While it has been widely written and discussed that Occupy Wall Street and the broader Occupy movement are at their core, fundamentally anarchist projects, very little has been written from the inside about the experiences of activists and organizers working under the Occupy banner who identify as such. While Occupy tends to operate on core anarchist structures and principles, and many of the initial organizers of OWS were indeed self-identified anarchists, the movement is losing its most experienced and radical elements at a rapid pace and many Occupy encampments and assemblies never had an experienced anarchist core to begin with.
These factors have led to a situation where many newly-identified, inexperienced anarchists, as well as others who do not identify as such, are using the tools of anarchy, such as consensus, horizontality and direct action, with no foundation for their application, or mentors to help them learn. The Occupy movement must recognize how it is marginalizing one of its most valuable resources and reverse this talent drain if it is to survive as a radical movement opposed to the state and capitalism, and in support of community self-determination and liberation.
Why didn’t local, existing anarchist communities get involved in Occupy in many cities? Why are they now leaving Occupy Wall Street in droves? What do these organizers bring to the table, and why do we need them?
The modern anarchist movement has, at its core, a deep commitment to anti-oppression work. This means recognizing that it is not just the government and capitalism that oppresses us, but an interconnected web that strikes at the soul of every individual differently. Patriarchy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and ablism all work in tandem with capitalism and the state to preserve the existing white supremacist, male-dominated, heteronormative culture those institutions require to thrive. Therefore, a huge part of the work of the anarchists is to attempt to unlearn the rotten socialization of this culture, and to create “safer spaces” where systemically marginalized folks can feel safer to live, work and organize.
On a whole, Occupy has done a pretty lousy job at this. The Safer Spaces Working Group at OWS was consistently marginalized and ignored. Patriarchy and white supremacy reared its head constantly, as white male organizers were consistently given more credibility than female organizers or organizers of color. As a result, many of our most experienced queer, female-identified and organizers of color dropped out in the first few months of Occupy Wall Street and a trickling loss of talent continues to this day.
In Occupy New Orleans, where I lived and organized for a little over two weeks, a group of experienced anarchist organizers (majority female-identified people of color) who helped start the occupation were pushed out by a group of predominantly white male “anarchists” who would loudly disrupt general assembly and mock the women of color facilitating.
Eventually, this group successfully pushed out the experienced anarchists; they stopped participating in the project. The conflict started because the one group were completely resistant to acknowledging white privilege or patriarchy, were infuriated at the women of color who brought up these concepts, and then used all of their privilege to launch verbal and physical assaults until they had won some kind of twisted power-struggle. When, weeks later, my female partner and I attempted to have a quiet, civil conversation with them about the importance of these concepts, she left in tears after being screamed at by a hulking, shirtless man who loudly proclaimed her to be a “cunt”.
Perhaps just as responsible for the drain of experienced anarchist organizers as the lack of safer spaces is the constant struggle against co-optation from external forces and the infighting with one another.
Many of our most experienced organizers spend far too much of their time deflecting perceived co-optation threats from progressive groups like Move On, liberal front groups like “99% Solidarity” and the “Movement Resource Group” or labor unions. While these more institutional, hierarchically organized groups have certainly tried their hardest to steer Occupy towards single-issue, reformist, or electoral focuses, we can most effectively combat them by defining who we really are through our actions and example. The thousands of person-hours wasted in conversations with these groups, and with one another about them, has certainly hurt our focus more than their actual attempts did, and these interactions led directly to the burnout and abandonment of Occupy by many of our most experienced and radical organizers.
Additionally, all too often in Occupy groups, the general assembly and other consensus tools are not used to build trust and mutual respect, but rather function as legislatures, with various factions vying for control and pushing their agendas. A truly effective mass movement must operate like a giant squid, whose tentacles reach in many directions with many goals and tactics, but all in solidarity with each other. A true diversity of tactics. The imposition of such authoritarian, anti-anarchist concepts as demands, centralization and peace pledges has also attributed to the loss of much talent in this movement, even in its infant stage.
In Austin, TX, I stayed at the home of a community of anarchists who had been pushed out of Occupy Austin on the very first night of their encampment. Their crime had been the raising of a single tent, in defiance of the “deal” struck between the more reform-minded organizers who had negotiated with City Hall in exchange for a temporary, legal and purely symbolic encampment there. They were met with verbal assaults, physical abuse and attempts to literally destroy the tent in question. Instead of organizing with Occupy, these anti-authoritarians used their energy to help create a structure for local anarchists in the city to cooperate and work together, being in solidarity with one another despite differences in tactics and strategy.
Experienced anarchists have much to offer the Occupy movement. They understand the tools of consensus intimately, as many have been practicing them in their homes and on their projects for years. In many cases, they are already self-organized into affinity groups that can pull off secure, instrumental direct actions when needed. They are committed to the task of social revolution that Occupy espouses, and are often students of previous emancipatory social movements. They have, for quite some time, been creating the structures of dual-power that Occupy will require to survive, working on projects like Food Not Bombs, Really, REALLY Free Markets, community centers, infoshops and collective houses. Many have helped organize mass mobilizations during the Global Justice movement of the 00’s that actually shut down summits and gatherings of the economic and political elite, a lineage that Occupy, with its mostly symbolic days of action, could certainly learn from. Many have been involved in the environment resistance movement, and have a plethora of advanced skills and tactics for resistance, such as lock-downs, tree-sits, tripods and equipment disruption, that many urban Occupy activists have no experience with.
This piece is meant not to cause further division, but rather as a humble contribution to what will hopefully become a healing and reconciliation process. Occupy is among the most powerful and well-positioned social justice movements of our time, and it would truly be a shame if many of the folks most committed to and experienced with these principles and their application, continued to either not be involved at all, or to feel pushed out and leave. If our movement is to grow, we must learn to create safer spaces for systemically marginalized organizers and activists to work and thrive in. We must respect and be in solidarity with one another despite our unique backgrounds and tactics for resistance. I like to think that the history of anarchists and Occupy is still largely unwritten, and I am more convinced than ever that we need each other to create a true alternative to the state and capitalism.