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The Occupy Movement at the Crossroads
Written by Andy Libson, Blanca Misse, Juan Garcia, Natalia Chousou-Polydouri, Nick Kardahji and Nina Lawit   
Wednesday, 29 February 2012 15:48

The Occupy movement pulled in tens and hundreds of thousands of people in the fall and put the ruling class on the run ideologically. Now, the occupy movement has been thrown onto the defensive and recently has only been able to mobilize a fraction of what it could in the fall. 

This is a stark change: a movement that spoke to the interests of the 99% now finds itself speaking in the name of 99% but with much less broad support than it had months ago. In the context of the bitter attacks on the movement (and mass arrests) in Oakland and the relative small turnout for actions in San Francisco on January 20th, activists are rightfully scratching their heads and asking “where did the movement go?” and more importantly “how do we get it back?” 

Violence or non-violence?

These realities have sparked the beginning of debates within the Occupy movement mostly centered on violence and non-violence. Should activists have sought to re-occupy an abandoned building in the face of such massive State repression? Does such an action constitute violence? Is property damage violence? Are bottles hurled at police equivalent to the flash grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and truncheons of the police?

For socialists and most activists committed to ending the horrendous violence of the system, there is no comparison. The violence of the State is several orders of magnitude different than the acts of committed and sometimes desperate activists who are looking to make change from below. Furthermore, a comparison of police violence vs. activists’ violence obscures the real violence that disgusts all of us: more specifically, the violence of the capitalist state and Imperialism in destroying whole countries through war, our planet through environmental degradation and our people by dismantling our schools, our health care system and our livelihoods. It is this violence that propels us all to take action and try to make change, it is this violence that police and the military are organized by the 1% to defend. For socialists (and others) there is no question of which the real purveyors of violence are- not the police or the military- but the 1% who hires them and sets them in motion to defend their violent system.

Is democracy about process?

There are other debates that have started around process in General Assemblies. What is the best way to get voices heard and make democratic decisions? Simple majority vote, strong majority vote, or consensus? The question of democracy is not simply a question of process. It is for us fundamentally a question of social content, of actual participation: “Who is participating in the assemblies? How many people are coming? Which sectors of the 99% are represented here?” An assembly of thousands or even hundreds of students, workers and community members, like the one we had at UC Berkeley on Nov. 15th 2011 (even by using a high majority rule (80%)) is more democratic than the current Occupy Cal assemblies that only gather 20 people, no matter which decision mechanism they use. The question of process in not a trivial one but it must always be remembered that democracy for our side is about mass participation in the discussion, in decision- making, and of course, the implementation of the actions to improve our everyday life.

Where we are now

The debates on violence and non-violence and decision making process are important ones, but the question we have to ask ourselves is: do these questions get to the heart of the matter? We don’t think so because right now they misidentify the source of the movement’s faltering. It is worth remembering that all these questions were potentially in play several months ago, when the Occupy movement was at its peak. At that point, occupations across the country symbolized the immense disgust that millions of people felt towards an economic system that benefited only the rich, corporations and banks and towards a political system that is designed only to represent those minority (1%) interests. Occupying public spaces, defying police calls to disperse did not isolate the movement’s message to the 99%: that we are tired of putting up with this and we are fighting back. At that time, the tactic of occupying public spaces galvanized the 99% behind our movement and gave us massive public support no matter what the ruling class did. This movement exposed, as none had done in decades, that we live in a deeply-divided country, one that poses the interests of a tiny few (1%) against the rest of us (99%).

But the 1% did not sit still while we organized, they struck back and the Democratic Party is at the forefront of this attack. Many are aware of how occupations across the country were harassed and attacked over the previous months and eventually pushed off the streets entirely. This part of the ruling class offensive is widely known. Less spoken about has been the attempt by the Democratic Party to co-opt our message and pull away our ideological support. Barack Obama (for the first time in years) made highly public statements critical of the greed of banks, of the misplaced government priorities, a troop withdrawal in Iraq and calls for ending the war in Afghanistan.

This ideological offensive is only highlighted by the daily drumbeat of election coverage that has us all watching debates between various stripes of Republican misanthropes, while Democrats pose as the ‘reasonable’ alternative to a public deeply anxious about its future and the political candidates. This is what socialists mean when we say national elections (and all the bluster that comes with it) have a deep effect on our movement and our ability to mobilize and reach people.

The mistake made by writers like Chris Hedges and other activists who characterize the Black Block tactic or ultra-leftism as the major problem within the movement, is that it misidentifies the real danger to our movement. It does not come primarily from its Left-wing but from the right, the Democratic Party and its army of trade union and liberal apologists. The Left is weak and politically immature, that is without a doubt. But writers like Hedges risk isolating the Left at a time when it is possible to engage those on the Left in dialogue on how best to build a mass and democratic movement, how to broaden it into include other sectors of the 99%, immigrants and labor activists. The important next steps for Socialists are making clear our defense of the 99% - i.e. the working-class and oppressed sectors -, our independence from the Democratic Party and transforming the Occupy movement to have the political power to counter this ideological backlash, while building a stronger left-wing in the country.

Tactics and Strategy

In the context of a combined physical attack on Occupy and the ideological attacks on our audience by the 1% (particularly the Democratic Party), the current occupy movement has been distracted from its goal of expressing the interests and mobilizing the 99% in opposition to the interests of the 1%, and has become focused on its tactics- on occupations.

To date, Occupy activists have focused on bolder and more determined actions of ‘occupying’ public spaces to attempt to re-ignite public support for our movement. What these activists have lost sight of is that our political support from the 99% was not because we were occupying public spaces, but because the occupations were speaking to people’s anger at the injustice of a society which works for the 1% and not for the rest of us. Actions we take should highlight these issues, if we seek to revive our movement.

Because things have changed and our opponents (the 1%) have made adjustments, we need to adjust as well. Not by changing our goals (fighting for the interests of the 99%), but by re-articulating them so that we can examine if our actions (tactics) are working to make them a reality, or if we are losing ground unnecessarily. The question of violence and non-violence or consensus vs. democracy are closer to tactical questions that are best debated and discussed when we are all clear on our goals.

National mobilization against the cuts!

This is why we believe the Occupy movement is right to shift towards the attacks on public education and social services and to call for a new wave of struggle against austerity plans. Budget cuts across the country and all the misery that comes with them are the issues that are affecting our base the most and they are also where the attack on the 99% by the 1% is easiest to highlight. Occupy Education NorCal has made a statewide call for a March 1st day of action followed by March 5th occupation of the State Building in Sacramento. These actions are called to oppose all cuts to public education and social services (and call for fully funding them) and to demand taxing the rich (with support for the Millionaires’ Tax and the Oil Tax to Fund Education (Prop. 1522). It is also a call to defend free speech, our right to assemble and an end to police attacks on Occupy. Since this call was made in December, Occupy activists in New York, Ohio, and other states have decided to support the March 1st Day of action by making March 1st a nation-wide day of action. So, March 1st has the potential to spread outside California to be a national day of action to defend the interests of the 99% against those of the 1%.

The development of Occupy Education, with social services joining in, is critical because it has the potential to organize new sectors of our class not just as “supporters” of the Occupy Movement, but as actors. It also has the potential of including working class students who can organize at their schools and colleges and not just at the central squares. It can also help mobilize parents and workers who have been affected by the cuts to social services and other issues. Now, “Occupy the Hood” is emerging in some working-class communities to fight the foreclosures and challenge the ties between the banks and the cities, and is also planning actions targeting specific banks on March 1st. And new sectors are joining: Feb 20th was the National Occupy Day in support of the prisoners, and many Occupy activists are looking at May 1st as a catalyst to unite the struggle against the cuts to education and social services with the ones against foreclosures and for immigrant rights. This is the way forward to make the Occupy movement truly representative of the 99% not only in slogans, but in action, and to develop a legitimate political alternative to the Democrats and the 1%.

For socialists, our strategy is always to seek the mobilization of our class while fighting for its political independence by combating the ideological influence of the 1%, which today is exercised mainly by the Democratic Party. It is clear that Capitalism and its State is incapable of meeting the needs of working people. It is also true that while many people are angry at the political and economic system they are in, most still believe (or at least hope) it can be transformed by reform and not through revolution. This is the reason activists of any stripe need to pay attention to elections. The ruling class uses elections to take our movement off the streets, into the ballot box and draw workers away from seeing themselves as the basis for change and to look instead to politicians as the agents of change.

We will not pay for their crisis: The Millionaire’s Tax and beyond

In California, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has made much of the need to fund public education and has promoted a tax increase plan which calls for raising taxes by 1% on residents who make at least $250,000 annually, 1.5% for those who earn $300,000 to $500,000 a year, and 2% on incomes above $500,000. It will raise $7 billion in revenue per year and will largely go to fund education. Less talked about by Brown’s supporters is the fact that the tax only lasts 5 years and the fact that the bulk of the money raised will come from a 0.5% increase in sales tax.

This is nothing other than a tax on the 99% to pay for the crisis created by the 1% that re-asserts their framework of “shared pain and shared sacrifices” to justify the attacks. We need to reject that ideological framework imposed by the Democrats: we will not pay for their crisis! This is why the Millionaire’s Tax in California is so important now: it has become a polarizing initiative because it brings up the key issue of who should pay for the bailouts and budget deficits: the rich & corporations or the 99%? Our answer is clear and we need to convince all the organizations of the 99% to cut their ties with the Democrats and refuse their framing of the crisis.

The Millionaire's Tax, which is sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers among others, raises taxes by 3 percent on incomes above $1 million and by 5 percent on those above $3 million. It is permanent and it raises nearly $10 billion without raising taxes on the 99%. Furthermore, its revenue is used not just for public education but for other social services that desperately need to see funds to survive without cuts. This is also why all activists who are serious about re-building the Occupy movement in California should support, endorse and do signature gathering for the Millionaires’ Tax, but this should be done in conjunction with the March 1st and March 5th mobilizations, not against or separate from them. Some activists will support the Millionaires’ Tax but will refuse to campaign around it because it is ‘electoral’. This means that we leave the field open for the 1% to apply their policies and this is a mistake.

As we have argued above, whether we like it or not, our audience (the 99%) will be paying as much, if not more, attention to the elections than to the movement. The Millionaires’ Tax challenges more than the rich, it also is a direct challenge to Jerry Brown and the Democratic Party, as they use the November election and Brown’s tax proposal to draw the sentiment of the 99% directly under the wing of the political parties of the 1% (Democrats and Republicans). Occupy’s support for the Millionaires’ Tax and the fight to get it on the ballot in California should be a part of all organizing that is done in California.

This lesson of strategy (goals) and tactics (actions) and how tactics must always flow from our strategy (and not the reverse) is an age-old lesson from military history and from class struggle. Whether Occupy activists or members of the 99% want to admit it or not, the reality is that we are in a fight. The attacks on our schools, our health, our work conditions, our communities and our environment are not events of chance or human frailty. They are conscious acts of warfare on the living conditions of the vast majority of the people on this planet (the 99%) perpetrated by a minuscule minority (the 1%). Their side (the elites, the ruling class, and the capitalists) understand this intimately and make their plans accordingly. It is time for our side to awaken to the call to fight back and get serious about the plans and organizations our side will need to not just wage a fight but to win it. 


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