Before all the banks fail, we lose our jobs, and go out into the streets again, some reflections on the last time that happened.
The sixteenth-biggest bank in the US has just suddenly and dramatically collapsed and is being bailed out by the federal government. This may or may not be a precursor for a cascading series of other bank collapses, but with subprime (aka "variable rate") mortgages being more popular now than they have been since 2007, I smell an imminent financial crisis.
This is not the only thing that makes me think about Occupy Wall Street, and the autumn of 2011, especially, but it's one of them. Witnessing the fizzling-out of another very youthful and multiracial movement that took over the streets throughout the US more recently reminds me a lot of the last time I had that experience, in the wake of Occupy.
There were other nationwide stirrings of social movement activity in between the autumn of 2011 and the summer of 2020, most notably in the wake of the police murder of Eric Garner in New York City in 2013, that of Michael Brown, Jr., on the street in front of his grandmother's place in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and in the wake of Donald Trump's election a couple years later. But the further into the future we get, the more perspective I find that makes me want to reflect on the commonalities and differences between these two recent historical moments, the social movements that took place across the US during the fall of 2011 and the summer of 2020.
To be clear, it's not like things are dead right now, in terms of social movement activity in the US. Of particular note are the many charges of "domestic terrorism" being levelled against scores of people essentially for trespassing in Atlanta over the past few days and weeks, and the police killing of one of the trespassers. More broadly, there's an upswing in grassroots union organizing across the country, and various other signs of life, too.
There are a number of other social movements that involved people organizing in every little corner of this country in relatively recent memory -- the global justice movement circa 1998-2003, the antiwar movement of 2001-2005, and the immigrant rights movement in the spring of 2006 being three of them. But certainly for anyone alive today who is under the age of thirty, the fall of 2011 and the summer of 2020 tend to stand out.
The first thing veterans of most any social movement will say about it is we didn't win -- the rulers still rule, not us. Arguably, though, past social movements in this country (and so many others) have won a lot, without winning lasting power. We could easily say that the social movements of the 1930's bore a great part of the responsibility for the fairly decent welfare state that existed for two generations following that extremely tumultuous decade, for example.
Victorious or not, however, social movements are worth reflecting on, for so many reasons. And the value of contrasting 2011 and 2020 is not just because of their temporal proximity to the present and to each other, but because they had a whole lot in common, in terms of strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and perhaps lessons for the future.
Both movements were responses to the realities which created them. In 2011, some combination of the ongoing legacy of the financial crisis that began to unfold three years earlier, inspired by the tactics of the Wisconsin uprising and the Arab uprisings that began in the previous winter. In 2020, some combination of the ongoing police killings of Black people on the streets of the US, combined with the extreme inequities exposed by and exacerbated by the pandemic and measures taken to deal with it, with the livestreamed, nine-minute-long police execution of George Floyd in the middle of the street in the middle of the day in Minneapolis being the final straw.
In the case of 2011, the initial protest on Wall Street was planned in advance, and organized well. The expansion of the idea to include financial districts in small and large cities across the US and beyond was not part of the original plan. Similarly, in 2020, though the initial nationwide outburst was a direct response to the lynching of George Floyd, the months of sustained marches, acts of civil disobedience, and other activities were not necessarily anticipated in advance by many people. In both cases, what began as a local thing quickly became national, quickly started getting massive media coverage, quickly started being met with extreme police brutality, and quickly developed widespread popular support.
My personal experience with both movements was in some ways similar and in others very different. In 2011 I was still touring all over the US on a regular basis, rather than mainly in Europe. The gigs were still good enough for me to do here, and I was touring a lot. So in 2011 I played at thirty Occupy camps in different cities, before I lost track. In 2020, years after I was no longer touring actively in the US, and most importantly, months into the pandemic lockdown here and around the globe, my direct experience with what was happening on the streets around the country was the Portland area, and interviewing people on a daily basis for much of that year from different parts of the US.
Partly because of the pandemic and the necessity for everyone to wear masks, live performance at events in 2020 was a lot less frequent than with previous social movements. There was plenty of music, which in Portland was largely provided by the Portland Sound Bloc, which was mainly one person, who was a veteran of the global justice movement. On a couple of occasions when the police took or destroyed his sound system, he borrowed mine. Whichever sound system he was using, he played a wonderful soundtrack which provided a great combination of entertainment, encouragement, and education, with songs and speeches from throughout recorded history. But it was canned music, and although there were things happening literally every day for at least six months, at the peak of the movement, live music was only occasionally part of the proceedings. I only sang live at a small handful of events organized by different folks involved with the movement.
For better or for worse, it should also be noted that among the youthful organizers of protests at Portland State University and elsewhere in the area, it had become customary that all of the speakers and performers at events they organized be from a marginalized group. While there are so many good reasons to have a policy that emphasizes voices from marginalized groups, having this kind of policy where folks like me are allowed to provide the sound system, but aren't invited to sing a song or two, did not help anything in any way that I could see, it just meant that rallies tended to have even less live music than usual, particularly since Trump's election.
Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, involved a whole lot of live music in all kinds of situations, though it was usually not amplified, because of the "human microphone" tradition that basically developed by accident in New York City, and then spread virally across the country.
Several months before the September 17th protests in Zuccotti Park in 2011, I got an email from Justin Molito, who I first knew as a union organizer in Connecticut during the days of the global justice movement. There was going to be a significant event that day in Manhattan, get there if you can. I think by luck I already had a gig the night before in Brooklyn, so it was very easy to show up in lower Manhattan the next morning.
I had a tour already booked that would be taking me all over the US and Canada for the next several months, as it happened, which was why it was so easy for me to fully take advantage of the Occupy camps wherever they were, and show up to sing a few songs. As one might expect, this was always appreciated by folks. One of the known features of any movement that involves taking over a space and occupying it on a long-term basis is boredom, and this is a condition that traveling troubadours are designed to alleviate, if we're worth our salt.
So many of the people involved with Occupy were very young, for sure. But the slightly less young folks were out in force as well. One small piece of circumstantial evidence to back up this claim is that everywhere I went that fall, my actual pre-organized gigs had hardly anyone at them. Once, only five people showed up, and we just skipped the gig altogether and went to the local Occupy camp. But the local Occupy camp was where most of the other people were, at those other gigs with very few people at them. Which is to say, the remnants of the global justice movement, along with the other various random anarchists and leftwingers who constitute the bulk of my audience, were at the local Occupy camp, not at my gigs.
Social movements are like this, in every case that I know of. They're constituted by lots of new folks who have never been involved in one before (often because they were little kids the last time one happened), and lots of folks who are veterans of one or another of the social movements that have happened in living memory. So, throughout my entire life, having been born in 1967, I'm always meeting new baby boomers -- that is, folks a decade or two older than me -- who tell me this is the first protest they've been to since the Sixties. Someone is always attending the first protest they've been to since the Sixties.
As things heated up and got more organized in 2020, it was a similar experience for me, in terms of hearing from folks I hadn't heard from since the global justice movement, along with hearing from lots of folks who weren't born yet when that was going on -- teenagers who had been following me on Spotify, and were now organized under the banner of the Youth Liberation Front or another moniker, and could somehow recognize my face in the dark with a mask on in downtown Portland.
In 2011, although so many folks who had been involved with the global justice movement were also active on the streets to varying degrees, I very frequently encountered an orientation among people I talked to from this milieu who avoided much involvement with Occupy activities because they were put off by the attitudes of some of those involved with the movement, because of some folks who exhibited sexist tendencies or other problematic behavior. Which of course could sometimes be extremely problematic, as with society at large.
I had been hoping at the time that all those who had been involved with shutting down World Bank and IMF meetings in the past would immediately see the connections with this viral movement against the 1% that was taking public space at prominent, key locations across the country. Some did, many stayed away. What impact this had on the movement, I have no idea, but I'm sure it wasn't positive. Mainly what ultimately ended Occupy, by my observation, was it collapsed under the weight of the combination of police brutality, trying to camp in the winter, and the vulnerability the movement had to getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis of homeless people in our society in need of all kinds of care, which a movement under constant siege by violent police could not seem to provide.
In 2020 there were organized efforts -- successful ones, in some cases -- to occupy spaces, such as preventing the residents of a house in north Portland from being evicted. But for the most part, the space occupied was the streets. So although plenty of people involved with the protests were themselves living on the streets (at least here in Portland that's true), this movement was holding different kinds of spaces than Occupy had been.
Aside from the common, massive problem of police violence, and provocateurs of all sorts -- many surely paid agents of the state -- creating problems and trying to sow division, the movement in 2020 differed from 2011 in terms of emphasis and aims, at least in the minds of many. With the dichotomy between the 99% and the 1% that was the essence of Occupy Wall Street, although it was often said that the movement lacked any clear goals, the basic emphasis on systemic change to the severe inequalities of American capitalism was inescapable, it was in the very meme itself.
Although the movements of 2020 included lots of people focused on ending evictions for everyone, and refocusing on the housing crisis in light of the sudden mass unemployment that came with the pandemic/lockdown, the biggest emphasis, especially in terms of media coverage, was around Black Lives Matter and racial justice. For certain elements of the movement that had gained particular prominence in the wake of Trump's election, this took the form of what became known for "white allies" as "doing the work" of reconciling our racist upbringings with our antiracist beliefs. At an accelerated pace, I began to hear more and more about prominent organizers I knew or knew of, across the country, being publicly attacked for "centering" the wrong people or "not centering" the right people, for "doubling down" if they had differing opinions than their detractors, and for "refusing accountability." The effect of these campaigns, it seemed, was to focus collective attention on the perceived moral shortcomings or transgressions of organizers, rather than focusing on collective action towards the goal of system change.
Eventually the movement had largely vanished from the streets of most of the country, in terms of any kind of daily presence. In Portland it persisted, in a shrunken, hyper-militant, increasingly insular form, until its inevitable collapse. In retrospect it seems obvious that a big vulnerability of this movement was to the idea that the problem we were challenging was not necessarily institutional racism and institutional problems with the nature of policing and the laws the police were charged with enforcing, but the inner racist demons lurking within the white people within this movement, which in most of the country constituted the majority of the folks on the streets most of the time.
One of the big new challenges in both 2011 and 2020, as well as with the protests after Trump's election, was all the media coverage. In prior movements -- certainly including the global justice movement and the antiwar movement of earlier years -- media coverage was rare. There were many protests involving civil disobedience and all kinds of other stuff, attended by tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, that received almost no national media coverage. (I promise I'm not exaggerating this claim at all.)
In 2011 and 2020 events on the streets were covered very thoroughly, but very selectively. Getting so much media coverage so quickly seemed like a wonderful pipe dream for folks who had tried in so many creative or dramatic ways to get media coverage in the past, with limited success. But it's evident in retrospect that getting all that coverage may have fueled the fires of protest (both figuratively and literally), but it also created a lot of problems.
Whereas in previous movements, organizers had to do a hell of a lot of outreach and creating of networks in order to get any kind of turnout for anything, at which point there might be a small chance of getting a bit of media attention, in 2011 and 2020 there was daily coverage of whatever was happening with these movements on the streets. Getting that much "help" from the media ended up giving a lot of people the impression that there was a lot more organizing going on than there actually was. Unlike with past movements, all the events I attended in both 2011 and 2020 that involved thousands of people also involved mass media coverage prior to the events in question. When media didn't play this role, attendance was often in the low dozens -- sometimes better, often worse. There were local exceptions to this rule, but overall, across the country, that's how it was, by my observation.
When a social movement receives this much media attention and posturing from politicians trying to appear supportive of the movement, as was the case particularly among many Democratic politicians in both cases, and the movement receiving so much attention is largely a spontaneous, leaderless uprising, the result of this kind of imbalance is the media and the politicians end up having tremendous control of the narrative of the movements.
So in 2011, the media narrative was these young activists mean well, but they don't really know what they're trying to accomplish. Did the mainstream media ever interview widely-acknowledged intellectual leaders of the movement, such as author and professor, David Graeber, to ask for his thoughts? Very rarely.
In 2020, intellectuals already popular in the liberal end of the corporate media spectrum were essentially appointed movement representatives, and so we heard endlessly about the importance of better police training and learning about overcoming racial prejudice within ourselves, and understanding our inner biases. Largely absent from the media coverage were the voices of anticapitalist antiracists. There was more "historical racism" coverage than ever, owning up to the persecution of groups such as the Black Panther Party fifty years prior, coverage which painted this as a historical wrong, but almost never did we hear perspective from surviving members of this group, or why so many of them are still in prison today.
In both 2011 and 2020, blanket media coverage helped make a sustained national movement out of what might have been a comparative flash in the pan. While all the coverage served a useful purpose for the media -- different purposes, depending on whether we're talking about corporate liberal or corporate conservative media -- once the coverage wasn't seen as useful anymore, it stopped, and with it, most of the marches did, too.
If I could predict the next uprising, or if I knew the formula for instigating a successful one, I'd do that, and so would a lot of other people. But whatever's coming up, perhaps in the aftermath of the latest financial crisis that seems to be looming, hopefully it can be a movement that learns from the shortcomings of the last ones.