A year ago today, a thousand protesters made their way to the financial district of Manhattan and launched a movement that came to be known as Occupy Wall Street. Similar movements quickly sprang up in other cities, and, a few weeks later, Occupy Los Angeles got started. At the time, I was a recent transplant to L.A. from the Pacific Northwest, and I’d recently left my job. As a Quaker who comes from a family with an interest in social justice and the underdog, I’ve also long been devoted to social movements.
So, during the first week of October 2011, I loaded up a backpack with camping supplies, camera, and a field recorder and jumped on a subway to downtown LA. The scene at the Occupy encampment in City Hall Park was overwhelming–so many people, so many signs, so many agendas–and the atmosphere was chaotic and excited. Trying to make sense of it, I snapped pictures of every sign hung around the tents and trees, mentally inventorying the different shades of political sentiment: populist, anti-capitalist, Ron Paulist, completely incoherent.
I could see the thing was largely a mess, but I also found it exciting. I’ve taken part in anti-war demonstrations, a G-8 counter-summit, and protests on the Puget Sound organized by Port Militarization Resistance, an anti-war group. Occupy represented what was best about all of them. It was an unanticipated, largely spontaneous gathering of strangers working together to shape the national conversation by raising issues of social and economic justice. Like 1968, 1919, or 1848, the year 2011 was a watershed. (It will be a point of reference for the next generation of unruly proles, lefty do-gooders, and déclassé middle-class brats like myself.) The Middle East had an Arab Spring, and Occupy promised an American Autumn.
After surveying the occupation I found myself at the welcome tent trying to get the attention of a staffer. I had a list of questions: Who was organizing everything? How could I get involved? What were the big ideas? The volunteer on duty, a 30-ish, well-dressed woman, was of little help. No, I was told, there was no legal support team. No, the working groups weren’t seeking new members.
Did they think I was a spook? I have been a summit-hopper and an anti-war protester. I know that oftentimes activists shy away from revealing too much information to strangers. But this was not that. Nor did it seem like genuine disorganization or cluelessness. Instead, these people seemed like semi-professional activists who just didn’t want me involved. Factions were already forming.
As with any broad movement, there was tension from the start. Dozens of organizations had gotten involved, and many of them were trying to take the helm. I doubt these competing groups had any intention of subverting the overall movement, but many came with habits and mindsets that were in conflict. For example, anarchists had been a driving force behind Occupy Wall Street in New York, but, by the time the demonstrations arrived in Los Angeles, a determined group of non-anarchists had already set up social media accounts, made arrangements with city hall, and begun to direct the Occupy General Assemblies. (In L.A., James Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, became one of the most prominent non-anarchist leaders and, yes, head of a legal support team that volunteers had told me didn’t exist.)
Still, a peaceful anarchist sensibility pervaded Occupy L.A., and it reflected itself in the way food and resources were distributed, how decisions were made, and how Occupy dealt with the police. Anarchists introduced innovations like “twinkle fingers” (a way of holding your hands up or down and rippling your fingers to indicate approval or disapproval), consensus (a mode of decision-making that requires general unanimity–or at least lack of opposition), and the “people’s mic” (in which the crowd, when listening to a speaker who has no electronic sound equipment, repeats his or her words to amplify them). In my first week at Occupy, I saw one well-known anarchist leading a workshop on these methods. The energy was palpable, and Occupy gained national attention. We inspired a lot of people, and we thought we were changing the world–getting more people engaged and bringing about a more politically and economically just society.
But all efforts atrophy. Even as the media attention increased, the number of anarchists–the people who’d come up with the most creative ideas and formed the initial spine of Occupy–decreased. As more self-appointed leaders emerged to greet the politicians and newscasters, I noticed a national trend toward the theater of activism–let’s march in protest!–and away from direct action.
Today, nearly one year later, we have Occupy organizers all over the country plugging away with the same old ritual of marches and meetings, futilely expecting a return to the initial energy and prominence. Just look at Occupy L.A. General assemblies are still taking place. Last I checked, the Twitter feed @OccupyLA counted upwards of 10,000 posts over the course of 10 months. That’s 1,000 tweets a month, or more than 30 a day. The alternate Twitter feed, @OWSLosAngeles, has sent out about 8,000 posts. Much of the content consists of links to articles from Huffington Post and the Nation--or e-invitations to a hundred different varieties of Occupy: Occupy Patriarchy, Occupy Capitalism, Occupy Santiago. But who can keep up with that? Who wants to?
Tweeting is up; strategy is down. This is what happens when a movement substitutes Twitter followers for people on the street–and substitutes people on the street for people on the move, people actually doing something. Occupy caught everyone’s attention, but then it didn’t know what to do with it. It demanded to be heard, but then, when the world said, “OK, you have my attention–what’s up?” it didn’t know what else to say. The initial message about economic injustice, about wealth going to only a sliver of the population, never developed. All Occupy did, in every major city, day after day, was keep occupying. No wonder such efforts produced a quickly diminishing rate of returns. We fetishized the process. But process is a corollary to–not a replacement for–the content of our politics. Occupy had become a moment, not a movement.
In the final scene of Mondo cane (A Dog’s World), a sensationalistic Italian documentary from 1962, several elders of the Mekeo tribe in Papua New Guinea wait at a dirt landing strip cleared from a lush hilltop. Nearby is a control tower constructed of bamboo and a replica of a Cesna airplane, also made of bamboo. The narrator informs us that this tableau is part of a religious ritual intended to attract airplanes full of wealth and power, a ritual that arose after wartime planes full of cargo stopped landing in the area and members of the tribe were left wondering why the prosperous times had ended. “They wait, motionless, searching the sky,” the narrator says.
Now, I have no idea whether Mondo cane depicted the Mekeo tribe in a way that might be called “honest” (that’s a discussion I’ll leave to countless others), but as a metaphor the scene is powerful. Such “cargo cults,” as they are called, were seen among a number of pre-industrial tribes in the Pacific, tribes that supposedly tried to replicate certain conditions in order to win back the vessels that had brought so many welcome goods to the area. With the waning of Occupy’s influence, we are now witnessing the phenomenon of cargo cult activism.
If Occupy is to move forward it must look at the interests of tomorrow, not at what worked to get it 15 minutes of fame yesterday. Rather than return to the same hackneyed marches, all of us who want to make change should think critically about what it is we want and how we’re going to get there. Our superstitions, our cults of cargo, only stand in the way.
Daniel Cairns is a law student at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington.
*Photo courtesy of craigdietrich.