The year of occupation

What happened to the global anger? The year of occupation

by Raphaël Kempf

It began when angry Spaniards took over a square in Madrid and experimented with the democracy that had been taken away from them. In New York, it was a park; in London, the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral

It’s now a year since thousands of angry Spaniards filled the square at Puerta del Sol in Madrid on 15 May. Carlos Paredes helped organise that initial demonstration, as spokesman for the¡Democracia real YA! (Real Democracy Now) movement, started a few months earlier around proposals including the removal of politicians’ privileges and implementing the “right to housing” law and electoral reforms.

Paredes is 32 and works in IT services. He explained: “In Spain a glass ceiling prevents people from achieving personal or professional satisfaction. Those at the top stay there and those at the bottom just keep falling further down. Because it’s impossible to advance economically and socially, I started to look for alternatives and I found ¡Democracia real YA!.” He does not belong to any political party or trade union, or have any ideology. Besides objecting to an inegalitarian economic system and a “democracy” that no longer represents anyone in Spain, he also resents the “financial coups” that have put unelected men from the financial sector into important political positions: Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank; Lucas Papademos, the Greek prime minister; and Mario Monti, Italian prime minister.

The crisis in representation explains why that first protest, by theindignados (Paredes was astonished by just how angry they were), went to such trouble to invent inclusive voting techniques. On the first evening, 15 May, some demonstrators had suggested remaining in the square, and stay they did; the initial “occupation” – although they didn’t call it that – lasted for more than a month and general assemblies, discussions and working groups were held on a wide range of topics. Everyone I met in Madrid then, and over the last year at other Occupy events, spoke emotionally about the assemblies, which attracted thousands of people. The philosopher José Luis Moreno Pestaña described it as “the enjoyment of public debate”.

A mass movement

Ivan Ayala, 31, is working on his thesis on neo-classical economics at Madrid’s Complutense University. “I took part in the movement full-time. In the beginning it was impressive, there were working groups with 500 members. And it was very moving to arrive in the square and see 4,000 people holding an assembly and discussions as though they were in a Greek agora.” Because the movement that came out of the demonstrations, called 15-M after its start date, rejects the partisan political system, it refuses to define itself as leftwing, but Ayala says its criticism of bankers, politicians, neoliberal policies and speculators are a leftwing analysis: 15-M’s real success lies in the fact that “it is a deliberative, popular and mass movement. Now assemblies are being set up in all the neighbourhoods and villages.”

After 15-M decided to end the permanent occupation of the square on 12 June 2011 it reinvented itself, and expanded to reach a broader, more working-class public by putting down local roots. After the camp was dismantled, the many notes posted all over the square were replaced with a large banner “Nos vemos en los barrios” (We’ll meet up in the neighbourhoods).

Geographical spread was accompanied by diversification of action. A platform was set up to help residents threatened with mortgage foreclosure: when contacted by families the indignados arrive in large numbers on the appointed day and sometimes succeed in preventing or postponing the eviction for months. They also take over empty buildings to house needy families. The movement has mobilised people and drawn attention to issues that were less visible before. Lawyer Liliana Pineda is now involved in a fight for water management because Madrid is considering privatising a public utility, Canal de Isabel II. She said: “This campaign is an example of collaboration between 15-M and political parties on a common platform. We had already done a great deal before 15 May, but thanks to the indignados there were far more people at the 8 October demonstration … And political parties, such as Izquierda Unidad, and Equo, also took part.” That is an important advance because 15-M had previously refused any contact with political parties, even those with similar opinions.

Relations with mainstream politics became difficult before the 20 November 2011 legislative elections, carried by Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party. There were problems about what position a non-partisan social movement should adopt for such an important election, whether it should create a new party to “end bipartisanship” or call for abstention. “We never called on people to abstain,” said Paredes. “But we did ask people to vote for minority parties because we were against the bipartisan Popular Party/Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party situation.” 15-M carefully identified the minority parties in each constituency that had the best chance of beating the mainstream candidate. This did not prevent the right from winning, but did highlight the weaknesses in the Spanish democratic system. Paredes and his comrades are now trying to change this with the “democracy 4.0” project, under which citizens would cast internet votes on draft laws submitted to parliament.

The movement’s greatest success is its growing influence in the political debate. The indignados claim that that their proposals are now being talked about publicly, and Paredes said they had “succeeded in internationalising the movement. To some extent, Occupy Wall Street and the Israeli movement derive from 15-M.” (In turn, the Madrid demonstrations owe a lot to Arab Spring that preceded them.)

The indignados of Madrid were soon joined in protest by those in Chile who began last May to demand free public education. (The universities had been privatised under General Pinochet’s regime in 1981, making education an expensive consumer commodity.) The student movement staged some of the biggest popular demonstrations since Chile returned to democracy; it spread to families and high schools and raised questions about inequalities and tax reforms as well as representation in the political system. It was local anger over local problems, yet it also went far beyond national boundaries. Andrés Muñoz Cárcamo, an activist, said: “It is a global movement against the way the economic system gets its profits and destroys social structures. In Chile it’s education.” His friend Vicente Saiz said there was a common basis among such protests around the world: “People are fighting to be allowed to make their own decisions.”

Principles in the park

That feeling of unease about a political system slipping from the control of citizens, and even more of wealth being monopolised by an oligarchy, provoked the launch of the Occupy movement, with Occupy Wall Street (OWS), in New York on 17 September. It came as a surprise in the United States, where popular protest seemed to have been consigned to history. An OWS supporter, lawyer Alexander C Penley, recalled previous events, such as the trade union protests early last year in Wisconsin, which made Occupy possible. The Arab Spring also set an example. “If something like that had happened in France it wouldn’t have had the same impact, because Americans know that in France, in Europe, demonstrations are normal, whereas in the Middle East… Those countries were closed, blocked up. So if they were marching there, something could happen here.”

The call to occupy Wall Street, launched online by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, known for its radical views, had considerable impact. On 17 September several hundred people demonstrated in Manhattan’s financial district and then found themselves, almost by chance, in Zuccotti Park, a small square hemmed in by skyscrapers, close to Wall Street and Ground Zero. “Someone suggested holding a general assembly there, as in Greece or Spain,” said David Graeber, an anthropologist who had taught at Yale, and got involved in planning the occupation. People started talking politics in the streets and public places, which is rare in the US. During the first OWS general assembly, they talked about reversing the “Citizens United” supreme court ruling that gives corporations greater freedom to influence politics, and bringing back the Glass-Steagall Act, which President Clinton had repealed, leading to the uncontrolled development of finance.

Over days and weeks, the number of demonstrators grew and tents were pitched in Zuccotti Park. There were more general assemblies and working groups, and a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” was drawn up. People from all walks of life were drawn there, not just educated young white men, but the jobless, homeless, minorities and marginalised voices excluded from US society. Some claimed to be communists or socialists, or called capitalism the enemy. Other wanted to keep the market economy and only demanded regulation.

Occupying public space was the only way for them to make themselves heard. For some that was justification enough, a concrete manifestation of the society they want. Occupation is a political act, sufficient in itself, and the violent eviction of the Zuccotti Park campers by the New York police on the night of 15 November could be said to have had a positive effect. As Michael Levitin, a journalist who briefly edited The Occupied Wall Street Journal, said: “We no longer needed Zuccotti Park. It was the right moment to stop. And the way the mayor evicted us was perfect: he was violent, people were hit and arrested, books were thrown, and the eviction was closed to journalists.” Police violence bought greater sympathy for OWS – this happened in Madrid, too – and the eviction obliged the occupants to think of other forms of action and take the movement into a new phase.

‘We are the 99%’

Ties were formed between OWS and other community organisations active in working class areas in New York and elsewhere. On 6 December a joint platform, Occupy Our Homes, organised a US-wide event to reclaim empty houses that had been foreclosed by banks. In New York, the target was the poor neighbourhood of East New York in Brooklyn. The demonstrators (mostly white at the start of the march) handed out leaflets as they went, on subway platforms and in trains, and told people about the rate of foreclosures in East New York, the highest in NYC. People spontaneously joined the march, chanting the OWS slogan: “We are the 99%”. In all there were 2,000 marchers, including the minority rights activist Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and now a NYC council member. Another council member, Ydanis Rodriguez, told the crowd how important the event was, because it showed that OWS was getting “more coloured” – there were now more blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.

Movement members took over empty houses in 40 cities in the US that day: Alfredo Carrasquillo and his family moved into one at 702 Vermont Street, Brooklyn. When I returned there a few days later, there were a dozen people squatting permanently in the house to protect the family from eviction. Max Berger, who quit his job in an NGO to join the movement, said: “We are occupying this house in the name of one family. I always wanted to commit to actions that change power relations and to fight for those who are most excluded in society. This housing issue is great, it’s the natural extension of the OWS movement … OWS has the capacity to create a huge mass movement that will change politics in this country.”

OWS did seem extremely diverse, with a wide range of initiatives and targets including housing, the power of the multinationals, international arms sales, student debt and the right to a free education. It very quickly brought important issues to the forefront of American public debate, especially inequalities and the crisis in representation in the political system, and was a “movement of movements”, able to draw attention to other campaigns that would not have had as much impact without OWS support.

Nashville, Tennessee

The movement spread beyond the big cities. In Nashville, Tennessee, a protest camp was set up in front of the State Capitol and lasted until it was forcibly dismantled this March, probably the longest occupation in the US. The idea of appropriating a public space had a deeper significance in Nashville than pedestrian Manhattan, for in this conglomeration of highways, skyscrapers, vast churches and car dealerships, public space is entirely devoted to cars. Nobody wants to walk anywhere, and certainly not camp. The protesters claimed they were able to re-form ties that inhuman urbanisation had destroyed.

Nashville lies in the heart of the Bible Belt in the southern US where religious edifices look more like shopping malls. Jim Palmer used to be a pastor in one of them but left in search of a more spiritual Christianity: “Rather than concentrate on the poorest 10%, the churches are caught in a spiral that makes them build ever bigger churches and create even more programmes to beat the competition. Since the mid-1970s they have imposed a corporate model on the pastors, so the churches are managed like companies where the pastor is the CEO, supported by a board of directors, and the parishioners hardly get a look in.” He has launched a multi-faith group, Occupy Religion, to remind people that “Jesus was part of the 99%”.

Many US protestors had been disappointed with President Barack Obama. Lawyer William P York told me in Nashville: “In 2008 I worked for Obama’s campaign in Cleveland, Ohio. It was an important stage in the election battle. I became very active politically and I worked a lot for the campaign. But once he got into power, I soon realised that he was pretty much like the other candidates. Basically the two parties are one and the same. They are both co-opted by corporations that donate as much money as they want to their candidates. In fact they are owned by those companies, the major multinationals.”

Occupy London specifically targeted the London Stock Exchange on 15 October. The Exchange is on private ground, so the protestors occupied, and established a tented camp in the nearest public area, around the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. The camp was finally evicted on 28 February, after provoking schisms in the Church of England hierarchy and among cathedral clerics. Amir Imran, 24, a journalism student, slept in the camp, complete with technical services, press and kitchen tents, for the duration, only leaving two days a week for his classes. He had arrived in London a few months earlier from Malaysia where “the draconian laws allow the government to imprison anyone suspected of disturbing the peace. Over there I take part in movements demanding the right to demonstrate. You need a permit to do it. Here it’s much easier.”

The global protests are not yet over. In Chile, “during our campaign we took up the OWS ‘99%’ slogan,” said law student Gabriel Boric of the Creando Izquierda (Creating the Left) party who had just been elected president of the University of Chile Student Federation. “We are on the left but we say that the left has failed in the 20th century. The world we imagined did not happen and we need to learn lessons from that.” His own protest movement “is not over. We haven’t won but we haven’t been beaten either.”




Translated by Krystyna Horko

Raphaël Kempf is a journalist

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