Where does the Occupy movement turn next? Can social movements build on its momentum? Will protest and new forms of mobilization create change to transform the economy to one that works for people and the planet?
When would-be Occupiers pitched the first tents in New York’s Zuccotti Park eight months ago, hand-written signs declaring “we are the 99%” grabbed the public imagination. This 99 percent reality—millions of young people saddled with student debt joining the jobless and homeless to confront an increasingly vulnerable and bleak future—suddenly had a face and a voice that resonated across the nation and around the world.
So too were observers struck by the novelty and creativity of Occupiers able to make decisions by consensus, posing a stark contrast to a U.S. Congress where decisions seemed increasingly to be bought and sold by and for the one percent. Across the United States, thousands of encampments echoed the core message: a healthy society was a more equal society and Wall Street’s lock on our economy and our politics had to be broken.
In dozens of cities, actions reinforced this message as the victims of this unjust system started to fight back with verve and effectiveness. In some cities, occupiers stood guard in front of foreclosed homes to block banks from evicting inhabitants. In others, occupiers urged people to “move their money” from Wall Street banks to locally-rooted credit unions and community development financial institutions. From Washington, D.C., a 22-year-old, indebted college graduate named Molly Katchpole catalyzed such an outcry against outrageous bank fees that some banks retreated and cancelled the fees. Even as mayors and university administrators closed down encampments, Occupiers found new spaces to continue their general assemblies and plan local actions.
And then came spring 2012. In March, Jobs with Justice, National People’s Action, several unions, and nearly four dozen other groups came together to form what they called 99% Spring. As a result, during the month of April, close to 100,000 people underwent training to be able to tell the story of the economy, to learn techniques for non-violent direct action, and to plan a next set of joint actions.
By April, many of the 99% Spring groups formed 99% Power to challenge the power and practices of specific banks and corporations in what was dubbed Shareholder Spring. These actions kicked off on a large scale on April 24 at the Wells Fargo annual shareholders meeting at its corporate headquarters in San Francisco. While thousands protested outside, about a hundred protesters who had bought shares managed to get inside to raise the issues of foreclosures, CEO pay, tax avoidance, and other corporate abuses. Shareholder Spring protests spread to the shareholder meetings of General Electric, Verizon, Bank of America, and dozens of other corporations and banks.
Alongside the actions aimed at specific firms, many of the same social movements and unions have been targeting the rules, incentive, subsidies, and institutions that corporations had rigged for their own narrow gain. The climate change group 350.org, for example, is spearheading a campaign to end subsidies to the giant fossil fuel firms.
In mid-May, thousands of nurses from National Nurses United and their allies donned Robin Hood hats and marched in Chicago to escalate their call for a financial speculation tax that would tax speculative stock and derivatives trades and raise billions of dollars to, in the words of the nurses, “heal America.” Days later in Chicago, dozens of U.S. veterans lay down their medals to protest the continuing war in Afghanistan and to call for a shift from a war economy to a green and fair one. That same day, hundreds of members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and National People’s Action marched on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s home in suburban Washington D.C. demanding decent jobs and a fair economy.
Many in these movements and many who are sympathetic to this cause and have been following these events of Spring 2012 are now asking: What comes next? Will the momentum be sustained and grow? Can the groups’ commitment to non-violence be broadly respected? Can Occupy’s quirky dynamism link with and build power with established organizations like unions? Will there be a 99% Summer and Fall, and how will the November U.S. elections affect this dynamic?
Here are some spaces to watch or join: “save our homes” anti-foreclosure actions in many cities, activism against unsustainable student debt levels, the many facets of a fair tax movement (from the Robin Hood nurses to a coalition targeting offshore tax havens to groups demanding an end to the Bush tax cuts), the anti-fossil fuel subsidies campaigns, and a broad-based coalition called Caring Across Generations where over 200 groups unite elder care workers with the elderly to envision and fight for a better care system. All of these campaigns also raise the broader issue of the need to transition from a narrow Wall Street economy to a green, democratic and caring Main Street economy.
Sarita Gupta, director of Jobs with Justice and a leader of the 99% Spring, put it this way:
This spring created the opportunity for us to build the important lasting links between movements and people, to imagine creative actions together, and to develop a shared narrative about the economy. We plan to build upon the incredible energy, mass engagement, and creativity that were surfaced through 99% Spring and Power to make a difference in key struggles impacting every day people of the 99% on issues like housing justice, workers' rights, and climate justice—and to pave a way for future struggles.
Many paths. Many movements. And growing intersections and collective actions and joint narratives. As we look ahead, it is important also to remember how much has transpired over just these past eight months.
Robin is a Professor of International Development at in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of the , and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the. They are co-authors of three books and numerous articles on the global economy, and have been traveling the country and the world for their project Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.
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