It is nearly six months since police violently evicted non-violent protesters from Occupy camps across the United States and activists are seeking to regain momentum by calling for a general strike and “day of economic non-compliance” on May 1 (US time).
Following the evictions, and a winter of consolidation and strategic planning, organisers hope spring in the northern hemisphere will bring a renewed energy to the Occupy movement, which seeks to challenge and reform structures of power on local, national and global levels.
Inspired by the revolutionary fervour that gripped the Arab world in 2011, demonstrations at the heart of global capitalism, in New York City’s Wall Street, quickly spread to dozens of cities in the US and internationally. Popular protests under the Occupy banner have included actions such as closing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and twice shutting down California’s Oakland port.
With 2012 a presidential election year in the US, it is feared mainstream political forces are attempting to co-opt the movement’s ability to mobilise large numbers of people and give voice to a popularly held grievances — relating to the distribution of power and wealth — in order to achieve the re-election of President Obama.
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In April, a group supporting the general strike and calling itself “99% Spring” held workshops for 100,000 people on non-violent protest, in preparation for May Day. While the term “99%” has been popularised through the various manifestations of Occupy, 99% Spring is not part of the movement. Rather, it is a working group of various non-profit organisations — including the influential fund-raising website MoveOn.org and large trade unions, all closely aligned with the Democratic Party.
Rebecca Manski, an outreach and press worker with Occupy Wall Street, said May Day events planned for New York will include 99 picket lines, around the city’s 42nd Street, with support from musicians such as Ben Harper. She describes herself as “concerned” about the prospect of the movement being absorbed into the mainstream political process as the group’s agenda was never to work within existing structures but to create change.
“These establishment groups have become impotent and stagnant,” she said. “Clearly what these institutions cannot do is generate the creative space that a radical anarchist-based movement, such as ours, can create — the kind that’s necessary for actual radical change, which we need.”
Speaking to Crikey from his home in Boston, noted academic and social analyst Noam Chomsky, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, outlined the movement’s success in altering the public discourse and confounding media pundits dismissive of its resonance with the general population.
“At first it was derisive: ‘Why don’t you get a bath?’ that sort of thing,” he said. “But it shifted and, partly, it’s been moderately positive including, incidentally, in the business press. I think some of the most sympathetic coverage has come from the Financial Times, in London, the world’s major business paper.”
Chomsky describes the movement as succeeding because of dissatisfaction with political and financial systems.
“Much of what the Occupy movement has been bringing forth has just entered the national discourse,” he noted. “It brought to the fore issues that had always been there but were under the rug — like the huge inequality, the character of elections bought by huge funding, the shenanigans of financial institutions, the stagnation of wages and income for the vast majority of the past generation, the impact of neo-liberal programs. All this is very much in the common discourse right now.”
Manski’s experiences of joining Occupy Wall Street reflect this assessment.
“All of us were in exactly the same place at the same time,” she recalled. “After returning to live in New York and feeling that no one was doing anything around me and things were falling apart economically in this country, I, like many people, had hit my limits of feeling as though I was sitting idle. None of us expected that it would turn into something that would build real momentum.”
With Barak Obama likely to face billionaire Republican Mitt Romney in November’s presidential elections, it appears the President’s re-election campaign will, in part, focus on selected themes and demographics highlighted by the Occupy movement — particularly “tax fairness” for the United States’ middle class.
In April, the US Senate voted against a bill introduced by Obama, referred to as the Buffett Rule, which sought to increase the tax level for Americans earning more than $1 million per year to 30%. “Senate Republicans voted to block the Buffett Rule, choosing once again to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class,” the President said in a statement released following the bill’s rejection.
Chomsky is dismissive of any politician within the current political system instituting radical restructuring for the benefit the majority of the United States’ population — describing Obama’s promises for “change” in 2008 as “complete illusions” based on rhetoric.
“Democrats and Republicans have pretty much the same funding sources,” he said. “In 2008 Obama received more funding from the financial institutions than John McCain did. These institutions preferred Obama to McCain and not because Obama was going to be a radical. They knew what they were getting and he paid them back right away.”
Despite satisfaction that a measure of the Occupy message has penetrated into the public’s discourse, activists are busy planning and taking action on various levels.
“If you were to look at it objectively you would say it’s been an overwhelming success,” Manski said. “But I wouldn’t be satisfied if we only saw a repetition of the rhetoric or a polishing of it by organisations like MoveOn. The adoption of this rhetoric by Obama, that’s all good but we’re not here to feed them new lines. We’re here to continuously push things.”
The organic and local nature of Occupy has meant that since the camp evictions, action around the country has been directed by locally based collectives on issues concerning their members. Establishing camps in houses under foreclosure and other locally and community-based actions have become the norm.
While some may gauge the movement’s success through highly visible actions such as mass protests, Manski describes the group as focused on working to achieve objectives over a longer period of time through community-based work and mobilisation.
“Two months after the eviction from New York’s Zuccotti Park we decided to be more strategic going forward, with clearer decisions about days of action and working long term,” she said. “The energy was out there anyway. We started something with a radical basis and what we are saying is: ‘This is a call for everybody to act on their own patch and everyone should speak for themselves’.”
For her the goal is big. “The corporate occupation of the planet,” she stated. “Right now we’ve narrowed our focus and strategically this could be good but I hope it’s not our ultimate destination.”
*Follow freelance journalist Nigel O’Connor on twitter at @nigel_oconnor.