New Orleans After weeks on the road the free newspaper rack at the Lufthansa counter in Frankfurt seemed the perfect pick-me-up, so I grabbed the international versions of the Herald Tribune, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today as part of an English immersion experience. Ironically, a piece in USA Today by Rick Hampson, where he sought to pose questions about the “what’s next” for the Occupy Wall Street movement, held my attention the closest.
Intriguingly, the models for movements Hampson used were largely the efforts of Ross Perot (what movement?) and the Tea Party, both aggressively political efforts rather than social movements. The questions are not unimportant though since they ask the obvious about whether or not this is a sustainable effort or simply a flash-in-the-pan, and indirectly the piece posed the question of whether or not this is a political movement at all or simply an expression of repressed opposition and rage at current political and economic circumstances.
Led or leaderless? This is obviously a false proposition. There are always leaders! The same confusion was deliberately constructed back to the New Left and the SDS sides of the anti-war movement. None of this means there are not leaders, simply that there is a resistance to the false coronation of media spoke people suddenly being conflated into real leaders. Recently the Organizers’ Forum saw much the same thing in the wake of the Egyptian movement as recognizable spokespeople were still struggling to find an analysis and a strategy to move forward from to transition into real leaders, rather than simply voices for common grievances.
Organization: Horizontal or vertical? Organizations are almost always hierarchical at some level, but movements, especially when they spread, are almost always horizontal. You can’t plant a movement or give it permission, it springs forward wherever the seed falls, as one can easily see from civil rights, women’s, anti-war and other movements. This is what makes them real and makes them movements.
What’s the Agenda? This is another false and unfair question. The organizers and leaders of Occupy are right to resist clarity here and a more defined program as long as possible in order to construct the largest tent they can to hold as many disparate efforts that they can join together. Yes, this makes it harder to hold together over time, but is essentially in allowing movements to spread. It has been interesting to see various organizations both join and try to use the movement because of its fluidity and flexibility. There’s no harm here. Reading one comment from a local spokesperson about resisting having “Occupy hijacked” by various organizations, it was easy to understand the fear, but I would counsel that at this stage it is easier to embrace all in order to allow nothing to grow large enough to transcend the movement. Adding labor to Occupy has not made this a labor movement, but simply given Occupy more legitimacy. Many will strain and stretch to try to graft their agenda onto the Occupy movement, but that’s fine, too, and not worth a lot of possessiveness and jealousy by Occupy leaders. If it’s strong, it will absorb everything around it. A good example from Occupy Chicago the other day were their brief attachments to Stand and Action Now, which the Times defined as a group dealing with vacant lots in one area of the city. So what? A movement lends fire to organizational efforts and a legitimate movement may want to spread its reach into areas and communities where previously there had been no natural soil. This is not a movement being hijacked, but a vibrant step forward.
What about Election Day? Occupy is not a political movement at least not yet. It has no program or scope for the election. Efforts by politicians to triangulate their program and Occupy are standard fare, but the best hope for either is that more activism and energy at the base might have benefits for politics, but many of these actors and activists are apolitical. If Occupy becomes a legitimate movement, then the smart politicians will figure out a way to tap in, but now this is all symbolic. Reading back hometown papers, I noticed that the Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, had made a brief drive-by visit to see the action. Smart. All symbol. No substance. That will be the strategy for now as people try to sort out what’s happening here and what to make of it.
Managing Conflict? This is the standard trope for all organizing, which is often masked in the sentiment: I support your program, but not your tactics. The Occupy sites that survive and morph into something more sustainable will master the strategy and tactics question. Right now the strategy largely is a tactic: taking a piece of ground and holding it, structurally and symbolically, as constant protest. My advice would be that it is best to make the most of it while it’s working. To grow larger both the strategy and tactics will have to advance, since on movement can simply hold a piece of ground and survive. Eventually the bell will toll and the attention will wonder.
Parenthetically in the way every movement develops an ideology based on practice and experience, reading the piece also allowed me to stumble to an understanding of why from Miami to Vancouver so many have been frustrated by the leaderless-leader movement’s refusal to use bullhorns or sound systems to allow speakers to be heard. Because Occupy Wall Street is banned by the police from using bullhorns, other Occupy forces have embraced the ban. Who knows how many fully own this short history as sites leap from New York City throughout the country and the world, but an ideology does not have to be understood to be absorbed.
Who knows if this will develop into a real movement rather than an exciting spurt, but for now, if it’s the best we have, let’s try to keep the fires burning.