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Common Understandings and Affinity Groups
by Kim Scipes
The Occupy Wall Street Movement has spread across the United States and across the world. Obviously, the best way to get an understanding of the Occupy Movement is to visit and/or join them yourself, and supplement this with reading articles/stories by them, about them, and for them. And watch the myriad related videos that have been produced and distributed across the internet.
Certainly, something powerful is going on. In the US, the Occupy movement has generated the largest public mobilizations in approximately 40 years. It’s garnered the attention of newspapers, magazines, politicians, the public, and the police. According to a number of public opinion polls, the majority of Americans support the general goals of Occupy. There are already four books published or soon to be—one from Verso Publishers, one from Yes! magazine, one from Alternet.com, and one from Time magazine—of which I know. And now, along with protesters in a number of Arab countries (particularly Tunisia and Egypt), Greece, Israel, and England, “The Protester” [was] named as Time’s “Man of the Year” for 2011.
And while the Occupy Movement “retreated” in the face of police repression and oncoming cold weather, it was still strong enough to shut three ports on the West Coast on December 12: Oakland, Portland, and Longview, WA.
Activists have been seeking to use creatively the winter months, so as to emerge with warm weather even stronger, more informed, more unified. This is all the more important since Mayor Rahm Emanuel has secured the NATO meetings for Chicago, and they will be here in May: the need to be as clear as possible seems especially important.
I think that there’s something much more going on with the Occupy Movement than just simply mobilization. Yes, mobilization is here, and it is important. But, again, more is going on.
To understand the Occupy Movement, we need to examine three levels of abstraction: the mobilization itself, the symbolic aspect, and the social power that the movement is trying to develop. And then we need to further develop our movement.
The mobilization aspect is the clearest to date. Americans have rallied to this movement in ways not seen since the early 1970s. Hundreds of thousands have assembled, marched, sung, danced, cheered, shouted, etc., all repudiating the status quo, at one level or another. Perhaps most amazing has been the overall diversity of those who have mobilized: the mobilizations have included people of all ages, of all genders, of all racial groupings, all education levels, all work/occupation statuses, etc., etc. And while the particular characteristics of protesters vary by site, the simple fact is that the range of protesters has been so broad across the country that they cannot be dismissed as “the usual suspects.” And for one very good reason: this mobilization in general is much larger, more sustained, and more representative of the large majority of people of our country than any since the 1930s!
A “spin-off” effort that is used to disrupt political fundraisers, reactionary political speeches, or statements by lying school board officials—referred to as a “mic check”—has given activists an offensive weapon that is quite effective. Joined with this are “occupations” of people’s foreclosed homes, of gates to port docks, etc., and other places that can have a political and/or economic impact. In short, tactics developed in the larger occupations have been dispersed to groups across the society.
… the Occupy Movement … was still strong enough to shut three ports on the West Coast…
It seems to me there are five sets of factors that are contributing to the mobilization. First, as so many have detailed over the past several years, people’s lives are getting much worse in this country. Wages and salaries have been stagnant for over 30 years. There is a lack of jobs for those without technical training or at least a bachelor’s degree—and yet, neither are guarantors of getting a job, much less a good-paying job, while increasing debt burdens those who get this advanced training—and falling levels of union representation for those with jobs. Further, the social safety net is fraying, and the Republicans in particular (with help from many Democrats) are actively working to destroy it. Along with these factors, prices—especially the cost of gasoline, housing, home heating fuel, and food—continue to rise. These worsening economic conditions are structural not cyclical, as is often claimed, which means these jobs ain’t coming back! 
Second, and both as a result of these changes and, in turn, helping to make these things much worse, is the escalating income inequality in this country. The US is by far the most economically unequal of all of the so-called “developed” countries, save the small city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore. And TV shows keep showing the wealth gap—stupidly celebrating the 1% and their obscene consumption levels—which is letting the 99% see how far their “fortunes” are falling behind.
The Occupy Movement in general symbolizes the dissatisfaction that exists…
Third, the political system is being seen as overwhelmingly corrupt. People see that politicians are not addressing the problems of the majority of us. Most probably haven’t put together the fact that this is not just a general failure, but that the wealthy have bought off the politicians and the politicians are acting to serve the interest of the rich at the expense of the majority of us, but they know the political system is not working for “us.” Tied to this, at least under the surface, is the dissatisfaction of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that, despite Obama’s claims, are not over.
Fourth, the increasing understanding of the corruption of the mainstream news media is spreading. People know that, to a large extent, the US mass media is lying—either by commission or omission. (Notice how The New York Times recently has all but “forgotten” the Occupy Movement?) As they get access to alternative mainstream sources—such as BBC or Al Jazeera or Russia Today (RT)—they can see the inadequacies of the US media system. And as they find out that there are actual alternative information sites that actually produce knowledgeable and informative news. 
And all of these things are tied together in a fifth factor: people are seeing that they are not alone. People are seeing the development of social movements across the Arab world that are challenging established dictatorships. They are seeing Greeks and Israelis, and the British are rebelling. They might not understand the “why” of these rebellions, but they know people are not going passively to slaughter. 
This ties in, especially for those in our country, the uprising in Wisconsin.
While the focus was on Madison, the protests were actually broader, going into all areas of the state, which is overwhelmingly rural. When people saw farmers parading around the State Capitol with their “manure spreaders,” they got the point. As they saw collective bargaining attacked, and social services gutted, they jumped back: this isn’t “the American way.” And although, unfortunately, the protests were ultimately channeled into the established political system, nonetheless, two Republican state senators were defeated, and a very vigorous recall effort of the governor seems likely to succeed. Yet the fact that these were “ordinary Americans” who were mobilizing and protesting and recalling, I think, contributed to the sense that each of us could join in: protesting by broad swathes of society was not just a “foreign” thing; Americans could do it too. And I keep remembering the chant that was adopted by a considerable number of generally unionized Indiana workers and their supporters in Indianapolis in March 2011—who each seemed fairly conservative personally—as they drew on some of our radical American heritage: “Hell No, We Won’t Go!”
The symbolic level
This is probably much less clear in people’s understandings, but it is there. The Occupy Movement in general symbolizes the dissatisfaction that exists in our society—as discussed above, this dissatisfaction is based on real situations and understandings. At this more abstract level, the Occupy Movement as a whole generalizes the specific grievances/dissatisfaction expressed at each particular encampment, but collectivizes them, giving them a synergistic impact across the country.
…the Occupy Movement… generalizes the specific grievances… expressed at each particular encampment…
This symbolism, none the less, is important and is having an effect on encampments themselves and on the 99% outside of the major cities, which is where the major encampments have been overwhelmingly located. For example, folks in Chesterton, Indiana—with a population of approximately 11,000 in the northwest part of the state—have been occupying the park at the center of their town every Saturday afternoon for the past couple of months, talking with each other about the future of their town and what they’d like to see develop. They don’t have the numbers to maintain a 24-hour occupation, but the hours in the park have been special. And acts like this—which I believe are much more widespread than has been let on—in turn help legitimize and support the larger encampments and the messages they are projecting, while grounding the general movement in particular local areas.
The symbolic level can especially be seen on the internet. Massive numbers of videos have been posted, overwhelmingly showing the righteousness of their cause, the diversity of people and their demands, sometimes the power of their protests and the brutality of the police response. This not only has spread across the United States, but across the world, letting others know of this mobilization in “the belly of the beast.”
But who gets this? While I’m not sure many protesters understand this symbolic level, where I am certain the Occupy Movement has been received loud and clear is upon the “powers that be”: the elites, their politicians, and the police who serve them.
The Occupy Movement has been a collective “up yours” (as the Brits would say) to these folks. It’s the condensation of Howard Beale’s famous rant (in the movie Network), “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” It’s a repudiation of “’business as usual.”
The powers that be “get” this—and they get it clearly. It is why they have worked so hard to disperse many Occupy encampments and have used quite violent means when folks don’t automatically comply. The cop with pepper spray at the University of California at Davis—and Davis has a generally conservative student body (Berkeley it’s not)—was quite deliberate in his use of the chemical; that was no “irrational,” out of control, response.
Remember, mayors in cities with extreme budgetary pressures have mobilized hundreds (and perhaps, at times, thousands) of police—many unionized, with good benefits such as overtime—to withstand the “attack” of Occupy. Why these expenditures, which their cities really cannot afford, to dissuade and/or arrest protesters who generally have done nothing more than violate “curfew” regulations? It doesn’t make sense in any rational analysis.
That’s because the elites and their politicians are not responding “rationally” (in a normal human being’s sense) to Occupy. They see Occupy as what it really is: a “fuck you” to the powers that be for their imperial wars, their failing economic system, the growing social misery, the intensifying global ecological disaster, etc. And they are responding “rationally”—as people in their positions—to the challenge: the attacks on Occupy have been very deliberate, although they’ve sometimes gotten more violent than perhaps desired (as in Oakland, and the injury to Scott Olson, the twice deployed Marine), which has turned people even more against them.
The politicians are pissed at Occupy: they don’t like their shit being put out in public for all to see. If people are unhappy, they can demonstrate, as long as they are peaceful and they soon go home. However, peaceful protesters who stay, who publicly proclaim that the system is screwed up, and who have the nerve to occupy public space for days and nights, well this cannot be permitted; it’s “un-American.” It is a threat to their very system: and they know it.
Hence, the symbolic aspect of Occupy cannot be denied. Adding this level of understanding to the mobilization deepens our understanding of what is going on. And yet, there is still a third level.
Creating social power
Where the rubber hits the road for the Occupy Movement is whether it can turn this incredible mobilization, with all of its symbolic importance, into a force of social power.
The key to success has been the development of social power by the people.
I reject the common explanation of how our country got to where it is. The story told in high school textbooks, as well as many other books, is basically that this country got to where it is today because of forward-thinking American politicians, such as Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson.
There’s another reading of the American experience, one that differs from the traditional “forward-thinking politicians” myth. The American experience can better be understood as a product of the struggles of ordinary women and men to make real the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. This is not to say that white folks didn’t oppress Native Americans, Blacks, Mexicans or Chinese, and even white ethnic immigrants from Catholic Ireland and countries of Eastern and Southern Europe—who, once accepted by the “whites,” joined in the oppression of people of color—but that the majority of people in this country, over time, have worked to make real these ideals.
And we must never forget the activists in each of these struggles who took tremendous risks to win the social support of ordinary people to their goals. This was true in the abolition (of slavery) movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the LGBT movement, etc. In fact, it was the activists’ efforts that led to the development of each of these and other movements.
And that’s what I believe the Occupy Movement is attempting to do, furthering this tradition of getting people to join the struggle for a better, less oppressive world.
…we need to further “construct” the 99% movement.
The key to whatever success has been generated in the US (and elsewhere), over time, has been the development of social power by the people below to force the people above to do what those below want. It’s really that simple: developing social power from below to force the people above to do what we want.
The question is: can Occupy do this on an ongoing basis? That’s the $64,000 question. Key to this challenge, I believe, is to “organize” this herd of active individuals into a series of conscious political groups, each based on solidarity, and then to unite with other groups at a greater level of solidarity.
Arguably, that could be said to be where Occupies are: with their open, democratic processes in their General Assemblies, these are an effort to create that group-ness, that collective identity and unity. And out of that have come decisions to engage in collective behavior, as Occupy Oakland did, twice closing down Oakland’s port.
My gut, however, tells me this is not sufficient: it’s too general. And is too weak; organization at this level will not be sufficient to withstand ongoing police repression. We need more time, and more intimate settings, to get together to think out these issues than is possible with general assemblies, no matter how brilliantly run and how inclusive they are.
I think each Occupy needs to pull people together, but then to encourage people to organize themselves into affinity groups of between, say, 5–12 people. This sized group is small enough where people can build personal connections and make decisions that all can abide by, and yet big enough for folks to engage in collective activities while having some support in case of arrests, etc.
In short, we need to further “construct” the 99% movement. We need to build the unity and clarity that we aspire to, recognizing that we don’t have it yet. General assemblies cannot provide the forum for this. We need smaller groups, and more time.
We can learn from the women’s movement, the anti-nuclear plants and weapons movement, and the anarchist movement. We need to come together, small group by small group, to begin the process of thinking things out. I’m suggesting that we start creating house parties or something comparable, where people gather in people’s homes or some other amenable location, to begin these processes. Now, these meetings can be based on a number of commonalities: particular political positions/ideologies (socialist, trade unionist), geographical proximity (college dorm, neighborhood), commonalities (race, gender, class, sexual orientation/identification, primary language, religious orientation, etc.), or whatever brings small groups of people together: none is more important than any other; the goal is to create sustainable groups that will last over time, and are intended to engage in commonly desired political activities in the not-too-distant future.
Key to this is that we take time to begin getting to know one another. Once this is done—and it is worth it to take the time to enhance the comfort level for everyone—then I think each group should identify what are the key issues that each person thinks are most important for their group and the movement to address, and why.
In other words, we need to consciously create affinity groups out of gatherings of individuals, so as to enhance democracy, strengthen organization, develop solidarity, and deepen the political understanding—and I’m talking in the broad sense, not just confining this to electoral politics—of the Occupy Movement. This development of affinity groups will allow us to consciously deepen our resistance, while allowing us to develop a process by which we hammer out our visions of, and pathways toward, a new societal model, one which is based on global solidarity in the struggle for environmental sustainability and for economic and social justice.
It is this third level—developing social power—that truly threatens the 1%. They don’t appreciate our mobilizations, and they don’t like the symbolic nature of our mobilizations, but they fear our developing such social power that we can force them to do what we want; in other words, they fear the very democracy that they have long told us our country is based upon.
It’s our “job” to make this democracy real, through building strong, unified and determined organizations that can work together with people everywhere, in the US and around the world. And pushing onward….
Kim Scipes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Ind. His latest book, AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, has recently been published in paperback; go to http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm. Scipes also has a chapter in the recently published book, It Started in Wisconsin. This article was initially published on Z Net on December 30, 2011; it has been somewhat modified here.
1. See http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/21584; best read after listening to and watching James McMurty’s “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTW0y6kazWM, although I don’t think the solution is “vote Democratic”!
2. Including, but not limited to Democracy Now!, Countercurrents, Z Magazine, Z Net, Synthesis/Regeneration, Monthly Review, MR Zine, Truthout, Truthdig, Common Dreams, Alternet, The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones, etc., along with a growing number of radio programs being broadcast over their air and streamed across the internet—their disgust at the established media system grows, while their general understanding of the world deepens.
3. For an excellent analysis of the global rebellion, see Tom Engelhardt’s “Four Occupations of Planet Earth,” December 19, 2011, online at http://www.zcommunications.org/the-four-occupations-of-planet-earth-by-tom-engelhardt.
[22 aug 12]