OWS Begins ‘Year II’ With Three-Day Convergence and Call to Debt Resistance
“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” cried voices across Zuccotti Park on Wednesday night as 30 people sat with their arms interlocked, surrounded by cameras and sympathetic onlookers. NYPD officers were positioned some distance away at the concrete barricades that had begun surrounding the park. Confronting the sit-in with mock dispersal orders were Sam Corbin and Logan Price, OWS Direct Action trainers tasked with helping to prepare participants for the People’s Wall, a nonviolent civil disobedience action in the Financial District planned for the morning of Monday, September 17.
September 17 (S17) is of course the one-year anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, a reclaiming of public space that galvanized the political imagination of the country and the world with its proclaimed opposition between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, its prefigurative emphasis on horizontality and mutual aid, and its linking of grievances from climate change to Stop and Frisk to predatory debt. All summer, OWS organizers have poured their energy into preparing for a three-day convergence of “education, celebration and resistance” to mark the anniversary — which will include assemblies, trainings, a concert, and a day of direct actions including the People’s Wall, 99 Revolutions and the eco-themed Storm Wall Street. At the same time, those of us working to organize it are keeping our eyes on the prize of long-term movement building for campaigns like the fight against the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and Strike Debt, an effort to organize a mass upsurge of debt resistance.
Chastened by the disappointed expectations surrounding the May Day call for a general strike, throughout the S17 planning process organizers have been wary about “overpromising and underdelivering,” in the words of Aaron Bornstein. And yet, as S17 approaches, a messianic sense of expectation and promise has taken hold of crazy-eyed Occupiers working 24/7 to pull together the final pieces of the convergence as an unknown number of sympathizers from around the country make the pilgrimage to Lower Manhattan to share in the anniversary observance. Rather than simply a backward-looking commemoration of occupied Zuccotti Park, OWS organizers have stressed that the convergence is designed as a launching pad for what they call “Year II” — a phrase that boldly suggests a new calendric cycle on the order of the French Revolution.
As Michael Hardt and Toni Negri have argued in their recent book Declaration, OWS and related movements around the world have practiced what they call an “autonomous temporality,” refusing to play by the expectations of the electoral system, the news cycle, and predetermined metrics of success and failure. And yet, though many are loathe to admit it, the global media presence will be a crucial ingredient for S17. Indeed, the S17 anniversary is unique in the recent history in that it provides a moment in which international media will be turned to a progressive social movement because of a milestone of the movement’s own making (rather than because of a convention or a summit where there happen to be protesters). The challenge facing OWS organizers is to strategically take advantage of this spotlight and to demonstrate that the movement of the 99 percent has only just begun.
The process of preparation is not entirely distinct from the day of action itself. As S17 approaches, organizers have deliberately encouraged members of the press to attend meetings that in earlier phases on the movement might have been considered off-limits. The weekend leading up to Monday the 17th will be an outdoor, public sequence of escalation.
Monday is framed with the word “Resistance,” preceded by “Education” (Saturday) and “Celebration” (Sunday). The overall trajectory of the weekend is that of a period of planning, training and outreach, with these themes threaded throughout the three days.
On Saturday, Washington Square Park will become the site for an Occupy Town Square pop-up occupation (that, for better or worse, will coincide with an officially sanctioned folk music festival that was only publicized by the Parks Department a week earlier). Featuring food and an orientation infrastructure, the pop-op occupation revolves around two primary elements. First, one can expect a series of large thematic assemblies focused on movement-building around topical arenas such as debt, environment, police and prisons, workers’ struggles, money and politics, and health care. Second, there will be an intensive training in direct action and legal issues will take in order to prepare people for participation in the actions on Monday. Following the assemblies and trainings, a book-release assembly will take place across the street at Judson Memorial Church for the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, a freely distributed publication from Strike Debt aimed at building the analyses, strategies and networks of mutual support necessary to refuse the control of creditors over the lives of the 99 percent. The manual will be accompanied by a performative sermon against usurious debt by Occupy Catholics, followed by a screening of archival footage and video work related to the past and future of OWS.
Sunday will begin with a march from the Spectra Energy pipeline construction site — where OWS environmental activists have recently escalated their direct action campaign — led by the Occupy Guitarmy. This Spectra Blast Parade will culminate at Foley Square, where the Guitarmy will open the OWS Anniversary Concert, featuring artists from across the stylistic spectrum including Tom Morello, The Chapin Sisters, Michelle Shocked, Rebel Diaz and, as a last-minute addition, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Scheduled to emcee the event is Jello Biafra of the legendary political punk band The Dead Kennedys. The concert will also include a participatory direct action training designed both to make a visual impact and to orient the audience toward actions on Monday. In keeping with the thematic framework of “celebration,” the concert is scheduled to segue into a precession led by Occupy Faith to Zuccotti Park, where an Occupy Rosh Hashanah service will be held to bless the New Year for the Jewish community as well as for Occupy more generally.
Monday morning ultimately remains a wildcard, given the unpredictable spatial strategies of the NYPD. The widely published OWS plan will combine the People’s Wall, at several targeted intersections near the Stock Exchange, with mobile actions launched from a series of overlapping thematic zones, including the 99 Percent Zone (which will orient newcomers entering the Financial District near Zuccotti Park), an Eco-Zone (which lead into the 10 a.m. Storm Wall Street action), and the Education and Strike Debt Zones (which are likely to coordinate their efforts in the selection of targets and tactics).
There have been weeks of open planning meetings for the morning’s actions through an affinity group spokes council. This spokes council has primarily focused on the 99 Revolutions framework, which enables a multiplicity of creative disruptions to be undertaken simultaneously by small affinity groups in intersections throughout the Financial District on the morning of S17. Descending in part from the Plus Brigades initiative developed by OWS in the spring, 99 Revolutions aims to create a mobile spiral or swirl likened by some to a “people’s hurricane.” This “mobile” tactical framework is designed to both enable a multiplicity of autonomous actions while also complementing the “stationary” logic of the People’s Wall, a more traditional sit-in-style action in the pattern of the civil rights movement. While in the early stages of the S17 process this diversity of tactics was contentious, in the final weeks the two approaches have been recognized as mutually supporting rather than mutually opposed.
In addition, a third, ecologically-themed action called Storm Wall Street featuring “polar bears on bikes and the Solar panel and Rising Sea Level Swimmer Brigade” will focus on connecting the dots between Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry, and the climate crisis. This conversation has gained major traction over the course of the summer in OWS as organizers have fanned out across the country to join struggles against mountaintop removal, tar sands extraction and fracking.
Throughout the afternoon, Foley Square is slated be a fallback safe space for mutual aid and support, and it will serve as the staging ground for a culminating Popular Assembly at 6 p.m. (Legal efforts are underway with OWS’ institutional partners in the labor movement to force the city to keep Zuccotti Park itself open, in which case the Popular Assembly will relocate.) Organizer Mark Adams envisions that the Popular Assembly could develop into a weekly horizontal, non-decision-making space that will allow for updates from ongoing campaigns and project groups.
Strike Debt is among the strongest campaigns poised to take advantage of the S17, treating the anniversary not as an end, or an end in itself, but as a beginning. Strike Debt organizers have strategized all summer about launching a multi-pronged offensive against the predatory debt system, with the eventual goal of sparking a nationwide debt-resisters’ movement that would strike at the foundations of capitalism as a whole. Strike Debt has created a sophisticated press and propaganda unit, with articles and interviews seeded throughout the progressive media landscape, along with dynamic visual materials and performative actions. A key node in these interlocked efforts is issue 3 of Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy, in which the theme of debt resistance is woven throughout. Most strikingly, the back cover of the magazine features a stylized advertisement for S17 by R. Black in which an army of hooded debt resisters hold aloft their burning debt statements in a gesture that evokes the draft-resisters movement of the 1960s. This graphic served as a kind of pre-mediation for a staged propaganda video released in August, featuring masked members of the “Invisible Army of Defaulters” reading a poetic communiqué and burning debt statements in a collective bonfire.
While the video served as a kind anarcho-surrealist fiction evoking a shadowy underground resistance, last weekend Strike Debt staged a full-on coming out party for debt resisters with a speak-out and ritualized debt burning in Brooklyn’s East River State Park. Breaking the silence and shame surrounding the condition of indebtedness, participants delivered often-emotional testimonials concerning crushing medical bills, astronomical student debt, underwater mortgages, predatory credit card interest rates, unpaid legal fees, punitive budget-cuts and the ever-present anxiety of the all-powerful credit score.
As the debtors spoke and burned their documents, they were transfigured into a beloved community of debt resisters. As the flames rose, the spirit of anti-capitalist jubilee was in the air. The blessed smoke mingled with spectral visions of a People’s Wall, 99 Revolutions and a Storm that would wash the eco-cidal tyrants of Wall Street out to sea. But even in their excitement and their fervor about the OWS anniversary, the debt resisters recognized September 17 as just another date on the calendar of the Old World. Perhaps the “autonomous temporality” of OWS might also mean liberating itself from its own circles and cycles. A post-S17 meeting has already been set for September 23 to begin the conversation about forming a debt-resisters’ union, and plans for a People’s Bailout involving the strategic purchasing and cancellation of toxic household debt are in the works for the fall.
On S17, the whole world — or at least more of it than usual — will indeed be watching. But what people will see emerging probably won’t fit their expectations. Like the occupation of Zuccotti Park one year ago, it will be untimely, otherworldly and terrifying to the 1 percent.