It would seem that the national Occupy movement has reached an impasse. After months of successfully occupying and defending encampments in cities small and large across the country, most of the major sites (like Los Angeles with 500 tents and Boston with 200) have been raided by police and demolished.
Political leaders on the right applauded the national crackdown, even as the World Press Freedom Index dropped the United States 27 spots on their yearly ranking explicitly because of the government’s assault on the Occupy movement.
And yet, Occupy lives. Just last week, Occupy Harvard supporters occupied the Lamont Library cafe, taking aim at a specific target—the University’s attack on librarians’ jobs—and creating a platform to demand overhaul of University policy on the whole. On the national level, however, Occupy Harvard seems to be an anomaly, and many on the right are gleefully writing its obituary.
To understand what it means when an “Occupy” movement is not occupying anything, it is useful to look at the original “Occupy”: Tahrir Square. Unbeknownst to many Americans, the style of protest that Occupy embodies—spatial occupation—was directly inspired by the success of the 2011-2012 Egyptian revolution that began on January 25. After years of one-off protests against the oppressive Egyptian dictatorship (which receives $2 billion in US military aid every year), protesters decided that instead of going home after the protest, they were going to stay. And stay they did.
As the past year has shown, governments are infuriated when protestors decide not to go home after a protest. The Egyptian police responded brutally to the occupation of Tahrir, Cairo’s main square, but after weeks of attacks and the deaths of over 800 people, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.
The story didn’t end there. Reactionary forces in the military have since cracked down on dissent and repeatedly attacked protesters who have tried unsuccessfully to re-occupy Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, general support for the protests has wavered because some have been pacified with the fall of the president, and many have settled for the few democratic concessions the military has made. A year after the start of the revolution, the way forward is less clear than ever.
While the Egyptian protesters won the battle but seem to be losing the war, the Occupy movement’s loss of the first battle does not necessarily portend the end of the movement. Instead, we are beginning to recognize that while spatial occupation is an effective tool, it is not the end game. The pursuit of structural, social, and economic reform does not necessarily depend on the occupation of physical space, and the events in Egypt shows us that this occupation is not necessarily enough to create the change we seek. What next for Occupy?
The decision of many of the major Occupy Movements not to re-occupy public space has freed up a great deal of energy and creativity that is being directed to other outlets—the encampments themselves needed a great deal of physical work and commitment, as they often housed everything from soup kitchens to libraries to medical clinics.
Today, Occupy activists are engaging in many activities that are not directly tied to physical space, such as confronting finance firms whom the government has refused to prosecute (Occupy Harvard has done this) or leading marches demanding an end to sexual harassment and rape culture, as Occupy vigilantes have been doing in Allston. These actions have been accompanied by a proliferation of caucuses and working groups localizing the Occupy movement (Occupy Allston-Brighton has recently surfaced, for example) and allowing activists to focus on specific tasks. Occupy Harvard has developed working groups on internal issues (like anti-oppression and inter-Occupy solidarity) as well as on external issues (Muckraking Harvard and Animal Rights). In this way, the efforts of activists are channeled in a number of diverse but well-coordinated directions that allow for a multifaceted movement confronting inequality and oppression at multiple levels.
Additionally, Occupy has begun occupying different kinds of spaces. Recently, students at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the city’s only public university, occupied the lobby of their student union with many of the same demands as Harvard and other University occupiers. This action is similar to the ongoing indoor occupation of an Istanbul Starbucks, moves to indoor occupations in Washington, D.C., and, of course, the Occupy Harvard occupation of Lamont Library.
Similar to the work of Ocupemos El Barrio and other anti-foreclosure movements, Occupy D.C. activists are occupying foreclosed properties to help prevent families from getting kicked out of their homes. The combination of occupation and anti-foreclosure activism represents a profound move forward in the fight for the 99 percent that physically defends homes and livelihoods from predatory banks.
Despite a perceived lull in the Occupy movement, this winter has still witnessed the greatest degree of activism that we’ve seen in this country for forty years. Although the movement has been slowed by winter and government repression, the present is a vital moment of movement building and reorganizing that will allow Occupy to emerge more powerful and focused in the spring. To those who think that this revolutionary movement will duck its head and go away, think again—Occupy is here to stay.
Alex R. Shams is an A.M. candidate in Middle Eastern Studies. His column appears on alternate Fridays.