By guest contributor Carlos Patrick.
I think it is fair to say that the Occupy moment has passed us, by which I mean that the historical moment where masses of people will spontaneously mobilize to support and participate in “Occupy Wall St.” is no longer here. We can discuss the reasons for this over and over (indeed, many have been solely obsessed with talking about why the movement seems to have fizzled in most places). The more important question, in my opinion, is what do we do now? Despite the disappointment that some may feel toward the Occupy movement, it is undeniable that it has led to some great advancements on the left in general, specifically a renewed emphasis on direct action around economic and class issues, such as foreclosures, student debt, and workplace exploitation. Furthermore, many Occupy groups indeed still exist (Santa Rosa is a great example) and have spent the last nine or ten months trying to funnel the energy from the encampments into a positive political program. In some place, Occupy might be a total lost cause. But in many other places, it is very much worth engaging in. I believe the Occupy movement still contains an opportunity, especially for those on the revolutionary left, to lay the groundwork for powerful, organized movements, rooted in the masses of oppressed people in our communities.
However, there is still a desire to retain the spontaneous character that defined our encampments last year; there is a tendency all around the country to identify Occupy Wall St. as a protest movement which mobilizes our forces for any given political issue; and there is above all a ton of skepticism toward any proposal of solidifying our Occupy groups as organizations. I believe that the hostility toward transforming our Occupy groups into”organizations” is historically misguided and detrimental to our growth as we move forward strategically into our second year.
It is easy, perhaps, to look at historical ruptures merely as “spontaneous” moments which were loosely connected, vaguely defined, and “purely democratic.”. This analysis, however, does not stand up to any careful analysis. The highlights of the civil rights movement, while often sparked by relatively spontaneous acts of rebellion, were only successful after the movement established its organizations, or utilized existing ones. In the famous bus boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association formed to coordinate the campaign and carry it through. In 1960, after the wave of sit-ins swept through the south, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed to give shape to the emerging youth-led drive for liberation. It was SNCC (with help from other large organizations: CORE, SCLC, NAACP, etc.) that managed to fan out through the South and challenge the white supremacist state there, and organize the historic Freedom Summer.
The anti-Vietnam War movement, springing up several years later, was also largely made possible by organizations, such as SDS, and other powerful organizations such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The labor movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were not loosely-affiliated movements that rejected organization. They were massive efforts, which brought millions of people in unions and revolutionary or progressive organizations. The IWW, the Socialist and Communist Parties, the Catholic Workers groups, the Share the Wealth clubs, Unemployed Councils, Southern Tenant Farmers Union, these were the engines that drove the movement of millions that led to the creation of unemployment insurance, social security, minimum wage laws, and brought regular working people, by the millions, into common cause with one another to destroy the system that oppressed them.
Every major movement that the originators of Occupy celebrated last year, and told us that we should follow, were successful precisely because they had organizations, which were able to take advantage of the political and historical moment. Gandhi headed the Indian National Congress. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta led the United Farm Workers. MLK was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (as a man in his early 20’s) and then was a leader of the SCLC. Occupiers have long been taught the lessons of massive nonviolent movements, and this was very much the principal that Occupy Santa Rosa was founded on. And whether or not you still agree with nonviolence as a central principle, it is undeniable that the mass nonviolent movements that we are modeled after were defined by their organizations and the leadership that their members exhibited.
There are countless other examples. The bottom-line is that if Occupy Santa Rosa were to continue to shun the formation of an organization, it would be a historical anomaly. It would also be taking a major gamble, hoping that somehow we have figured something out that people in struggle for hundreds of years have been unable to. The question should not be whether or not we form ourselves as an organization, but what kind of organization? This is where we have the potential to transcend our spontaneous “movement” period while holding on to our radically democratic values and direct action spirit. As we tackle the question of what is the most proper kind of organization, we can demonstrate the power of direct democracy and rank-and-file organizations. We can challenge the assumption that social movements ought to be organized by the professional staff of non-profit organizations. We can intentionally grow an organizational model that is rooted in consensus and de-centralization, while also emphasizing effectiveness and transparency. It will also give us a chance to put forth an alternative to collaborationist methods of organizing (“dialoguing” with our opponents as opposed to directly confronting them), in a way that forces people to actually take us seriously and not just look at us like a bunch of naive idealists, which is very much how many on the left currently think of us (while they shake hands with representatives of the State who are decimating our communities).
Recent Occupy anniversary events ought to show us all that our ability to mobilize thousands of people simply by announcing an action and passing out flyers is virtually nonexistent at this point. This is because we have passed the point where random people will spontaneously mobilize to this cause. There is too much baggage, and still too little definition in peoples minds to sacrifice much of anything for “the movement.” What will grow our ranks and increase our relevance is by putting forth a clear program for resistance to the dominance of the 1% and for improving regular peoples’ lives in our community.Winning victories for poor and working people will develop our reputation beyond the leftist/activist milieu, which is crucial if we are to survive another year. If Occupy becomes defined as a group that will actively confront the source of our peoples’ misery, and do so in a way that is participatory and effective, we will see much larger swaths of our population join this movement and identify with it. The one thing I hear more than almost anything is that regular folks wish the Occupy movement had some leadership. Because our experience and our values tell us that having top-down structures are both ineffective in the long-run, and morally unjustifiable, we will have to put forth leadership that is de-centralized and horizontal. But it is crucial, at this point, to show people that we are the ones willing to take leadership and move forward.
Whether or not we even keep the name “Occupy” is of little relevance in my opinion. We have developed a fairly sophisticated organization with more infrastructure than your average progressive or radical community organization. Our consensus process, while messy, still seems to work and is appealing to enough people to allow us to maintain a functioning democratic group. We have the potential, in Santa Rosa, to put forth a meaningful program for nonviolent struggle with working-class and poor people, but only if we move in the direction of building a mass organization, led by our rank-and-file (membership), without paid staff and foundation funding, without moving to the political “center” in order to appeal to the liberal-bourgeois machine of the North bay, and without ditching our commitment to a democratic organization. This move, I believe, is historically justified and is the best choice for moving forward in a strategic way to build a mass movement.