then there, during Occupy, standing on that trash can, watching this sea of people, I thought: We can be powerful. We can be popular. We can win. It was a defining moment. That feeling, which spread throughout the occupation and across the country allowed for an unbelievable surge in momentum and energy.  I believe it ultimately produced the decade of social movements we’ve seen since.

Movements that are hopeful and aware of their power sometimes lose. But groups that don’t believe it’s possible to win always lose. They prioritize style over strategy, protection of in-group culture over inclusion of everyday people, the tastes and desires of small groups over the needs and dreams of masses of people. They become used to being on the margins, and adopt behaviors that enforce that marginality, which makes it even less likely that they will ever leave the margins (after all, the margins, harsh as they are, are at least safe in a way). The margins are shaped by fear of the power being exercised against us, and we learn there to be afraid also of the power we might have, the power we are ultimately supposed to be seeking.

Occupy had both kinds of moments. We had the big, expansive, inclusive moments in which we saw ourselves as legitimate, in which the circle of belonging grew and grew to include people we didn’t know and would never have been friends with, moments in which we aimed to really lead the whole country out of its own destruction. And we had the dark, hopeless, holier-than-thou moments in which we felt small and embattled and righteous and misunderstood, in which we scorned the public we were supposed to organize, and even turned on one another.

There are many lessons in this. Lessons about leaderlessness, about power, about fear (and I’ve written about some of this before, called it the politics of powerlessness). But perhaps the most important one is the simplest: Revolutions are made by those who intend to be powerful. They are made by those willing to take risks, to lead, to take responsibility for something bigger than themselves. They are made by those willing to lose the comfort and safety of the margins to extend their circle of belonging, those willing to lose control. It’s counterintuitive, maybe, that this willingness to lead in fact travels hand-in-hand with the willingness to follow – to follow the topsy turvy pivoting and strategic adaptation and boundary-breaking and social-norm-crushing and rule-breaking that social movements require.

Fear, I think, is one of the main barriers to this. Fear of the enemy, fear of leaving our comfort zone, fear of failure in the face of an historic responsibility, fear of one another. The fear is legitimate. But it’s our responsibility to face it, to become our most powerful selves, build movements capable of winning. It’s the only way we stand a chance.

Suspend your disbelief

I remember the first night at the park, September 17. Zuccotti Park, an outdoor lunch spot for corporate employees only a few hours earlier had become a movement space. A team of facilitators stood in the center of a few thousand people, supporting people to speak openly about why we were there, how this system was breaking us and this planet to pieces, what sort of world we wanted instead. Thousands of people sat in awe, witnessing and participating in something that felt truly magical, and their faces looked angelic in the lights from the cement floors. It was surreal.

In the previous weeks I had been to the planning assemblies, but I didn’t take them very seriously. Even a few days in I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I had recently helped lead a two-week occupation called Bloombergville outside City Hall to try to stop the budget cuts, and had left that feeling small, defeated, and convinced that there would not be social movements in this country that looked anything like the ones in Greece or Morocco or Tunisia.

And then it took off. Occupy became a bustling little city, where thousands of people found their callings in myriad ways, became a network of little cities like that across the country and the world, became the center of the country’s attention, became an enemy of the state.

It’s fair to question what Occupy accomplished. We certainly failed in spectacular ways, and many of us left hurt and strained and burnt out, wishing we had done things differently. But it seems clear to me (and to dozens of other theorists and practitioners who have put out their own 10-year reflections in the past two weeks) that Occupy broke something open – changing the weather of this country, opening a door for social movements after it, politicizing an entire generation, inserting class into the mainstream narrative, training a new cohort of leaders who started a whole new field of movement institutions, birthing a powerful electoral left that is finally contending for power, and more.

Here’s the thing though: Occupy wasn’t supposed to work. It was a terrible idea, spawned by an out-of-touch magazine editor in Canada, driven mostly by a bunch of inexperienced young people, with no long-term plan, no demands, no political vision, no clear assessment of the terrain we were struggling on, and with sharp misalignments between us about politics and ideology and strategy and tactics. But it worked.

The lesson for me is simple: We just don’t know that much. We don’t know what’s going to work, what will resonate, what people are ready for. Even those who look back and say they called it, the truth is, they didn’t know either. And even now there are plenty of things we can say as to why Occupy clicked, insofar as it did (and many smart people have made their case). But no one can account for the luck, that little bit of magic fairy dust that makes or breaks things like this.

There is something absolutely terrifying in this, but something liberating too. The not knowing means we will be wrong lots of the time, and right some of the time. Perhaps it also means that some of the times we’re wrong will actually be for the best.

We know that empire is strong, that we are outgunned, that this planet is a ticking time bomb, that lots of things will have to go right for us to survive here, never mind thrive. And that the scenarios for that are few and far between. But in the midst of that, I try to remember some of what I saw at Occupy, and elsewhere since: that the things we can’t imagine happening sometimes happen, that people are capable of truly transcendent things, that there are opportunities all around us waiting to be seized, or perhaps, stumbled into.

May we seize or stumble into them, then, with as much grace, courage, wisdom, and humility as we can muster.


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