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Notes on an Occupation


Photo by Mauro Heck

As I write this, the Occupy movement is still young. It isn’t even a month old in Iowa City and the national narrative about what it is and what it means isn’t settled. The occupiers set up camp in College Green Park on Friday, Oct. 7 and remain there still at the time of this writing. After visiting Occupy Iowa City as well as interviewing occupiers and supporters, these are my observations.

1. YOU HAVE TO SEE IT FOR YOURSELF

This is happening among us. There’s no excuse not to go, see for yourself, and make up your own mind. There is no ideological purity test, no dress code and no party affiliation necessary, all of which is more than you can say for most political events.

Billy, who I talked to on Friday, Oct. 7, the night that Occupy Iowa City began, was cynical about the processes and structure (see point 2). He had those misgivings still when I saw him a week later, on Oct. 13. He said he didn’t see it as a path to achieving a goal, but he added that he felt much less cynical about the people participating themselves. He’d spent time with them, “I am talking to people more. This is an opportunity to talk to people about stuff that I don’t get to talk about.”

13 Days in: Overnighters still have a strong presence despite the colder weather setting in. Photo by Becky Nadowski

2. THE STRUCTURE IS PART OF THE MESSAGE

Input Please! Open communication encourages broad participation: Add to the General Assembly's agenda, propose teach-in topics, share committee updates and daily calendars, etc. Photo by Zak Neumann

It is horizontal and chaotic, not vertical and hierarchically-organized. It is leaderless. If the movement wishes to remain relevant, as movements are wont to wish, this is a distinct advantage, for a few reasons. There is pressure from the two poles of American ideology, right and left, to undercut or co-opt the Occupy movement. Perennial Republican striver Mitt Romney called it “class warfare.” Democratic establishment voices have hemmed and hawed, at first silent, then trying to talk their way into the good graces of occupiers with milquetoast statements of how they “understand” and “sympathize.”

A horizontal, leaderless movement, without a structure of “People In Charge” means that conservatives can’t find one person to demonize, single out and muckrake. A leaderless movement also means there aren’t key figures for the liberal establishment to buy out and co-opt. It prevents the movement from becoming marginalized and personified in the demonized leader figure, or from being neutered into a voting bloc for the Democratic party.

The Occupy movement should take a lesson from the history of the Tea Party. The Tea Party was quickly co-opted, even as it entered the public conscience, into a fundraising and vote-getting mechanism for the Republican National Committee. According to the New York Times, astroturfing groups were funded by traditional conservative cash sources, including the Koch brothers, who gave $12 million over twenty years to the conservative front group that would eventually become FreedomWorks, a major source of Tea Party funding and organizing. The mainstream conservative leadership embraced the Tea Party and Michelle Bachmann even spearheaded the creation of the Tea Party Caucus. These organizational efforts were turned towards electoral strategies, including the disastrous Christine O’Donnell and Sharon Angle campaigns. Once the election was over, though, the Tea Party’s visibility and activity waned sharply, their purpose having been served. If the Occupy movement is to stay vital, it must resist an attempt to be coerced or forced into the oppositional, false dilemma that is American politics today. Instead of embracing America’s two-party hegemony, the movement needs to remain visible and outside of the party structure. This will make it possible for Americans of all political leanings to find something they support in the Occupy movement. It won’t be pigeon-holed into a reliable voting bloc–one that is pandered to, then ignored.

3. STORIES WORK BETTER THAN SLOGANS

Solar Power: generator on loan from I-Renew to help power up the occupiers. Photo by Zak Neumann

Individual stories make for the best explanations of why people are occupying. When I interviewed Eva (a “born and raised” Iowa Citian) at College Green Park, I asked a lot of questions about the movement, but not very many about her. I was looking at it like a wonky political observer, which is my tendency. She was articulate and gave answers about the movement (“I don’t think that this is an actual protest, I think that this is more of a mass awakening.”) and the government’s viability as a solution to the problems facing the nation (she supports working to fix what we’ve got, not replacing it.) But, in the end, I wasn’t asking the right questions. Luckily, this didn’t matter because when I went to the Occupy rally in the Pedestrian Mall on Oct. 15, Eva spoke about why she became an occupier. She gave a moving talk about being eighteen and believing what she’d been told her whole life: that college was the gateway to success, as she signed her student loan papers. She talked about the mountain of debt that she worked sixty hours a week to pay off, debt that the private lenders won’t let her consolidate, debt that she cannot get out from under via bankruptcy or even (not kidding here) death. Her voice cracked with emotion, but she finished strong. It was as good a testimonial as any YouTube video I’ve seen passed around on Facebook. She drew a sharp distinction between the America we’ve been told to believe in and the America we actually experience for ourselves: an America where you can and will escape heartache, toil, pain and loneliness when you die, but not Wells Fargo. An America where they get the deed on your soul, it seems, not just your earnings.

4. POLITICS AND PROCESS WILL ALWAYS BE SLOW

Steven, one of the occupiers, admits that if you come to one meeting you won’t get anything out of it, at least not the kind of experience people expect from a “protest” or “movement.” He says it’s not designed like a typical protest, where you show up, chant, it’s exciting for an hour and you go home. He is really, really right about that. The General Assemblies–where consensus methods are used to make decisions about each local occupation by the people on the ground–are not exciting. Even after you have gotten over the initial weirdness of the “people’s mic”–in which the speaker says half a sentence and people repeat it so that everyone can hear, then the next half of a sentence is spoken and repeated, on and on–it is slow-going. It grinds away at one’s patience and it requires involvement, much like any successful democratic process. That’s what gives me hope for the movement. It requires dedication, but also rewards it. That’s also why trolls, despite the fact that they could show up and start voting against what they dislike about the movement, will never actively make a concerted effort to poison the proceedings. It’d be the most boring trolling mission ever, like tuning in hoping for All The President’s Men and getting four hours of C-Span.

The future of the Occupy movement is uncertain. Weather, pressure from both sides of the ideological spectrum, social momentum and the patience of the powers that be can all change the direction and capabilities of the movement. But the occupiers have provided a blueprint of how to use social media and alternative organizational structures to circumvent many of the traditional weaknesses of political movements. No matter the outcome of this movement, their methods and desires will be echoed in the future by anyone seeking a solution outside of the structures that got us into this mess in the first place.


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