What the Occupy movement has already accomplished, and what’s next


That’s a video from the incomparable Jay Smooth, one of the smartest voices of the hip hop generation.  If you don’t know him, watch ALL of his videos.  He has a talent for breaking things down really well.

One thing he mentions in this video is how OWS has already been successful in framing the conversation, in making it perfectly clear “who the ringers are and who the muscle is.”  Of course, a lot of people already knew that, but this movement has made it the #1 issue of this moment– not just “the economy is bad,” but “the economy is bad because of unregulated corporate influence in politics, a broken banking system, the fact that the rich are making fortunes off of our labor while we make do with less and less, and maybe even capitalism itself.”  That’s a significant difference.

And while I don’t want to overestimate how much this movement is actually accomplishing, I also think we shouldn’t underestimate how important that re-framing of the debate really is.  If everyone went home tomorrow, they’d have already accomplished something enormous, a real cultural shift in how people think about class.  That will play out in the 2012 elections, but it will hopefully also have an enormous ripple effect through our world beyond electoral politics, beyond Democrats vs. Republicans, beyond the old ways of thinking.

The movement has also opened up spaces— people getting together, some for weeks now, to just build.  Conversations happen, debates flare up, we all grow as activists and as people.  One of the primary functions of large-scale protests is to radicalize new organizers, and a long-term protest like this one does that really well.  Being out there, you learn what tactics are effective and what aren’t, you learn about how to deal with the police, you learn about how to best fit your talents and interests into the larger movement.  That kind of “professional development” stuff is invaluable.

It’s also been a kick to the ass of progressive organizers of all stripes.  We haven’t had something big to easily coalesce around for a while.  But one point I keep trying to make is that whether you work on environmental issues, anti-racist organizing, public education, LGBTQ activism, homeless advocacy or whatever, we all need to be working together– we need to make the connections between issues explicit.  The Occupy movement, even when it isn’t doing this on purpose, is a “big tent movement” with a lot of space for flexibility and creativity, and it’s created a space for everyone to step their game up– even those activists who want nothing to do with Occupy and organize separately.  At least that’s what I’ve seen.

And if you know me, you know I’m not a cheerleader or even an optimist.  I’m usually the first person with criticism, and I still have criticisms of this movement:

  • There still needs to be more of an effort to reach out to under-represented communities– not just people of color, but working people, activists who work on other causes, suburbanites, hipsters, the elderly, high school kids, EVERYONE.  I’m still seeing a whole lot of white college kids out there.  Nothing against them, but a mass movement needs to include– and be led by– a truly representative group.  
  • While I think the reasons for the occupation are perfectly clear, the goals and action plans still aren’t.  That’s probably partly because it’s incredibly complex and is going to take some time.  But that’s the next step.  We’ve come together, we’ve raised our voices, what’s next?
  • Personally, I think the protest needs to evolve.  Winter is coming.  An “occupation” outdoors, with no tents (at least here in MN) may not be realistic.  But maybe we can transition into some other model of constant protest.  That presence out there is powerful, but it’s not sustainable.

All in all, however, this is a very special time, a very important time.  While not everyone supports the Occupy movement, or feels safe physically attending the protests, or has the time to devote their lives to this movement– I do think that we all need to figure out how we fit into what’s happening right now.  Maybe it’s about making more of an effort to go to the protests.  Maybe it’s thinking up new ways to protest.  Maybe it’s about spreading the word and communicating these messages to everyone we know.  Maybe it’s something else.  Whatever it is, though, now is the time.

Finally, I posted this as an addendum to the last post here, but in case you missed it, I found an HQ video of my speech at Occupy MN last Friday: