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Occupation as a Movement Beyond Tactics

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A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol -- with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.

Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying "enough!" This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.

Occupation as tactic

It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.

On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.

But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, "What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?"

By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular--even that they are common sense--and connected to a social base.

Occupy Wall Street as "floating signifier"

I want to suggest that the primary reason the tactic of occupation has resonated so far and wide is because it has served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To most people, the "occupy" in "Occupy Wall Street" essentially stands in for the F word! Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something -- became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we'd been waiting for.

Thus, Occupy Wall Street has served as something of a floating signifier -- amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and to see their values within the symbol. Such ambiguous symbols are characteristic of new populist alignments. Many objects can serve as the catalyzing symbol, including actions (e.g. the occupation of Tahrir Square or of the Wisconsin State Capitol this spring), individual politicians (quintessentially Perón in Argentina), or even constructed brands (e.g. the "Tea Party"). As the above examples suggest, this phenomenon can be seen in all kinds of broad political alignments, across the ideological spectrum. In all cases though, a degree of ambiguity is necessary if the symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol's meaning becomes too particular--too associated with any one current or group within the alignment--it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal.

It's important to note that although the signifier is floating (i.e. not peg-able), it is not empty of content. It has to be meaningful enough to resonate. Moreover, different symbols tend to pull things in different directions. Candidate Barack Obama as floating signifier, for example, pulled a lot of grassroots energy into what has turned out to be an establishment-reinforcing direction. Occupy Wall Street as floating signifier, on the other hand, seems so far to be pulling a lot of establishment forces in the direction of the fired-up, social justice-oriented grassroots.

When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it's like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.

It becomes imperative then for the forces defending the status quo to tarnish the challenger movement and its symbols -- to destroy their popular appeal. This tarnishing strategy is accomplished by nailing down the floating signifier -- by fixing it to particular meanings, associating it with particular "kinds of people" and to narrower frameworks, so that it can no longer function as a popular symbol.

This is the phase we find ourselves in right now.

Expanding the "us"

We are engaged in a battle over values and ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people -- all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power. This idea has struck a chord and millions of Americans have quickly come to identify on some level with Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.

In this epic battle over values and ideas, our opponents have already mounted a sophisticated public relations offensive to nail down the floating signifier and negatively brand the emerging movement. They are attempting to caricaturize, stereotype and "otherize" the most visible actors--the occupiers--in order to inoculate more Americans from identifying with "the 99%" and keep them from joining the movement.

"Character assassination" is a primary tactic that the powerful wield against challengers. It's about tarnishing a person's reputation, so that no one will listen to anything they have to say. It can be used against groups and movements too. When Mayor Bloomberg attempted to "clean Zuccotti Park", he was making the first move in an ongoing character assassination campaign that has not ceased. Bloomberg and others have thrown everything in the book at us.

In the face of a character assassination campaign, our task and challenge is to expand the "us". Our opponents want to portray the movement as a particular kind of person doing a particular thing (e.g. "dirty hippies"). Thus, it's critical that we continue to bring more kinds of people, visibly engaged in more kinds of things, into the movement. The 99% movement has to be more than a protest, more than an occupation, more than any given tactic, and more than any "type" of person. We must not allow ourselves to be typecast.

The good news is that there's already a lot in motion to buck our opponents' strategy. Since September 17 (the start of Occupy Wall Street), the "us" has expanded exponentially. The movement has become far broader than those who are able to participate in physical occupation. The 99% movement is Elora and Monte in rural West Virginia who sent hand-knit hats to occupiers at Liberty Square. It's 69-year-old retired Iowa public school teacher Judy Lonning who comes out for Saturday marches in Des Moines. It's Nellie Bailey, who helped to organize the Occupy Harlem Mobilization last week. It's Selena Coppa and Joe Carter, who marched in formation to the New York Stock Exchange last week with 40 fellow 'Veterans of the 99%'. The 99% movement is everyone who sends supplies, everyone who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process.

Tactic, message, movement

We are moving in the right direction, but we must keep moving. We can't let this expansion of the "us" plateau.

In the past week and a half, we've seen more and more news stories focusing on the physical logistics of occupation, including the problems and challenges. News outlets are presenting the tactic of occupation as if the tactic were the message and the movement itself. And our opponents are making some headway in negatively branding occupation and occupiers.

To navigate this challenge, it is important that we recognize a few things about our relationship to the tactic of physical occupation:

  • It has already accomplished more than any of us imagined.
  • It is incredibly resource-intensive to maintain.
  • It will not serve us forever (indeed, it's utility may already be waning).
  • We will have to come up with other popular expressions of the values of this movement.
  • We have to distinguish conceptually between our tactics, our message, and our movement. Of these three, our tactics should be the thing we are least attached to. In oppositional struggle, it is critical to maintain the initiative; to keep one's opponents in a reactive state. This is not accomplished by growing overly attached to any particular tactic--no matter how well it worked the first time--and thereby doing exactly what our opponents expect us to do.

Admittedly, it's a lot easier to conceptualize the need to be innovative and keep our opponents on their toes than to actually come up with the right thing at the right moment to make it so. Moreover, it's wrongheaded to get caught up in the elusive search for the perfect silver bullet tactic. Movements are, more than anything else, about people. To build a movement is to listen to people, to read the moment well, and to navigate a course that over time inspires whole swaths of society to identify with the aims of the movement, to buy in, and to take collective action.

"Occupy Wall Street" is the tactic that has launched a movement for social justice and real democracy onto center stage. It has served as the initial catalyzing symbol. Hopefully ten or twenty years from now, when we look back at all we've accomplished together, we'll credit Occupy Wall Street as a critical moment that helped to spark and then build a lasting movement.

However, if we fail to find other successful tactics--and other popular expressions of this movement's values--we will be pronounced dead as soon as the tactic fades. Fortunately, Occupy Wall Street--and the tactic of occupation--is neither the primary message nor the movement itself. And, fortunately, we don't have to invent the message for the movement from scratch.

"We are the 99%" has become a core message of this burgeoning movement. It emerged in tandem with the deployment of the captivating tactic of occupation. The framework of the 99% accomplishes a number of important feats:

  • The 99% frames the consolidation of wealth and political power in our society -- the central grievance of this movement and a central crisis of our times.
  • The 99% frames a class struggle in a way that puts the 1% on the defensive (whereas the common accusation of "class warfare" has somehow tended to put a lot of people in the middle on the defensive).
  • The 99% casts an extraordinarily broad net for who is invited to join the movement. Most everyone is encouraged to see their hopes and dreams tied to a much bigger public. Thus it frames a nearly limitless growth trajectory for the movement.
  • The 99% even leaves room for the 1% to redeem itself. There are many striking cases of "1 percenters" speaking out as defectors who are as vocal as anyone that the system is broken and needs to serve the 100%!
  • The 99% meme is a real winner. Its message and framework may prove better at helping us weather the winter, both literal and metaphorical, than any one tactic could. It points the way toward a necessary expansion. It encourages us to not just act on behalf of, but alongside of, the 99%; to look beyond the forces already in motion, to activate potential energy, to articulate a moral political narrative, and to claim and contest our culture.

No framework will automatically deliver -- not without a lot of hard work and smart decisions. Thankfully, there's a whole new generation of leadership stepping up to do just that. Together we can turn this moment into a movement that's here for the long haul.