Kenny Steven Fuentes is a freelance actor/director, activist, and blogger who currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. His work can be seen on ‘The Activationist’ blog at TheActivationist.com, and periodically he will also be sharing his ideas here at SmellsLikeHumanSpirit.com. Check out Kenny’s appearance on the podcast in Episode 74, follow him on Twitter @activationist, and enjoy his latest article, ‘The Changing World: Two Years After Occupy’:
It’s so easy to write off the drum circles and dread-locked white chicks. The street artists and homeless. The young. We always look upon the young with suspicion. But what happens when the young are joined by the old? The poor with the middle class? We often forget that the pillars of the middle class were fought for and spearheaded by the undesirables of the previous generations. Anarchists, European immigrants, coal miners, etc.
I wrote those words a year ago today, sweaty, disheveled, with half my possessions inside a backpack, sitting in the midst of Zuccotti Park. It was September 17th 2012, the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and my first full day living in New York City. Two years ago, I looked at the original encampments with cynicism that I’d learned during the Bush years. At some point between 2011 and 2012, I had evolved from a broken, disillusioned progressive liberal to something new. The seeds of radicalism were already implanted in my experience, but I’d spent years of my life attempting to find an oasis of privilege. I repressed, compromised, and attempted to reconcile my radical world-view with the hope that I could carve out my own sliver of privilege and security in an insecure world.
There was no single moment, no single image that launched me into the arms of radical thought. Perhaps it was the footage of foreclosure resistance that convinced me? Or perhaps the first time I was threatened with arrest and violence by the NYPD while walking down the street one year ago today? One could argue that the world began to change, but I believe the truth is that the world is gradually changing me.
A year ago, I focused on my understanding of Occupy Wall Street in the context of a quasi-spontaneous social movement as opposed to a regimented, narrow political movement. While there is often overlap, the two are not necessarily the same. I stated, as I do now, that a political movement aims to elect candidates and/or to change policy. A social movement seeks to change the social order and organize individuals into collective action in order to create the conditions for larger, more profound changes from below. The former seeks to influence the outcome of the next election cycle, by appealing to power; the former seeks to change the outcome of the entire next generation, by challenging power.
Those who evaluated OWS as a political movement would be correct in the assertion that the movement “failed’, but those of us who evaluate OWS as a social movement recognize that it’s too soon to know and anyone who calls “victory” or “failure” is naïve at best, a charlatan at worst.
It’s been well more than a year since the last of the original encampments were evicted, but the ripple effects are everywhere. From the ranks and working groups of the original encampments came Occupy Sandy, an organization formed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in response to the insufficient and classist recovery efforts, providing relief and operating on the principles of Mutual Aid. If you go a little further behind the scenes, Occupy the SEC has addressed one of the most persistent and often ignored concerns of the public: addressing the causes and changing the rules of the financial system. From a recent piece by Allison Kilkenny:
The group recently submitted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court’s consolidated Troice cases (Chadbourne Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, Willis of Colorado Inc. v. Troice and Proskauer Rose LLP v. Troice) based on the massive Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Allen Stanford, and relates to the complicity of third parties like auditors and law firms in abetting that fraud. In October 2012, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on these three cases.
Kilkenny’s piece describes a number of other projects and actions taken by Occupy off-shoots over the past year, but we ought to pay attention to movements without any formal or direct links to Occupy. The Dream Defenders, an organization formed in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, recently completed a month-long occupation of the Florida statehouse, triggering a legislative poll on Stand Your Ground and moving anoter step closer towards the passing of Trayvon’s Law. The famed Wendy Davis filibuster in Texas reflects a growing militancy of activists and organizers, spurning quite possibly my favorite GOP rebuke in quite some time, from the honorable Rick Perry: “This is bringing Occupy Wall Street tactics inside of the chamber of the Texas Senate in this case, and that’s probably their goal.”
Before I venture too far into the world of cheerleading, we ought to acknowledge that social mobilization and these sorts of direct action tactics did not start with Occupy. In early 2011, Wisconsin public workers, state representatives, and union activists utilized occupation and militant direct action in order to challenge Governor Scott Walker’s union busting laws. Occupations and foreclosure resistance also existed before Occupy Wall Street, which has its roots in the global justice movement, but that brings us to another critical point of reflection.
Is a social movement a product of struggle, or are the outcomes of the struggle a product of the social movement? Like many questions, the answer comes in the contradictions rather than an easy answer. The spirit of Occupy existed long before September 17th 2011. No one had any idea that a single encampment in Zuccotti Park would explode into the biggest spurt of simultaneous social upheavel in nearly half a century. Some might argue that the groundwork, the organizing, and the networks of activists were ill prepared to handle such an explosion, the size of which was beyond anyone’s expectation. But the point is that the collective struggles all across The United States were ready for a banner, for a common message, for a wake up call to the establishment. But underneath all the fevor was organization, networks, and individuals willing to work towards a goal that might never come.
One of the great catastrophes of the late 20th century was the demobilization and systematic destruction of the radical-left and working class movements. In the wake of McCarthyism in the 50’s, FBI surveillance and distruption of radical groups in the 60’s/70’s, the left was largely dismantled or rendered impotent without the radical movements to guard the flanks.
Consider this piece by Peter Beinart, published last week by The Daily Beast:
Over the past three decades, Democratic politicians have grown accustomed to campaigning and governing in the absence of a mobilized left. This absence has weakened them: Unlike Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could never credibly threaten American conservatives that if they didn’t pass liberal reforms, left-wing radicals might disrupt social order. But Democrats of the Reagan-Clinton generation have also grown comfortable with that absence. From Tony Coelho, who during the Reagan years taught House Democrats to raise money from corporate lobbyists to Bill Clinton, who made Goldman Sachs co-chairman Robert Rubin his chief economic adviser, to Barack Obama, who gave the job to Rubin’s former deputy and alter ego, Larry Summers, Democrats have found it easier to forge relationships with the conservative worlds of big business and high finance because they have not faced much countervailing pressure from an independent movement of the left.
But that may be changing. Look at the forces that created Occupy Wall Street. The men and women who assembled in September 2011 in Zuccotti Park bore three key characteristics. First, they were young. According to a survey published by City University of New York’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor, 40 percent of the core activists involved taking over the park were under 30 years old. Second, they were highly educated. Eighty percent possessed at least a bachelors’ degree, more than twice the percentage of New Yorkers overall. Third, they were frustrated economically. According to the CUNY study, more than half the Occupy activists under 30 owed at least $1,000 in student debt. More than a one-third had lost a job or been laid off in the previous five years. In the words of David Graeber, the man widely credited with coining the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” the Occupy activists were “forward-looking people who had been stopped dead in their tracks” by bad economic times.
Beinhart goes on to predict that the recent success of Bill DeBlasio is an early sign of a major paradigm shift in the political narrative of the country. But this shift in politics is catching up with a shift in the general populace that is increasingly demanding responses to growing inequality and economic insecurity.
Tellingly, we also see a growing militancy amongst the labor movement. As I elaborated in a previous post, the recent spurt in labor organizing in fast food and other low-wage industries appears to be the natural response to these same concerns. Since the last strike, California’s legislature voted to raise the minimum wage to 10$, which will be the highest in the nation. Still, the movement isn’t slowing down:
An extra $2 an hour would help pay the rent and put more food on the dinner table, said Shonda Roberts of Oakland. The 15-year fast-food veteran said she has a hard time feeding both herself and her teenage son on her current take-home pay. ”It’s a start,” she said, “but I’m still going to fight for $15,” referring to a national campaign to give fast-food workers an even larger pay raise.
So what of fears that a more powerful left-flank will weaken the Democrats in the face of a rising libertarian right-wing? Well, returning to the Beinhart piece, it seems these fears may be exaggerated:
I would add that the Democratic Party establishment is risking their fortunes by doubling down on issues of surveillance and liberal-imperialism, turning supposedly liberal ideals such as civil liberties and anti-militarism, into possible conservative platform issues. Rather than expend energy trying to stamp out the left wing and radical movements that are flourishing in this insecure, uneasy time, perhaps it behooves The Democratic Party to embrace history and recognize that a strengthened radical movement is mutually beneficial.
Occupy Wall Street, whether the catalyst or the result, may go down in history as the moment we realized that the world was changing. As Zhou Enlai once remarked when asked about the legacy of The French Revolution, “it’s too early to say.” As a fan of history, I know that I may not live long enough to fully grasp the world I lived in. But two years after the fact, I can say without a doubt: The world has changed me.