#7. The Importance of the Occupiers and of Non-occupying Supporters

#7. The Importance of the Occupiers and of  Non-occupying Supporters

Non-occupying supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement are critical forces in influencing the impact of the movement. The bold and brave occupiers, who put their bodies on the line for what they believe in, are themselves a tiny fraction of the discontented and exploited who seek major change, but their support reaches widely, those many that are discontent, insecure, and/or exploited, dissatisfied with things as they are, angry about the direction in which the country is going. Their support reaches into the majority of the population, even into Republican circles, even sharing some roots with some tea partiers. Occupy Wall Street will not bring about the changes that are wanted by themsleves, but it can be a force to bring about a shift from a defensive to an offensive posture, to push from radical reform rather than only amelioration at the edges.

Supportive non-occupiers can play a major role in moving in this direction. They can develop the details occupiers are accused if ignoring, organize around individual the individual concrete issues contributing to the deep discontent with the direction in which society is moving. Linking the broadly-targeting aroused occupiers to the multiple existing groups and organization already struggling for change might provide strength and energy all around.

In more detail:

Non-occupying supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement need to reflect on just what the Occupy movements (s) are, and what they signify, for the two are not the same. Substantively, those who are occupying space with their bodies, often in the heart of the beast, are brave and largely young discontents, dissatisfied with a society in which human values are subordinate to the search for profit, opportunities for creative work are shrinking and often put in the service of destruction, war is an accepted part of foreign policy, nature is simply raw materials for production, consumption exceeds needs for some and is inadequate for a decent life for many, violence is made attractive and non-conformity punished.[1] In this they reflect what many, many, feel. But they are putting their bodies where their feelings are, and in this they are a small minority. They signify the depth of those feelings, but do not reflect on their actions the breadth with which they are shared.

Numerically, the occupiers, those physically occupying space in protest, today constitute perhaps .05% of the population of the United States.[2] Much more important, however, is that from various polls a good majority of the American people agree with them.[3]

One might line things up somewhat like this – for illustrative purposes only, :

Occupiers         non-Occupiers      +    Support OWS      Republican         Tea Party     Ruling Class        Ruling class

OWS            Supporting Occupy       Republican        Not TP/ OWS                             foot soldiers      Wall Street

.05%                       55%+                          10%                       15%                  15%                 4%                        1%

Small                     majority                    small                    large                     large              small                  very small

The occupiers of Wall Street will not bring about the changes that are wanted by themselves, but they can be a great force to bring about a shift from a defensive to an offensive posture of those needing and wanting change, to push for radical reform rather than only tinkering at the edges. One might line things up somewhat like this – for illustrative purposes only :

Occupiers      Support OWS         Support OWS      Republican         Tea party

in OWS            Not in OWS          Republican        Not TP or OWS

.05%                      55%+                     10%                       15%                  15%

Tiny        majority                small                    large                  large

Ruling class      Ruling Class

foot soldiers       Wall Street

4%                  1%

small               very small

If such an analysis is anywhere near right, the real impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement  will be in what effect it has on the other 94.5% of the population (although the 4% and 1% at the top may be influenced to change their ways somewhat, not out of conviction but in self-defense). Certainly energizing the already supportive majority is highly important, and to some extent the 1% may be influenced against their will. . But the fact that a significant percentage of Republicans also express sympathy with the movement, and that there are elements within it that even resonate with tea partiers, is something to which attention should be paid. Tea partiers, after all, also condemn casino capitalism; when occupiers are accused of illegally occupying public spaces, do they not have more right to claim the tradition of the illegal dumping of tea in the Boston Harbor than the members of the law and order tea parties do? Are there any openings for discussion there?  Possibly, as the broadest yet potentially most meaningful proposal, might not the push for a millionaire’s tax be a unifying struggle, to which the occupations could give a clearer meaning Occupy Wall Street is, must see itself, and must be seen, as part of a very broad movement, one involving far more of the discontented and deprived than can occupy the spaces of the movement itself.

Putting the substantive and the numerical together, it is clear that the possibilities for real change do not rest with the members of Occupy Wall Street itself. It is misleading to measure the movement for change by the growth or shrinkage of the number of occupiers; it must be measured by the scope and effectiveness of the movement of those they represent, that are in sympathy with their feelings and in support of their goals.  It is likewise misleading to focus on a critique of their slogans, the limitations of their theoretical understandings or organization (surprisingly good, even exemplary, as it might be!), or to want them to formulate detailed demands or lobby or get into electoral politics. None of this is what they are about, nor is it the role that they want to or can play.

The Occupy Wall Street  movement It is not about to occupy the Winter Palace, charge the Bastille, overthrow Batista, or even throw cases of tea into Boston harbor. Those reactions that might eventually result from what they do, although it seems pretty unlikely right now. Where the discontent and the deprivation that their movement signifies goes next is not in the first place up to them, but up to those in  whose name they act. They do not occupy positions of influence, their work is not essential to the survival of the system, they do not command the resources that can take on the establishment and win major concessions, let alone overthrow it.

The real support that non-occupying supporters can give the Occupy Wall Street movement, then, is to draw from it the conclusion that the time is right to go on the offensive, to move from Real Politiik to principled politics, to expose and attack the real roots of social injustice rather than only ameliorate their worst manifestations. If they are being accused of not formulating concrete and feasible programs to achieve their clear goals, there are plenty of other organizations and individuals around who can do so. Rather than blaming the occupiers for not doing it, let those who are working within the system  re-double their efforts. The occupation movement is no substitute for the labor movement, for urban social movements, for radical think tanks, for insurgent political organization; it is rather a call to arms for their further mobilization.

But the immediate needs of the occupiers should not be lost sight of in the debate about how their work relates to others. Real support, not only in the obvious ways: pizza, legal defense, blankets, physical presence and encouragement. But also with shared experience, history, theory. There is incredible discussion going on within the occupied spaces, debates, experiments in organizing, discussion of tactics. In one occupation I was at the participants had divided their discussions into those requiring consensus – how to organize, how to run meetings, how to obtain, prepare, and distribute food, how to deal with individual problem – in a sense, management matters — and deal separately with those that required political action, to be decided with debate and discussion but majority vote in General Assemblies. Whether the experience in such an (almost commune-like) setting can be extrapolated to lessons in democracy at other scales is a complex question, but certainly the experience puts vital questions on the table. Such questions have been dealt with before, in much drier fashion, perhaps but deeply and extensively. And need to be faced directly now.

Certainly there are issues on which there are divergent opinions among those fully in support of the basic goals of the Occupy movement. Is the opponent greed, or corporations? Will revising the electoral system produce a democracy where all will be heard? Gross inequality is bad; is all inequality bad? Affordable housing should be available to all; can that best be accomplished through regulation, through subsidies, through non-market provision? In what sense are major corporations job creators or is their motivation to limit payrolls as an expense? What is the history of movements like Occupy Wall Street , what strategies have they historically used? What is the experience with non-hierarchical but effective forms of organization? Can encampments in public space lilke those of Occupy groups be justified in law? If in private spaces? How does “race ” relate  to anti-corporate campaigns? Immigration? Gender bias? Some Occupy groups are welcoming teach-in type forums where such matters are systematically discussed; more offers to organize such events would surely be welcomed. The movement needs theory as well as practice, information as well as feeling. Non-occupiers can surely help.

Could not supporters of Occupy Wall Street, many of whom are in education one way or another, provide opportunities for education at the sites of the occupations, perhaps offer to organize teach-ins, discussion groups? Providing reading material – would not copies of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States be as satisfying to the hunger for intellectual nourishment as boxes of pizza to the hunger for physical nourishment.

A perhaps more far-fetched possibility might be the direct linking of the occupations with the existing movements and organizations of the discontented and the deprived. Might not occupiers be invited out to attend meetings of LGBTQ groups, labor union meetings, civil rights groups, homeless groups ,environmental groups, both to tell their stories and to see how others  do things? Might not educational institutions or teachers and faculty offer visits, discussions, seminars for occupiers?

The occupations will not go on forever; certainly the length of time any individual can participate directly is limited. Cannot outsiders offer opportunities for engagement outside of the space and time of the occupation, but compatible with them, for participants? Is not in fact, in the broadest sense, the promise of the occupations exactly the extent to which they will link to, inform and be informed by, ultimately coalesce together with others, in hat the 99% want and need and strive for?

If all of those who, in support of Occupy Wall Street, have put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, frown to forehead, or mouth to movement, would put conviction into action, the change for which the occupiers  have put their bodies on the line might indeed begin to take place.

[1] The media get is so consistently wrong. The New York Times headlines a story: Countless Grievances, One Thread: We’re Angry,By MARC LACEY, October 18, 2011, without a thought that the end of that one thread is one grievance: a world that is going badly, for the benefit of some and at the expense of others. As a student commented on that article: “Really the fact that there are so many grievances should be a stunning representation that the 99% feel America has lost its great path… instead every media instead says “the 99% don’t have a clear message.” Their message is as clear as day; ignoring it won’t make it go away.”

 [2] Just for order of magnitude: 200 cities, average 200 occupiers each, = 40,000 people, say even triple that number at times of heightened activity, 120,000, rounded off, 200,000. That’s .066% of the population of the United States. In any event, a very small number.

[3] In a Sienna poll, 58%; a Quinnipiac poll, 68%; http://empire.wnyc.org/2011/10/occupy-wall-street-killing-it-in-the-polls, and http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics/2011/10/siena-poll-new-york-state-voters-would-rather-occupy-wall-street-than-throw-a-. Polls have their limits, and much too much attention is paid to them, yet they can be revealing; the Time Magazine poll of 1001 persons is fairly typical: http://swampland.time.com/full-results-of-oct-9-10-2011-time-poll/.

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About pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome. pm35@columbia.edu
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