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Occupy Wall Street, Beyond Encampments

As winter arrives and police crack down, how can occupiers keep their movement alive—and help it grow? Veteran activists share lessons from Spain’s Indignados.
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Day of action by Brennan Cavanaugh

November 17 Day of Action celebrated the two month anniversary of OWS as well as the reoccupation of Zuccotti Park.

Marina Sitrin and Luis Moreno-Caballud—participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement and Spain's May 15 movement—share their advice for Occupy Wall Street's next step.


We write this letter as participants in the movements, and as an invitation to a conversation. We hope to raise questions about how we continue to deepen and transform the new social relationships and processes we have begun … to open the discussion towards a common horizon.

The evictions and threats to the physical occupations in the United States have again raised the question of the future of the movement. The question isn’t whether the movement has a future, but what sort of future it will be. For example, should our energy be focused on finding new spaces to occupy and create encampments? Should we be focused more in our local neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces? Is there a way to occupy public space with horizontal assemblies, yet also focus locally and concretely?

A look at the recent history of a movement similar to Occupy—the Spanish indignados or May 15 movement—can shed some light on the opportunities and urgency of this new phase. It is a moment that we see as a potential turning point, and one with incredible possibilities.

There are three key elements that have made the global movements of
2011 so powerful:

  1. The extraordinary capacity to include all types of people;
  2. The impulse to move beyond traditional forms of the protest and contention, so as to create solutions for the problems identified;
  3. The horizontal and directly participatory form they take.

Let’s look at the first element. Unlike other movements that have strongly identified with particular social groups (workers, students, etc.), both the indignados and Occupy are movements that anyone can join, just by choosing to do so. Again and again, in Madrid as in New York, we have heard the demonstrators chanting solidarity slogans to the police: “they’ve also lowered your salary” and “you too are the 99%”. In both places the movements have been able to bring out many people who had never been to a demonstration before, and make them feel welcome and useful. It is a culture and politics of openness and acceptance of the other.

The second element, the capacity to create solutions, is consistent with this non-confrontational aspect of the Spanish and American movements. Like their predecessors in Egypt and Greece, both movements began with the occupation of a public space. Rather than reproducing the logic of the traditional “sit-in,” these occupations quickly turned to the construction of miniature models of the society that the movement wanted to create—prefiguring the world while simultaneously creating it. The territory occupied was geographic, but only so as to open other ways of doing and being together. It is not the specific place that is the issue, but what happens in it. This is what we could call the first phase of the movement. Solutions began to be implemented for the urgent problems, like the absence of truly representative politics and the lack of access to basic necessities, such as housing, education, food, and health care. In Spain and in the United States, this first phase saw the creation of two problem-solving institutions: the general assemblies and the working groups.

The participants in these movements create spaces of sociability, places where we can be treated as free human beings beyond the constant demands of the profit motive.

The ways in which we organize in these spaces of assemblies and working groups is inextricably linked to the vision of what we are creating. We seek open, horizontal, participatory spaces where each person can truly speak and be heard. We organize structures, such as facilitation teams, agendas, and variations on the forms of the assembly, from general assemblies to spokes councils, always being open to changing them so as to create the most democratic and participatory space possible.

The very existence of the encampments, together with the general assemblies, was already a victory over the increasingly desperate battle of all against all that the neoliberal crisis has imposed on us. The participants in these movements create spaces of sociability, places where we can be treated as free human beings beyond the constant demands of the profit motive. In a city like New York where debates about our society tend to occur only in government institutions, and expensive spaces of limited access (universities, offices, restaurants and bars), the assemblies at Zuccotti provided a public forum that was open to anyone who wanted to speak. In addition, from the very beginning the movement created working groups designed to directly address problems related to basic human necessities. On the first day of the occupation of Zuccotti, the loading and unloading of shopping-carts full of jars of peanut butter and loaves of bread, an initiative launched by the already-functioning food committee, was the first sign of this effort to provide solutions. By the 5th week of the Occupation in New York the food working group was feeding upwards of 3,000 people a day.

spanish 15m by Ale Arillo

Protesters of the Spanish 15M movement in Seville.

Photo by Ale Arillo

In these working groups the dynamic of the second phase of these movements was already implicit. In Spain this phase began over the summer; in the United States it is beginning now. This phase is characterized by the gradual shift from a focus on acts of protest (which nonetheless continue to have a crucial role, as we must confront this system that creates crisis) to instituting the type of change that the movements actually want to see happen in society as a whole. The capacity to create solutions grows as the movements expand in all directions, first through the appearance of multiple occupations connected among themselves, and then through the creation of—or collaboration with—groups or networks that are able to solve problems on a local level through cooperation and the sharing of skills and resources. For example, Occupy Harlem is using direct action to prevent heat from being shut off in a building in the neighborhood (this action has been coordinated with OWS and Occupy Brooklyn).

In the case of Spain, this expansion began in June, when the movement decided to focus its energy more on the assemblies and the working groups than on maintaining the encampments themselves. To maintain the miniature models of a society that the movement wished to create did not necessarily contribute to the actual changes that were needed in the populations that needed them the most. Which is why the decision to move away from the encampments was nothing more than another impulse in the constructive aims of the movement: the real encampment that has to be reconstructed is the world.

This Changes Everything Book Cover
This Changes Everything: How the 99% Woke Up

Introducing the movement that’s shifting our vision of what kind of world is possible—from the new book, “This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement.”

Of course, it is true that the encampments continue to have a crucial function as places in which the symbolic power of the Occupy movement is concentrated. It is also true that the efforts to defend them have produced moving displays of solidarity. But the viability of a movement is not only defined by its capacity to withstand pressure from the outside, but also in its ability to reach and work together with people outside the space of the plaza or square. It is this—the going beyond the parameters of the plaza—which the assemblies and the working groups have already started to put into effect.

In the U.S., this might take the form of assemblies in neighborhoods, workplaces, universities, and on street corners working concretely together with neighbors and workmates, as well as then relating together in assemblies of assemblies or spokes councils in parks, plazas, and squares, sharing experiences from the more local spaces. All the while, the occupation of space and territory would continue—but with the vision of territory as what happens together, with one another, in multiple places, and then coming together to share in another geographic place. This could take places from neighborhood to neighborhood or city to city, all networked in horizontal assemblies.

While the indignado movement no longer has encampments, its presence is felt everywhere.  

In any case, to return to the example of Spain, what is certain is that while the indignado movement no longer has encampments, its presence is felt everywhere. It’s a culture now, composed of thousands of micro-institutions that provide solutions through the common efforts of people affected by the same problems. There are cooperatives addressing work, housing, energy, education, finance, and nutrition, and many other things, as well as a web of collaboration that connects these cooperatives. Catalunya and Madrid already have “Integral Cooperatives” whose function is to coordinate the different services offered by various cooperatives within a particular locale, to the point that in some places in Spain it is almost possible to live without having to depend on the resources hoarded by the one percent. The movement has made it possible for these institutions, which used to be dispersed and limited, to grow and grow connected, and it has provided them with a visibility that has led to much more interest, respect, and support for their functions.

Also, the movement keeps coming back to the streets every so often in big demonstrations and assemblies that display its force and allow all of those working in the many projects associated with the spirit of May 15th to see each other, network together, and welcome more people.

The creation of alternative institutions and solutions has already begun in the United States. With or without encampments, the constructive phase of the Occupy movement is here.

The creation of alternative institutions and solutions has already begun in the United States. With or without encampments, the constructive phase of the Occupy movement is here, and all indications are that it will not slow down, as it has not slowed down in Spain. Every day on the news and on YouTube, we see the police removing the occupiers from parks and plazas, but the movement continues to grow—and to grow outside of these places. While the tumult of raids and returns jolts occupiers and the public alike, thousands of working groups around the world meet weekly in libraries, community centers, churches, cafes, and offices to share their extraordinary abilities and resources. They are already creating the schools, hospitals, houses, neighborhoods, cities, and dreams of the 99 percent.

This is the beginning of the occupation of an encampment that will never be dislodged: the world.


Luis Moreno-Caballud is a participant in the Spanish May 15th movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He collaborated in the formation of the NYC General Assembly before the beginning of OWS, and works with both the Outreach and Empowerment and Education working groups. He is an assistant professor of Spanish literature and cultural studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Marina Sitrin is a participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and was a part of the NYC General Assembly that helped organize OWS. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center Committee on Globalization and Social Change, and the author of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.

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