SYNDICATED COLUMN: Prequel to a Beginning

Why Occupy Wall Street Still Matters

      It was the middle of September. An ad hoc coalition of political groups, mostly left of center but not all, whose members mostly were young but not all, came together to express their opinions outside the officially approved two-party paradigm.

United by their anger and energy, these people held general assemblies (they called them “sit-ins.”) They marched. Throughout that fall and into part of the following year, they caught the attention of the news media, inspiring activists around the country. In the end, the powers that be did what power powers that be usually do: they sent in the cops. Beaten and swept away in mass arrests, the young activists drifted away. Voters, convinced by the system’s propaganda that the movement threatened law and order, turned to the right.

One year later, it was clear to most that the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley had failed.

Students had demanded that school administrators allow political organizations, including civil rights groups, to table and solicit contributions on campus. (In 1964 only the campus Democratic and Republican clubs were allowed to do so.) There was a concession: the acting chancellor grudgingly opened the steps of a single building for open discussion and tables, but only during certain hours. By the fall of 1966, however, UC had a new right-wing president and California was led by a new right-wing governor, Ronald Reagan, who had promised to “clean up the mess in Berkeley.”

Now we understand that the FSM was a prequel to a beginning. The FSM morphed into a campus movement that inspired widespread social unrest of the 1960s that centered on opposition to the Vietnam War. Everything that followed–feminists burning bras, gays rioting after the bust at the Stonewall Inn, America’s withdrawal from Vietnam–had its roots in that “failed” movement.

Keep the “failed” Free Speech Movement in mind as you read and watch this week’s coverage of the anniversary of Occupy. One year after activists set up the first Occupy Wall Street encampments in New York and Washington, D.C., the Occupy movement is described as in “disarray.” Indeed, it’s hard to remember how big OWS was. Were there really more than a thousand Occupations? Did 59% of the American public support OWS when it was barely a month old? What happened?

“I think they’re idiots. They have no agenda,” Robert Nicholson, who works on Wall Street, tells The Los Angeles Times. “They have yet to come out with a policy statement.”

“The movement [grew] too large too quickly. Without leaders or specific demands, what started as a protest against income inequality turned into an amorphous protest against everything wrong with the world,” argues the AP.

I was at Freedom Plaza in D.C. and Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. I’m a member of my local Occupy chapter on Long Island, Occupy the East End. (Yes, we’re still around.) I agree with Mikell Kober of Brooklyn, who was protesting in front of a Bank of America branch. She told a reporter that OWS is “about creating a public space where people could gather and have a conversation about the things that need to change.”

Coming up with a list of demands isn’t the point. Thinking outside the D vs. R box is. Now people know that electoral politics is theater. Real politics is in the streets. For the first time since the Sixties, we know that.

The flaw in Occupy, the seed of its future destruction, was its basic original premise: occupying public space nonviolently.

Occupying nonviolently is an oxymoron. If you decide to be nonviolent, you leave peacefully when the police show up to evict you. Which is what happened last winter to the OWS encampments.  If you are determined to occupy–and remain in–public space, you must resort to violence in order to defend yourselves from police violence.

OWS ought to have decided whether it wanted to be nonviolent or whether it wanted to occupy public space. If it chose nonviolence, it could have engaged in acts of resistance–flash mobs, demonstrations, strikes–that did not require setting up and defending encampments.

Also, a political movement is defined more by what it is not than by what it is. OWS was a movement outside of the duopoly, yet many “Occupiers” worked with, and got co-opted by, Democratic Party front groups like who stole OWS’ “We are the 99%” slogan.Though the physical presence of OWS is a mere shadow of its presence a year ago, the Occupy idea remains colossally important–largely because the two major parties still refuse to engage the biggest problem we face: America’s growing poverty. “I don’t think Occupy itself has an enormous future,” Dr. Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University, told the Associated Press. “I think that movements energized by Occupy have an enormous future.”

Like the Free Speech movement nearly a half century ago, Occupy is the prequel to the beginning.

Of course, change doesn’t always mean progress and inspiration isn’t always positive. “Reagan’s political career owed a lot to the [FSM] people who used the [UC] campus as a radical base for political activity. It is an irony that helped elect him,” says Earl Cheit, executive vice chancellor at Berkeley from 1965 to 1969.

(Ted Rall‘s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is This column originally appeared at’s Lean Forward blog.)




    This summs up Occupy pretty well, I think.

  • Let me take a stab at that one, Whimsy…

    True grassroots organising lacks the glamour and glitz of astroturf operations. However, what they may not achieve in the short-term might actually show progress in the long-term. A good cartoon.

  • @Seth

    The problem is, unless and until Occupy gets involved in the electoral process, they have zero chance of producing anything resembling progress in the short or long term.

    Yes, the tea party is causing the Republicans to implode- but they were able to do some significant damage before that happened. And one of the big reasons the tea party was able to do so much damage is that there’s a substantial section of the left (the “underpants” section) that stuck its nose up in the air and went “Mic check! Mic check! We’re too GOOD, too PURE to be involved in electoral politics.”- while the tea party ran rings around them, and damaged the country nearly beyond repair in the process.

  • The thing is if anybody is trying to co-opt the Occupy Movement, it’s people like Ted who don’t want the movement to (pun intended) move on. If MoveOn and the Democrats want to have a hand in the movement, more power to them. The difference between the Occupiers and the Teabaggers is that the Occupy Movement was started as a grassroots effort with the help of other grassroots groups. The Teabaggers were started as an astroturf group by the Republicans and their allies to disrupt and sabotage Obama, so the group started out as the establishment. The liberal movements of the 60’s and 70’s had their success because they had support from politicians, something tells me that Ted doesn’t want the Occupiers to succeed, he just wants them to stay a bunch of fringe protesters.

  • I agree and disagree with Whimsical’s cartoon. While we would love to have the Occupy Movement get support in Congress, the Teabagger support is purely a facade since it was created by the Republican establishment. So of course their “movement” would be more successful to begin with because they had the money and power. But I think Republicans are slowly phasing out the Teabagger brand like they did after the ’94 election with the Contract with America, it was just another Republican astroturf movement.

  • Having met one of the original grass roots Tea Party organizers from the Northwest, having seen her videos of the cooptation and exclusion of the original members and their message, how could anyone mistake, as progress, a similar fate such as that for Occupy?

    Why didn’t the Democratic Party organize their own astroturf movement after failing to co-opt Occupy? They could have created an opposition to both Occupy and the Tea Party with the big money filtering down from their bankster donor bailouts, just as the Republican Party did.

    What would a Democratic astroturf movement look like other than compromises with the Tea Party astroturf movement? Democratic activists are compromising armchair curs, and that old dog will not be taught new tricks.

    Electoral politics is farcical in America. Elections are where movements go to die.

    The occupation in Madison threatened success until the people were moved off the issues and were diverted into voting for candidates, hoping the elected would care anything about the interests of the people who voted for them.

    In America, slaves did not free themselves by voting, women did not gain the vote by voting, and unions did not gain the right to organize by voting; only a heavily propagandized population could believe otherwise.

  • @Whimsical: your “get involved in the electoral process” is becoming droll. Eugene Debs, the IWW, and the labor movement in general were despised by the major capitalist parties in the early part of the 20th century, but we have them to thank for the labor conditions we currently enjoy (they could be MUCH better, but they are MUCH better than what we had previously). I could paraphrase Noam Chomsky, but he says it best: “A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive directions – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power… In the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

  • Glenn, you couldn’t be more wrong. The successes of those movements resulted in the right people being elected who were sympatetic to the causes. And it’s sad that you cite women’s suffrage as an accomplishment, but bash the voting process itself as if you are saying that they fought for nothing.

  • Now, after all the bloodshed has been forgotten and the US is claiming universal suffrage, wouldn’t it be nice to have candidates, too?

    Unfortunately, having the vote without having candidates is nothing more than a cruel joke.

    Count the number of candidates (the answer is two) that will appear in the coming debates, the number of news stories (close to zero) about candidates that are not R’s or D’s.

    While the R’s and D’s get daily free coverage in the corporate news media, third party candidates will be spending their money fighting ballot challenges in court brought by the self-dealing parties that wrote the damned laws restricting ballot access.

    Any voting system that awards an election to the candidate 500,000 votes behind is a joke (in 2000). If the system was any good how is it that the popularity of the congress regularly hovers close to single digits? How does a good system repeatedly produce results the people hate?

    Voting for any of these corporate sponsored candidates is like choosing between a Chevy and a Pontiac—aside from the trim, they’re the same cars.

    Go ahead and vote. Go ahead and believe it matters. I’m beginning to like watching the sad faces on voters who feel they’ve been betrayed but haven’t figured out the game yet.

  • @aaron-

    I didn’t get around to answering your last post, so I’ll answer here.

    1) I’d be happy to have a beer with you, virtual or otherwise.

    2) “I dont get where you thought Obama was going to change things quickly?” Have you forgotten whose blog we’re conversing on? This is a man who demanded the impossible, and called for the President to resign less than 6 months into his term because he wasn’t getting it. And there’s a sizeable chunk of the far fringe left that thinks just like Ted.

    6 months is an eyeblink in political terms. If you’re not prepared to fight every day for 20+ years before you even come close to getting what you wan’t, you’re a dilettante who has no business being in or commenting on politics, and you don’t deserve to be taken seriously. So, yeah, this has EVERYTHING to do with patience, and how the far fringe left possesses less of it then my 7 year old niece, and how they’re going to keep being ignored till that changes.

    I stand by what I said before: that’s my biggest beef with the far fringe left today. My grandfather and my father were liberals who fought to make a better world, and even though they knew it was likely they’d be dead before the changes they were fighting for were made, they kept fighting.

    Today’s liberals? “Oh, Obama hasn’t given me everything I wanted in 3 years while battling a virtually sociopathic Congress? Fuck it, I give up. I’ll be over here doodling plans for a revolution that will fail (and one that I’d never have the guts to lead anyway) instead of working my ass off so the next generation will have a better world.” Pathetic poseurs, the lot.

    4)”He and his party are just not part of the solution.” This is where we disagree. There is NO solution (well no good solution- we could follow Alex and Ted’s plan and let the country collapse and be rebuilt into a right wing theocracy- but crazy guy that I am, I think that’s a BAD idea) that does not go through the electoral process. And until the Republcians regain their sanity, that means taking over the Democratic party.

    5) I am working my ass off for a better world, including trying to get changes made to make third parties viable, but as said above if you don’t believe that goes through the Democratic party and the political process, you’re dreaming. Nothing positive can come of abandoing the process. Nothing.

    6) As to your quote from Chomsky: What Occupy and Chomsky, and apparently you don’t get is just like all the best advertising in the world won’t make you buy cat food if you don’t have a cat, all the protesting in the world is pointless if you don’t have people in office who are persuadable to your position.

    So unless youre about stroking your own ego instead of making progress (as Occupy, and to a lesser extent, Chomsky are) you focus on getting persuadable people into office FIRST- THEN you hold massive demonstrations. Otherwise, you’re just indulging in mental masturbation.

    That’s why Occupy got nothing of substance done, and that’s why they’ll remain an irrelevancy until they learn that lesson.


    I usually dont respond to people who spout obvious “both parties are the same” BS, because they usually have foot-thick concrete blinders on. But given that you’ve (badly) invoked history to make your point, I’ll make an exception:

    1) If you think the slaves would’ve been freed when they were without Lincoln being ELECTED, you’re wrong.

    2) If you think the ninetheenth amendment would’ve passed without the Congress that ratified it being ELECTED, you’re wrong.

    I’m all for third parties- I’m working just as hard as you to help them overcome ballot challenges, and be viable options, not just spoilers. But until we can get that accomplished (and make no mistake, it will take generations), abandoning the process altogether is NOT the way to go. Nothing positive can come of it. The answer is always MORE engagment, never less.

    Only the populace with the biggest, thickest blinders on, the ones inclined to believe laughable bullshit like “both parties are the same” would believe otherwise.

  • @Whimsical: send me your email address. Here is my “throw-away” one: