The Occupy movement that spread across the country in fall 2011 has already changed the national discussion: It’s brought attention to the serious, systemic problem of gross inequities of wealth and power and the mass hardships that have resulted from that imbalance.
Occupy put a new paradigm in the political debate—the 1 percent is exploiting the 99 percent—and it’s tapping the energy and imagination of a new generation of activists.
When Adbusters magazine first proposed the idea of occupying Wall Street, kicking off on Sept. 17, it called for a focus on how money was corrupting the political system. “Democracy not Corporatocracy,” the magazine declared—but that focus quickly broadened to encompass related issues, ranging from foreclosures and the housing crisis to self-dealing financiers and industrialists who take ever more profits but provide fewer jobs, and the ways that poor and disenfranchised people suffer disproportionately in this economic system.
It was a primal scream, sounded most strongly by young people who decided it was time to fight for their future. The participants have used the prompt to create a movement that drew from all walks of life: recent college graduates and the homeless, labor leaders and anarchists, communities of colors and old hippies, returning soldiers and business people. They’re voicing a wide variety of concerns and issues, but they share a common interest in empowering the average person, challenging the status quo and demanding economic justice.
Alternative newsweeklies across the country chronicled and actively supported the Occupy movement, from its early days through its repeated expulsions from public plazas by police. They supported the right of the protesters to remain—even as they understood Occupiers couldn’t, and shouldn’t, simply stay forever. Occupy needed to evolve if it were to hold the public’s interest. The movement would ultimately morph into something else.
That time has come. This spring, Occupy is poised to return as a mass movement—and there’s no shortage of energy or ideas about what comes next. Countless activists have proposed occupying foreclosed homes, shutting down ports and blocking business in bank lobbies. Those all have merit. But if the movement is going to challenge the hegemony of the 1 percent, it will involve moving onto a larger stage and coming together around bold ideas—like a national convention in Washington, D.C., to write new rules for the nation’s political and economic systems.
Imagine thousands of Occupy activists spending the spring drafting Constitutional amendments—for example, to end corporate personhood and repeal the Citizens United decision that gave corporations unlimited ability to influence elections by treating corporations the same as individual citizens and allowing them to spend unlimited sums on political campaigns—and a broader platform for deep and lasting change in the United States.
Imagine a broad-based discussion—in meetings and on the Web—to develop a platform for economic justice, a set of ideas that could range from self-sustaining community economics to profound changes in the way America is governed.
Imagine thousands of activists crossing the country in caravans, occupying public space in cities along the way, and winding up at a convention in Washington, D.C.
Imagine organizing a week of activities—not just political meetings, but parties and cultural events—to make Occupy the center of the nation’s attention and an inspiring example for an international audience.
Imagine ending with a massive mobilization that brings hundreds of thousands of people to the nation’s capital—and into the movement.
Occupy activists are already having discussions about some of these concepts (see sidebar).
Mass social movements of the 20th century often had defining moments—the Freedom Rides, bus boycotts and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, D.C.; Earth Day 1970; the Vietnam War teach-ins and moratoriums. None of those movements were politically monolithic; all of them had internal conflicts over tactics and strategies.
But they came together in ways that made a political statement, created long-term organizing efforts and led to significant reforms. Occupy can do the same—and more. The potential for real change is enormous, and if something’s going to happen this spring and summer, the planning should get under way now.
A convention could begin in late June, in Washington, D.C.—with the goal of ratifying on the Fourth of July a platform document that presents the movement’s positions, principles and demands. Occupy groups from around the country would endorse the idea in their General Assemblies make it their own.
This winter and spring, activists would develop and hone the various proposals that would be considered at the convention and the procedures for adopting them. They could develop regional working groups or use online tools to broadly crowd-source solutions, like the people of Iceland did in 2011 when they wrote a new constitution for that country. They would build support for ideas to meet the convention’s high bar for its platform, probably the 90 percent threshold that many Occupy groups have adopted for taking action.
Whatever form that document takes, the exercise would unite the movement around a specific, achievable goal and give it something that it has lacked so far: an agenda and set of demands on the existing system—and a set of alternative approaches to politics.
While it might contain a multitude of issues and solutions to the complicated problems we face, it would represent the simple premise our nation was founded on: the people’s right to create a government of their choosing.
There’s already an Occupy group planning a convention in Philadelphia Fourth of July weekend, and there’s a lot of symbolic value to the day. After all, on another July 4 long ago, a group of people met in Philly to draft a document called the Declaration of Independence that said, among other things, that “governments ... deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed ... [and] whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
ON THE ROAD
If the date is right and the organizing effort is effective, there’s no reason that Occupy couldn’t get close to a million people into the nation’s capital for an economic-justice march and rally.
That, combined with teach-ins, events and days of action across the country, could kick off a new stage of a movement that has the greatest potential in a generation or more to change the direction of American politics.
Occupy groups from around the country could travel together in zig-zagging paths to the capital, stopping and rallying in—indeed, Occupying!—every major city in the country along the way.
It could begin a week or more before the conference, along the coasts and the northern and southern borders: San Francisco and Savannah, Ga.; Los Angeles and New York City; Seattle and Miami; Chicago and El Paso, Texas; Billings, Mont., and New Orleans—Portland, Ore., and Portland, Maine.
At each stop, participants would gather in that city’s central plaza or another significant area with their tents and supplies, stage a rally and general assembly, and peacefully occupy for a night. Then they would break camp in the morning, travel to the next city and do it all over again.
Along the way, the movement would attract international media attention and new participants. The caravans could also begin the work of writing the convention platform, dividing the many tasks up into regional working groups that could work on solutions and new structures in the encampments or on the road.
At each stop, the caravan would assert the right to assemble for the night at the place of its choosing, without seeking permits or submitting to any higher authorities. And at the end of that journey, the various caravans could converge on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., set up a massive tent city with infrastructure needed to maintain it for a week or so, and assert the right to stay there until the job was done.
The final document would probably need to be hammered out in a convention hall with delegates from each of the participating cities, and those delegates could confer with their constituencies according to whatever procedures they prescribe. This and many of the details would need to be developed over the spring.
But the Occupy movement has already started this conversation and developed the mechanisms for self-governance. It may be messy and contentious and probably even seem doomed at times, but that’s always the case with grass-roots organizations that lack top-down structures.
Proposals will range from the eminently reasonable (asking Congress to end corporate personhood) to the seemingly crazy (rewriting the entire U.S. Constitution). But an Occupy platform will have value no matter what it says. We’re not fond of quoting Milton Friedman, the late right-wing economist, but he had a remarkable statement about the value of bold ideas:
“It is worth discussing radical changes, not in the expectation that they will be adopted promptly, but for two other reasons. One is to construct an ideal goal, so that incremental changes can be judged by whether they move the institutional structure toward or away from that ideal. The other reason is very different. It is so that if a crisis requiring or facilitating radical change does arrive, alternatives will be available that have been carefully developed and fully explored.”
After the delegates in the convention hall have approved the document, they could present it to the larger encampment—and use it as the basis for a massive rally on the final day. Then the occupiers can go back home—where the real work will begin.
WASHINGTON’S BEEN OCCUPIED BEFORE
The history of social movements in this country offers some important lessons for Occupy.
The notion of direct action—of in-your-face demonstrations designed to force injustice onto the national stage, sometimes involving occupying public space—has long been a part of protest politics in this country. In fact, in the depth of the Great Depression, more than 40,000 former soldiers occupied a marsh on the edge of Washington, D.C., created a self-sustaining campground and demanded that bonus money promised at the end of World War I be paid out immediately.
The so-called Bonus Army attracted tremendous national attention before General Douglas Macarthur, assisted by Major George Patton and Major Dwight Eisenhower, used active-duty troops to roust the occupiers.
The Freedom Rides of the early 1960s showed the spirit of independence and democratic direct action. Raymond Arsenault, a professor at the University of South Florida, brilliantly outlines the story of the early civil-rights actions in the 2007 book Freedom Rides: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
Arsenault notes that the rides were not popular with what was then the mainstream of the civil-rights movement—no less a leader than Thurgood Marshall thought the idea of a mixed group of black and white people riding buses together through the deep South was dangerous and could lead to a political backlash. The riders were denounced as “agitators” and initially were isolated.
The first Freedom Ride, in May 1961, left Washington, D.C., but never reached its destination of New Orleans; the bus was surrounded by angry mobs in Birmingham, Ala., and the drivers refused to continue.
But soon other rides rose up spontaneously, and in the end there were more than 60, with 430 riders. Writes Arsenault:
“Deliberately provoking a crisis of authority, the Riders challenged federal officials to enforce the law and uphold the constitutional right to travel without being subjected to degrading and humiliating racial restrictions. ... None of the obstacles placed in their path—not widespread censure, not political and financial pressure, not arrest and imprisonment, not even the threat of death—seemed to weaken their commitment to nonviolent struggle. On the contrary, the hardships and suffering imposed upon them appeared to stiffen their resolve.”
The Occupy movement has already shown similar resolve—and the police batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets have only given the movement more energy and determination.
David S. Meyer, a professor at U.C. Irvine and an expert on the history of political movements, notes that the civil-rights movement went in different directions after the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. Some wanted to continue direct action; some wanted to continue the fight in the court system and push Congress to adopt civil-rights laws; some thought the best tactic was to work to elect African Americans to local, state and federal office.
Actually, all of those things were necessary—and Occupy will need to work on a multitude of levels, as well, and with a diversity of tactics.
There’s an unavoidable dilemma here for this wonderfully anarchic movement: The larger it gets— the more it develops the ability to demand and win reforms—the more it will need structure and organization. And the more that happens, the further Occupy will move from its original leaderless experiment in true grass-roots democracy.
But these are the problems a movement wants to have—dealing with growth and expanding influence is a lot more pleasant than realizing (as a lot of traditional progressive political groups have) that you aren’t getting anywhere.
All of the discussions around the next step for Occupy are taking place in the context of a presidential election that will also likely change the makeup of Congress. That’s an opportunity—and a challenge. As Meyer notes, “Social movements often dissipate in election years, when money and energy goes into electoral campaigns.” At the same time, Occupy has already influenced the national debate—and that can continue through the election season, even if (as is likely) neither of the major party candidates is talking seriously about economic justice.
That’s why a formal platform could be so useful—candidates from President Obama to members of Congress can be presented with the proposals, and judged on their response.
The important thing is to let this genie out of the bottle, to move Occupy into the next level of politics, to use a convention, rally and national event to reassert the power of the people to control our political and economic institutions—and to change or abolish them as we see fit.
This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Occupy America is already under way
By Steven T. Jones, Tim Redmond, and Yael Chanoff
All across the country, Occupy organizers are developing and implementing creative ways to connect and come together, many of which we drew from for our proposal. We hope all of these people will build on each other’s ideas, work together, and harness their power.
From invading the halls of Congress to “occutripping” road trips to ballot initiatives, here is a list of groups already working on ways to Occupy America:
Sean Valdez, one of the participants, said the trip was important to “get the full story. What I’d been told by the media was that Occupy Oakland was pretty much dead, but we got there and saw there are still tons of dedicated, organized people working on it. It was important to see it with our own eyes, and gave a lot of hope for Occupy.”
Like lots of road-tripping Occupiers, they made it to Oakland for the Dec. 12 West Coast Port Shutdown action there. In fact, “occutrippers” from all around the country have flocked to Bay Area occupations in general, and especially the uniquely radical Occupy Oakland. OccupyDenver.org/denver-occutrip-road-trip
OCCUPY THE CONSTITUTION
THE 99 PERCENT DECLARATION
These delegates would write up lists of grievances with the help of their Occupy constituents, then convene on July 4, 2012 in Philadelphia for a National General Assembly. They plan to present a unified list of grievances to Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court. If the grievances are not addressed, they would “reconvene to organize a new grassroots campaign for political candidates who publicly pledge to redress the grievances. These candidates will seek election for all open Congressional seats in the mid-term election of 2014 and in the elections of 2016 and 2018.” The-99-Declaration.org
MOVE TO AMEND/OCCUPY THE COURTS
The group has drafted a petition, signed so far by more than 150,000 people, and established chapters across the country. It held a national day of action called Occupy the Courts on Jan. 20. On the anniversary of the Citizens United ruling, the group plans to “Occupy the US Supreme Court” and hold solidarity occupations in federal courts around the country. MoveToAmend.org
THE OCCUPY CARAVAN
Buddy, one of the organizers, tells us that the group already has “a commitment right now of 10 to 11 RVs, scores of vehicles, and a bio-diesel green machine bus. This caravan will visit cities, encircle city halls, and visit the local Occupy groups to assert their presence, and move on to the next, not stopping for long in each destination.”
This caravan is all about the journey, calling itself a “civil rights vacation with friends and family” and planning to gather “more RVs, more cars, more supporters...and more LOVE” along the way. OccupyCaravan.webs.com
How Occupy Came to SLC
By Jessica Lee
In September 2011, as thousands assembled on Wall Street to draw attention to the corruption of our economic system, no one anticipated that an international movement would grow out of the mere occupation of a public place.
And yet, over the past few months, thousands have gathered in hundreds of cities to create new civil spaces in which grievances can be aired, solutions found, connections forged, communities fostered and ideas, so often shackled, finally freed. These impromptu encampments have brought together strangers from all points on the political, social, economic and cultural maps. By literally removing the walls between neighbors, these communities have created a culture of open, transparent and innovative thinking.
Occupy Salt Lake City is one of these communities. What began four months ago when the first tents were pitched in Pioneer Park has now coalesced into a group seeking to find radical solutions to both local and national issues. The beauty of the Occupy movement is that it humbles and empowers participants; they are able to acquire the knowledge, tools and, most importantly, the support needed in order to take action. In a society that constantly puts its people in a state of complacency, this, more than anything else, is the power of the movement. It asks you to step up and take responsibility, make mistakes, ask questions and constantly push boundaries.
While many of the physical occupations have been disbanded, evicted and brutally pushed away, Salt Lake City still hosts a vibrant 24-hour tent assembly at Gallivan Plaza on Main Street, and holds weekly General Assemblies and Workgroup meetings to keep the dialogue moving forward. Education and direct participation are key to this dialogue.
One of the things Occupy wishes to educate our city about is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which will be holding its 39th-annual meeting in Salt Lake City from July 25 to 28. This organization brings representatives from major corporations (such as Monsanto, Wal-Mart, PhRMA and Koch Companies) into closed-door meetings with legislatures from all over the country in order to draft “model bills” for the upcoming year—bills and legislation that benefit profits over people, and corporations over communities. Many of the anti-immigration bills being put into place, including Utah’s House Bill 487 (the federal lawsuit against which will be heard Feb. 17) were conceived and drafted by ALEC tasks forces. The ALEC Welcoming Committee is coordinating with national activist groups in order to prepare for July, and will be reaching out to the groups most strongly influenced by decisions that are not drafted by the people, but by money and lobbyists.
Direct participation comes in the form of Occupy Elections, an initiative that will place participants as delegates in both the Democratic and Republican meetings that decide who will be allowed to run for office. The goals are twofold: Occupy Elections will allow people to fully participate in their government and will also show them the broken and vulnerable nature of the electoral system.
During the next year, Occupy SLC will be working together with existing organizations such as Peaceful Uprising, the National Prison Divestment Campaign, Transition Salt Lake, One World Cafe, the Revolutionary Students Union and the other Utah Occupations (such as Provo and Park City) in order to broaden our community and create an even stronger push for reform and transformation. There is strength that comes from education and collaboration, a power which comes from pooling together the collected experiences and wisdoms of groups and individuals.
We are Occupy Salt Lake City. We are the 99 percent. We are adaptable and determined. We are prepared to question the status quo. And we invite you to join us. It is together that we shall prevail.