Occupy Gets Recycled and So Does Its Anger

AP Photo/John Minchillo
AP Photo/John Minchillo

Occupy may be gone, but it is clearly not forgotten. The people protesting Eric Garner’s death in New York City were marching to a slightly different drum beat in 2011, but they seem to have returned, having learned something from their previous mistakes.

If you’ve seen videos of any of the recent protests in New York City, they probably look familiar. Crowds of young progressives marching through the streets, waving signs, and chanting short repetitive slogans. Some of the signs, like the ones created by the ANSWER Coalition, show the same groups are involved, only the message has changed. They started out protesting the Iraq War, then protested the wealthy, and now they’re protesting police violence. The new marches even reuse some of the old chants: “Whose streets, our streets!” and “This is what democracy looks like!”  It’s not Occupy exactly, more like Occupy recycled.

What’s different about the current iteration of New York street theater is the abandonment of some of the previous movement’s costly overhead. It suggests progressives, even the ones who weren’t there, have learned some lessons from Occupy’s downfall. In 2011, the very thing which Occupy considered its chief strength—the refusal to go home, the attempts to claim public space as their own—turned out to be its fatal flaw. It was far easier to critique society-at-large than to run an actual society, even on a very minute scale. Stories of rape, theft, and assault spread from Occupy camps around the country and an earnest attempt to create a fledgling anti-capitalist utopia failed. By contrast, the new protesters seem content to at least live in the real world as they agitate for a new one.

The other thing the new protests have abandoned is the former movement’s foolish insistence on not having a message beyond a vague anti-capitalist stance (“We are the 99 percent!”). Recall that it became a kind of thoughtcrime in Occupy camps to speak to the media on behalf of the movement, at least without hours of dialogue and near-universal agreement on what should be said. In practice, the result was that the movement never said much of anything. There was a message about economic inequality, but it didn’t go anywhere. Some banks were occupied briefly. Some ATM’s were vandalized. A few foreclosed homes were reoccupied. There was talk of a Robin Hood tax or student loan forgiveness, but often the movement seemed to see politics as beneath its ambition to remake everything. And that arrogance hurt them.

Stepping back, there were only a couple of things that really held Occupy together. One was the fawning national media coverage which was blind to the group’s actual flaws. The other was defiance of the police. Occupy proudly kept track of the thousands of arrests of their members. It was practically the only accomplishment they could point to for much of their existence. To be an occupier was to be arrested, or at least be willing to be arrested, for the cause. And gradually, occupiers learned that police overreaction was a way to generate headlines and energy for their movement.

Quick! Think of the iconic moments that defined Occupy. What are they? The image of a man defecating on a police car would certainly be among them for many of us. But if you were sympathetic to Occupy, the viral moments all had something in common. There was the incident when a protester in Oakland was hospitalized with serious injuries after being hit in the head with a police-fired bean bag round. (He eventually won a multi-million dollar settlement.) Or the moment UC Davis occupiers were pepper-sprayed as they linked arms and refused to clear a sidewalk. And a similar incident where an NYPD officer pepper-sprayed several women who were isolated on a sidewalk (a lawsuit was also filed in that incident). All of these became viral images or videos that spread around the world. Notice what they all have in common, even the guy pooping on the cop car? In every case, the hook was anger at police.

Some may have forgotten (and some surely never knew) the hostility of the Occupy movement toward police was always palpable. There were dozens of incidents and videos (which did not become worldwide news) in which it was clear many occupiers were spoiling for a fight. In fact, a division developed in some of the camps over how best to respond to police. A leader of the Occupy Denver camp quit the movement when it appeared the local anarchists were getting the upper hand. One of those anarchists told the Denver Post at the time, “Becca was a part of a contingency that thinks if we completely let them (the police) bash our skulls in, then we’ll win. That kind of ‘militant nonviolence’ won’t work.” When the cops cleared Occupy Denver from a park, one of the occupiers (named John Sexton but no relation) pushed over a police motorcycle and was arrested.

There was another incident involving a police motorcycle which suggests that profiting from perceived victimization was a considered strategy on the part of some occupiers. In mid-October, a lawyer working for the National Lawyer’s Guild claimed he was run over by an NYPD officer on a police scooter. He writhed on the ground in apparent agony and, at one point, appeared to have a seizure. The story initially took off as an instance of police brutality against Occupy, but analysis of several video clips, in addition to eyewitness accounts from other reporters on the scene, indicated the alleged victim was faking. His feet were never run over. In fact, he stuck them under the scooter himself after he was on the ground. He then kicked the bike over at which point he was arrested. Later, his own lawyer would claim his client’s shoelace had been trapped.

Another celebrated conflict with police became a court case in New York earlier this year. (I dubbed it Occupy Wall Street’s last battle.) In this instance, Cecily McMillan, a young woman who had been an Occupy leader once interviewed by Rolling Stone, threw an elbow and hit a cop in the face. She was arrested, and as she waited for a bus to transport her to jail, she (like the lawyer not run over by the scooter) began having a seizure. McMillan later went on a left-wing TV program where she refused to watch or comment on the video of the incident, claiming her therapist had warned her against reliving the experience. She was convicted and served two months in Rikers. Less than two weeks after her release, she was back on the same left-wing TV show, this time talking about her experiences in jail and her plans to reform the prison system.

Just as McMillan was emblematic of the failure of Occupy to overcome its own worst instincts, she may also be emblematic of the recycled Occupy. McMillan already sounds older and wiser than she did a few months ago. She is focused on a specific task, one which she has some hard-earned credibility to discuss. She is not wasting time in a futile effort to occupy property that doesn’t belong to her. In other words, she seems to have learned something, perhaps matured a bit.

Whether others can do the same remains to be seen. The tension that ultimately destroyed the Occupy movement—tension between idealism and the temptation to violence—also exists in the new movement. There is already evidence some protesters are thinking about a more direct confrontation to the system they oppose.

Last week, Joshua Williams, a young protest leader who was once profiled by MSNBC, was arrested for trying to set a fire in a convenience store. The media has been working hard to downplay a group of about 100 protesters who chanted their desire to see “Dead cops!” during a recent march in New York. The same protest led to a real scuffle which sent two cops to the hospital with injuries.

These were isolated incidents, but chants of “NYPD, KKK, How many kids did you kill today?” have been more widespread. And even some of the otherwise peaceful protests seem to be flirting with direct confrontation. Last month there were Occupy-like tactics employed in malls, at the Gateway Arch, in airports, on freeways, and most recently at the Ferguson police department. The recent mall occupation ended with some vandalism. In other cases, protesters are literally shaking gates and pulling on doors being held in place by police on the other side.

And of course, there is the reality that the fringe of any protest movement could opt for more extreme violence. In the case of Occupy, there were isolated incidents of arson and vandalism on shops and banks. None of this helped their cause. But it was the plot to blow up a bridge in Ohio which became the high-water mark for Occupy-connected violence. The arrest of the five men involved stepped on the attempt of occupiers to revive the movement for May Day in 2012.

In some people’s view, a similar extreme response has already happened in connection with the current protests. Last month, two NYPD officers were assassinated by a man who had attended protests and who claimed he was acting in revenge for the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Even as many rushed to claim the incident was isolated to one man with a history of violence, it was followed by apparent attempts on the lives of officers in at least two other cities. Those attacks have not been connected to the current protests, but police in LA have said they were unprovoked.

As with Occupy, there is anger bubbling just under the surface of the current protest movement. When kept in check, that anger can keep the protests going. But if Occupy taught us anything, it’s that idealistic protests can devolve into something else when expectations for immediate change aren’t met. Otherwise rational people can decide to throw an elbow or push over a police motorcycle. It wouldn’t take much for some of that underlying anger to be unleashed in less constructive ways.


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