Traité du Savoir-Vivre for the Occupy Wall Street Generations
By Al Giordano
Once upon a time, twenty thousand people descended on Wall Street, the capitol of capital, occupied it nonviolently, and won exactly what they demanded.
This is not a fairy tale. It really happened.
This is the story of how it happened. And it is also the story of one of those 20,000 occupiers and how immersing himself in those events at a young age changed the direction of his life. These words are dedicated and addressed to people not so unlike him: any and every individual who is currently occupying Wall Street, or anywhere else, or anyone else who is thinking about doing so.
The truth is that there are two “occupations” going on simultaneously; that which the media is reporting, often badly, which is now a societal spectacle, and the more private and personal occupation by every individual involved. The spectacular protest may not know, or be able to coherently articulate, its own demand or demands as anything other than a shopping list of disembodied causes and issues. But that should not stop any individual involved in it to get to know, embrace and advance upon his and her own more personal demands that brought him and her to occupy Wall Street in the first place.
Wall Street, ahem, isn’t just in your wallet: It’s in everything you own, rent, use, borrow, find or steal. It’s also in the “identities” and roles we put on and take off in each department of our daily lives. And one should never worry as much about the police on the street – there are time-honored tactics for working around them, developed by pioneers in nonviolence, available to every person who wants to learn them – as much as one should be very concerned about the cop in one’s head. There are also tactics available to make that police force – the invading army in our innermost thoughts and fears that polices our very behavior, officers of the psyche that we all have, through unspoken fears, invited into our brains and hearts – retreat and even disappear.
About the Wall Street within each of us and the quest to free ourselves from it: In the years leading up to the general strike that shook Paris and much of France in 1968, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem published Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations (Treatise on Living for the Younger Generations), which when translated to English was titled The Revolution of Everyday Life. It was written for a generation that had been schooled in the Hegelian dialectics of Marxist writings, and plays considerably with that writing style in ways that don’t always make it easy for generations that grew up with cable television and the Internet to read. Vaneigem and others in the Situationist International developed strategies and tactics to take back the terrain and pleasures of daily life while simultaneously destroying the illusion created by “the spectacle” (what might, in Twitterspeak, be called “the media,” today) that propped up a destructive economic system.
If we were to try to put some of the key concepts into Twitterspeak (that is, into phrases of 144 characters or less), we might say:
Occupy your daily life. Occupy your body. Occupy your home. Occupy your building. Occupy your neighborhood. Occupy YOUR STREET. Occupy your own head! Occupy your own media. Occupy your own school. Occupy your own workplace. Occupy your own time. Occupy your own space. Occupy your own life story! Yes, it requires collaboration with others to win those terrains back. But they're not the people already protesting. They're the authentic 99 percent. The ones right next to you already.
Or maybe they’re not right next to you. In a world where the advertising industry shouts that “everybody is connected,” that’s really to distract from the alienation imposed by an over-mediated technological society. Maybe your family, your relationship, your classroom, your workplace, your home, your building, your neighbors are so caught up in dysfunction and the food chain of domination of one person over another that everything within you screams for an EXIT sign and that you must go out and find that place where you can see a path to begin to drive Wall Street out of your body, the cop out of your head, and the imposed loneliness of residing in a technological “paradise” out of your aching heart. Maybe, just maybe, that’s what brings you to occupy Wall Street.
Let me tell you about the kid who once did occupy Wall Street. Some of my friends know him. And, no, his name is not Steve Jobs.
The Wall Street Occupation that Won
The Wall Street occupation that won happened on October 28 and 29 of 1979, and in case you don’t believe it, here is the poster that called them there:
This poster was made before there was such a thing called Photoshop. You can see that the letters are uneven. They were pasted onto a 23 x 17 inch layout board with hot wax. There were only two colors, black and green, on the white poster paper, in order to save on costs. There were no color photocopiers then. It had to be produced at a print shop. The event had no Facebook page and no Twitter account. How did they get 20,000 occupiers to Wall Street, then? To spread the call, community organizers visited each other, made telephone calls from landlines, put stamps on envelopes, and passed the poster and other materials printed on paper from hand to hand.
Community organizing? What was that? “It was kind of like social networking, except there was no Internet,” notes Renny Cushing, organizer and theorist of the 1979 Take It to Wall Street occupation. “You went to people’s homes, sat around their kitchen tables. You listened to their concerns and ideas. You were able to correct bad information they had gotten from the media.”
Cushing had done this organizing in his hometown of Seabrook, New Hampshire, where construction began on a twin nuclear power plant in 1976. He and the other organizers in fact used the word “occupation” to describe a series of escalating nonviolent actions in which, first, 18 people, later 180, and later 1,414 people were arrested for trespassing on the nuke construction site. From that local movement, sprang a regional movement, and soon, a national movement against nuclear power that had local organized bases wherever nuclear facilities existed or had been proposed.
That poster made its way up a country road in the Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts. A 19-year-old community organizer who had recently launched a campaign to close the Yankee Atomic plant in the town of Rowe was learning to chop firewood to prepare for the winter ahead. He wasn’t from there. He was a city kid from New York who had dropped out of school to throw himself into the anti-nuke movement. So, this wood-chopping thing wasn’t easy. It was one of the skills outside of his own experience that he had to learn, among others, not only to heat his $25-a-month rented cabin, but also to live as the local people he wanted to organize lived, another thing that organizers did.
What did he learn from that poster? That on Sunday, October 28, there would be a “legal rally.” And that on Monday, October 29, there would be “Nonviolent Civil Disobedience” at the NY Stock Exchange, and that “Non-violence training is required.”
The story of this kid is just one of 20,000 stories of that Wall Street occupation more than three decades ago.
The Capitol of Capital
He saw the two addresses on the poster: That of the original P.O. Box of the former Clamshell Alliance, and that of the War Resisters League in New York. He really liked the idea for this protest and occupation: It combined his experiences as a Big Apple youth and as a rural organizer, and drew a common cause from the two. The problems he’d seen and known in both places each had economic causes. The buck stopped where it began: at Wall Street. And when the sun went down and he came inside in to fire up the woodstove, he picked up his guitar and started to write lyrics on a yellow legal pad and compose a song to promote that action: “Take it to Wall Street/In New York Town/Just pull up in your limousine and sit yourself right down/Take a seat on the exchange with the bulls and the bears/It’s the capitol of capital/The buck stops there…”
He penned the first verse about the struggle he was in, to organize a popular civil resistance to an operating nuclear plant in the Berkshires. He wrote the second verse about how banks redlined his old Bronx neighborhood (a process by which speculators starve a neighborhood of building improvement loans, creating slums, forcing down property values, and then buy up the real estate at a lower cost before gentrifying the neighborhood in a way that displaces the old residents with newer, wealthier ones who pay top dollar). And he made the third verse out of oral history; about the Great Depression he had heard of from his grandparents, and their suffering after the October 29, 1929 crash of the stock exchange…
Where do we draw the line/Against this kind of violence?/It’s where the Berkshires and the Bronx draw our alliance… Take it to Wall Street!
For the 19-year-old, these were not things he had learned in school or from books. They had been part of his lived experience. And each of them had their roots in a financial system that helped a greedy few take from a hardworking many. “Take it to Wall Street” made perfect sense to him. Why didn’t we think of it sooner!
And so a day or two before that October rally he took a Greyhound bus back to the city of his birth to participate in that Wall Street occupation. From the Port Authority bus terminal he took the subway to the West Village and practically ran down Bleeker Street with his guitar case in hand and then up the stairs at 339 Lafayette Street. The people there, organizing the protest, were mostly older than him. Some had trained him in nonviolent civil disobedience. Others had been arrested with him at the gates of nuclear facilities in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut. A few had heard him sing at small coffeehouses throughout New England, a habit which didn’t pay the bills as much as dishwashing, restaurant cooking, or silkscreen printing did, but was nonetheless part of how this kid had cobbled together enough rent and food money to be able to follow his passion for organizing. There were “movement heavies” there, who had written books or worked at desks in peace organizations. There were also people, typically of the “sixties generation” whom he felt he rubbed the wrong way. They would show up at anti-nuke rallies waving tie-dye banners, trying to relive, he supposed, the Summer of Love, while he was of the punk rock generation that didn’t believe in any of that shit. He’d show up at those same marches, fresh from the barber shop, in a lumberjack jacket with an American flag lapel pin, and try to talk with them about “getting real people involved.” Their eyes would glaze over. He believed that their cause was his cause, but he did not yet feel a sense of agency in their meetings, or that their movement was really his movement, too.
I can imagine that there are individuals occupying Wall Street right now that might feel much the same: You believe in the cause. Maybe you’re camping out in Zuccotti Park, participating in work groups, have found some small role to play in this larger thing. But maybe you find some of the language, or preconceptions, or ways of doing things, of the activists a little off-putting or alienating. Maybe the long consensus process meetings look similar to the floor of the stock exchange to you: “Unsafe space, sell!” “Ideology, buy!” “Watch what you say, sell!” “Drumming circle, buy!” “Wearing a shirt, sell!” “New identity for sale, buy!” “Look at ME! Buy, buy, BUY!” There are Wall Streets and markets within every protest, too.
Anyway, back to the kid who had come up the stairs at 339 Lafayette Street. He mentioned to those organizers of the Wall Street protests that he had written a song to promote the protest. Some of them expressed zero interest at all. But some others from New England who had known him and his music or his organizing said, “let’s hear it” and so he played it for them. When he finished, the group applauded and invited him to sing it on stage during the rally, where Pete Seeger and other topical singers were also going to perform. This was all, of course, very exciting for the youth. To have piece of it, a role to play, a big one!, in a movement much larger than himself: he would have been happy just to attend the rally and join the sit-in at the stock exchange and go to jail if need be. To be able to return to his city and share his own song with many people brought almost too much ecstasy to contain. He worked off all that bouncing-off-the-walls energy that night with an open guitar case on MacDougal Street, singing for coins, and encouraging all who would stop and listen to attend Sunday’s rally.
Sunday arrived and by noon 20,000 people had arrived for the Take It to Wall Street rally. (The NY Times had reported that it was only 2,000 people; some things never change.) He sang his song and people really seemed to like it. They paid attention. They sang along. They applauded. (After all, getting a few minutes on stage at a political event isn’t by itself a guarantee that people won’t talk through your song or speech. When you have a chance at people’s attention, you’d better make it entertaining and fun for them. Otherwise you’re wasting their time.) He felt enfranchised, more part of “the movement” than he had before.
The next day, as trading was about to open at the New York Stock Exchange building, an army of NYPD officers surrounded each of the entrances. “Affinity groups” of a dozen or a half-dozen participants – the organizing cell groups of these actions – chose their entrance and sat down, as they were trained. Some sang freedom songs from the Civil Rights movements. Others held hands in silence. Our 19-year-old kid had another plan. He wanted to get himself arrested inside the stock exchange, where twelve years earlier the first Wall Street occupation took place, in 1967, when Abbie Hoffman brought some news reporters with him on what was then tours of the building, for tourists and grade school classes. There, from the balcony, Abbie dumped bags of dollar bills down onto the floor and trading came to a stop as runners and brokers fought each other to collect the bills. Newsweek and other media reported on the spectacle, which not only exposed the institution’s innate greed, but more importantly, ridiculed it, stripping away its mythical power.
Our youngster came to the main entrance and saw an affinity group of people seated on the steps, some whom were people he knew. He had put on a three-piece suit that morning with a tie and came up to them and loudly asked them to move so he could “go to work.” But the theater was snuffed out when they simply laughed and somebody said his name aloud and he was exposed before the police as another protester. So he went to another entrance, around the corner, looked for and found an affinity group that didn’t have anyone he recognized. He walked up to them and looked across them at the line of police. “Officer! Officer! Will you please get these hippies out of my way? I need to go to work!” These protesters were horrified. They began chanting at him, now a symbol of the enemy. And some police officers actually helped him step across and over them into the building. In the lobby of the building, however, there were security guards who asked to see his stock exchange ID. His goose was evidently cooked. So he turned around to the other NYSE employees in line and said, “You have to stop investing in nuclear power! Every dollar you invest in a nuclear plant will be lost! We will stop you in Seabrook! We will stop you at Shoreham! We will stop you at Indian Point!” At which point NYPD officers were ushered in and placed the kid in the suit under arrest. As trained, he fell limp and made the police carry him out of the building where the people he had just called “hippies” suddenly realized he was one of them. And he joined many of the one thousand-plus civilly disobedient occupiers – a smaller group than the 20,000 legal rally participants – in jamming up the New York City night courts by refusing to provide his name to authorities until all the “John and Jane Does” were released. Others who did give their names faced trials for “disorderly conduct” that would bring something like a $100 fine.
Within months the financial industry did indeed begin to question the profitability of investing in nuclear power. Demonstrations, occupations, citizen lawsuits and increasing public awareness about nuclear accidents (the Three Mile Island accident had happened in March 1979) and nuclear waste were bringing Congressional hearings and bad publicity. It would be too much of a stretch to say that the 1979 Wall Street occupation had any direct cause on that effect. Its influence came through another route altogether: By, for the first time, focusing the anti-nuke movement’s attention and learning on the economic problems with nuclear power, the local and grassroots sectors of the movement increasingly began to organize on that front: They challenged rate increases by utility companies, blaming them on nuclear plant construction cost overruns. In that they found new allies among labor and consumer organizations, including some that had very advanced door-to-door canvassing operations going. The nuclear issue quickly turned from one of morality or environment or averting disaster to, also, a bread-and-butter pocketbook issue for working people struggling to pay power bills.
The 1979 Wall Street occupation – it only lasted for two days! – is historic not because of the occupation itself, but, rather, because it inspired a change in the movement’s direction and language, bringing it more coherently in line with everyday people’s daily life concerns and worries, which are not about the environment or the morality of what we do as a society to future generations, but about next month’s bills and making ends meet. This helped shift public opinion more solidly against nuclear power, and many opportunistic state Attorneys General began filing lawsuits against utility rate increases. That nearly bankrupted some public utilities. The great economic “ratings” houses began to tick down their grades on the nuclear industry’s health as an investment. And dozens of nukes that had been proposed were cancelled.
And I would like to be able to say that this is a fairy tale where everyone “lived happily ever after.” But movements, even those that win, like life, are not like that. The truth is that the Wall Street occupation in 1979 was also the regional anti-nuclear movement’s last gasp.
Yes, it destroyed the nuclear industry in the United States. But, like a mother who dies in childbirth, it gave its own life to do so.
Death by Consensus Process
Every heroic story, by law, should disclose the messy and depressing process by which the heroes only became heroes because their first strategy or tactics had failed miserably and they were forced to change course. After all, really, isn’t that what turns an everyday person into a hero? It’s the wisdom to cease repeating what didn’t work over and over again, learn from those mistakes, and try something else.
Do you want to know the real reason why the anti-nuclear movement went to occupy Wall Street? It happened because others who sought to coopt and seize that movement toward different goals chased that movement and those who built it out of the very terrain they had created.
Think about the aforementioned occupations, in New Hampshire, of the Seabrook nuke site: 18 arrests in 1976, 180 later in 1976 and 1,414 in May 1977. This is a good example of the term “sequencing of tactics.” These actions were organized by a group called the Clamshell Alliance, a coalition of local anti-nuclear organizations throughout the six states of New England, each of which had grievances with nuclear facilities near them. The Seabrook nuke project was the industry’s new kid on the block: the one that hadn’t been built yet.
Environmental groups had sued in courts to stop the Seabrook construction, and had failed in those courts. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on that tactic, and it didn’t work.
A then 20-something Renny Cushing and other Seabrook residents decided to try a different approach: Community organizing. And through a vote in the New England style “Town Meeting” form of government (in which the voters of a municipality assemble in public and vote, not by secret ballot, but in open view), the people of Seabrook had voted to oppose the construction of the nuke. Then it was no longer just an environmental issue. It was a matter of democracy itself. The people had voted, fair and square, the American way, and rejected the proposal for their town. From that point on, public opinion kept moving their way. They made their cause, thus, also a pro-democracy one.
The strong and organized local base of the movement was the foundation that allowed all the rest to happen. The organizers were smart about that. Why were only 18 people arrested in the first occupation? Because the Clamshell Alliance decided that action would be limited only to New Hampshire residents. Everyone who participated in that and the subsequent occupations was required to go through a full day nonviolence training session. This requirement not only helped the encounters with the police and courts happen more effectively from a public relations standpoint. It also helped create a shared culture of resistance among all participants. The same was true of the southern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Nonviolence training was key to fomenting self-discipline and teamwork among the participants, two qualities of movements that win.
In recent years, most protests in the United States have had no such requirement. Perhaps the organizations that call on people to join protests feel their numbers will be less if everyone had to spend an additional day, prior to the action, being trained. Maybe others feel it is too “authoritarian” or “exclusive” to require training, or require anything at all. Still others who fetishize violent conflict or rhetoric loathe the very word nonviolence. And so, since the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, activist protests in the US have been plagued by parasitical grouposcules that hide under the skirt of the larger action to act out tactics that put every other participant at greater risk of arrest and harm. They smash store windows by throwing garbage cans at them and taunt cops with the cowardly knowledge that if things get rough they can simply run and hide among the rest of the crowd, letting somebody else receive the brunt of the police response.
Thankfully, the most extreme grouposcules of that nature have not – yet – latched themselves onto the Wall Street occupation. Still, the protests have been marked by a lack of discipline. A September 23 report by Nathan Schneider in Waging Nonviolence, four days into the protest, illuminated this dynamic:
“A terrific storm gathers around the phalanx of police, who shove protesters with hands and sticks, then grab one or two out of the crowd, throw them to the ground, bind their hands in plastic cuffs, and take them away. You can tell who has had nonviolence training before—they go limp, they make no sign of resistance. But others, especially the youngest, will squirm and cry out in pain, inviting the police to push more, hit harder, drag more ruthlessly. There’s the feeling—surely intentional—that anyone could be next. This escalation only reinforces what the police seem to have been told: that what they’re seeing is the beginnings of a riot.”
Almost two weeks later, on October 5, it was evident that the protest’s “general assembly” decision-making body hasn’t seen this as a problem or priority. After the largest march to date – 15,000 union members joined the protest for a day – a white-shirted member of the NYPD brass was captured on video maliciously swinging his nightstick at defenseless protesters. For some reason many of the protesters seem to think that a video of police violence automatically brings public support to a cause. At least one leader of the post-Seattle genre of protests has written so much in a NY Times column: “when police attack peaceful occupiers (and the protesters catch it on camera), it generates tremendous sympathy for the cause.”
That is truly awful advice. It would doom any movement that followed it to abject failure. Entire swathes of the American (and New York) public in fact are prone to cheering the police when they beat up on certain kinds of protesters. Hey, everyone knows that America is a violence-loving society. Why is it such a stretch to understand that much of “the 99 percent” that many protesters claim to speak for actually like to see the cops bust the heads of people they see as different from them? Anybody who has knocked on doors and gotten to know the public beyond their own demographic niches understands that very well already.
If the YouTube video of the October 5 confrontation were widely seen, that would indeed be the response from much of the public. Why? Because the way the protesters responded to the situation – yelling hysterically at the cops in the most visibly disorganized way possible – does not endear the protesters to public opinion. It does quite the opposite. A few chanted “the whole world is watching” while dozens of people with cameras and cell phones elbowed each other for the best shot of the moment. Mainly a lot of screaming and whistleblowing drowned out any sound of substance or meaning from the video. More than 430,000 people have watched that video in just a few days and while the police behaved badly, to many observers the protesters would seem like an unruly and dangerous mob, too.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, no slouch at pandering to public opinion, “gets” this, which is why he does not hesitate to posture against the protesters at every chance the media provides him. Police violence only creates public sympathy when the people they are beating are themselves viewed sympathetically. Any movement has to work very hard to make that happen. It doesn’t come simply because it is deserved. People trained in nonviolence would understand what to do at a moment like that: protesters would sit down, silently, or maybe while seated they’d all sing the same song, and then anything the police do would become magnified and seen as bullying by the wider public. Instead of practicing this easy and basic political ju-jitsu, many Wall Street occupiers seem to think it serves their cause by escalating any conflict with the cops, by fighting stupidity with buffoonery. It’s like getting into a pissing contest with a skunk: everybody ends up smelling badly.
The consensus decision-making process used by the protest’s governing body, a “general assembly” that meets for hours each day, into which anybody can walk in or out at any time at will, may seem like a cute and harmless form of peaceful action. But it actually contributes greatly to the lack of discipline of the revolt. Consensus process is by definition exclusionary to most of “the 99 percent” of the public in whose name these protests are held. That’s because most people are working at jobs or taking care of children all day and don’t have the time, or the interest, in trying to write a declaration by committee-of-hundreds.
Within any venture, there are “doers” and there are “talkers.” Typically, the talkers spend a lot of time discussing and debating what the doers should do. Perhaps this is not the kindest way to say it, but here goes: The world is filled with terribly boring people who can put even bartenders and psychologists to sleep. They’re lonely and we feel bad for them, but nor do we want to spend our days and nights listening to them drone on and on with their inner monologues. Consensus meetings attract this kind of person like flies to shit. They also attract ideologues – the proverbial “socialist with a shopping bag of his own press clippings,” as Lower East Side performance artist Penny Arcade has observed – and also people who love to debate the semantics of language and identity politics ad nauseum.
Meanwhile, what kinds of people don’t like to go to long meetings? Almost everybody in “the 99 percent” hates meetings, but especially community organizers and people with skills who are busy using them to advance the cause. Paradoxically, these are the folks most experienced at doing things and therefore have real lived experience to aid in the development of strategy and tactics. Consensus decision-making processes, however, screen too many of these people out of the game. They wouldn’t be caught dead there. They’re too busy wielding their talents to while away their hours in processes that they already know go on too long.
Those who romanticize “general assemblies” often site their use among many indigenous communities. And there is truth to that: In 35 years of participating and reporting on social movements, the only places I’ve seen it work effectively have been in rural indigenous communities where all the participants share the same language, culture, socio-economic level and line of work, typically, subsistence level farming. (For similar reasons it might also function in a workplace, where everyone is paid for the time and labor spent in meetings.) Among homogeneous groups, it can work. The inverse observation to be made about Occupy Wall Street is that the consensus process has survived for three weeks now only because it maintains and encourages the demographic homogeneity of the core participants: college educated Americans. Its use may in fact reflect a subconscious desire by many participants that the protest remain homogeneous and narrow, a kind of defense mechanism against having to open the cause up to the real 99 percent.
The experience of the Clamshell Alliance and the anti-nuclear movement with consensus process is instructive. Once that movement had brought nonviolent civil disobedience back into popular use, other ideological and political sectors sought to wrestle it away and take power over the movement. Indeed, a kind of coup d’etat occurred in 1979, months before the Wall Street occupation that year, the result of a series of long consensus-seeking meetings on what the next action by the Clamshell would be. A group calling themselves “direct action” advocates (“direct action,” to them, was distinct from “nonviolence” most specifically because those people wanted the movement to bring wire cutters to the next protest to cut the fences around the Seabrook nuke construction site) obsessed on this proposed tactic to the point of fetish. This, despite the fact that the local residents of Seabrook who had provided the farmland and staging areas for previous occupations warned that this escalation of tactics would lose significant public support for the movement at its most local geographic base.
The “direct action” faction – overwhelmingly they were activists, students and ideologues from metropolitan Boston – found, in the consensus process, its wedge to blow up and then take over the name of the Clamshell Alliance, even if it meant losing most of the organized bases that had created and built it. At first they used the power of any person to “block” consensus on any decision (and therefore block any taking of action at all) on any and every proposal that did not include fence cutting. This went on for weeks. It was frustrating for many movement organizers, so much so that, one by one, they walked away and stopped attending the long meetings where the same point got debated over and over again. After almost everybody who had organized the movement had been worn down, the last few adherents to the idea that this fence-cutting nonsense would destroy a lot more than mere fences (it would also wreck the cohesion, unity and public support enjoyed by the movement) eventually “stepped aside.” In consensus-speak, that means they expressed their objection but agreed not to block consensus. It was on that day, in the Marigold Ballroom of Salisbury, Massachusetts, across the state border from Seabrook, that the Clamshell Alliance shattered into splinters and for all practical purposes, was no more.
Eventually the fence-cutters had their day, and it proved a public relations disaster for the movement. Their efforts quickly petered out after that and vanished into nothing at all. The rest of the movement went home. Many participants organized local movements against the nuclear facilities nearest to them.
And what about our 19-year-old kid? What happened with him? The Wall Street occupation of 1979 breathed new inspiration into him. He went back to Western Massachusetts and organized the campaign to close the Rowe nuke. Eight years later it would become the only commercial nuclear plant to be closed before its life expectancy. The plant’s gigantic metal dome and turbine building were taken apart, and all of it except the high level nuclear waste spent fuel rods were carted off to a low-level nuclear waste dump. Where the nuke once stood there is now a grassy field alongside a lake and a hydroelectric dam.
Some say that kid – the one who would play guitar on one day and wear a suit to get arrested on the next, who had to learn to chop wood to be able to organize a rural community – eventually moved to Mexico and today walks alongside social movements, studies their strategies and tactics, and writes about what he sees and hears. He might correct that he only does those things between composing and playing his next song and otherwise serving his daily pleasure. (A California professor who was also part of the 1979 Wall Street occupation recently remembered his experience aloud, and our kid and his song appear there, too.)
I like to think that kid is every kid. And he or she might be sitting on a bench in Zuccotti Park right now, maybe writing a song to promote the cause, maybe strategizing in his or her head about how to occupy his or her own life, win his and her own freedom, drive Wall Street out of his and her own heart and the cop out of his and her own head, and organize somewhere that the real 99 percent live and work to make authentic and victorious movements possible.
You know what was the most inspiring and empowering thing of all about the 1979 Wall Street occupation? It wasn’t the good times (although they were good). It wasn’t even, for that 19-year-old kid, getting to sing his song to the crowd, or having it appreciated and remembered. It wasn’t skirmishing with cops or breaking the NY criminal court system for a night. None of those things would have mattered a whit except for the most important part of the story: It was that the movement won.
“There is no greater high than challenging the system, giving it your all, and winning,” wrote Abbie Hoffman, architect of the first Wall Street occupation in 1967, which had maybe a half-dozen participants. There are so many causes and protests that fought the good fight but lost. And they went into the annals of “youthful indiscretions” of participants who later became politicians and Wall Street stock brokers. The most disempowering thing on earth is losing. But to take on an attainable goal – in 1979 it was “stop nuclear investment” – launch a strategy and sequenced tactics, organize and mobilize people to implement it, and then win: that is the small victory that makes larger ones possible because it empowers and inspires everybody involved.
The last Wall Street occupation didn’t end Wall Street, or capitalism, or greed, or injustice. Even its major advance, stopping a new generation of nuclear plants, was a victory that is today having to be defended all over again (as our friends in Egypt learned, too, this year when they toppled the dictator Mubarak; no victory is permanent, nor in an authentic democracy should anything ever be engraved permanently in stone; all battles entered are, authentically, struggles for life). Yet it is the small victories that lay the groundwork for larger and larger ones, whereas struggling and losing wreaks cynicism, apathy and surrender. Winning a civil resistance, a social movement, a nonviolent struggle, a community organizing campaign profoundly changes the participants. It turns them into winners and transforms them into people who can never, ever be conquered by fear or despair ever again. That is why it is called revolution. It turns everything around, upside-down, and inside, out. It is the motor that evolves the species.
Nobody knows how long the current Wall Street occupation will last or how exactly the media virus that has sprung from it will mutate and spread. It seems that its own core organizers have set up a cumbersome and easily coopted consensus process by which not even they can steer the ship. And has there been any strategic aforethought whatsoever about timing this thing in harmony with the seasons and the weather? As Ezra Pound knew: “Winter is icumin in Lhude sing Goddamn. Raineth drop and staineth slop, And how the wind doth ramm!” By November or December, Lower Manhattan becomes an icy wind tunnel. “We’re staying here and we’re not leaving” therefore isn’t the sort of declaration that inspires public confidence among the 99 percent. Making promises that one can’t keep: Isn’t that what caused us all to lose faith in Wall Street and the rest of today’s institutions in the first place?
Still, every individual involved has immensely more power than a consensus assembly could ever provide to determine how he and she will proceed from here, if and when it seems that everybody else scatters and goes home. That’s the revolution: the one that lives in the hearts of those who immerse themselves in struggles larger than them. The revolution belongs to those who simultaneously develop their own tactics and strategies, and figure out how to sequence them. The revolution comes to those who study what has worked and what hasn’t worked for others who have gone before them, and who organize others into collaborating in that quest, on the most local scale, to win back the terrain of daily life. Occupy that, and the revolution is yours.