Exploring the Impact and Legacy of the Occupy Movement
by John L. Murphy
At the outset, I asked myself: “Why a subtitled ‘apocalypse’?” It derives from “the lifting of a veil,” so when a fresh revelation appears it transforms the past as well as the present; then there’s no going back, only forward. Fresh from finishing a study of attempts to verify the divine presence, God in Proof (2012), Nathan Schneider, jittery and curious, reports “notes” from the revelations emanating from Occupy Wall Street in the late summer of 2011. Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse (University of California Press, 2013) investigates an energy more tangible than most theology — yet sharing the spirited, mass appeal of what may elude those less fervent.
Idealistic enough to cheer on the Occupy protests, realistic enough to catalogue their failures, Schneider brings the same alert witness and affable analysis that his book on belief featured. As with any cabal of devotees, Occupy began with commitment by a spellbound few. Zuccotti Park, rechristened by the encampment with its pre-corporate name as Liberty Square, “was a place especially conducive to those of us with obsessive tendencies, who like to be consumed in a given interest or project to the exclusion of all else. There, the god of ordinary life was dead, resurrected in the business of self-reliance.”
The difficulties of staying fed, wired (by caffeine and cellphones), and calm soon weighed upon Occupiers. Encircled by police at first and then the media and bystanders, as crowds grew in the autumn, demonstrators’ tensions grew. Schneider contrasts the “rampant volunteerism” of the initial Wall Street-adjacent site squaring off against the iconic Charging Bull of financial acumen with Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC. There, hesitation cowed those gathered to square off against political might. Occupiers in DC waited for “directives to come from on high.”
Yet when they did, such dicta were resented by those complaining about the lack of democratic process. “There was a general assembly, but nobody seemed sure how to run it.” Schneider distinguishes the “instinctive anarchists” (he chats with “anti-leader” David Graeber, one of the instigators of the core New York contingent) from those who flocked to enclaves while remaining unsure of their next move.
Certainly, the lack of “one demand” from Occupy met with media mockery and bipartisan disdain. Yet Schneider insists that the flexibility supported not only the disparate concerns but the diverse membership of protesters. He suggests how an “anarchist utopia” in economic, environmental, educational, and egalitarian terms turns transparent and liberating on a global, “open-source” scale.
While this glimpse remains brief, it sketches what Occupy envisioned beyond borders, fences, or property. A problem persisted. Those articulating direct “participatory democracy” tended to be white, male, and often with leisure or income to detach from workaday, less privileged or more dutiful adults unable to pitch a tent or stand in solidarity from dawn to dusk, let alone into the increasingly chilly nights. (Schneider notes the lack of parents, for example.) Still, Schneider nods in approval as those less used to taking command and speaking out began to do so. “Those used to talking had to learn to listen more, and those used to shutting up had to learn how to teach.”
I can attest to the difficulties of this attitudinal adjustment, from my insights gleaned at Occupy LA and from friends who tried to channel the energy within enclaves as large as Oakland and small as a Sierra Nevada tourist destination; those used to being in charge (often with pedigrees from counterculture, global justice, and progressive cadres) found it unsettling to give in to those around them from disparate, non-credentialed backgrounds and from younger cohorts, resigned to following the lead from 1960s veterans. The non-authoritarian, elusive essence of Occupy by its nature slipped away from many grasps. Why it stayed mercurial, Schneider reasons, depended on its darting targets.
Whereas the lunch counter sit-ins for Civil Rights aimed “specifically at the laws they oppose,” civil disobedience faltered when Big Pharma, banker malfeasance, SuperPACs, bailouts, Citizens United, student debt, foreclosures, drones, McJobs, and income disparity loomed over Americans in the Obama era. The disparate manifestations of these millennial monoliths required different tactics than civil disobedience. Rather than accept political institutions as legitimate, while resisting immoral laws, “political disobedience” (Schneider credits here Bernard Harcourt) brushes aside partisanship, policy reform, or 20th century post-war ideologies. Within this cleared space, Occupy blossomed.
After all, “Occupiers weren’t even capable of breaking many of the laws they opposed in the first place.” “Diversity of tactics” by autonomous spontaneity meant collaboration in a permissive manner, to evade police crackdowns from its hierarchical command, The NYPD knew by now how to squelch marches. Authority could not control chaos, as the Direct Action “affinity group” exemplified at the Brooklyn Bridge. Nonviolent principles sustained Occupiers; pragmatism wedged in its own force.
All the same, Schneider, deep into part two by now of his account, betrays weariness. Mayor Bloomberg tightens the city’s grip around Liberty Square. The police dump off homeless people and addicts there, while the unsettled attracted to its safe space increase unease. In this “particular mix of overeducated, underemployed, postindustrial primitivism,” Schneider locates the “organic expression of the movement,” confounding facile definition. The cause that the encampment represents ties itself to liberating a place, but can that place alone represent the diverse demands of its residents?
Socialists rally for benefits and education; anarchists dismiss government as we know it. Anonymous hovers with its “lulz” sensibility casting its sly wink within the crowds. Online, it and other entities jostle for influence over the movement, trained by the decentralized nature of such fora. Tea Party and right-wing libertarians, who in the nascent stages might have helped broaden the movement through populist appeals, find themselves relegated to leftist caricatures. Journalists and comedians jeer at Occupy. Unions, non-profits, and certain cautious Democrats try to jump on its bandwagon, all with their own calculation.
Free speech contends within what constitutes peaceful assembly: it’s the mayor vs. the tent-dwellers. “The call to occupy was meant to be adjudicated not so much by legal right to free speech as by the one inscribed in conscience.” Schneider attempts to align this idea with how Occupy undermined law and order as backed by “soldiers posing as police, rigged by and for corporate profits.” This observation merited more depth; his analysis wavers in its aim throughout this account. Ultimately, Occupiers waver too. They debate: should they stay or should they go now?
The very term reminds us of its meaning. “Seizing space and time, and holding them, was how Occupy caused its rupture.” It spreads nationwide but in Schneider’s sometimes seemingly random “notes,” he can evade its force. The day after evictions at Liberty Square, he’s off to the Bay Area, but he finds little of lasting substance to comment upon from California for the three-month anniversary of action on November 17th. In the e-galley provided me for review, there is a sudden departure for Greece where Schneider speaks with local and Argentinian activists, who warn of the lure of funds amassed rather than tangible goods to sustain an alternate economy, exchanges of goods and food. Then, anti-eviction sit-ins to take over houses foreclosed draw displaced New York Occupiers to act. Post-evictions, from December into 2012, energy dissipates while Schneider searches in what seems a “lucid dream” for Occupy’s meaning.
It returns via his conversion to Catholicism, documented in his previous book. He praises spiritual activists, who testify to the “higher standard” of “resisting oppression” which transcends civil disobedience and becomes a moral imperative. Trinity Episcopal Church, an historic bastion of the 1%, for all the symbolic vitriol spewed by some Occupiers stands nonetheless — if in its own fumbled attempts to respond to the movement — for the possibility of assistance to the 99% especially within the underclass. Schneider stays sharp enough to recognize this nuance. He crosses the “line between observer and instigator” with fellow Catholics to respond to his faith’s “calling to justice.”
In part three, he contrasts 2012. The Obama administration tightened detention of U.S. citizens and upped penalties for protests near Secret Service-protected people or events “of national significance.” After a hard winter, the Occupy Wall Street hardcore diminished and toughened. Direct Action advocates contended with the “peace police” of OWS who advised non-violence. Chris Hedges’ essay, “The Cancer of Occupy,” divided comrades after he denounced Black Bloc tactics others defend. Up against “an essentially paramilitary institution like the NYPD,” Schneider tallied the odds for victory at zilch.
Six months on, Occupy betrays weariness. Stop and Frisk, the DREAM Act, Stand Your Ground incite new marches. Uncertain or committed activists look inward, even as Plus Brigades, the Yes Men, Strike Anywhere, viral videos, cartography, and clowns make their presences felt among the dwindling few. An International Pillow Fight Day attracts more college students than OWS, but the loss of strategic sources of power and location pushes some into a second wind to organize May Day.
Learning of the demise of the New Left after a failed 1971 May Day effort, Schneider fears “we were causing our own undoing.” He resigns himself to the reality of organizing after the cameras have left, while the police toughen their stance and the movement diversifies, freeing itself from physical roots. He finds solace in the culture of photocopied pamphlets and within alliances as venerable as the Catholic Worker Movement as much as Twitter. Yet, OWS signals a shift. Founded not by preachers but by artists (the first glimmer in Adbusters), Schneider defines Occupy’s ethos. “Come for the dream, trudge through the reality.” Schneider cheers when he sees ecological protests revive, while debt relief jubilee efforts spread and world unrest continues against capitalism.
On May Day 2012, Chris Hedges returns to where it began, near Wall Street. His dour condemnation of violence spurs Schneider to label him as humorless; he does win over the middle-aged or older listeners at Occupy. Younger folks cheer his appointed foil, B. Traven of the anarchist collective CrimethInc: “Just keep with it, basically.” Yet, Schneider pegs Traven’s pronouncements as preaching to a “self-referential subculture speaking by and for itself.” Meanwhile, practically unnoticed by either side, a few still slept in front of Trinity Church.
Another leap, if not a great jump, forward: the first anniversary of Occupy suddenly enters the book. Rosh Hashanah is commemorated while a protester carries a sign against theocracy; a Muslim man unrolls his prayer rug; an Episcopal priest and Catholic nun lead “a solemn march to Zuccotti.” Traffic on Broadway halts, Wall Street commuters crowd nearby, police swarm in on the protesters.
As during the previous year and as with such demonstrations, an act of faith endures as testament to Occupy. Whether a revolution will arrive appears as elusive as a Second Coming or a first messiah. Fittingly, Schneider credits the final scene of Fight Club, “with its vision of postyuppie liberation,” as playing its part in training those who “birthed Occupy Wall Street” a dozen years later. That is, the finale of crumbling skyscrapers and the prospect of erasure of all financial transactions lingers as appealing and appalling: how is everything “going to be fine”?
After the apocalypse, Schneider feels its grip on him. He concludes with anniversary reflections on the inchoate potential of Occupy, and the practical nature of it, as helping victims of Hurricane Sandy took precedence soon enough. Reacting to such unpredictable forces, no maps or no plans show activists the path forward or a gospel truth. “The beginning is near,” as he cites a “popular slogan on Occupy’s cardboard signs.”
John L. Murphy, Ph.D. teaches college humanities in Long Beach, California. His research explores religious literary culture. He participated in Occupy LA.