OWS-inspired activism

The movement is among the most exciting events in the decade -- and it's already inspiring new forms of activism


It was only a matter of time before a coordinated police crackdown was imposed to end the Occupy encampments. Law enforcement officials and policy-makers in America know full well that serious protests — and more — are inevitable given the economic tumult and suffering the U.S. has seen over the last three years (and will continue to see for the foreseeable future). A country cannot radically reduce quality-of-life expectations, devote itself to the interests of its super-rich, and all but eliminate its middle class without triggering sustained citizen fury.

The reason the U.S. has para-militarized its police forces is precisely to control this type of domestic unrest, and it’s simply impossible to imagine its not being deployed in full against a growing protest movement aimed at grossly and corruptly unequal resource distribution. As Madeleine Albright said when arguing for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” That’s obviously how governors, big-city Mayors and Police Chiefs feel about the stockpiles of assault rifles, SWAT gear, hi-tech helicopters, and the coming-soon drone technology lavished on them in the wake of the post/9-11 Security State explosion, to say nothing of the enormous federal law enforcement apparatus that, more than anything else, resembles a standing army which is increasingly directed inward.

Most of this militarization has been justified by invoking Scary Foreign Threats — primarily the Terrorist — but its prime purpose is domestic. As civil libertarians endlessly point out, the primary reason to oppose new expansions of government power is because it always — always — vastly expands beyond its original realm. I remember quite vividly the war-zone-like police force deployed against protesters at the 2008 GOP Convention in Minneapolis, as well as the invocation of Terrorism statutes to arrest and punish them, with the active involvement of federal law enforcement. Along those lines, Alternet‘s Lynn Parramore asks all the key questions about the obviously coordinated law enforcement assault on peaceful protesters over the last week.

But the same factors that rendered this police crackdown inevitable will also ensure that this protest movement endures: the roots of the anger are real, profound and impassioned. Just as American bombs ostensibly aimed at reducing Terrorism have the exact opposite effect — by fueling the anti-American sentiments that cause Terrorism in the first place — so, too, will excessive police force further fuel the Occupy movement. Nothing highlights the validity of the movement’s core grievances more than watching a piggish billionaire Wall Street Mayor — who bought and clung to his political power using his personal fortune — deploy force against marginalized citizens peacefully and lawfully protesting joblessness, foreclosures and economic suffering. If Michael Bloomberg didn’t exist, the Occupy protesters would have to invent him.

* * * * *

After visiting numerous Occupy sites over the past few weeks, I’ve repeatedly said that the protests are among the most exciting, inspiring and important political developments over the last decade. That’s true for several reasons: its innovative, pioneering tactics, its refusal to be pigeonholed with partisan identity, its resistance to translating itself into establishment media language, its organic form, its appropriate contempt for the nation’s political and legal institutions, its singular ability to force discussions of wealth inequality into the discourse. But I think its most impressive attribute is that it has inspired a level of activism and a sense of possibility like few other things have. It’s worth highlighting a few representative examples.

Ever since the Occupy movement began, the blog FireDogLake, with very little attention or self-promotion, has overwhelmingly devoted itself not only to covering the protests but also to creating an amazing new template to help sustain it. Exclusively relying on reader donations, FDL has sent one of its youngest and most relentless activists, Kevin Gosztola, around the country for the last two months, visiting over 20 different encampments from every region in the nation. Gosztola has been able to provide first-hand, on-the-scene reporting from all of these sites, but more important, has built a network of representatives and liasons to enable coordination and communication among site organizers.

Over the past month, FDL — with the construction of this network — has done something truly amazing. In addition to police crackdowns, it has long been assumed that the greatest challenge to sustaining the Occupy movement would be the approaching harsh winter in Northern cities. The assumption — not unreasonable — was that few people would be willing to occupy outdoor spaces in zero-degree weather or below. FDL, with its “Occupy Supply” project, is all but ensuring the elimination of this problem.

Again using nothing more than reader donations, FDL designed and then purchased a full line of winter clothing for free distribution to the various Occupy sites around the nation: hats, sweaters, scarves, gloves, socks, blankets, jackets, thermal underwear, face masks, and more. Every penny FDL raises — 100% — goes exclusively toward the manufacture and free distribution of these products to Occupy protesters. They have thus far raised close to $90,000, and spent roughly $85,000 of it on the purchase of almost 7,000 items. They have also furnished heat generators, tents, and sleeping bags to numerous sites as well.

What makes this activism particularly impressive is that it is designed to build an ongoing and highly effective support network. Rather than indiscriminately dumping the clothing at various encampments, FDL has built a network of liasons and representatives to ensure that it goes to the places that need it most, and that it reaches those who will use it for its intended purpose: primarily, the “sleeper” protesters, largely impoverished, who form the backbone of the camps. Beyond that, FDL has expended great efforts to ensure that the goods it distributes are manufactured not in Chinese sweatshops but rather entirely by American unions — a difficult challenge in this age of disappearing American industry — which in turn ensures that the workers producing the products enjoy health insurance, living wages, and a decent standard of living: aims of the Occupy movement itself.

That last point underscores one of the most significant aspects of the Occupy movement: that it is not devoted to voicing grievances as much as it is finding a model to solve them. It’s one thing to demand middle class conditions for American workers; it’s another to help sustain them by patronizing unionized manufacturers. It’s the difference between talking and doing, and that difference has quietly fueled the Occupy movement from the start.

One of the most striking conversations I had was with an organizer at Occupy Oakland right around the time that media reports began trying to demonize the camps by pointing to the homeless contingent that had become a part of them. She reacted with scorn at the notion that there was something improper or odd that some of the occupiers would be homeless, as though they are sub-human and should be hidden. But the point she really emphasized was that one of the functions served by the Oakland encampment was that it produced its own food from volunteers in a kitchen that had been built there; they were, in essence, doing something about the problem of homelessness — by feeding them — rather than simply demanding that something be done. Before the Oakland police tore it down, the site had become its own community, existing by its own rules and outside of prevailing societal norms, and one of its functions was to feed those who had no means of feeding themselves. It did not merely complain about the prevailing landscape, but rather provided an alternative form of existence and community to the one it was protesting.

One long-time reader and commenter here, Jaime Omar Yassin, has — at great personal sacrifice — more or less devoted himself to the Occupy Oakland camp. He wrote about it on an almost daily basis from the start, and — despite what he described on the first day as his “skeptic[ism] about the possibility of mass movements in the US for various reasons” – worked full-time to sustain it. Yassin has been a student over the past several years and quite impoverished. The volunteer nature of his work for the Occupy site led him to serious financial distress. When I asked him why, given all that, he continued to do it, this is what he told me:

I started coming regularly to Occupy Oakland to report on it, spending ten or twelve hours there, doing interviews and watching the community. I was very impressed with what I saw. What really sucked me in was when I began to understand the kitchen, and how it became a focal point of what makes OO unique among the occupieds. Many people I spoke to–the unusual suspects in terms of activism, poor, and unemployed–had been drawn to the camp by the kitchen, which was running 24 hours a day. They then became real participants in the camp. The kitchen also allowed them to become part of the camp immediately, allowing them to cook, serve or wash dishes, and interact with others in a tangible way, not just sitting in a [General Assembly] or meeting. . . .

It may sound corny, but the camp has given  me the chance to use all of my human skills in the service of others, from conflict mediation, to crisis management, to writing and oratory, and simply providing an ear for troubled people, who can nevertheless be functioning members of society if just given a chance. I actually feel like I do that about ten times a day. There are a lot of troubled people there, they represent the people who’ve been turned away from society. There’s a lot of pent up hostility and resentment, but it comes out in the open, we wrestle with it, we are allowed to understand it and begin to know one another.

The camp has given my life real purpose, and brought out the best in me and allowed me to befriend the widest breadth of human experience anyone can imagine. While other occupies are focused strictly on the 1% issue, I think at OO a lot of us are excited about finally being able to talk about systemic problems in an atmosphere where the public will listen. We are talking about homelessness, about the right to dignity, the right to be free of harrassment and violence from police and others. I really feel like we’ve forced Oakland to have conversations its put off for a long time about violence and poverty and the city’s response to it, which is to marginalize it and ignore it, while crying crocodile tears.

Its difficult to describe, but the social construction of the camp has been part of the political movement, and our success has already been in declaring that middle class teachers, union workers, homeless people and even mentally ill people can inhabit the same political space as equals. This is the strength that we used to launch an unprecedented action at the port of Oakland, where tens of thousands responded to the call and shut down the port of Oakland as a clarion call to the nation and city. It was the largest human mass I’ve ever seen in my life. We’ve shown mainstream people that the right to assemble is a right that they can take without mediation or permission, and that the power of assembly can even push police back, as we did when we retook the camp two weeks ago. Despite the fact that it was fenced off, people took down the fence, and replanted tents. I just feel like we’re transforming society with each person who comes to the camp and becomes a part of it. We’re changing long held views about who matters and why, and what a just society should actually look like, and what powers people have to change all that.

As we prepare for the end of the camp again, I’m reminded of just how special all of these people are to me. We expected an imminent raid last night. We know that we can’t resist the demolition of the camp, and that we have lost some support due to media and city propaganda. So it looks like we’re really looking at the end again. We’re all exhausted, but it really still feels like a family. Someone I don’t even like much hugged me last night and it was so genuine and real that I had to choke back tears.

We also know that even if Occupy Oakland ends tomorrow in its current incarnation, the assembly of people gathered there will continue on in another unique social and political movement. That’s the legacy of the camp, no matter what happens tonight.

Though perhaps not as eloquent or well thought-out, this is more or less what I heard from almost every committed protester I spoke with at multiple sites over the past several weeks.

* * * * *

It’s very difficult to imagine sentiments this impassioned and profound simply disappearing because of some police raids or cold weather. It’s even more difficult to imagine how one could find this movement anything but inspiring. If you want to contribute to FDL’s Occupy Supply project, you can do so here; if you want to help Jaime be able to continue to report on Occupy protests or otherwise provide him with much needed (and deserved) assistance, you can do so here. There are many people quite supportive of the Occupy movement who — for a variety of reasons — can’t or won’t physically occupy these spaces, but there are numerous ways to provide other forms of support. More than it needs anything, the country needs a potent and effective citizen movement outside of/independent of the electoral system, and nothing in a long time has provided that the way the Occupy movement has.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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