The Occupation movement that is spreading across the country has a number of purposes, plays a number of different roles, in the struggle for justice and a better life in our world.

A confrontation function, taking the struggle to the enemy’s territory, confronting, potentially disrupting, the operations at the center of the problem. It has the potential to disrupt Wall Street, by occupying space Wall Street needs to function; symbolically, hyperbolically, it waves a pointed knife over the heart of the economic beast. But it must be admitted that there is little push to actualize the potential; only in Oakland, thus far, has there been significant interference with the normal conduct of mainstream business. When neighbors complain about the noise and unpleasantness of Liberty Park’s occupiers in New York City, it is in their capacities as residents, not as business people, that they complain.

A symbolic function, The occupations show the existence and extent of a demand for change of many sorts, giving expression to and concretizing an inchoate but widely shared and deeply felt unhappiness about things as they are and the direction in which they are going, actively involving bodies in a coherent movement, calling for change not only Wall Street but at Harvard, Columbia, Harlem, the Port of Oakland, Portland, Chicago. The symbolism ties in to the occupations in the Arab Spring, and a long history of social protest .

An educational function, provoking questioning, exploration, juxtaposition of differing viewpoints and issues, seeking clarification and sources of commonality within difference. For Occupy Wall Street and many of the other occupations, the lesson is of the gap between the 1% and the 99%, often pushed to argue that not oly is the gap unfair in a distributional sense, but also in terms of power, that it is in fact the power of the 1% that causes the pain for the 99%, that the wealth of the 1% is the result of the deprivation and repression of large numbers of the 99%, not some unfortunate maldistribution of society’s wealth for which no one is responsible.

A glue function, creating a community of trust and commitment to the pursuit of common goals;
It provides a way of coming together in a community for those who are deeply affected and concerned.. The close physical proximity to each other, the close working together over time, the facing together of common obstacles and hardships, the very need to endure the difficult conditions of living together and meeting daily needs in an environment needing to be significantly reshaped by their own hands day in and day out, fosters strong reciprocal trust and mutual support.

An umbrella function, creating a space and a format in which quite disparate groups can work together in pursuit of ultimately consistent and mutually reinforcing goals, without issues of turf or competition inhabiting their common action. In this sense, it constitutes a political umbrella, an organizing base for an on-going alliance, not just a temporary coalition, of the deprived and discontented. It provides others a non-threatening way of joining together in marches, demonstrations, petitions, campaigns, in part by the very fact of being open to multiple demands, not forcing priorities among them, seeing them as pats of a single agenda, and not creating a separate organization. Look, for instance, at the range of organizations endorsing Occupy Wall Street’s recent actions; it is hard to recall any previous occasion that has brought so many together for a common purpose.

An activation function, inspiring others to greater militancy and sharper focus on common goals and specific demands. The movement is concerned to expose the role Wall Street, the 1%, play across a whole host of concerns around which there has already been active mobilization: housing, health, employment, cultiure, inequality, non-participatory democracy, racial and ethnic and gender discrimination. Wall Street by shining a light on, attracting attention to, the relationship between the 1% and the 99%, dramatizing inequality and the abuses of power, giving intellectual and symbolic substance to the critique of the prevailing economic and political system., and thus to encourage them to act as part of a common front against a system as to which they have a common interest to change.

And to activate not only symbolically;, and not only as an umbrella for others’ activities, but by direct support of those activities: providing space for meetings, facilitating cross discussions among supporting groups and interests, organizing marches or rallies or other events in support of those whose actions lead to the shorter term but directly attainable goals, the non-reformist reforms, that point in the direction to Occupy’s own ultimate goals of change.

A model function, showing, by its internal organization and methods of proceeding, that an alternative form of democracy is possible and the process of change need not involve a reversion to hierarchical command structures of some previous revolutionary movements. It thus creates a possible alternative model of organization, not so much of spatial organization as of social and political organization, ways of living together, diversity, democratic decision-making, mutual support, self-help on a collective basis.

The use of Liberty Park and the purposes it is being asked to serve also raises a number of important questions about the nature and uses of public space but the actual use of the park as a physical model is limited, and is rather effective to raise issues than to present the model of a solution (although conceivably, as suggested in the Open Letter to Sheldon Silver, a positive attitude of the City towards is actual current use might forward the discussion substantially.

• * * * * *

What role does space, and the physical occupation of a specific space, play in each of these aspects?

Only in the Confrontation aspect is a physical occupation of a central specific space critical, and even here, at least thus far, more in a symbolic than in a direct fashion. At Liberty Park in New York,, there is a physical proximity to Wall Street, but the actual physical interference with Wall Street’s functioning is very limited, affecting more residential than business functions (see Open Letter below), sometimes almost apologetic, and strictly contained. Ultimately, “occupy ” would suggest the physical occupation of the space Wall Street occupies, displacing its principals, , but that meaning is really not on the table at this point.

Except – the confrontation is being provoked as this is written. While rational ways of avoiding confrontation are possible, including some that might in fact meet the requirements of both parties, that does not seem to be happening in New York City right now.

A recognized physical presence in a known space at a known and symbolic location can strengthen the movement’s Symbolic role. Location generally near the seat of economic power, can be important as a characteristic of such space, but for the space to perform a symbolic function it need not necessarily be occupoied around-the-clock and need not be in only one location over time. Exposing Wall Street can be done in many ways, in multiple spaces, at many times. Again, if, as at the time of this writing, the established powers choose to confront the around-the-clock nature of the occupation and thus symbolize its challenging nature, they will in turn have given even the continuing nature of the occupation a symbolic importance that might otherwise not have been central to it.

A constant spatial setting can significantly increase the Glue holding together those sharing similar concerns, and in a sense the more that shared space is threatened, the tighter are the bonds tying that community together. Here the effort at permanence, the round-the-clock commitment to the space and to each other, can be very strong. But it is the social interaction that the budding community defends when it defends the space, the space being only its most visible and most threatened manifestation. For purposes of offering a political umbrella to other groups, having tents near each other is very useful, but other spatial and communicative arrangements may also serve that purpose, and perhaps even better than the by what is possible in only an occupied space.

Both the umbrella and the activation functions of Occupy Wall Street require space Staging activities, both for collective action and public demonstrations of unity and mutual support, and probably require a single larger and well known accessible area to work effectively. For such activities, which could be well served at a primary site site such as Liberty Park , although not necessarily reqiring that space around the clock. But the incubator has other requirements, a space that permits quiet planning activities, out of the glare and hub bub that an encampment such as Liberty Park constitutes, a place for committee meetings, drafting of press releases, communications facilities, perhaps educational activities. Those functions could also be performed at a site separate from the Staging Site, but linked to it in convenient fashion.

None of the above suggests that the establishment and defense of occupied space is not important for the Occupy Wall Street movement, but only to suggest that the concern with the occupied space is a means to an end, and only one means among others, not the end itself. There is no necessary inconsistency in using many different means at once, depending on circumstances.

With one exception. Exploring the possibilities of alternative Models of organization can, in some cases, interfere with the pursuit of the other goals of the movement. Making decisions affecting a group democratically is an end in itself, with major public and political implications. Any critique of existing arrangements that cannot persuade that alternative arrangements are possible will not attract many adherents. Thus demonstrating alternative ways of acting politically is important for each of the other values the Occupy Wall Street movement espouses. Yet it can also interfere with their pursuit under some circumstances, and can distort priorities if not carefully considered. Specifically, the defense of the permanent and round-the-clock occupancy of a specific space can lead to a fetishization of space that make the defense of that space the overwhelming goal of the movement, at the expense of actions furthering the broader goals that that space is occupied to advance.

Three examples:

One: Confrontations with the police and negotiations with authorities are an inevitable accompaniment of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, and certainly what the major media highlight. Both relations with the police and with municipal authorities require planning, coordination, strategic decision-making, sometimes the ability to change plans quickly and to leave the other side in the dark as to what will happen. The transparency, debate, deliberation, that true democracy requires is inconsistent with the most effective handling of such situations. Model democracy and effective activism must be weighed gains teach other in practice. The best models for short-term decisions are not necessarily the best models for making democratic long-term decisions.

Two: Take Back the Land is a militant housing movement concerned with keeping occupants in properties on which banks are foreclosing. One of their strategies is keeping their owners in occupancy, even when foreclosure has been completed, or putting new residents in foreclosed homes banks are keeping empty awaiting a rise in prices. They call such homes “liberated spaces” not “occupied spaces.” They find it more natural to speak of occupying the spaces of the banks, the 1%, and displacing/eviing them; when the come into possession of such spaces, they would rather call them “liberated ” than “occupied” .

Three: A metamorphosis of meaning emerges in some occupations. The space being occupied gets to be taken not as an occupation, in the military sense, of an enemy’s space, but rather as the creation of an alternative space. Oddly and quite without planning, the renaming of the occupied space in New York City reflects this shift: occupying Zuccotti Park, named after a prominent real estate lawyer and power-broker in the city, is taking over a part of Wall Street’s space, a park located in the heart of the enemy’s territory. Occupying it is displacing its intended functions, de facto if not de jure. Changing its name and calling it Liberty Park gives it a different meaning; it becomes a liberated space, a space of hope, in its management, openness, users, political and social role, a model for an alternative. That it in fact takes the enemies space and builds its opposite within it is dramatic double victory, but the displacement it represents, the victory in a struggle, can get lost in thed internal effort to develop a truly democratic organization of the space that has been won. Yet the model building need not in fact be located there; any space properly configured, open and accessible, would do: a quarter, a university, an armory, a public building, another park, a private space, a corporate headquarters, a university, would have done as well.

There is more than word play involved here. The danger in focusing too much attention of what happens to a specific space occupied by the movement is that the big picture gets lost. Attention is devoted to what goes on in that space, to how the occupants pitch their tents, survive the winter, deal with intruders, ward off the police — yes, also in how they make decisions, but only as one peculiarity of those particular folk. But that isn’t the big picture, the measure of the importance of the Occupy Wall Street movement, its real significance. That rather lies in what others do, unrelated to the physical space the movement itself occupies. When the New York Times headlines an article in its Business Section: “OCCUPY MOVEMENT INSPIRES UNIONS TO EMBRACE BOLD TACTICS, ” or the New York Post finds it necessary to attack Occupy Wall Street with a front page headline, “OCCUPY MY JOB: PROTESTERS PUT FOLKS OUT OF WORK” by recounting how a waitress at a Wall Street cafe was laid off because business was bad, or students stage “occupy rallies” at Columbia and Harvard , and new occupations spring up day after day after day across the country, those are the measures of the importance of the movement. What particular site is actually occupied, by how many, for how long, is important, but not the main point.

Occupy Harlem concluded its initial meeting by starting a search for a store front in Harlem where it could make its base. Multiple locations in a city might be very possible, perhaps some outdoors for big events, some indoors for others. Perhaps a two-site solution, linking a larger, centrally-located, open site with a nearby indoor, more organized site, would work. Occupiers themselves are exploring such and other alternatives, and have shown the imagination with which they can handle problems. It is their impact on their supporters and on the struggles in the world around them that is in the end the real test of their effect, not how long or how well they can defend a particular space in town.

The particular space being occupied should not be fetishized, should not become the prize, the conquest of which is the goal of the movement. It is only, for most aspects of the movement, symbolic; the rise and fall of the movement should not be linked to the extent of the physical occupation of a given space. The spaces sought for occupancy are not the prize for which the battle is being fought, but rather a terrain on which that battle takes place, and a more or less important source of support to facilitate the achievement of objectives more important than the command of a particular piece of ground.


OPEN LETER TO Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, et al.

OPEN LETTER TO Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver,  Rep. Jerrold Nadler, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and Council Member Margaret Chin,

 You complain[1] about the Occupy Wall Street protest movement at Liberty Park as raising “quality of life issues” for adjacent residents and small businesses, while expressing sympathy for the Protest movement. . Others have made similar and even broader complaints.[2] The concern seems to be about: first, the presence of undesirables attracted to the Park by the occupation, including criminal elements, drug dealers, drug users, and the homeless; second, the behaviour of some , presumably protestors, in urinating or defecating on nearby public sidewalks. And you formulate such issues as “quality-of-life” issues and ask the city to take a zero-tolerance position as to certain of these causes of complaint, presumably by means of police enforcement.. Further, the City, perhaps in response to similar concerns, has procured the removal of electric generators and electronic equipment, and heating sources from the site, despite an imminent cold wave threatening the health and well-being of the occupants.[3]

 Your concerns are understandable, but the solution is misplaced. The City should take an affirmative attitude to the efforts of the protestors to make their voices heard on matters of grave public concern, and to do so in a peaceful and democratic manner. It should facilitate that effort, not restrict it, and it should deal with the substance of the concerns of the protestors, not ignore them or denigrate them.[4]  It is not appropriate for a mayor with an estimated net worth of $19.5 billion to talk of those protesting unemployment, lack of health care, home foreclosures, as just “yelling and screaming” and telling them they ought to create the jobs that we are lacking.”[5]

 If any group has interfered with the quality of life of the city’s residents, it is much more the speculators of Wall Street than the occupants of Liberty Park. The pressure should be on the mayor to address the conduct of Wall Street, not its critics.

 If homeless individuals are attracted to the protest site at the park, it is a sad commentary on the programs the City has developed to meet its state constitutional obligation to care for the health and welfare of its residents. 40,201 homeless were in the city’s shelter system October 31, 2011; last year the number simply living on the streets went up 34%.[6] That’s were attention needs to be focused.

 If addicts seek cover at the park, it is a commentary on the failure of the City to deal with drug addiction; if some mentally ill participate in the protests, their illness is not the protestors’ fault, but that of a failing mental health care system.

 If the City is concerned about the growing homeless population, it would be better called on to develop an effective programs meeting the needs of the homeless, rather than condemning private volunteers whose respectful treatment of those homeless is experienced by the homeless as a striking contrast to the attitudes they encounter in the city’s inadequate shelter system and housing programs.  The volunteers at the park who do their best to cope with the problems of such visitors should rather be assisted thanked for their services by the city , rather than condemned for their humane results.

 If criminal conduct takes place within the Park, it is the responsibility of the city’s official criminal justice system to deal with it, when complaints are made and assistance asked. The first line of defense should of course be the effort to resolve untoward conduct on a common sense, person to person basis, and a cooperative police attitude towards such efforts should be encouraged. If official intervention is requested, it should be provided courteously and professionally, as New York City’s police motto provides. Such requested official intervention will be substantially more effective if the  relationships between the police and the residents and possible victims are positive  and mutually respectful, rather than hostile and alienated, as is unfortunately often the case.

 If the City is concerned about the quality of life in the city, and protecting the health and welfare of its residents, it would be better called on to deal with the activities taking place on Wall Street rather than putting road-blocks in the way of those protesting Wall Street’s activities.  A progressive income tax on the 1%, a progressive housing policy, adequate social services, providing help for them to keep warm, take care of bodily function, eat and sleep and discuss and, yes, protest, would be in order. The City should be concerned with dealing with the conduct of those who create the problems from which so many of the city’s residents suffer, rather than pushing punitive measures aimed at their victims.

 And perhaps you might recommend to the Mayor that he educate himself to what the occupation is about, what moves the occupiers, who they are.. His comments suggest a very deep misapprehension of the realities that others face, so different from his own. It was appropriately headlined in the New York Times as : “Gilded Blinders to the Reality of a Collapse,”[7] and included quoted comments from him such as:

 “It was not the banks hat created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress  who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.” Or his suggestion that the fault-finders should give blaming banks a rest: “It’s fun and it’s cathartic. I don’t know, it’s entertaining to go and blame people.” His proposal for a solution: the Occupy Wall Street Protestors should make a difference by opening a business.

[1] For full text of letter to which this responds, see http://www.capitaltonight.com/category/michael-bloomberg/

[4] Is comments on the occupation have been called a “Marie Antoinette” attitude, condescending, displaying an “aristocratic superiority” http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/mike-bloombergs-marie-antoinette-moment-20111103#ixzz1cl4VA6se. Impugning the motives of the protestors “The protests that are trying to destroy the jobs of working people in this city aren’t productive” is hardly a constructive approach to dealing with their concerns. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1011/65561.html#ixzz1dL4l05pH

[7] News Analysis, November 8, 1011, p. A18



The Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City  occupied what was then Zuccotti Park, now Liberty Park,[1] as one of its very first decision. The choice was made at a meeting of the inchoate movement in Washington Square Park, realizing that that park was inappropriate for their purposes for a variety of reasons, debating between Zuccotti Park and one other location, [2] and Zuccotti was chosen as the better because of its location, size, and configuration. That it had a complicated legal status, part private, part public, only surfaced afterward, but then it proved helpful to the continuance of the occupation after it was already begun. A huge amount of attention has been focused on that space since, both symbolically and physically. What kind of role the occupation of that particular space plays, however, is a subject that deserves clear and careful analysis, and will be a hotter (or colder!) issue increasingly with the passage of not so much more time. Would the occupiers dig in for the winter, there? Would their abandoning the site, whether voluntarily or because forced to do so by force of state action or impossible weather conditions, be a major defeat for the movement? Should alternative spaces be considered? What is the real role of occupied appropriated space in the movement, anyway? Is it essential, necessary but not sufficient, interchangeable, secondary, a distraction, in view of the goals of the movement?

What alternatives to a last-ditch effort to survive a physical endurance contest and an increasing legal threat of forceful eviction might be considered? Many are already being explored by various of the occupiers and their allies. What follows  details one plausible possibility.

The idea would be to maintain the use of Liberty Park as an assembly and staging site for Occupy activities, but open a linked site elsewhere, in a suitable structure, to act as a headquarters for the organizing and informational, educational, and political activities of the movement.  Liberty Park as a Staging Site and symbolic anchor and a Liberty Workshop elsewhere as a Political Incubator. It would not be difficult to disaggregate the activities by the characteristics of the space needed for their conduct, and Liberty Park would meet the requirements for some admirably, for others only with difficulty. While some architectural or planning solutions may help, i.e. using larger fewer larger tents instead of multiple smaller ones, there are limits to how far such adjustments can go, and a better solution might well be the use of two sites, one for larger assemblies and rallies and staging for marches, the other for the use of smaller groups and administrative and technical and organizational activities.

For analysis,  the different functions of the Occupation movement might be separated out (further discussion of these formulations “in  “: The Purpose of the Occupation Movement and the Danger of Fetishizing “Space”

A confrontation function, taking the struggle to the enemy’s territory, confronting, potentially disrupting, the operations at the center of the problem;

An umbrella function, creating a space and a format in which quite disparate groups can work together in pursuit of ultimately consistent and mutually reinforcing goals, without i

A glue function, creating a community of trust and commitment to the pursuit of common goals;

An activation function, inspiring others to greater militancy and and sharper focus on common goals and specific demands;

An educational function, provoking questioning, exploration, juxtaposition of differing viewpoints and issues, seeking clarification and sources of commonality within difference.

A model function, showing, by its internal organization and methods of proceeding, that an alternative form of democracy is possible and the process of change need not involve a reversion to hierarchical command structures of some previous revolutionary movements.



What are then the requirements Occupy Wall Street has for a physical space? What criteria are relevant to a choice?

They may be divided into criteria for

1)       size and configuration,

2)       accessibility of location,

3)       symbolism, and

4)       availability, subject to consideration of legal constraints.

Liberty Park, it so happens, meets each of these needs, but with limitations.

1)       Size and configuration: It is large enough for many activities, and an appropriate size to provide a sense of community and boundedness to the occupation – the glue functions, but too small for other activities, the umbrella functions– expanded assemblies, for instance which have often been held at other locations such as Washington Square Park, or rallies and marches, which have begun at Federal Plaza. And it is not large enough for simultaneous diversified activities, the educational functions, such as some of the educational activities the Occupation undertakes, small organized discussions, speakers – the umbrella functions.

Further, whether the site is protected and secure, primarily in terms of inclement weather, is a factor, and Liberty Park is fine in good weather but poor in bad. The worse the weather, the more does simple endurance become a time-consuming, energy-demanding, activity, at the expense of political activity and organizing. The model function of the occupation may then become limited to decision-making on house-keeping functions (walkie-talkies for the security patrol, allocating space for different activities, hours of operations, etc.), rather than political or activist plans outside the site. questions. Dual locations, offering different levels of amenity and protection, for use at different times, may be a partial answer.

2)        Accessibility of location: clearly it is central to what Occupation is trying to do that it can bring people together, both its own participants and strangers who may be influenced by their physical involvement: the umbrella and activation functions.. That means it must be accessible, and by mass transit. That means a central location. Liberty Park is very accessible, but so are other large parts of the city.  Further, Occupiers are activists, and encourage participation in active expressions o f critical support. Their target is Wall Street, more generally, the financial 1% whose disproportionate hold on power they are challenging. A location near the center of that power, in the belly of the beast, so to speak, is this very desirable. Marches need a destination; being near an obvious target facilitates their strength. Coupled with its symbolism, lower Manhattan or mid-town would seem ideal locations.

3)       Symbolism: The confrontational function of the space, even in New York city, is not (at least a yet) a major factor in its location, except symbolically; so far, its disruptive potential has been deliberately down-played. The very name of the first movement is symbolic of its activational function, , using the designation of a space, Wall Street, as standing for the activities which are, among other places, contained in that space. (A warning on spatial fetishism in next post.) If the Occupation is indeed one focusing on the concentration of economic power, it was a sensible choice not to locate in possible alternative sites, such as near City Hall or Federal plaza, which represent at least to some extent power still subject to existing democratic processes, or near residential open spaces or educational institutions, which at worst are secondary supporters of economic power, not at their center.

4)       Availability: A vacant site, whether open space or building, is obviously eminently desirable. Inevitably, there will be some displacement; a general assembly and a baseball game cannot take place at the same time at the same place, and the amount of displacement should be minimized. The decision might also take into account who and what is displaced, frequency of use, need met by use, alternatives available. Social arrangements, such as voluntarily limiting the drumming at Liberty Park to specific hours, can also be helpful.  Absent political or legal roadblocks, Liberty Park might meet the criteria of availability very well.

But legal and political factors do have to be taken into account. The complex situation at Liberty Park, with its mix of public and private ownership and control, was serendipity for the occupiers. It is unlikely that, in a private market economy and with large investment interests in real estate, that  ideal locations can be found that do not raise issues of rights of occupancy and exclusion, including by physical force. The extent to which such limitations are confronted directly, and how, are a matter of strategic choice for the Occupation. They involve not only questions of freedom of speech and (too infrequently notice) freedom of assembly, but also of the availability and uses of public spaces in the city, the contributions and purposes of public space as such, questions relevant to recreational needs, community gardens, environmental health, peaceable enjoyment. Few desirable locations are likely to be free of such issues.

If a two site solution seems worth considering, the role of each site can  be spelled out. It would be important to keep a direct and on-going presence at Liberty Park, for the advantages outlined above, particularly it symbolic and by now historic importance. There is no reason negotiations might not provide for a stable, non-confrontational use, with agreement on hours of use, types of activities, etc. The sophistic arguments against its use need to be firmly put down; see the Open Letter to the signatories of a letter of complaint to the Mayor about its continued existence.

For the second, the Incubator, site, it is of course most desirable that a single secure site be established, linked to the Staging Site. Empty factories or warehouses, college campuses, office building atriums, churches, large empty store fronts, might be possibilities.. There are already spaces near Liberty Park being used for things like committee meetings (apparently 60 Wall Street’s atrium is one). Quite off center Occupy efforts are also in gestation, e.g. in Harlem, and  in the center of Columbia University’s campus, , but focusing (it’s too early to tell) primarily on university and academic/pedagogical issues); perhaps a thousand occupations will bloom, each with a sectoral or issue focus of its own. It would then be important to keep the role of Wall Street as a symbol of the concentration of economic power and its role in each sector prominently in view. The imagination of the occupiers has proven fertile.

What does seem clear is that Liberty Park is one site of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but not its be-all and end-all.  Only the imagination (and the balance of power!) limits the possibilities.

[1] One border of what the map now shows as Zuccotti Park is Liberty Street, and the park itself was originally called Liberty Park. After the ground which it occupies was acquired by Brookfield Properties, Inc. [check], it was renamed Zuccotti Park, after Brookfield’s chairman, former chair of the New York City Planning Commission and now a prominent real estate lawyer in New York. The occupiers, preferring to call it Liberty Park, are in fact reverting to its historically accurate name, which happens to be also symbolic of their view of the appropriate adjective for an important public space.

[2] The events are described in detail in an excellent account in The Nation’s issue on the Occupations.


#6. For Occupy, What Does 99% Mean (with slogans)


Occupy Wall Street’s Common Message to its Diverse Potential Supporters

In the debate about the meaning, potential, and future direction of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the issue of just who the 99% and the 1% are, and what difference it makes, is a thorny one. The occupiers themselves, as a rough estimate, comprise less than .1% of the population. What is the line of division the occupy movement is trying to get across? How can it be done?

The answer connects with the questions of demands vs. goals, the slogans the movement uses. Some sound-bite size slogans can be imagined to suggest how a real debate might be provoked and the message of the occupations spread convincingly among the large number of their actual or potential supporters.

* * * * * *

In the debate about the meaning, potential, and future direction of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the issue of just who the 99% and the 1% are, and what difference it makes, is a thorny one. The occupiers themselves, as a rough estimate, comprise less than .1% of the population. What is the line of division the occupy movement is trying to get across? How can it be done?

The answer connects with the questions of demands vs. goals, the slogans the movement uses. Some sound-bite size slogans can be imagined to suggest how a real debate might be provoked and the message of the occupations spread convincingly among the large number of their actual or potential supporters.

* * * * * *

Formulating the specifics of separate demands is not what the Occupy Walls Street movement is about. Its goal is rather dealing with the inequality between the 99% and the 1%, the concentration of power in the banks on economic issues, the lack of real democracy in political decision-making, the organization of society around the accumulation of wealth, consumerism, violence, conformity. Their goal is a different world, in which the specific demands of the 99% would be realized, together. The slogans: OCCUPY WALL STREET and OCCUPY TOGETHER go hand in hand. The Occupy Wall Street movement supports a wide variety of demands, as all of the placards and signs and posters show. But the Occupy Wall Street demand itself  incorporates those demands, but its own demand is broader, more general. It calls for a society organized around the needs, desires, dreams, of the 99%, not the 1%.

Yet there is a necessary link between the more specific demands and the general demand, and it goes from the aggregation of individual demands into a realization of their general unity and larger meaning. Judging from history, if a real revolution were possible today, it would include all the specific demands of the Occupy Wall Street signs as part of its general demand for comprehensive change. The patriots who dumped tea in Boston harbor in the American Revolution were not just after repeal of the tax on tea; they wanted independence and democracy. In the French Revolution the participants marched on the Bastille wanted not just the opening of that hated prison, and not even just, bread for the hungry, but Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. In the English Revolution the Puritans and the Levelers wanted not just freedom of religion and from feudal tithing, but an end to the monarchy and feudal constraints over-all.

But how can this linkage between the specific demands and the general goal be forged today, in practice as well as in rhetoric? The question needs to be addressed, not only to the occupiers, but to those who press for the specifics, and their organizations – the no-occupiers who are sympathetic to the occupations and constitute at least 58% or so of the total population in the United States. It seems to me that the essence of the Occupy Wall Street movement is its understanding that issues of poverty, of peace, of education, of health, of environmental change, of exploitation in the work place, dissatisfaction in the community, discrimination on ethnic and gender lines, cultural discontent, all in the end have to do with the division  of society between the top and the bottom, symbolized by the relations between the1% and the 99%, calling attention to the structural features of a system that benefits the one at the expense of the other.  It is this understanding that must be brought to inform all the specific demands that it encompasses.


The process of linking is already beginning, both from the side of the occupiers and their goals and from the side of the non-occupiers and their specific demands.

The occupations are already being used to inform, to share, to discuss, to criticize. There are Open Forums on a wide range of issues, little libraries in tents, innumerable one-on-one debates, invited speakers. And marches on banks, marches on neglected schools, marches on city halls, marches on centers of foreclosed homes, marches on uncomprehending and hostile media.

And there is support from many specific groups outside the occupations: unionized workers, longshoreman, service workers, teachers, retail workers, community-labor centers, neighborhood groups and members of the right to the city alliance, of National People’s Action, lawyers, nurses, neighborhood residents, students, academics, artists.

As the link is made from both directions, from occupiers to non-occupier sympathizers and vice versa. The 1%/99% divide can emerge sharply as what brings the two together within the 99%. It can be made explicit in many ways. For instance (and others can certainly improve on these examples, and these are points to be made, provocations for discussion, rather than bumper-stickers or slogans on signs):

In education:














In health care:







In housing:








On economic issues:








And so on.

It is important to read the 99% in all its complexity. The line between the two is not a simple quantitative one, and is not the same in every dimension of life. 58% of the population (U.S. context) may support the occupations. 86% may feel the country is on the wrong path. Obama captured 52% of the popular vote in 2008; the Republicans captured almost exactly the same percentage two year later. 66% of the population may consider themselves in the middle class; very few like to admit that they’re poor, but that undoubtedly includes many of the over 42 million who are living below the poverty level, and many who are managers, technicians, factory workers, service workers. About 30% of whites, 20% of blacks, have a college education or more; surely some are in the upper class, others support the occupations. And of course none of these numbers can capture the extent of the deep discontent, insecurity, worry, unhappiness,, that runs through all sections of society, including even some of the 1%.

The important point about the occupiers, though, is not how many they are, but that they are calling attention to a basic division, no matter how calibrated: between the haves and the have nots, the included and the excluded, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the subordinate, the plebes and the gentry, the rulers and the ruled. In an earlier post, I suggested a set of divisions along political/ideological lines. It is not neat, but it suggests the task ahead; the actual occupiers may total 200,000 or more, but in any case less than .1% of the population.  So producing change will not be up to them alone; they may be a spark that sets off a greater movement, but ultimately it is the understanding of the existence of a dividing line within the society, in which a small minority is benefiting handsomely at the expense of a large majority of the other, that is important.

The danger of cooptation remains. Joseph Stiglitz, a respected and progressive economist, said recently:

“You are right to be indignant.  The fact is that the system is not working right.  It is not right that we have so many people without jobs when we have so many needs that we have to fulfill.  It’s not right that we are throwing people out of their houses when we have so many homeless people.  Our financial markets have an important role to play.  They’re supposed to allocate capital, manage risks.  We are bearing the costs of their misdeeds.  There’s a system where we’ve socialized losses and privatized gains.  That’s not capitalism; that’s not a market economy.  That’s a distorted economy, and if we continue with that, we won’t succeed in growing, and we won’t succeed in creating a just society.”[1]

But unfortunately the point is exactly that it is a market economy, and it is capitalism.  The 99%/1% split isn’t because the market isn’t working; it’s the way, under capitalism, that it does work. That needs to be stated clearly and boldly. The question is, who is the “we” in that quote. It’s surely not most of us, and the 1% and the 99%, symbolically, play very different and indeed conflicting roles

The leadership of the fight for the demands and the goal of Occupy Wall Street is thus not simply, or even primarily, with the occupiers; it must be picked up by the much larger number and older organizations of the non-occupiers who are in sympathy with them.  The  occupiers are not the leaders of the movement, there to run it, control it, establish themselves as its forefront. They are the spark that is igniting it, not the old-fashioned vanguard called on to lead it. The question is not will the occupations grow, but will the message of the occupations grow. More important even than what will the occupiers do next is the question of what will the non-occupiers do next.