Within, Through and Outside of The Occupy Movement
Occupy movements across the country have been trying to grapple with a fluctuating (at the moment dwindling) base of active support, the demoralizing and often traumatic waves of police repression, and a relatively new decentralization of the movement as most sites have been forced to part ways with their base encampments. These changes have been compounded by changes in the national political situation – most dramatically, the approaching elections and the enormous pressure they exert on movements to demobilize and focus on out-campaigning the Republicans again.
As the flow of new forces and energy into the Occupy movement has waned, real debates within the movement, especially over democratic procedure, “violence” versus “non-violence” and responses to state repression, have polarized activists and consumed many a meeting in drawn-out discussions that sapped time and momentum away from real organizing and mobilization. These debates are important, when we connect them with our organizing work, but when we debate only to debate and not to organize, these debates get separated from the actual process of mobilization and the meetings cease to be spaces for pushing forward struggle.
At the same time, as the crisis continues to deepen, attacks on immigrants and on previously taken-for-granted civil liberties expand, and the government continues to demand major concessions in the form of slashed public programs, social services and education systems, much healthy popular desire to resist is expressing itself through other venues. We need to rebuild spaces to unite this discontent democratically and around a plan of struggle that targets the source of these attacks – not just the banks, but the Obama administration and the capitalist system.
Struggle Expands To New Sectors
Los Angeles is one city where demobilization of the Occupy movement seems to be a real and steady, though not irreversible, trend. Much of this has to do with conditions specific to the city – including Occupy LA’s particular disconnect from local struggles around which many of the city’s communities (especially working class and communities of color) could and would have mobilized, its still unconsolidated independence from the city government and Villaraigosa administration, its reliance on the union officialdom, and the dysfunctional, undemocratic and exclusionary structure its General Assemblies assumed from the beginning through the rigid “consensus process”.
Despite this, social struggle within the city has continued to build in spaces independent of or only loosely connected to Occupy LA. Significant positive developments towards this include the independent establishment of a second Occupy space at UCLA, and additional neighborhood Occupy spaces in some parts of the city, and the creation of Occupy the Hood with a focus on fighting off foreclosures in working class communities of color. In addition, workers struggles have continued to emerge around the city and are facing bosses far more determined to force concessions than in previous periods. At LAX, workers with Aviation Safeguards are fighting off company efforts to terminate their contract. Hotel workers in West Hollywood have called for a boycott of the Andaz hotel as part of a multi-state organizing campaign against the Hyatt chain and have staged numerous actions. And janitors from SEIU 1877 (USWW) are gearing up for a major contract fight this May.
The education sector continues to be another dynamic sector of resistance, and one uniquely positioned to take on the statewide austerity measures. After a slow period, we are now seeing a second wave of education struggle building. The creation of a statewide Occupy Education and Public Services movement is one way through which students, educational workers, and teachers who have not had the possibility of becoming involved in the Occupy movement are joining, and bringing it to their campuses and communities. In Los Angeles, the recent mobilizing conferences at Pasadena City College and Cal State LA – where many local community colleges, Cal States, and UCs came to participate and find a collective plan of struggle – and at the UCLA Community School for LAUSD teachers, parents and students have been important steps in this direction.
Though we are still early in the semester, serious fight-backs have already emerged within both K-12, adult education, and higher education. In the last month, the Los Angeles teachers’ union UTLA has united with community groups, students and parents, with mostly immigrant adult education students in the lead, in demonstrations of hundreds and even thousands to prevent the Board of Education from voting in an austerity budget that would slash funding for adult, art, early childhood, and special education. Meanwhile, LAUSD students just won an important victory against LAPD’s racist policy of slamming inner city high school students with expensive truancy tickets, court dates (two for each ticket!), and court fees. And at Pasadena City College, one of the recent strong points in the education struggle in the city, students responded to the slashing of 96 classes and layoff of than 45 teachers only one week before the semester started with two days of intense mobilization. They occupied President Rocha’s office and brought hundreds out to the Board of Trustees meeting, demanding the reversal of the layoffs and class cuts, the reopening of Winter semester, democratization of the college governance structure, and Dream Scholarships for AB 540 students. PCC students have been mobilizing around the bottom-line that “If [PCC President] Dr. Rocha cannot or will not fulfill these demands which are critical to the future of our students and Pasadena City College, we insist that he resign immediately to make way for someone who CAN effectively advocate for students, staff, and faculty.”
Organizers from multiple sectors of education across the state have called for March 1st through 5th as days to fightback, March 1st at the level of campuses and March 5th against the project of defunding and privatization of education being enacted at a statewide level. Meanwhile, the California Faculty Association, which represents faculty throughout the CSU system, has called for a strike vote sometime in April after 18 months without a contract. This new vote comes after the rank-and-file voted for and conducted their first strike ever last November, when the CFA converged on two campuses: CSU Dominguez Hills and East Bay. These were historic actions and provide the stepping stones needed for a more successful strike that will shut down operations and win demands.
Occupy LA and Labor Struggle
Some groups within Occupy LA have continued trying to build connections with Los Angeles labor struggle. The OLA LGBTQ affinity group has consistently brought occupiers out to union rallies, most recently to support the struggles of hotel workers, who constitute a highly exploited workforce of primarily immigrant women of color. And Occupy LA has joined teachers and students in protests against education defunding as well. On Feb. 29th, OLA will be joining Occupy Riverside in an action in support of outsourced WalMart warehouse workers.
This solidarity comes at a key point in struggle, but overall Occupy LA has assumed a largely cheerleading position, showing up to support to the extent permitted by the union staffers and having almost no engagement with the rank-and-file workers themselves. Because the unions’ strategies are mostly symbolic one day actions where they rely much more on outside support than on the mobilization of the workers themselves, Occupy LA’s participation there has not served to develop real relationships between Occupy and the working class.
The rebirth of the OLA Labor Committee this month is definitely a positive development that may serve as a counterweight to this trend. Made up of workers from several key city unions – UTLA, CFA, and UE included – it has real potential to develop rank-and-file participation and voice in OLA.
Continuing The Fightback During The Electoral Period
The overall disorganization and demobilization of the LA Occupy movement has had consequences for emerging resistance in LA. It has meant that – despite the desire of many committed workers, students, immigrants, and activists combat the all-around attacks – we have not had organizing spaces equipped for that task. And that like struggle in the city, the Los Angeles Left is extremely isolated, unorganized and dispersed.
In the absence of an organized Left, the union leaderships and NGOs have held onto unchallenged control over many struggles. The problem this has created is that the NGOs and union leaderships do not seek to build democratic mass movements or to mount a real offensive against the attacks as a whole. When they control struggle, they impose on it their methods and goals. Their goals are often far narrower than those around which participants are actually mobilized and their methods correspond to these stunted visions of what’s possible – instead of building massive mobilizations against the cuts, layoffs, and attacks on poor communities that leverage our power against the real perpetrators of the attacks, they prefer to do staffer coordinated campaigns like boycotts, pledge drives, petitioning, symbolic civil disobedience, and one day pickets where every aspect is decided and determined from above.
For the most part, the NGOs and union leadership are also directly and unconditionally tied to the Democratic Party and committed to voting, and lobbying, as the maximum way to defend our interests.This is a huge problem because it means that, on the one hand, they refuse to face the reality that the Democratic Party is incapable of and unwilling to defend the interests of the working class and oppressed communities and, on the other, they choose to demobilize during electoral periods.This idea that workers should demobilize during electoral periods is not something we should prepare to confront sometime in the coming months, it is already being pushed now and our ability to fight is suffering .Speaking before a crowd of furious teachers, students, paraprofessionals, and community members at the most recent LAUSD anti-cuts protest, the president of UTLA proclaimed “Some people here say we need to march forth. Well I would remind those people that in 2013 we have March 5th – Election Day. We have a lot of energy here and we need to take that energy out of the bargaining rooms and put it into those ballot boxes”.
The reality is that the issues around which people across the country are taking to the streets – the austerity measures, the war, full legalization of immigrants, the prison industrial complex,the bailouts, etc. – will not be on the ballot. We will never be given the chance to vote on these. If the Occupy movement, or any social struggle in this country, has any chance at all of surviving beyond May Day, it will be because it has taken a clear and explicit position of independence from the Democrats and that no matter who is in office, the only way to defeat these attacks is in our jobs, schools and in the streets, through growing our social power as we build alternatives to the twin parties and the capitalist system.
It is in these times that the failure to build a sustainable and healthy Occupy movement in Los Angeles is felt most strongly. The lack of a politically-independent, radically democratic, and class-conscious space through which to unite all the ongoing and emerging struggles – like Occupy’s role was in its epicenters like Oakland – is playing a stifling role on our ability to actually affect the political situation in Los Angeles.
The process of resistance is dynamic, with many ups and downs, and the possibility of new struggles being created all the time through the very hardships wrought by the crisis and the government attacks. As ongoing fights rebuild momentum and new struggles emerge, our ability to bring them together to confront not just their individual contracts and grievances but the political project of austerity, privatization, and repression being carried out by the federal government will be critical. We must create healthy spaces of struggle for this unity to be built, whether they are through the Occupy movement or not. We need to focus on building the fighting capacity of the working class as a whole, and not fall into a narrow focus on preserving one space or organizing method. In the coming period, we may very well see the need to create new and different organizing spaces if the movement structure hopes to keep up with and pull in all the emerging struggles. For this reason, we need to think flexibly and creatively, starting from the point of where struggle is really at. The spaces we build must function to throw the energy and strength of the 99% into a targeted fight back, into building mass actions with the power to win.