Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Occupy: A turning point in US politics?

Siobhan McGuirk visits the Occupy camp in Washington DC

December 17, 2011
5 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


  share     tweet  

Photo: Elvert Barnes (Flickr)

Few foresaw 17 September 2011 as an auspicious date. Only readers of Adbusters magazine, networks of mostly East Coast activists and Anonymous hackers knew what was planned for the day. And the NYPD, of course. But even as a thousand people descended on Wall Street, protesting the corporate stranglehold on US politics, no one predicted that ‘Occupy’ would become the buzzword of 2011.

Now the ubiquitous ‘We are the 99 per cent’ slogan has galvanised the nation. Groups around the country continue to take up the banner and set up camp, in solidarity, protest and anger. As of mid-November, there was at least one camp in every US state, with daily protest actions emerging from Occupy hubs. Active supporters number into the tens of thousands.

For most, social inequality is the primary motivator. ‘One in five children in the US are living in poverty – and that’s according to official numbers. That is not a society I want to be part of,’ explains Hilary Lizzar, an anti-poverty campaigner who helps run the People’s Library at the Occupy camp in Washington DC. ‘I came here on the first day feeling, “thus far, no further”. Action is long overdue.’

Building Capitol

In Washington DC’s McPherson Square, over 100 tents make up ‘Occupy K Street’. Among them are two kitchens, a library, media and tech bases, and sanctuaries of worship. Larger, more eco-friendly community structures are planned, and measures are being taken to ‘winterise’ the camp for the bitter cold ahead. A much-needed volunteer-staffed medical station acts as a pointed reminder of pervasive social neglect.

Occupy DC is a hive of activity: teach-ins, skills shares and musical performances run throughout the day. Every evening at 6pm, the general assembly provides the platform for committee (working group) updates and whole group decision-making. The Occupy-wide commitment to non-hierarchical organising is strictly adhered to.

Fittingly for DC, an eternal hotbed of lobbying activity, initial actions were focused on economic policy and corporate influence in government. Increasingly, however, emphasis is shifting to demonstrations of solidarity with unions. Concerted efforts are being made to link up with established community organisers, from urban farmers to advocates for homeless rights. Broader social justice issues are being addressed.

Despite its generally positive atmosphere, harmony does not always pervade at the camp. Yet there is vociferous dedication to recognising and redressing frictions. New groups have formed over recent weeks, including the People of Colour Caucus and Women’s Meeting, to ensure that no one is disempowered and that demographically representative voices are heard. ‘We need to tackle structures of oppression that operate in wider society – patriarchy, racism, homophobia – here and now,’ explains Jen, one of the camp’s participants.

Occupy everything, demand nothing

The confidence within the movement is reverberating. Initially, as swathes of tents appeared in public plazas across the country, mainstream media coverage veered between alarmist and dismissive. Blogs, independent news sources and social media, however, lit up with activity, creating a space for debate.

The camp broadcasts live-stream video daily and the occupiers are now publishing their own, free newspaper, the Occupied Washington Times. ‘It’s necessary for any movement to create its own image. We can’t rely on others to represent us.’ says newspaper committee member Sam Jewler.

Yet it seems journalists’ scorn has transformed into fascination, with the Washington Post celebrating local protesters’ ‘vibrant brand of urbanism’ in a recently published centre-page spread. ‘At the beginning, no one knew what to make of Occupy – like anything new it was attacked,’ says Sam. ‘Once we were seen to have legitimate concerns, that we are really a social phenomenon, the media have realised that there’s infinite potential for stories here.’

One media storm that seems to have been weathered is the call for Occupy Wall Street – regarded as the head of this avowedly leaderless project – to issue a concrete set of demands or grievances. For one of the protesters, Jarred, calls for policy proposals undermine the real power of the movement: ‘The goal of Occupy should be to raise awareness about the suffering of the 99 per cent. A conversation can be started that will educate and connect the people. This process will eventually lead us to solutions.’ Summing up the challenge Occupy poses to the political establishment, he concludes: ‘The answers to the world’s problems won’t be found in a soundbite.’

Through the Occupy camps, Americans are creating space for reasoned debate – a vital element of democratic participation. Politicians have, for the most part, been deafeningly silent in response. For Sam, their hesitancy to speak is not surprising. ‘Politicians can’t respond to us because they already know exactly what we want and exactly why we’re angry. That means we’re going to win, because we’re not going away.’

All occupiers stressed that they speak for themselves.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright