Quick feelings on building occupations

Lots to get out after today, funny thing is I didn’t even take advantage of my day off as much as I probably should have. Work was slow today, so they told me I didn’t have to come in. This is a problem, but I tried to make the most of it and not stress.

I heard early this morning about the occupation at New School University. I have some mixed feelings. Of course, I think that the level of aggression the police used was brutal and going far and beyond the limits any “law and order” type officer would or should use. That being said, I think that this last occupation at NSU and the one most recently at NYU present real opportunities for radical/progressive students to evaluate our approach to strategy and tactics, and take a critical approach to an organizing logic I’ve seen brought up several times now.

Many in the radical student movement at NSU and NYU talk about building occupations as “ends to themselves,” that it’s a mistake to treat this tactic as a “means to an ends.” I think the consequences of the most recent occupations at NSU and NYU should push many of us to take a more critical stance to that arguement, and to think much more objectively about the standards we use to evaluate our successes and failures.

Here’s a pattern I’ve been noticing: 10 – 15 students occupy a building. Shout some slogans like, “Student Power!” “Occupy!” or some other such thing. They wave some flags, drop some banners, and write any variety of communiques, manifestos or blog posts. They make some passionate and dramatic YouTube videos documenting the whole scenario, until, inevitably some cops come and ruin all the fun. They make arrests and then a ton of students cry “shame” (literally). Few if any students wind up joining the movement, or becoming active participants in long-haul struggles for change, coalitions are rarely built, things remain pretty much the same (except, perhaps, for those who directly participated).

Furthermore, few students actually take this as a real chance to self-examine the state of the movement, the strategies we use and the tactics we employ. Instead, we lambaste the cops for doing what we know they’ll do every time. I mean, at a certain point is exhausting to get angry for something rather predictable. Rather than do what everybody expects us to do–yell at the cops, protest even more, with little success–let’s reflect.

If our standard for success in these cases is “did we occupy a building?” Than the occupiers won (by their analysis). However, I think most of us are working for much much more than that (and I suspect wouldn’t find the sacrifices made to meet such standards terribly efficient). If you’re concerned, like I am, with more broad, fundamental change, than I think we need different standards for success.

Our power to win change comes from people, and getting lots and lots of people to pressure decision-makers in a number of dynamic, creative and ever more militant ways (two of my favorite essays describing this in more detail can be found here and here.)

If that’s accurate, than it follows our tactics should 1) expand our base of support, 2) move supporters more into the leadership of our movement; increase their confidence and level of commitment, and 3) broadly raise constituents consciousness,  and advance a radical narrative around key issues. I shouldn’t treat each of those standards as a priori but this isn’t an academic approach–it’s an effing blog post. The point I’m making here is that we need to use tactics that bring more cohesion to our movement in the form of recruiting “neutral” folks, and at the same time strengthen the leadership, unity and commitment of people on our side.

So, if it’s the case that what some critics are claiming (and I happen to agree) is true, and that these most recent occupations at NYU and NSU alienate more people than they recruit, that the costs are higher than the gains, than we should take those criticisms seriously and not just blow them off as “liberal”or whatever. In the words of Stokely Charmichael, (who popularized  the term “Black Power” and founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) if we are revolutionaries than we have “a responsibility to succeed in making revolution.” Part of that is being open minded and self-critical, and not clinging dogmatically to any one strategy or tactic. We all have a responsibility to growing our movement together, and learning from our victories and our failures.

All that being said, I should clarify. I’m not saying all that to suggest anything that questions the commitment of anybody involved in those specific events. I’m merely suggesting that we use the heat of the moment to evaluate our strategy and tactics.

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3 Responses to Quick feelings on building occupations

  1. tiffany says:

    Hey thanks for writing this – the way in which radical activists forget to repopulate themselves via choice of action has long been a question to me.

    Isn’t it understood that occupations are inspiring to a broad array of people? That the displayed militance encourage others? Seems like if so, they are worth it

  2. Hey Tiff, totally. The New School occupation in December was a total inspiration to tons of diverse students across the country, but I think that has a lot to do with the intentional selection and discipline in messaging and tone.

  3. adam says:

    I totally agree, direct action definitely has to be used in a strategic sense to advance long term goals, not “ends in themselves” and self-evaluation and criticism is important to ensure that activists don’t become narrow minded and dogmatic

    moreover, coordination with other groups and allies to prepare such actions is important as well to ensure that beforehand you have a broad base of support

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