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Searching for Sustainable Models of Activism, 2 Years After Occupy

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Posted on Sep 19, 2013
Poster Boy NYC (CC-BY)

By Sonali Kolhatkar

Editor’s note: Truthdig is pleased to announce a new weekly column by Sonali Kolhatkar, host of KPFK’s “Uprising.” Be sure to stay posted as this talented interviewer digs deeper into the important stories of the week.

While economists are celebrating a tenuous recovery five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, this week’s U.S. Census Bureau report on poverty provided a sobering statistic: 15 percent of Americans are poor, a number that has remained the same since last year. It seems recovery is for the rich; the well-being of poor Americans does not enter into the equation of how we measure national wealth.

Meanwhile, Lehman executives who were responsible for triggering the Great Recession are back at work, most of them in Wall Street firms, comfortably ensconced in the income brackets of the 1 percent.

Despite public outrage over the crimes of Wall Street executives, a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation was quietly swept under the rug and not a single Lehman employee was prosecuted. Huffington Post senior financial writer Ben Hallman told me in an interview that “we’ve seen again and again throughout the financial crisis that [government] authorities have been ... extremely, overly cautious when it comes to bringing charges. ... There’s been a real risk aversion among federal prosecutors to bring up these types of cases.”

After Lehman’s collapse, it took three years for people to get mad enough about the injustices of American capitalism and lack of government accountability to take to the streets. Two days after the fifth anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ collapse on Sept. 15 was the second anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

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The OWS movement spread rapidly in 2011 across the nation to cities large and small, and popularized the notion that we, Americans, are the 99 percent—the majority who are left out of the spoils of capitalism, and hit hardest by the unethical and greed-driven practices of Wall Street’s 1 percent.

Capturing the popular imagination, OWS encampments created activist innovations in communication and consensus building, feeding large numbers of people, setting up libraries and open mics, and even resolving disputes. The movement was chaotic and far from perfect but its power lay in symbolizing public outrage over the inequities of the financial system.

Sadly, only months later, the physical embodiments of that outrage—the tent cities—were dismantled by the state, sometimes roughly, and the slogan “We are the 99 percent” slipped slowly out of the mainstream consciousness.

Independent reporter Nathan Schneider was an eyewitness to OWS’ New York birthplace and he carefully documented the explosive presence of people power that burst into Zuccotti Park in his new book, “Thank You, Anarchy: Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse.” In it, Schneider explores OWS’ messy process of democratic engagement, writing perhaps the first history of the movement.

In focusing on the movement’s origins and evolution, he paid great attention to its many flaws—the provocateurs, the unwieldy nature of decision making, the debates over its goals. But, according to Schneider, “the things that were most exciting and most inspiring about what was going on were always juxtaposed against things that were frustrating and made you feel like it was about to collapse in on itself at any minute. And that tension was always there, and in some ways that was what put into stark relief the really beautiful moments, the moments that gave so many people hope.”

But, eventually, the movement dissolved. At worst, it ended; at best, it morphed into something less visible. Even if a good number of activists went on to start their own organizations or joined existing groups to work on issues such as foreclosure, debt and hurricane relief, the brash and powerful visibility of OWS that captured the mainstream imagination faded into the background.

Yet, Schneider asserted, OWS was a game changer. Explaining the subtitle of his book, “Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse,” he told me, “Apocalypse, in the Greek roots of the word means ‘unveiling.’ It refers to a moment in which something happens that’s so transformative that there’s no going back. The world has revealed itself as fundamentally different than we thought it was before.”

In looking toward the future of the movement, Schneider said, “Youthful energy can only carry you as long as a person can get by without sleeping. … The need for sustainable organization really became clear as the encampments were cleared.”

What sort of sustainable organizational methods can be used to address economic justice and build on OWS’ transformative moment? Of course, many venerable local organizations already exist and have done immense and important work, some even using the energy of OWS to make the points they had historically been making.

Longtime activist and author Sam Daley-Harris offered me his thoughts on sustainable and successful political action. Harris is the founder of the lobbying group RESULTS and has laid out his strategy for social justice in a book called “Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government,” now out in its 20th anniversary edition. His approach to progressive political action is slow, steady, results oriented and far more traditional than Occupy Wall Street.


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