From Building Tents to Building Movements: Reflections from Occupy DC, Vasudha Desikan and Drew Franklin
This piece was first published on In Front and Center on January 25, 2012.
WELCOME TO D.C.
“Occupy is not a panacea, but an opening. It will help us clear the way to a more mature political landscape. It has begun to breathe in the many currents of dissatisfaction and breathe out a new radical imagination.” Vijay Prashad
The question of what the “Occupy” movement is has concerned us ever since it spread to Washington D.C. in October of last year. After witnessing Occupy Wall Street’s tremendous growth in New York, we were inspired to see for ourselves the potential for radical mobilization in our city, where the corporate and state arms of global capital meet. The seat of power in the United States, D.C. has a long history as a center for protest, frequently drawing in activists from all over the country. It is also home to 600,000 legislatively and electorally disenfranchised residents, who have been engaged in their own unique struggles. Occupy D.C. had (and in some respects still has) exciting potential to work in solidarity with these community struggles and catalyze radical growth here and around the country.
From day one, we spent considerable time at Occupy D.C.’s chosen encampment, McPherson Square, a quiet park situated two blocks from the White House on K St. (this location was strategic and symbolic, as downtown K St. is recognized for its concentration of corporate headquarters and lobbying firms.) As anarchists committed to direct democracy, we helped build up the Facilitation committee and worked to implement consensus building processes at general assemblies, spokescouncils, and working groups. We watched the occupation grow quickly from a small group of no more than fifty people making and holding signs, to a “tent city” practicing mutual aid, with free medical care, a free kitchen, and its own library, among other things. Marches grew from ten or twenty people with poorly coordinated chants to hundreds of marchers taking the streets, blocking traffic, and barricading or taking over targeted buildings.
Occupy represented an exciting, transformative moment that saw rage and disillusion fuse with direct action tactics in a strike against oppressive institutions. It brought together hundreds of strangers who might have never worked together, deeply inspired and reinvigorated many burned-out activists, and fostered the development of leadership among a new generation of young radicals—all while helping change the national discourse around inequality. But the movement also has flaws, some quite serious, and they merit further examination.
It was many of these shortcomings that resulted in our very intentional abstention from Occupy D.C. Having stepped back from McPherson, we want to critically reflect on these past few months. 2012 will be a crucial year for popular uprising, as revolutions continue around the world, and as the U.S. gears up for the most expensive presidential election in history. We can learn a lot from the Occupy movement—its successes and failures—and use that experience to keep building momentum and guide popular discontent toward revolutionary struggle.
ON REVOLUTION AND LIBERALISM
The Occupy movement—sometimes referred to as the “American Autumn’—was self-consciously inspired by the Arab Spring, especially the uprisings in Tahrir Square. But while the two can be regarded as part of the same global uprising against oppressive regimes, the former has fallen short of the revolutionary character of the latter. To reach their revolutionary moment, Egyptians struggled against Mubarak’s dictatorship for decades and took advantage of a series of escalating grievances to mobilize mass populations and build a real democracy. They made, and continue to make, real blood sacrifices to achieve these goals—sacrifices that we have not made.
What is this moment, then, if not revolutionary? Occupy is a populist movement that the Left can participate in for the first time in decades. The tagline “We are the 99%” and protests against corporate personhood tap into populist rage against capitalist excesses and income inequality.
The political ambiguity of the Occupy movement—its resistance to partisan affiliations, to formulating specific demands, and to establishing a political platform—allowed people with widely varying ideologies to find points of unity and work together where they might not have otherwise. This was a welcome change to the notorious sectarianism of the American Left. Nonetheless, maintaining a radical character for the movement was a struggle, and we often found ourselves resisting liberal politics within it.
One of the ways this manifested was in tensions over Occupy DC’s relationship with the police. For the first few weeks, before the General Assembly decided to amend it, one of the occupation’s guidelines was “Obey the law.” On many occasions, sometimes through “official” ODC channels, occupiers publicly commended the police for escorting us on marches or for restraining themselves from beating us; once, some occupiers went so far as to propose a “Police Appreciation Day”. This prompted desperately needed conversations, which created opportunities for people from marginalized communities to share personal stories of police brutality. Still, even as the police became increasingly repressive, the question of whether or not they were part of “the 99%” remained contentious.
At least that was a debate, but the movement was also largely and almost unquestioningly dominated by a narrative of American exceptionalism: that ours is a Great Nation that has only recently been “hijacked” by corporations, with appeals to the Constitution or the Founding Fathers rather than universal human rights. American flags sprang up all around McPherson and were proudly waved during marches. It seemed that most were motivated by a desire to “take our country back” and restore a broken system without asking whether that system worked for all of the 99% to begin with.
Worse yet, it wasn’t uncommon to hear people say straight out that racism had become a secondary problem, a thing of the past, now superseded by economic oppression. These are just a few examples, all of which are inherently privileged perspectives that are completely alienating to people who are still oppressed for their non-dominant identities, for whom economic disenfranchisement is nothing new, who have been terrorized by the police in their own communities, who have been denied citizenship and thus have no country to reclaim, or who are victims of globalization and imperial war. These oppressive narratives endured amid calls for revolution, and most occupiers seemed oblivious to the contradiction.
ON COLLECTIVE LIBERATION AND SAFE(R) SPACES
“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson
Collective liberation is a fundamental principle of our political practice. It means dismantling hierarchy, resisting oppressive dynamics, and checking privilege so that all marginalized people and their allies can be empowered to work together in shared struggle. We believe collective liberation is essential to radical movement building, so we sought to help implement these principles at McPherson Square, with varying levels of success.
One of the familiar slogans during the early days of our occupation was “Welcome to this liberated park.” At first, it did feel like a liberated space, with spontaneous teach-ins and workshops on anti-oppression, nonviolent resistance, and revolutionary leftist history. However, following repeated incidences of racism, misogyny, and homophobia, it became clear that Occupy D.C. was not a safe space for everyone. To address this problem, the People of Color and White Allies working groups worked together to formulate a statement of grievances and call for solidarity with non-dominant communities. The purpose of this letter was to introduce a critical, intersectional analysis of the systems of oppression that these communities have been fighting against for centuries, long before economic disenfranchisement became a reality for middle-class white Americans.
With collective liberation as our guiding principle, we pushed to build a greater body of politics of solidarity, in direct actions and personal practice. Many of the folks of color banded together to intervene on political projects that they felt did not adequately represent their struggles. There was tremendous personal and political growth of young white people who became solid allies with politics grounded in anti-oppression.
Unfortunately, the politics of solidarity and revolutionary responsibility do not resonate with everyone, and in an open park, it is nearly impossible to guarantee a completely safe space. We realized this early on and focused on creating a safe-as-possible space. The Safe Occupation working group created guidelines on ensuring safety at the park, but there wasn’t any real enforcement of them. We also failed to cultivate a mentality that each person at the park is responsible for their fellow occupiers’ safety; this responsibility did not just lie with De-escalation and Safe Occupation. The Safe Occupation working group took on multiple future incarnations that were more successful in ensuring that the principles of safer spaces were adopted by the entire community.
But for as long as there is a physical occupation with no real semblance of community accountability and a shared moral value system, there will be a litany of serious problems that plague the movement. While some well-intentioned individuals have stepped up to help address these problems, the difficult task of fundamentally shifting the oppressive culture at camp will remain so unless there is a critical mass of helpers.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
In an interview with Naomi Klein, NYC-based organizer Yotam Marom stated, “We’re in a unique moment in the development of a movement that’s not only a protest movement against something but also an attempt to build something in its place. It is potentially a very early version of what I would call a dual-power movement, which is a movement that’s, on the one hand, trying to form the values and institutions that we want to see in a free society, while at the same time creating the space for that world by resisting and dismantling the institutions that keep us from having it.” In D.C., much like in NYC, we are faced with this dualism, but we also have some unique characteristics, as one of the last standing physical occupations and as the nation’s Capitol, that require a nuanced course of action and analysis.
For Occupy D.C., it is important to keep reminding ourselves that physical occupation of a federal park is just a tactic, the effectiveness of which needs to be continually revisited, especially if we intend to build a broad-based movement. At some point, we went from being an encampment around a movement to being a movement around an encampment. How can we refocus and remember our original, radical intent and our politics of solidarity? If this tactic of physically occupying public spaces will be used again in 2012, then we need to ensure that communities in future camps create an echo chamber around intolerance for all oppressive and abusive behaviors.
Winter is here and the spring of our hope is not too far away. This is the time for us to reflect as individuals and as a collective as to what our vision for the radical transformation of society looks like and what tangible steps can be taken to achieve that. This is the time to have the difficult conversations around supporting reform struggles as revolutionaries. This is the time to step back and critically evaluate what our successes and failures have been thus far. This is the time to realize we are in one of the most politically, historically, and demographically vibrant cities in Washington D.C. and we should challenge our collective radical imagination to build people power in communities beyond McPherson Square.
Drew Franklin is an activist from D.C. who has been involved in prisoner solidarity work. He was on the Facilitation Team at Occupy DC.
Vasudha Desikan is a DC-based activist who was involved in the Facilitation Team and People of Color Working Group at Occupy DC.