Unpacking Occupy

“The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement”
by David Graeber
Spiegel and Grau, 352 pp., $26 (hardcover)

Occupy Wall Street ruled the airwaves and imagination of America for about six weeks before its bases of operation were raided by federally co-ordinated government forces. How did it rise to prominence so fast, achieve more notoriety than any radical social movement since the 1960s and unite students and the working class, which even 60s radicals failed to do? And how did it appear to disintegrate just as quickly?

These questions have been on a lot of minds for the last year and a half, and David Graeber offers, I think, the most intelligent answers in his book “The Democracy Project.”

Earlier incidents of police repression against Occupy elicited strong support from around the city, and even helped to grow the movement. So when hundreds of police in riot gear showed up just after midnight on 15 November 2011 for the most dramatic crackdown of all, a full-scale raid and take-over of Zuccotti Park, I assumed New York would come back with its biggest show of support yet.

“Bloomberg has played his hand,” I thought. “Now it’s our turn to show him what we’ve got.” But, as it turned out, by that time we didn’t have much. Occupy, as such, did not recover from the November raids.

Why? How did a movement that held the attention of the country in the fall fizzle out by winter?

Media smears, increased police repression, internal squabbles, yes. But Graeber offers another reason—unions, liberals and Democrats. They helped us achieve our early success. Radicals and revolutionaries, though the core of the movement, were few in numbers. When 35,000 people marched from Zuccotti Park to City Hall on 5 October 2011, it was the unions who supplied the numbers. Radicals and revolutionaries marching under the same banners as Democrats!

But the festive unity of the October 5 march was based on a strategic decision: that our movement and our energy could be used to support their candidates in the 2012 elections.

I don’t think there was ever any real chance that the soul of a movement against the big banks could ever be brought to support the Democrats and Obama, so clearly in bed with those same banks. No matter how much material support they gave us, and despite whatever presence they may have had in what I called Occupy’s “executive class.”

When the Democrats finally concluded that we’d meant what we’d said all along, they abandoned us, says Graeber.

(In the interests of disclosure, I was part of the movement in Zuccotti Park from its bright, warm optimistic days of early October 2011, through six exciting, chaotic weeks to the November 15 raid, and on into January 2012.)

By time of the raid, the deteriorating situation in the park itself had become so taxing, so distracting, that some hoped the raid might help the movement refocus on the original issue of Wall Street greed. But as it turned out, the camps were the soul of the movement. Without Democratic liberal support, without a home, and facing increasing police repression, we faded from visibility. There were no labor disruptions, and business hummed along as usual.

Among many other things, Graeber describes the role of the student debt crisis in drawing support to the movement, and how Occupy’s refusal to issue demands or to negotiate with or engage the political system, despite the constant urging of liberal pundits and others that we do so, made us more compelling rather than less.

He covers the Occupy Movement’s origins in the Global Justice Movement of the 1990s, which was inspired and informed by a Ghandian farmers’ group in the Indian state of Karnataka against the arrival of Kentucky Fried Chicken. And on through the more recent resistant movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece and Spain.

He analyzes in readable terms the nature of money and debt in order to better explain the nature of the tremendous crimes of Wall Street. He deconstructs the notion of America’s founding principle of democracy by showing how the meaning of the term “democracy” has changed over the centuries. And he pokes massive holes in the relatively new—and self-serving—concept of “Western civilization.”

And as a participant in the early planning stages of the movement, he sheds light on the early days, explaining that although the Canadian magazine Adbusters thought of and put out the original call to occupy Wall Street on September 17, they did absolutely nothing beyond that, leaving the rest to local activists.

The first scheduled General Assembly was hijacked by Workers’ World, a hierarchical, old-line Stalinist group. A small group of “horizontalist” (non-hierarchical) people recognized each other, broke away and held their own meeting—the genesis of the Occupy movement. During those early days, the horizontals competed with “verticals” for the soul of the movement. The conflict came to a head over the issue of police liaisons. The conflict came to a head when verticals proposed choosing police liasons to formally communicate with police regarding logistical issues. Horizontals argued the liasons themselves would have too much authority, successfully opposed the plan, and the Occupy movement became decidedly horizontalist from that point on.

He even includes a sort of guide to the consensus process, complete with a question-and-answer section.

Graeber confides that during the planning phase he worried that the movement would be shamed for taking place so close—just two blocks—to the site of the World Trade Center tragedy. It was one of his greatest concerns, and it turned out to be a complete non-issue. I like the anecdote because it hints at how wrong nearly everyone’s predictions must have been. The impossibility of predicting future developments is what makes the world hopeful—even in grim times like our own.

In its moment of fame, the Occupy Movement managed to inject new concepts into the national consciousness, and we in the camps, in New York and around the nation got to practice what we don’t often get to practice in this country: We began to reach across lines of class and race and work toward something new. We shared pizza and ibuprofen, socks and ideas. The company picnic lasted a few good weeks, and we learned much.

–Pavlov Katz

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