After a bookstore event about my book Thank You, Anarchy with Rebecca Solnit on Saturday, some friends and I were joined at dinner by a young activist who’d been involved in Occupy San Francisco. We swapped stories of the movement’s past and ideas about its future. He talked about how he had considered himself an anarchist in the past, but wasn’t sure if he should anymore because he supports progressive and socialist electoral candidates. Then, as the check came for our dinner, he started talking approvingly about Rand and Ron Paul, figures normally associated with the exact opposite end of the political spectrum from anarchism. In particular — in no small part because of his identity as a Muslim — he appreciated their vocal opposition to U.S. drone strikes and wars abroad.
After two and a half years covering the Occupy movement, dating back to the meetings before the occupation began, his grab-bag politics didn’t faze me at all.
The role of the political right in the Occupy movement has become a matter of discussion again thanks to an article on “The Right Hand of Occupy Wall Street” by Spencer Sunshine of Political Research Associates. Journalist Arun Gupta, who helped found newspapers at several encampments and reported frequently on the movement, has responded at length. Sunshine purports to expose the role that certain right-wing groups — including libertarians, white supremacists and others — played in what was supposedly a left-wing movement.
Certain aspects of his account are uncontroversial. (Sunshine cites my book, in part, as evidence.) It’s true that individuals and groups associated with the far right became involved in the movement, or tried to co-opt it, such as with calls to “End the Fed.” However, he overstates particular impact they had in the movement’s primary decision-making processes. For instance, he points out that supporters of Lyndon LaRouche supported calls within Occupy for reinstating the Glass-Steagall act — but so did a lot more left-leaning Democrats, and even the initial Adbusters call that seeded the movement. Early on, too, traditional leftists like socialists and anarchists were generally reluctant to claim the movement wholly as its own. I believe that this was part of its strength; no existing political organization was strong enough in the fledgling Occupy organization to reign in its intuitive charisma.
Near the end Sunshine argues that, for Occupy Wall Street, “A more proactive first step would be to endorse an anti-oppression platform at the very start.” In fact, the brief Principles of Solidarity document passed by the OWS General Assembly included a point about “empowering one another against all forms of oppression.” Anti-oppression trainings were frequent, although optional. Throughout the course of the movement, strenuous attempts were made to create strong, enforceable community agreements to prevent oppression along dividing lines of race, gender identity, class and others. In certain sectors of the movement, these were effective. Most of the time, though — notably in the attempts to organize a Spokes Council decision-making structure — such attempts were run aground by people who were evidently intent on preventing anything constructive from taking place in the movement.
Community agreements or not, however, what should a movement like Occupy do about someone like my dinner companion, a devoted and persistent activist with political orientations that don’t seem to map cleanly on the right or left?
It often strikes me that part of what makes grassroots resistance movements around the world powerful is their capacity to reveal the inadequacy of the usual political spectrum. What would the initial Tahrir Square uprising have been if either the secular liberals or Muslim Brotherhood members hadn’t been involved? Or the civil rights movement without either church folks or Black Panthers? These are sometimes unlikely and uncomfortable alliances, but they’re also what brings a movement the level of participation it needs to be effective — by revealing a hidden consensus that the ruling class doesn’t want anyone to see, the points of agreement that aren’t otherwise recognized.
Some of the right-wingers on the fringes of Occupy had nothing worthwhile to offer. The outright racists, certainly — though their presence was far less of a concern than unconscious racism among privileged leftists. Groups like organized libertarians and LaRouche supporters generally kept to themselves and handed out their literature from their own tables, and wouldn’t be seen elsewhere. But many individuals who had affinity with groups on the right became involved in Occupy for perfectly sensible reasons — because they believed in challenging the power of Wall Street and building power for the people. They might have disagreed with socialists or anarchists about how to do so, but the socialists and anarchists disagreed with each other about this, too. And not even Sunshine would claim that there was any meaningful presence of, say, mainstream pro-corporate Republicans, although there were plenty of mainstream liberal Democrats.
One of the things Occupy encampments like Liberty Plaza did best was serving as a school. Over the course of a week or two, I would see people’s political views transform in remarkable ways. These are the apocalypses — the unveilings, etymologically speaking — that I tried to capture in my reporting. People seemed to be experiencing the equivalent of a semester of school in just a day at Liberty not because of the much-touted consensus, but because of the debate and diversity. Mark Bray’s book Translating Anarchy clearly (and quantitatively) demonstrates that this movement radicalized participants and broadened their sense of political possibility. On the whole, it deepened their desire to build an intersectional movement led by affected communities, building power from the ground up.
The existence of certain obnoxious quarters of the right in Occupy was occasionally a problem for the movement, but the right’s presence was also a sign of Occupy’s promise. It was a reminder that discontent against corporate rule (and hope for a better way forward) is not limited to those who happen to be already socialized into leftist politics — a socialization not always readily available in the United States of America of the 21st century. It was a reminder that a movement against Wall Street can be big enough to win, though it might not be small enough to be pure. Organizers were correct to insist on opposing all forms of oppression early on; it was a shame that they didn’t develop the structures to enforce that commitment fairly and effectively. But if every inkling of the political right had been banished from the movement at the outset, there might not have been a movement at all.