After May Day
After May Day, can we say Occupy is back?
While marching with thousands of my closest friends on Tuesday, clichéd battle analogies ran through my head. It was fitting—Wall Street bankers like to quote Sun Tzu, too. I couldn't help but wonder whether we had an accurate intelligence of our own and our enemy's strength.
The movement seems re-energized. The 30,000 who came out in New York included representatives from labor and immigrant rights groups. Midtown Manhattan was scattered with lively pickets; a United Auto Workers one at the Strand bookstore was especially memorable. And the rally in Union Square and march to the Financial District was loud, diverse and inspiring. All those qualities are important in a political movement.
But so is winning.
Late on Tuesday night, at the General Assembly on Water Street, a friend remarked that, "We had already won." He meant that just having thousands rally against economic inequality in global capitalism's nerve center was something few expected to see in their lifetimes. Occupy Wall Street's existence was vindication a better world was possible. After an exhausting 14 hours of protesting, not to mention the weeks of planning he had undertaken to facilitate the actions, I couldn't help but sympathize.
Winning can be defined in different ways. Protest movements do not necessarily press demands and write legislation, but they can change the climate in which that legislation is written. With more austerity looming, Occupy's ability to organize political forces and resist those measures will be an important test.
Organizers I spoke to—hard at work for months debating, building alliances and performing outreach—were pleased at the turnout. Many of them had pushed the "general strike" rhetoric hard, even touting efforts to blockade key bridges and tunnels in the lead-up to May Day. They saw such language and calls like the one by Adbusters for 50,000 people to gather in Chicago, as useful agitational propaganda. Set your sights lower, be less dramatic and you end up with something as drab as 2010's One Nation rally in Washington. Or that was the general sentiment, at least.
I don't necessary disagree, despite the problems I had with using "general strike" that way. More than betraying a defeatism that, to paraphrase Laura Clawson, indicated a real general strike wasn't possible, it showed a historical disconnect from the lineages of past movements—movements that mobilized more people, got more accomplished and were only half as self-congratulatory.
Tuesday's mainstream media coverage was predictably awful, with a characteristic overemphasis on small pockets of violence and confrontation. The coverage in the alternative media, however, has often drifted in the opposite direction—towards the breathless and the unreflective.
There is no doubt that this week's actions were Occupy's most important since the encampments were dismantled. Spring is here and a vibrant left-wing movement is re-emerging, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that, so far, we have only politicized a small sliver of the nation. Given what's stacked against us, more is needed. Maybe it's time to start thinking about what kinds of organizational forms can sustain a mass movement.