Don’t Let Occupy Be Occupied: 6 Ways to Fight the Creep to Institutionalize

Crucial movements of the past with clear and radical demands suffered a diminished voice when traditional organizational standards took hold. Hopefully not Occupy.

 Harriet Barlow   January 25, 2012  |  OCCUPY WALL STREET  AlterNet

Photo Credit: David Shankbone

It’s worth a long night’s conversation over your beverage of choice to explore the history of how becoming institutionalized affected the course of the civil rights and women’s movements, among others. Was the radical spirit of each distracted or stifled? Each of those movements came out of the gate with a powerful set of demands. Yet, once organizational dynamics took hold and divisions were confirmed by structure (think SCLC vis-à-vis SNCC, or NOW vis-à-vis NARAL) the chance of maintaining one strong voice committed to radical change diminished.  

Radicals became captive to a mindset dominated by the imperatives of competitive fundraising and institutions, rather than movement building. There were paydays to be met, auditors to be satisfied, board members and donors to be placated. To be clear, there is a stage when that evolution is inevitable in order to make the shift from fostering outrage to changing policy. At their best, strong, transparent and accountable formal organizations are essential building blocks for social change. But is this the appropriate role for Occupy? My eloquent colleague Alexa Bradley wrote:

The beauty of Occupy is that it is popular, wild, free. I don’t mean that in a romantic sense, although there is that appeal too and it is part of its magnetism in an all-too-cynical time. I mean it in a political and social sense — it exists outside the non-profit framework that is all too captive to a set of assumptions, norms, limits and needs. The resonance globally of Occupy is its clear roots in popular sentiment and movement, not a professionalized advocacy staff or agenda. Its power rests in the fact that it is un-circumscribed and therefore perhaps infinite in its circumference. We are all part of its we if we agree.

Paolo Freire said that all strategies are either domesticating or liberating. I see the institutionalization of Occupy as likely to be domesticating. It will become a creature of foundation funding and of the need to become “legitimate” in the eyes of other NGOs and political players. It will also lose contact with its base, people who do not want to come in from the cold, because they believe this is a position of power and integrity. Without them and the “we don’t play by your rules” attitude, what power can OWS actually muster, whether moral, popular or otherwise?

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Assuming that we don’t want to see any diminution of the spirit of Occupy, here are six thoughts about what could neutralize the impact of Occupy; consider them for that long comradely conversation about the tensions between movement- and institution-building.

1. Don’t put the IRS in charge.

Bad outcomes are often born of good intentions — consider the social change-oriented non-profit. I give a contribution to an organization with an IRS-approved social purpose, I get a tax deduction. The organization does its best to fix society.   

If only it were that simple. But the IRS, always the voice box of conservative thinking, insists that my money be virtually untouched by the foul hand of partisan activity.  And that it stays entirely on the right side of the law. No nonviolent civil disobedience on a non-profit dime. In terms of day-to-day spending for systemic change, that translates into a penchant for policy-oriented reports, meetings and the occasional campaign. What it does not translate into is occupying anything. And, with notable exceptions, it dulls the voice from speaking truth to power. Heaven forefend that your 501(c)3 dollar be used to organize against legislation that will benefit the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of us. Those restrictions may be entirely compatible with the worlds of museums and ballets, social service agencies, or research organizations. But they aren’t compatible with achieving the level of social and environmental change that we crave.  

Given the restrictions imposed by tax-exempt status and the invariably rigid interpretations of the tax code by the government, why would anyone want to harness Occupy with the oversight of the Internal Revenue Service by putting it into an official non-profit organization?  

Put another way, if we believe in the value and power of this work (and, one might add, all genuinely radical political work), we have to find a way to pay for it that looks more like union dues than something a financial adviser would approve.

2. Let’s not anoint OWS leadership.

At a recent gathering of OWSers, everyone applauded the remark, “The phrase ‘the leadership of Occupy’ is and should always be an oxymoron.” If that sentiment doesn’t make sense to you, read Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Or just take a few minutes to think about the difference between Moment and Movement. Genuine leaders do emerge from political moments, but being lifted up by community action produces accountability to that community. Being anointed by the media or funders produces accountability only to them. (Since we’ve mentioned reading, try Lawrence Goodman’s The Populist Moment on this subject.) 

3. Keep the spirit of Occupy free from bricks and mortar.

We need and have vibrant progressive institutions. In fact, many of them enabled Occupy to prosper. Supporting the existing infrastructure that allows interruption to be meaningful is crucial to the future of whatever comes next. Have you who cheer on the occupations sent contributions to the National Lawyers Guild which was everywhere defending the legal rights of all the occupiers? Or have you joined the Working Families Party or CodePink or The Other 98% or any organization that rolled up its sleeves for Occupy?

Are you paying your dues to maintain a vibrant, independent media? These are all part of the institutionalized left that we should support. The irony is that any plan to put occupiers behind computers at desks in conventional offices (especially if all that is funded by tax-exempt money) guarantees only one thing: more good people writing memos and reports and having meetings about what they have the money to do, rather than what they feel the personal and politically strategic imperative is and would do even if there were no guaranteed source of funding.

 4. Don’t drown it in money.

As far as we know, no one was paid to occupy. But occupy they did. And did. And did. Yes, many sympathetic non-campers helped by generously dropping money in the hat, box or garbage bag. And the sandwiches and fruit and ice cream (thank you, Ben and Jerry’s) kept morale high and tempers down. But the comment in the  1/18/12 NYTthat “With the (OWS) funding freeze, no money will be laid out for… out-of-town projects” sounds an awful lot like institution-think. Even if someone else somewhere else has a brilliant notion, the dollars will be saved for…?

Throughout the fall, the OWS folks across the country did maintain the very good sense to reject the idea of paying themselves. (“Which selves?”) But the fruits of that good sense will be erased with the prospect of salaries and budgets to “institutionalize” OWS. Contrary to some opinions, it’s OK if the first generation of occupiers become labor organizers or politically active waitstaff or take time to gain the skills to build a better society and a healthier planet. Making space for new energy, lending a hand, evolving into a different part of the social change ecosystem is a positive way to build movement. There will be a next wave. And soon. Give the determined old- or newcomers, “no strings attached” moving around dollars, but not titles or commitments to do anything but pursue high-stakes action in solidarity.

5. Keep it out of the silo.

Since the first days in Zuccotti Park, traditionalists have chastised Occupy for refusing to “say what they want.” What that usually means is “Support my issue.” However, in the one-page OWS September 29 Declaration, the occupiers spoke as clearly as the Founding Fathers in saying that what is wrong is not a function of any single issue. It is systemic and it is the obligation of us all to fix it.

Occupiers were holding the whole, blowing away the fog of politics-as-usual. It felt like a national shout of the last line of Spike Lee’s School Daze: “WAKE UP!” That’s a happening, not an issue. Occupy is a spirit that should not be contained or funneled into a single issue orientation.  

6. Don’t forget the lessons of history.

We all want Occupy to have meaning beyond its moment. Because of the encampments, we know anew the powers of interruption, of surprise, of witnessing, of narrative and of place. If we honor those gifts and integrate them into the weave of our work, the progressive front will become more powerful. But if we attempt to morph the Occupy spirit and energy into another 501(c)3 funded non-profit, competing with other groups for media attention and contributions, if we institutionalize its  thinking so that the Occupy spirit succumbs to the politics of the possible, rather than continuing to create new possibility, we will have missed an opportunity that history seldom offers.

Ideally, the OWS spirit of truth-telling, determination and commitment to creating community in action will infiltrate all our work. Ideally, the spirit of ruckus will consistently refresh our activism. Ideally, we will all talk about and act and vote with class analysis in mind. But lest you settle on the familiar notion that radical change is possible within the confines of the practical or the comfortable or the familiar, do have that conversation about what stilled the spirit of past movements. And don’t let Occupy be occupied!


One Comment

  1. Ian DeBaron January 29, 2012 at 8:43 PM


    “The revolutionary organization can be nothing less than a unitary critique of society, namely a critique which does not compromise with any form of separate power anywhere in the world, and a critique proclaimed globally against all the aspects of alienated social life.

    In the struggle between the revolutionary organization and class society, the weapons are nothing else than the -essence- of the combatants themselves: the revolutionary organization can not reproduce within itself the dominant society’s conditions of separation and hierarchy.

    It must struggle constantly against its deformation in the ruling spectacle.

    The only limit to participation in the total democracy of the revolutionary organization is the recognition and self-appropriation of the coherence of its critique by all its members, a coherence which must be proved in the critical theory as such and in the relation between the theory and practical activity.”

    -Guy Debord [Society of the Spectacle]

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