The Tactic of Occupation & the Movement of the 99%

If we are to launch from a moment to a movement, we will have to broaden the “us”. We must win in the arena of values, and not allow ourselves to be narrowly defined by our tactics.

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A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol — with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.

Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying “enough!” This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.

Occupation as tactic

It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.

On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.

But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”

By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular—even that they are common sense—and connected to a social base.

Occupy Wall Street as “floating signifier”

I want to suggest that the primary reason the tactic of occupation has resonated so far and wide is because it has served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To most people, the “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” essentially stands in for the F word! Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something — became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we’d been waiting for.

Thus, Occupy Wall Street has served as something of a floating signifier — amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and to see their values within the symbol. Such ambiguous symbols are characteristic of new populist alignments. Many objects can serve as the catalyzing symbol, including actions (e.g. the occupation of Tahrir Square or of the Wisconsin State Capitol this spring), individual politicians (quintessentially Perón in Argentina), or even constructed brands (e.g. the “Tea Party”). As the above examples suggest, this phenomenon can be seen in all kinds of broad political alignments, across the ideological spectrum. In all cases though, a degree of ambiguity is necessary if the symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular—too associated with any one current or group within the alignment—it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal.

It’s important to note that although the signifier is floating (i.e. not peg-able), it is not empty of content. It has to be meaningful enough to resonate. Moreover, different symbols tend to pull things in different directions. Candidate Barack Obama as floating signifier, for example, pulled a lot of grassroots energy into what has turned out to be an establishment-reinforcing direction. Occupy Wall Street as floating signifier, on the other hand, seems so far to be pulling a lot of establishment forces in the direction of the fired-up, social justice-oriented grassroots.

When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.

It becomes imperative then for the forces defending the status quo to tarnish the challenger movement and its symbols — to destroy their popular appeal. This tarnishing strategy is accomplished by nailing down the floating signifier — by fixing it to particular meanings, associating it with particular “kinds of people” and to narrower frameworks, so that it can no longer function as a popular symbol.

This is the phase we find ourselves in right now.

Expanding the “us”

We are engaged in a battle over values and ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people — all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power. This idea has struck a chord and millions of Americans have quickly come to identify on some level with Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.

In this epic battle over values and ideas, our opponents have already mounted a sophisticated public relations offensive to nail down the floating signifier and negatively brand the emerging movement. They are attempting to caricaturize, stereotype and “otherize” the most visible actors—the occupiers—in order to inoculate more Americans from identifying with “the 99%” and keep them from joining the movement.

“Character assassination” is a primary tactic that the powerful wield against challengers. It’s about tarnishing a person’s reputation, so that no one will listen to anything they have to say. It can be used against groups and movements too. When Mayor Bloomberg attempted to “clean Zuccotti Park”, he was making the first move in an ongoing character assassination campaign that has not ceased. Bloomberg and others have thrown everything in the book at us.

In the face of a character assassination campaign, our task and challenge is to expand the “us”. Our opponents want to portray the movement as a particular kind of person doing a particular thing (e.g. “dirty hippies”). Thus, it’s critical that we continue to bring more kinds of people, visibly engaged in more kinds of things, into the movement. The 99% movement has to be more than a protest, more than an occupation, more than any given tactic, and more than any “type” of person. We must not allow ourselves to be typecast.

The good news is that there’s already a lot in motion to buck our opponents’ strategy. Since September 17 (the start of Occupy Wall Street), the “us” has expanded exponentially. The movement has become far broader than those who are able to participate in physical occupation. The 99% movement is Elora and Monte in rural West Virginia who sent hand-knit hats to occupiers at Liberty Square. It’s 69-year-old retired Iowa public school teacher Judy Lonning who comes out for Saturday marches in Des Moines. It’s Nellie Bailey, who helped to organize the Occupy Harlem Mobilization last week. It’s Selena Coppa and Joe Carter, who marched in formation to the New York Stock Exchange last week with 40 fellow ‘Veterans of the 99%’. The 99% movement is everyone who sends supplies, everyone who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process.

Tactic, message, movement

We are moving in the right direction, but we must keep moving. We can’t let this expansion of the “us” plateau.

In the past week and a half, we’ve seen more and more news stories focusing on the physical logistics of occupation, including the problems and challenges. News outlets are presenting the tactic of occupation as if the tactic were the message and the movement itself. And our opponents are making some headway in negatively branding occupation and occupiers.

To navigate this challenge, it is important that we recognize a few things about our relationship to the tactic of physical occupation:

  • It has already accomplished more than any of us imagined.
  • It is incredibly resource-intensive to maintain.
  • It will not serve us forever (indeed, it’s utility may already be waning).
  • We will have to come up with other popular expressions of the values of this movement.

We have to distinguish conceptually between our tactics, our message, and our movement. Of these three, our tactics should be the thing we are least attached to. In oppositional struggle, it is critical to maintain the initiative; to keep one’s opponents in a reactive state. This is not accomplished by growing overly attached to any particular tactic—no matter how well it worked the first time—and thereby doing exactly what our opponents expect us to do.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to conceptualize the need to be innovative and keep our opponents on their toes than to actually come up with the right thing at the right moment to make it so. Moreover, it’s wrongheaded to get caught up in the elusive search for the perfect silver bullet tactic. Movements are, more than anything else, about people. To build a movement is to listen to people, to read the moment well, and to navigate a course that over time inspires whole swaths of society to identify with the aims of the movement, to buy in, and to take collective action.

“Occupy Wall Street” is the tactic that has launched a movement for social justice and real democracy onto center stage. It has served as the initial catalyzing symbol. Hopefully ten or twenty years from now, when we look back at all we’ve accomplished together, we’ll credit Occupy Wall Street as a critical moment that helped to spark and then build a lasting movement.

However, if we fail to find other successful tactics—and other popular expressions of this movement’s values—we will be pronounced dead as soon as the tactic fades. Fortunately, Occupy Wall Street—and the tactic of occupation—is neither the primary message nor the movement itself. And, fortunately, we don’t have to invent the message for the movement from scratch.

“We are the 99%” has become a core message of this burgeoning movement. It emerged in tandem with the deployment of the captivating tactic of occupation. The framework of the 99% accomplishes a number of important feats:

  • The 99% frames the consolidation of wealth and political power in our society — the central grievance of this movement and a central crisis of our times.
  • The 99% frames a class struggle in a way that puts the 1% on the defensive (whereas the common accusation of “class warfare” has somehow tended to put a lot of people in the middle on the defensive).
  • The 99% casts an extraordinarily broad net for who is invited to join the movement. Most everyone is encouraged to see their hopes and dreams tied to a much bigger public. Thus it frames a nearly limitless growth trajectory for the movement.
  • The 99% even leaves room for the 1% to redeem itself. There are many striking cases of “1 percenters” speaking out as defectors who are as vocal as anyone that the system is broken and needs to serve the 100%!

The 99% meme is a real winner. Its message and framework may prove better at helping us weather the winter, both literal and metaphorical, than any one tactic could. It points the way toward a necessary expansion. It encourages us to not just act on behalf of, but alongside of, the 99%; to look beyond the forces already in motion, to activate potential energy, to articulate a moral political narrative, and to claim and contest our culture.

No framework will automatically deliver — not without a lot of hard work and smart decisions. Thankfully, there’s a whole new generation of leadership stepping up to do just that. Together we can turn this moment into a movement that’s here for the long haul.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a grassroots organizer, trainer and strategist. He directs Beyond the Choir. He has been active in Occupy Wall Street working groups for the past month. He posts at occupyWINNING.com and BeyondtheChoir.org.

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23 thoughts on “The Tactic of Occupation & the Movement of the 99%

  1. Soliman Lawrence says:

    Well put Matthew. From across the Atlantic it is comforting to know that you are at the epicenter of this.
    Soliman

  2. Craig Collins says:

    Matthew, I really agree that need to avoid getting locked into an tactical dead end and think carefully and creatively about what we might do to break out and move on.

    With Thanksgiving and other holidays just around the corner, can we use these holidays to increase our current momentum and keep the 1% on the defensive? Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year. Can we use this day to raise peoples’ awareness instead?

    Could we use our current leverage to negotiate with city hall? We could propose that city halls around the country sponsor a giant holiday feast—a PEOPLES’ POTLUCK—and feed everyone and anyone who comes. Afterwards, we will clean up our encampments and create new avenues for activism. This feast should be a gathering of, by, and for the 99%–a celebration of our awakening and our collective commitment to putting the 99% back in charge of our government and our economy. It would celebrate locally grown food and drink and feature local entertainment. No corporations or big-time politicians invited!

    Leading up to these celebrations we should call for a BOYCOTT of BLACK FRIDAY (buy only from local small businesses) and a reexamination of what OUR HOLIDAYS should really mean. We need to reclaim our holidays and take them back from the corporate commercializers who’ve taken them hostage. What do you think?

  3. Marty says:

    great riff. I picked up on it here …

    Occupy is the brand but occupy doesn’t mean staying over night in the streets but something more about ownership by the people who participate.

    Occupy is the message that leadership is not a fixed thing. Occupy is compelling because it demonstrates and tells a story that leadership is among us. This movement is ours. This sense of people ownership (the 99%) is empowering because it casts a light that we also own other power tools. We own the democracy. We can, if we muster the courage own the power to reset the rules of the chess board.

    more..
    http://www.network-centricadvocacy.net/2011/11/building-a-movement-to-listen-building-a-network-so-the-movement-can-adapt.html

  4. Meme says:

    This is pertinent for Occupy movements around the world and resonate deeply with the questions canadian occupations are facing these days. Some of us, at least in Montreal where I am, are starting to think about the different meanings of occupying our city : we’re thinking flashmobs, appropriation of public space for citizen assemblies and workshops. It will not be an easy discussion to have though, because, as you said, for some occupyers, the occupation – the camp – is more a community than simply a tactic. We’ll have to take this need into account as well as the desire to experiment alternative collective organisation and decision-making.

  5. Roger Yates says:

    How about this: You are never going to go away until the situation changes. That’s the ultimatum. It’s not a tactic. It is in and of itself the non negotiable line that you will not be pushed across. Fight there with everything you have. Non violently of course.

    • It’s a good ultimatum, if we have the capacity to make good on it. Even if we do, it’s still not enough to change the situation. We need a growth trajectory. Elites might not like our physical presence in public spaces across the country, but they’re sure not going to give up their power just because we refuse to go away.

      • Craig Collins says:

        I’ve tried circulating this idea among fellow Oakland Occupiers:

        We’ve made history! We’ve aroused the nation, flexed our collective muscles, and put the 1% on notice that we don’t plan to lose the emerging power struggle over the future of our nation and our planet.

        At this historic moment, we have world opinion behind us; we should not let this opportunity to use our newfound power slip through our fingers. We are currently in a position of strength, but things could change quickly. We need to assess our situation and figure out what we want to do next.

        Should we just hold our ground and refuse to budge from our encampments throughout downtown America? How will this end? In the cold months ahead what will become of the momentum and support we’ve awakened and mobilized around the world? Will it grow, dissipate, or even sour and turn against us if we refuse to alter our strategy?

        To keep the 1% off balance and the momentum behind us. We should avoid getting locked into an inflexible rut and think creatively about what we might do instead. Can we use these holidays to increase our current momentum and keep the 1% on the defensive? Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year. Can we use this day to deepen our movement instead?

        We could use our leverage to propose that city halls around the country sponsor a giant holiday feast—a PEOPLES’ 99% POTLUCK—and feed everyone and anyone who comes. Afterwards, we will clean up our encampments and create new avenues for activism. This feast should be a gathering of, by, and for the 99%–a celebration of our awakening and our collective commitment to putting the 99% back in charge of our government and our economy. It would celebrate locally grown food and drink and feature local entertainment. No corporations or big-time politicians invited!

        Leading up to these celebrations we should call for a BOYCOTT of all non-local corporate chains on BLACK FRIDAY (BUY NOTHING DAY) and a reexamination of what we want OUR HOLIDAYS to mean. We need to reclaim our holidays and take them back from the corporate commercializers who’ve taken them hostage. What do you think?do you think?

  6. Roger Yates says:

    It’s a question of numbers.

  7. Roger Yates says:

    Can I make another comment. Perhaps the Occupy Movement should see itself as analogous to a Resistance Movement in an occupied country ( your country and mine, U.K., occupied by an extranational financial system ). Resistance Movements do not aim to overthrow in the short term but to act as a moral rallying point. They do what they do because it is right and honorable. I think this is what you are doing. In terms of this analogy, to hold physical space is like an act of sabotage. It explodes the myth that the population is passive. It expresses the presence of a hidden resentment and also fosters it. We all need to think of further acts of sabotage to the hegemony of apathy and put them into action.

    • Craig Collins says:

      At the end of the day, resistance is inadequate. MUTINY is the only way out. The 1% cannot be left in charge of our future. If multinational corporations are left in power they will stonewall every effort to stop them from burning through the Earth’s dwindling hydrocarbon reserves, pushing the climate past its tipping point and unleashing ecological havoc. If their political elites remain in office, how can we stop them from wasting lives and ravaging the planet in a series of escalating resource wars? Must millions perish because shrinking stores of food, fresh water, and fertile land are denied to everyone without the power and money to acquire them? We just can’t resist corrupt, bankrupt governments and economies that can’t provide jobs, social services, and disaster relief, or protect citizens from social decay and criminal gangs. WE MUST REPLACE THEM.

  8. Roger Yates says:

    Resistance is what you do until you have the numbers for a revolution. I agree with your analysis of the problem 100%.

    • Craig Collins says:

      Roger, I believe we’re on the same page here. People are just getting used to resistance and we’re definitely a long way from “revolution.” In fact, I doubt that the term “revolution” will adequately describe the global process of collapse and transformation ahead. At least I doubt that it will look like any of the 20th century revolutions that have shaped the meaning of this word. Armed struggle to take state power seems antiquated in an era when economic and political systems are collapsing under their own weight and cannot be sustained by dwindling energy reserves. However, we definitely need some form of mutiny because if they remain in power, they will turn each new crisis to their advantage and the most cutthroat sectors of the elite will find numerous ways to profit from collapse, calamity, and conflict. At the end of the day, they’ll devour, demolish, and contaminate the remaining resources we need to survive unless we stop them.

  9. Roger Yates says:

    Sorry for the delay. It was bedtime on this side of the planet. Where I am coming from is that non violence is a given. I think that market interventions ( buy silver, crash J.P. Morgan ) are a possibility as is a boycott of Coke and an orchestrated shorting to oblivion. It appears that Goldmans are doing this sort of large scale organisation of dealers via Twitter accounts. Check people like Max Keiser. I think it is difficult to do but then look at the impact Wikileaks and Anonymous are having.Any success in this area would sober them up good and could have massive potential to change everything. This is a digital/ financial war we are in and these market attacks are the battles in that war so far as I can understand it. Also we may be seeing an evolving Global uprising. Understand and foster the understanding that Mubarak, Saleh, the global arms industry, Goldmans, The Fed, Assad the Chinese State etc. etc. are the same enemy. All this is understood. LOOK…..YOU ARE DOING A FANTASTIC JOB. Don’t forget that. I don’t speak for but am involved with Occupy Bristol UK.
    XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

  10. bluewaterzz says:

    All great comments…and, yes, this is beyond revolution in the traditional sense: this is the awakening of a new awareness worldwide. this is about heart energy. this is about the energy of love. the sudden ‘occupy’ uprising worldwide is not done via twitter or fb, but through the urgent awareness of the heart, that it cannot go on like it this. The systemic perversity of human suffering is so great, the ecological desaster so far advanced, that we are reaching saturation. our lives are raped by profit-pigs. our leaders are using the highest ideals as fig leaves to mislead us. we need to stop the avalanche of destruction. all this is felt by the new generation and some of us, like myself, who have worked consciously for a long time to create peace and justice for our world.

    as a communication and corporate ID specialist I see an urgent need to use a unified signature for all occupy actions: I propose to use a worldwide symbol for this young and hopeful uprising: the two 9s, 99, linked together. we need to identify quickly and clearly all actions taken by us, without narrowly defining any theme, and – as Jonathan said – this symbol expresses the central idea behind ‘occupy’: we are the 99% ! ( we are you ) I’d be glad to send you the symbol, as I have already proposed it to several occupy cities. let me know if you’re interested…

  11. dan says:

    This website says EVERYTHING that I have been thinking about and worrying about over the last week or so. It appears that movement is getting soo wrapped up in the occupation & public space, that the whole point of fixing our economy & bringing more equality to our society, is getting lost. Sure, camping out in a park & battling the cops may be sexy & exciting, but that’s not what this is supposed to be about…right? Whether they like it or not, OWS is gonna have to come up with some goals & a legislative agenda for govt. Its what the people want..and its the only way this movement will move from being merely philosophical & rhetorical…..to meaningful & focused. Sure, some folks are going to be pissed off with the goals that are come up with, but you can’t please everyone..nor should you want to.

    • bluewaterzz says:

      Hooold your horses, folks ! Mic Check: The current ‘occupy’ state of ‘politically non-definable’ as to demands etc. is perfectly serviceable for this young movement…the sharks would love to rip into the flesh of the occupy body, and they ‘re ready to kill – but for their lack of understanding any of it !- and it drives them maaaad ! Let us get some more body and clout through experience and supporting masses – and then it’s time to drip out the demands: one issue at a time…as the political moment offers, and the preparation levels are high . Meanwhile we have the attention of more media worldwide than any group/movement in the history of the world – and that’s since Sept. 17th !!! Barely two months…and all that guessing is just the best exposure we can hope for, to become mythical – as long as we start feeding the MSM beast with some image building political/moral and philosophical baselines, among them, most importantly, the fact of our NON-VIOLENCE as a must…a necessary baseline for police deterrence through courts and public opinion…!!!!! …and the job at hand is a long one, but a most worthwhile one. Let’s go through the ‘battles of the camps’, since they are the urgency multiplier of a protest action never seen before, and holding the attention of many supporting actors around the globe, and – as well – they serve as model villages for the new world…patience,… please !

      • Craig Collins says:

        I strongly support the groundswell & insurrection of the 99% in this country. I do NOT support police evictions. But I do believe that tactically we have to be much more flexible and strategic in our efforts to maintain popular support for our movement and leverage our power to get what we need to keep the movement growing. It’s not about defending a little “utopian” piece of liberated turf. Its about building a broad social mutiny to seize political and economic power over our lives and protect the planet from further destruction. Occupiers need to leverage and deepen their broad public support to advance this movement and not get themselves stereo-typed and isolated as downtown encampments of adrenaline junkies who just want to do battle with police and city hall.

        In Oakland this could have been done last week if occupiers had agreed to temporarily clean up and exit the park in return for a city funded and sponsored “HOLIDAY FEAST for the 99%” or a “PEOPLES’ POTLUCK.”. If it was held on Black Friday (the biggest shopping day of the year) it could have called for a decommercialization of the holidays and a boycott of all corporate retailers in favor of small local businesses. With the whole community invited to a warm safe location with free local food & entertainment and a chance for the occupiers to talk with supporters throughout the Bay Area, the media would be forced to portray the movement in a positive light and to listen to our message about decommercializing the holidays and fighting the system that keeps so many of us poor, destitute, and desperate for change.

        -Craig Collins

  12. Matthew, your post is right on the money. Thanks for your insights, and for the way you present them. I am in Oakland. The Occupy movement here, which I have not participated in, has an additional problem with expanding the “us.” And this is in part because major tactics (like the Nov. 2nd general strike) get out of control. Average folks are really turned off by the violence, but when the movement here is talking about “diversity of tactics,” what they really mean is a mix between armed and unarmed struggle, as opposed to nonviolent tactical innovations. This has scared off a great number of people who otherwise would be inclined to participate. And research clearly shows (rationalinsurgent.wordpress.com) that numbers–and diverse numbers–really matter for the disruptive capacity and ultimate success of these movements. So, I’m certain you’ve thought about this question: how can the Occupy movements (here and elsewhere) enforce nonviolent discipline, particularly when they are provoked to retaliate against policy violence? Really curious about your thoughts. Thanks.

  13. Frank Siegle says:

    If it will broaden its base and censure sophomoric tactics and come up with a program that is not tied to ideology and is systematic and wholistic, it can go far.

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