Occupy & Black Lives Matter

On August 2, 2011, after dismissing plans for a general march and rally, anarchists and other anti-authority organizers began a genuine democratic assembly, which became the Occupy Movement. It aimed at consensus-based direct democracy, that is, without any set leaders and with all decisions made by consensus. Thus Occupy across the nation created institutions of a new society, echoing the Anarchist slogan: ‘building the new society in the shell of the old.’ At least 1,400 Occupy camps were set up in cities across the nation between September-November 2011.  Thus Occupy organized hundreds of thousands of people quicker than any other movement in U.S. history, including civil rights, anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear movements. This showed the power of the 99% uniting, and it did so in a way that didn’t lead to major acts of violence, despite such fears from mainstream media. The Occupy movement is now seen as the beginning of a radical grassroots movement that is untainted by power and corruption. Along with the numerous global revolutions occurring in 2011, one of the main tools for organizing was social networking. Egypt, Spain, Israel, and dozens of other countries across the globe exploded as demonstrators recorded the entire experience live on the web.

Academically, two exceptional books have covered the themes of Occupy and the other 2011 global revolutions – such as decentralization, non-hierarchies, consensus-based voting, remaining leaderless, and emphasizing economic inequality and neoliberalism as the main problems for the 99%.  The first is The Occupy Handbook, which is a compilation of articles by the top activists and intellectuals in the country. The second is Paul Mason’s Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions.

“Tumbler emerged as the platform of choice in the Occupy movement in America,” wrote Paul Mason, after it hosted the viral ‘We are the 99%’ blog, which then turned into a Meme.  Mason saw this as a case study for the “mass dissemination of ideas possible with social media,” since the slogan originated at a General Assembly in Zuccotti Park and was then shared online. The change of human consciousness from the micro-technological social revolution coincided with the economic downturn, according to Mason.  Facebook was launched in 2004, reached its 100 millionth user in 2008, and hit 750 million by 2012.  Thus Facebook received six-sevenths of its base in the three years following the Lehman Brothers crash.  Twitter was launched in 2006, reaching its 1 billionth tweet in 2008, but by 2011 there were 250 million users sending a billion tweets a week. People of all ages are part of the technological revolution, but no doubt the Millennials are better trained to use its applications.  This was the generation born into technology (1980-2000 roughly). By the 1990s sociologists discovered an “Internet consciousness” that determined certain behavioral patterns that dutifully reflect what we see now online and at the Occupy encampments: “multiple personalities, masquerading, stalking, community formation, intense personal relationships, seeing the online world as real, or hyper-real, and the prevalence of utopian schemes.”  Demonstrators live-streaming from the front lines are able to share their experiences immediately to millions of others in the social media world. This immediate sharing of actions, ideas and emotions are unprecedented in human history, and no doubt created a type of “shared consciousness.”

Technology also led to easy access to group formation. Finding people with similar interests on social media pages is no longer difficult, and the sharing of ideas and laying out plans move at a much quicker pace “than hierarchical states or corporations can react.” The removal of barriers in social media  allows for experimental organizing in the physical and online world.  This is also known as “collaborative production” – people working together on a shared project, without managers or hierarchies, and often without personal profits, much like the style of the young hackers and hacktivists.

Millennials are well-educated about the idea of power and how it influences our corrupt politics today.  We are decentralized. Horizontal. We don’t like the hierarchies built into the trade unions, political parties and most institutions.  Many activists now have social media as their main news source, with the mainstream media now being secondary.  Occupy activists are therefore “self-reflexive” – quickly analyzing actions , gather ideas, change tactics, and adapt new slogans.

By 2012, Occupy itself was essentially gone, and new directions were being tapped by activists and non-activists alike.  Numerous movements derived from Occupy, with nearly all of them focusing on social or economic justice of some sort. Hurricane Sandy caused a rush of activists to swarm New York and New Jersey to provide relief, creating the hashtag #OccupySandy.  The Cannabis Movement was also influenced by Occupy, along the East Coast at least.  Philly Occupy veterans Chris Goldstein, Vanessa Maria and N.A. Poe launched the Smoke Down Prohibition rallies in December 2012, which helped pass the city’s Decriminalization bill in 2014, reducing the arrests of thousands of blacks and other minorities per year.  That same year the next big movement made its first crack in the national spotlight: Black Lives Matter.  The slogan wouldn’t be created for another two years, but the shooting of Trayvon Martin set the stage for BLM, when, two years later, Mike Brown was shot and killed, sparking the strongest civil rights movement since the 1960s. More importantly, Occupy shifted the discourse of the country to the Left and created a new language about economic inequality that resonated with millions of Americans.

When BLM ruptured onto center stage in American politics in 2014, many activists saw it, and still do, as the new leading movement for the Left.  This is very similar to how civil rights took center stage in the early 1960s, which directly influenced the radicalism of the entire decade.  BLM is not only the answer to the question, ‘what comes after Occupy,’ but it also carries with it the decentralized tactics of Occupy. “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Black Lives Matter” became the official slogans of the movement.  “Black Lives Matter,” much like Occupy’s “99%”, was created not by some official leader, but from three black women within the movement.  Instead of “occupying” public places, demonstrators controlled the streets by performing massive “Die-Ins,” a phenomenon that exploded in December 2014, almost as quickly as the Occupy sites sprang up. Making all of this possible, of course, was social networking.  When Baltimore exploded in April 2015, I remember watching the livestreaming of radical, online journalists as police attacked demonstrators after curfew. It felt like I was right there, receiving the same blows by police as the demonstrators.

Beginning in July 2015, BLM took the approach to interrupt presidential candidates speeches.  This new tactic gained immediate publicity after videos went viral online of activists confronting Bernie Sanders, which was repeated by two female Seattle BLM activists in August.  Despite huge amounts of criticism from conservative and progressive whites, the simple tactic was adopted and repeated at public speeches by the remaining Democrats and Republicans.  It didn’t always work, but activists point to Sanders creating a criminal reform plank as proof that the tactics did shift candidates focus onto issues effecting black people.

Similar to Occupy, BLM holds mostly contempt for the corrupt political system, and thus see nonviolent disruption of that system as justified.  Also like Occupy, the disruptions were meant to call out politicians lies about serving the interests of the people. “The Black Lives Matter movement is challenging candidates to directly explain how they would use their presidential power to stop police violence against the black voters they claim to care about,” wrote Alternet.com in a September 2015 issue. It went on to explain how “navigating the politics” of BLM was difficult because the movement is “decentralized, challenging candidates to speak with individual protesters and far-flung constituencies whose main organ of communication is social media.”  Deray Mckesson, a BLM organizer unaffiliated with any group, remarked: “The fact that presidential candidates are being forced to speak with nontraditional black power brokers proves leaderless protesting can be a powerful political weapon.” Not knowing when or where these protesters will emerge from, political candidates are defenseless against these nonviolent guerrilla tactics. “When candidates have traditionally reached out to black people, it’s been through traditional organizations and people have been older,” Mckesson said. “So what does it mean to have 19- to 33-year-olds have considerable influence about the perception of black America? It’s because of social media. The movement created that space. No longer is it enough to go to the National Action Network. It’s no longer good enough to talk to traditional organizations and institutions that have traditionally leveraged black people.”  In other words, political candidates can either directly respond to the complaints of black people, or else they can find a new population to win votes from.

Mainstream media attacks and police brutality against demonstrators are other links shared between Occupy and BLM.  The main difference, however, is that BLM has certain goals in mind, unlike the broad goals written up by local occupy camps.  But even here we see a connection between the two, since BLM still doesn’t have just one leader and still doesn’t have one list of demands shared by all. Instead, it has the direct demand of ending police shootings, while scrapping together dozens of other goals along the lines of economic, social and criminal justice reform. This is not much different than Occupy’s methods – find a public space, disrupt the business as usual, and demand to be heard by the hard-at-hearing politicians.


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