Occupy Your Victories: Occupy Wall Street’s First Anniversary

by Rebecca Solnit 

This article can be found on TomDispatch.com: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog//175593/ 

Occupy is now a year old.  A year is an almost ridiculous
measure of time for much of what matters: at one year old, Georgia
O’Keeffe was not a great painter, and Bessie Smith wasn’t much of a
singer. One year into the Civil Rights Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott
was still in progress, catalyzed by the unknown secretary of the local
NAACP chapter and a preacher from Atlanta — by, that is, Rosa Parks
and Martin Luther King, Jr. Occupy, our bouncing baby, was born with
such struggle and joy a year ago, and here we are, 12 long months

Occupy didn’t seem remarkable on September 17, 2011, and not a lot of
people were looking at it when it was mostly young people heading for
Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. But its most remarkable aspect turned out to
be its staying power: it didn’t declare victory or defeat and go home.
It decided it was home and settled in for two catalytic months.  

Tents and general assemblies and the acts, tools, and ideas of Occupy
exploded across the nation and the western world from Alaska to New
Zealand, and some parts of the eastern world — Occupy Hong Kong was
going strong until last week.
For a while, it was easy to see that this baby was something big, but
then most, though not all, of the urban encampments were busted, and the
movement became something subtler. But don’t let them tell you it went

The most startling question anyone asked me last year was, “What is Occupy’s 10-year plan?”  

Who takes the long view? Americans have a tendency to think of
activism like a slot machine, and if it doesn’t come up three jailed
bankers or three clear victories fast, you’ve wasted your quarters. And
yet hardly any activists ever define what victory would really look
like, so who knows if we’ll ever get there?  

Sometimes we do get three clear victories, but because it took a
while or because no one was sure what victory consisted of, hardly
anyone realizes a celebration is in order, or sometimes even notices. We
get more victories than anyone imagines, but they are usually indirect,
incomplete, slow to arrive, and situations where our influence can be
assumed but not proven — and yet each of them is worth counting.    

More Than a Handful of Victories  
For the first anniversary of Occupy, large demonstrations have been planned in New York and San Francisco and a host of smaller actions around the country,
but some of the people who came together under the Occupy banner have
been working steadily in quiet ways all along, largely unnoticed. From
Occupy Chattanooga to Occupy London, people are meeting weekly,
sometimes just to have a forum, sometimes to plan foreclosure defenses,
public demonstrations, or engage in other forms of organizing. On August
22nd, for instance, a foreclosure on Kim Mitchell’s house in a
low-income part of San Francisco was prevented by a coalition made up of Occupy Bernal and Occupy Noe Valley (two San Francisco neighborhoods) along with ACCE, the group that succeeded the Republican-destroyed ACORN.  

was a little victory in itself — and another that such an economically
and ethnically diverse group was working together so beautifully.
Demonstrations and victories like it are happening regularly across the
country, including in Minnesota, thanks to Occupy Homes. Earlier this month, Occupy Wall Street helped Manhattan restaurant workers defeat a lousy boss and a worker lock-out to unionize
a restaurant in the Hot and Crusty chain. (While shut out, the
employees occupied the sidewalk and ran the Worker Justice Café there.)  

In Providence, Rhode Island, the Occupy encampment
broke up late last January, but only on the condition that the city
open a daytime shelter for homeless people. At Princeton University, big
banks are no longer invited to recruit on campus, most likely thanks to
Occupy Princeton.  

There have been thousands of little victories like these and some big ones as well: the impact of the Move Your Money initiative, the growing revolt against student-loan-debt peonage, and more indirectly the passing of a California law protecting homeowners
from the abuse of the foreclosure process (undoubtedly due in part to
Occupy’s highlighting of the brutality and corruption of that process).  

But don’t get bogged down in the tangible achievements, except as a
foundation. The less tangible spirit of Occupy and the new associations
it sparked are what matters for whatever comes next, for that
10-year-plan. Occupy was first of all a great meeting ground. People who
live too much in the virtual world with its talent for segregation and
isolation suddenly met each other face-to-face in public space. There,
they found common ground in a passion for economic justice and real
democracy and a recognition of the widespread suffering capitalism has

Bonds were formed across the usual divides of age and race and class,
between the housed and the homeless as well as the employed and
jobless, and some of those bonds still exist. There was tremendous
emotion around it — the joy of finding you were not alone, the shame
that was shed as the prisoners of debt stepped out of the shadows, the
ferocity of solidarity when so many of us were attacked by the police,
the dizzying hope that everything could be different, and the
exhilaration in those moments when it already was.  

People learned how direct democracy works; they tasted power; they
found something in common with strangers; they lived in public.  All
those things mattered and matter still. They are a great foundation for
the future; they are a great way to live in the present.  

Maybe Occupy was too successful a brand in that it sometimes
disguised how much this movement was part of popular surges going on
around the world: the Arab Spring
(including the three successful revolutions, the ongoing Syrian civil
war, uprisings in Yemen, and more); the student uprisings in Montreal,
Mexico, and Chile that have continued to develop and broaden; the
economic revolts in Spain, Greece, and Britain; the ongoing
demonstrations and insurrections around Africa; even various acts of
resistance in India, Japan, China, and Tibet, some large and powerful.
Because, in case you hadn’t noticed, these days a lot of the world is in
some form of rebellion, insurrection, or protest.  

And the family resemblances matter.  If you add them all up, you see a
similar fury at greed, political corruption, economic inequality,
environmental devastation, and a dimming, shrinking future.   

The Heroic Age  
Nevertheless, the one-year anniversary is likely to produce a lot of
mainstream media stories that will assure you Occupy was only a bunch of
tents that came down last year, that it was naïve, and that’s that.
Don’t buy it. Don’t be reasonable, don’t be realistic, and don’t be
defeated.  A year is nothing and the mainstream media is oblivious to
where power lies and how change works, but that doesn’t mean you need to

That same media will tell you 99 ways from Tuesday how powerless you
are and how all power is made by men in suits who won or bought
elections, but don’t buy that either. Instead, notice how terrified Vladimir Putin was of three young performers in bright-colored balaclavas, and how equally frightened
Wall Street is of us. They remember something we tend to forget:
together we are capable of being remarkably powerful. We can make
history, and we have, and we will, but only when we keep our eyes on the
prize, pitch a big tent, and don’t stop until we get there.  

We live in the heroic age itself, the age of Aung San Suu Kyi in
Burma, of the Zapatistas in Mexico, of the Civil Rights Movement’s key
organizers, including John Lewis and Reverend Joseph Lowery, and of so many nameless heroines and heroes from Argentina to Iceland.
Their praises are often sung, and the kinds of courage, integrity,
generosity of spirit, and vision they exhibited all matter, but I want
to talk about another virtue we don’t think about much: it’s the one we
call patience when we like it or it appears to be gentle, and
stubbornness when we don’t or it doesn’t.  

After all, Suu Kyi was steadfast during many years of house arrest
and intimidation after a military junta stole the 1990 election she had
won and only this year did the situation shift
a little. The goals of the stubborn often seem impossible at inception,
as did some of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, or for that
matter the early nineteenth century abolitionist movement in
the United States, which set out to eradicate the atrocity of slavery
more than 30 years before victory — a lot faster than the
contemporaneous women’s movement got basic rights like the vote. Change
happens, but it can take decades; and it takes people who remain
steadfast, patient (or stubborn) for those same decades, along with
infusions of new energy.     

I suspect the steadfastness of the heroes of the great movements of
our time came not only from facts but from faith. They had faith that
their cause was just, that this was the right way to live on Earth, that
what they did mattered, and they had those things decades before the
results were in. You had to be unrealistic about the odds to go up
against the Burmese generals or the Apartheid regime in South Africa or
Jim Crow or 5,000 years of patriarchy or centuries of homophobia, and
the unrealistic among us drew on their faith and did just that, with
tremendous consequences.  

Realism is overrated, but the fact is that the Occupy movement has
already had extraordinary results. We changed the national debate early
on and brought into the open what was previously hiding in plain sight:
both the violence of Wall Street and the yearning for community,
justice, truth, power, and hope that possesses most of the rest of us.
We found out something that mattered about who we are: we found out just
how many of us are furious about the debt peonage settled onto millions
of “underwater” homeowners, people destroyed by medical debts, and
students shackled by subprime educations that no future salaries will
ever dig them out of.  

And here was Occupy’s other signal achievement: we articulated,
clearly, loudly, incontrovertably, how appalling and destructive the
current economic system is. To name something is a powerful action. To
speak the truth changes reality, and this has everything to do with why
electoral politics runs the spectrum from euphemism and
parallel-universe formulations to astonishing lies and complete
evasions. Wily Occupy brought a Trojan horse loaded with truth to the
citadel of Wall Street. Even the bronze bull couldn’t face that down.  

Meeting the Possibilities Down the Road  
A 10-year plan would function like a map: we could see where we had
been, where we are, and where we want to go. In San Francisco,
participants in the one-year anniversary events will burn student loan
and mortgage contracts to symbolically free the prisoners of debt. In
New York, Occupy Wall Street itself is focusing on debtor’s assemblies
and debt burnings for the one-year anniversary. This September 17th, practical goals will be announced, a Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual will debut — and who knows, in 10 years’ time some of those goals could even be fully realized.  

This will require unwavering determination, even when there are no
results.  It means not being sour about interim and incomplete
victories, as well as actual defeats along the way. In 10 years, we
could see some exciting things: the reversal of the harsh new bankruptcy
laws, the transformation of educational financing, and maybe even a debt jubilee, along with major changes in banking and mortgage laws.  

The victories, when they come, won’t be perfect.  They might not even
look like victories or like anything we ever expected, and there will
be lots of steps along the way that purists will deplore as
“compromise.” Just as anything you make from a cake to a book never
quite resembles the Platonic ideal in your head, victories may not look
like their templates, but you should celebrate them, however imperfect
they may be, as further steps along the road and never believe that the
road ends or that you should stop walking.  

Still, if you’re talking about results, I’m convinced that pressure
from Occupy and the student activists around it was what put student
debt in the Democratic platform and has made it a major talking point of
the Obama campaign. I worry that if, 10 years from now, the landscape
of educational finance has been transformed for the better, no one will
remember why or how it happened, or who started it all, so no one will
celebrate or feel how powerful we really can be.  

It will be taken for granted the way, say, voting rights are for
those of us so long disenfranchised. Most people will forget the world
was ever different, just as most people will never know that more than
100 coal-fired plants were not built in this country thanks to climate and environmental activists and few note that the Keystone XL pipeline would have been finished by now, were it not for 350.org and the rest of the opposition. This is why stories matter, especially the stories of our power, our victories, and our history.  

Looking Back with Gratitude, Looking Forward With Fierceness  
Once there was a great antinuclear movement in this country, first focusing on the dangers and follies
of “peaceful” nuclear power, then on the evil of nuclear weapons, and
it won many forgotten victories. Ever notice that we haven’t actually
built a reactor since the 1970s, partly because safety standards got so
much higher?  Who now remembers the Great Basin MX
missile installations that were never built, the nuclear waste dumps —
at Sierra Blanca, Ward Valley, and Yucca Mountain, among other places
— that never opened?   

Who still even thinks about some of the arms-reduction treaties? And
yet little of this would have happened if those antinuclear movements
hadn’t existed.  So thank an activist, and thank specifically the
visionaries who showed up early and the stubborn ones who stayed to work
on the issue long after the millions involved in the early 1980s
nuclear-freeze movement had given up and gone home. Some of them are still at work, and we’re all beneficiaries.  

One of the first groups in the round of antinuclear activism that began in the 1970s was the Clamshell Alliance
created in 1976 to oppose New Hampshire’s proposed Seabrook Nuclear
Power Plant. One reactor was built and is still operating at Seabrook;
one was cancelled due to opposition.  Building the first reactor cost
five times the initial estimate and led its owner, Public Service of New
Hampshire, to what was then the fourth largest bankruptcy in U.S.
history when it was unable to make ratepayers pick up the bill. You can
read that as a partial victory, but Clamshell did so much more.  

Their spirit and their creative new approach inspired activists
around the country and helped generate a movement. Sixty-six nuclear
power plants were cancelled in the wake of Clamshell. Keep in mind as
well that the Clamshell Alliance and many of the antinuclear groups that
followed developed non-hierarchical, direct-democracy methods of
organizing since used by activists and movements throughout the U.S. and
beyond, including Occupy Wall Street, whose consensus-based general
assemblies owed a lot to a bunch of hippies no one remembers.  

Activist Bill Moyer met with Clamshell Alliance members in 1978, when
he thought they were beginning to be victorious in inspiring a national
movement and they thought they were failing. What he said is still worth quoting:  

“That Friday night, I
expected to meet a spirited, upbeat group that was proud of its
accomplishments. I was shocked when the Clamshell activists arrived with
heads bowed, dispirited, and depressed, saying their efforts had been
in vain. The Clamshell experience of discouragement and collapse is far
from unusual. Within a few years after achieving the goals of
‘take-off,’ every major social movement of the past 20 years has
undergone a significant collapse, in which activists believed that their
movements had failed, the powerful institutions were too powerful, and
their own efforts were futile. This has happened even when movements
were actually progressing reasonably well along the normal path taken by
past successful movements!”  

With Occupy, remarkable things have already happened, and more
remarkable systemic change could be ahead. Don’t forget that this was a
movement that spread to thousands of cities, towns, and even rural
outposts across the country and overseas, from Occupy Tucson to Occupy
Bangor. Remember that many of the effects of what has already happened
are incalculable, and more of what is being accomplished will only be
clear further down the road.  

Go out into the streets and celebrate the one-year anniversary and
start dreaming and planning for 2021, when we could — if we are
steadfast, if we are inclusive, if we keep our eyes on the prize, if we
define that prize and recognize progress toward it and remember where we
started — be celebrating something much bigger. It’s a long road to
travel, but we can get there from here.  

Rebecca Solnit was an antinuclear activist in the 1980s and 1990s, as her 1994 book Savage Dreams recounts. The author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, she is currently speaking about disaster, civil society, and utopia in programs with the Free University of New York, the San Francisco Public Library’s One City One Book program, and Cal Humanities.  

Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit