On a freezing Friday afternoon last week, New York’s Zuccotti Park was empty of anything except piles of dirty and frozen snow, a nondescript thoroughfare for cold tourists and bargain shoppers on their way to Century 21. Yet those of us who were regular visitors to the Occupy Wall Street encampment here in 2011 don’t even have to close our eyes to conjure up tents, a kitchen, signs, and hundreds of simultaneous debates happening on every street corner of Liberty Plaza.
One of the occupiers who went down to the park often, and even slept there, was Michael Gould-Wartofsky, an NYU sociology grad student who both participated in and photographed hundreds of Occupy events as they unfolded. His new book The Occupiers (Oxford University Press) uses extensive interviews and his own photos to trace the revolutionary moment’s context, from the Arab Spring to union protests in Wisconsin to anti-Austerity demonstrations in Spain, Greece, and even downtown Manhattan (Occupy’s predecessor was an encampment called Bloombergville), and look forward to our current labor and anti-racist activist movements. He documents both the harsh treatment of Occupiers by local police forces and the communication breakdowns within the movement itself.
Last week Gould-Wartofksy and I, (who had been involved in several of the same media projects during Occupy’s heyday) were likely the only two Occupy-minded people in the area. We met under the “red thing” in the corner of Zuccotti, at the spot where general assemblies used to debate the fate of the movement, and later sat down to talk about The Occupiers, the media narrative around Occupy, and the inevitability of a new wave of protests for racial justice. “We often lose sight of the power of social movements in between waves of social movements,” he says.
Flavorwire: As a participant in a famously leaderless movement, what made you decide to take on the task of writing a book about it?
Michael Gould-Wartofsky: One of the things that is distinctive about a movement like Occupy is the degree to which everyone is qualified to participate, to observe, and to speak. At the time I was just another participant: an occupier, a marcher, a photographer.
I thought, “I can use this book as a platform for other people, to pass the People’s Mic.” And so that became the project, first and foremost, to find and interview 80 people, many of whose voices had not been heard front and center. Furthermore, a lot of people looked at Occupy as coming out of thin air, but there were all these other movements without which we wouldn’t have existed. Part of the project was to bring that group of struggles into conversation with each other, and with whoever is going to read this book.
One of the things that frustrates me about the Occupy narrative the way the media focused on Adbusters, a magazine, as the “founder” of Occupy.
Adbusters did put out the call to action, and did it in a way that lent itself to replication and circulation: “you can use this hashtag, this call, in your own city.” So credit where credit’s due. But the claim that they invented the movement, and the media’s pathology around this, is deeply problematic. It renders invisible all of the work that was going on before July 2011. It makes invisible the work that’s been going on after Zuccotti Park.
It was an exercise in branding, not in movement-building, which is a different creature. Unglamorous organizing work on the ground makes these moments possible, and someone else comes in, stamps it in their own image, and takes credit.
Similarly, I’ve observed a lot of frustration about the narrative around Occupy’s “end,” from people who think the media has focused on the internal breakdown more than the state crackdown.
They’re hard to separate. At a certain point you didn’t know who was working for whom. I don’t think we need to be conspiracy theorists to see: there was a coordinated attempt, not just to evict the occupiers but to silence them. I think the importance of the police actions and the coordinated crackdown can’t be overestimated. Occupy might have collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions had the riot cops not come when they did — but at least then we would know that we were responsible, and not the Man.
A lot of the issues we saw in Occupy had a long history in social movements. There were divisions along political lines, the divisions between what people called the “1% within the 99%,” the ways in which racism and patriarchy were re-inscribed in the occupied square. It wasn’t by any means a new society. It was a part of our society.
Where should people be looking to see that the spirit of Occupy is not dead? Where are the branches of the Occupy tree?
There were so many offshoots that you can trace a lot of the developments that we see as positive and progressive in the last few years at least partially to the work of people who came out of the Occupy movement. There was a new burst of energy in the labor movement, millennials experimenting with new forms of organizing, like the “fight for 15” for fast food workers. The idea came out of Occupy Oakland, not Washington, DC. Initiatives at the local level to raise the minimum wage, to treat workers’ rights as human rights, some of the energy came from Occupy. Meanwhile, Occupy Our Homes [the organization that does eviction defense] has fought off foreclosures, because that crisis did not end. Then there’s the student movement, the effort to make higher education free, which has moved from the margins to the mainstream.
Finally, I do think there would have been a Black Lives Matter movement no matter what. But in a lot of cases, young people who were on the front lines in Oakland, or in New York’s People of Color Working Group or Occupy the Hood, for instance, went on to work on bringing Black Lives Matter protests to their communities.
Are Black Lives Matter protests going to explode again this spring?
They definitely will. It’s just a matter of time.
Millennials on college campuses and beyond are organizing on all kinds of issues, from trans inclusion to tuition relief to racial justice. What can they learn from Occupy?
You can’t be too pure. To expect the new world to just kind of emerge from the old is to set yourself up for defeat. I think that we have to have think that new things are possible, but also to be realists about what is possible in a given moment and place. Concretely what that means is — all we had with Occupy was a tactic. We didn’t have a strategy.
Whatever it is that we we’re working on, worker’s rights, women’s rights, racial justice, activists need to have some kind of unity about what it is we want and how we’re going to get it. We’re living through a historic crisis. Capitalism has become clearly incompatible with democratic values. If there’s any chance of reclaiming power for the 99%, our generation — millennials — are going to have to do it.
Some of your book is concerned with documenting and preserving the hand signals, procedures, and traditions of Occupy, almost as though you’re historicizing it for future activists.
I learned a lot in my education as an activist, and a thinker, from reading texts about movements of the past. I thought that I should include some of those voices and narratives, the mechanics of our activism, from which people could draw their own conclusions on how to do it better.
Is the Internet hurting, helping, or both with organizing?
We would have a harder time finding each other without it. On the other hand, it makes it easy for the state to surveil us and subpoena us.