Occupy 2.0: A Movement at a Crossroads


As the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement turns two months old, and as many local encampments face eviction, and winter, I think it’s time we start re-thinking what it means to Occupy, and planning the next phase of this movement.  Physically occupying public and/or private space was a great tactic, and one that has served its purpose, I believe.  People all over the country have been in a state of crippling crisis, while Wall Street banks have been riding high thanks to our bailout.  People have felt helpless, powerless; like they're mere victims of a system that rewards corruption and seemingly punishes the honest pursuit of the ever elusive American dream.  So having a call to action for a long-term occupation of Wall Street served as a galvanizing force: Off of the couch and into the streets!  That call to action resonated with the masses and manifested in the creation of long-term occupations all over the country.  
I don’t think everyone realized how pissed off they were until they started seeing other pissed-off people gathering at Zuccotti Park and at encampments throughout the country.  Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the more that people participated, the more others began to participate.  So, the  physical occupation was key in creating an actual space for people to come together and start to dialogue about the state of the mess we're in.  That alone is some powerful stuff, especially in this day and age when we tend to gather online rather than in person.  Plus, the encampments were more than a few tents pitched in a common area; they were (are) a self sustaining community that provided a model of radical inclusion, mutual support and direct democracy.  Direct democracy is exhausting, by the way.  Awesome, but incredibly exhausting.  
Aside from the gathering/community building that the occupation of physical space resulted in, these encampments were (are) the visual symbol of this movement.  You cannot ignore the fact that thousands of people are living in tents in cities and towns all around the country.  I don't know about you, but I literally have to walk through the encampment in Philadelphia to get to my office.  I could not ignore it if I tried.  
 You know who else can't ignore it?  The media.  And because the media cannot ignore the Occupy movement, neither can anyone else who's not living under a rock.  Rather than just covering the marches and direct actions, the media have been covering the evictions, General Assemblies, protester/City relations, public health and safety concerns, and anything else that happens at camp.  As the old adage goes, all press is good press, to a point (more on that later).  The end result is that people are paying attention and are talking about this movement.  And not just supporters, either; there are several folks who either don't understand what it's all about, or who totally oppose it.  But the commonality is that just about everyone is talking about what's going on and has an opinion about it, thanks to the media coverage.  
Despite the positives associated with the occupation of physical space, there are also several negatives, especially in the context of a long-term movement.  For starters, the folks who are actually occupying represent a tiny fraction of those of us who identify with and support the movement.  At it's peak, the encampment in Philadelphia had close to 400 tents.  Currently, the Occupy Philadelphia facebook page has over 27,000 "likes", and based on what I hear in my social and professional circles, there are many, many more who support what's going on in one way or another.  So, while the camp is the visual face of the movement, it's really not.  Much of the negative press stems from the actions of a select few, and then those actions become the official soundbites or headlines coming out of Occupy Philly.  And while I do believe that all press is good press as a general rule of thumb, I also think that perception matters, and that too much bad press over an extended period of time is just bad.
 Having the encampments as the loci of the movement has resulted in the following: 1) Many of us are unable to participate in any real way (can't camp, can't regularly attend General Assembly, can't participate in several week-day direct action activities) and therefore feel slightly removed from the action;  2) Onlookers and potential supporters are only getting a partial view of a much broader group, and are basing their opinions of the movement on the actions of the smaller group, and 3) The general public thinks that the Occupy movement is synonymous with the occupation of physical space, and it is not, at least in my humble opinion.  The occupation of physical space is one tactic in a much broader movement, and I personally think that it's time to consider other, more sustainable tactics to pursue as the the movement progresses from infancy to toddler-hood.     
Another negative of focusing too much on the camping aspect of the movement is that it diverts the energy and focus from matters of corporate greed and economic injustice to matters of permits, plazas and police.  Here in Philadelphia, all we've been hearing about lately is whether the camp is moving to a new plaza and whether or not they need a permit.  Personally, I think we have significantly bigger fish to fry.
 And that brings me to the most immediate downfalls of a continuation of the tent tactic: 1) Evictions are plaguing many locales, and 2) winter is upon us.  Many see the recent wave of evictions as defeat, but I see them as an opportunity.  Truth is, voluntarily camping on cold, city concrete in the snow and ice is just not a sustainable idea.  And again, since the encampments are so highly visible, the media will feed on the dwindling numbers of tents rather than report on what's actually happening outside of the encampments.  Let's face it, the physical occupations will probably be fairly lifeless and rather transient over the winter months.  Rather than react and retreat in response to evictions and/or harsh weather, how about we just proactively recognize the strengths and limits of certain tactics, and move on to phase two of the movement. There is no shame in heading indoors for the winter.
Who knows what phase two will look like, or what the goals will be.  Perhaps more coordinated efforts between and among the various Occupation cities; maybe a clear message with specific demands and a strong idea of what success will look like, and hopefully an organized force that continues to influence the political discourse in this upcoming election year.  I don't really know.  But I do believe that the movement is at a crossroads, and we have an opportunity to pause, ponder and progress the Occupy movement in a positive and meaningful way.  Regardless of what happens in the future, no one can deny the power of what has unfolded in these past two months.  

High on Occupy


I wrote what follows a few weeks ago, but never posted because of what happened by the time I was done writing it.  As you'll read, I am a full-on supporter of the Occupy movement and hold a great deal of pride for the Philadelphia occupation, particularly as it pertains to police-protester relations.  As I was getting ready to wrap this entry up and post it, I became quite disheartened by an Occupy Philly direct action: a protest and sit-in against police brutality.  Now, I get that the action was in solidarity with the national day of awareness against police brutality and not against the Philadelphia cops in particular, who, I might add, have been respectful of protester rights and have not abused their power.  But still.  I feel like all eyes were on Philadelphia because we were emerging as this model of police-protester mutual respect.  Then, while the whole world was watching us, we directed our anger and action at the police.  Huh?  The first arrests to occur within the Occupy Philadelphia community happened not as the result of marches against inequality but as a result of a handful of protesters sitting in the street, protesting police brutality, something that has not happened here within the context of the Occupy movement.  I should also note that the arrests were handled with respect and without brutality.   

Even though it was only 10 people who participated and got arrested, this action became the headline and soundbite emerging from Occupy Philadelphia, and it made us look like fools (from my perspective).  It bothered me so much, and created a rift between myself and the movement.  I feel like we (the movement) need to focus on the big picture and not get bogged down by every cause and every injustice that ever was.  Sure, police brutality is a real problem, and is worthy of protests and sit-ins, but NOT this protest.  Especially when the police have been nothing but respectful of our rights.  I signed on to this cause and became part of this movement because of corporate greed and the implications of that greed on the growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots. I want to focus our actions on the root of that issue, not on things that may be tangentially related.

I think there are way more potential Occupy supporters watching from home than there are folks who are camping and participating in direct action marches, so perception matters!  People watching at home heard about how good the Philly cops have been, and then the next minute they heard about marches and sit-ins against the cops.  As a result, people were confused and began to detach from the movement.  I did too.  Well, I shouldn't say that I detached, I just needed space and time to express my discontent and find a way to re-connect to a movement that I SO believe in.  I've done all that, and am back to my Occupy High.  I now feel like I can post this original entry in the spirit in which it was written. Solidarity to all Occupiers, whether in a tent or on their couch.

I don't know what is happening, but I know for certain that something is happening here in Philadelphia, and I assume throughout the whole country and beyond.  I feel tongue tied, because despite this knowing, I don't quite know how to put words to it, yet.  I am still processing, trying it on, feeling it out.  All I know is that I have never witnessed something like this before, they way it has resonated with the masses and taken root in communities around the globe.  I also know that I don't just want to witness it; I very much want to be an active participant and co-creator of this thing, this movement.  

When Occupy Wall Street began, I had just left on my grand adventure out west and did not read the news at all for a little over a week - talk about liberating!  When I returned home, I heard a little about it but wasn't captivated.  I felt somewhat put off by the perceived lack of direction and overall purpose of the Wall Street demonstrators.  "What's the point?", I thought.  I, like many of us, absolutely understood and empathized with the root of the anger and frustration that was driving the protest, but I wasn't sold on the idea that pitching tents was the best way to be an effective change agent.  Not that I had a better idea, but I just wasn't there yet; I didn't get it, yet.

But then encampments starting popping up in cities and towns all over the place, including right here in Philadelphia.  Once the Occupy movement became local and I could experience it in a way other than through the media, I got it.  It took about five minutes of being at Dilworth Plaza on the west side of Philadelphia's City Hall to feel the wave of this thing that is happening.  Hundreds of people from every ethnic, socioeconomic and political background were there; their presence born out of a common anger about the passionate courtship that exists between our government and Wall Street.  After years of divisive politics and apathy-induced slumber, this peaceful and dare I say compassionate uprising was like a welcome bucket of cold water to my soul.  After that first day at Occupy Philly, for the first time in a long time, I felt the undeniable power of people united.  That's when I got it. 

Lucky for me, the Occupy Philly camp is about a block from my office, so I'm able to spend some time there every day.  I literally walk through it on my way to work, often spend my lunch breaks there, and sometimes linger there after work.  That first week there were maybe 100 tents.  A week later there were 350.  I should also note that Dilworth Plaza was home to several homeless folks prior to the Occupation, and they have remained and become part of the movement.  Occupy Philly has become a self-sustaining community, a model of radical inclusion, mutual support and dare I say, love.  It is the total opposite of greed; it is the antidote to greed.  Occupy Philly feeds every single person there three meals a day, they clothe and shelter everyone who needs it, and most importantly, they provide a safe space for everyone to voice concerns, propose ideas and be an active participant in this movement.  Nobody is an outcast; rather, every single person is a valued member who has something to contribute, and is encouraged to do so.  What a novel concept. 

On that first day, as I made my way through the crowd, I found myself standing on the sidewalk where Market Street dead-ends into City Hall, literally the center of the city.  I expected a lot of support for the movement within the crowd, but was pleasantly surprised and inspired by the amount of support coming from the outside.  Horns blasted and fists pumped in solidarity.  Cabbies, bus drivers, guys in suits, women with small dogs shoved in expensive bags - everyone echoed the sentiments that were taking root at City Hall.  The energy was electric, and literally gave me goosebumps.  It was then that I realized that this thing was real, and was rippling out further than City Hall and the numerous Occupation sites around the country.  

As the days wore on and the reports of police brutality and forced Occupy evictions from other locales increased, something very different was unfolding here in Philadelphia: cooperation and support.  As of now, the City has been supportive and has expressed a desire to work with the Occupiers.  There will undoubtedly be strains in the relationship down the road, as there is a massive construction project planned for Dilworth Plaza (read: eviction) in the very near future, but for now, exchanges between Occupy and the City have been anchored by mutual respect.  The same can be said for the police.  There are many Occupiers who are wary of the police, and for good reason, but I personally feel that we shouldn't be creating enemies where they do not exist.  For now, the police are respecting our right to do what we're doing.  There have been no incidents of pepper spray, no paddy wagons, no arrests.  They are doing their job.  

In addition to the support from the City, Occupy Philly has received letters of solidarity from the faculty of University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.  The transport workers union donated portable toilets, and several local restaurants have donated food.  People from far and wide have donated tents, blankets, food, computers, books, clothes, white boards, instruments and labor.  The Quaker Friends Center, located two blocks from Dilworth Plaza, has opened their commercial kitchen for meal prep, their bathrooms and showers for Occupiers to use, and their meeting hall for General Assemblies when the weather is crappy.  The support is widespread, and incredible.  

This is not just about unemployed hippies getting high, having drum circles and making empty demands; this is about the vast majority of us feeling ripped off and taken advantage of by our government and "too big to fail" banks.  We are slowly but surely finding our voice and exercising our right to assemble.  Many people want to know what our demands are, what our focus is, and what our next move is.  This movement is young.  Be patient.  Those things will come.  For now, it's not about the outcome, it's about the momentum and the process; it's about the communities we're building, the collective anger and power we're tapping into, and the power of people united that we're rediscovering.  

I'm finding that the more people who participate, whether on-site or online, the more other people feel like they belong too and begin to participate.  I think originally, based on what the media was broadcasting, it was only the young who felt like this was their movement.  But the more other people dig in their heels and contribute their voices, the more the rest of us feel like we belong.  Do not let the media deceive you.  There are young people marching aside elderly people; there are anti-war protestors marching alongside war veterans; there are middle class moms with their babes chanting "We Are the 99%" in unison with homeless men.  That's the beauty of it -- we are all (well, 99% of us) affected by either the economy being in the toilet (and one flush away from being in the ocean), or the housing crisis, or by the student loan debt we're drowning in, or the almost 10% unemployment rate, or the bank policies that penalize us for playing by the rules while they get bailed out by us for engaging in irresponsible behavior, and then further rewarded for being total ass clowns.  Yeah, ass clowns.  Is it any wonder why We The People are angry??    

This is, above all, the People's Movement.  I don't know where this will lead, all I know is what's actually happening right now.  This movement transcends political leanings and individual interests; this is about the people coming together take back their power.  The people are taking it back and are flexing their collective muscle to shine a light on the equally important causes and effects of corporate greed.  For now, as we slowly emerge from our submissive slumber, awareness is good enough.  Action is necessary, and will come in due time.  As for today, people are rising up, and taking care of each other at the same time.  Imagine that.  

Join us, after all, you are us.  No tent necessary.