Essays

Occupy to Liberate

Feb 11, 2012

The last few years have been hard for us: record foreclosures, high unemployment, drastic cuts in social services, and government actively doing the bidding of big business at the expense of regular people.

With a combination of bewilderment and frustration, concerned global citizens had asked one question over and again: when and where are people in the US going to rise up and take to the streets?

Turns out, the answer was September 17, 2011 on Wall Street.

Of course, for all it’s simplicity and elegance, that answer is not entirely accurate. Communities of color, albeit in smaller numbers and with less media, have taken to the streets for years around issues of police brutality and the impacts of the economic crisis, particularly gentrification, foreclosures and evictions.

Since 2007, The Take Back the Land movement has identified vacant government owned and foreclosed homes and “liberated” them by breaking in and transforming vacant houses into homes for families. Our objective is to transform land relationships to secure community control over land and elevate housing to the level of a human right. With the crisis deepening, many more organizations are liberating land or waging eviction defenses with increased success.

This one grand crisis, then, has elicited two very different responses, each strong and each relevant to its core constituency. With the combination of low-income communities of color and working and middle class whites taking to the streets, this society is on the cusp of a major social movement, the likes of which have not been experienced in the U.S. in more than a generation.

Far from homogeneous, this budding movement is evolving towards parallel, but interrelated campaign tracks: #Occupy and Liberate. The two look similar in many regards, but are distinguished by three important characteristics: composition, primary frame, and target/base.

1. Composition. #Occupy has mobilized mainly, though not exclusively, disaffected young and impacted working and middle class whites. Liberate is mainly low and middle income people of color.

2. Primary Frame. #Occupy’s primary frame is the economic system and the injustice it produces. Liberate frames issues in terms of land control and use (such as housing, farming and public space);

3. Target/Base. #Occupy targets those symbols, institutions and persons responsible for perpetrating the economic crisis–the 1%–through the “occupation” of public and private spaces, most notably New York’s financial district, the Oakland seaport and individual bank branches. Liberate’s base are the victims of the crisis, who are protected via land liberation and eviction defense.

Social movements are not single celled creatures on a linear path, but dynamic complex organisms with multiple moving parts, each responsible for a different series of tasks. Such a division of labor must be understood, appreciated and fully embraced. This movement is a complex organism with two tracks, and each track performs unique and critical functions.

Two intractable images of the housing crisis include the banks responsible for this financial mess and the homes from which families are evicted. This movement must take the fight to the banks, protesting and occupying them on their turf. Those same banks are occupying our communities, neighborhoods and homes. We must end that occupation through Liberation and eviction defense. The crisis simply cannot be resolved by choosing to fight on either one front or the other.

Not only must we both #Occupy and Liberate, but the chances of success for one-track increases exponentially with the actual success of the other. Therefore, the Occupy-Liberate dichotomy is not an antagonistic one; it is complementary.

We must occupy the 1% and liberate the 99%.

That is not the job of one organization, but the mission of everyone’s movement.

There is growing awareness of the two tracks, their characteristics, strengths and limitations. As we struggle to properly understand and define this relationship, we must resist the tendency towards two competing orientations:

The first tendency is to examine both tracks, note their size, frames and composition and conclude that each track actually represents its own separate and unique movement essentially unrelated to the other. The second, and polar opposite, tendency is to remark the similarities in approach and tactics and conclude the tracks are effectively identical and must be merged into a singular monolithic track. Both tendencies are wrong.

We must take care not to expect large numbers of Blacks, Latinos, indigenous, and other oppressed nationalities or immigrants, each with particular historic relationships to the police, to “occupy” banks and financial institutions. In fact, it is not clear that #Occupy could have succeeded if first executed by people of color. We must also resist the temptation to allow 1,000 young white kids to “occupy” historically people of color communities, still reeling from the more onerous occupation of gentrification. At the same time, we must find creative, effective and empowering ways to work together through parallel, supportive and even joint actions and campaigns.

While engaging the dual tracks in parallel actions is a prerequisite to building a holistic and powerful movement, it is not sufficient to guarantee trust and success. Two sets of actions, even during the same time frame and in the same city, will not result in an instant movement.

Forging these dual tracks into a cohesive movement with mutually supportive actions, requires at least three basic understandings:

1. Basis of unity. Why are we fighting and what are we fighting for? Do we want the same things or are we just doing the same thing in order to get to different places. What is the basis of our unity.

2. Framework of unity. How are we working together? How are decisions made? What do we do when one track disagrees with the other?

3. Next steps. What are we doing next? We propose a 2012 Spring Offensive.

We must Occupy to Liberate.