Occupy History

Occupy History: Reflections on Leaderlessness and Demandlessness with “Truth Now” (Part Two)

(In Part Two of our discussion on the Occupy Movement, “Truth Now” reflects on the Movement’s non-hierarchical structure and its hesitancy to make specific demands of specific powerful people or institutions, or to emphasize certain demands over others as part of the movement’s identity.)

Occupy is often described as not having leaders or specific demands. Discussion about this often focuses on whether that was a good or bad, positive or negative feature of Occupy, but I’m more interested in why it was the case. We’ll take them one at a time. Why was Occupy a leaderless movement?

I wanna first say that I think it’s both good and bad, depending on what your interests were. As to why, I think everyone was still really excited about Anonymous, being anonymous and being associated with the group “Anonymous.” We were starting to have awareness, at that time, of the fact that your face was going to be weaponized against you.

America is known to be a celebrity obsessed culture, and if you have a leader, your leader can be taken down, whereas if you don’t have a leader, they don’t necessarily know who to attack or how to attack you. There was awareness around the value of that, and some people were already wearing bandanas.

I think there was also excitement around – you know – not voting for someone, this “nobody for president” sort of feeling, because there was an understanding that our leaders were always going to betray us, because they were never going to get into actual positions of power from which they could represent us.

The cohort within Occupy that advocated, for example, concealing one’s identity by wearing a mask was a pretty small percentage of people in the movement, mostly in Oakland, but people across the board advocated a leaderless movement. So, what was the function of a leaderless movement from the perspective of the many whose support of leaderlessness was not for the purpose of concealing their own identities? What was the purpose of leaderlessness for those who don’t mind if their faces are seen?

Again, I think it’s partly that there is nobody to attack in particular, nobody to start a smear campaign against, no one person to frame – it just makes it so they can’t say, “Oh, well, this makes it all bullshit, because your leader did X, Y, and Z,” or “your leader was a cultist,” or “your leader was doing black magic,” or “your leader was a fundamentalist Christian.”

Leaderlessness prevents a certain amount of identity politics and adds some strength to the armor of the 99% by saying, “We’re not just an electoral campaign. We’re not just hippies. We’re not just vagrants. We’re not just Democrats or Republicans. We’re not just the underclass, the downtrodden, and the proletariat, but we are the 99%. If you’re not making some millions of dollars a year, you are us, and your rights are disappearing the way ours are, and your money is being devalued the same way ours is, and your economy is being crashed by design the same way ours is.”

It was the Bernie Madoffs of the world, and the people above them, that were the real 1%, and I think a lotta people wanted to identify with the 1%, because they were like, “I drive a nice car,” or “I own my own home, so these kids are mad at me,” where it was actually like, “No, the 99% included the police. It included everyone who was working every single day, and were not just going to inherit a million or a billion or had massive shares in Exxon Valdez or whatever.” It included people who were – you know – upper class but were not the 1%.

There was a real understanding that 99% of people are – you know – gonna be fucked one way or another, whether they lose their Social Security, they’re paying too much for healthcare, whatever it was.

Some people were trying to invest a bigger awareness, a bigger movement into Occupy, but Occupy was a place to go even for people who understood only that the banks are corrupt and robbing us, that the banks were “too big to fail,” that the hedge fund managers and CEOs had no interest in a functional America or world but were part of a global elite that had no allegiances other than to maximizing their profits, maximizing their position of dominance over the rest of us in the economy.

So, there were even cops, veterans, people in suits, people you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the movement, people marching with Occupy who understood their place in a collapsing system, rather than some of the sort of us vs. them aspects of the movement, which were aspects that were meant to be applied only to the upper-upper crust of the 1%, like, not people who own boats but people who own mega-yachts.

The housing crash of 2008 is tied into all this. So, after 2008, I think people were understanding that, like, even owning two homes wasn’t necessarily gonna save you. You know?

Was the idea that Occupy had no demands a bit exaggerated?

I would say there was a plethora of demands. You just had to be interested enough to find out what they were and check out what some of their literature and websites were saying, because, being leaderless, maybe there weren’t, like, official demands, but there were hundreds of “demands,” depending on who you asked any given day.

There were some people there who would’ve probably said, “We demand free everything,” and there were other people there who would’ve said, “We demand some sort of financial and restorative justice around people trading the economy into a recession, and some relief for what many Americans are really experiencing as a depression.”

I mean, depending on where you live, the recession was something that’s never been fixed, and without American manufacturing, with manufacturing outsourced to Mexico and the Philippines and China, of course we were bound to have some version of a Great Recession. It was just a matter of time. You saw signs of it in the 80s, you saw signs of it to a lesser extent in the 90s, but by 2008, 2009, 2010, I mean, we were really in the grips of it, and nobody was investing inside of America.

They were investing offshore and the limited things that we were investing in building here were things like bombs, for bombing people in other countries, and that’s not a sustainable economy.

In your estimation, what was the impact of having many demands instead of a few specific ones?

In terms of not having demands, or having too many demands, or whatever, I think Occupy was a happening, a response, and one aspect of that response was that there were many different people there for many different reasons. However, the general reason was: There wasn’t really any accountability or justice regarding the economic situation that we were in.

So, it was sort of, like, a broad understanding, from both Republican and Democratic voters and Independents, maybe not so many Republicans but some, and certainly Independents – I was an Independent by then – that a certain change needed to happen, was an eventuality, and that a change was going to happen whether or not America as a nation was going to succeed.

The change was a matter of fact, and Occupy was a symptom of that change, not a cause of it. Occupy was a cough expressing a deeper sickness, a scab over a deep wound. It wasn’t meant or designed, in my opinion, to answer questions so much as to pose questions, to ask important questions. And it wasn’t necessarily designed to get results as much as it was designed to create an organic fabric that could potentially have an impact that would serve as a reminder of the fact that we were in a crisis.   

If you look at history, there were these “Occupy Movements” of sorts, basically homeless camps, like “Hooverville,” created in response to the Hoover administration’s failure to provide relief during the Great Depression, around 80 years before Occupy.

I look at history and time as cyclical, and I would say Occupy was to some extent sort of a Hooverville: not a homeless camp, but a new home, a re-imagining of what home could be, for people that wanted change, wanted community, and were willing to put their bodies and lives and financial realities on the line to be part of creating that new world.

So, rather than saying, “Oh, well, we’re gonna demand a new reality,” Occupy was a new reality and it didn’t need to demand anything, because it was asserting itself.