Occupy: on the move

How a broad-based movement came into being, how it's growing, and who's joining up

Dec 7, 2011 at 12:00 am
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The tents and makeshift kitchen are gone from Grand Circus Park, cleared out by order of city officials in time to keep it from besmirching the festivities surrounding Detroit's nationally televised Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Who wants a bunch of scruffy political malcontents and homeless people drawing attention to the problems of capitalism as the holiday shopping season is about to kick off?

And, unlike occupiers of public spaces in a number of other cities — from New York and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and Portland — the demonstrators peacefully complied, avoiding even the possibility of the mass arrests, police brutality and dramatic television images that occurred elsewhere.

But don't be misled. 

Occupy Detroit's move out of the park wasn't a surrender. It was a decision both practical and tactical. 

With winter approaching, it made little sense to try to tough it out in the park once temperatures began to drop. Moreover, much effort was going into simply surviving: maintaining the camp and feeding anyone who showed up. As one of the occupiers noted, setting about building a political movement is difficult to do when much of your energy is going into running a soup kitchen.

So, when city officials announced it was time to leave, the occupiers, with some heated debate about the importance of fighting to remain in a public space, agreed in their own cumbersome consensus-building way to peacefully vacate the downtown park.

By that point, though, the encampment had already served a crucial purpose: It provided a rallying point for the diverse components of Occupy Detroit to come together.

As with the movement in general — which is now worldwide — it is truly diverse. In the course of reporting this story, Metro Times has interviewed students and businessmen, anarchists and community activists, the homeless and academics, lawyers and poets and computer programmers. They are young and old, city dwellers and suburbanites, black and white and brown. 

What they have in common is the belief that the current system is failing them — and everyone else not fortunate enough to be counted among the top tier of this nation's economic elite.

They are young people who see higher education being priced out of their reach, or who are graduating from college burdened by crushing student loans and little prospect of obtaining a decent job. They are middle-aged people who worry that the social security that was promised them won't be available when they retire. They are people who have lost their homes to foreclosure. They are people who've seen what life is like trying to survive working minimum wage jobs and failing. They are people who have seen their jobs shipped to Mexico or overseas. 

They are the 99 percent.

They are you.

And what they are doing is trying to find their way, creating a movement where not long ago there was only angst and apathy and disillusionment and frustration and fear and a lack of hope that things would ever get better.

Then, a year ago, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, feeling many of those same things, set himself on fire, and in martyrdom ignited what would become known as the Arab Spring, with first one dictator and then another and then another toppled in popular uprisings.

Six months after Bouazizi's self-immolation, the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters registered the domain OccupyWallStreet.org and proposed holding a peaceful demonstration in New York City by posting this message on its website: "Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On Sept. 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street."

The concept, that Wall Street could be occupied as Cairo's Tahrir Square had been, quickly spread across the United States and throughout the world. In less than three months, the movement has taken root in hundreds of cities large and small.

An oft-noted critique of this pheomenon in the mainstream media is that, for all the clamor caused by the protests, there is no clearly defined set of demands. But, as we noted in a previous story, part of the great significance of this movement is the message sent by its very existence: Unrest and rebellion against the status quo are growing quickly.

It is also, supporters say, a movement that is still in its infancy, yet to find its full voice. 

In addition, observes author, teacher and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff, there is a fair amount of sham to the complaint that the protesters are flailing away at ill-defined targets.

"Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful," Rushkoff writes. "Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about, and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher."

But it goes even deeper in that. The anger is that the system has been corrupted to the core, with the super-wealthy and corporations using their vast economic resources to control the political process, tilting the game ever more in their favor. Like a snowball rolling downhill, getting larger and more powerful as it goes, crushing whatever might try to stand in its way.


What's important about the movement so far is that, even without articulating specific demands, it has already had a noticeable effect on America's political landscape.

"It has changed the conversation in a profound way," lefty filmmaker Michael Moore declared in a recent radio interview. "Seven, eight weeks ago, all we were listening to was about the debt ceiling and the deficit crisis, and ... nobody's talking about that distraction any longer. They're talking about the real issues now that are facing the majority of Americans: jobs, the fact that millions of homes are underwater, that 50 million people don't have health insurance, we have 49 million living in poverty now, we have 40 million adults who cannot read and write above a fourth grade level, that are functional illiterates. That's the nation that corporate America and the banks and Wall Street have created." 

Holding a unique place in all of this is the city of Detroit. The town that put the world on wheels and became the Arsenal of Democracy in the fight against fascism, and the same town that helped give birth to the American labor movement, has in recent decades become the epicenter of this country's post-industrial decline.

Now on the verge off insolvency, wracked by poverty and crime and abandonment, the city has long dealt with the sort of crises that washed over the rest of the country when the entire economic system came close to collapsing in 2008.

As was pointed out last year when some 17,000 people made a pilgrimage to Detroit for the U.S. Social Forum — an event that received virtually no mainstream media coverage, yet addressed many of the same issues at the heart of the Occupy movement — Detroiters are ahead of the curve in terms of learning how to deal with economic catastrophe. The people of this city have been taking it on the chin for decades, and have learned how to adapt. The proliferation of urban gardens is just one example of finding ways to cope in the midst of deprivation and desperation.

It is also a city with a long history of radical political movements and social activism, from labor to civil rights and black power.

What we're seeing now, however, even as the echoes of those upheavals are being heard in the Occupy protests, is also different in an essential and crucial way from anything that has occurred within anyone's lifetime.

Mass movements of the recent past were largely driven by single groups that attracted some measure of outside support. The anti-Vietnam War protests were primarily the product of young people of fighting age. Part and parcel of that was a distinct generational divide. Although there may have been many white supporters, the civil rights movement had as its driving force African-Americans. Similar patterns emerged in the gays rights and women's liberation movements.

What's different now, observes Wayne State University history professor Fran Shor, is that the "economic dislocation" of this crisis is so widespread, affecting everyone from professionals at the upper edges of the middle class to blue-collar workers to the working poor. 

Framing the issue in terms of the 99 percent is "brilliant branding," says Shor, because it immediately captures the essence of a crisis that crosses racial, ethnic, gender, class and generational boundaries.

Even the rank-and-file of the right-wing Tea Party, which also rose up as a response to the economic meltdown, are outraged by the government's bailout of big banks and Wall Street brokerage houses, while Main Street homeowners — now former homeowners — fall victim to foreclosures and what Shor describes as the "continued predations of the 1 percent."

That's not to say the Tea Partiers are rushing to set up tents in public parks. They definitely are not. But there are areas where fundamental concerns on both the right and left overlap. 

Detroit native Lee Gaddies, a media coordinator for the local Occupy group, says he's been getting calls from people in the Tea Party who are concerned about a last-minute amendment to the $662 billion National Defense Authorization Act; the amendment, according to published reports, "would deny U.S. citizens suspected of being terrorists the right to trial, subjecting them to indefinite detention."

"There you have an issue where libertarians and communists are coming together," says Gaddies, a 44-year-old entrepreneur and longtime community activist.

The growth of the Occupy movement has been astounding, Gaddies observes. "It went around the world in a month! No other movement in history has achieved that kind of momentum. It never happened before. All these different groups with one goal: economic fairness."

Gaddies agrees with others that Detroit offers especially fertile ground for this movement to take root in. But, he notes, it also has a longstanding obstacle that must be overcome if it is to be truly successful here: race.


As in many other places, the initial public faces of the movement — those doing the actual camping — were college-age whites. What's been missed by much of the mainstream media is the support that's been provided by sympathizers who don't fall under that demographic.

The problem is that black Detroiters aren't easily trusting of outsiders — especially white outsiders — who parachute in saying they are here to help, explains Gaddies, who is African-American.

What definitely won't work, Gaddies says, is people coming in declaring that they know what is needed to fix Detroit. There have been people here working on problems for decades, and the way they see it they are still going to be here when the newcomers eventually give up and go back home.

"So, yeah, they are wary," Gaddies says. "Like one of my neighbors who is in his 70s said, 'I've seen movements come and go. I'm going to wait and see if this one really has legs.'"

So, it is understandable at this point that, in a city that is more than 80 percent black, the Occupy movement is still disproportionately white. However, to their credit, many of those most active in the movement so far have shown an awareness of this, and say they are willing to do the hard work necessary to build relationships with established organizations and activist groups in the city.

Part of the structure of the Occupy movement involves so-called "working groups." In Detroit, for example, there is the media group, of which Gaddies is part; another handles finances (more than $7,000 has been raised so far). There's a direct action group, and a group focused on nailing down facilities to base operations out of, and so on. Another of the groups is for community outreach.

The idea is to meet with activists already working on established projects, says Sarah Coffey, a 40-year-old self-described anarchist who was among those camping out at Grand Circus Park.

As an example, members of Occupy Detroit had pledged to assist the longstanding group Moratorium Now in a Tuesday protest (after this article went to press) intended to help keep an elderly woman from being evicted from her home. There are also plans to participate in actions to help keep four public libraries in the city from being permanently shuttered.

Coffey, who participated in the protests that roiled the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 and other major protests since then, describes the Occupy movement as still being in its infancy and just beginning to find its way. 

What's already apparent is that this movement is anything but monolithic. There are lots of varying, sometimes conflicting opinions about how to bring about the more just society everyone is yearning for.

For some, that means putting a focus on the electoral process. On Saturday, during Detroit's Noel Night celebration, Occupy volunteers were out participating in a voter registration drive and collecting signatures for a ballot measure seeking to overturn the state's controversial new emergency manager law, which takes power away from elected officials and puts it in the hands of appointees granted the authority to abolish labor contracts and sell off public assets in financially troubled municipalities.

For others, the belief is that emphasis should be on direct actions such as the occupation of libraries slated for closure. 

"People are coming at this from every perspective, and that is a good thing," says Coffey, an articulate and self-assured high school dropout with a deep understanding of political issues. 

"It is possible," she says, "to have a dual strategy, with some people who want to work within the established system to correct problems, and others, who see the system as irretrievably corrupt, deciding to create change by working outside the establishment."

By attacking the problem from all directions instead of just one, the chances of success increase dramatically as everyone works their way toward a common goal.

And, like others in the movement, Coffey is firm in her belief that there is no room for failure.

"Right now, we have the opportunity to create change before things go over the cliff," she says. "And if we don't change them, we will go over that cliff."

Having studied the radical leftist work of Detroit political philosophers and activists Grace Lee Boggs and her late husband Jimmy Boggs, Coffey is committed to the idea that real change happens from the ground up. Which is why she is committed to the idea of building the Occupy movement by working with established groups. By lending their support to groups like Moratorium Now and efforts to stop utility shutoffs and library closures, the occupiers can become what Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization refers to as "force multipliers."

Aside from the moral underpinnings of working on causes that are consistent with Occupy's broader goals, there is a tactical advantage to taking this sort of approach. It is a way of building trust and creating alliances. 

"Change has to come from below," Coffey says. "And an essential element of that is creating communities."

Or, more specifically in terms of Occupy, becoming a legitimate part of communities that already exist by lending helping hands. That includes connecting with Latino and Arab communities as well as groups in the city's many predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and progressive organizations such as the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the East Michigan Environmental Action Council and the Unitarian-Universalist Church.

It is not cynical manipulation in the way traditional politics are, but rather a practical, everybody-wins approach. And just as connecting with established communities locally creates the potential for a cohesive political force to address issues of broad concern for the city, region and state, a network of Occupy movements are connected — either through technology or through personal contacts — that helps create a national and even international Occupy community. 

Which means that, ultimately, it is a movement that is at once both intensely local and sprawling. At least that is the hope, and the vision being formulated by many of those active in the Occupy Detroit campaign.

It is not something that is accomplished by pitching tents, or simply staging demonstrations.


"Camping in the park as a symbolic representation of dissent, and reclaiming public space is a good thing," Coffey says, "but it is not enough. What we have to do is take this to the next level."

Exactly what form that next level takes is something that is still being sorted out. But what has happened so far, as a result of leaving the park, is that aspects of Occupy Detroit have been dispersed but not fragmented.

What binds the various elements together are the twice-weekly general assemblies, held at 1515 Broadway, a small downtown theater owned by businessman Chris Jaszczak. As someone long-committed to the revitalization of Detroit, Jaszczak has been letting the occupiers meet there without charge.

Two assemblies held last week provided a view of the Occupy movement that reveals it to be earnest and open and, at times, downright maddening. 

The movement strives to be what participants describe as a horizontal structure as opposed to the top-down hierarchy Americans are used to. There are no designated leaders — although leaders of sorts certainly emerge as the ones who put forth the effort to get things organized and tasks accomplished. 

But there is no one at the head of a table with gavel in hand, designating who can speak when and for how long. 

Instead, the occupiers take pains to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard, and even minor issues are hashed out in what can seem like interminable discussions. When general assemblies were still being held in Grand Circus Park, even obviously drunk homeless men who showed up for the free food being served were treated courteously and given the opportunity to speak, or at least slur, their minds.

During one recent meeting, discussion dragged on and on over whether volunteers would be allowed to go to Lansing to participate in planning for an assembly of representatives of other Occupy sites across Michigan.

What made the whole debate incredibly pointless was that there was nothing stopping whoever wanted to make the trek to Lansing from doing so. 

It is also seems as if an inordinate amount of time is spent simply explaining the process. Much emphasis is placed in the hand signals that are used to gauge the sentiments of those participating. If there is agreement with a proposal, hands are held aloft and fingers wiggled in the air. If someone is not in favor of doing what's is being proposed, hands are pointed down. Forming fists and crossing arms in front of one's chest constitutes a block that brings everything to a halt while the blocker is given a chance to explain why they are opposed on moral or some other equally weighty grounds. Then people are given a chance to respond. If the blocker fails to relent, then a form of supermajority must be achieved the get the matter decided. 

It can make coming to consensus on even the most trivial of matters terribly time-consuming. 

For example, a group of Occupiers squatting illegally in some houses just south of Seven Mile near Woodward asked for $100 from the movement's $7,000 cash fund to get enough materials to make the places at least somewhat livable. It took about a half hour to finally get the consensus needed to have the financial working group release the funds.

After one particularly mind-numbing exchange, one observer, who works for the city, whispered waggishly that it was enough to make him yearn for the relative efficiency of the Detroit City Council.

That's how bad things can get.

"It can seem silly at times," admits Coffey, a veteran of these proceedings.

But here's the thing: Occupy Detroit is less than two months old. The camp at Grand Circus Park didn't spring to life until Oct. 14.

So, it is understandable that the process is still unwieldy. "People are still figuring out what we are doing," Coffey says. "But it is essential to the character of the movement that we take great pains to be inclusive and transparent."

The experience, she says, "is crazy, awesome, ridiculous."

It is also both tedious and thrilling, and for the same reason: "It is a large-scale experiment in a truly democratic process," Coffey says.

And there is something more: For some, if nothing else, it is a beacon of hope at a time when hope can be scarce.

Ron Aronson, a noted author who teaches at Wayne State and holds a Ph.D. in "the history of ideas," is also a former community organizer. For the past several years, he says, he has been active in a small group known as the Huntington Woods Peace, Citizenship & Education Project. Although the rightward tide has been growing in strength at least since the Reagan administration, the past decade especially has not been an easy one for people who consider themselves to be progressives. Two unnecessary wars, the Bush tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy, the economic crash — all that and more have taken their toll.

"The main enemy emotionally and intellectually right now is cynicism," he says. "The feeling that things can't change, the feeling that things are hopeless. That you have to go along with the way things are. What the Occupy movement has done is broken with that cynicism, and given people hope again. I don't know where it is all going to go, but just because of that it is already a big deal."