Occupy Wall Street: A Birthday in Context

People are asking, what’s going to happen on September 17? It’s hard to believe it’s been only one year since OWS began. Lenin described this phenomenon almost a century ago, “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” This past year was a year of such weeks, and now the first anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park is just around the corner.

September 17 will be an important birthday, but it should not be viewed as the only litmus test. That’s because it’s not the only birthday, or birth, worth celebrating and planning for. Occupy Wall Street (OWS), like every single protest before it, was a combination of spontaneity and organization. It took months of planning, with General Assemblies convening for weeks before Zuccotti Park was anything more than a nice spot for lunch.

But it’s not just these months of planning, it’s the myriad struggles that came before too, and the myriad that will come after. The dynamic global web of resistance is impossible to entirely pin down, but a rough outline of a few recent key events can provide a valuable narrative and tool for analyzing the events to come. Let’s trace.

One of the immediate precursors to OWS was Bloombergville, a 3-week long encampment outside City Hall to protest Michael Bloomberg’s devastating budget cuts in the summer of 2011. Bloombergville blazed trails for OWS in a few ways. It tested out the encampment tactic in downtown New York City. Bloombergvillers called the first General Assembly to plan for OWS. And a good portion of those in the first General Assemblies and in leading roles later on cut at least a few teeth in Bloombergville.

Bloombergville came out of the May 12 coalition of unions, non-profits and grassroots organizations that organized a march on Wall Street of over 20,000 people. The name Bloombergville was a call back to the Hoovervilles of homeless Americans during the Great Depression and the recent tent cities Wall Street created this time in the Great Recession. However, it was also inspired by the more recent Walkerville protest of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on the working class, which itself came out of the inspirational and catalyzing Wisconsin Capitol Hill occupation.

Wisconsin set a new tone for resistance across the United States. After enduring more than 30 years of relentless assault on working-class living standards, Wisconsin’s teachers put militant self-activity back on the agenda. And they weren’t alone. Spanish Indignados and Greek citizens were also among the many who occupied town squares in the summer of 2011.

All this was prefaced by an even more groundbreaking shift: the Arab Spring.

Again, the strands continue.

The Arab Spring’s roots extend from the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran which protested Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, to the continuing Palestinian resistance to land theft, murders, apartheid and occupation, to the longstanding militant labor movements in Egypt and Tunisia.

The strands continue, and they will continue.

That’s the point of this birthday. Whether 20,000 or 200 show up on September 17, this isn’t over. It’s another (big) link in the chain. Many hearken back to 1968 as a yardstick for today. But it’s more apt to think of 1956. The Montgomery bus boycotts had just ended, and some said the movement for equal rights was dead. It wasn’t. It took years of organizing, studying, strategizing, and demonstrating to get to 1968 and beyond, and today is no different.

OWS jolted the mainstream discussion to the real issues people care about: unemployment, inequality, corruption, democracy, and more. Millions of Americans realized they are not alone, both in their troubles and in their principles. There are many valid, valuable critiques we must make of OWS, and longer analyses are necessary, but the fact remains, OWS rocked the political terrain.

And already we’re seeing the strands of struggle stretch forward.

Most importantly right now, 26,000 Chicago teachers went on strike this week to demand better pay, smaller class sizes, freaking air conditioning, and no more damn “school reform.”

In an election year, the mainstream discussion narrows, and we are told that the only way to make change is to vote between two ever-so-slightly-different, warmongering, Wall-Street-backed candidates.

But people don’t just forget the experience of 100,000 people marching on Times Square, or successfully defending Zuccotti Park and our First Amendment from Bloomberg and his “personal army.”

Chicago’s brave teachers are carrying on the fight and reminding us all what the real road to change and hope is. Of course it’s not the fanatic, racist, and sexist Republicans. But it also isn’t the center-right Democrats, who themselves are leading the charge to neoliberalize and “reform” away public education.

It’s the self-activity of the working-class, supremely organized and militant, that has the power to force the elite to actually practice the democracy they so often preach and listen to the majority of people who want jobs, equal rights, better schools, and a world we can still live on in 30 years.