“Direct Action is a method by which we ordinary people achieve specific political and economic goals, without having to rely on so-called experts – be they politicians, lawyers or businessmen. In this way, together, we confront the powers which oppress us, and take targeted actions against them to win our demands.” – Trial by Fire.
Occupy Wall Street has taken the nation by storm. It has spread to nearly every major metropolitan area in the country, attracting hundreds of thousands to its confrontational, directly democratic structure.
Since its inception earlier this year, protests have steadily become more militant – beginning with the occupations of public parks, and moving on to attempted general strikes and direct attacks on the banks.
In the wake of these popular actions, the banks have been forced to cancel plans to fully implement new debit card fees. Wells Fargo, CHASE, and finally, Bank of America, have all yielded to the increased pressure protestors have brought down on them, in the form of bank closings, transfers in which over 1 million bank customers switched to credit unions, and direct confrontations with CEO’s and those who support them.
The lesson here is clear: within a matter of days, the concerted effort of the people has accomplished a small piece of what it took the Democratic party months to bungle – we have won what essentially amounts to a financial reform which will save workers around the country mounds of desperately needed cash.
The victory, however, was far from intentional – no group specifically called an action or undertook a campaign to end these bank fees. The fee cuts, then, have simply been a fortunate accident, which may help more of us learn that when we act together, we can achieve more than political parties ever have. When we take Direct Action, a whole new world opens up to us.
The liberal establishment has, since almost the beginning of the U.S.’s answer to the global occupy movement, scolded occupiers time and again for not having a list of clear demands.
Various assortments of protesters and radicals, for their part, have retorted that either the occupy movement is simply not about demands, or that any attempt to unify the occupations under a list of demands would allow it to become watered down and lose its revolutionary potential.
Certainly, the occupations have attracted massive numbers of people without the need for – and probably because of – the nebulous character of the protesters’ immediate aims. Mass movements are mass movements, after all, because they incorporate such a wide and diverse set of people, with a correspondingly wide and diverse set of aims.
Further, solidifying any sort of official list of demands may very well make the protests that much more controllable by the authorities, who could use moderate concessions and reforms as a means of pacifying protesters. Certainly, this is the wish of liberal commentators such as Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, for whom the protests’ “lack of focus,” and “confused nature” relegate it to the realm of mere “free speech,” and not the noble and effective processes of the “democratic institutions” we already have. She warns readers that if the protests continue to oppose opting back into the system, they risk “[accelerating] the decline” of Western Democracy as we know it.
Cementing a list of demands for the entire movement, however, let alone even for one city, is a needless and probably alienating endeavor. People who currently support the occupations, but may not have the numbers they need to get their demands onto an official list of demands, will simply walk away if they feel like no one is listening to them. Though each of these groups may be small, the number of small groups with their own pet issues is rather large – an attempt to solidify an official list of demands would push them away – and people would leave in droves.
But despite the real possibility that a list of demands could allow the occupations to be co-opted and pacified, a more basic point remains: real, tangible concessions from the 1% are important for protesters to strive for, not only to alleviate the everyday violence we are subjected to, but also as campaigns to empower us and attract new bodies to the occupations.
Practically, this means using the occupations as base camps for individuals and groups to organize their own campaigns, with their own demands. The occupations should remain autonomous, free spaces for people to meet, discuss and resist, free from the baggage of needless infighting over what particular demands should “unite” us.
Clearly, although it would avoid the meaningless infighting over creating a list of unified demands, moving that responsibility from the General Assembly to individual campaigns doesn’t solve the issue of being co-opted. Politicians and liberal organizers will be just as capable of co-opting a small campaign as they would be at co-opting an occupation, probably even more so. Although it would substantially reduce the odds that the whole occupation could fall victim to this possibility, we still need safe guards against it.
To this end, we turn to the example of the Seattle Solidarity Network - a Seattle-based organization which has successfully led winning Direct Action campaigns against some of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations – most recently, for example, against CHASE bank.
The Seattle Solidarity Network, or SeaSol, has been able to maintain its own independence and autonomy from politicians and capitalists alike by adhering to a strict set of organizing principles.
1. They don’t rely on paid organizers or professionals of any sort. This means the organization is 100% volunteer run – so no need for grants or large cash infusions of any sort. It also means that its tactics and strategy can be taught to anyone interested in becoming an organizer themselves, empowering working class people to become their own leadership.
2. They use Direct Action. This means that the group does not depend on politicians taking up their cause, or on judges hearing the righteousness of their demands. They put pressure directly on their targets themselves, in the form of pickets, flyering, and more colorful tactics – the goal being to make it harder for the target to give in than to hold out.
3. They are directly democratic: no one speaks for others. One person, one vote. This ensures that control of the group remains in the hands of its participants.
In order for occupy to sustain its growth, it will have to transition to some form of organization and action which can achieve concrete gains for itself and its communities. In part two, we will go into more detail on the winning strategy and tactics of the Seattle Solidarity Network, and how Occupy could use some of its lessons to help itself.
For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.