The Agenda

Jeremy Kessler on The Occupation, plus Broader Thoughts

At n + 1, Jeremy Kessler, a graduate student at Yale who has been studying radical pacifist movements in early twentieth century America, has an essay on the Occupation and its relationship with the police. There are many interesting aspects of the essay, including Kessler’s articulation of the movement’s basic goal:

The Occupation has met with a chorus of criticism for failing to state specific policy goals. But as Nathan Schneider, the only journalist allowed by organizers to attend the protest’s planning meetings, recently explained, this lack of demands is a feature, not a bug, of the Occupation: “largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money,” organizers decided “that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically. Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there . . . .” The Occupation self-consciously seeks to construct the means—a radicalization of the political environment—and not the ends of left-wing policy. In order to do so, it must last and it must contain multitudes. The police-protest relationship will be crucial to the success of this project for at least two reasons. [Emphasis added]

Though I wish Jeremy (a friend) had gone into greater detail on this point, we can extrapolate: the radicalization the movement has in mind is presumably about creating a new kind of polarization. Rather than a cultural-religious polarization or even a conventional class polarization, the idea is to demonize an ill-defined “elite” population that excludes upper-middle-income credentialed professionals, tenured academics, and other privileged cultural insiders. A relatively small collection of radicalized women and men, many of whom feel as though they should enjoy higher status by virtue of their cultural capital, sensibilities, and credentials, will serve as a vanguard for a larger group, led by public sector workers. This small collection of women and men is drawn heavily from the ranks of the college-educated, and in particular from people who are simultaneously the drivers of urban gentrification and who feel constrained and displaced by it.

Traditionally, this group has defined itself in tension with if not in opposition to the American mainstream. Yet sensing a broader discontent — and rightly discerning that there is a widespread sense that the wrongdoers behind the financial crisis have not been properly identified and punished, thus cheating the broader public out of a kind of ritual purification — the organizers of the Occupation have sensed an opportunity to bring their various critiques to a larger audience, to create a Carnival of anger and hatred directed against financial and (selective) political elites.  

Kessler’s basic contention is that the movement will only prove truly successful if it becomes more diverse and if it demonstrates considerable staying power. To do so, Kessler argues that the Occupation must find a way to secure the allegiance of the police officers who’ve been working to keep the peace:

A quick look around Zuccotti Park will confirm that 99 percent of the nation is not yet in attendance. Nor would organizers—proponents of direct, rather than representative, democracy—wish to claim that they “represent” 99 percent of the country. The true, utopian endgame of the Occupiers, however, is to become what they say they are—99 percent, or at least a sizeable chunk, of the American people. Such an ambitious recipe calls for two ingredients that more targeted protests don’t—longevity and diversity. The police who currently ring the park could provide both. As the protest grows, sympathetic police might shift tactics and communication strategies in order to prolong the protest; at the limit, police might even become participants, taking a large step toward confirming the radical 99 percent claim. 

So that’s the goal: to win over the police. But why? 

First, the threat of assault and, especially, arrest at the hands of police will continue to limit participation in the Occupation. As Yves Smith put it somewhat bluntly in the wake of eighty arrests near Union Square, “No one who is a wage slave (which is the overwhelming majority of the population) can afford to have an arrest record, even a misdemeanor, in this age of short job tenures and rising use of background checks.” Not only does police power keep a broader slice of society out of the movement, it can also grind down even those who are willing to face the risks of participation, forestalling a critical mass. 

A police force sufficiently sympathetic with protesters, however, could engage in tacit under-enforcement of the urban space. Such intentionally poor police-work would make protest a more hospitable practice for the average employee and professional dissident alike. Although a police strike is incredibly unlikely, encouraging individual officers to trade in subtle sabotage would be a useful protest activity. The Occupation will not be able to increase beyond a certain size without police cooperation. 

We might question whether or not large numbers of New Yorkers are indeed eager to join in the protest, but this is a useful illustration of how those who sympathize with the Occupation see things: the participants would be far more diverse and far more numerous if only large number of middle-class New Yorkers didn’t fear the possibility of arrest.  

Second, the absence of the police themselves from the Occupation chips away at the 99 percent claim that is central to the movement’s populism. Here, the first problem—of police power—produces something of a vicious circle. To the extent that police power limits the protesters mainly to the young and the nomadic, individual police will find few protesters with whom they can identify. Recent announcements of labor support for the Occupation—including the large healthcare workers union, Local 1199 SEIU, and the Local 100 Transit Workers Union—do suggest that more middle-class participation is on the way. Here again, however, police behavior toward these newcomers will be an important influence on their long-term commitment to the movement.

We’ve discussed the role of city unions in the Occupation in this space. Kessler’s implicit contention is that the Occupation aims to achieve a larger radicalization of the American public, led by a radical vanguard. Another thesis is that public workers unions, with an interest in policies that, as Joshua Rauh and Robert Novy-Marx among others have suggested, threaten to crowd out service provision for a large majority of households, have successfully co-opted the movement, to align it with a fairly conventional status quo agenda of protecting (relatively) privileged public workers at the expense of the unorganized citizenry.   

The next paragraph is telling:

New York police are themselves no strangers to organizing urban unrest. In 2001, the police stormed across the Brooklyn Bridge when Rudolph Giuliani refused to raise their pay. Ten years earlier, 10,000 officers had followed the same route to protest David Dinkins’s appointment of a police monitor. But in these instances, police understood their own self-interest to be at stake.

One view is that the police behavior Kessler describes is part of a larger pattern that includes lobbying by correctional unions on behalf of three strikes laws and other punitive measures that redound to the benefit of those employer by the carceral state. 

Kessler looks to the future:


Yet the dispersal order will come one day, whether in response to some specific public safety concern—the report of an assault, a bomb threat—or in reaction to the sheer size of the Occupation. Indeed, after a large march on Wednesday, including local unions and students who walked out of NYU and the New School, the population of Zuccotti Park is swelling. Increasing numbers of passers-by and participants extend the ragged boundary of the park, as a permanent drum circle on the west end and the ranks of sign-waving protesters facing Broadway grow. On Thursday, police who were content to watch the spectacle earlier in the week stepped forward to shout “Move along, move along.” New metal fencing now hems the outer bounds of the drum-circle. There will come a time—and, judging by plans Saturday for a march on Washington Square Park, a potential second occupation site, that time may come soon—when the police will not be able to define the boundaries of the Occupation without active force.

Many protesters realize that a movement the success of which depends on duration and diversity must defer this divisive moment as long as possible—and that the police will be the key to such delay. 

One often hears that the Occupation will evaporate as temperatures fall. But the cost and quality of synthetic fibers has plummeted in recent years, and the opportunity cost of a prolonged stay in public spaces are low for many if not most of the participants. 

The basic lessons of the Occupation as I understand are as follows: NYU and the New School have large numbers of students with the material resources and willpower to withstand temperatures below 50 degrees for an extended period of time; these students are not overly concerned about the academic consequences of an extended time away from class, either due to the moral support of faculty members (very likely) or a larger indifference (somewhat likely) or the sense that they wouldn’t learn very much in class regardless (a sensible view); public sector unions are understandably eager to identify a fairly narrow cause (the preservation of defined benefit pensions that offer guaranteed annual returns in the 7-8% range, with all risk of falling short of that level falling on future taxpayers) with the larger cause of financial system reform and redistribution; as the movement grows, the anarchist component is getting subsumed by a more conventional narrative that is closely aligned with that of the mainstream Democratic party, which has held the reins of power for most of the post-crisis period, during which the identification and punishment of financial wrongdoers hasn’t occurred to the satisfaction of large numbers of Americans. 

Alexis Madrigal recently tweeted the following:

“Dear Republicans, Please nominate Mitt Romney, cofounder of Bain Capital, as the GOP candidate for President. Love, #OccupyWallStreet

I found this particularly amusing, because it suggests a tight linkage between the future campaign efforts of Obama for America and the decentralized, leaderless, philo-anarchist Occupation. 


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