Moving from Occupying Wall Street to Occupying Strategy
City of Los Angeles' Offer Provides a Golden Opportunity, If We Want it
I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life organizing for the rights of students, hotel workers, farm workers and immigrants. Two years ago I became the Executive Director of SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy), a community-based organization working to organize a grassroots economic-justice movement in South Central Los Angeles.
Like many others, I’ve been drawn to Occupy Los Angeles, and I’ve visited the encampment on several occasions. I’ve looked for ways to involve the community leaders SAJE works with and help this moment grow into a lasting and successful movement. But as I look to the future, I find myself asking: Where to from here, Occupiers?
The City of Los Angeles has offered you “incentives” to vacate City Hall. They’ve offered you 10,000 square feet of office space, a farm to grow food, and 100 beds for the homeless. They say you’ll be forcibly evicted on Monday if you don’t accept the offer.
I attended the General Assembly Tuesday, and it was clear that it would be impossible to obtain consensus to accept the proposal. This is of little concern, since I don’t think the City’s offer is worth taking in exchange for leaving the camp. But I am troubled by the inability to reach consensus on a strategic way forward that would grow popular support for the movement, create momentum, and potentially leverage a substantial victory for the 99%.
At Tuesday night’s General Assembly, like in most of the Occupy General Assemblies I’ve attended, there were inspired moments of strategic thinking. But ideas quickly got lost in the clutter of the chant, “Whose lawn? Our lawn!”
Strategic decision-making and planning require analysis – an understanding of leverage and the dynamics of power. So let’s take a moment to process the offer on the table and what it means.
The city’s offer is a positive sign. It means that Occupy has been able to amass enough public support and pressure that it has gained concessions. Some of this is due to the tactic of occupation and successful protest, and some of it has to do with powerful allies. Just last week, the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor issued a statement calling on the city to allow the encampment to move to the Bank of America Plaza. Labor leaders, workers and community groups staged an action and subjected themselves to peaceful arrest in an attempt to move the encampment. This was impressive, to say the least.
Now imagine if Occupy formulated a demand that could leverage its power to not only protect thousands of Los Angeles residents from unjust evictions, but also force the city to take a concrete stance against the banks. What if Occupy locked arms with community groups and announced its refusal to move unless the city extends and agrees to enforce the moratorium (set to expire at year’s end) on the eviction of tenants in bank-controlled foreclosed properties? Hundreds of Los Angeles residents, most of them low-income people of color – as well as the community organizations that represent them – would stand with you.
Imagine the power of this demand, not only for those who stand to benefit from such a moratorium, but for the strength and expansion of the Occupy movement. Let’s play out the scenario: If the city doesn’t grant your demand, it (a) is forced to evict Occupy, (b) looks unreasonable and unfair, and (c) will have publicly sided with banks instead of the 99%. If it grants your demand, you will have just leveraged a victory that protected thousands of families from being thrown out on the street – and joined forces with organized community groups working in low-income communities of color.
With a well-crafted strategic organizing moment, Occupy will have laid the foundation for a post-encampment organizing and movement-building campaign. And it will have done so in a way that emphasizes a fundamental goal of the movement: Shielding the 99% from predatory corporate interests, especially banks.
But such a plan requires the ability to make strategic decisions quickly. After attending several General Assemblies, I’ve reached the sad conclusion that this ability doesn’t exist under the current structure. It’s all the more disappointing because this moment presents a valuable movement-building opportunity.
How can a better decision-making structure help achieve more concrete results? Here’s one example: A few weeks ago, a group of elderly African-American tenants came to SAJE for help because they had been living without electricity, heat, or water for over a month in one of South Los Angeles’ many slums. Their building was infested with vermin; they had suffered rat bites, bed-bug bites, and the indignity of living without running water. Now they were in danger of being homeless.
Despite their seemingly hopeless situation, the tenants of this building organized. Together they confronted the slumlord who owned their building, applying pressure on him and on the city; they demanded and ultimately won relocation assistance. Due to their organizing efforts they will now have enough money to find new places to live, homes without rats and with running water and electricity. They won the basic right of a healthy, secure residence – a right many of us take for granted, and one withheld from thousands of Los Angeles’ poorest and most vulnerable residents.
Spurred by their victory, these tenants have now joined forces with other residents of South Los Angeles, mostly immigrant families, who are organizing in support of the thousands who are losing their rented homes to foreclosure. These are the bottom 10% of the 99%, people living in poverty – and they’re the first to suffer the consequences of so-called “austerity measures.” Yet you would be hard-pressed to find them at the Occupy Wall Street encampments, and if they attend an action it is because community groups have mobilized them to support.
Why is this? Last night I sat down to talk with South L.A. community residents to ask them about their opinion of the Occupy movement. Their eyes lit up – after all, these are veterans of the struggle for economic justice, and I could tell that they had been thinking about this by their eagerness to respond.
One of the women turned to me and asked, “What is their goal?” I answered that Occupy was hoping to address the growing economic inequality in our country. She looked at me and said, “Yes, but what is their goal?” She said that Occupy would be better off with a concrete objective like overturning California’s Proposition 13. Another community leader said that it seemed there weren’t many Latinos involved in the movement. I asked her why she thought this was and she said that she didn’t think that people had enough information about what Occupy was trying to do or how to get involved.
These women understand power and organizing but are unclear what goals Occupy hopes to advance. Although they understand its basic message and generally agree with it, they do not yet see Occupy reflecting their values or including people like them. As was the case with the civil-rights movement, Americans need to see themselves reflected in Occupy – to see it embodying their values and ideals. When it accomplishes this, the movement will win broad public support and ultimately succeed.
Progressives and activists might disagree with me; after all, the movement is young, and Occupy has already captured the nation’s attention and inspired hundreds to risk arrest in nonviolent civil disobedience. It’s also fired up progressives across the country, who have dared to hope again and continue to voice outrage at the police repression leveled at Occupy encampments.
But this is not enough to win, and polls show that Occupy’s popular support is at or below Tea Party levels. If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that Tea Party status is not what any of us would have chosen to strive for. Remember when we mocked and laughed at them, with their silly misspelled signs, jumbled messages, and illogical demands? We do not want to be like them, do we? We want to be smarter, and truly challenge the system that promotes income inequality and allows corporate power to threaten our democracy.
If we’re serious about winning, we must build a movement that can garner broad popular support – one that’s nimble, strategic, and smart. Revolutions aren’t won in a day, and the successful ones employ plans of action that build upon smaller but significant victories.
We’re not there yet in this new burgeoning movement called Occupy Wall Street. And if we don’t focus our direction and energy, we may never get there at all.
As we endlessly engage in shouting matches at the General Assembly and postpone – or even reject – strategic decision-making, we fail to focus our energy where it’s needed most.
Meanwhile, the least advantaged of the 99% keep struggling to survive the everyday violence of poverty. Another family is forcibly evicted from its home, another worker loses his job, and another student drops out of college because she can’t afford the tuition hikes. And as state legislatures across the country and Congress push through their “austerity measures”, the 1% continues to protect and expand its immense wealth and power.
So where do we go from here? It’s time to occupy a strategy, and occupy organizing and movement-building. A golden opportunity has been laid at your feet. You should take it.
Photo: Margot Paez, Insight Out News