Criticisms of the Occupy Movement
BY KAMAMA UTSI
There exist many criticisms of the Occupy movement, from allies and enemies alike. The more constructive criticisms tend to come from people who view the Movement as having potential for creating real change. So, what are some of these critiques? And are they valid?
From the onset the Occupy Movement has been criticized on multiple fronts for its claim to represent the 99% (in a supposedly leaderless fashion), which isn’t surprising given the boldness and scope of the claim. It is important to point out that each Occupy chapter operates on an autonomous basis, and that not all criticisms can be applied equally amongst the numerous chapters. Also necessary to keep in mind, is the point in time these criticisms are referring to, because conditions may have changed in certain cases. Perhaps it is best to start off with the more universal criticisms.
Since OWS’s inception the media and other spectators have asked to see a list of specific demands (even a reduction to ONE demand!), believing that a list would be more coherent and more likely to inspire an act of Congress. This is based on assumptions that the protesters are acting in the goal of compelling Congress to review their demands, and that protesters are able to exercise a right of free speech that has the capability of bringing politicians to the negotiating table. Clearly, these assumptions are not grounded in reality. For mainstream media, it is not within the acceptable parameters of discussion to consider the possibility that these occupations stand for something much greater than a desire to get Congress’s attention.
Nonetheless, some chapters have responded by creating special committees responsible for drawing up a set of demands. OWS in early October formed the Demands Working Group, who have been meeting regularly to create a list of specific proposals. A two-thirds majority in the GA is necessary to approve each proposal. One protester, Gabriel Willow, disagrees with the demand-approach. “Demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond,” said Willow.
Other chapters that have taken up a demand-approach include L.A., Austin, Boston, D.C. And Philadelphia.
The structure itself has also been critiqued. The particular form of consensus used to pass/reject proposals has been viewed by some as a “tyranny of the minority” and “undemocratic” because it only takes one participant to block a resolution that everyone else may agree upon. This is clearly problematic for General Assemblies, which typically range anywhere from 30 to 300, making for some very tedious and frustrating meetings that in certain cases have resulted in people seceding from the GA (or the protest altogether).
Also scrutinized is use of “the people’s mic,” in which the crowd amplifies a speaker’s message by repeating what was said, echoing phrase by phrase. One Occupy LA participant called it “a Pavlovian conditioning tool…It begins to INVALIDATE internal dissent and force the person to accept what is being said and repeated as truth. It is almost like a cult. This is NOT democratic any way.” It is unclear how widespread this practice is.
There has been active antagonism of the lumpenproletariat amongst some Occupy locations: homeless people and people with mental disabilities have been routinely targeted for abuse and thrown out of the parks. This is especially ironic considering that many of these individuals were the original people sleeping in the park.
At Occupy Wall Street (Zucotti Park), a woman named Sparro Kennedy has had no choice but to designate herself defender of these vulnerable populations. “There’s a push to drive out the homeless and those with special needs,” Kennedy says. “Our responsibility as a community is to make sure that everyone has a voice and that nobody is left behind. I’m here to make sure of that.”
In Occupy Sacramento (Cesar Chavez Park), some of the homeless have found themselves alienated by the Occupiers, who have essentially taken over their sleeping quarters and imposed a set of rules upon them without factoring in their voices. “They got their own security, they act like the police,” one homeless man says. “Anytime you do anything they say you can’t do this and that …and we’re saying `you’re not the police.'”
Self-labeled “pacifists” have used the police as a weapon against fellow demonstrators by turning in anyone who does not strictly adhere to their definition of appropriate conduct. According to a member of Denver ABC, the “leaders” in Occupy Denver are disowning protesters that have been arrested (39 so far), and even helping the cops by turning over videotapes and identifying people in the protests that “turned violent.” This has come not only as an act of betrayal, but a slap in the face for people of color, undocumented migrants and other less-privileged folks who in no way view the police as “guardians” or “keepers of the peace.”
One of the most widespread criticisms of Occupy is on the issue of racial representation. The flagship chapter at Wall St. in particular suffered from an obvious failure to include people of color in its initial organizing, reflected in the lack of representative demographics amongst its participants. OWS drew upon a mostly white, liberal, middle class tendency that by default ignored its own privileges and alienated a huge portion of 99ers (in Occupy-speak).
Not surprisingly, several critiques have been circulating online of OWS’s failure to be inclusive of POC and Indigenous people’s rights.
In “Seven Occupy Wall Street Racial Justice Roadblocks” (posted on peopleofcolororganize.com), Ernesto points out the “credibility gap” that exists between POC and white activists. He vocalizes the question on many people’s minds: “What do people of color gain by staking our credibility in our communities on a group of white left activists, many of whom we do not know, have no history organizing with, or have no knowledge of their personal and political efforts in our communities?” He also shares how one Occupy protest was deemed “openly hostile to activists of color, treating community concerns as `identity politics.'”
From an Indigenous perspective, the name “Occupy” comes off as offensive and ignorant of the historical reality of America’s ongoing occupation of Indigenous land. Jessica Yee, in her piece “Occupy Wall Street: The Game of Colonialism and Further Nationalism to be Decolonized From the Left” points out the need for an anti-colonial stance, asserting that “Colonialism also leads to capitalism, globalization, and industrialization. How can we truly end capitalism without ending colonialism?”
JohnPaul Montano, an Anishnaabe writer, reminds readers about the consequences of genocide, land theft, and notions of White cultural superiority in “An Open Letter to the Wall St. Activists”:
“I had hoped that you would address the centuries-long history that we indigenous peoples of this continent have endured being subject to the countless ‘-isms’ of do-gooders claiming to be building a ‘more just society,’a “better world,” a ‘land of freedom’ on top of our indigenous societies, on our indigenous lands, while destroying and/or ignoring our ways of life…It just seems to me that you’re unknowingly doing the same thing to us that all the colonizers before you have done: you want to do stuff on our land without asking our permission.”
Montano also adds a list of suggestions to fix OWS’s “pro-colonialism position,” which includes: “Demand immediate freedom for indigenous political prisoner Leonard Peltier” and “Demand that the colonial government of the United States of America honor all treaties signed with all indigenous nations…” Throughout the article he refers to OWS activists as “friends” and believes that their “hearts are in the right place.”
In “To Occupy And Unoccupy,” Vagabond (Puerto Rican) takes a more cynical view of OWS activists:
“If you ever wonder why more people of color haven’t yet swelled your “occupation” ranks it may be because historically, once you have what you want, you’ll go back to occupying the comfortable role of white privilege that led you to believe that racism was different from classism. What you are experiencing is old hat for us, the forced removal from your homes, the inability to find work that pays a living wage, the police brutality, frivolous arrests, and your adventures with the justice shitstem, even your homeless encampment are just a few of the things we have lived with for longer than you would care to imagine. We have lived with a knowledge of things that you are now, only beginning to realize.”
Furthermore, he warns “Unless you begin to deal with the roots of this occupation that began 500 years ago your current occupation will fail.”
An encouraging example of an attempt to address this issue is that of Albuquerque, whose General Assembly passed a resolution to change the name from “Occupy Albuquerque” to “Unoccupy Albuquerque,” in recognition of and opposition to Euro-perpetrated settler occupations of Indigenous land.
Also of concern throughout Occupy America is the question of militancy. Many protesters and spectators have asserted that the Occupy protests are not militant enough, and that incidents like the one at Brooklyn Bridge (in which over 700 demonstrators peacefully allowed themselves to be arrested) undermine the movement’s leverage. People on Facebook have posted reminders that not a single Wall St. bankster or corporation (considered to have “personhood”) has been arrested.
Surprisingly, Occupy LA has not been one of the more militant branches, and has suffered from an almost discouraging level of authoritarianism in the form of self-appointed leaders controlling the location, who is allowed to participate, and what is allowed to be said. Most shocking was the initial level of white dominance in a city that is 70% of color.
On October 2nd, one LA participant posted on Facebook, “A full 85% of the speakers, at least during the “controlled” portion of the General Assembly, were white. Among comrades last night, there was much discussion how there seems to be a lot of tokenism with people of color, but that decisions are essentially being made by a few white individuals.”
On the issue of civil disobedience, he wrote, “There was much frustration over how “occupation” would be handled. The organizers kept stressing that they wanted this movement to last three months and that by disobeying the orders of the LAPD, they would come and shut it down. The other argument was that the movement should have NEVER been negotiating with the cops in the first place, and that by following the city ordinance, it was NOT an occupation at all.”
In “Occupying LaLa Land” Federica Lorca, also frustrated by cooperation with the police, wrote “This is an occupation by permission. Really. A couple hundred people camped out on the lawn of Los Angeles’s City Hall after they got the permission of the Los Angeles police…In the better areas of LA, this counts as occupying something. In the rest of town, you actually have to claim some space in the name of the people and defy LAPD. But not for us. This is a LaLa Land occupation: an illusion wrapped up in a metaphor. A light image where something material and real is supposed to be.”
Despite the Occupy movement’s demonstrable flaws, various polls show that the majority (59-61%) of Americans stand in favor of the Occupations.
Popularity assured, perhaps the most fundamental roadblock is the overarching question of sustainability.
Naomi Klein has a warning: “It is a fact of the information age that too many movements spring up like beautiful flowers but quickly die off,” she said. “It’s because they don’t have roots. And they don’t have long-term plans for how they are going to sustain themselves. So when storms come, they get washed away.”
As of yet, there seems to be no agreed-upon long term strategy. As far as Occupy’s endurance goes, only time will tell.