A Few Words on the First Anniversary of the Destruction of the Occupy Boston Encampment
A year ago today, the City of Boston destroyed the Occupy Boston encampment at Dewey Square in an early morning raid by the Boston Police Department - following a pattern that was repeated at most of the major Occupy camps around the country. A couple of days later, I wrote an editorialattacking the city and the cops for trampling on protected speech and stopping the press - including this reporter - from doing our jobs until all the tents were ripped down at the campsite and all the Occcupiers driven off or arrested.
I concluded that piece hopefully, and indicated that the Occupy movement was "still very much in the ascendant" at the time of my writing. And I wrote that in earnest. But within a couple of months, Occupy Boston had fragmented under the weight of internal dissension and external pressure. And by the summer it shone with just a fraction of its former brilliance.
Nevertheless, I found none of these developments surprising. Especially because I had pointed out in a November 2011 editorial that social movements tend to come in waves. And like ocean waves, they come and they go. And then they come back again. But unlike such physical waves, it's hard to tell how long it will be until they return.
And there's another difference. Social movements don't just disappear. They may break apart for a time, but in doing so they can spread in interesting ways. Sowing the seeds of a future social movement as they go.
Which is exactly what I think has happened to Occupy Boston. And why I decided to say a few words of appreciation for them on this particular anniversary today.
First, I want to say that I think the main product of a movement like Occupy is ideas, and that the main activity of the movement is spreading those ideas.
And Occupy - including Occupy Boston - was a tremendous success as a social movement in terms of its ability to articulate and spread ideas of social justice, democracy and egalitarianism far and wide. Making it possible to discuss the many political economic and ecological crises facing us - including class analysis of a type not present in mainstream discourse for a very long time - with a larger audience in a bolder and broader way than I have ever seen in my quarter century plus in left politics. Occupy is also the only left-wing movement in a long time to actually reach deep into the still largely white working-class and middle class suburbs of America's cities - and into rural areas as well ... and that feat alone must be counted as a significant win since the American left has little presence in those locales in this era.
Second, although the Occupy movement was (properly) multi-generational, it was especially successful in drawing in huge numbers of people under 35 to its ranks. Most of these people - at least here in Boston where I know the progressive scene backwards and forwards - were new to extraparliamentary political action.
Third, a solid percentage of these new activists were trained very fast and very well in the cauldron of crisis created by the corporate and state reaction to their success. They did things and experienced things that even long-time organizers like myself have never done or dealt with before.
Fourth, they didn't all disappear after life got difficult for the Occupy movement. They put down roots in many existing grassroots organizations in communities of all kinds, and they formed new institutions when it was appropriate to do so. Most spectacularly Occupy Sandy in the New York City metro area following the inadequate response to Hurricane Sandy by traditional aid organizations and government agencies, but here in Boston, too - where, for example, the Boston Occupier newspaper and Occupy Boston Radio continue to this day.
This was possible because they retained strong - if factionalized - social networks that remind me most closely of military veterans' organizations. And that makes sense. The experiences Occupiers shared were not at all dissimilar to the kinds of experiences that soldiers go through in wartime. The friendships that get forged under fire can last a lifetime, and the people that veterans remain closest to are other veterans of the same conflicts. Who share an understanding of combat that no one who was not present can ever really understand.
Which is why I have a lot of trouble with some of the negative comments that the Occupy movement has gotten in the year since its salad days - both published and unpublished in a variety of public and private fora. Not from the right-wing, who continue to make exactly the type of derisive comments one would expect them to make for the next few years when there's any whiff of anti-capitalist sentiment floating about. But from left-wing commentators.
Many of these critics are left intellectuals and academics with degrees from elite universities who have very little, if any, experience organizing on the ground. But relatively large platforms from which to expound their views. Hard to say how much effect they have, but it's not inconsiderable. Think Chris Hedges' infamous February 2012 attack on the "Black Block anarchists" in the Occupy movement for one of the worst examples of this kind of critique. Tom Frank's extended book review in The Baffler No. 21 would be another example along these lines. And these are both thinkers I generally respect, mind you. There are far less sophisticated examples I could offer up.
I think these folks need to take a step back and think about who they're criticizing, what the Occupiers accomplished, and what they may yet accomplish in the near future - and try to understand the very real gaps in their knowledge about social movements - before they let fly with cutting rhetoric against people who are, at the end of the day, their allies. And maybe the only people with any tested ideas about how to actually build a popular upsurge for social change in the United States today.
As I've said in the past in print and on various stages, all the relatively well-funded progressive non-profits and unions and organizing institutes and trainers and PR flacks and pollsters on the American left have uniformly failed to capture the public imagination over the last four decades since the last major left-wing social movement decamped and institutionalized. Sure, they face any number of implacable and ultra mega well funded conservative foes. But few of the above named left-leaning institutions ever actually do battle with the right-wing. Most of them run an endless series of carefully staged minor spectacles that are meant to put forward the appearance of social movements without any of the troublesome tendencies of actual movements to remain outside the control of progressive technocrats and apparatchiks. They use these events to put a bit of pressure on (mainly) Democratic politicians to whom they also devote a large chunk of their organizational resources to help elect every two to four years - in hopes that they might shake a (very) minor reform or two lose for their constituency now and then without running the risk of inadvertently pissing them off. Justifying their continued existence - and sometimes handsome executive salaries - in the process.
Given that state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that I would continue to look with favor on the Occupy movement.
The Occupiers did a fine job in a very difficult situation. They spread progressive ideas to all corners of the nation at speed. They united much of the ever-fractious American left under one banner for a time. They linked up with their sometimes even more successful counterparts around the globe. They opened up new possibilities for major left-wing organizing successes in the years to come. They built a social network of young organizers with a wealth of practical political knowledge that was basically absent prior to their arrival on the scene.
And they did it all in the public interest. Without a thought for their personal security or their careers.
I predict great things for them. As long as they don't lose faith in the importance of their work to date. And they don't get sucked into existing progressive institutions more than is healthy for ... um ... children and other living things. And they believe in the possibility of moving from strength to strength in the future.
So, I'll close by thanking the Occupiers for their good work. And wishing them every success.
Up the rebels.