Americans and Occupy: Don’t make it about you

Three years ago, I was standing in front of the City Hall in San Jose. We only had five tents set up (police and city government were preventing a larger encampment) but we were here. Occupy San Jose.

An almost-stranger and I were talking. You met dozens of people, yet learned their deep-set moral principles instead of their names. Who this man was I have no idea, even his appearance has been forgotten. What he said has always stuck with me. It helps illustrate a problem American activists may have, and one that is detrimental to the global social justice movement.

News was coming about developments in the Chilean students’ resistance movement. Their work was inspiring. My conversation companion said “I’m so glad that they’ve been inspired by Occupy Wall Street.”

A march by Chilean students. August 5, 2011. (Maxi Failla/AFP/Getty Images)
A march by Chilean students. August 5, 2011.
(Maxi Failla/AFP/Getty Images)

*record stop* Woh. We have a major problem here. Chile’s movement predated the occupation in New York, dating to around May 2011. Occupy in America started in mid-September, by then mass protests had already happened all over Chile.

To be sure, I do not blame this man for his ignorance. Few non-activists paid attention to what was happening down in South America, and Occupy brought many people in with no prior political awareness. This thought provides a learning opportunity. America (and Americans by extension) are used to running the world. This doesn’t just apply to foreign policy and government action, but is also the case with popular culture. Much of the world mimics or consumes whole American music, film, and fashion. Beyond the economic lies the political and social structure at the lowest levels of the population. If you take your lessons from the largest institutions, you might think that the activists of the United States start all social movements, and invent all new methods of protest.

Hong Kong occupiers stop a police vehicle. By Felix Wong.
Hong Kong occupiers stop a police vehicle. By Felix Wong.

Occupy certainly propagated the model of resistance more than Chile did, or for that matter the Spanish indignados movement. In fact, Occupy Central in Hong Kong was wildly successful in the first wave of occupations, and that experience has helped lay the foundation for the current mass action.

So America is a grand stage where ideas gain currency. As the first organizers of Occupy San Jose stated plainly to those at our first meeting, the general assembly structure was stolen wholesale from the campaign in Spain. That is the key- to acknowledge the forebears, and avoid being American chauvinists. The Civil Rights Movement had many unique features, but it owed a massive debt to the decades of struggle in India. If Americans claim that all social movement strategy and tactics are native to the country, they risk alienating the larger world community. We must be aware of the past, incorporate past successes, and avoid past failures. In action, steps must be taken to avoid American stereotypes.

Occupy was incredibly important. But it was not born of nothing, and its influences are valuable sources of strength and wisdom.

A world to win

Nathan Schneider, one of the first journalists to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement, has written a feature for Al Jazeera entitled “From occupation to reconstruction“. Anyone who has experience in Occupy knows the reaction from other people since the major encampments were dispersed. What happened to Occupy? It seems to have been a total failure.

Spanish indignados protest, Madrid.

The truth is more complex. Schneider, more than any other journalist I’ve seen, catalogs the evolution from 2011 to today. This is both internationally and in America, as Occupy was not the original spark. There were student strikes in Chile, an ongoing radical revolution in Spain, the crisis in Greece. Some protestors I met were led to believe that this was unique and special, it’s important when charting a global movement to avoid chauvinism.

Occupy was not shattered, it flowed into the thousand crucial issues that its participants cared about. Anyone who visited an encampment or went on a march knew that Occupy was big-tent in the extreme. Through the large actions, formerly unacquainted people met, formed workgroups, and it went from there. All the national media coverage about a $15/hr minimum wage comes in large part from the energy of Occupy. Before Kshama Sawant was a member of the Seattle City Council, she was a an Occupy organizer. What $15/hr is, fundamentally, is the working class playing offense. It’s putting the American economic system on the table. Beyond a system where the employer and the corporate politician says what they will allow, the last year has seen a shift towards workers saying what they need. Occupy was a key part in translating a key phrase bandied about- when something is “bad for the economy” it’s often just bad for people in power. The economy is a lot more than a few billionaires. Or at least it should be.

For a year or more I had an Occupy hangover. I missed the mass turnout, the radical direct democracy, the egalitarian nature of an encampment. There are new developments, evolutions of what started in September 2011, and they’re something to get excited about. It’s the real deal. And each tangible victory in 2014 makes every word chanted in 2011 mean something more.

 

“We have nothing to celebrate”

CHILE-COLUMBUS DAY-MAPUCHES-PROTEST
cred Hector Retamal AFP/Getty

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people marched on the streets of Santiago, Chile. They supported the Mapuche indigenous people, who have been in a long fight for the return of their ancestral lands and an end to arrest and harassment of their activists. On the 521st anniversary of the Columbus voyage’s “discovery” of the New World, the protest is part of many intertwined resistance movements, in which indigenous people attempt to regain their land and sovereignty from both governments and multinational resource corporations. As the Spanish-speaking, Catholic cultural and political order has its origin with Columbus, it is a reminder that there exist a great many people affected daily by the crimes and actions of Columbus and his successors.

The march ended with water cannons and riot police presence. An earlier protest on Wednesday was seen as having an excessive and unprovoked police response (source).

cred Hector Retamal AFP/Getty
cred Hector Retamal AFP/Getty

The rest of the gallery is here.