No BackSpace: How the Left Turns Off the Public and Turns On Itself

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Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street: September 30, 2011

David Shankbone

Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street: September 30, 2011

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This column is an excerpt from Joel Berg’s forthcoming book “America, We Need to Talk: a Self Help Book for the Nation,” to be published by Seven Stories Press in early 2017. City Limits will publish two additional sections of the book later this week.
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Did the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Bernie Sanders campaign change everything, as some progressives claim?

Did they take any power or money away from Wall Street or the one percent? No, they did not. The plutocrats only got richer and more powerful.

Did they force regulatory improvements or taxes on large corporations? No, Congress and many state legislatures only accelerated their tax-cutting and regulation-nullifying zealotry.

Did they elect candidates that have stood up for the 99 percent or, alternatively, boot out of office anyone that coddled the plutocrats? Not really. (1)

Did they unite people of all races, truly bring together the working class and students, empower the masses, and build long-lasting organizational structures that could effectively take on the status quo? Hardly.

Did they at least leave a handful of autonomous communities, taking care of their own needs, without help from the corporate power structure? No, they didn’t even do that.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled that activists in the Occupy and Sanders movements rose up to fight against inequality, but if we ever want to achieve their goals, then we simply must unflinchingly examine why they mostly failed.

In contrast, the Tea Party movement radically influenced federal and state policies (almost always for the worse) and elected significant numbers of supporters at all levels of government, while defeating key opponents (including right-wingers who weren’t quite far right enough), forcing mainstream Republicans to bend to their will, and fundamentally remaking U.S. politics from coast-to-coast. The Tea Party overhauled America, but the Occupy movement and the Sanders campaigns were barely blips.

Having spent much of my career excoriating the extreme conservative Republicans and spineless Democrats, this piece, dear reader, is the one in which I piss off some of the only people remaining: the hard left. Well, at least my cat still loves me … I think.

Uncivil Disobedience

Many wishful-thinking liberals noted Occupy ‘s success in raising the profile of the issue of inequality. Robert Borosage, president of the Campaign for America’s Future, a leading progressive advocacy organization, wrote:

Occupy was scorned for not having a platform; its organizers were dismissed as idealistic anarchists; and its time in the sun was brief. But its message—’We are the 99 percent’—and its indictment of Wall Street and the greed of the 1 percent were electric. Occupy transformed the national debate and gave Americans a new way of looking at things… The limits of the old debate were shattered. (2)

While many progressives were writing about—and organizing around—the issue of inequality for decades before protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park, it was certainly helpful that the Occupy movement briefly generated intense, worldwide media coverage. Problematically though, the media and public debate soon devolved into a distracting side issue: whether protesters in New York and elsewhere had a right to indefinitely stay in public spaces, which, by their own admission, was breaking the law in order to “occupy.”

Many of the Occupy protesters and others on the Left, who still practice what they call “civil disobedience,” misunderstand the history and true meaning of the term. In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was jailed after he refused to pay his poll tax which he argued supported slavery and the Mexican-American War, both of which he opposed. He later penned the essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” in which he called on citizens to violate “unjust laws.” In the century or so that followed, civil disobedience almost always involved breaking specific laws that were, in the eyes of the protesters, inherently immoral. It was illegal for women to vote, so suffragettes illegally voted. It was illegal for Indians living under British rule to make their own salt, so Gandhi led his followers to break the law by making salt. It was illegal for black people in the South to sit at segregated lunch counters, so they sat at lunch counters in order to integrate them. Vietnam War protesters blocked military recruiting stations to try to stop people from enlisting. In these examples, the entities and people being challenged by the protests were institutions and officials directly responsible for enforcing specific laws resulting in oppression or injustice.

But in recent times, protesters have sought to violate a law (usually a trespassing law)—no matter how unrelated to the cause at hand—simply to register their objection to a broader societal or worldwide ill. Such unfocused actions dilute the moral and practical impact of civil disobedience.

Today’s diffuse left-wing demonstrations rarely effectively target the power structure; instead they mostly piss off working people who should be allies. Sometimes marchers block public streets or bridges, choking traffic, chanting, “Whose streets? Our Streets!” The taxi and truck drivers who use those streets to earn their livings and pay for those streets with their taxes “own” the streets just as much as the protesters do. Usually it’s as dumb for the Left to block a bridge as when Chris Christie blocked a bridge.

A central tenet of true civil disobedience is that those doing it take responsibility for breaking a law, albeit an unjust law, and are willing to suffer the consequences for doing so. Gandhi and King actually chose jail over capitulation to reinforce their resistance to unjust systems. (Thus it was silly when some Occupy protesters actually complained that they were arrested for breaking the law. (3)) Getting arrested for trespassing, just to advance a broader cause, provides the demonstrators with a feeling of cheap virtue, and the false sense of thinking they are doing something radical and powerful.

When I was in college at Columbia University in the 1980s, I joined the blockade of a key academic building to protest university investments in the apartheid government of South Africa. (4) I’m still proud I did that. But when fellow protesters and I weren’t arrested, we upped the ante by sitting in the lobby of the Park Avenue building that housed the executive offices of Rolls Royce, which provided equipment to South Africa’s military and whose CEO, Samuel L. Higginbottom, was also the chairman of Columbia’s board of trustees, which had refused to divest the parts of the university’s $864 million endowment that were propping up apartheid. In a piece of theater that the activists pre-arranged with the police, we were arrested without violence, detained at a police station for an hour or so, and then sent on our way. A bunch of us then went to V&T’s Pizzeria, a Columbia hangout, to celebrate our own courage and radicalness. A few months later, those of us who were arrested—all of whom students at an elite university, and most of whom white and from upper-middle-class or wealthy families—participated in a court hearing which lasted about 15 seconds, at which the judge dismissed our arrests on First Amendment grounds. Walking out of the courtroom, I was pretty proud of my courage and radicalism, until I noticed benches full of young African American men literally in chains, guarded by heavily armed police, waiting for their hearings—the “real” criminal justice system.

No Backspace is City Limits' blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more..

No Backspace is City Limits’ blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more..

Certainly there are times when the offense you are protesting is so grievous, or the system you are trying to change is so un-democratic, civil disobedience is still in order. But in most situations in America today, so-called civil disobedience is usually a self-indulgent distraction from the much harder, long-term work of trying to effectively convince the population to take your side on an issue. Sometimes, it’s a tacit admission that you are on the losing end of a public argument. Moreover, while many people mistakenly believe “any media attention is good media attention,” that’s just not true—media coverage that reinforces negative perceptions about your cause is counterproductive. If you lead people to think you care more about shutting down a bridge than the broader issue you are trying to advance, you lose.

The day Occupy became more about holding onto patches of ground—and about whether those sites were sanitary or safe—rather than about inequality, was the day that Occupy lost the hearts and minds of the American people and the movement’s ability to enact meaningful, change.

It Takes a Village—and a Coherent Message—to Build a Movement

Zuccotti Park, a one-block-long concrete plaza that was home to Occupy Wall Street’s main New York City encampment, was just a few blocks away from my office at Hunger Free America (then called the New York City Coalition Against Hunger), so I visited a few times over the weeks that the protesters were there. They were mostly white, even though New York is more than half nonwhite. Judging from the high-priced Apple products many employed to condemn world capitalism, I’d say many of them were from upper-middle-class or upper-class backgrounds. Rarely were there more than a few hundred campers at a time. It was impossible to find anyone who would claim to be a leader—since the working ideology of the movement was that it was “leaderless.” Many of the demonstrators claimed to be anarchists. The open general assemblies – at which consensus on key issues was theoretically intended to be reached – were chaotic. The system they came up with to ensure that the crowd could hear the speaker-participants (who didn’t have microphones)—where successive rows of protesters repeated what the person in front of them said, like a nursery school game of “Gossip”—made more noise than sense, and became just a silly affectation. Millionaire celebrities, including Kanye West and Alec Baldwin, dropped by to express their solidarity. When actual homeless people started hanging around, looking for food, and camping out in the park too, at least some activists seemed threatened.

The Occupiers in New York and elsewhere seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the process for governing the encampment (such as whether using hand signs were a less repressive way of expressing an opinion than clapping) but spent far less energy considering concrete strategies for reducing world inequality. In the assembles I listened to, there was little discussion on the most harmful impacts of inequality: poverty, hunger, and homelessness; rather, their complaints were more generic, focusing on how everyone, except the one percent, was screwed out of power and money by those elite few at the top. A mix of idealism, resentment, and Starbucks fueled the crowd.

All too often, members of the movement were tone deaf to the existence of their own class and racial privileges. Progressive writer Kenyon Farrow commented: “One of the first photos I saw from the Occupy Wall Street protests was of a white person carrying a flag that read ‘Debt = Slavery.’ White progressive media venues often compare corporate greed or exploitation to some form of modern-day slavery… Arguing that white working- and middle-class people are slaves to debt or corporations undermines not only the centrality of the African slave trade to the birth of the modern corporation but the distinct ways in which debt prevents many blacks from achieving middle-class status.” (5) Incredibly, at an Occupy rally in Atlanta, after a ten-minute debate on the matter, the crowd voted against having civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis (who was beaten almost to death at Selma) speak to the gathering. (6)

Given that fighting inequality has been a central component of my work for a few decades, I was initially happy that so many people had taken up the cause with altruism and passion. But when I went to Zuccotti Park to try to recruit protesters to go knock on doors with me in low-income neighborhoods to organize the people most affected by inequality, none offered to join me. Annoyed by the agitators’ lack of both organization and focus, I concluded, sadly, that too many of the Occupiers were posers. (7)

There were no public bathrooms in or near the park; many of the protesters relied on local private businesses for their bathrooms. All the food was brought to the site, either by the campers themselves or by outside supporters. Once the protest received global attention, some faraway supporters bought the dissenters pizza remotely via internet or by phone, and then the pizza was delivered to the park. (Ironically, many were likely purchased with credit cards from big banks, and the pizzas were probably made and delivered by low-wage, possibly undocumented immigrants, demonstrating how even the protestors benefitted from privilege.) An Occupy supporter called me to find out if our organization could help provide extra meals to the demonstrators; I politely explained that since half the soup kitchens and emergency food pantries in New York City at that time lacked sufficient supplies to meet the needs of truly hungry New Yorkers, we could not use our meager resources to help feed mostly non-poor people who had chosen to camp out, no matter their cause. In the smallest—and perhaps most self-serving—gesture I could muster, I did donate my first book (on U.S. hunger) to the Zuccotti Park Occupy library. (8)

Sure, the mainstream media mischaracterized the movement, but it was easy to do so because Occupy failed to fully define itself. One Occupy website (there were a number of them, but none dared to call themselves the “official” website) included this self-description: “Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.” (9)

Even after the New York General Assembly of Occupy agreed, by consensus, to a very vague “State of Solidarity,” the statement still included this disclaimer: “This is an official document crafted by the Working Group on Principles of Consolidation. The New York City General Assembly came to consensus on September 23rd to accept this working draft and post it online for public consumption. The Working Group on Principles of Consolidation continues to work through the other proposed principles to be incorporated as soon as possible into this living document.” (10) In other words, they hadn’t truly “decided” anything, and their hemming and hawing with buzzwords was so lame that the disclaimer could have been issued by the very type of corporate lawyers they derided.

“The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” also “accepted by the NYC General Assembly,” failed to propose a plan for reducing inequality, and instead issued a detailed list of 23 grievances, including:

  • They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process.
  • They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give executives exorbitant bonuses.
  • They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
  • They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
  • They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
  • They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
  • They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.
  • They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
  • They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
  • They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.
  • They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.(11)

Their claim that freedom of the press has been destroyed was disproven by the fact that they could print and distribute these very grievances freely. I’d also quibble with their assumption that all corporations—no matter their size and their mission—are equally, intrinsically evil; I don’t agree that the original Ben and Jerry’s is exactly the same as DuPont. Plus some of their language—such as claiming that students are “held hostage” by student debt—was a bit self-serving and over-the-top. But other than that, their list was so broad and vague that most progressives, including me, could readily agree with them on most of the points. At the end of their laundry list of grievances, they included an asterisk leading to a footnote that read: “These grievances are not all-inclusive.” They surely weren’t. So why don’t we come up with some additional grievances? “They forced us to recognize ‘hump-day’ on Wednesdays, when it should be on Mondays.” “They convinced Caitlyn Jenner to be a Republican.” “They conned the populace into frequently using the phrase, ‘It’s all good’ when it’s never all good. Now those are grievances. And, oh yeah, the stuff about the corporations crushing the workers and despoiling the environment was pretty important too.

Plain vanilla liberals and progressives heatedly denied that Occupy Wall Street was an anarchist movement, and asserted that any such suggestion was merely an invention of the right-wing media. Yet many of the demonstrators themselves happily admitted to being anarchists. The liberal establishment desperately wanted the protests to be considered mainstream by the public, but they weren’t; much of Occupy’s rhetoric was about replacing, not improving, capitalism. The movement called itself “revolutionary”—a phrase sure to turn off most mainstream Americans—although, in practice, the “revolution” for some of the Occupiers equated to doing little more than hanging out in that park indefinitely. When one Occupy activist, interviewed on live TV, (12) was asked what promise the country could make to get them to agree to leave the park, the protester essentially said that they didn’t want any promises and they didn’t want to ever leave the park because living collectively in a public space was their idea of a perfect society.(13)

Some more thoughtful progressives, including Occupy cheerleaders such as Robert Borosage, did acknowledge deep problems within the movement:

Occupy’s tactical means—asserting a grassroots control of public space—spread like wildfire across the country, but it couldn’t be sustained. For a short time, Occupy did galvanize attention—and inspired millions. But the central challenge of a movement—an independent institution that can attract large numbers of people and broadly educate them—remains unfulfilled. … Movements must do more than merely shatter the cultural acceptance of a particular injustice as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’; they must also propose bold alternatives that offer a way out. And they must engage their activists and the broader public in a battle of ideas with the defenders of the status quo..… As awareness grows, movements must offer a real hope that things can change. … Movements must offer more than solidarity; they must offer the hope that the time for change has come. … This requires a vehicle, an organizational form that sustains change. (14)

Given that many of the Occupiers were upper-middle-class whites, detached from the people they claimed to represent, and unwilling to propose specific solutions, it’s no wonder that their actions did not lead to a long-term movement that could achieve concrete victories. (The same was true of the Sanders presidential campaign.)

Every effective movement needs to include all segments of the village—or the city, state or country. Every effective movement needs a coherent message that not only explains what’s wrong, but exactly how those things can be fixed. And every effective movement needs a long-term plan and a structure to carry it out. Occupy had none of those things.

What troubled me most about the Occupy movement is how many of the protesters refused to accept the possibility of any serious role for government—either the US government or international governments—in redressing inequality. Many identified with anarchism and had a knee-jerk anti-establishment stance, but that placed them—unintentionally, no doubt—close to the Tea Party in terms of anti-government fervor.

Contrast this to 40 years prior, when most progressive demonstrators made it their top priority to push the federal government to do more to reduce racial discrimination and fight poverty. Those protesters helped force the government to enact anti-discrimination and anti-poverty laws, which did succeed spectacularly in ending legalized segregation and were highly effective in slashing poverty. For much of the 20th century, from the Progressive Era through the seventies, government power was seen as a critical tool to solve major problems. But then conservatives who didn’t believe in government took it over, ran it horribly (see Katrina, Iraq, corporate de-regulation etc.), and then said, “See, we told you so—government is crap.”

It’s not shocking to me that the Right did that—it’s shocking to me that they suckered the Left into believing it. To me, conservatives’ single greatest success has been to convince the country—including self-proclaimed progressives—that government is not a big part of the answer. Many Occupy activists seemed blind to the reality that government was the only entity with enough power to check the vast powers of corporations they so despised.

True, government can be repressive, ineffective, and murderous, so it’s never the only answer. But throughout the centuries, in instances when starvation, warfare, and poverty were reduced, government was usually the driving force. I challenge self-described anarchists (or libertarians, for that matter) to provide a specific example in all of human history when people have voluntarily, on their own, with no help from government, solved a major societal problem. It’s never happened. Government is an inconsistent and flawed partner for progressive change, but only governments have the size, scope—and yes, legitimacy, at least in democracies—to solve big problems. As Chris Hayes has written, “When people come to view all authority as fraudulent, good governance becomes impossible, and a vicious cycle of official misconduct and low expectations kick in.” (15)

After Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and some government and private relief efforts moved too slowly (including established charities like the Red Cross), some Occupy Wall Street veterans founded Occupy Sandy, which they defined as “a grassroots disaster relief network that emerged to provide mutual aid to communities affected by Super Storm Sandy.” This effort focused mostly on volunteer-driven direct community service to redress the results of the storm, not on the political advocacy necessary to reduce poverty and stop climate change, which together caused the storm and ensured low-income neighborhoods in New York (and, previously, New Orleans) would suffer most from it. The original Occupy Sandy volunteer events were fairly effective, but they—again unintentionally, I’m sure—communicated the Reagan-esque message that volunteer work within the community, not big government action, was a better solution to community problems.

But Occupy Sandy eventually faded away, as did many of its volunteers. As of June 2016, the most recent posting on the website was from October 2014. (16) Meanwhile, key New York neighborhoods had still not fully recovered from Sandy, and it was city, state, and federal agencies and programs that were still working on long-term rehabilitation.

The Left must once again learn how to make peace with government, or its doomed to failure.

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Joel Berg is executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.
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Notes
1. While some Sanders supporters still may think he actually won the 2016 Democratic nomination (just as a few ancient Japanese soldiers on some deserted islands may still think Japan won World War II, Sanders actually received 3.7 million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton in the primaries and caucuses. In 2013, socialist Kshama Sawant, affiliated with the Occupy movement, did win a seat on the Seattle City Council; yet this one city council victory was dwarfed by massive Tea Party electoral victories at the federal, state, and local levels.

2. Robert L. Borosage, “The Populist Moment Has Finally Arrived: Occupy Wall Street put inequality at the center of our politics. Only an independent movement will keep it there.””The Nation (from The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Edition), March 23, 2015 (accessed March 5, 2016).

3. I should be clear that the police were often in the wrong for using violence against Occupy activists, destroying their lawful property, and arresting people who were merely innocent bystanders. But the police who nonviolently arrested those who were actually breaking the law were mostly working-class folks just doing their jobs.

4. At the time, U.S. conservatives, including the Reagan Administration, implied that Nelson Mandela was a dangerous communist and that black South Africans could never be trusted to govern their own nation. We claimed that Mandela was a man of peace and that blacks were perfectly capable of governing their own affairs. They alleged that any change in the South African government would result in massive bloodshed. We insisted that change could happen peacefully. We were right. They were wrong.

5. Kenyon Farrow, “Occupy Wall Street’s Race Problem.” American Prospect, October 24, 2011 (accessed March 11, 2016).

6. Nina Mandell, “Occupy Atlanta offshoot of Wall Street protest denies Rep. John Lewis chance to speak at gathering,” New York Daily News, October 10, 2011 (accessed March 12, 2016).

7. http://occupywallst.org/ (accessed March 10, 2016).

8. In a legal settlement, the City of New York agreed to pay Occupy Wall Street protesters and lawyers over $230,000 for the destruction of books during a police raid. The city was forced to state: “Defendants acknowledge and believe it is unfortunate that, during the course of clearing Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, books were damaged so as to render them unusable, and additional books are unaccounted for.” I never got the nickel due to me for the book I donated which was destroyed. Maybe I should get a lawyer.

9. Bernie Sanders and his supporters keep using the word “revolution” as well. While that pumped up his crowds, his use of the term also turned off most swing voters.

10. “Principles of Solidarity,” #Occupy Wall Street NYC General Assembly, September 17, 2011 (accessed March 10, 2016).

11. “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” #Occupy Wall Street NYC General Assembly, September 29, 2011 (accessed March 10, 2016).

12. Protesters, who slept in tents made and distributed by giant corporations, used computers and smartphones made and distributed by giant corporations, used bathrooms in local small businesses, and then ate food that someone else grew, cooked, and delivered to them (and even sometimes purchased for them), and then patted themselves on the backs for being a self-sufficient autonomous, anarchist community, were pretty self-deluded.

13. I watched this live, but I don’t have a link or site.

14. Robert L. Borosage, “The Populist Moment Has Finally Arrived: Occupy Wall Street put inequality at the center of our politics. Only an independent movement will keep it there,” The Nation (from The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Edition), March 23, 2015,  accessed March 5, 2016.

15. Christopher Hayes, The Twilight of The Elites, 2012, Crown Publishers, New York.

16. “The Story Continues, Make Your Voice Heard,” Occupy Sandy Recovery (accessed June 14, 2016).

One thought on “No BackSpace: How the Left Turns Off the Public and Turns On Itself

  1. Thanks for this excerpt; I look forward to reading the sequels. When the book is published, I expect to buy and read it.

    Read this in conjunction with

    http://citylimits.org/2016/06/29/primary-turnout-roughly-1-in-13-voted-in-nyc-races/

    The take-away, of course: appalling low voter participation.

    Consider that in districts where an incumbent had a challenger, the incumbent won overwhelmingly. Does voting matter? It depends, but like the punch line to the old Borscht Belt joke, it wouldn’t hurt.

    Also consider post-Brexit whinging for a do-over. (A Neverendum?) There won’t be a do-over in the US after the vote in November. Vote! It matters.

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