“It’s just the beginning. It’s not happening like we thought it would. It’s not happening the way we wanted it to, but it is happening.”
- John Reed to Emma Goldman in Reds
Occupation is just a word. If we don’t like what that word has meant in the past, well, let’s steal it back from the oppressors who use military might and corporate propaganda to invade and to control and to profit.
I began with the above paragraph after reading about the primitivists and certain factions of Native Americans who—instead of finding a way to become part of the current wave of activism—can’t even get past the use of the word “occupation.”
Now, of course, I’m not saying “occupation” isn’t a charged term but, really?
Wait, allow me to rephrase that question: REALLY?
(Hmm…perhaps, as a vegan, I shouldn’t be spending so much time in Zuccotti Park since some of the pizza being served there has cheese on it. I feel so impure…)
To the groups mentioned above and to all those prematurely hyper-contemplating the meaning and direction of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, I’d like to share a little history (and context) about some previous varieties of populist “occupations”: history created by folks who—win or lose—probably spent more time on direct action than on semantics.
(Since I’ve already written full articles on each of these topics, I’ll offer a synopsis along with a link to the related article.)
In 1924, American soldiers who fought in World War I were voted “Adjusted Compensation” by Congress and given a certificate that would collect 4% interest with an additional 25% tacked on upon payment. However, there was a catch: the certificate was not redeemable until 1945…and a little something called “The Depression” happened along the way.
By the spring and summer of 1932, unemployed veterans got the idea to demand payment on the future worth of the certificates. Anywhere from 17,000 to 25,000 of them formed an integrated Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), otherwise known as the “Bonus Army,” and marched on Washington to picket Congress and President Herbert Hoover—setting up shacks, tents, and lean-tos throughout the nation’s capital.
Hoover eventually called upon future heroes (sic) Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. Patton to lead the US Army in the violent eviction of the Bonus Army, forcing BEF members to leave Washington and join the other two million or so Americans, living their lives on the road. However, despite such a discouraging short-term outcome, the deeper legacy of the Bonus Army means more than the passing of the G.I. Bill in 1944. The spirit of the BEF lives on in every sit-down strike, every march, and every demonstration for economic justice.
Question: Will today’s soldiers obey orders if asked to attack, evict, and even kill US citizens for the “crime” of dissent?
The federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island was closed in 1963. On Nov. 20, 1969, the island’s image underwent a drastic makeover when American Indians began an occupation (linguistically correct or not) that would last until June 11, 1971.
“We hold The Rock,” proclaimed Richard Oakes, the occupiers’ spokesman. His words became their motto. Over 5600 American Indians took part in the occupation—some for a day, some for the entire 18 months.
“The occupiers,” wrote Ben Winton in Native Peoples magazine, “were an unlikely mix of Indian college activists, families with children fresh off reservations and urban dwellers disenchanted with what they called the US government’s economic, social and political neglect … Despite its chaos and factionalism, the event resulted in major benefits for American Indians.” (These include passage of both the Indian Self Determination and Education Act and the Indian Financing Act and the Indian Health Act.)
Even today, Alcatraz Island remains part of Native American culture as every November since 1975, on what is called “Un-Thanksgiving Day,” Indians gather on the island to honor the occupation and those who continue to fight today.
Question: What version of COINTELPRO will the government conjure up in an attempt to derail the current occupation?
Activists made global headlines in late 1999 by essentially shutting down the meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. It wasn’t perfect, of course, as different factions within the protestors feuded over goals, issues, and tactics.
Infighting and compromises aside, those five days in Seattle injected American dissidents into an internationalist movement. Activists were able to: shut down the opening ceremony; prevent President Bill Clinton from addressing the WTO delegates; get the corporate press to actually mention police brutality, and force the cancellation of closing ceremonies.
Chuck Munson of Infoshop has listed some of the longer term accomplishments of the movement, e.g. the international Indymedia network; the return of a direct action, confrontational style of protest; putting organizations like the WTO, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund under the microscope; establishing the Internet as an activist’s most valuable tool of communication; and inspiring millions across the globe to put their passions into action.
Question: Will the movement that began at Occupy Wall Street resist co-optation and create permanent international links?
These three occupations can serve as examples from which lessons—good, bad, and ugly—can be drawn. Consider how the collective anger of the Bonus Army was assuaged by both the New Deal and the (so-called) Good War; how American Indian activism took a hit from COINTELPRO; and how the events of 9/11 overshadowed and slowed the radical momentum created in Seattle.
These occupations can also stand as a warning—not just for today’s occupiers but also to those who seem utterly pre-occupied with finding fault and/or predicting outcomes at this early juncture. In a culture that spawned instant messaging, I guess it’s logical to expect that individuals will quickly grow impatient with something as fluid as a movement but why not let the process evolve? Even better, why not join the process and help influence and nurture it?
Best of all: Instead of analyzing details like word usage, why not focus your energy right now on making certain that the movement isn’t co-opted in any way by faux-progressives like Michael Moore, Bernie Sanders, MoveOn, or anyone else intent on leading the disgruntled to the Democrats’ doorstep?
As Jed Brandt sez: “Don’t let the old machines claim your name. Occupation is participation.”
Occupation is imperfection. Whether you call it anarchist, socialist, democratic, or utopian—it will never be perfect. More importantly, even if the initial results don’t satisfy the majority, consider this: The results will still be far better than anything we have now.
Occupation does not end. Let’s not waste time imagining potential endgames when we all know that a successful movement must be an enduring process.
There has never been a better time to be an activist…