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Occupy Wall Street and the Meanings of Success

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It is late August 2012. Dozens of people are sitting and standing in a circle in Tompkins Square Park, planning the actions to commemorate the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. We are literally in the same place, even under the same tree, where the assemblies to plan the initial September 17 occupation took place a year ago. There are a few of the same faces, and many many new ones. As I stand there reflecting on what it means to be in exactly the same geographic spot, yet in an entirely different world, a young man bounces up to me. He is an artist and has played a consistent role in organizing Occupy since last summer. He almost always bounces rather than walks, and his eyes usually glisten with happiness. After a long hug by way of greeting he asks me, "Do you think we should be depressed?" His eyes are not sparkling as much as usual, and I am taken aback by the question. Depressed? Why? I had just been thinking about how far we had come.

Many people think Occupy has been a failure, he says. Hundreds of parks and plazas around the country are no longer occupied, and we are no longer in the mainstream news, and people are saying that we do not have a plan.

But, I say, and he also says, and we both agree: these seem like the wrong metrics. At the same time, what would the right metrics be?

The conversation was a familiar one. In June I traveled to Athens, Greece. Almost immediately after saying hello, a friend from a neighborhood assembly said to me, "Marina, you have to understand, the situation here is much worse, it is not like we thought it would be, we are not succeeding." Only half the population of Athens was refusing to pay the newly imposed tax on the electric bill, he said. And the coordination among the more than 50 neighborhood assemblies in Athens was not as concrete as it should be, and, even more frustrating, many neighbors were coming to their local assemblies for support, but were no longer participating regularly. Maybe I looked like I was going to laugh, because he proceeded to remind me that in November of 2011, the expectations for the movement were quite high: some spoke of dual power and others even of revolutionary situations. By comparison, half the population engaging in direct action and another significant sector looking to the neighborhood assembly as the local power, but not directly participating regularly, was disappointing. After a long conversation I agreed that, based on his definition of success, the movement had not "succeeded"; but I also argued that it did not mean that they had been unsuccessful.

What does success mean? Who decides? By what standards? What has taken place over the course of this last year?

September 17, 2011, marked the beginning of a new refusal in the US. Joining our sisters and brothers around the globe, who in the years prior were declaring Enough is Enough!, as in Mexico and Greece, to Kefaya! (Enough) in Egypt, and They All Must Go! in Argentina. Together we are not only refusing -- we are not just saying no! In each place, in ways that are unique and remarkably similar at the same time, we are affirming ourselves and our power. This is the power of the slogan the 99% or Real Democracy Ya! It is a claim of who we are and a recognition of that power.

Around the world there has been a move from the occupation of large plazas to the creation of neighborhood assemblies, weaving assemblies and actions into the fabric of everyday life. The movements have left the large public plazas to root themselves in workplaces and schools. In Greece, the refusal to pay the new electricity tax is organized through local neighborhood assemblies. Then, when the electricity is cut, it is also the neighborhood assembly that reconnects it. Sometimes the assembly breaks into the records office of the electric company and destroys records of debt. This is all done through local assemblies coordinating on regional levels. Similar actions are also taking place with regard to increased costs to basic health care. Again the neighborhood assemblies block the cashiers in the hospitals so that people do not have to pay. Additionally people are organizing barter networks, through local assemblies that then have more regional connections.

Here in New York we have seen the appearance of numerous local assemblies, which in some cases work directly to defend neighbors from evictions or to support their struggle for the right to affordable and dignified housing, as in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Occupy assemblies have appeared in each of the college and university campuses of the public city university system in New York, coordinating together to resist cuts and proposed tuition increases, as well as to create a space for a "free university" where new forms of education and pedagogy are experimented with, led, and coordinated by students.

Throughout the United States, in large cities and small towns, people inspired by the politics and tactics of Occupy have been organizing to defend people from evictions, from the neighborhood of Bernal Heights in San Francisco to suburbs in midwestern Minnesota and Iowa. The form is the same. Neighbors come together, sometimes going door to door, sometimes meeting in a person's home, and discuss who is at risk of foreclosure and what to do about it, often physically defending homes from eviction as well as petitioning for new terms for living in the home with the bank. Anyone who has been to one of these home defenses, or even looked at the photos, will quickly get a sense of what this means: teenagers in sports jackets, mothers holding children, grandparents and neighbors and activists, all together gather to prevent an eviction or foreclosure from taking place. In most cases they win, forcing the banks to allow people to keep their homes instead of being cast out on the street.

For example, in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, a few neighbors came together first to help defend a longtime resident who was facing foreclosure. After a long battle, they were able to force the bank to renegotiate his mortgage to one that he could afford. From there, a number of women began a door knocking campaign where they went house to house asking if people were facing foreclosure and if they wanted to fight. As Molly, one of the first participants in Occupy Bernal explained,

"Well, we've stopped a lot of auctions -- that's kind of a last-ditch effort, once the home is getting auctioned off. We're trying to stop the foreclosures before that. And now we're starting think about we need to talk to people before they even get in to foreclosure, because the more time we have the better it is, if we're really trying to save people's homes... A lot of people were skeptical at first, but there are people who've gotten their loans modified through work that we've done -- their home would have been auctioned off; they would have been evicted. We feel like we're doing something for our neighbors at least. And one thing that I found out, once we started at who was in foreclosure -- we found out who they were: they were almost all people of color. This is a very diverse neighborhood, but I would say most of the people who live here were white people; so that people of color were the ones who the bank targeted for these bad loans. So it feels to me like -- this is the main reason that I'm active in this -- that the face of my neighborhood is getting changed every day by the banks, these big banks that made fraudulent loans to my neighbors. I'm just outraged. I'm outraged all the time anyway, but this is really outrageous."

Similar stories are being told throughout the U.S., and many housing defenses are taking place that I am sure are not known about, that are not in the media or even the alternative press. As Molly and others from Occupy Bernal explain, they began to organize to defend their neighbors. It was and is the most basic thing to do -- to speak with the person living next to you and organize together. This sort of direct action, facilitated by neighborhood assemblies, is part of what Occupy has inspired. This is where Occupy has come in less than a year.

Within workplaces the movement is still beginning, but the relationship of the Occupy movement to those involved in labor struggles is deepening and profound. Labor laws that threaten workers for taking action on the job have created such fear that there is often little fighting back within a workplace during business hours. However, there has been an increasing relationship with workers in struggle and movement participants. For example, in my neighborhood in Kensington Brooklyn, a local community group, together with the new Occupy in the neighborhood, have begun to support worker's efforts to organize a union. The workers themselves fear losing their jobs, so they do not join the picket and flyering outside, but the movement has been successfully keeping neighbors from shopping in the grocery store (Golden Farms) and is increasing the pressure on the owners to recognize workers rights. Just last week, workers have won at Hot and Crusty, a cafe on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where they have been organizing a union for almost a year. This victory would not have taken place without the support of community groups, labor and Occupy. Workers from the cafe began coming to Occupy meetings last fall, and with the support of the community and movements have maintained pressure inside the workplace. Then, once they were locked out, workers received movement participants' support in maintaining an ongoing action outside the café, handing out food and coffee on a donation basis, as well as educating the neighborhood as to what was taking place. Finally, due to the pressure, the owners now have agreed to recognize the union and will reopen the cafe as a union shop. These are huge victories that demonstrate the powerful relationship between workers in struggle and Occupy. Similarly in Spain, when there is a struggle and workers ask for support, movement participants will sometimes physically block all people from entering a workplace so that it is effectively shut down, even if the workers cannot "legally" strike. In this way direct action by the movement directly supports the struggle of the workers, yet without placing the workers in any danger. The effect of strike has still occurred with solidarity action.

Not Just What, But How

There is no question as to the amount of Occupy-inspired actions across the country. What I have mentioned above is only the tip of the iceberg. But more important than making a list of what is happening under the umbrella of Occupy is how it is all taking place. People are coming together in horizontal assemblies and deciding what to do. No one is waiting on a political party or a boss or leader to come and tell them what to do and how, but we are looking to one another and figuring it out together. It is not about asking but about doing. It is from a point of affirming our power together and not from a position of weakness.

In Argentina, ten years after the popular rebellion, an interesting phenomenon arose with regard to the question of success of the movements. Young people, and even those in their 30s, who were generally teens or in their 20s during the rebellion, have begun to refer to themselves as Hijos (children) of the 19th and 20th. What they mean by this is not that they became political during the rebellion of December 19th and 20th, 2001, though many of them did. What they mean is that the way that they organize today, with assemblies, using horizontalidad, was created by the rebellion. What it means to be a child of the 19th and 20th lies in the forms of social relationships and the seeing of means as a part of the ends. Nicolas and Gisela, two movement participants explained this as follows in 2010: "[We say] we are the children of 2001 because we were formed by everything we lived within the assemblies, the factories, and everything that happened in the streets, it is there that we learned these cooperative principles of horizontalidad."

Can One Measure a Dream?

Social movements are made up of people. People with ideas and dreams, dreams for themselves, dreams for the collective, and dreams for the movements and the world. Sometimes these movement dreams and goals measure up with those of social scientists who study movements, claiming to know what a successful movement is. Which I guess is like saying they know the dreams of the movement participants. Some theorists argue, for example, that the Occupy movement must ultimately take state and institutional power to be successful. Some Occupy movement participants however often say that dignity and freedom in their relationships is what they desire and dream. Who is right? Are the people who tell me that I need to own a home and have a well-paying job to be happy truly arguing I am not happy because I do not? Can one really argue that a movement is not successful because it did not meet the goals a person has imposed on the movement?

Who decides success? Success has to be decided by those people in struggle, those who are fighting or organizing for something.

Success of a movement, movement goals and people's desires come from those people, those social actors, not those studying them or politically desiring to lead them. In fact, it is against this way of thinking and organizing that the Occupy movement was born. It was a rupture with people telling us what to do and how to do it. This includes not only governments and politicians, but also left political parties, journalists, and scholars.

One year after Occupy we have a success already. When people begin to organize all over the country they are doing so with assemblies, struggling against hierarchy, thinking about the question of leadership and power, and trying to create ways where all can be leaders. When people are organizing today it might not always be with the word Occupy, but the spirit of assemblies, direct action, and creating power together is there for sure. The mark of Occupy is there for sure.

Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, organizer, militant and dreamer. Her latest book, co-authored with Dario Azzellini, is Occupying Language, published this week in the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series by Zuccotti Park Press.

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