The recent celebration of Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS) second anniversary triggered a series of blogs with pronouncements that ranged from “Occupy is dead,” to critiques of its organizational (non)structure, to suggestions how we should act in order to succeed (by those who claim we have failed). The question is, of course, how do we define success and what is Occupy’s aim? Ultimately, Occupy can succeed only if people provide support by donating time, money, materials, ideas and good will.
The initial aim of OWS was to expose the corruption fostered by the lack of checks and balances between the government and corporate world. The original OWS call to action reads in part:
We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
Twenty-five points stating grievances against corporate misuse of power followed this statement of purpose by OWS.
So how has the Occupy movement “failed” and how has it “succeeded”? Social and economic injustices continue to flourish in our country, but Occupy opened a dialogue around the issue of social justice, and can take some credit for the demands for a living wage that have come up recently, as well as for challenges to illegal foreclosures.
Occupy is smaller and grayer now. Students went back to school, employed professionals went back to work. But a core of activists from every walk of life dedicated to social and economic justice continue the work, much of it based on love and compassion and living by example. Occupy did not lose steam or betray its peaceful foundations. It is still peaceful and energetic, still building community.
While Occupy is not a tightly organized hierarchical movement, it does attempt to address manifestations of corporate greed and governmental lack of concern for the people most affected by corporate malfeasance, such as corporate personhood that gives corporations all the rights of citizenship without any of the responsibilities; student debt and defunding of public education; banks too big to fail; the gap between minimum wage and living wage; inadequate and unaffordable health care, wrongful evictions and homelessness.
Occupy as a movement exhibits certain broad tendencies, which manifest as two modalities: the political modality and the service modality. It is hard to separate politics and economics from people’s day-to-day lives; our lives are deeply affected by policies made without our consent. However, the strategies involved in addressing decisions made in corporate boardrooms and government chambers as distinguished from helping people cope with their day-to-day realities are quite different.
Policies that complicate and even endanger people’s lives are met with protests, letters to the editor, initiatives and declarations of citizens’ rights to self-determination. For example, Occupy Eugene co-sponsored Democracy School, which created the network that drafted the Lane County Local Food Safety Ordinance, an ordinance which would, by law, nullify corporate personhood in Lane County, award rights to natural ecosystems, eliminate restrictions on saving and sharing seeds, and create strong disincentives for planting GMO seeds. However, no sooner had Lane County Local Food Safety Ordinance been accepted for the ballot, than the state Legislature, in special session, passed SB 853 — a measure promoted by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) — which prohibits local governments from regulating “seeds or any product made from seeds.” And, so, the struggle for local control of agriculture continues.
Service to the community has a more immediate, practical aspect. It is a way of leading by example, of helping those most oppressed and disenfranchised by the system by providing immediate relief, and, at the same time, promoting empowerment on both the group and individual levels.
For example, Occupy Sandy organized effective volunteer relief to the people in New Jersey whose homes were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Since then, Occupy Sandy has expanded its disaster aid to the national level, helping victims of the tornado in Oklahoma and, more recently, assisting flood victims in Colorado.
Also on the national level, Strike Debt, an organization inspired by OWS, purchased and forgave $1.1 million in medical debt for 1,000 people.
Here in Eugene, Occupy Medical (OM) is the best example of both political involvement and providing service to the community. In addition to taking a strong stand in support of single-payer healthcare, OM is modeling this approach by providing medical services to the community on a weekly basis free of charge. It also promotes empowerment by teaching self-care through classes on better nutrition, breastfeeding and use of herbal remedies.
Another example is Occupy Eugene’s work with economically displaced persons, many of them unsheltered. Occupy Eugene partnered with the city and a number of charitable and interfaith groups to help create Opportunity Village for the unhoused. Currently it is working with SLEEPS and the city to legalize sleep for the unsheltered in our city. On Dec. 22 the first Eugene City Council-authorized volunteer-run camp opened as a pilot project for future camps.
The ordinance, which allows camps to operate until next March, is clearly not a cure for homelessness in Eugene. But the camps are a first step in helping some of the 3,000 unhoused Eugeneans. Perhaps the best aspects of Opportunity Village Eugene and the implementation of the legal campsites is the hope of creating self-sustaining communities for the many economically displaced persons living in the shadows of our city.
Catherine Siskron is a resident of Eugene and a lifelong social justice and peace activist.