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Written for the Late, Lamented Occupied London

An American celebrates the achievement of the Occupy movement in a 'farewell but let's meet again soon' letter sent across the Atlantic to Occupy London.

The occupations were brilliant.  They created facts on the ground—many grounds.  They pumped oxygen into the global atmosphere.  They are, or were, not only symbols of a need (community, shelter, expression) but public spaces for contact, information, and conversation, as well as attractors of the curious.  At their best, they are, or were, recruitment centers.  At their worst, they were the opposite.

But the merits of the encampments are largely beside the point now because the authorities took a hand, often a heavy one, to bust them up.  So now the question is, how can the most useful functions of the encampments be carried out in other ways?  What becomes possible now?

For one thing, direct actions need to continue—partly because they gin up enthusiasm, partly because they ensure that the movement continues to exist in public sight, and partly because they can win concrete victories.  When the actions are well chosen, and (crucially) nonviolent, then the movement attracts the public eye.  (When the black bloc moves in, however, the movement repels.  Not all publicity is helpful publicity.)  Actions need to be chosen with a mindful eye to both symbolic meaning and concrete consequences.

Choices of direct actions and specific campaigns are obviously matters for local deliberation, but also for collaboration.  One size does not fit all.  In the United States, a number of Occupy groups have gotten good results by targeting empty houses, or resisting bank foreclosures, or disrupting foreclosure auctions.  Homework has to be done to see where victories ought to be most possible.  Actual success in keeping people in their homes is the sort of victory that tells the rest of the world, outside Occupy, that this is genuinely a movement that works for the 99 percent.

In general, it’s valuable when a number of encampments focus on common targets where they can compound their nonviolent force by combining.  That kind of leverage makes victories more likely.  In that spirit, Occupy Atlanta has targeted JPMorgan Chase foreclosures; Occupy Minneapolis, US Bank foreclosures; and there’s talk about a national campaign focusing on the Bank of America, which holds a huge number of fraudulent subprime mortgages and might well be particularly vulnerable to a concerted campaign.

I also think the time is coming when concerted cross-national campaigns could resist the plutocracy, win results, and encourage movement growth all at once.  Some shared research and consultation might be able to establish which multinational banks are especially heinous and vulnerable in the damage they’ve done across borders and the impunity with which they’ve gotten away with it.  Holders of shares can clamor at stockholder meetings. (As I write, Bank of America stock is selling for less than $8 per share.)  Occasions for inventive civil disobedience are legion.

It’s also promising that some kind of consensus seems to be growing among European governments that financial speculation should be taxed.  (Europe has for years been way ahead of the U. S. on this score.)  That movement needs to spread.  The fact that Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande agree on taxing the sales of commercial paper is not proof of dread co-optation, as some in the movement maintain, but rather a measure of the popularity of the principle.  The fact that the Merkel government prefers some Europe-wide tax expedient other than the direct tax needs to be addressed—especially by those more knowledgeable than I.  In the event, the more countries can be corralled into imposing such a tax, the better, in order to prevent capital flight toward the exception—the moral bottom.

But one way or the other, of course lightning-fast trading, with all the attendant volatility, and the rewards that accrue to the 1% of the 1%, should be discouraged!  Of course beleaguered governments pummeling the majority need the tax revenue!  There are lots of questions about how stringent the tax ought to be, but the principle is a sound one that benefits both the movement and the larger public.  “Make it more expensive to lurch,” as the economist Jared Bernstein nicely puts the objective.

As for the camps, public spaces matter, but not so much as ends in themselves.  Indeed, it seems to me that, in general, the effort exerted to maintaining the camps is energy not exerted to carrying the movement outward—to working out joint efforts with unions and other groups, so that the oligarchs are isolated.  Occupy groups should figure out how to best support workers like those employed under wretched conditions by the awful Taiwanese- corporation Foxconn, which is subcontracted to build electronic stuff in China for Apple, among other companies.  Carrying the message beyond the movement’s immediate circles is hugely important.  Teach-ins, or other educational events about the workings of the global economy should be tailored to communities that are not jaded about this sort of thing.

The global resistance to plutocracy requires ongoing ingenuity of tactics—as long as the movement is nonviolent and not hijacked by black blocs of one sort or another, whose parasitic seizure of the media spotlight is a gift to the billionaires who would rather have the population obsessed with smashed windows and what the media call “violent clashes” (whoever starts them) than with incursions upon their privileges.  When the focus is on the brutality of the police—or the contemptuousness of the black blocs, or both—the plutocrats pop their corks.  We ought not to help them change the subject.
 
Todd Gitlin was the third president of America’s Students for a Democratic Society (1963-64), and helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War and the first Wall Street civil disobedience against bank loans to apartheid South Africa.  He teaches at Columbia University and has written 15 books, of which the most recent, Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, will be published electronically by HarperCollins in April.

Cross-posted from The Occupied Times, with thanks.

About the author

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also published in an expanded edition, in paperback, in August, 2012 (HarperCollins).


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