To mark the occasion of the Occupy Wall Street movement's fourth birthday, various #TakeBackOurCommunity and "days of action" against racism, gentrification and police brutality are being held throughout the city and country today. A 5 p.m. rally is planned at New York City's Zuccotti Park, site of the original OWS encampment.
Despite the rumors mongered by the corporate press of its utter demise, and despite an orchestrated national crackdown on the camps in the fall of 2011, the Occupy movement is alive and well in its various offshoots, such as Occupy Our Homes and Occupy Sandy and Occupy Media. OWS is still fighting the police in lawsuits charging false arrests and brutality. It definitely lives on in the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who uses unabashed OWS rhetoric in his stump speeches. Were it not for the Occupy movement, the concept of the 99 percent never would have been part of the national lexicon.
Charles Lenchner, an OWS "techie" who used his expertise during the original uprising four years ago to spread the message through websites and social media, told The Guardian that the rise of Bernie Sanders would have been inconceivable without the Occupy movement. He now runs "People for Bernie Sanders," which is unconnected with the official campaign.
Pundits loved to criticize OWS for being a leaderless movement. But as Martin Breaugh recounts in The Plebeian Experience, the lack of leaders in popular uprisings has been par for the course throughout history. The original Roman plebs who seceded to the Aventine Hill outside the city never elected a "leader," but succeeded in their goal of representation in the legislature. The Sans-Culottes of the French Revolution, the Communards of Paris and the English Jacobins all were eventually crushed, but they have left lasting traces. On the rare occasions that movements comprised of street people have become co-opted by a leader or a political party (the Ciompi revolt in Renaissance Italy, for example) the original purpose tends to either fizzle out or get watered down, and the designated "leader" does not last very long. The desire for a leader is nothing less than a desire for servitude and a relinquishment of one's own political agency to another.
To his credit, Bernie Sanders constantly cautions that his run for the presidency is not about him. He acknowledges he is but a part of a "revolution." Of course, Barack Obama and his "change we can believe in" slogan broadcast much the same thing. He also readily admitted that he was a "blank slate" upon which we could pin our hopes and dreams. Sanders is anything but a blank slate.
Although leaderless plebeian movements like Occupy have historically been short-lived and physically crushed by the powers that be, their memory is persistent, and their spirits tend to infuse subsequent movements, writes Breaugh. Seeds get planted. The exploitation of the many by the few is rejected. People are educated to become more open to internal dissent and more accepting of "otherness." The concept that citizenship that goes beyond the periodic voting for "representatives" becomes widespread.
"Despite its tragic nature," writes Breaugh, "the plebeian experience leaves its mark and resonates for others who will be subjected to the same political domination in the future. Its relative brevity does not prevent it from inaugurating a discontinuous history of political freedom."
Happy Birthday, and Vive L' Occupy!