Occupy: A turning point in US politics?

Siobhan McGuirk visits the Occupy camp in Washington DC
December 2011

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.



Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.






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