Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Occupation is Over: Long Live the Occupation

News from Portland is that the parks have been cleared of all OWS protesters. Closer to home, efforts have been made in Oakland and Santa Cruz to end, or severely curtail, the extent of encampments and daily protests. In the online world it is in current fashion to write Occupy Obituaries, with a general theme of "enough is enough," repeating some popular myths about the movement, and be done with all this protesting nonsense before the holiday shopping season. So, here's my attempt at summing up a few points.

1 - "Enough Already" - Of course, the far right, tea party crowd never supported OWS, but this last week I've seen many posts from people who describe themselves as (at least somewhat) liberal echoing that they're bored of OWS, sick of seeing/hearing about the protesters, worried about conditions in the camps (see #5), and "most important", concerned about the cost to the taxpayers for law enforcement and park clean-up.

While I understand and appreciate each of those concerns, none of them rises to the level where a repeal of the Bill of Rights seems to be necessary. There's nothing in the First Amendment that limits "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" only to when it's convenient for commuters, good for business, in the budget, or when it's sunny outside.

I've not been very active in OWS, but I have spent some time at Occupy Santa Cruz (attended a couple of General Assemblies, took part in protesting, brought food and supplies to the campers). I am also a tax payer and I protest because I pay more in federal taxes than General Electric, PG&E, Dupont, Wells Fargo, and Verizon ... combined.

Is there a cost to the taxpayer (me!) for exercising our right to free speech? Yes. Of course there is. Just as there is a huge cost for elections, multiple branches of government, etc. Democracy and freedom are far more expensive than dictatorship, and generally worth the investment. Freedom is not cost effective, but I'll take it anyway.

And I really don't care if you preface your posting with "I supported them for a while, but..." Whether or not the protests are well organized, whether they have fifty million or only a single supporter, whether or not you've reached the end of you're limited attention span doesn't much matter. Either you support freedom of speech or you don't. You don't get to pick and choose the voice, the time, or the place.

2 - "Get a Job!" - Much of the criticism from the right, that the bench-warmers on the left now seem to have accepted is that the occupiers are all unemployed, on the public dole, and just looking for a hand-out. I can't speak for other cities, but in talking to people at Occupy Santa Cruz I've been surprised by how many of the key people are employed full-time. And not just among the day-time protesters, but even those camping out are packing up at 6 AM, running home for a quick shower, and then going to work before returning the camp in the evening.

The occupiers I've spoken with include lawyers, high-tech engineers, and other "respectable" sorts. Yes, there are people there who are victims of the economic downturn, who have lost their jobs, homes, health care, etc., but they are not the total occupy population.

3 - "Get a Message" - As much as people are repeating the mainstream media's contention that the OWS protesters have no message, I find it hard to believe that there's anybody outside of Fox News who doesn't know that this is about economic injustice, from the ponzi scheme that led to the foreclosure crisis, to the bailing out of the very banks that profited from that ponzi scheme, to Congress' inaction on any comprehensive jobs bill, to the Supreme Court's declaration that corporations are people.

Considering the lack of centralized leadership (see #4) or the engagement of a national PR firm, there's remarkable unity in this message across all the occupations, and coordination of imagery/branding. Yes, there's other complaints being voiced, but the overall theme of economic injustice has been clear.

Others admit that the message is clear, but follow up quickly with, "Complaining is easy, give us solutions." I agree, it's easy to say the outhouse stinks, but tearing it down before installing modern plumbing is a bad idea. Looking back at that First Amendment again, however, I don't see that the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances is limited to those who have ready solutions.

Meanwhile, looking at the signs of protesters I see that they are offering some ideas, whether required or not, including closing tax loopholes and ending corporate welfare, a Constitutional Amendment reversing the Citizens United decision, forgiveness of student loans, prosecution of those responsible for the foreclosure scandal, the passage of a comprehensive jobs bill, and much more.

(And, going back to #2 and the idea that the protesters are all just looking for something for nothing, the only one of the above demands that comes close to that is student loan forgiveness. Most of the protesters are willing to pay their fare share; they only want the same from the corporations and for their government to put people first.)

4 - "Get a Leader" - One of the most frustrating things for the mass media has been the lack of a single person, already in their contacts list, who they can call for comment. This "everybody's a leader" has been great in getting more people involved, amusing to watch the press attempt to navigate, as well as frustrating to those of us in General Assemblies who lack the patience to herd cats for even the most basic and simple decisions.

But beyond being a symbol of the desire for true democracy and consensus, the distributed leadership has been one of the messages of OWS. Distrust of leadership - any leadership - is such an inescapable symptom of our current global political crisis, that OWS protesters rejected any form of hierarchy, even when it would have benefited them.

The right also recognizes and feeds on this distrust of self-appointed leaders. The irony is that the Tea Party protests have been largely funded by the Koch Brothers, and that two of the largest Tea Party groups are suing each other over trademarks and (more vital and valuable) mailing lists. The right's answer to distrust of leaders has been pure astro-turf and deception.

As messy as some Occupy meetings have been, at least it was authentic. But, to move forward, the movement will have to develop some form of leadership, as distasteful as many may find that to be.

5 - "We're Concerned for their Health & Safety" - Yes, it's a concern when you have a few hundred people camping out with a couple of port-o-potties and no showers. But it's their choice. This "we have to clear them out for their own good" argument would have been more effective if the first several times I heard it wasn't from people who opposed health care reform and want to dismantle the EPA and OSHA.

There's much more to write about the Occupy movement, and I'm sure there will be ample opportunity to do so in the future. Yes, there have been problems with the way the occupations have been handled, some of which have kept me from becoming more personally involved, but on the whole I still believe they have been a good thing.

While many of the camps have been cleared for now, I don't believe this is over by a long shot. Lessons will be learned, leadership will be developed, and the people will not politely go inside and be quiet.


  1. Very good post Ken.
    You can't stifle, or move on an idea. The camps may be dismantled, but the anger of the people will still be there.
    The OWS occupations and their break up has been reported over here you may be pleased to know.

  2. great post. and if the banks and governments think driving the occupation indoors will destroy it, they really haven't a clue to the ingeniousness of the people who could create this astounding phenomenon in the first place---and the support of so many who have responded to the occupations.

  3. great blog, ken. this is just the beginning, but there are definitely lessons to be learned.


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