This article is republished from ‘issue zero’ of the newly launched print edition of The International Times. The rest of the articles will be online on a new IT website soon. A limited number of copies can be bought from designer Darren Cullen’s online store here: https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/264543463/international-times-issue-zero
There are still barricades around Liberty Square. More than four years after the eviction, New York City and Brookfield Office Properties, the owners of the park, have physically enclosed the space. Cars parked on nearby streets bear the logo of the new NYPD special task force for handling protests, the Strategic Response Group. The government is still concerned about the possibility of occupation, and clearly intends to prevent it from happening ever again.
Occupy Wall Street challenged the legitimacy of the state. Rather than plead for—or demand—a place within the existing political structure of the state, the occupation created a new way of doing politics. Through a process of direct democracy, the people created a new kind of power. This power, just by existing, was a genuine threat to the dominant power of the media, non-profits, and political parties. Thus, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) had to be destroyed.
Now, more than four years later, OWS is a distant memory. All that remains is the history. The question is how this history is going to be written, and by whom. Will it be in the hands of those who lived it, or the state that destroyed it? We the people made a revolution once. Let us not forget.
On September 17th I stood in the middle of Zuccotti Park, with a group of facilitators, and began to hold an assembly. Thousands of people had come out for the call to #OccupyWallStreet, and they were intending to do just that. We talked for hours about whether to sleep in front of the Stock Exchange or to stay where we were in the park. Most everyone there agreed it was the experience of being together, hearing one another, and building an alternative to Wall Street that was important. We decided to occupy Zuccotti Park, and rename it Liberty Square.
That assembly became the New York City General Assembly ( NYCGA), and acted as governing body of the occupation. All decisions were made through a directly democratic process. We used a form of modified consensus, which meant that on any proposal brought before the assembly, we would attempt to reach consensus, but if we were unable to do so, then fall back on a 9/10 majority vote. There were working groups for every aspect of life at Liberty Square including food, shelter, clothing, and medicine. Basic needs were met by and for occupiers. There were no managers or leaders making decisions for us. We made decisions ourselves. It was our space.
During the first two weeks of occupation there were multiple assemblies every day. Most of us had never had the experience of being in a self-governed space, where we were responsible only to each other. The park was filled with voices. Conversations would flow from one to the next, and for the first time in many of our lives, we felt like someone was listening. We amplified each other’s voices. Often, literally. When someone spoke in assembly their words would be repeated by all the other participants, who listened and internalized what they were saying. This ritual encouraged the individual voices to become a collective voice. We called this the people’s microphone.
We, the people at Liberty Square had found our voice, and it resonated far beyond the occupation itself. In dozens of other cities occupations were starting and forming their own assemblies. They even used the people’s microphone.
It was time that we all speak to each other, so the NYCGA drafted The Declaration of the Occupation. We wrote, “To the people of the world, We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power. Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone. To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal. Join us and make your voices heard!”
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was growing from an action to a mass movement within a matter of weeks. By October there were hundreds of occupations all across the globe. People everywhere were taking the square and creating direct democracy.
The larger we grew, the more attention we received. Reporters came asking for our leaders. They wanted to know what our demands would be. We tried to explain what we were trying to do, but the mainstream media simply was not interested in a story about direct democracy. They wanted a voice that adhered to the frameworks and discourses acceptable to the state.
Then came the professional organizers. Whether from the unions, one of the many non-profits, the Working Families Party, or more openly the Democratic Party itself, and they came with their own agenda. They attempted to steer the occupation away from the process of direct democracy and toward representation.
Despite all these external pressures the occupation kept going. We continued to make our own collective decisions, make our own media, and represent ourselves. We refused to adhere to state politics.
The NYCGA even drafted The Statement of Autonomy which clearly states, “Occupy Wall Street is a people’s movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people. It is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand. It is not for sale.”
Once it became clear Occupy Wall Street could not be integrated into the state, it had to be destroyed. Whether through emotional and psychological methods such as calculated fostering of internal division or by outright brute force. In most places, it was by a combination of both.
The NYCGA, which was the source of our collective voice, and our political power, was the first target. All of a sudden there were people showing up to the assemblies with the explicit and stated purpose of trying to destroy it. They exploited our weaknesses around internalized oppression and access to resources. These weaknesses were real—they were indeed problems that needed to be resolved—but it had became impossible to resolve them under constant efforts to derail the process and condemn everyone making any serious effort to come up with solutions.
Many of us decided it was time for a new democratic structure, and spent a great deal of time and energy convincing others to shift gears. The Spokescouncil seemed to be the best approach: rather than an assembly of individuals, the council meetings would coordinate between smaller collectives and working groups, each with rotating “spokes”. This approach we thought could address growth, scale, oppression, and accountability by building around smaller groups. A spokescouncil was created, but was never really able to operate due to the same calculated attempts at disruption that bedevilled the general assembly.
The facilitators, myself included, were verbally and at times physically attacked. Those of us most committed to building democratic and accountable structure were accused of being authoritarian would-be leaders. These attacks further discredited the decision-making process, as they could be held out as proof that democracy itself was flawed, and made it near impossible to move forward.
In the middle of all this, Liberty Square was evicted. I watched as police tore apart our tents and many of our bodies. Everything we had built was gone in a matter of hours, cleared in sanitation trucks, made “clean”.
In December 2012 a report came out from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund that revealed the extent to which all this didn’t just happen; Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was targeted by a coordinated effort between Homeland Security, the FBI, private security firms, and local police departments, who set out to infiltrate, disrupt, and evict Liberty Square as well as every other occupation. The state considered OWS to be a domestic terrorist threat—not because of any acts of violence, by the governments’ own admission there were basically none, but because we were engaging in direct democracy.
It wasn’t until long after the eviction that I came to terms with defeat. I kept calling for meetings and hoping another occupation would happen, and that we would build stronger democratic structures. But it eventually became clear that OWS was over. Without the concrete everyday life of occupation it was unclear what decisions needed to be made. Direct democracy was only possible when the people were actually organizing their own lives. The indirect and direct brutality of the state had displaced us and ended our political project.
The Rise of the Party
The Democratic Party had always been waiting in the wings of OWS, waiting for the right moment to reveal itself. The Working Families Party, more of a progressive caucus within the Democratic Party than its own party, already had organizers in our midst during the occupation. However, they never managed to win much influence on the politics of OWS. It wasn’t until OWS was dead that they could fully capitalize on the movement.
Bill De Blasio was NYC Public Advocate during OWS, and he would come to the park to posture against the Republic Mayor Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio later ran for mayor with the Working Families Party in the image of a community organizer who cared about the plight of regular New Yorkers. In his first State of the City Address he proclaimed, “This is a team that knows how to execute its core responsibilities – while never losing sight of the fact that we’re called to be part of a larger mission as well. Because the truth is, the state of our city, as we find it today, is a Tale of Two Cities – with an inequality gap that fundamentally threatens our future.”
During his tenure in office, though, De Blasio has done very little to help the people of NYC. He has backed a housing plan that favors high density luxury condo development over real affordable solutions. He has evicted camps of homeless people while shutting down shelters. He has backed a police commissioner on broken windows policing, an increase of police in the streets, and strategic response groups to handle protests. The progressive vision he promised wasn’t much, but has not even lived up to that.
The race for the presidency is on. Politicians of all stripes are making grand and empty promises to the people. They say they’ll make America great again, and bring new jobs. They say that they are one of us and we shouldn’t think of them as politicians.
Bernie Sanders is running for president. He talks a good game, and, just like De Blasio, he uses the rhetoric of OWS in his speeches. In his announcement that he was running he stated, “Let me be very clear. There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent.”
The entire campaign has been built around his outsider, activist, identity. He talks about the need for a political revolution and waxes poetic about taking on Wall Street and meeting the needs of regular people. However, he is in no sense a regular person himself. He’s a seasoned beltway politician that is running for the presidency of the United States.
The pattern is repeated with each election cycle. A politician will say what they think people want to hear. It sounds good. But a politician cannot represent the people. They can only represent the politicial and economic interests that put them into office. The role of the politician is not to represent, but to maintain the illusion of representation, so that the state appears to have consent from the people. This is a crisis as old as representation itself.
No one can represent the people, and no one can represent the movement. A real political revolution is not a change of those in power but the creation of a new way of doing politics.
In 2011 there were occupations of squares happening all across the globe. From the Kasbah in Tunis, Tahrir in Cairo, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, to Syntagma in Athens, people were rising up. The space of the square was a symbolic and actual space in which the politics of representation were thrown out in favor of direct democracy.
We the people at Liberty Square in New York City understood we were one part of this global square. We drafted collective documents speaking to the people of the world. We were not a political party. We were just people coming together and taking control of our lives.
Now, political parties are claiming the square for their own power. They are trying to rewrite history and erase the actions of people. Worse yet, they are packaging this history and selling it back to the people. But we know better. We were in the square. We heard each other. We know our power. It’s time that we take it back.
by Marisa Holmes
Illustration Heathcote Ruthven