The Itinerant US Left Has Found Its Home In The Occupy
Far from alienating middle America, the progressive
movement has captured the public and political
By Gary Younge Guardian (UK) February 26, 2012
At the auction of foreclosed homes at Queens supreme
court in New York, the official carefully explained the
process for one person to make an offer on another
person's misery. As the bidding was about to begin on
what was once the home of Valencia Williams, around 20
people stood up and started to sing: "Mr Auctioneer /
And all the people here / We're asking you to call off
the sale right now / We're going to survive but we
don't know how."
As the clerk ordered them to sit down and be quiet, or
face arrest, some left but others remained standing,
repeating the single laconic verse. They were still
singing over the clink of handcuffs, and as they were
led out of the room. Each time an officer opened the
door to take a protester out, the singing from the
hallway would seep back in. Finally, when the room had
been cleared, the auctioneer put Williams's home back
on the block.
Earlier that morning, at an orientation session, the
organisers spelled out their goal to the protesters.
The aim was to intervene at the moment where the
American dream (home ownership, individualism, social
mobility) meets the American reality (poverty,
corporate greed, vulture capitalism). They hoped not
just to disrupt but to stop the process and force a
reckoning between the antiseptic atmosphere of the
auction and the grim consequences of the eviction. "We
have two objectives," said one of the leaders. "To
bring as much beauty to this ugly event as possible,
and to shut this shit down."
The legacy of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is still in the
making. Those who believe it came from nowhere and has
disappeared just as quickly are wrong on both counts.
Most occupiers were already politically active in a
range of campaigns. What the occupations did was bring
them together in one place and refract their disparate
messages through the broader lens of inequality. The
occupations were less an isolated outpouring of
discontent than a decisive, dynamic moment in an
Over the last decade in the US there has been an
itinerant quality to the progressive left. Activists
have sought shelter in the anti-war movement, Howard
Dean's primary campaign, gay rights, immigrants' rights
or the Obama campaign. Each more powerful and hopeful
than the last; each too narrowly focused and lacking
the social or economic base to sustain it. In the
occupations, these political vagrants found a home.
The trouble is (as London's St Paul's protesters, whose
appeal against eviction was denied last week, can
testify) that while this home offered space for debate
and organisation, it was no less precarious than the
house of Valencia Williams in Queens. Vulnerable to
harassment and eviction by the state, it was only a
matter of time before they were moved on.
But while taking over public land to advocate for the
public good has had an important practical and symbolic
function, it was never the sole or even primary aim of
the occupations. The dismantling of many encampments
has not prevented the activists who were drawn to it
from continuing with the work they were doing before.
Indeed, the occupations have left them re-energised and
reinvigorated, with new recruits and a broader template
within which to work. Accusations that they were too
vague, too white and too elitist to engage with the
needs of ordinary working people have been contradicted
by the many concrete actions they spawned or to which
they are connected.
"The occupation was always about values," explains
Michael Premo, who was one of the founding organisers
of OWS and involved in the action to block the auction
in Queens. "It was about reconfiguring the relationship
between people and profit so that people are privileged
instead of profit. There's a natural affinity between
those values and struggles over housing and land."
The radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once asked,
"What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what
we are unable to do today?" The occupations have been
central to creating new possibilities.
Organising for Occupation (O4O), which executed the
protest in Queens, was working on issues of housing
justice months before OWS emerged. "The campaigns are
separate but there is some crossover," explains Karen
Gargamelli of O4O. All those I spoke to in Queens had
been involved in OWS in some fashion.
In Nashville, Occupy Our Homes, which came directly out
of the Occupy Nashville movement, forced JP Morgan to
back off the foreclosure on Helen Bailey, a 78-year-old
veteran civil rights activist. Roughly half those
involved in the campaign were housing activists before,
explains one activist, the others came to it through
In Portland, Oregon, WeAreOregon has been working
against foreclosures for some time, and is now
concentrating on persuading people to stay in their
homes and not be intimidated by the banks. It has been
joined by Unsettle Portland, which came out of the
occupation. Earlier this month they packed an auction
and helped delay the eviction of a single mother while
she challenges the banks.
Polls have shown almost twice as many Americans agreed
with OWS than disagreed with it. Far from alienating
middle America, the movement has captured the public
and political imagination. It has shifted the national
debate from debt to inequality and the focus of the
problem from victims of the crisis (the poor) to its
perpetrators (the financial institutions). A Pew poll
released in December revealed 77% of Americans believe
there is too much power in the hands of a few rich
people and corporations, while those who believed "most
people who want to get ahead can make it if they are
willing to work hard" was at its lowest point since the
question was first put in 1994.
It also has the Republicans rattled. In his address to
the Republican Governors Association in December,
rightwing pollster Frank Luntz said: "The public .
still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think
capitalism is immoral. And if we're seen as defenders
of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we've got a problem."
The relationship between the physical space that the
occupation movement has held and its political efficacy
has not been settled - and perhaps never will be. Its
importance doesn't lie in what it means, but in what it
does. It started by changing how people think about the
world they live in; now it's strengthening their
confidence to change it.
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