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Occupy's Return From Hibernation

As winter fades, the Occupy Wall Street movement is heating up again. But don’t expect the same focus on physical encampments and rowdy protests. While the blood of the 99 percent is still boiling at the injustice of growing inequality, in organizing meetings and workgroups, cooler heads are prevailing. This is Occupy 2.0—the mainstreaming of momentum.

From my conversations with Occupy organizers and supporters, my sense is that the main thrust of organizing energy and attention will go toward Occupy Our Homes— a coalition of Occupy activists joining with existing grassroots groups to support families that are facing foreclosure or have been evicted by big banks. Prioritizing Occupy Our Homes is great choice for two reasons. 

First, the foreclosure crisis is immense and growing. Despite the recent mortgage settlement with state attorneys general that will grant 750,000 foreclosed-upon families a whopping $2,000 each (!), 4.2 million families have already been foreclosed upon during the economic crisis. The industry site RealtyTrac estimates that number will skyrocket to 10 million in 2012. Besides literally pulling the rug out of millions of American families at the worst possible moment, according to the Federal Reserve, high rates of foreclosed properties drive down home prices and values, hurting all homeowners and the economy as a whole. There may be no more powerful illustration of the abuses of the 1 percent than the taxpayer-bailed-out big banks foreclosing on struggling families and driving down the economy for the entire 99 percent. 

But organizing around Occupy Our Homes is a strategic second phase choice for Occupy for another reason, one best summed up by my own mother. She sent money to Zuccotti Park and her own local Occupy site in Allentown, Pennsylvania but, at age 64 (sorry mom!), told me there was no way she was sleeping on the ground outside in the cold. The great thing about Occupy Our Homes as a tactic is that there’s still a tangible way for the tents and sleeping bags set to be involved (as when Occupy supporters camped out on the lawn of the home of an Iraq War veteran near Atlanta, ultimately saving her home from foreclosure) but foreclosure prevention also creates avenues for other types of engagement, whether bringing a casserole, writing a letter to a bank, or joining a prayer vigil. Such actions put a broader face on the 99 percent movement, not just punk kids in bandanas but middle class families threatened with homelessness standing with block association presidents and pastors and grandmothers (i.e., my mom). 

Say what you will about mainstreaming, that’s how movements evolve being a fringe concern to a force for change. I don’t mean to disregard the role of the vanguard, those at the leading edge of a movement’s origins who take the first, bold steps and, often, risks. But vanguard leaders should be self-aware and situate themselves in a larger context, seeing the prospect of mainstream appeal as a sign of their success not a threat to undermine it. It’s absurd to pave a road and then get angry when other people follow it. Instead, the next step is to pave a new one. 

Unfortunately, I predict that a crowd of die-hard Occupiers will stubbornly cling to the tactic of public Occupy encampments and mass, edgy protests, confusing these tactics for the entirety of the movement and overlooking the possibility that these tactics may have outlived their symbolic power. Related debates about the political utility of black bloc tactics have been springing up and hopefully, these important debates will continue, knitting together various philosophies within Occupy into a diverse whole. But as with many movements, it looks like this next phase will divide the movement into factions, with the radical anarchist wing splitting off from the rest. Perhaps the best outcome of this will be that even though the anarchists will continue their “day of rage” type actions and police aggression, they will make the Occupy Our Homes wing seem more reasonable and rational. At best, the more radical wing will continue to pave new, innovative roads for future momentum. That would be the vanguard-y thing to do.

Lastly, look in the spring for another wing to emerge—existing grassroots organizations driving sets of actions tied to the mission of Occupy Our Homes but with a more radical, confrontational edge. This will include perhaps the most visible, systematic disruption of corporate shareholder meetings ever seen in our country as well as other targeted direct actions on big banks in particular. No doubt there will be some missteps but, to be clear, the difference with this cluster of organizers and actions is that it will explicitly seek to bolster the same message and goals as Occupy Our Homes and implicitly create political pressure and space through edgier tactics that legitimize other arms of the movement.

I was recently trying to explain hibernation to my three-year-old. I told her that animals like bears store food in the fall, dig in and gather strength in the winter and then come out ready for spring. The 99 percent movement gathered tremendous public will and political momentum in the fall of 2011. Now, the movement is quietly planning and gathering strategic strength. In the spring, populist activism will bloom across America with a density and diversity unheard of for decades. It’s going to be a very hot spring indeed.

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