“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit...” —Hunter Thompson
The headline above probably triggered an impatient sigh, mental if not literal, and brought to mind a couple questions that you probably want answered: why the hell is some dingbat writing about the Occupy Movement now? And don’t we have anything new and better to talk about, or is the landscape of radical politics really such a drab and lifeless desert? Good questions indeed, and I am impressed by your razor-sharp clarity of thought and perception. Let me assure you that there are at least half-assed answers to both.
The truth is, I wrote most of what follows last fall, about a year after I had transplanted myself to Olympia, during a moment of reflection on my first months in the Pacific Northwest. In those first months, I was caught up in the tumultuous excitement and bewilderment of getting to know a new place—only to realize that even the rules of this new reality were in danger of being wrecked and submerged beneath the tide of a rising social movement. Unlikely as it seemed, there it was. In the first days of “Occupy Wall Street,” I remember thinking that I had seen something like a half-dozen groups, organized around similar themes, hopefully flap the wings of their flying contraptions, gain no momentum, and slouch dejectedly back to the drawing board. A shanty town in Manhattan didn’t sound too hopeful. But the next time I looked, there were dozens of camps, then hundreds. A person can only sit back in disbelief for so long.
So if I wrote this last fall, why didn’t I publish it then, near the anniversary of the Occupy Movement, when it might have been relevant? Laziness, probably, absent mindedness, unwillingness to put more work into the piece after the initial two-hour burst of energy that created it. And it would have remained in that unfinished stage had I not taken to flipping through my old notebooks, in between burning flags and watering my marijuana plants, for something to satisfy my egotistical craving to see my own words in print. The meeting of egotism and laziness is an ugly thing, and the offspring of such a union are resurrected, antiquated monsters such as you now hold in your hands.
And, oh yes, there was a second question. The last twelve months have been a dreary and often terrifying time for radical politics in the Pacific Northwest. While many things have happened, good and bad, that deserve attention and thought, the period has lacked something that existed while the Occupy Movement was still kicking. This piece is my attempt to figure out what that thing was. It is also an attempt, as the title suggests, to draw out some final lessons and then nail the goddamn coffin shut so we can all get back to making bigger and better things happen now.
It was in the spring of 2012 that I did most of my thinking and writing about the Occupy Movement. That was a couple months after the real heat of the movement had burned off, but I could not yet know that. The ashes had not yet been scattered by the wind; I could still taste pepper spray in the back of my throat, and menacing memories of riot cops still kept me up at night shuddering with adrenaline.
I wrote about it, thought, wrote some more, and ended up with a 32-page paper on what I saw—through my anarchist eyes—to be the movement’s strengths and shortcomings. I think I had some good thoughts then, and some bad, but I think that at that time I couldn’t have written in 300 pages what I really wanted to write. It was only in its absence, walking the quiet gray streets of Olympia in the fall of 2012, that I could grasp the true significance of the Occupy Movement.
My realization was not the result of some complex new understanding of how the movement fits into Marxist historical materialism or any such nonsense; it was simply drawn from memories and emotions, and I can’t express it now as anything except a feeling of loss, a sense that something is missing. And that, I think, is exactly what the public policy pushers, vanguard Marxists, and theory-geek anarchists couldn’t grasp at the time and probably can’t grasp now. The movement’s real significance is found in the way it changed the landscape of the city and our minds.
It was there, in Heritage Park in Olympia, and in hundreds of other parks and city squares, like a strange tumor fighting tooth and nail to hold a space in the heart of the city cancer. In that way it changed the entire cityscape. It was always there, spreading liveliness and discomfort and even fear. And it just couldn’t quite be ignored—by anyone: enemy or friend, pig or punk, rule-following family or lawless freak. And it just wouldn’t quite go away. A constant, if exaggerated, threat to the well-oiled workings of business as usual, to the same old shitty shopping day. Something to keep the cops on edge and the business owners nervous, almost always unnecessarily so…but you never can tell what a pack of drug-addled hippies and anarchists will do, can you Mr. Jones…
Maybe more important than the way the movement changed the landscape of the city is the way it changed our mental landscape as participants. It was the sense that something is happening. And I can be as close to the center of it as I want to be. Nobody wanted to seem overly hopeful about its potential, but for everyone it became the reference point. It was how and where the action was happening, and it had some momentum. That made it hopeful.
And yes, of course it was naive. Everything worthwhile and good is borne of naivete. No one knows what anything means or how something could turn out—least of all right in the heat of it. People who make things happen hurl themselves forward, headlong, anyway, while cynical bastards sit back and criticize. They wait for the dust stirred up by action to settle. But the dust hasn’t settled yet and it never will.
The Occupy camp was someplace to get warm on a cold late-November night; it was something alive, a warm light spreading weirdness and hot tea in donated paper cups, in the dead gray of winter. It was a reason to get wet in the light rain that fell daily, and get soaked in the hard rain that fell sometimes. Daily, it was a reason to face the honks and jeers of angry motorists and faceless pedestrians to block 4th Avenue, laughing like it was a game with only 30 other comrades. Sometimes, it was a reason to face the eerie tasers, pepper spray, fists, and clubs of the cops.
This mixture of memories and images is not meant to hide the movement’s flaws. They were real, and one or two of them turned out to be fatal.
One contradiction was particularly tragic. No set of beliefs held the movement together. The same themes and critiques of capitalism tended to pop up at most camps, but there was no official ideology. The fact is, what the Occupy Movement was, and even who was in it and who wasn’t, is surprisingly hard to define. People came together with all levels of political experience and all kinds of opposed ideologies. We often couldn’t agree on anything more than that we were, in fact, there participating in the Occupy Movement. The only things that tied the Occupy camps together were the anti-authoritarian tactics around which the movement formed: the tactic of occupation, non-hierarchical decision making, and nonparticipation in any political system. On the happier side, through this form of action people were forced to confront and adjust their ideologies; suddenly, to use a comic example pointed out by the anarchist writer Cindy Milstein, dedicated liberals were found fiercely defending the movement’s anarchist tactics.
These anti-authoritarian forms, however, could not deliver the kind of policy-change results that observers and many participants insisted were the measure success. From the beginning, there was pressure on the Occupy Movement, from outside and in, to form a list of demands and set about lobbying for it. This idea was not only disagreeable to many in the movement, it was also completely impractical; the movement was not organized to engage with the political system. Political parties and lobbying groups are everything the Occupy Movement was not. To adopt the characteristics that might have allowed it to effectively participate in politics, the movement would have had to give up the only features that set it apart from everything else—the only features that attracted people in the first place and gave the movement its wonderful energy.
As the rain lessened and the Occupy Movement carried on into spring, pressure continued to mount on the movement to adopt demands; people wanted to see some lasting change from their efforts. For most, this meant policy change. The movement eventually collapsed beneath the weight of this and other contradictions and heavy-handed state repression.
But let me end on a better note. The Occupy Movement was a focal point—a candle around which we all had to haphazardly circle. That focal point is something that is missing these days. Everyone has returned to their own projects—their activism, their art, their music—but there is no inescapable nucleus where all that energy can meet and flow forth.
Joseph Bullington is a student of political economy and journalism at the Evergreen State College.