Editor's Note: Dr. Heather Gautney is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University, supporter of Occupy Wall Street and author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era (Palgrave Macmillan). The views expressed in this article are solely those of Heather Gautney.
By Heather Gautney - Special to CNN
As Occupy camps around the country continue to face state violence and eviction, a new and important slogan has emerged: “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come!”
But what is this idea? And what does it indicate about the future of the movement?
Occupy’s big idea is that today’s capitalist system has become utterly incompatible with the requisites of democratic freedom. Occupiers assert that the time has come for everyday people to repossess their common wealth and the grassroots forms of democracy that accompany it.
It’s undeniable that over the last thirty years, the neoliberal triumvirate of deregulation, financialization and privatization has dutifully enabled a gross maldistribution of wealth in our country. These forces have effectively steamrolled over rights to what should be collective resources, and appropriated middle and lower class property at a level of ferocity that would shock even the Grinch. Nowhere have the nefarious forces of neoliberal dispossession more brazenly shown their bite than in our essential housing institutions. As private development and “mixed use” housing undercut citizen access to public assistance, those lucky enough to own a home fell victim to the chaotic, stranger-than-fiction world of subprime gaming - a racket so deep and so sordid that a federal commission would go on to cite “dramatic breakdowns in corporate governance including too many financial firms acting recklessly and taking on too much risk.”
The mortgage scandal was just the tip of a gigantic iceberg, large enough to rock world markets and severely destabilize U.S political and economic structures. The severity of the situation became increasingly apparent after the federal government issued a $700 billion taxpayer-funded bailout to banks that were clearly guilty of accounting fraud, predatory lending, and credit default swapping at toxic levels of risk. Bailout recipients did more than raise eyebrows when they continued to shell out millions on bonuses and lavish seaside retreats. But it wasn’t until drastic spikes in unemployment and foreclosure, alongside localized programs of relatively severe fiscal austerity, that the rumblings of a political and corporate legitimation crisis could be heard.
The Occupy movement is an expression of a generalized and global outrage over corporate irresponsibility and lack of government oversight. Its primary concern regards the corrupt relationship between elected and corporate officials, and the ways in which “The 99 Percent” have been disenfranchised from the relations of power that shape their lives and life chances. If I were to guess at a common goal, it’d be a complete overhaul of our political and economic systems from the bottom up. Trust for our politicians has indeed waned, but even more so for the system itself, which is clearly marred by the unholy influence of money and personal gain.
Occupy’s uncertain future and lack of an official program does not, however, preclude reading its struggle and gleaning some important lessons from its tactics and activities. After all, if there’s one thing I do know about Occupy: The process is political.
More prominent tactics to date have included large, spectacular demonstrations and “global days of action” to draw attention to issues of social and political inequality and corporate greed. Some are more targeted than others, but these open, more populous events enable Occupy to communicate its power and anger more directly to powerholders than institutional forms of political participation allow.
Unlike protests organized by centralized movement organizations or political parties, in which placards and message tend to be standard, Occupy protests involve a broad diversity of groups, movements and messages, in keeping with its identity as a movement of "The 99 Percent." Such events are crucial to the continued visibility and spread of the movement, but only insofar as they remain contentious, and not riotous.
Occupy has also been fairly masterful at using the force of its large demonstrations to engage subgroups in acts of civil resistance. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, testing the doors of the Stock Exchange, occupying Chase Bank - all these symbolic acts of defiance remind political and corporate heads that this movement is deeply committed, ready for adversity, and will refuse attempts by police and local officials to dictate the terms of what’s essentially public space. "Whose streets? Our Streets!"
Perhaps the most crucial form of disobedience involves the long-term occupations themselves - the “Yes, We Camp.” Despite all the negative press regarding issues of public safety, the camps themselves were truly superlative instances of what I call social disobedience.
Tents aside, the occupation of Zuccotti was less about protesting an unjust law than creating countercultural practices and social relations that challenge the status quo. And it’s clear from the long list of people that flowed in and out of Occupy Wall Street that new kinds of space and social engagement are desperately needed. Some of that fluidity was indeed stymied by the tightness of the space when the tents went up. But nonetheless, the movement’s anti-corporate critique was realized in 'Do It Yourself' fashion through the creation of non-commodified forms of sociality and community life. That achievement alone is cause for another try at occupation.
But even if Occupy Wall Street’s eviction stands, the diversity of activities, in New York and around the country, is testament to the ingenuity and staying power of this movement. They’re forming study groups, aiding community centers, helping families stave off foreclosure through occupation, and much more. Occupiers have waged very public critiques of privatization in education and healthcare at meetings of the Chamber of Commerce and Department of Education, not to mention the fabulous “mic-check” Governor Scott Walker received at the Chicago Union League Club for his assault on trade unions.
In all these cases, and more, this diverse, global movement has managed to remain contentious, independent and leaderless - all crucial for a movement poised to take on local police, politicians and the giants on Wall Street. And hopefully regain some of our lost democratic freedoms and common wealth.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Heather Gautney.