Occupation 101: Lessons from Wall Street Occupiers

From the November-December 2011 PNL #809

by David Van Arsdale

As a professor in the Social Science Department at Onondaga Community College, I spend a lot of time constructing lessons intended to inspire interest in social, political and economic issues. Over the course of this semester, students’ interest in the relationship of politics and economics to their social lives and well-being has exploded. While I’d like to take some credit, it seems Occupy Wall Street deserves its fair share of recognition. Intrigued as to how the occupation was inspiring students, I decided to inquire.

On September 30, I arrived at Zuccotti Park to find a small, crowded space, just a block southeast of the World Trade Center site. People were standing shoulder to shoulder, listening to speakers articulate reasons for occupation and solutions to the economic crisis. The occupiers were streaming and blogging the event live, feeding participants in the park’s food-line, organizing educational forums, sleeping quarters, entertainment venues, and dividing labor tasks.

On the following day, we began the march that led to the arrest of 700 protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge. I was not arrested, but was contained with thousands of others while hundreds were handcuffed and carted away. While a cold rain soaked our bodies, we remained non-violent, discussing and contemplating the causes and potential cures of historic economic inequities, corporate power, and unemployment. We chanted, intermittently, “Whose bridge?  Our bridge!”  “Whose police?  Our police!”  “Whose City?  Our City!”

Unable to leave, surrounded by armed police officers, I turned to a young woman sitting next to me, a junior in college, “who do you think is winning the occupation,” I asked?

“We are!” she said emphatically.

“But we are contained and others amongst us are being arrested,” I responded.

“But we are here learning about our rights, about history, social movements, and participatory democracy. I am winning,” she said. “And I’m not hurting anyone with my victory.”

The rest of the night, as we finally moved from the Brooklyn Bridge and marched back to Zuccotti Park, I considered what I had learned.


Lesson 1: Recent bureaucratic protests have failed 

The largest anti-war protests in the history of the world predated the invasion of Iraq and yet the war-march continued uninterrupted, through Iraq and into Afghanistan. Pro-worker and workplace democracy protests erupted across the US in solidarity with Wisconsin and yet the nationwide attack on public service workers and collective bargaining increased. Protestors in the US have in the past few decades abided by the rules of protest – securing permits, police escorts, maintaining time limits, etc. Generally speaking, this has assured a start and finish to protest, interrupting solidarity, momentum building, and the possibility of collectively negotiating solutions and demands. The occupation of Tahrir Square, and subsequent Arab urban occupations taught the value of non-bureaucratic occupation. Students and many others have learned that leaderless protest through occupation coupled with democratic consensus has the potential to build new, more equitable societies.


Lesson 2: Nonhierarchical occupation is an effective agent of participatory democracy

The police and mainstream media, who have grown used to institutionally organized bureaucratic protest in the US, went looking for the leaders at Zuccotti Park. Time and time again they were told, “we are the leaders,” and all decisions take place in general assembly through consensus. A movement based upon ideas that are democratically formed through consensus night after night is an entirely new paradigm for most of us. The police and media were confused. There were no scapegoats, no blemished pasts, and so they retreated to a naïve conclusion: this is an aimless movement of mostly young, idealistic anarchists, offering no plausible platform of demands or solutions. Meanwhile, the occupiers continued their assemblies, discussing their causes, voting on how to proceed, and collectively deciding what their demands and solutions should be, etc…. The occupiers have learned, and are teaching the world, that true democracy takes space and time.


Lesson 3: Non-violent occupation is an effective agent of participatory education

The occupiers have chosen to be non-violent. In the midst of being pepper-sprayed, kettled (a police tactic for controlling  crowds during demonstrations) and beaten, the occupiers have remained calm. It is this calm that allows for and promotes perhaps one of the most determined forms of participatory democracy the world has ever witnessed. It is their calm, in the face of containment, that allows occupiers to share ideas openly, to learn each other’s needs and history, and to teach each other song, dance, language, art, and culture along the way. It is their calm, therefore, that has allowed for what will probably be one of the greatest educations of their lives and perhaps our lives as well, if only we could learn to listen and participate through democratic consensus in occupied space, as they do.


Follow David’s writing at davidvanarsdale.org