In September 2011, a small group of demonstrators sat down and occupied Zuccotti Park in New York City, near Wall Street, as a protest against the lopsided distribution of wealth in the US and the domination of the political process by the wealthy elite. Within weeks, similar occupations spread across the United States from coast to coast, and Occupy Wall Street became the biggest mass protest movement since the 1960s. As one of the organizers for Occupy St Pete (Florida), I became a part of that movement.
In a way, the Occupy movement was more successful than we ever could have hoped. With its slogan “We are the 99 percent,” Occupy’s message of class struggle changed the entire political dialogue, and our message of “economic justice” still resonates today. In a very real sense, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon of 2016 and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez phenomenon of 2019 are direct descendants of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and would not have been possible without that stage having been set. But in the end, the Occupy movement failed to capitalize on its ideological success, and, in the face of police attacks, it melted away. Today it is only a vague memory.
So, let me now, as someone who was on the scene at the time and actively involved with several different Occupy groups, give some thoughts about a post-mortem examination, so we can learn from its mistakes.
I’ll begin by reprinting an article I wrote for the Occupy Tampa “newsletter” back in 2012, just as the police attacks on the movement were at their peak, which spells out what I saw at the time as some of the strategic mistakes that Occupy made.
Out of the Parks and Into the Streets: A New Strategy for Occupy 2.0
You may have noticed lately that both the Democratic and Republican parties have made desperate attempts to steal Occupy’s message and rhetoric. Obama and Biden talk as often as they can about the “middle class”; MoveOn has lifted all our 99% rhetoric and used it to begin training new organizers for the Democratic party; even the Republican marketing icon Frank Lutz has declared that Republicans should adopt the language of the 99% and try to sound anti-corporate too.
Luntz is selling this message for the same reason MoveOn and the Dem Party are — because Occupy has been effective at changing the terms of the entire political debate, it took both parties completely by surprise, and now both parties want to jump on a bandwagon that neither party did jack shit to create. The fact that both parties are now trying to steal Occupy’s rhetoric during an election year (and neither party gave a damn about Occupy’s rhetoric just a year ago when they were both arguing over how much austerity to impose on us) indicates that Occupy has indeed set the entire agenda for the political world. The genie is out of the bottle now, and neither party will be able to put it back in. Occupy has won the ideological battle. The debate is happening within the framework we have chosen. Now it remains to win the political and economic battle.
Now is the time for us to move to the next strategic step. The “occupy the park” tactic was useful in the beginning, to bring attention to the movement, give it a base to grow in, and allow it to build power. Now, though, the next task is to take that power and direct it against our enemies — and our enemies are not in the park. It is time we move out of the parks and into the streets and buildings.
We need to learn some lessons from the strategy of the insurgent. Insurgents don’t “take and hold” territory. As all the big Occupy branches learned the hard way, that only makes it easy for the enemy to surround you, cut you off, and crush you. Instead, insurgents “take, hold a little while, then move somewhere else.” If, instead of trying to defend Freedom Park, the whole encampment had just picked up and moved to another base in another park, and then again, and again, and again, the cops would have faced the impossible task of either sealing off every park in the city, or chasing the occupiers ineffectually all over the place forever. Instead, Occupy tried to stand toe-to-toe with the cops in a fixed battle. The result was preordained. Fixed fights are always fatal to insurgents. We had no chance at all of winning that fight.
By futilely defending the park instead of retreating to another base of operations to carry on the fight against the 1%, the Occupy movement also made a serious political mistake. So long as we were seen as the victims, as simple peaceful nonviolent protesters who were being attacked by the cops, the Occupy movement won public sympathy and support — but as soon as we began to be seen (rightly or wrongly) as provoking confrontations with the cops, we lost that public support, quickly. By turning the Occupy movement into a mere duel with the cops, we placed the “occupy” part ahead of the “wall street” part, turned the fight away from a battle for economic justice and into a battle with the cops over who could stay in a park, thereby losing sight of our real goals and losing our support. A fight of the 99% against the corporate 1% is a fight that will win public support and sympathy — a fight with the cops over whether we can sleep in a park, is not.
So, as a matter of practicality as well as of strategy and tactics, we must expand out of the parks — -and into the buildings where our corporate enemy is. To my mind, the most effective things Occupy did were the things that happened outside the parks, like the actions at the CEO’s houses and stockholder meetings, inside the banks, and of course the dock shutdown. Those are the kinds of things we should be focused on, and the purpose of the base camp is to give us the place we need to plan and stage those kinds of things. Rather than being the total sum of the Occupy movement, the park occupations must be turned into mere base camps, mobile and flexible, where we can meet wherever is most convenient to plan actions in the surrounding community, aimed directly at the 1% and their minions wherever they are — in the banks, the corporate buildings, wherever they happen to be. Meanwhile, we defend the base camp by moving it around all the time, and the cops will be fighting against water — every time they reach out for us, we just flow away, around them and through them. It’s an impossible task for them. To the 1%, we must be like the wind …We are all around you, but invisible. We can gently blow dust in your eyes to sting you a little bit, or we can be a sudden tornado that tears down what you’ve built up. If you try to hit us, you contact nothing; if you reach out to grab us, you get a handful of empty air. We are everywhere, but we are nowhere.
Hence my recommendation that we make the base camps mobile and transitory, making it impossible for the cops to stamp them out, and that we focus more on the “wall street” part than the “occupy” part, making the movement less about occupying a particular park and more about fighting the 1% on their own turf in the surrounding community. We need a base camp where we can do the things we need to do. The occupied parks can still serve that role. Our previous mistake was, I think, in (1) making that a fixed immobile camp that the cops could easily surround and crush, and (2) turning the impossible defense of that fixed immobile camp into the raison d’etre for the entire movement.
In Occupy St Pete, we adopted this mobile strategy right from the beginning — mostly because we were forced into it by circumstances. Like many other smaller Occupy branches, we were never large enough and never had the resources to successfully occupy a park 24/7. At our height we never had more than 350-400 people, and like every other Occupy we shrank drastically over the winter — right now we have around 20 active core people and perhaps another 75 or so others who will do occasional actions. So, we have adopted the hit-and-run tactic — 40 or 50 of us show up at a bank and wave signs and sing and make noise for an hour or so, while a couple people go inside to close out their accounts. Occupy St Pete never tried to permanently occupy a park, but instead focused all its efforts into projects and actions in the surrounding community. It has made us far more effective — we have become the local leaders in the statewide effort to end the “nuclear cost recovery” policy, we have done several successful “move your money” actions at area banks and have successfully pressured the city government of Gulfport to move its money out of Bank of America, and we are playing a large role in the effort to call a city referendum to vote on rebuilding the Pier in St Pete. Since our numbers are small and our reach is limited, we always try for maximum press coverage so we can get our message out to as many people as possible. That strategy has made us far more effective than either the local Democratic Party activists (who spend their time ineffectually leafleting in front of legislative offices about state laws they don’t like but can’t stop) or Occupy Tampa (which used up all its money and resources trying to hold a park with just a couple dozen people).
The bigger Occupy groups like New York, Oakland and Seattle, moreover, have already demonstrated that they are simply incapable of taking and holding a park permanently against the semi-military might of the police and security forces. Any such efforts are doomed to failure. The larger Occupy groups will, then, inexorably be forced into the same situation as Occupy St Pete — ineffectually defending the parks against the police will simply no longer be the center of their efforts, and they will instead focus their resources on actions in the surrounding community, directly at the places where the 1% exercise their power. Such a strategy not only makes a virtue out of a practical necessity, but it also happens to be the right thing to do, politically and strategically.
Out of the parks! Into the streets!
Sadly, within just a few months of that article, the Occupy Wall Street movement was dead.
Certainly, there were many contributing causes of death for the Occupy movement, but one, I think, looms above all the rest: an utter lack of organization. Occupy was a ship without a captain and without even a rudder — and it was intentionally built so. This was, at least partially, a result of the circumstances of its birth. The massive civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s were, by this time, just a memory for most people. Their organizers were either dead or elderly, and when the “economic justice” movement exploded into being at Zuccotti Park, the younger generation had virtually no experience with large-scale political protest. So, it turned to the only contemporary model that it had: the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, especially in Egypt. It remained to be seen, however, whether the Egyptian model of a “leaderless revolution” would work in the United States. And, indeed, circumstances would show that ultimately it did not work in Egypt either — when the Mubarak government fell, the unorganized mass of demonstrators were unable to assume political control of the government, and the resulting power vacuum was filled by a military regime which killed Egyptian democracy at birth.
The amorphous structure of Occupy was also a response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the failure of the entire Leninist/Maoist model of the highly centralized top-down “revolutionary party”. This meant that the only remaining leftist organizations that had not become discredited and discounted were from the anarchist wing, which were ideologically based on a horizontal structure that rejected the idea of “leaders”. Occupy would, to its detriment, take this to the extreme.
I found the entire experiment to be interesting, though, and it was one of the things that drew me to Occupy. In prior years, I had been a member of the IWW and served two terms as co-Chair of the General Executive Board. While the IWW was anarcho-syndicalist, with a series of branches and job shops that were more or less independent, we also had the GEB which acted as a coordinator and facilitator, and which set general principles for the entire organization. It was interesting for me to see firsthand how a “leaderless organization” would work, or if it even would work at all.
Almost immediately I could see major problems. The vast majority of people in the Occupy movement were young, and they had no previous organizing experience — most of them had never really been involved before with any political groups. As a result, they tended to flounder with no real idea how to go about organizing a political fight. In each Occupy branch there were of course a handful of now-older organizing veterans ranging from the civil rights campaign to the more recent Central America and anti-nuke campaigns, and we tried to offer some direction. But in most Occupy branches, this fell victim to an extreme “no leaders” ideology, which sidelined all the experienced organizers while leaving the group to struggle with learning basic organizing strategies that had already been worked out decades ago. In essence, Occupy had to learn to reinvent the wheel because it refused to listen to the auto mechanics in its ranks. The result, predictably, was chaos.
The loose anti-authoritarian structure also led to endless faction fights and ideological conflict, as lots of inexperienced people argued endlessly with each other over every possible thing with no “referee” to either keep things civil or to act to end the infighting. Many Occupy branches did nothing more than debate forever over what they were “going to do” without ever actually doing anything. And since there was no clearly-set goal and no agreed-upon strategy, it allowed everyone to drag in a big long shopping list of their own favorite ideological goals, which diffused the group’s efforts — by trying to accomplish everything at once, they ended up accomplishing nothing at all. It would have been better to focus all the effort on one or two goals at a time.
In the smaller branches, meanwhile, the lack of organization also made it easy for outside groups (everyone from the Ron Paul fringe to the local Democratic Party) to move in and take over. With no structure and no authority, these branches had no way to prevent the takeover.
After an initial period of disorganization and turmoil, my local branch, Occupy St Pete in Florida, settled into an organizational structure that worked well for us. We had the advantage that a majority of our membership consisted of older people with previous political experience, ranging from the IWW to the Sierra Club. So, recognizing that the endless unproductive ideological debates were a result of the lack of organization, we formed a structure that we called the “wagon wheel,” in which working groups were formed in a circle around the General Assembly, each connected to it by a spoke, and was delegated the authority to make its own strategy and plan its own actions and then carry them out. It did not need the approval of the GA for each action, but was subject to being overruled by the GA if it became necessary. This gave the organizers in each working group “ownership” over their projects, which insured that tasks would be carried out by people who were both motivated to do them and answerable for getting them done.
One of the reasons why this structure worked well for us, however, was because we were such a small group, with only 50 or so actively-organizing members. This small size meant that we all knew each other, so when a particular person was granted authority to undertake organizing a task or action, the rest of us could trust that it would be done in such a way that the rest of us could support. In larger groups that I saw that attempted the same “wagon wheel” model, it did not work as well because the group was too big for everyone to know everyone else, and that level of trust was not possible. As a result, there were constant problems with working groups running off on their own agenda and doing actions that were not supported by the rest of the branch, which led to conflict and rancor. On the other hand, many of the larger groups were never able to provide any meaningful structure or organization at all, and they devolved into a mere debating society where people sat in the park and argued ideology all the time and never did much else.
So, what were the lessons that I drew from my experience with Occupy? My strongest conclusion was that the Left in the US has still not found a workable method of organization that effectively balances the need for a decentralized structure with the need for an effective leadership that can set goals, assign people to meet them, and take steps to correct failures and deficiencies. Occupy did a wonderful job of winning the ideological battle, but it failed utterly at the political and organizational battle.
Lenny Flank is a longtime labor organizer and environmental, social, and antiwar activist. He was a founder of the Lehigh Valley IWW in the early 1990s.