The fallout from May Day can be felt in every sector of Occupy Wall Street. Some people say it was one of the greatest days since the movement began and are excited for what comes next. Others left with a sour taste in their mouths, whether by the lack of aggressive actions, or by the police state erected in Lower Manhattan, or by simply being worn down from overwork. In some cases, relationships with one another have strained and frayed. Having helped see the project through from conception to reality, my own feelings are mixed. I’m burnt out, taking a break to get perspective, and scared for what might come next. But I also saw May Day as a project that fulfilled the main objectives we had for it and meanwhile created a model for how to organize long-term projects in the future.
May Day had a few primary purposes. The first goal, to bring out enough numbers to show that Occupy Wall Street is vibrant and thriving, was more than achieved. Following a winter and early spring that saw the General Assembly and Spokes Council disbanded and attendance at actions topping out at around 500, May Day brought as many as 30,000 protesters into the streets, joining New York’s November 17 actions and Oakland’s ”general strike” on November 2 as among the largest actions in Occupy’s short history. It should be considered a more than adequate kick-off for our summer offensive. And, unlike N17 here in New York, the unions did not drive turnout for May Day. There were many union contingents on the march, but none other than the Transportation Workers Union had more than a few dozen marchers each; even TWU fell well short of the 3,000 people they estimated that they could turn out. Occupy mobilized the overwhelming majority of protesters. Nevertheless, the tens of thousands who took part showed that a model is being created in which Occupy assemblies, labor unions, immigrant worker justice organizations and other groups can collaborate and begin to jumpstart the catatonic left.
In the past, large OWS actions with sizeable labor contingents, like those on October 5 and November 17, have left many Occupy activists feeling disempowered. Union marshals would stand between police and protesters, telling activists where to go and making sure they didn’t get “out of line,” ostensibly doing the job of the police for them. Collaborating with the state is against many core principles of the Occupy movement, however, and for May Day great pains were taken to ensure this would not happen again. All unions and community groups specifically directed their marshals to stay with their union contingent and not to marshal anyone else. I marched under a giant blue tarp which read “No Bosses, No Borders, No Bullshit!” and nary a marshal or “peacekeeper” was to be found.
May Day has set a precedent for working with unions and other groups, helping to ensure that our unique methods and comfort levels with various tactics of resistance are respected. In order to reverse decades of decline, the labor movement must begin to adopt the more aggressive resistance Occupy has made commonplace, and not censoring or policing us is a start. Maybe next time we can have marches splinter into “red” and “green” risk levels, pulling off some rank-and-file with us to the more aggressive actions. As David Graeber wrote, by aligning our movement with May Day’s rich history of radical resistance, we may have finally distanced ourselves from the ineffective habits of so many reformist institutions. It’s time for unions to start doing the same, and helping unlock their own revolutionary potential.
Perhaps the most important lesson from May Day, though, is the organizing effort itself. On this project I worked alongside liberals and radicals, reformists and anarchists, labor organizers and hackers — a broad range of voices that represent the diversity of the Occupy movement. Without the GA and Spokes Council, inclusive and open projects like May Day can build solidarity and bring us together. Unlike a lot of other OWS actions, including many that I have worked on, May Day had buy-in from across the Occupy community. It belonged to all of us, and everyone felt it. People did what they could, whether that was organizing their workplace, making stickers, organizing autonomous actions, wheatpasting posters or talking to their church group.
Future long-term organizing efforts should follow this open, inclusive model. By connecting everyone’s unique skill sets and tactics, while being in solidarity with those who may choose to adopt different approaches, we can begin laying the groundwork for establishing alternative institutions. Over time, people will begin to have more faith in the alternatives than in the old order, which will cease to be relevant and fade away. If Occupy Wall Street is to survive as a radical movement, it must strive to produce tangible results, making life better for people across New York, outside of capitalism. This means focusing on tasks like foreclosure defense, successful home occupations, mutual aid and — finally — establishing a new home base for the movement.
We have now spent six months without a central place for our movement to thrive, for us to work and meet one another, for new people to know where to come to get involved, or for us to provide services to the community. Those long, hard months have taught us that the police state will never tolerate public occupations again, having seen the strength of our alternatives. Like the model for an Oakland Commune emerging out of Occupy Oakland, a New York Commune would be a way for the movement to live, grow and thrive. For this, we need to find a way to acquire space, whether it’s by defending a new indoor occupation, or purchasing one through a fundraising campaign, which OWS is more than capable of mounting.
In a New York Commune, we can practice mutual aid by providing a place for a free school, a really really free market, meeting spaces, food-banking, time-banking — the possibilities are endless. Renovating a large building would give us an ongoing community project to which thousands of people can apply their unique skills and talents. We can offer rent-free workspace to a variety of horizontal worker co-ops emerging from the Occupy movement, like the OccuCopy print shop. Our community center can put on display alternatives to the state and capitalism, and give people a way to envision a world without these forces of oppression, as Liberty Square once did.
Alternative institutions and sources of dual-power cannot just exist in one building, however. We must work actively to promote and support community assemblies, encourage the formation of new worker-owned cooperatives, and proliferate similiar community centers and projects all over the city. When communities begin to see that they, themselves, can create alternatives to the state, we may very well see a wave of resistence and mutual aid that makes last fall look like practice.
It’s time to absorb the lessons in the successes and frustrations of May Day, and move on toward new long-term projects and goals. It’s time to begin building real power that challenges the legitimacy of state and capitalist institutions, putting the very reason of their existence into question. Let’s continue the feeling of solidarity we had with each other during the May Day organizing process and use our combined strength to begin challenging the state head-on. I can think of no better way to start than by securing a new home for Occupy Wall Street and working to keep people all across New York inside of theirs.
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In other words, how can we transform OWS from a political movement with a real impact on policies that affect the 99% into a quest for personal transformation of the few individuals willing to spend vast amounts of time on pre-figurative behavior?
Where can folks opposed to this register their block in a meaningful way? I worry that the ultra-democratic, horizontalist, general assembly methodology grants all decision making to a very small number who have acquired social capital (perhaps 100 people in NYC), depriving the large majority of supporters and activists of a meaningful voice. (Perhaps 10,000 who at one time participated in OWS organizing since September.)
OWS has never been a political movement.
This statement conflates “politics” with “electoral politics” and “public policy,” a conflation which shows how barren US, uh, political discourse has become and how much of even Occupy is infected by it. Of COURSE Occupy is political. Tell Marina Sitrin that OWS is not political.
I think the brief history of our movement, at least here in New York, has shown that the more “ultra-democratic, horizontalist” our projects and structures are, the more we work to mitigate the power of the 100 or so folks with lots of movement social capital you’re referring to.
Was it not back in September, when you say 10,000 or so people were helping organize OWS, that we were at our most horizontal? People had yet to acquire social capital in the movement, and our organizing methods were so inclusive and democratic that we were able to draw in thousands of organizers and millions of supporters, inspiring similar encampments all over the country.
After the raid in the park, and the subsequent collapse of the GA and Spokes, many of us lost our sense of community. May Day was a project were hundreds of us regained that community, by challenging ourselves to work in solidarity with folks with different strategies or tactics.
Leadership and power are a source of ongoing struggle in this and any movement, but it is only by challenging ourselves to live up to our commitment to horizontality and inclusion that we can work to tear down these structures.
You write of “long-term projects and goals.” Yes, getting masses of quotidian working class folks on board with and actively participating in anarcho-communist institutions may be an ideal objective… but is a very long-range one for reasons (among others) that “Charles” cites. To say that “when communities begin to see that they, themselves, can create alternatives to the state, we may very well see a wave of resistence and mutual aid that makes last fall look like practice” is very nice but more than a tad voluntarist, if you ask me. Think of building dual power as a 10-to-20-year plan, conducted in the face of mounting crisis and police repression. (And here in NYC anyway, the question of whether the hyper-gentrification of Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn can continue to ramify outwards even if global financial markets collapse again. Frankly, building dual power in a place that is now a big Monaco of the world’s rich seems a little silly to me, unless it is a toy dual power that has no real working-class involvement.)
@gluelicker (or others), what do you think are alternative ways of building mass involvement in a city like this? As Chris found during the May Day planning process, for instance, unions were of very limited help. OWS, with its horizontal culture and all that comes along with it, brought out more people by far.
Gandhi understood that revolutionary social change required personal transformation, political action and a constructive program. Further, he believed that a strong constructive program – creating a new society in the shell of the old – was the necessary foundation for effective political action. Occupy has been so successful and arguably revolutionized American politics because it also understands that a vibrant constructive program is the key to political change. Where much confusion remains, even in Occupy, is in regard to power, particularly “dual” power. John Holloway in his seminal book “Change the World Without Taking Power” explains that it is not “dual” power but two radically different kinds of power. The power of the capitalist hierarchy is the power of taking – using violence to take the common wealth created by fundamentally social economic activity. The kind of power that Occupy is creating is the power “to do.” The power to meet our most basic economic and social needs through cooperative efforts. And to share this commonly created wealth for the benefit of all. This is the core of the constructive program, economic independence, liberating education, living sustainably in accord with ecological law, and a society based on equality and justice for everyone.
@Ed Thanks for the “power to do”summary. I needed to hear that today. It is hard not to fall into burnout and be frightened when a movement doesn’t “move” as quickly as we’d like.
@Chris I’m glad you keep writing despite those burnt out and scared times. You are moving the revolution forward both with words and with your physical participation. I’m not good with words so I just try to put my body out there as much as possible. I’m thankful to have spaces where I can still Occupy with my child & grateful to those of you who take the greater risks in places like Wall Street & Oakland.
you need us to succeed. and we need you.
we all need every occupy organisation, planetwide to coalesce around an agreed set of aims. occupy, if you ask me, is in its essence, against unfairness, in all its forms.
it’s unfair the environment will will be uninhabitable in 500 to 1000 years.
it’s unfair that there ar 5 corporate lobbyists to every congressman.
it’s unfair that the difference between rich and poor, is gaeeting larger, and accelerating.
i think practically everyone agrees on these injustices, except the climate deniers, Big-Business and the rich. who happen to be all the same people. the ones where the status quo quite is alright by them thank you very much.
occupy strength is its greatest weakness, if we become to so broad an organistion that our intentions are unclear then we risk alienation.
if we are too constrained in our activism then we will not include all in our efforts.
happily we have a uniting enemy. unfairness caused by greed. even dogs feel shame for being greedy. chimps altruistically share if they see unfairness in a game of rewards. it is innate to us.
it is only that, as game theory states, that those who cheat are not punished then the whole co-operative effort of social inclusion colapses. as we see now.
let us continue to do good works in our streets and homes. but let as all unite and organise and revitalise what is a global movement with world changing potential like nothing before it.
this is the time, momentum and events are on our side. experts professors, and scientists back the need for change. writer and artists are prolific in their discontent. singers and film makers find more heart in their voices. ordinary men wonder why and it can be explained to them in 30 seconds whereby “OMG, it really is that bad? maybe i CAN do something?
if the day is not soon, then i know not when it will come.
i for one will spend all the time i have spreading hope of a beautiful planet, that was once lost, but found in its own impending demise, the collective will to stop a crime against all by a very few.
Just adding on more comment: the Mayday folks worked really hard and it was a big deal. Nothing I wrote above was meant to detract from that.
But I don’t see it as a model. I don’t understand why…
The DA group turned itself into ‘Mayday’ or something like that.
Why the Mayday group formed Mayday subgroups and committees, instead of working through what existed: OWS groups focused on media, PR, tech, etc.
Why there was never an opportunity for folks to ‘block’ the talk of a general strike. (And doesn’t that language look strange, in retrospect?)
Why we keep in creating all those new sites and subsites, often poorly maintained, instead of using existing sites that are meant to survive any single effort?
Why there is not common effort to retain ‘brand’ value from one effort to another, by recycling demands, URL’s, email lists, organizing sites, and methods of organization.