Crisis in the encampments

Can the Occupy movement be saved from itself?

Millions of Americans are as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore!

In the largest action of defiance since the 2008 economic collapse, an estimated 650,000 angry citizens moved their bank accounts from corporate banks to local citizen-controlled credit unions in just one month.

The transfers, which amounted to about $4.5-billion, were made mostly during October in response to the much-vilified Bank of America unveiling its now-rescinded monthly $5 debit card fee. Fearful there might be a run on their resources, some big banks refused to allow customers to close their accounts. Following clashes with bank employees, some customers were detained or arrested.

This kind of action by the bankers is one of the main factors that led to the creation of the upstart Occupy Wall Street movement.

The movement has been an inspiration for millions of people in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere who want to fight back against the greedy banks, powerful corporations, and manipulative and ineffective governments that have damaged their lives.

The early successes won strong praise from many prominent people, including leading leftists. Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein wrote on October 6: “Let’s treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is.”

But that was then. People are still angry at the banks and the rich, but many are disappointed – and some upset – with the Occupy movement.

Looking back just a few short weeks ago, the movement’s greatest achievement was the way it sparked heated discussion on fundamental issues such as greed, the failure of western democracy, and the need for an entirely new way of tackling the greatest problems of our time. Topics previously banned by the corporate media were discussed everywhere.

Creation of the expression, “We are the 99 per cent, while the super rich are the 1 per cent,” was a stroke of genius – the envy of any ad executive. It is an amazingly successful rallying slogan.

During its first few weeks, the gentle, Woodstock-like environment and consensus process practiced by the dozens of occupations won the respect of millions of people.

But opinions are changing.

The most damaging development – certainly in the eyes of the general public – was the death at the Vancouver Occupy site of a 23-year-old woman, likely from a drug overdose.

The death led to a Globe and Mail front page article by columnist Gary Mason who wrote: “The (occupy) camp is now a rabble of homeless youth and others drawn to the free accommodation, food, clothing and other supplies that can be enjoyed at the site. People presenting with serious mental illnesses are also said to be arriving at the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery.”

For many people, the face of the movement are the TV images of police dragging screaming, placard-carrying, bearded protesters from encampments in several locations as winter closes in. The most violence occurred in Oakland, California, where anarchist hangers-on clashed with police.

An opinion poll conducted in the U.S. in late October by the Pew Research Centre indicated that only 39 per cent of Americans supported the movement. A Canadian poll carried out before the death in Vancouver showed that 58 per cent of Canadians supported the protesters.

The question now is whether the Occupy movement can survive as an effective force for political and social action.

Sadly, to some extent, the movement has to be saved from itself.

The decision made some time ago to set up permanent encampments is turning out to be a disaster and is taking attention away from other more productive activist events. If there was any chance that a few hundred struggling, but highly dedicated mostly young people could change the world by holding their ground in their communities, I would be among the first to support them.

If the “non-organizing organizers” would suspend the encampments until spring they would be doing themselves a favour in the public arena. This would allow them to forego a lot of negative publicity, avoid the costly and tiring job of keeping small groups of protesters from freezing, and give them time to develop their strategy.

Both Canada and the United States need radical social and political movements that could scare the hell out of the establishment and force change in ways that traditional left and liberal forces have failed to do.

A number of local protests are being carried out in the U.S. For instance, a small group from the New York camp is walking 240 miles to Washington to request that tax cuts to the rich be rescinded so the money could be used to pay for social programs. In Canada, attention seems to be focused on problems at the encampments.

In the U.S., Occupy members have twice helped people stop their homes from being seized, once in New York and again in California. This kind of activity is useful, inspiring and could be turned into a full campaign in some parts of the country.

A well-planned campaign to challenge the banks and other financial institutions – perhaps with quickly organized rotating occupations as well as the closing of more accounts – would win the support of hundreds-of-thousands of Americans. Canadian groups should be protesting income disparity.

The Occupy concept is ideally suited to take on other specific tasks, some of which could entail acts of civil disobedience. A particular company or government violating the best interests of the public could be challenged by sit-ins carried out at appropriate times or by a handful of young people using the Internet effectively.

People involved with the movement have so far ridiculed the U.S. political system as being ineffective. Indications are that they will not support either President Obama or Democratic candidates in the election next November.

While it is impossible to tell what tactics other groups might adopt, one group says it will occupy and try to shut down some key elements of the U.S. presidential campaign. Iowa activists are planning to “shut down” campaign offices of all presidential contenders in the week leading up to the January 3 caucuses. The Occupy group hopes that hundreds of journalists covering the first Republican Party primary will cover their issues – the debate on income inequality, money in politics, and the needs of the “99 per cent.”

But if the movement decided to soften its approach and support President Obama, the President might be able to bring the still out-of-control financial sector under greater control, reverse some of the tax cuts given the rich and corporations over the past few years, and reduce the amount of funding the rich can put into the U.S. federal election process. In Canada, local groups could work hand-in-hand with existing, seasoned radical groups that have experience and financial resources.

At this point in time, the Occupy movement is still very much a wild card. I am hopeful that the struggle will mature, that it will survive a difficult winter and emerge in the spring with well-thought-out plans of action backed by thousands of supporters to carry the struggle forward.

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