Rebecca Solnit: Occupy Wall Street’s First Anniversary
Rebecca Solnit was an antinuclear activist in the 1980s and 1990s, as her 1994 book Savage Dreams recounts. The author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, she is currently speaking about disaster, civil society, and utopia in programs with the Free University of New York, the San Francisco Public Library’s One City One Book program, and Cal Humanities.
Occupy is now a year old. A year is an almost ridiculous measure of time for much of what matters: at one year old, Georgia O’Keeffe was not a great painter, and Bessie Smith wasn’t much of a singer. One year into the Civil Rights Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still in progress, catalyzed by the unknown secretary of the local NAACP chapter and a preacher from Atlanta -- by, that is, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Occupy, our bouncing baby, was born with such struggle and joy a year ago, and here we are, 12 long months later.
Occupy didn’t seem remarkable on September 17, 2011, and not a lot of people were looking at it when it was mostly young people heading for Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. But its most remarkable aspect turned out to be its staying power: it didn’t declare victory or defeat and go home. It decided it was home and settled in for two catalytic months.
Tents and general assemblies and the acts, tools, and ideas of Occupy exploded across the nation and the western world from Alaska to New Zealand, and some parts of the eastern world -- Occupy Hong Kong was going strong until last week. For a while, it was easy to see that this baby was something big, but then most, though not all, of the urban encampments were busted, and the movement became something subtler. But don’t let them tell you it went away.
The most startling question anyone asked me last year was, “What is Occupy’s 10-year plan?”
Who takes the long view? Americans have a tendency to think of activism like a slot machine, and if it doesn’t come up three jailed bankers or three clear victories fast, you’ve wasted your quarters. And yet hardly any activists ever define what victory would really look like, so who knows if we’ll ever get there?
Sometimes we do get three clear victories, but because it took a while or because no one was sure what victory consisted of, hardly anyone realizes a celebration is in order, or sometimes even notices. We get more victories than anyone imagines, but they are usually indirect, incomplete, slow to arrive, and situations where our influence can be assumed but not proven -- and yet each of them is worth counting.
More Than a Handful of Victories
For the first anniversary of Occupy, large demonstrations have been planned in New York and San Francisco and a host of smaller actions around the country, but some of the people who came together under the Occupy banner have been working steadily in quiet ways all along, largely unnoticed. From Occupy Chattanooga to Occupy London, people are meeting weekly, sometimes just to have a forum, sometimes to plan foreclosure defenses, public demonstrations, or engage in other forms of organizing. On August 22nd, for instance, a foreclosure on Kim Mitchell’s house in a low-income part of San Francisco was prevented by a coalition made up of Occupy Bernal and Occupy Noe Valley (two San Francisco neighborhoods) along with ACCE, the group that succeeded the Republican-destroyed ACORN.
It was a little victory in itself -- and another that such an economically and ethnically diverse group was working together so beautifully. Demonstrations and victories like it are happening regularly across the country, including in Minnesota, thanks to Occupy Homes. Earlier this month, Occupy Wall Street helped Manhattan restaurant workers defeat a lousy boss and a worker lock-out to unionize a restaurant in the Hot and Crusty chain. (While shut out, the employees occupied the sidewalk and ran the Worker Justice Café there.)
In Providence, Rhode Island, the Occupy encampment broke up late last January, but only on the condition that the city open a daytime shelter for homeless people. At Princeton University, big banks are no longer invited to recruit on campus, most likely thanks to Occupy Princeton.
There have been thousands of little victories like these and some big ones as well: the impact of the Move Your Money initiative, the growing revolt against student-loan-debt peonage, and more indirectly the passing of a California law protecting homeowners from the abuse of the foreclosure process (undoubtedly due in part to Occupy’s highlighting of the brutality and corruption of that process).
But don’t get bogged down in the tangible achievements, except as a foundation. The less tangible spirit of Occupy and the new associations it sparked are what matters for whatever comes next, for that 10-year-plan. Occupy was first of all a great meeting ground. People who live too much in the virtual world with its talent for segregation and isolation suddenly met each other face-to-face in public space. There, they found common ground in a passion for economic justice and real democracy and a recognition of the widespread suffering capitalism has created.
Bonds were formed across the usual divides of age and race and class, between the housed and the homeless as well as the employed and jobless, and some of those bonds still exist. There was tremendous emotion around it -- the joy of finding you were not alone, the shame that was shed as the prisoners of debt stepped out of the shadows, the ferocity of solidarity when so many of us were attacked by the police, the dizzying hope that everything could be different, and the exhilaration in those moments when it already was.
People learned how direct democracy works; they tasted power; they found something in common with strangers; they lived in public. All those things mattered and matter still. They are a great foundation for the future; they are a great way to live in the present.
Maybe Occupy was too successful a brand in that it sometimes disguised how much this movement was part of popular surges going on around the world: the Arab Spring (including the three successful revolutions, the ongoing Syrian civil war, uprisings in Yemen, and more); the student uprisings in Montreal, Mexico, and Chile that have continued to develop and broaden; the economic revolts in Spain, Greece, and Britain; the ongoing demonstrations and insurrections around Africa; even various acts of resistance in India, Japan, China, and Tibet, some large and powerful. Because, in case you hadn’t noticed, these days a lot of the world is in some form of rebellion, insurrection, or protest.
And the family resemblances matter. If you add them all up, you see a similar fury at greed, political corruption, economic inequality, environmental devastation, and a dimming, shrinking future.
The Heroic Age
Nevertheless, the one-year anniversary is likely to produce a lot of mainstream media stories that will assure you Occupy was only a bunch of tents that came down last year, that it was naïve, and that’s that. Don’t buy it. Don’t be reasonable, don’t be realistic, and don’t be defeated. A year is nothing and the mainstream media is oblivious to where power lies and how change works, but that doesn’t mean you need to be.
That same media will tell you 99 ways from Tuesday how powerless you are and how all power is made by men in suits who won or bought elections, but don’t buy that either. Instead, notice how terrified Vladimir Putin was of three young performers in bright-colored balaclavas, and how equally frightened Wall Street is of us. They remember something we tend to forget: together we are capable of being remarkably powerful. We can make history, and we have, and we will, but only when we keep our eyes on the prize, pitch a big tent, and don’t stop until we get there.
We live in the heroic age itself, the age of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, of the Zapatistas in Mexico, of the Civil Rights Movement’s key organizers, including John Lewis and Reverend Joseph Lowery, and of so many nameless heroines and heroes from Argentina to Iceland. Their praises are often sung, and the kinds of courage, integrity, generosity of spirit, and vision they exhibited all matter, but I want to talk about another virtue we don’t think about much: it’s the one we call patience when we like it or it appears to be gentle, and stubbornness when we don’t or it doesn’t.
After all, Suu Kyi was steadfast during many years of house arrest and intimidation after a military junta stole the 1990 election she had won and only this year did the situation shift a little. The goals of the stubborn often seem impossible at inception, as did some of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, or for that matter the early nineteenth century abolitionist movementin the United States, which set out to eradicate the atrocity of slavery more than 30 years before victory -- a lot faster than the contemporaneous women’s movement got basic rights like the vote. Change happens, but it can take decades; and it takes people who remain steadfast, patient (or stubborn) for those same decades, along with infusions of new energy.
I suspect the steadfastness of the heroes of the great movements of our time came not only from facts but from faith. They had faith that their cause was just, that this was the right way to live on Earth, that what they did mattered, and they had those things decades before the results were in. You had to be unrealistic about the odds to go up against the Burmese generals or the Apartheid regime in South Africa or Jim Crow or 5,000 years of patriarchy or centuries of homophobia, and the unrealistic among us drew on their faith and did just that, with tremendous consequences.
Realism is overrated, but the fact is that the Occupy movement has already had extraordinary results. We changed the national debate early on and brought into the open what was previously hiding in plain sight: both the violence of Wall Street and the yearning for community, justice, truth, power, and hope that possesses most of the rest of us. We found out something that mattered about who we are: we found out just how many of us are furious about the debt peonage settled onto millions of “underwater” homeowners, people destroyed by medical debts, and students shackled by subprime educations that no future salaries will ever dig them out of.
And here was Occupy’s other signal achievement: we articulated, clearly, loudly, incontrovertably, how appalling and destructive the current economic system is. To name something is a powerful action. To speak the truth changes reality, and this has everything to do with why electoral politics runs the spectrum from euphemism and parallel-universe formulations to astonishing lies and complete evasions. Wily Occupy brought a Trojan horse loaded with truth to the citadel of Wall Street. Even the bronze bull couldn’t face that down.
Meeting the Possibilities Down the Road
A 10-year plan would function like a map: we could see where we had been, where we are, and where we want to go. In San Francisco, participants in the one-year anniversary events will burn student loan and mortgage contracts to symbolically free the prisoners of debt. In New York, Occupy Wall Street itself is focusing on debtor's assemblies and debt burnings for the one-year anniversary. This September 17th, practical goals will be announced, a Debt Resistors' Operations Manual will debut -- and who knows, in 10 years' time some of those goals could even be fully realized.
This will require unwavering determination, even when there are no results. It means not being sour about interim and incomplete victories, as well as actual defeats along the way. In 10 years, we could see some exciting things: the reversal of the harsh new bankruptcy laws, the transformation of educational financing, and maybe even a debt jubilee, along with major changes in banking and mortgage laws.
The victories, when they come, won’t be perfect. They might not even look like victories or like anything we ever expected, and there will be lots of steps along the way that purists will deplore as “compromise.” Just as anything you make from a cake to a book never quite resembles the Platonic ideal in your head, victories may not look like their templates, but you should celebrate them, however imperfect they may be, as further steps along the road and never believe that the road ends or that you should stop walking.
Still, if you’re talking about results, I’m convinced that pressure from Occupy and the student activists around it was what put student debt in the Democratic platform and has made it a major talking point of the Obama campaign. I worry that if, 10 years from now, the landscape of educational finance has been transformed for the better, no one will remember why or how it happened, or who started it all, so no one will celebrate or feel how powerful we really can be.
It will be taken for granted the way, say, voting rights are for those of us so long disenfranchised. Most people will forget the world was ever different, just as most people will never know that more than 100 coal-fired plants were not built in this country thanks to climate and environmental activists and few note that the Keystone XL pipeline would have been finished by now, were it not for 350.org and the rest of the opposition. This is why stories matter, especially the stories of our power, our victories, and our history.
Looking Back with Gratitude, Looking Forward With Fierceness
Once there was a great antinuclear movement in this country, first focusing on the dangers and follies of “peaceful” nuclear power, then on the evil of nuclear weapons, and it won many forgotten victories. Ever notice that we haven’t actually built a reactor since the 1970s, partly because safety standards got so much higher? Who now remembers the Great Basin MX missile installations that were never built, the nuclear waste dumps -- at Sierra Blanca, Ward Valley, and Yucca Mountain, among other places -- that never opened?
Who still even thinks about some of the arms-reduction treaties? And yet little of this would have happened if those antinuclear movements hadn’t existed. So thank an activist, and thank specifically the visionaries who showed up early and the stubborn ones who stayed to work on the issue long after the millions involved in the early 1980s nuclear-freeze movement had given up and gone home. Some of them are still at work, and we’re all beneficiaries.
One of the first groups in the round of antinuclear activism that began in the 1970s was the Clamshell Alliance created in 1976 to oppose New Hampshire’s proposed Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. One reactor was built and is still operating at Seabrook; one was cancelled due to opposition. Building the first reactor cost five times the initial estimate and led its owner, Public Service of New Hampshire, to what was then the fourth largest bankruptcy in U.S. history when it was unable to make ratepayers pick up the bill. You can read that as a partial victory, but Clamshell did so much more.
Their spirit and their creative new approach inspired activists around the country and helped generate a movement. Sixty-six nuclear power plants were cancelled in the wake of Clamshell. Keep in mind as well that the Clamshell Alliance and many of the antinuclear groups that followed developed non-hierarchical, direct-democracy methods of organizing since used by activists and movements throughout the U.S. and beyond, including Occupy Wall Street, whose consensus-based general assemblies owed a lot to a bunch of hippies no one remembers.
Bill Moyers met with Clamshell Alliance members in 1978, when he thought they were beginning to be victorious in inspiring a national movement and they thought they were failing. What he said is still worth quoting:
“That Friday night, I expected to meet a spirited, upbeat group that was proud of its accomplishments. I was shocked when the Clamshell activists arrived with heads bowed, dispirited, and depressed, saying their efforts had been in vain. The Clamshell experience of discouragement and collapse is far from unusual. Within a few years after achieving the goals of ‘take-off,’ every major social movement of the past 20 years has undergone a significant collapse, in which activists believed that their movements had failed, the powerful institutions were too powerful, and their own efforts were futile. This has happened even when movements were actually progressing reasonably well along the normal path taken by past successful movements!”
With Occupy, remarkable things have already happened, and more remarkable systemic change could be ahead. Don’t forget that this was a movement that spread to thousands of cities, towns, and even rural outposts across the country and overseas, from Occupy Tucson to Occupy Bangor. Remember that many of the effects of what has already happened are incalculable, and more of what is being accomplished will only be clear further down the road.
Go out into the streets and celebrate the one-year anniversary and start dreaming and planning for 2021, when we could -- if we are steadfast, if we are inclusive, if we keep our eyes on the prize, if we define that prize and recognize progress toward it and remember where we started -- be celebrating something much bigger. It’s a long road to travel, but we can get there from here.
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