United States: Occupy movement far from defeated

December 3, 2011

The Occupy movement in the United States continues to gain strength, despite wide-scale repression. The article below is abridged from a US Socialist Worker editorial.

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The raids, arrests and police violence against the Occupy movement that has been occurring across the United States are about trying to silence a movement giving voice to the accumulated discontent of the working-class majority.

They're also about showing who's the boss ― the political and business establishment.

As for free speech and democracy, the real attitude of the 1% was on full display in a November 21 Wall Street Journal editorial that reeked of contempt for ordinary people and hatred of anyone who dares to take a stand for justice: “In New York City and elsewhere, the occupiers reacted to being cleared out of their aromatic tent-towns this week by breaking the law and disrupting the lives and work of people trying to earn a living.

“The logic ― perhaps not the right word ― of these protests seems to be that by inconveniencing millions of people the protesters will inspire a political revolt of the exploited masses.

“More likely, they will inspire the masses to be revolted by this vanguard of the college-educated proletariat.”

The US elite think they've put our movement in its proper place ― intimidated by police powers and pessimistic that any real change can be achieved.

But they're wrong. The Occupy movement has already changed the way millions of people think ― and that isn't going away, whatever form the struggle takes now.

In little more than two months of existence, the movement has shifted the national debate by casting a spotlight on the question of corporate greed and economic inequality ― no small achievement given the stiflingly narrow discussion permitted in the corporate media.

The struggle has brought together many thousands of people who want to do something about all this ― and do it now. Whether they could maintain permanent encampments or not, local Occupy movements have been a political gathering place for both veterans of labour and grassroots organising and people completely new to activism.

The movement has been deepened by linking up with working people's struggles of all kinds ― from resisting budget cuts and school closures to supporting strikes and efforts to block evictions from foreclosed homes.

From the November 2 general strike call in Oakland, California that shut down the city's port, to the pickets in support of locked-out workers at Sotheby's in New York and uncounted anti-eviction protests in many cities in between, Occupy has shown the potential to build a mass, activist left in the US for the first time in decades.

The question for activists in many cities now is whether and how to rebuild encampments that have been wrecked ― with their former sites turned into "free speech-free" zones by police and local authorities (almost all of those authorities Democrats).

Activists should keep up the heat on politicians such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ― who tailor their interpretation of First Amendment rights to cater to the interests of the 1%.

The importance of such struggles over the right to protest and against police violence were clear from the huge rally and General Assembly on November 21 at UC Davis in response to the pepper-spraying of demonstrators.

At least a quarter of the entire student population attended.

The encampments at Zuccotti Park and other public spaces were more than symbols of the movement. Occupy camps and the structures that have arisen in conjunction with them provide a space for people to connect to the struggle ― where they can raise their own grievances, learn about the issues and hear discussions about what we're trying to achieve and how.

In cities where the camps have been broken up, activists have to consider how to maintain this open interplay.

Another important question for the movement is its attitude toward the political system. On the one hand, unions such as the Service Employees International Union SEIU and liberal organisations like MoveOn.org, want to use Occupy as a brand for their multimillion-dollar electoral efforts ― starting with an "Occupy Congress" tent city in Washington that's intended to put heat on House Republicans, but not Democrats.

One of the great strengths of the movement has been the willingness to critique the Washington political system as a whole, not just one wing of it.

Democratic and Republican politicians are marching in lockstep to impose austerity, austerity and more austerity.

Our future, they tell us, is going to get worse ― and we'd better get used to it. The only debate is over how much more to cut, rather than creating jobs and devoting resources to those in urgent need.

Now, the Occupy movement has followed Martin Luther King Jnr's advice, in his 1967 speech that called for a Poor People's March to establish an encampment in Washington, and begun "to ask questions about the whole society."

And activists have received an answer from authorities ― in the form of a near-lethal police tear gas canister fired at the head of Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, pepper spray down the throats of Davis campus protesters, the trashing of the library at Occupy Wall Street and military-style police sweeps of Occupy encampments across the US ― coordinated in a conference call of double-talking Democratic mayors.

But Occupy is not defeated. On the contrary, activists are debating how to take up new challenges ― from helping the International Longshore and Warehouse Union activists take on union-busting by the grain giant EGT to preparing for big labour contract showdowns for transit workers in Chicago and New York.

Many other smaller struggles are newly infused with people and energy as activists who stood up to the political lies and police nightsticks join the fight. Occupy, after all, has the support of the working class ― and to move forward, it has to involve itself in workers' struggles wherever possible.

The loss of the encampments is a blow, but not a fatal one. In France, after May 1968, a popular poster put it this way: "Beginning of a prolonged struggle."

Occupy may not have reached the level of the French events of '68, but it is clear that we are at the start of something, with bigger battles to come.

The time to prepare for those battles is now.

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