Our historical significance is dependent upon how this matrix transforms itself as the spheres of direct democracy, participatory economics, radical education and other sites of interference intersect as functional horizontal forms of human relations. It must constantly evolve beyond the occupation to establish protest spaces within all of our existing institutions.”

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has sparked a wave of assemblies and occupations at the doorsteps of the very financial and political elites that profited from the recent global economic crisis. This article will briefly present several components that have emerged not in isolation, but as an interconnected matrix. The article will elaborate on how this matrix should evolve as the core element of OWS. Such components are open-ended with the hopes of further scrutiny and radical departures towards new perspectives.

The process

At first glance of an occupation, placards, tents, and work stations clutter the view. Yet the true face of OWS is the General Assembly. Through rules and a group of rotating facilitators, the General Assembly reclaims one of the most deprived elements of our society—the voice! Instead of money or objects, the voice is the ultimate form of exchange. It is the starting point that connects us in almost endless web.[1] Its strength is in its diversity.

The long legacy of adapted forms of direct democracy, especially in the Global South, has greatly influenced OWS.[2] One important lesson from those movements has been that no matter how radical or sincere allies, politicians, or intellectuals are, their contributions are only as relevant as their degrees of involvement as equal participants within the assembly. We must prevent the threat of cooption by having participants disclose affiliations with outside organizations that may in any way use the assembly to benefit an exclusive agenda.

It is unreasonable to expect that outside experts can provide ‘quick-fixes’ to the challenges facing an assembly. In such instances, the burden is on us to educate ourselves, develop working groups and revise our practices. As we create an international network of assemblies that are horizontal and accountable, we must continue to ask ourselves: How do we embolden new participants to step-up and take on initiatives? How we can safeguard against internal conflict, cooption, and provocateurs?

The Space

The resurgence of popular uprisings has again highlighted the decisive confrontation between the elite, who has benefited from the historical shift towards ever-increasing wealth and power consolidation, and the urban lower class, which has been marginalized spatially, economically, politically and culturally from a decades-long reign of structural violence. Neoliberal economic policies and traditional power structures have eroded basic human rights and left major areas of today’s mega-cities in ruins and surveillance. Even formerly radical spaces have been coopted, eliminated, or reinscribed with oppressive hierarchical relations. Suburban sprawl and home ownership have deceived us into debt and a twisted sense of control, success and identity. Under constant attack, we abandoned our historical obligation to the collective ownership of the commons.

While international uprisings such as Tahrir have been inspiring, Americans too have a long legacy of domestic occupation. Hooverville, Resurrection City, Rosa Parks, SNCC occupations of segregated businesses and the recent occupation of Madison’s capital building by state workers all demonstrate our long struggle against injustice.[3] Today, Wall Street is the critical site of intervention because we are now directly confronting the institutions of global capital. London, Frankfurt, Shanghai and other mega-cities are the havens of the world’s financial elite who ruthlessly consolidate power with neoliberal-driven economic policies. At Liberty Square, it is no surprise that what was initially designated as a protest space has ended up housing so many of neoliberalism’s living victims. The occupation addresses people’s right to safe shelter, food, health, space, education and sanitation. The homeless and mental health sufferers, two groups who have suffered the worst forms of exclusion, are welcomed by working groups who are trained to address their grievances in a manner that is reciprocal and empowering. Our occupation is both a symbolic and functional space that—as the slogan goes—serves human needs, not corporate greed.

Imagining the Moment

This moment did not start with academics, activists, or political leaders—and it did not occur in their domains Instead, a network of concerned individuals in a public park initiated this now-global dialogue. We rejected the initial discussions of quick-fix legislation and third party candidates because such demands are the lingering remnants of a narrative that left us powerless, voiceless and depressed. In this empty fairytale, our ‘experts’ identify the problem, provide us with false alternatives, and leave us more pacified than before. They tell us to elect politicians, save starving children with Starbucks, eat organic, boycott one multinational for another, buy an acre in the Amazon, etc. Engaging in these ‘legal’ alternatives makes us ever more powerless while strengthening the legitimacy and power of capital.  

So how can our working groups and assemblies imagine the moment—the real alternative? To start with, a successful action is only as effective as the radical imagination that precedes it. We must constantly remember the revolution’s prerequisite components and imagine how they interconnect as a constantly evolving matrix. For example, is our group following progressive stack, step-up/step-back, and encouraging everyone to have a voice? Is our occupied space (whether temporary or indefinite) confronting and transforming private property into a nonhierarchical space that encourages solidarity, learning, and mutual dependency?

When defining the group’s agenda, we must constantly scrutinize the role power structures have in shaping existing injustices and clarifying what choices exist (or should exist) to alleviate these injustices. The problem is then understood by assessing the disparity between the needs of the community and self-interests of state/capital in order to fulfill those choices.[4] For instance, if a city’s housing board is collaborating with private developers to gentrify subsidized housing, the demand should not be to increase compensation to the evicted residents. Rather, we must explore how the residents could form an assembly that will replace the housing board and developers to address their own functional needs. Regarding health needs in the space, the first step would be to provide charitable care. However, the real alternative is to organize HIV positive occupiers, addicts and the homeless to form their own working groups. Then, as an autonomous and empowered voice, these groups could approach the healthcare workers with their needs in a reciprocal manner, go to the GA to utilize resources that would improve their living conditions and engage in actions that will reclaim power from existing institutions that profit from their exclusion. No matter how perfect the assembly process, true social justice is restored through human practice and collective ownership. This ensures that in such a space, even the most marginalized are given a basic means of production (i.e. their participation), which inevitably results in a more just distribution of power.

The third step is imagining the moment or situation that may or may not cross legal-hegemonic boundaries in order to liberate power. It is worth highlighting the value of the exceptional event or shock against the continuity of life, social conservatism, and all the instruments of structural violence the system has at its disposal. This is the critical rupture, reformulation and launching of alternative models that will transform existing ‘systems/technologies’ into other modes that will redistribute power to the assembly in order to serve human needs.[5] Occupy the Department of Education has already united teachers, students and parents to challenge the city’s institutions with its own assembly that is formulating more effective educational alternatives.[6]

Our historical significance is dependent upon how this matrix transforms itself as the spheres of direct democracy, participatory economics, radical education and other sites of interference intersect as functional horizontal forms of human relations. It must constantly evolve beyond the occupation to establish protest spaces within all of our existing institutions. We must not become fixed to particular spaces or actions. Instead, we must unleash a radical imagination that will liberate the collective consciousness of every sector of society to challenge the ruling institutions and replace them with civilized, horizontal, and humane alternatives. ---rira



[1] For an excellent overview of the assembly and consensus process: http://takethesquare.net/2011/07/31/quick-guide-on-group-dynamics-in-peoples-assemblies/

[2] The Zapatistas (EZLN), Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil (MST), Abahlali baseMjondolo (South African shack dweller’s movement), and the recent popular uprisings in Tunisia, Tahrir, Athens, and Madrid.

[3] After Congress bailed out big business during the Great Depression with the ‘Reconstruction Finance Corporation,’ World War I veterans set up camp with their families within view of the capitol. In the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign formed Resurrection City on the mall of Washington DC demanding an Economic bill of rights. Both nonviolent occupations were shut-down by force.

[4] For example, is education or healthcare equally accessible to all or is it violently guarded for the profit and self-interest of state/capital?

[5]Examples include the Brazilian MST landless peasants transforming private estates into cooperative farms, locked out Argentinian workers occupying factories that equally distribute wealth within their communities, or occupying abandoned or private spaces into social centers or living spaces. 

[6] Link to an inspiring Occupy the DOE action http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbmjMickJMA

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