Over the past month, Occupy Wall Street has chalked up a large number of bold actions against both government and private authorities; it has led an attempted general strike, raucous marches, occupations of banks and abandoned buildings, disruptions of political speeches and press events, and a massive West Coast shut down of major port terminals partly to aid longshore workers in their fights against their employers.
The actions, moreover, have already achieved limited successes – besides having created space for Americans to come together outside of the established political system, they have rightly been credited with having stopped fee increases amongst the largest banks in the country, as well as having widely validated the American public’s fury over increasing inequality, generating massive media exposure. Largely, however, the only real material victory of Occupy so far – its having stopped increased bank fees – has been incidental, and was in no way a conscious objective of the Occupy Movement.
Accordingly, the Occupy Movement remains increasingly susceptible to losing its momentum if it does not achieve some tangible, substantive gains for itself and for its communities. People, after all, don’t just want to vent forever – they want something done. We can be certain that if people do not see real results from the Occupy Movement soon, they will move on to something which seems to offer them more; and with our two political parties gearing up for election season, we should take this threat all the more seriously.
Concretely, what this is going to mean for Occupy supporters is to re-orient their organizing from mass, symbolic actions – such as “mic-checking politicians” and waving signs at CEO’s - to more targeted campaigns designed to win real, immediate gains for ourselves.
A look at Direct Action and the Seattle Solidarity Network:
A small group, comprised of only several hundred people, SeaSol is an organization for local Occupy groups to look to for inspiration, because of just how much it has achieved with such little resources, largely because of its winning strategy.
Originally, a good part of this strategy was borrowed from organizations such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the Industrial Workers of the World, who had launched Direct action campaigns similar to SeaSol’s present day actions.
The idea of confronting our problems ourselves, of course, actually predates both SeaSol and its forerunners. It is based not only in the anarchist tradition of self management, but critically on the idea that by surrendering control over the outcome of your problems to someone else, you’ve more than likely surrendered the outcome of your problem being solved in your favor.
Thus, unions who have relied on the Democratic Party have lost the battle over the Employee Free Choice Act, NAFTA, and even the right to basic collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin; environmentalists have lost a series of contests over offshore drilling and smog regulation; and citizen volunteers for the Obama’s 2008 campaign have lost battles for more transparency in government, and an end to corporate influence over legislators. The list could go on.
Despite the obvious setbacks of relying on political parties and ‘specialists,’ the reason organizations like the Democratic Party remain so pervasive is because there is no obvious alternative for most people. What alternatives there are in the United States are often disorganized, directionless, and most importantly, they normally aren’t relevant. They simply don’t achieve anything meaningful to our day-to-day lives.
SeaSol might be seen as a response, then, to both the dominance of “professional” activist organizations which specialize in mediating people’s struggles, and to their ineffective counterparts who partake in the sorts of symbolic, wishy-washy politics the grassroots left has become synonymous with.
For social movements to not only sustain themselves, but also to grow, its important for them to be relevant to other people’s daily lives. They must offer something that will, at least eventually, markedly improve their quality of life.
The Seattle Solidarity Network has seen a good amount of growth in its relatively short life span because it focusses on partial solutions to a problem most people face: naked exploitation. Has your boss stolen your wages? Is your landlord refusing to make needed repairs to your home? Have you been discriminated against?
A brief visit to their website reveals that all of the fights SeaSol has taken on – over stolen wages or deposits, for example – are rather small conflicts. SeaSol’s record of fighting for small gains such as these is an important distinction between itself and other grassroots organizations on the left.
SeaSol recognizes that to effectively address a problem, you must have the resources and capacity to hurt your target more than it will cost them to give into your demand. For a group comprising only several hundred people – even for a group a hundred times this size – a fight to “end corporate influence on government” would be absurd. A fight to force a landlord to fix a mold problem, however, is probably much more manageable.
SeaSol shows this relationship – between the amount of leverage we have, and the amount it would cost a target to give in to our demands – in its “winnability graph.”
Say, for example, you and your comrades in Occupy Wall Street wanted to force a national bank to pay back all of the taxpayer money which was used to bail it out when the recession hit. How hard a demand would this be for the bank to give in to?
Well, that’s billions upon billions of dollars that the bank would have to pay back. That’s a pretty big demand. So how badly would you need to hurt the bank in order to make it easier for them to pay back that money than not to give in to your demand? Theoretically, you would have to launch a series of actions across the country which threatened to cost them billions and billions of dollars.
Even with the size of the occupy protests as they are – that’s probably not something we should consider a “winnable” demand.
But what if instead of using our time at Occupy to make unwinnable demands, we focussed on winning a series of smaller fights? What if instead of trying to get the banks to pay back all the money they had taken from taxpayers, we tried to stop foreclosures in our cities, home by home? With the level of participation in the Occupy movement, demands such as this might be much more workable – and consequently, build a larger and better organized movement, which down the line, can demand larger and larger concessions.
How to win a fight with the 1% – Putting the hurt on:
So, you’ve decided on a righteous demand that people will find compelling and just – a demand you feel confident you and other occupiers in your city can win. How do you go about fighting for it?
Throughout a fight, it is important that the target know exactly what they are expected to do, or what demand they are expected to meet. SeaSol, therefore, begins all of its campaigns with what they call a “demand delivery.”
First, they write a “demand letter” addressed to the boss or landlord they have a grievance with. Then, along with as many folks as they can gather, the tenant or worker leads the group into the office or home of the target. For a wonderful example of this in action, here’s a great video of one of SeaSol’s demand deliveries:
The point is both to make it very clear what we expect the boss or landlord to do, and to show our collective strength – the implication is that here is a group of people who are going to be on you, hard, until our demand is met.
SeaSol normally approaches a fight with a few principles in mind.
First, they know that the name of the game here is pressure. Essentially, how are we going to make life very, very hard for our target until they give in?
There are, of course, a lot of ways one may hurt an individual or company. You can disrupt their bottom line, and hurt them economically, with pickets, boycotts, or blockades. You can target their social connections, and embarrass them in front of neighbors, fellow church goers or business partners with flyers, letters, protests, or sit ins. There are, ultimately, a nearly infinite number of tactics you can use to put pressure on a target – it just takes some creativity.
To fit these tactics together into a coherent campaign, SeaSol first asks itself “will this tactic hurt us, and will it hurt our target?” While a sit in or a brick through a window may hurt our target, they also have the potential to get our members arrested – in which case, we would also be hurt by the tactic. So while there are no hard and fast rules for planning which tactics fit any given situation, the general rule of thumb is that you normally want your tactics to be sustainable (meaning you could, theoretically, continue them indefinitely), and you want them to hurt your target more than they hurt you.
A SeaSol organizer put the concept of escalation this way: “it isn’t the memory of what we did to the boss yesterday that makes them want to give in, but the fear of what we’ll do to them tomorrow.”
As a campaign progresses, you want to give the target the impression that things are getting increasingly worse for them – that you are constantly escalating your fight. This means that campaigns will generally begin with tactics wich are less intense, and gradually become more confrontational, both in terms of their militancy and frequency.
So while yesterday you may have simply been putting up flyers around their business, tomorrow you may be picketing their shop or disrupting a fancy dinner party.
It cannot be emphasized enough that there is a real threat to the Occupy Movement in the Democratic Party. This election season, as is custom, the presidential campaign will dominate most news coverage – pushing the publicity for Occupy off the front page. Obama’s campaign will be drumming up support, threatening the American public with the prospect of a Republican administration if he should fail to win re-election.
Good organizers and participants in your local Occupy groups will leave Occupy to organize for Obama and the Democrats. The only effective countermeasure against this will be to draw in new layers of support from people not yet involved – and in order to do that, you will need to start taking on fights which help and empower regular folks.
And, of course, whatever the targets local Occupy groups plan to take on next, it will be important to remember these few little tips: make sure the fight is relevant, winnable, and hurts.
For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.