#2. Perspective on Occupy: Occupiers, Sympathizers, and Antagonists

Blog 7


The air is filled with speculation about what the occupiers of sites like Liberty Park, Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Oakland,[1] Dilworth Plaza at Philadelphia City Hall,[2] etc. will do if they are evicted from their locations. That’s an important question for the occupiers, and a difficult one; my earlier piece has suggested a two-site or multiple site solution, but it will be up to the occupiers themselves to make their decision.

The perspective for the occupiers, however, depends more on what others do than on what the occupiers do. It is worth looking at who the non-occupiers are, how they line up today vis-à-vis the occupations, how their fundamental interests suggest they might line up, where they fit into the landscape of power within which the future of the occupiers’ message will be received. Very symbolically and very tentatively, the analysis below suggests a breakdown of the situation as it appears today. Take it as theoretical ideal states descriptions of broad categories with guesses at orders of magnitude, without empirical basis at this point.

The Range of Positions

Positions in reference to the Occupations


.5% Actual occupiers
15% active supporters
22.5% Passive supporters, signers of petitions
20% sympathizers with occupations in polls
24% sympathizers with tea party
14% Active opponents of occupiers, tea party, fringe conservatives
3% Lackeys of power
1% rich, powerful (Wall Street)

The Underlying interest-based (class) divisions

15.5% (.5%% + 15%) Exploited, discontented, explicitly oppositional
22.5% Exploited, discontented, generally aware of roots
20% Exploited, discontented, but unconscious of roots
58% (15.5% % + 22.5% + 20%) The potential opposition to prevailing power
38% The co-opted but insecure supporters of system
4% (3% + 1%) “beneficiaries,” active supporters of system
96% (100% – 3% – 1%) Long termed injured by system, occupiers’ “99%”)

The resultant strategic landscape of power


15.5% (.5% + 15%) The active opposition, organized supporters, the left
42.5% (22.5% + 20%) The passive but sympathetic opposition
58% (15.5% + 42.5%) The sympathetic but inactive supporters of the occupations: the low-hanging fruit for the opposition
38% (24% + 14%) The contrary-to-interest supporters of power; the hard-shelled fruit for the opposition
4% (3% + 1%) The prevailing power structure
96% (100% – 3% – 1%) Potential long-term opposition to prevailing power

Look at this analysis (and forgive the purely symbolic and non-empirical numbers used to categorize the positions.) Leave the niceties of definition aside, look at the big picture:

Introducing the question of power into the equation, where it belongs but seldom appears, real change will only occur when there is a real shift of power relations. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that happens when sixty percent support the left end of the spectrum; that would be “winning.” How, and under what circumstances, is such a result possible?

Three conclusions seem to flow from this analysis.

  1. It will not be the strength and strategies of the occupiers that will determine the outcome;
  2. The sympathetic but inactive (as to the occupations) low-hanging fruit must be picked;
  3. The hostile but against-interest supporters of power must be disarmed, the hard-shelled fruit must be cracked.
  1. Not just the occupiers will decide the outcome. The future of what the occupy movement stands for is not primarily in the hands of the occupiers, but rather depends on how those groups, sharing interests and understandings with the occupiers, mobilize, support the goals of the occupiers, work together, and confront issues of power as well as structure.The occupiers are a very small fraction of the population. I have seen no numbers, but the biggest turnout explicitly in their support, perhaps 130,000 in New York City on September 17, would be 2.5%, and New York City is hardly typical of the country as a whole. Thus the .5% symbolically used above. Their explicit supporters and sympathizers number perhaps 15%, the minority of whom are organized and effectively active. The hard core of these is not strong enough to achieve change by themselves; they are rather I have suggested the spark for a movement for radical change than its vanguard.Yet that for which they stand, have made explicit, what they have put on the national agenda, is supported by much larger numbers. Again symbolically 58.5% or so of the population, and ultimately up to the 99%, including all those who are not members of the 1% and thus at least in theory potential allies. The decisive question thus is: how is the message of the occupations getting through to those who are not members of the 1%, most of whom are sympathetic. The future will be determined by the non-occupiers: what they understand, what they do, how they deal with the message of the occupiers.When we read headlines that speak of how the labor movement has been re-invigorated by the occupations, how the campuses see renewed militancy, how political leaders make reference to the “understandable feelings” of the occupiers, even in passing, when we see the occupations considered the counter to the tea parties, the occupations are doing their job.
  2. The 42.5% of passive supporters must be mobilized and become active: those who theoretically should be in support, and are almost there. The low-hanging fruit must be gathered.Power will only shift when the bulk of the 99% demands it. That means that a substantial portion of those who are already vaguely supportive, and whose interests lie in the direction of change, but who have not drawn the conclusions from their situation that would lead to active engagement with the Occupy agenda. If some are short-changed in the manner of production and distribution of goods and services in the prevailing society, the deprived, then the emphasis will ultimately be an economic, a material one; as long as the system delivers them the goods, they will be hard to win. Thus questions of inequality and the potentials of other modes of organizing production and distribution must be highlighted. ­If others (and the categories overlap) are insecure, discontent with their lives and their opportunities, aware of suppressed potentials for happiness, then the sources of that discontent must be highlighted.But in both cases, the mobilization must come from and be led within the group itself; the occupiers cannot be looked to to do that job. It is conceivable that Occupy might play the role of an umbrella to bring many of such individuals and their existing organizations together to formulate common demands. There is already a multiplicity of organizations sympathetic to the cause, and many others, in the multiplicity of associations, clubs, and organizations that are a feature of every-day life. Maybe they can come together around the kind of specific demands that are consistent with the Occupations’ purposes. Occupiers may stress the commonality of the causes of their problems, and their structural nature, and consistently raise questions of power and justice; but the basic work must be done in the groups themselves, not by the occupiers.The occupiers are very much aware of this. They interact with and extensively support the oppositional activities of the 42.5% who are not themselves occupiers but are sympathetic to the occupation. Rather than tell the occupiers what to do, criticize them for not formulating demands for either short-term feasible changes or long-term desirable changes, that is the appropriate role for the sympathetic non-occupiers. Sympathetic non-occupiers belong to churches, to unions, to organizations of the elderly and of youth, meet in neighborhoods, work for charities, run for and occupy public offices, write letters to the editor, blog and twitter and use Facebook, go to classes or teach them, run businesses, work for businesses. They include academics, intellectuals, experts in many fields, writers and artists, organizers, professionals in many fields. Peter Dreier, in The Nation, gives examples of many such activities, and speaks of them as “the other wing of the protest movement.”[3] They have the responsibility of formulating their own demands, criteria, statements and manifestos, providing details for the message of the Occupations, formulating concrete demands, organizing lobbing and public relations. The controversial counter-temps between the Oakland occupiers and the Longshore Union shows the type of problem that can arise when the respective roles are not clear; the support by occupiers of the Take Back the Land movement, occupations of foreclosed homes, joining picket lines at strike sites, spreading information provided by supporters of universal health care, supporting documentation by others of levels of inequality and injustice, are examples of the positive relation between the occupiers and many of their sympathizers.

    The political argument for the involvement of the non-occupying sympathizers, is overwhelming. If the battle is left to the occupiers themselves, .5%, it is lost; the richest 1% will defeat them every time. They have the money, the media, most politicians, the power; the occupiers inevitably, have less of all that. While they speak for the interests of the 99%, they hardly have them all on their side; to the contrary, it is precisely in the battle for the hearts and minds of the 99% (realistically perhaps 96%) that, at least in a society with a still functioning if imperfect democracy, that the war for the occupiers’ goals will be decided. The situation is different in many countries, e.g. Syria or Egypt or Iran, where rule by the unbridled use of force is prevalent. Force also plays a role in many U.S. cities, viz. New York, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, but it is still limited and subject to a significant level of legal constraint. By the same token, physical resistance will be more important symbolically than practically.

  3. Strong inroads must be made in the 38% hostile, those presently seeing themselves, contrary to interest, as antagonistic to the occupiers and their goals. The 1% and their dependents and lackeys have every reason to be hostile to the occupiers and their goals. Their position in society, their material wealth and political power, are threatened by the Occupy movement. Occupy Wall Street is a potent slogan; unlike Occupy City X or Occupy Institution Y, Occupy Wall Street sets the line between friend and enemy, names the center of power whose role is being challenged. The rest of the population, symbolically 96% or even 99% in long range terms, has no such real interest in sustaining the status quo, but a great many have nevertheless spoken and acted as if they did. Why? The answer is complicated, and includes the overwhelming impact of the mainstream media, enjoyment of some of the material benefits of advanced capitalism, and social-psychological reactions to situations over which they exercise no control, repressive though they may be. I have discussed some of those mechanisms in an earlier piece, trying to understand what made the tea party tick. Consumerism plays a large role; the system seems to “deliver the goods,” and nourishes the appetite for more and more of those goods, as Herbert Marcuse repeatedly pointed out.By the same token, however, the belief in the status quo is ultimately fragile, as its promises fall short of what is really wanted, deeply felt, in terms of the full development of all human capacities, the full enjoyment of the richness of life, from the physical and sexual to the cultural and aesthetic. The potentials of alternate forms of social and economic organization of society have barely been scratched, as things are. It is in the hands of those who are aware of this gap between the existent and the possible, the world as it is and the world as it could be, that the conversion of the opponents of the occupiers to their supporters lies. And gaining the support of a significant part of those opponents, of the 42%, is thus a major task for the occupiers and their supporters. Two approaches are possible; both are necessary. One is to emphasize the immediate common interests of the two sides, occupiers and tea partiers; the other is to confront directly the common origins of their common problems, and be explicit in exposing the fundamental natural functioning of the capitalist market system that the tea party mistakenly supports.For example, in the first approach: both opponents and supporters of the occupations are hurt by the bailout of the big banks; protest against Bank of America might become a common enterprise, punitive action against the greediest of Wall Street, with their gold-plated bathroom fixtures, yachts and mansions. Even militant actions such as re-occupation of foreclosed homes should not be ruled out. I know of a few efforts in this direction; they are likely to initially be small and local. In one picket line of a branch of Bank of America in which I participated, on a busy through street, people in pickup trucks with signs supporting local Republican candidates honked their support as they drove by.But efforts in the second approach can have a negative impact on the occupiers’ position as well. Using the word “capitalism” pejoratively with tea partiers is likely to attract the label “socialist” automatically and pull down a wall that makes further discussion with them very difficult. Thus it is often scrupulously avoided in discourse at occupy sites, and absent from posters and signs and placards. Somewhat parallel, in their mammoth rally in Tel Aviv after the occupations of Rothschild Boulevard, it was agreed not to mention Palestine, the occupation of the West Bank, or the role of the ultra-orthodox in Israeli politics, all for fear of breaching a unity of action on a broader base. But in both cases, fundamental issues are swept under the table, and opportunities to confront issues and change minds missed. The question is not whether to raise these fundamental issues, but how. All possibilities need to be explored.For instance: The large majority (96%?) condemn the greed of bankers; occupiers and tea partiers might join in the condemnation. It is a logical step from there to question whether it is individual greed, or systemic pressures, that lead bankers to do what they do. A majority of Israelis undoubtedly criticize the shrinking of welfare provisions in governmental policy. And hawks as well as environmentalists criticize urban development policies in the country. It is a logical step from there to ask if settlement policies in the West Bank do not contribute to the problems, and to ask whether the favored status of the ultra-orthodox politically does not block action for change.

    Other instances: Confronting Republican headquarters in the primaries o caucuses, ather than denounce, suggest signs: DOES YOUR CANDIDATE FAVOR THE 1% OR THE 99%; WILL YOUR CANDIDATE STOP FORECLOSURES? DOES YOUR CANDIDATE FAVOR FAIR TAXATION? When protesting a particularly corrupt political act used to denounce all government, ask: is the corruption better or worse than in the private sector? Who has the gold-plated toile fixtures, a government official or a private entrepreneur?

These are all tough arguments, with high emotions involved, and need to be conducted positively and with consideration. But if they are not undertaken, the possibilities for long term change will be very limited.

And economic and international crises may create the conditions in which an opening for discussion can emerge despite the hardened positions that need to be overcome. But the impact of crisis can go both ways; celebration seems a bit premature right now.

The conservative Republican majority in the House does not seem to be affected in the slightest, and the European developments are at the most ambiguous.[4] Logic is with the occupiers. The hard task of organizing to pick the low-hanging fruit and crack the hard-shelled varieties remains to be done, and not by the occupiers alone but by all their sympathizers and supporters, each in their own way.

[3] Peter Dreier, “Occupying Wall Street, Building a Movement,” The Nation, October 24, 2011, p. 4-6. See also Stephen Lerner, “Organize and Occupy,” The Nation, November 7, 2011, and a number of other articles in that issue.
[4] See http://www.rosalux.de/news/38065/europa-no-future.html and http://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/RLS-Nachrichten/1201_RLS-Newsletter.pdf.
“Michael Hardt setzt auf das widerständige Potenzial der Krisensubjekte. Allerdings ist davon in der Realität noch nicht viel zu spüren. Im Gegenteil: In vielen europäischen Ländern erstarkt die radikale Rechte. Rechtspopulistische Parteien gewinnen an Macht und verbreiten ihr rassistisches Gedankengut.”

#3. Occupy and the Provision of Public Space: The City’s Responibiities


The occupation of key public spaces by Occupy Wall Street, as a means of calling attention to more basic problems, raises questions of the role of public spaces that need to be urgently dealt with. The basic questions about the organization of society, democracy, inequality, social justice, public priorities are deep-going and require long-term answers. They should not be pre-empted by the immediate needs for space, not should any space be fetishized. But spatial issues need to be dealt with immediately and urgently.

* * * *
The need for, and the function of, public space, raised by the Zuccotti Park affair, is an issue that should be confronted directly as an issue in democratic governance. While other city departments are also necessarily involved, the focus here is on the appropriate concerns of the City Planning Commission and its staff, as one entry point in its consideration.

It is axiomatic, we believe, that the concern of city planning is not only promotion of the efficient use of the city’s built environment and the health and safety of its users, but also the extent to which that environment, and generally planning for and allocation land uses in the city, furthers the interests of democracy and participation in the affairs of the community.

The Zuccotti Park affair, and similar forcible evictions of protestors from public spaces in cities across the country, reveals a deficit in the provision and management of public space. The courts may ultimately rule that the constitutional provisions guaranteeing the right peaceably to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances implies a constitutional duty on states and their cities to make such assembly possible through the provision of public space for its exercise. Until there is a change in the composition of the U.S. Supreme ‘court, however, it is left for other branches of government to accept that responsibility as a matter of good democratic policy. The following discussion suggests the possibilities in New York City.

The occupiers of Zuccotti Park clearly had a message they wished to convey to the wider public, one that concerned issues of governance, social justice, public policy, the conduct of the affairs of the city. It was perhaps a controversial message, one affecting a wide range of subjects. There is widespread interest in at what the occupiers have to say, both pro and con. They have found Zuccotti Park a feasible location in which not only to express their opinions but to discuss them, look at alternate formulations, educate themselves on the issues, and in the process develop a model of discussion and transparent decision-making that is itself of significant potential value to the development of urban democracy. They claim the right to occupy a particular space not simply on First Amendment grounds – they do not wish simply to yell and scream for its own sake, but to participate in the democratic governance of the society in which they live. They are in a notable modern tradition of the use of central spaces for democratic action, going from Plaza de Mayo to Tahrir Square, including in the U.S. spaces such as the mall in Washington D.C. An even older tradition goes back to the Athenian agora and the medieval cathedral square (as St. James in London today). Their availability for political use is generally taken for granted, if sometimes limited by undemocratic regimes or used for repressive purposes, as with Nazi plazas and Soviet squares.

In a city as dense, and with the kind of market-dictated property values it reflects, there is a real need to face the lack of such spaces directly and to plan for their use as part of the essential city planning process and governmental regulation of land uses. The Zuccotti Park affair highlights the urgency of the need to act.

We believe that the city government should, in confronting uses such as those of Occupy Wall Street, welcome their initiative for public involvement and consider carefully how the city’s planning process might promote the occupiers’ ability to participate, actively and peaceably, in the city’s public life

How might this be done?

An open and democratically-motivated city leadership might provide communications facilities, radio and TV access, sponsor public fora, have transparent discussions on the issues being raised in governing circles, call for open and imaginative and constructive supportive conduct by city officials in all matters related to the occupiers abilities to make their voices heard, encouraging a public debate around their views. But even short of such actions, making space available for such activities is a primary need that should be addressed by the City, a need that requires it to examine the possibilities for the use of space within the city to encourage democratic activities. The demands of the First Amendment set a minimum threshold for the exercise of the right to free speech, but what is needed is not the ability to speak freely out in the desert, inaccessible to most and heard by few. Rather, what is needed are publicly available spaces that can fulfill the functions of the traditional agora, places where free men and women can meet, debate, speak to and listen to each other, learn from each other, confront issues of public concern and facilitate their resolution.

Zuccotti Park was not ideal for the purposes of speech and assembly, but by almost heroic effort it was made into one in which such uses thrived. The City could have supported them: it could have done things as simple as provide sanitary facilities, as it has in other parks; it could have provided sound systems that would both facilitate wide participation and minimize disturbance to neighbors; it could have consulted on health and safety measures, provided fire extinguishers, safe connections to power lines, even efficient sources of heat and protection from the elements. Facilities for the provision of food and water could have been provided, as they are in other parks. It could have arranged with the occupiers that they could speak and meet in safety and security. The availability of spaces such as the atrium at 60 Wall Street might be a model. But the City did nothing along these lines at Zuccotti Park; it did not even explore their possibility.

But it is not too late to recognize the problem and plan for its immediate amelioration and long term solution. We could learn from Zuccotti Park what is needed and plan how to provide it. The city has developed other plans which include provision of public spaces, and has had them since the city was founded. But those plans need to clarify further what those publicly available spaces are for what, purposes they should serve, where they should be located, how they should be designed and equipped. We have plans for the spaces and the facilities that have been shown to be needed for other purposes. We have waterfront plans of which we are proud, transportation plans, environmental plans, social service plans, recreational plans; we need public spaces as part of a democracy or public participation plan, one which would look at the spaces and the facilities needed to make a healthy democracy thrive. We are able to plan and make space available for ticker tape parades, community gardens, street fairs, farmers’ markets, political rallies; we provide for commercial and recreational use of parks; we even arrange for seating for large numbers in the middle of times Square in the heart of the city’s busiest intersection at the peak of rush hour. We build and/or subsidize convention centers and sports arenas for large crowds. We plan special restrictions and special opportunities for various holidays. We provide office space and meeting space in numerous locations for the transaction of city business, from Community Board meetings to public hearings to electoral events, and we rent space in municipal properties and on public sidewalks to all kinds of activities, public and private, and at all hours of the day and night.

Further, the City through zoning regulations, building codes, tax and subsidy policies, anti-discrimination laws, environmental controls, infrastructure provision, transportation policies, and the exercise of other normal governmental functions, has substantial control not only over publicly-owned space but also over privately-owned space. Many of these deal explicitly both with restricted and with favored uses, whether negatively as with nuisances or positively as with theaters or community facilities or spatial bonuses for open spaces and public facilities. Spaces for public uses may be publicly owned, or privately owned and subject to public influence and regulation; it is the use, not the bare ownership, which is the issue. A Public Spaces Plan concerned with the spatial requirements for the exercise of democratic functions should deal with both. .

For many of the city’s spaces there are already appropriate time, place, and manner regulations governing their use, and such regulations, if reasonable, may be applicable for spaces appropriate for democratic assembly and speech, keeping in mind the constitutional importance of the particular uses involved and their adoption through open procedures consistent with democratic decision-making. The issues involved in dealing with Zuccotti Park are all within the City’s power to manage, and relatively easily. In Newark, for instance, “the city’s police chief… said she would waive the permit ordinarily required to assembling in Military Park, telling protesters that her officers’ task was ‘to make sure you’re safe.… members of the city’s Municipal Council said they supported lifting the 9 p.m. curfew that typically governs the plaza.”

Should we not plan ahead to do the same kind of planning as we do for other spaces in the City to provide space for the functioning of the democracy to which we are constitutionally committed? Should not the imagination, the technical skills, the design experience, the collective experience of the diverse body of our citizenry and our guests, the knowledge of our educational institutions, the competence of our business community, the creativity of our artists, be now harnessed in that effort?

In implementing such a Public Spaces Plan, consideration must be given also to criteria for the management of such spaces. Tw o different groups or individuals cannot conduct two different activities in the same space at the same time, certainly not without careful prior understanding as to their rules of behavior. Developing or applying such rules is a common everyday task for those in charge of many spaces, both public and private; the examples above suggest the many situations in which such rules are already established and enforced as to public spaces, streets, parks, with relatively wide public agreement.

The Zuccotti Park experience suggests two points that require special notice. One is that in determining priorities among possibly conflicting claims on the use of a particular space, a particular priority should be given to uses which increase the ability of the populace to participate actively and with information in the democratic governance of the city. Detailed research would be useful to see how criteria are now framed in various cities for the regulation of various types of spaces. Transparency and ample opportunities to be heard should be a sine quo non for the adoption of such rules.

The Zuccotti Park case also shows the potentials of open discussion among users and affected non-users of public space to deal with arrangements for use. The agreements between the occupiers and Community Board 1 for the regulation of noise at the Park show that even in difficult circumstances discussion can achieve satisfactory results. The experience at Zuccotti also shows that the absence of discussion can have very undesirable results, as the clearance of the Park at by the City in the dead of night, without notice and or oversight, with substantial property damage and infliction of unnecessary personal hardship, demonstrates. Occupiers waive no rights by entering into negotiations over time, place, and manner regulations on their use of a particular space at a particular time in a particular manner. The rights of free speech can be adequately protected in such circumstances; the cases are legion. The City, on its side, should be sympathetic to the prospective users’ needs, and not meet them with expressed hostility. Agreement with their goals is not a requirement, but civility and common sense are.

There should be an end to the handling of the democratic outpouring we have seen at Zuccotti Park by forcible evictions and quasi-military police actions, and instead a forward-looking and responsible planning and implementation process for the flowering of a vital and constructive democracy in the City.

* * * *

Why, within city government in New York City, should the Planning Commission take a leading role here?

Apart from its purpose to plan broadly, comprehensively and long-term for the welfare of the city’s people, there is a realistic political argument for it to take a leading role in the matter. All political leaders have a vested interested in staying in power; it goes with the territory. The city’s current mayor has certainly demonstrated such an interest in the past. He has no incentive to tolerate protest, or certainly to encourage it, unless it may lead to a loss of voter confidence such as to threaten his continuation in office. The City Planning Commission, by contrast, is specifically created as a non-partisan commission, has very limited powers; its members are not dependent on their position on it for their livelihood or status. Those concerned about the uses of adequate space in the city for purposes that include political protest can attempt to persuade a sitting mayor that a negative attitude incurs a political cost to him or her. But directing their attention of the somewhat less partisan political Planning Commission may facilitate the beginning of constructive discussion.

[This piece has dealt with government’s responsibility only at the city level. But states can play a significant role here also. Simply requiring, as part of mandated municipal plans, provision for public spaces and their democratic use, is an example; examining the contribution state parks or other state-controlled spaces can make is another. The Federal government can also play a role, through its control of substantial space in urban centers, much of it open as plazas or otherwise. Even the UN could play a role, by laying out the meaning of the right of assembly as a human right. ]