“Occupy Wall Street turned movements into international networks that didn’t exist before”
More than one year ago, the Occupy Movement emerged in the United States. What was it and where it is going now? Joel Dietz interviewed Nathan Schneider, who has been following Occupy Wall Street as a writer for the Nation.
Hello Nathan and thank you for your time. If you could summarize Occupy Wall Street in one sentence, what would it be?
If it only were that easy. There are so many slogans the movement one could use: “This isn’t a protest, it’s a process,” or “All Day All Week Occupy Wall Street.” It’s difficult to capture both the idea of the movement and its experience in a single statement; The closest phrase I can think of that captures both elements is slogan from the Spanish Indignados, who were an inspiration to the Occupy movement “real democracy now.” These three words capture what the movements (in the U.S., in Spain and all over the world) demand from their governments and with what means they intend to achieve it.
Besides dissatisfaction, is there any other common sentiment that is shared by Occupy Wall Street participants? If so, what is it?
Actually, I tended to find that there was a lot more optimism during the occupations themselves than frustration. Just look at the features of the plaza, which stands for the ideals that the participants aspire towards: a community that provides food, shelter, education, health care, art, and more, which self-governs itself a way that, ideally, all voices can be heard.
There was a huge emphasis on transparency, individual autonomy, responsibility and fostering a culture in which both resources and ideas are available to all
A tall order, of course, and not always a very well articulated one.
What did Occupy Wall Street succeed at? What did it fail at?
It very powerfully succeeded at introducing activists from around the country to one another and turned a lot of people into activists that weren’t before. It produced a tremendous number of networks, both online and offline, which continue to mobilize people on a number of fronts, though few are still called Occupy.
It also won a ton of disparate victories in communities across the country, from small and large labor disputes, a dramatic reduction in stop and frisks in New York, to the overturning of regulations concerning the policing of the homeless in various cities. It strengthened and encouraged various types of political organization as well as turned movements into international networks around the world that didn’t exist before.
The movement failed at initiating a general strike on May Day last year, which many people had been looking forward to. It has also not been able to bring on significant changes in financial regulation, how the government deals with climate change or the foreclosure crisis. But those are some of the hardest nuts to crack in all of politics, and I suspect that when they are cracked, it will be hard to think about how it could have happened without Occupy.
Many of the “failures” that many people cite — the failure to create a political party, or to elect candidates in a system that would require them to be corrupt — are not things the core of the movement ever set out to do.
What do you expect to see in New York in the future? More of the same activism or something different?
The Occupy subculture in New York has been changing and maturing gradually as a community. The recent Occupy Sandy relief effort has been tremendous — I believe it was the largest grassroots mobilization of volunteers in the wake of the hurricane. And the Rolling Jubilee, a project working to abolish debt, has won the approval of business magazines that scorned the movement before. Neither has involved arrests. A wave of low-wage worker struggles at fast-food restaurants and Walmart have also been receiving a lot of media attention. Despite these actions, I think there is still a lot of learning to do on how to engage communities and help them organize and resist corporate power.
Is anyone on or near Wall Street paying attention to the Occupy Money movement in Europe?
I haven’t heard much about it. The one person I suspected would be interested in it is, indeed, following it on Facebook. Lately, though, the real policy savvy people from the movement are active in the Strike Debt campaign.
Do you feel any sense of shared vision or hope from other places on the globe affected by Wall Street’s shortcomings?
This movement, from start to now, has been all about global solidarity.
Occupy Wall Street organizers are constantly discussing what other related movements around the world are doing, both on social media and in their own planning meetings. They are closely in touch with activists on the ground in many of these places. Every time Occupy Wall Street quiets down for a period time in the U.S., the organizers watch closely (and travel to) places where things are flaring up.
There’s a lot of admiration for the Québec students, for instance, who just claimed victory after a two year fight against a tuition hike. Occupy Wall Street folks are always eager to learn from similar struggles taking place elsewhere in the world. But things often also move very slowly — except in cases like Occupy Sandy, when suddenly things change very fast.
What innovation in this area do you think is in store for us in the future? What should we be getting excited about?
It’s hard to say what is going to blow up next. Certainly right now Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt are the fights to watch, in addition to the Walmart labor struggle. This is a movement that has an endless number of clever ideas appearing all the time, but it’s never clear which ones are going to rise above the rest until it happens. The next big idea might very well not be called “Occupy”, which may be a good thing — but the chances are high that, even so, it will be the result of networks that were forged during the Occupy movement.
Nathan Schneider, has been following Occupy Wall Street for the Nation. He also publishes in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The American Prospect, and Harper’s. He is an editor for Waging Nonviolence.
Photo credit: Claire Kelley