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Occupying Your Victories on OWS’s First Anniversary

Realism is overrated, but the fact is that the Occupy movement has already had extraordinary results.

| Mon Sep. 17, 2012 8:33 PM EDT
Protestors on the first anniversary of OWS in New York.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Occupy is now a year old. A year is an almost ridiculous measure of time for much of what matters: at one year old, Georgia O'Keeffe was not a great painter, and Bessie Smith wasn't much of a singer. One year into the Civil Rights Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still in progress, catalyzed by the unknown secretary of the local NAACP chapter and a preacher from Atlanta—by, that is, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Occupy, our bouncing baby, was born with such struggle and joy a year ago, and here we are, 12 long months later.

Occupy didn't seem remarkable on September 17, 2011, and not a lot of people were looking at it when it was mostly young people heading for Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. But its most remarkable aspect turned out to be its staying power: it didn't declare victory or defeat and go home. It decided it was home and settled in for two catalytic months.

Tents and general assemblies and the acts, tools, and ideas of Occupy exploded across the nation and the western world from Alaska to New Zealand, and some parts of the eastern world—Occupy Hong Kong was going strong until last week. For a while, it was easy to see that this baby was something big, but then most, though not all, of the urban encampments were busted, and the movement became something subtler. But don't let them tell you it went away.

The most startling question anyone asked me last year was, "What is Occupy's 10-year plan?"

Who takes the long view? Americans have a tendency to think of activism like a slot machine, and if it doesn't come up three jailed bankers or three clear victories fast, you've wasted your quarters. And yet hardly any activists ever define what victory would really look like, so who knows if we'll ever get there?

Sometimes we do get three clear victories, but because it took a while or because no one was sure what victory consisted of, hardly anyone realizes a celebration is in order, or sometimes even notices. We get more victories than anyone imagines, but they are usually indirect, incomplete, slow to arrive, and situations where our influence can be assumed but not proven—and yet each of them is worth counting.

More Than a Handful of Victories

For the first anniversary of Occupy, large demonstrations have been planned in New York and San Francisco and a host of smaller actions around the country, but some of the people who came together under the Occupy banner have been working steadily in quiet ways all along, largely unnoticed. From Occupy Chattanooga to Occupy London, people are meeting weekly, sometimes just to have a forum, sometimes to plan foreclosure defenses, public demonstrations, or engage in other forms of organizing. On August 22nd, for instance, a foreclosure on Kim Mitchell's house in a low-income part of San Francisco was prevented by a coalition made up of Occupy Bernal and Occupy Noe Valley (two San Francisco neighborhoods) along with ACCE, the group that succeeded the Republican-destroyed ACORN.

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It was a little victory in itself—and another that such an economically and ethnically diverse group was working together so beautifully. Demonstrations and victories like it are happening regularly across the country, including in Minnesota, thanks to Occupy Homes. Earlier this month, Occupy Wall Street helped Manhattan restaurant workers defeat a lousy boss and a worker lock-out to unionize a restaurant in the Hot and Crusty chain. (While shut out, the employees occupied the sidewalk and ran the Worker Justice Café there.)

In Providence, Rhode Island, the Occupy encampment broke up late last January, but only on the condition that the city open a daytime shelter for homeless people. At Princeton University, big banks are no longer invited to recruit on campus, most likely thanks to Occupy Princeton.

There have been thousands of little victories like these and some big ones as well: the impact of the Move Your Money initiative, the growing revolt against student-loan-debt peonage, and more indirectly the passing of a California law protecting homeowners from the abuse of the foreclosure process (undoubtedly due in part to Occupy's highlighting of the brutality and corruption of that process).

But don't get bogged down in the tangible achievements, except as a foundation. The less tangible spirit of Occupy and the new associations it sparked are what matters for whatever comes next, for that 10-year-plan. Occupy was first of all a great meeting ground. People who live too much in the virtual world with its talent for segregation and isolation suddenly met each other face-to-face in public space. There, they found common ground in a passion for economic justice and real democracy and a recognition of the widespread suffering capitalism has created.

Bonds were formed across the usual divides of age and race and class, between the housed and the homeless as well as the employed and jobless, and some of those bonds still exist. There was tremendous emotion around it—the joy of finding you were not alone, the shame that was shed as the prisoners of debt stepped out of the shadows, the ferocity of solidarity when so many of us were attacked by the police, the dizzying hope that everything could be different, and the exhilaration in those moments when it already was.

People learned how direct democracy works; they tasted power; they found something in common with strangers; they lived in public. All those things mattered and matter still. They are a great foundation for the future; they are a great way to live in the present.

Maybe Occupy was too successful a brand in that it sometimes disguised how much this movement was part of popular surges going on around the world: the Arab Spring (including the three successful revolutions, the ongoing Syrian civil war, uprisings in Yemen, and more); the student uprisings in Montreal, Mexico, and Chile that have continued to develop and broaden; the economic revolts in Spain, Greece, and Britain; the ongoing demonstrations and insurrections around Africa; even various acts of resistance in India, Japan, China, and Tibet, some large and powerful. Because, in case you hadn't noticed, these days a lot of the world is in some form of rebellion, insurrection, or protest.

And the family resemblances matter. If you add them all up, you see a similar fury at greed, political corruption, economic inequality, environmental devastation, and a dimming, shrinking future.

The Heroic Age

Nevertheless, the one-year anniversary is likely to produce a lot of mainstream media stories that will assure you Occupy was only a bunch of tents that came down last year, that it was naïve, and that's that. Don't buy it. Don't be reasonable, don't be realistic, and don't be defeated. A year is nothing and the mainstream media is oblivious to where power lies and how change works, but that doesn't mean you need to be.

That same media will tell you 99 ways from Tuesday how powerless you are and how all power is made by men in suits who won or bought elections, but don't buy that either. Instead, notice how terrified Vladimir Putin was of three young performers in bright-colored balaclavas, and how equally frightened Wall Street is of us. They remember something we tend to forget: together we are capable of being remarkably powerful. We can make history, and we have, and we will, but only when we keep our eyes on the prize, pitch a big tent, and don't stop until we get there.

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