Photo at Occupy L.A. by ~db~.
At recent Liberty Hill events, there has been much discussion of the Occupy movement. We will be sharing some comments from our community members here from time to time. Karen Brodkin, a member of Liberty Hill's Community Funding Board, is Professor Emerita, Anthropology and Women's Studies, UCLA and the author of Making Democracy Matter (2007) and Power Politics (2009).
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a big deal. By putting morality and political vision together, it is changing the terms of political debate across America. “We are the 99%” is a dream of a democracy, a moral vision of what America could be, and a powerful calling out and delegitimizing of America’s plutocracy. It is doing what real social movements have historically done best: change the politics of the possible. Yesterday’s private dreams have become a public conversation of what global democracy--and its enemies--look like. Building on the democracy movements of the Arab Spring, they are both moving people to change the political and economic status quo in a global way.
I disagree with the media pundits who complain that the movement is too vague because has no specific demands. I think they do not understand social movements, which in fact work best when they offer a vision of what a democratic and socially fair society looks like. One activist I know is fond of saying: “Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream,” not “I have an issue.” Dreams are visions of what could be. They are answers to “what’s your alternative?”
The Occupy movement is one big experiment with inventing democracy by the seat of its pants. It’s become the center for social conversations about economic justice--banks, eviction, corporate power, but also about the environment, the military and prison industrial complexes, racism, and the abuse of women—and how they’re all connected. Labor, community, antiwar, environmental and other groups are taking their campaigns to Occupy sites. Demonstrations regularly leave from and return there. They organize talks and teach-ins there. Issues and struggles that were formerly separated, or that competed for limited funds, come together in ways I hope will become synergistic experiments in making real democracy.
Liberating public spaces is key to the movement’s success. The Occupy movement has changed the terms of debate over who owns public space. In Bloomberg’s New York, with a history of police sweeps against demonstrators, first Bloombergville and then Occupy Wall Street seized and have held public (and privately owned) space. Police efforts to oust occupiers in New York and Oakland backfired dramatically in the face of overwhelming public support.
Here are some of the signs of the sea change it is helping to birth:
* A bank transfer movement with legs
* Occupy Oakland; shut down the Port of Oakland and almost pulled off America’s first general strike in more than half a century.
* Citing massive public outcry, the Obama administration was forced to reverse itself over the massive Keystone oil pipeline project.
It’s also beginning to have an impact on electoral politics:
* Arizonans voted out of office the powerful legislator responsible for Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant law.
* Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected a Wisconsin-style initiative to curtail collective bargaining by public workers, and Michigan recalled a legislator who tried to do the same with educators.
* Mississippi voters rejected an initiative to give fetuses personhood status, which would have made abortion and some forms of birth control murder.
* Iowa elected a Democrat in a move key to preserving that state’s marriage equality law.
* Maine voters preserved same day voter registration against the Right wing tide to curtail voting rights in ways that would hit racial minority communities and students hardest.
Democracy movements are contagious—from the Middle East to some 100 cities across the US, and to Europe, where they offer powerful alternatives to the plethora of nationalistic projects that until recently have been successful in dividing people and building global xenophobia. This is the Occupy Movement’s potential.
That said, the challenges are enormous. The 99% are anything but homogeneous. As the poet June Jordan warned, once we get the monsters off our backs, we may all want to run in different directions. Those divisions, and the different ways our common enemies privilege and oppress each of us are things the Occupy Movement confronts on a daily basis. These tent cities are hardly exempt from the gender, race, sexuality and class inequalities and stigmatizations that prevail in our society. How to make privilege within the 99% recognize itself? How to make visible the abuses of privilege? Most occupiers have homes to go to. Homeless occupiers do not, and these occupations offer social services like medical care and food, as well as protection from routine police harassment and victimization. Are they part of a revolution? What procedures and social structures work for building democracy in this mix? How can one balance consensus and actually making decisions? In all these efforts, Occupiers are trying to be the change they wish to see in society. It’s a serious project—and one our futures depend on.
This piece originally appeard on the UCLA Engaged Social Sciences Blog.