I am writing this essay on the eve of a great anniversary. Exactly two years have passed since the fateful day when 1000 protesters, answering the call of the Canadian Adbusters magazine, converged upon Wall Street to directly confront the most powerful economic forces in the world. Combining the occupation tactics of the Tahrir Revolution earlier that year, the consensus-based decision making process of the Spanish Indignados, and the spirit of the Bonus Army, some 150 of those protesters set up an encampment in Zucotti Park. The symbolism of this action was clear to everyone involved: we will venture beyond the normal 2-hour protest by maintaining a 24/7 occupation. We are fed up with the status quo as it is, and we will sacrifice months of time out of our own schedule to bring this corporate oligarchy to its knees and force it to reckon with our power. If Wall Street will not give us a fair democracy through the political system, we will create it ourselves. We will camp at this park and refuse to leave until we see a more just society.
Not even the people organizing the occupation realized the impact it would have. After the horrendous, indiscriminate use of pepper-spray on protesters by NYPD officer Anthony Bologna surfaced, as well as the very visible arrests of over 700 protesters marching on the Brooklyn Bridge, Occupy Wall Street broke through the corporate media blackout and sparked a firestorm of dissent throughout the country. Clever use of social media made it a social/political movement that spread more rapidly than any in history. What had once been a protest centralized in Zucotti Park ballooned so large that, in less than a month, there were similar Occupy encampments in over 600 towns and cities across the United States. What had once been thousands of people at the main occupation in Zucotti swelled to tens of thousands. The Occupy movement’s main slogan, “We are the 99%” (meaning that 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth and we are the rest), was a pop culture phenomenon more effective at raising class-consciousness in Americans than any piece of propaganda this side of the century. Income equality was on the map. The verb “Occupy” itself was chosen by American linguists as the word of 2011. The Occupy movement was a hotbed of innovation and creativity from the signs on the street to the general assembly to the human microphone, which started as a tactic to speak and be heard in large crowds without bullhorns, but evolved into an interruption tactic to force politicians and CEOs of major corporations to listen to the people.
It was in this context of a new and vibrant social movement that I joined an encampment in Manchester, New Hampshire. On October 15, 2011, when the entire globe was consumed with similar occupations (“The Worldwide Day of Protest”), Occupy New Hampshire was born. Save a few protests in Concord, I had never done anything political in my life up to this point, but I was fully committed to the occupation since reading about Occupy Wall Street from radical Facebook friends. I threw myself at it with reckless abandon, believing completely that we could bring Wall Street to its knees, committed to riding it out wherever it took me and refusing to give in until we had won. It was a life-changing experience for me. I met so many talented and amazing activists, many of whom are now my dearest friends, some of whom I’ve had love-hate relationships with, and only a few of whom I wish I’d never met. I slept outside in the cold for the first time fighting for a cause I believe in. The General Assembly became the first democracy I’ve ever truly felt I belonged to or had any voice in. I encountered the conditions the homeless in my city have to face every day, and their stories broke me and will haunt my mind forever. I saw that it was possible for a small group of ordinary but extra-ordinarily committed people, through self-government, to fill the vacuums of need in my community created by corporate capitalism and the greed of humans. And I was arrested for the first time standing up for what my conscience told me was right—an experience that induced in me so much righteous adrenaline that I felt elevated to a higher level of being. I aged more in those five days of the occupation than I had in the previous nineteen years combined.
Everything after the night of October 19, 2011 feels like a blur. Even actions that made sense at the time are things I’m now struggling to understand the meaning of. It all bleeds into an incomprehensible surrealist painting: the mic check of Barack Obama, the eviction of Zucotti Park, the Occupation of the New Hampshire primary, the bird-dogging of politicians, my arrest outside the NBC Republican debates at the Capital Center of the Arts, the “99% Spring”, my community service at the soup kitchen, the heartbreak that was the split of Occupy New Hampshire, the headache that was Pridefest, the complete spiritual devastation and humiliation of my defeat in Superior court, the months of depression and solitude spent in my room, the salt in the wound of the Concord Police Chief applying for an armored attack truck to fend off Occupiers, and all that happened in between. The only thing I seem to know for sure is that some indiscernible point, the triumphs of the Occupy movement transformed into the dying gasps of a movement on its way to popular irrelevancy.
One of the most common questions I am asked about the Occupy Movement is “What happened to the Occupy Movement?” and, “Where did you guys go?” I’m asked the question from all sorts of people from professors, strangers, acquaintances, media pundits, and demagogues from Occupy itself. It is always asked in a condescending way. “Why weren’t you smarter?” “Why didn’t you try hard enough?” “Why didn’t you study history, why didn’t you learn your lesson, why didn’t you do X, Y, and Z?” Sometimes even the mocking “Well, I guess all that protesting really got you somewhere, huh? Ha!” There is little more painful in my world than trying to answer them. The Portuguese have a word,Saudade, meaning to be painfully nostalgic for some era in your past that meant something to you and you will never get back. I don’t think a word has been invented in English or any other language for the unique mixture of hope and anguish the Occupier feels: to find out you are more powerful than you ever could have dreamed of, than to have that dream violently ripped away from you, then to be blamed for losing that dream so often that a part of you starts to believe it. That a part of you starts feeling guilty for something that never could have been sustained to begin with.
Today, I’m sure many media pundits will be publishing autopsies and two-year retrospectives chronicling everything that is to blame for the fall of Occupy. Let me emphatically state that every single one of them is wrong. Occupy didn’t fail due to the lack of a “clear message.” It didn’t fail due to a lack of structure, organization, hierarchy, or visible leaders. It wasn’t because of rapists pooping on cop cars in Oakland. It wasn’t because of lazy people asking for “free handouts”. It wasn’t because Occupy wasn’t radical enough, or wasn’t reasonable enough, or was “too polite” in its protests. It wasn’t because it failed to focus exclusively on Citizen’s United, or conversely because it wasn’t broad enough. It wasn’t because it chose to embrace unions or because it failed to embrace unions. It had nothing to do with its attitudes on violence. It wasn’t because it was co-opted by anarchists, or co-opted by libertarians, or co-opted by Democrats, or any other group. It wasn’t because it eschewed political actions or because it focused too much on voting. It wasn’t because Occupiers didn’t rally behind Jill Stein, Obama, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Elizabeth Warren, or any other politician. It wasn’t because of the narrow-mindedness or egos of the activists, though that was certainly a problem later on. And it sure as fuck wasn’t because the Occupy movement catered too much to “the homeless.”
The truth is far more chilling. The truth is the failure of the Occupy movement had little or nothing to do with the Occupiers themselves. There isn’t anything they could have done differently that would have resulted in a different outcome. Occupy was doomed to fail from the start, because it faced a unique set of challenges no other social movement in the history of the United States has had to face. It was not created in a vacuum; it was created in the midst of a Category 10 shit storm that involved a hostile American social climate, decades upon decades of brainwashing, a media blackout, an unrelenting foe, an unprecedented amount of police repression, and a whole bunch of unexpected circumstances and unintended consequences. My task right now is to dissect exactly what happened.
Comparisons to Other Social Movements in the United States
The main reason that persuaded me to write this essay was a conversation with my friend Anne Thomas. She showed me a link to a status by Robert Reich about what he thinks happened to the Occupy Movement: www.facebook.com/RBReich/posts/665399246806008. He argues that movements such as the civil rights movement, the labor movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement were successful because they were politically organized, disciplined, and had strategy—something, he argues, which the Occupy Movement did not. He then argues that this is why the movements were able to sustain themselves for decades. While I understand where his argument is coming from, I completely disagree with his assessment of the situation. There are other features these movements had that, through no fault of its own, Occupy lacked. The most important of these are the lack of a common culture and the lack of a stable physical space. This is more than an unfortunate coincidence—society has been manipulated by corporate elites for decades upon decades to intentionally deprive Occupy of both of these things.
For example, the civil rights movement didn’t spring out of nowhere in the middle of the night. It had a strong uniting culture, from commonly shared experiences of African diaspora and slavery to the black music and black literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Civil rights leaders may have had strong disagreements about tactics, but they had a common struggle in their mutual oppression by white people. More importantly, they had physical and moral base to build a movement from: the black churches of the South. Over decades of organizing and bravery they grew into a movement powerful enough to take on the Jim Crow laws and institutions throughout the country.
Likewise, the New Left and the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s had a common culture. They were raised in an era of McCarthyist paranoia and nurtured on rock & roll. They had a need to rebel against the warlike tendencies and the mindless consumerism of their parents’ generation. Once the largely affluent middle class of kids went to college in the largest proportions ever, it sparked a revolution of radical student organizations on the campuses. Todd Gitlin, who wrote a history about the 60s, said that the Baby Boomer generation going to college together was like putting a powder keg of revolutionary spirit under a magnifying glass. Organizations like the SDS and the Free Speech Movement and a slew of anti-war groups naturally sprung up and sustained themselves in this period.
One of the most powerful historic learning experiences I’ve had since Occupy was going to Lowell and visiting the tenement house where the mill girls used to work. These mill girls started a series of strikes to earn better wages and better living conditions starting in the early-to-mid 1800s. Even though they were threatened with blacklisting if they went on strike, they all had power in their shared situation: they came together to Lowell from Canadian farm towns, they lived together, they broke bread together, they slept in the same quarters, and had inseparable bonds that forced them to care about one another throughout persecution. The ruthless industrialists of Lowell caught on to this truth after a while, and tried to separate the girls. Instead of having them live in the same house, they transitioned to getting them their own apartments and marrying them off into their own households. They eventually forbid them from socializing with their own coworkers in the factory and forming bonds with other women. This divide and conquer strategy did much to cripple the striking.
The same tactics the factory owners in Lowell used against the mill girls are the same tactics the corporate-owned media and government are using against us now. The only difference is, they’ve now had generations to perfect those tactics. My good friend and co-defendant Alva, who participated in the People’s Power Revolution of the Philippines, told me the powers that be use the 4 D’s to exert their rule over us: Distract, Deceive, Divide, and Dehumanize. The Occupy generation was taught from a young age that strangers are to be feared. We are told not to associated with our neighbors. We are made to believe there is a child molester behind every corner and a razor blade in every piece of Halloween candy. We are made to hate each other or disassociate with each other over what bands we like, what football teams we support, what political candidates we endorse. We make superficial friendships on social media that make us feel more isolated than ever. Under these conditions, it is incredibly hard for any social movement based on mutual trust, understanding, and shared experiences to flourish.
In addition to this, the erosion of public space by city councils across the country made it so that we had nowhere to physically assemble. The Occupy Movement then became about reclaiming public space. To say “this park belongs to the public, we will use it to form our movement.” The Occupy Movement faced an insurmountable task: it had to bring together people from all walks of life to take down the most powerful economic forces on the planet, it had to get people who were not accustomed to it to cooperate and talk to each other in person, and it had to basically do this overnight in the middle of a media blackout, and somehow make it sustainable for years to come. This task was Atlantean, but the Occupy Movement might have been able to pull it off. If it wasn’t for the largest and swiftest effort of police repression the country has ever seen.
The Militarization of the Police and Crush of Dissent
The police repression of protest is certainly not new in the history of United States social movements. The breaking of steel strikes by Henry’s Frick’s private police force was absolutely brutal. The way Alice Paul was treated by the DC police and her jailers most certainly amounted to torture. COINTELPRO made it a point to assassinate and frame leaders of the black panthers during the civil rights movement. The police in the United States have always been the forces of the counter-revolution.
The Occupy Movement went into this vaguely aware of some of these lessons. Elders from these social movements sometimes gave us advice and training, and we tried to take it to heart as much as possible. What most weren’t expecting is that the police across the country acting like a paramilitary force to squash the occupations as quickly as possible. The police in local communities now have more military-grade equipment than any police force in history, and this is not just demonstrated by the recent Bearcat “debate” in Concord, but the treatment of Occupiers throughout the course of the encampment should be alarming to anyone with the capacity for compassion. The pepper-spraying actions of Anthony Bologna and John Pike, the use of Long Range Acoustic Sound Cannons, the violent crushing of the Veterans for Peace in Occupy Boston and the rubber bullet that put Scott Olson in a concussion in Occupy Oakland, these are just a few of the many appalling examples.
However, there is another difference between the Occupy Movement and other social movements—the Occupy Movement was LITERALLY only a month old when the police organized a systematic attack to squash it in its infancy. The affects of this cannot be understated. To sum it in a metaphor, we were using blueprints that didn’t apply to us so that we could try to build a rocket with our hands tied behind our backs while being clubbed over the heads with baseball bats. The Occupy Movement didn’t stand a chance to build a mass movement when the police kept evicting us and most of the General Assemblies were about how to protect ourselves from police violence.
I lucked out of this in Manchester, because Captain Cunha was kind to me, but on a mass scale the occupy movement needed the same millions of people Tahrir had to meaningfully take down Wall St. This was impossible to do under police repression, with the division of the populace, with the threat of longer prison sentences than ever for people who peacefully protest. We were the .01% of the population in a movement that tried to speak for the 99%. There was too much intimidation, and we didn’t have the time or the influence or the physical space to ever make it sustainable. When the parks were cleared, people resorted to social media, because it’s the only place my generation knows to go.
My Generation: The Hopeless Generation
With all the incredible odds against us, it’s hard to comprehend how the Occupy Movement even grew to have as much influence as it did. If you don’t understand it, then you don’t understand the miracle that is my generation.
My generation, the millennial generation, the Generation Y, the children and grandchildren of the baby boomers, grew up in the information age, the instant age, and all of us had computers by the time we were 6 or 7 or 8 years old. We grew up almost entirely in a post 9/11 world, to the point that we don’t know what it is for a country to be “normal”. We have no sense of NAFTA or Glass-Steagall or all the ways we were screwed before we were born, but we were all in elementary school and high school when the towers went down. We don’t know what’s it’s like not to live in a surveillance state. We don’t know what it’s like not to live in a state of constant warfare. We don’t know what’s it’s like to live before the Bush Doctrine and the government’s response to terrorism. We just woke up in this world, and we’ve been robbed of all normalcy, and we’ve had a vague itching sense for a decade of our lives that this isn’t the way the world is supposed to work. That we have the ability to do better than this.
In the 2008 election, most young people put their faith in Obama to fix things (I wasn’t even old enough to vote yet.) He was supposed to be the hope and change of this generation. It seems incredibly foolish and naïve looking back, but given this generation’s limited historical perspective, it seemed like the only option to save us after 8 years of Bush. The millennial generation mostly thought the Bush Administration was the problem. When Obama failed to deliver the hope he promised, when inequality and student loan rates and warfare and spying continued to get worse and worse, many were completely disillusioned and felt like they had to do something, but didn’t know what.
Then, the Occupy Movement came along, seemingly out of nowhere. It struck a chord with so many in my generation, and they rushed at the chance to participate in something great. We came to it with nothing but the hope that we could. That maybe if the government can’t or won’t do anything, we have the ability to change the world of our own initiative. Though it was composed of many different age groups, I believe this is where the groundswell of support for Occupy came from. This is why it ended up in so many cities across the country. This is the movement that defines us.
The Americans who tried to find meaning in their lives after the Great War were called the Lost Generation, and their parents the Silent Generation. The generation of people who overcame the Great Depression and World War II are called the Greatest Generation. Their children were called the Baby Boomers, and the counterculture of the 50s was called the Beat Generation. In contrast, I truly believe that our age is an age of futility. The screwed generation. The exploited generation. The Saudade Generation. The Hopeless Generation. We are not hopeless because we had no hope going into our struggle, but because we dared to hope we could change the world even though we had no chance. All the odds were against us, and we tried our best, and we still failed. We tried our hardest to take down Wall St, and we weren’t even able to shut down the Stock Exchange for a single day, and we weren’t able to end Citizens United, and inequality is even greater than when we started, and the two-party system of corporate control has an even greater stranglehold over power than it ever did.
None of the options the Occupy Movement has going forward are good ones. There is no avenue to go forward from here. There aren’t enough people supporting the cause to work outside the system and foment revolution against Wall Street, though certainly people will try. The options inside the system are no better. Campaigning for corporate-funded politicians within the two-party system completely undermines the spirit of Occupy…it is doomed to fail. Many good, passionate friends of mine are building socialist parties and green parties on a local level. I don’t think that will work either. I don’t think there is any opening for them within the two-party system, and there is not enough mass support for socialism or alternative politics to make a difference. I hope they never stop agitating for it anyway.
In my court testimony in March, I asserted that Occupy is about endurance. I said that Occupy is about not giving up when injustice is higher than the clouds and you can barely afford a step ladder. I still strongly believe that, and it’s what I admire most about this generation. I am moved by the willingness of a good number of us to be on the right side of history even when we don’t have the ability to actually change anything in the forseeable future. For this, I do not blame the occupiers who will rail against this essay and tell me that the Occupy Movement is still not dead. Hoping against all hope is what this generation does best. Even if I’ve personally given up on keeping Occupy alive, I hope people never stop laying wreaths of flowers at the feet of the patron saint of lost causes. I want to see them reach the sky.
What I Will Do Going Forward
While I have the deepest respect and appreciation for my generation, I do not feel like I am part of it. I do not feel part of any generation, for that matter. I feel a deeper degree of political alienation right now than I have at any point in my life, and it colors everything I do and the way I see everything. Navigating this world feels like an out-of-body experience. I left half of my soul in Veteran’s Park when the police came to evict it, and the other half has been abducted by the future. Alas, this is the anguish of being a man ahead of his time.
Even the pronouns with which I refer to the United States government reflect my deep psychological level of alienation…”they” and never “we”. I can hardly relate to people of my generation at all in terms of life goals. Right now, my only long-term career goal is finding a job that pays cash under the table so that I may never pay money to the IRS for wars or the maintaining of prisons. I’ve written a blog post already on why I refuse to vote. I do not feel like a citizen in any capacity. I have prison nightmares almost nightly, and I often dream of fleeing to a country like Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, or Ecuador where I’ll be able to have an actual career without paying for wars or paying into the IRS, but I know I’m too attached to Manchester to ever leave it. I attribute almost all of this to my experiences in Occupy.
When I was in high school, I always hated the song “Waiting on the World to Change” by John Mayer. I felt like it was the anthem of an apathetic generation waiting for someone else to fix their problems instead of taking the initiative and doing it themselves. Now that I’ve already done my best to fix the world and it didn’t work, I am at peace with the fact that it is no longer my job and won’t be again for a few more generations to come. I have settled for acts of solitary resistance and disinvolvement, at every possible turn. It’s my religion now.
That, and my art. Spending time with my art and other artists is my main form of healing and catharsis right now. I don’t know what I’ll do once I finish my Revolution is a Ruthless Boxcar manuscript.
The Seeds of Change
The Occupy Movement may be a lost cause at this point, but I truly believe it was not for nothing. As it dies, it will offer its body as the fertile soil for social moments in the distant future. The seeds that this generation is sowing will take root in a future that is far less hostile to change than the United States is right now.
One of the most valuable things that came out of Occupy was the exchanging of new ideas. As I have said, this is a generation that has been isolated from the start. It does not know how to talk about politics in person, and has been told it is improper to do so by Miss Manners and a great number of social conventions that prevent consciousness of political issues. Occupy changed that. It got people to meet together in person and talk about important ideas, even if the people talking completely disagreed with each other. It created the conversation.
Occupy as a whole was activism boot camp. I know not what the next great social movement will be, but it will owe its start to Occupy. It prepared all sorts of people for leadership. It taught them that it was possible to start organizations about issues that mattered to them. It doubled and tripled the membership in already established humanitarian organizations. It got new blood into organizations ruled by an old guard of activists. It was an invaluable networking opportunity for the future of society.
I think most people from Occupy have gone on to focus on their own issues. They branched out into issues such as prison reform, or food independence, or anti-nuclear protests, or anti-war efforts, or any number of causes. It truly is the Big Tent. We’ve already seen so much good from the moving money out of banks movement and the Strike Debt campaign and the Occupy Foreclosed Homes campaign. We’ve even seen the infrastructure built for immediate disaster relief, such as Occupy Sandy. I may not have any hope for change in society at this moment, or “directly” from Occupy, but I think the prospects for the future are great.
The night was Thursday, December 9, 2011. It was announced by the police deparment that Occupy Boston was going to be evicted, and people from all over New England came to Dewey Square to show support. I went with Mark Provost and some other occupiers from New Hampshire I can’t remember at the moment. Something was very special about it I couldn’t put my finger on. I haven’t stopped to examine the moment until now: jamaicaplain.patch.com/groups/police-and-fire/p/video-somerville-couple-exchanges-vows-during-occupy-rally#video-8660992
Over a thousand people came to the eviction that wasn’t to happen. The police had been planning to put away the occupation at Dewey Square for good, but they had no idea how to handle arresting so many people. There was singing. There were balloons. There was a wedding sworn in by the human microphone. The Leftist Marching Band came and there were anti-war hymns everywhere. It is the most celebratory scene I’ve witnessed at an occupy camp.
Atlantic Avenue next to Dewey Square was particularly crowded, and at around 12:00 am, an hour before the eviction was to happen, someone began hopping between the two sides of the street. Then more people started doing it. Then, before we knew it, the street was completely closed off and filled with Occupiers. People moved their tents from the park into the street, as a confused elderly cop said futilely: “They’re not supposed to do that!” People started chanting “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” We stopped the police eviction by our sheer numbers.
On further retrospection, I’m realizing that this night was the last ka-bang of the Occupy Movement for me. We knew the police were going to clear the park the next morning or the morning after, and there was nothing we could do about it. But at this moment, it didn’t matter. We showed that, even temporarily, when people get together we have the power to stop the powers that be and end the encampment on our own terms. If we were going out, we were going to party on Atlantic Avenue whether the authorities wanted us to or not. We didn’t care about the threat of arrest. We cared about our freedom, and this symbolized it.
I think that moment was a prophetic trumpet that the future is coming to an American Empire on the decline. We may not be able to change things now, but we will eventually have the power to liberate ourselves from corporate tyranny. It may take 20 more years. It may take 40 more years. Something’s gotta give, and I plan to live long enough to see meaningful change in my lifetime. I have to believe that, beyond all hope. That’s what my generation does best.
Essay originally appeared on Matthew Richards’s Facebook account
Copyright Matthew Richards 2013
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