How Do You Measure a Dream?
This article was originally published in nplusonemag.com. It has been adapted for YES!
It is late August, 2012. Dozens of people are sitting and standing in a circle in Tompkins Square Park, planning the actions to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. We are literally in the same place, even under the same tree, where the assemblies to plan the initial September 17 occupation took place a year ago. There are a few of the same faces, and many, many new ones. As I stand there reflecting on what it means to be in exactly the same geographic spot, yet in an entirely different world, a young man bounces up to me. He is an artist and has played a consistent role in organizing Occupy since last summer. He almost always bounces rather than walks, and his eyes usually glisten with happiness.
"Do you think we should be depressed?" he asks, after greeting me with a long hug. His eyes are not sparkling as much as usual, and I am taken aback by the question. Depressed? Why? I had just been thinking about how far we had come.
Many people think Occupy has been a failure, he says. Hundreds of parks and plazas around the country are no longer occupied, we are no longer in the mainstream news, and people are saying that we do not have a plan.
We both agree that these seem like the wrong metrics. At the same time, what would the right ones be?
The conversation was a familiar one. In June, I traveled to Athens, Greece. Almost immediately after saying hello, a friend from a neighborhood assembly said to me, "Marina, you have to understand, the situation here is much worse. It is not like we thought it would be. We are not succeeding."
Only half the population of Athens was refusing to pay the newly imposed tax on the electric bill, he complained. And the coordination among the more than 50 neighborhood assemblies in Athens was not as concrete as it should be, and, even more frustrating, while many neighbors were coming to their local assemblies for support, some were no longer participating regularly. Maybe I looked like I was going to laugh, because he proceeded to remind me that in November of 2011, the expectations for the movement were quite high: some spoke of dual power, and others even of revolutionary situations.
By comparison, it was disappointing to have only half the population engaged in direct action and another significant sector looking to the neighborhood assembly as the local power. After a long conversation I agreed that, based on his definition of success, the movement had not "succeeded." But I also argued that this did not mean that they had been unsuccessful. What does success mean? Who decides? By what standards?
Out of the Plazas, Into the Neighborhoods
September 17, 2011, marked the beginning of a new refusal in the U.S. Joining our sisters and brothers around the globe, who in the years prior were declaring "Enough is Enough!," as in Mexico, Greece, and Egypt, and "They All Must Go!" in Argentina. Together we are not only refusing—we are not just saying no!—in each place, in ways that are unique and remarkably similar at the same time, but we are affirming ourselves and our power. This is the power of the slogans “We are the 99 percent” and “Real Democracy Ya!” It is a claim of who we are and a recognition of that power.
That’s not to say the movement hasn’t changed. Around the world there has been a move from the occupation of large plazas to the creation of neighborhood assemblies, weaving assemblies and actions into the fabric of everyday life. In Greece, the refusal to pay the new electricity tax is organized through local neighborhood assemblies. Then, when the electricity is cut, it is the neighborhood assembly that reconnects it. Sometimes the assembly breaks into the records office of the electric company and destroys records of debt. This is all done through local assemblies coordinating on regional levels. Similar actions are also taking place with regard to increased costs to basic health care. Again, the neighborhood assemblies block the cashiers in the hospitals so that people do not have to pay. Additionally people are organizing barter networks, through local assemblies that then have more regional connections.
Here in New York, we have seen the appearance of numerous local assemblies, which in some cases work directly to defend neighbors from evictions or to support their struggle for affordable and dignified housing, as in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Occupy assemblies have appeared in each of the college and university campuses of the public city university system in New York, coordinating together to resist cuts and proposed tuition increases, as well as to create a space for a "free university," where new forms of education and pedagogy are experimented with, led, and coordinated by students.
Throughout the United States, in large cities and small towns, people inspired by the politics and tactics of Occupy have been organizing to defend people from evictions, from the neighborhood of Bernal Heights in San Francisco to the suburbs of Minnesota and Iowa. The form is the same. Neighbors come together, sometimes going door to door, sometimes meeting in a person's home, and discuss who is at risk of foreclosure and what to do about it, often physically defending homes from eviction as well as petitioning for new terms for living in the home with the bank. Teenagers in sports jackets, mothers holding children, grandparents and neighbors and activists, all gather together to prevent an eviction or foreclosure from taking place. In most cases they win, forcing the banks to allow people to keep their homes instead of being cast out on the street.
For example, in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, a few neighbors came together first to help defend a longtime resident who was facing foreclosure. After a long battle, they were able to force the bank to renegotiate his mortgage to one that he could afford. From there, a number of women began a door-knocking campaign where they went house to house asking if people were facing foreclosure and if they wanted to fight. As Molly, one of the first participants in Occupy Bernal, explained:
And now we’re starting think about we need to talk to people before they even get into foreclosure, because the more time we have the better it is, if we’re really trying to save people’s homes... A lot of people were skeptical at first, but there are people who’ve gotten their loans modified through work that we’ve done. Their home would have been auctioned off; they would have been evicted. We feel like we’re doing something for our neighbors at least. And one thing that I found out, once we started at who was in foreclosure—we found out who they were: they were almost all people of color. This is a very diverse neighborhood, but I would say most of the people who live here were white people; so that people of color were the ones who the bank targeted for these bad loans. So it feels to me like—this is the main reason that I’m active in this—that the face of my neighborhood is getting changed every day by the banks, these big banks that made fraudulent loans to my neighbors. I’m just outraged.
Similar stories are being told throughout the United States, and many housing defenses are taking place that I am sure are not known about because they are not in the media or even the alternative press. As Molly and others from Occupy Bernal explain, they began to organize to defend their neighbors. It was and is the most basic thing to do—to speak with the person living next to you and organize together. This sort of direct action, facilitated by neighborhood assemblies, is part of what Occupy has inspired. This is where Occupy has come in less than a year.
Workers, We Have Your Backs
Within workplaces the movement is still beginning, but the relationship of the Occupy movement to those involved in labor struggles is deepening and profound. Labor laws that threaten workers for taking action on the job have created such fear that there is often little fighting back within a workplace during business hours. However, the relationship between workers in struggle and movement participants has begun to change that. For example, in Kensington, the Brooklyn neighborhood where I live, a local community group is working together with the new Occupy in the neighborhood to support workers' efforts to organize a union at a grocery store called Golden Farms. The workers themselves fear losing their jobs, so they do not join the picketing and flyering outside, but the movement has been successfully keeping neighbors from shopping in the store and is increasing the pressure on the owners to recognize workers’ rights.
Just last week, workers have won at Hot and Crusty, a cafe on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where they have been organizing a union for almost a year. This victory would not have taken place without the support of community groups, labor, and Occupy. Workers from the café began coming to Occupy meetings last fall, and maintained pressure inside the workplace with the support of the community and the movement. When the café’s owners locked the workers out, movement participants maintained an ongoing action outside the café, handed out food and coffee on a donation basis, and educated the neighborhood as to what was taking place. Finally, the owners agreed to recognize the union and will reopen the café as a union shop.
These are huge victories that demonstrate the powerful relationship between workers in struggle and Occupy. Similarly, in Spain, when there is a struggle and workers ask for support, movement participants will sometimes physically block all people from entering a workplace so that it is effectively shut down, even if the workers cannot "legally" strike. In this way direct action by the movement directly supports the struggle of the workers, yet without placing the workers in any danger.
Measuring the Movement by Our Own Standards
There is no question as to the amount of Occupy-inspired actions across the country. What I have mentioned above is only the tip of the iceberg. But more important than making a list of what is happening under the umbrella of Occupy is how it is all taking place. People are coming together in horizontal assemblies and deciding what to do. No one is waiting on a political party or a boss or leader to come and tell them what to do and how, but we are looking to one another and figuring it out together. It is not about asking but about doing. It is from a point of affirming our power together and not from a position of weakness.
In Argentina, ten years after the popular rebellion, an interesting phenomenon arose with regard to the question of success of the movements. Young people, and even those in their thirties, who were generally teens or in their twenties during the rebellion, have begun to refer to themselves as hijos (children) of the "19th and 20th."
What they mean by this is not that they became political during the rebellion of December 19 and 20, 2001, though many of them did. What they mean is that the way that they organize today, with assemblies, using the non-hierarchical organizing principle of horizontalidad, was created by the rebellion. What it means to be a child of the 19th and 20th lies in the forms of social relationships and the seeing of means as a part of the ends. Nicolas and Gisela, two movement participants explained this as follows in 2010: “[We say] we are the children of 2001 because we were formed by everything we lived within the assemblies, the factories, and everything that happened in the streets. It is there that we learned these cooperative principles of horizontalidad.”
Can You Measure a Dream?
Social movements are made up of people. People with ideas and dreams, dreams for themselves, dreams for the collective, and dreams for the movements and the world. Sometimes these movement dreams and goals measure up with those of social scientists who study movements and claim to know what a successful movement is. Which I guess is like saying they know the dreams of the movement participants. Some theorists argue, for example, that the Occupy movement must ultimately take state and institutional power to be successful. Some Occupy movement participants, however, say that dignity and freedom in their relationships is what they desire. Who is right? Can one really argue that a movement is not successful because it did not meet the goals an outside observer has imposed on it?
Who decides success? Success has to be decided by those people in struggle, those who are fighting or organizing for something.
The success of a movement must depend on the goals and feelings of its participants, not those studying them or desiring to lead them. In fact, it is against this way of thinking and organizing that the Occupy movement was born. It was a rupture with people telling us what to do and how to do it. This includes not only governments and politicians, but also left political parties, journalists, and scholars.
One year after Occupy, we have a success already. When people begin to organize all over the country they are doing so with assemblies, struggling against hierarchy, thinking about the question of leadership and power, and trying to create ways where all can be leaders. When people are organizing today it might not always be with the word Occupy, but the spirit of assemblies, direct action, and creating power together is there for sure. The mark of Occupy is there for sure.
Marina Sitrin wrote this article for nplusonemag.com and adapted it for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Marina is a participant in the Occupy movements whose newest book is Occupying Language, written with Dario Azzelini. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Committee on Globalization and Social Change.
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