Five years ago, in autumn 2011, Occupy camps sprung up across the US and internationally. American socialist Bill Crane took part in Occupy Poughkeepsie in New York State. rs21 spoke to Bill about is experiences in the Occupy camp and his thoughts on how Occupy has influenced politics in the US since
How did the Occupy movement in Poughkeepsie get started? What was the timeframe in relation to Occupy Wall St? How were people mobilised and were there direct links made with other occupations, such as people visiting?
Occupy Poughkeepsie started, like most of the camps in the country, in the first two weeks of October 2011. The networks that organised and helped to sustain it primarily originated on local college campuses, some pre-existing activist networks, and the unions.
Poughkeepsie is in the Hudson River Valley of New York state, about midway between New York City and the state capital in Albany. The Hudson Valley has for over a century been the scenic weekend retreat of New York’s ruling class. It is also the home of much of the city’s professional-managerial class, and of many working-class New Yorkers driven from the city by gentrification and spiralling living costs. In effect, it is part of the same economic hinterland that includes most of New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island.
So there are very good links with New York. The city is only an hour’s train ride away. Occupiers coming directly from Zuccotti Park, but who were from Poughkeepsie or the nearby towns in the valley, would show up pretty consistently, and it was pretty easy for people who spent their time in our camp to visit Occupy Wall Street. While it was partly imitative and following the precedents set by OWS, as I told some New York-based comrades, if the revolution is limited to New York, the commune will starve without the food supply of Hudson Valley farms.
How long were you involved, and how did it start for you?
I was involved in Occupy proper, as distinct from some activism inspired by it, for eight or so months as part of local actions on my college campus, and as part of the camp in Poughkeepsie. I was then in my final year of university at Vassar College, a private liberal-arts school.
One thing that was exceptional in terms of my experience was that I came to the camps as an organised socialist. I had joined the International Socialist Organization the previous year. I came to Marxism as a result of prodding by my uncle, who was a long-time ISO cadre, and from my own frustration at the ending of a short and bitter experience organising a fightback against staff layoffs on my campus, alongside fellow students from an anarchist background, and with campus workers organised by the SEIU.
I heard of Occupy Wall Street around the time preparations were being made to take Zuccotti Park in mid-September. A few people I knew through the coalition of campus radicals, the Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics or GAAP, went down the first night to camp out. I didn’t go myself, because to be completely honest I didn’t have high expectations for it. Some New York ISO comrades I knew had been involved in Bloombergville. In New York during the summer of 2011, some activists had camped out on the steps of City Hall to try and concentrate resistance to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s austerity budget. It wasn’t all that successful, and my hesitation at first with Occupy Wall Street was that it seemed to be replicating the same failed strategy, with some anarchist colouring.
Until early October, when camps started cropping up in Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle and other places, I had no involvement. Nationally, the ISO was focused on the campaign trying to prevent the execution of Troy Davis. At Vassar, we had just started an ISO branch and I was focused on trying to win some of my fellow student radicals to our politics. By the time we had our campus kick-off meeting, Occupy was no longer something that could be ignored. I gave the talk at that meeting, to an audience composed mostly of fellow students.
At the talk I stressed the importance of Occupy becoming a national phenomenon, and especially the links it was starting to forge with the Black struggle and women’s struggle. Davis had just been executed, and signs were already emerging of a movement against state and vigilante racist violence that would blow up after the killing of Trayvon Martin in February. Occupy was also happening during a high point of the new feminist movement. I went to New York for the SlutWalk there, and that was the time I briefly attended the Zuccotti camp. Hundreds of people, including some ISO comrades, had been kettled and arrested while attempting to march across the Brooklyn bridge. I was part of an impromptu march to 1 Police Plaza to try and get them freed.
By this point, there was already a group of people interested in starting an Occupy camp in Poughkeepsie itself. A camp was set up in downtown Poughkeepsie on 15 October, and from then until the camp was cleared, I would be mostly involved in that. The ISO had shifted to throw all our limited resources into the movement wherever we happened to be located.
To speak about my school a bit, Vassar is an elite, liberal arts college. It is one of the Seven Sisters, which were the finest schools for women of the American ruling class during the time when the Ivy League only taught men. I mention this only because the typical Vassar student has no connection with the community that surrounds their campus. I thought it was important, and still do, that occupiers at Vassar should try to break down those walls in struggle with Poughkeepsie’s community.
This was a hard argument to make. Most Vassar students who wanted to take part in Occupy would naturally think first to take a train ride to New York rather than go to a camp just three miles away. I’m still convinced I was right to make this argument, and a few of my fellow students agreed, but during the high points of the struggle, people naturally wanted to be part of the exciting, sexy, media-attracting events there.
How did day-to-day organisation of the Occupy camp take place? Were there mass meetings? Was consensus used? How did the political backgrounds of the people shape this? How long did the occupation last for? How was it sustained – physically, emotionally and politically?
It lasted for 53 days, from 15 October to 7 December as an organised encampment, and continued in the form of various working groups and occasional General Assemblies for perhaps the next six months, though this was on a much-diminished scale. This was typical of the timeline for the rest of the movement.
During the seven weeks it functioned as a 24-hour camp there was only a very small constant presence, probably no more than fifteen people. The permanent Occupiers were mostly men, about my age, working-class and community college students. The camp was small but very busy. General Assemblies were held nearly every day, and working groups for the camp’s upkeep, supplies of food, clothes etc., for planning direct action, community outreach and so on it seemed were pretty much constantly in session. Consensus was the default form of decision-making.
The common sense of Occupy nationally was basically anarchist, and Poughkeepsie was no different. This was not to do with any mass embrace of anarchism, which is as marginal an ideology as revolutionary socialism in the US. It was more about the methods of organising employed by US-based anarchists, which have been tremendously influential. Consensus is part of this package, although its roots are not in anarchism at all, but in Quakerism.
In terms of anarchism, I’m talking about ideas like the identity of means and ends, the emphasis on direct action by a righteous minority, and organisational forms like the spokes council, working groups, etc. I would say even though these ideas and practices were prominent as part of the movement’s radicalism, the vast majority of the people who assimilated them did not significantly radicalise, that is to say, they were liberals. Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin called the most common type of Occupy radical “the anarcho-liberal.” This group, he writes, shared “an anti-intellectualism that manifested itself in a rejection of ‘grand narratives’ and structural critiques of capitalism, abhorrence for the traditional forms of left-wing organisation, a localist impulse, and an individualistic tendency to conflate lifestyle choices with political action.”
Mass meetings and demonstrations were rare, which was to be expected given the small size of the camp and the city itself. The biggest event I remember was a demonstration, at the camp, of about two hundred people. For Poughkeepsie this was a huge number, which I think would scale compared with other big demonstrations in places like New York, Boston, and Oakland. The demonstration was organised by some of the unions, especially SEIU. It involved singing, speeches from local activists through the people’s mic, and ended with a march to a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank. Finance capital, as in OWS, was the most obvious enemy.
I remember this demonstration very well because it was the subject of a report I wrote, which was the first thing I ever published in Socialist Worker. As I mentioned, the labour presence was very much on display there. A local Black singer came, and changed the lyrics of the civil rights tune “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” to suit Occupy, which I recall as one of the more inspiring local moments. The demonstration was followed by a teach-in at Vassar the following weekend, which brought maybe half of its numbers.
I came to the camp many more times in the next few weeks to take part in the spokes council as a representative of the student working group, and to provide food and clothes to the camp’s permanent residents. The next significant event was when Zuccotti was first cleared on 15 November. On my own initiative I called a meeting at Vassar to discuss our response. While many people argued for going to New York for the big manifestations that were to follow, we managed to bring a respectable number of students to the camp in Hulme Park as well for an improvised speak-out, although I was the only one who ended up speaking.
During this period, the Poughkeepsie camp like most of them developed a momentum of its own. As was true of the national experience, a group of working-class people who had known nothing but defeat and silencing by an arrogant ruling class their whole lives found in the camp a place to take on practical organising of everyday life, acquiring and distributing resources, speaking in public and having others listen to you. The problem was that, once the camp did acquire this momentum, it was hard to stop it from becoming an end in itself.
People very much rallied in defence of OWS on the 15 November, and occupiers came back after getting an injunction from a state court which allowed them to return to the park. The scenes of vicious police intimidation of protesters hardened the movement. After this, the federal government in collaboration with local police departments came to a decision to clear the camps nationally.
The first time Poughkeepsie police threatened to clear the encampment, dozens came to defend it, as a result of which they decided to postpone. This happened several more times over the next two weeks, until we were worn out. They were able to finally evict our encampment on 7 December.
After the initial eviction, folks continued to meet at the site of the camp in Hulme Park downtown, but things went on hiatus in the winter. The movement never really recovered, in Poughkeepsie or nationally. I remember going to the campsite for a General Assembly shortly before I graduated from Vassar in May. There were eight people there, and there was not really much to discuss.
Who participated in the occupation – was it predominantly seasoned activists or was it new people coming into struggle? What were their backgrounds – race, class, gender, unions, religious groups etc.? How did this shape the way the Occupy camp developed? Also, lots of the initial media attention to Occupy focused on it being white, middle-class and privileged. What is your take on this?
Most people were new to activism, or had only minimal previous experience of it, like myself. As I’ve mentioned, there was a noteworthy contribution from the unions, especially the SEIU and CWA, although this was episodic. American unions are heavily bureaucratic, but the flipside of this is they are centralised and thus one of the few forces which can mobilise immediately and effectively around something like Occupy.
While New York City is where the regional left is concentrated, there are a handful of lefties living in the Hudson Valley as well. A good example is the peace movement. Before his death, Pete Seeger lived in Beacon, which is just to the south along the Hudson. For many years he and a group of ex-CP members and others would hold weekly vigils against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So they were one ingredient. There was also prominent involvement from the Christian left, like the Catholic Worker movement and Quaker peace groups. Rev. Blake, the rector of an Episcopal church around the corner from the camp, was a constant fixture. He provided room and board to several occupiers when the camp was evicted.
The standard media narrative of a white, male, highly privileged group did not match my experiences of Occupy at all. As I’ve mentioned, most of the camp itself was the opposite of privileged. They were working-class, and if they were students it was not at Vassar but at Duchess Community College. I had a lot of trouble trying to get my Vassar friends who weren’t already left-wing to care at all, and eventually I just gave up after being told one too many times that political activism was “performative.”
The idea that the camps were overwhelmingly white is a more serious charge which in my opinion we do have to answer to. While there were impressive efforts for things like “Occupy the Hood” and “Ocupa El Barrio” in cities like Chicago, we didn’t really see something like this on even the much diminished scale of Poughkeepsie, despite it being a “majority minority” city (less than 50% white, perhaps 20% Black and 30% Latino). We probably had a POC [People of Colour] working group, nearly every camp did, and I saw a few POC activists at the camp from time to time, including a memorable encounter with a former member of the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican equivalent of the Black Panthers.
But overall there was little contribution from POC. It would be too easy to attribute this to the deep segregation that exists in Poughkeepsie between working-class white communities, from whom the camp drew its cadres, and the Black and Latino working class. The more serious explanation was that we were part of a national trend: while Occupy and the Black and undocumented movements intersected at points, I don’t think they ever truly coincided.
On the one hand, the Black community in Poughkeepsie was just as economically depressed and scarred by mass incarceration as any other. Black politics was still, for the most part, taking place separately, mostly in the churches or community spaces that still existed. This would change with the weekly demonstrations in March against Trayvon’s murder, but Occupy was largely a spent force by then.
Similarly with the Latino movement around the rights of undocumented workers. The last major Occupy-associated demonstration in Poughkeepsie was on May Day in 2012. On one hand there was an attempt, quite substitutionist and ultra-leftist I think, to revive Occupy nationally by unilaterally calling a national general strike. I’ll talk about that separately. But May Day was also the anniversary of the “Day Without an Immigrant” protests that happened in 2006, when undocumented workers walked off the job all over the country. It has been repeated locally every year since.
The undocumented workers’ movement put on a very strong showing for May Day in 2012. We probably bested the numbers of the largest Occupy Poughkeepsie event in the fall, with 250-300 people marching from Vassar’s campus to downtown. It was organised by the Vassar chapter of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA, a national network of Chicano or Mexican-American college students), who as far as I can recall did not take any part in the Occupy camp. Its spirit was certainly on display that day, but only a few remnants of Occupy itself, such as the people from the anti-foreclosure working group, plus myself along with ISO comrades and a handful of other individual occupiers were there.
Occupy intersected with the main movements of the oppressed in that those concerns were on display and there was some moving back and forth of activists between different movements, but the kind of unity we hoped for did not develop. Arguably some of this was down to the social character of the centre of the movement. While it was very working-class, the main people were either young workers and students who had lots of time and/or lacked the commitments such as raising a family faced by most of the class.
Race needs to be considered in a more basic sense as well. If you spent the night in a camp, you were accepting that you might be arrested and detained. A white student or even a young working-class guy might think little of this, but it is an unacceptable risk for most Black people, let alone undocumented immigrants and people of that background.
I think Occupy could have done much better in this regard. One mistake made early on by Occupy Poughkeepsie in particular was to choose Hulme Park downtown as the campsite. I wasn’t involved in those discussions, but Hulme was one of only a few parks that were both downtown and close enough to their neighbourhoods so that working-class Black and Latino parents could take their kids to play on the weekends and after school. How many people were alienated by this I don’t know, but it was plainly a stupid and thoughtless decision.
What were the specific challenges posed by occupying in a place that isn’t a major population centre/city? Are there any advantages to this? Does it change the way that things end up happening/being organised?
This is an interesting question. With the exception of the one day at OWS, I was never part of the height of the movement in a major city, so my perspective was one-sided in this sense. In one respect it was certainly harder to organise in a city like Poughkeepsie, which is very spread out, and does not have a mass transit system to speak of. I didn’t have a car, so I knew about these difficulties first-hand. As I’ve mentioned, the close ties between the Hudson Valley and New York had contradictory effects.
Poughkeepsie was in a very dismal economic situation. It used to be the headquarters of IBM’s manufacturing, which fled in the 1980s. It doesn’t have much industry left, although unions hang on in the government and services, the building trades and so on. This makes it a pretty typical city of the northeastern US in many ways. The economic devastation, desperation, and daily violence experienced by the American working class is shown just as well in Poughkeepsie as in nearby New York, and Poughkeepsie is probably closer to the norm. Occupy happening there expresses a hope and a challenge to American radicals who seek to organise the whole country.
I think it says something that Occupy camps came together and were sustained as long as they were in cities like Poughkeepsie. In a way it was the first time we saw a social movement penetrate so deeply into the pores of American society since Black Power, and to a certain extent SDS and its revolutionary descendants in the 1960s and 1970s. I don’t think the majority of people in Occupy were revolutionaries, and Occupy can only be called a revolutionary movement in a heavily qualified sense. But it is a lesson for American socialists that mass politics will never be limited to New York City and the Bay Area.
In retrospect I think Occupy Poughkeepsie was significant, on a small scale. It brought activists from the old left, from several college campuses, and from the communities of the Hudson Valley together in a way that was unprecedented in the current period, and to my knowledge has yet to be matched. It also intersected with and provided troops to other movements after its decline, such as the Trayvon rallies I mentioned, but also the anti-foreclosure movement and the civil rights and labour struggles of undocumented immigrants in the area.
What were some of the political discussions and disagreements that took place during the movement? How did you intervene as a socialist, and what were the results?
I want to single out three particular discussions myself and the ISO, locally and nationally, took part in. First, relationships with the right, in particular libertarians but also New World Order conspiracy types and some scarier characters. Second, the role of the Democratic Party and the discussions around the 2012 elections. Third, ultra-leftism and the May Day general strike.
When Occupy went national there were attempts to co-opt it to libertarian ideology. “Libertarianism” in the US it is the name of a particular ultra free-market ideology claiming an oppositional stance to the political establishment and two-party system. Ron Paul, a former Republican Congressman from Texas, had catalysed some of this feeling when he ran for President in 2008. The “Ron Paul Revolution” was meant to dismantle the Federal Reserve, return to the gold standard and thus reclaim America for the supposed libertarian ideology of its founders. I encountered a total of one libertarian at Occupy Poughkeepsie, who earnestly insisted to me that the problem was not capitalism itself, but crony-capitalism. In other words, libertarianism was not a serious obstacle, and I think the hype about its contribution to Occupy was mainly internet-based.
I’ve read that some neo-Nazis and other organized white supremacists tried to covertly intervene in camps in Washington state, which prompted ridiculous discussions between socialists and liberals about whether Nazis could be considered part of the 99%. The closest we got to this in Poughkeepsie was someone trolling the Facebook page with discussions about the Rothschild family and the global Zionist conspiracy. Myself and the other ISO comrades took a hard line that he should be denied access and association with the camp, which was accepted after some initial liberal squishiness that everyone should be welcome at the camp.
More serious was the question of the Democratic Party. All social movements in contemporary America have to choose at some point whether they will embrace a political link with the Democrats, which has always and inevitably meant retreat and vitiating their real goals. From the beginning Occupy was a national target of Democrat co-optation. The question was most urgent, because Occupy took place under a Democratic administration, which coordinated the closing of the camps nationally and the demobilization that followed it.
The question of the Democrats played out in relation to the occupation in general as well. Poughkeepsie has a county legislator named Joel Tyner who was a fixture at many events as the movement was starting to come apart. Tyner is the local face of the “left of the Democrats.” His campaign for Congress, which had not a prayer of winning, was a pole of attraction for some of the ISO’s contacts and the occupiers who were dispersed and looking for something to do. We had to have some hard arguments, which we lost and won in equal amounts, that Tyner was completely self-serving and trying to use the diminishing resources of our movement for his own benefit.
Nationally the problem of ultra-leftism was the most immediate challenge in Occupy’s waning days, and it is probably what the ISO spent the most on trying to get to grips with and to challenge.
In certain places with a strong left, like the Bay Area and New York, an ultra-left tendency took on a role disproportionate to their numbers. Some of them had an anarchist bent, others identified as Marxist in that they were classical ultra-leftists or oriented around communisation theory.
After the camps were dispersed, the nascent ultra-left tendency began to take on a more hostile attitude towards unions in general, not just their bureaucracy or leadership. A group called the Black Orchid Collective based in Seattle put forth the slogan “We are the 89%!” 89% was the portion of the unorganized in the US labour force. So there was an open hostility towards the politics of trade-unionism, which was seen by some as co-optation in practice and a break on radicalism.
Lenin wrote in a vastly different context that “anarchism was often a kind of punishment for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement.” It can be hard to see in unions like the Teamsters, the American Federation of Teachers, or the SEIU the germ of trade unionism as schools of socialism, given their deeply conservative leadership structures, the demobilization of the rank and file, and the fact that their main political intervention is millions of dollars in their members’ dues signed over to the Democratic Party. Socialists faced, and still face, a tough climate in combatting the indifference or hostility many working-class people feel towards unions which seem to have long since stopped fighting for their members and the class as a whole.
This is just an obvious example of how ultra-leftism emerged as a product of the defeats of the movement. Frustrations were turned inwards, occupiers began eating away at each other, and more and more dramatic reversals in the grim situation were to be carried out be fewer and fewer groups of people.
The ultra-left gained ground with a focus on the May Day General Strike. This was supposed to be inspired by large demonstrations in Oakland on 12 December. But what we saw there was very obviously not a general strike. The port was closed as a result of activist picketing, at which the ILWU longshoremen invoked the safety clause in their contract to down tools for the day. There were no significant strikes, as in organised withdrawal of labour, that day. What ended up happening was a small adventurist group provoked a fight with the police, tried to seize City Hall and ended up being easily dispersed. Such, apparently was a general strike.
Later, a group of writers on the anarchist websites BayOfRage and LibCom announced the formation of the Oakland Commune and called for a global general strike on May Day. They wrote, “the strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or ever sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it.” To someone educated in the history of communism, this reeks of the 1921 German Marzaktion, when the KPD unilaterally called a general strike and Communists and their unemployed worker allies tried to compel other workers to observe it in an attempt to force the pace of revolution. Except this was on a much smaller and even pathetic scale, in a non-revolutionary period and without any of the forces to make such a call work.
The ISO argued fiercely against the call for a general strike, and I think we were right to do so. American labour had begun to stretch itself by the time of Occupy, but there were simply none of the objective or subjective preconditions in place for a general strike in a fairly radical city like New York or Oakland, let alone nationally. Which, for some of the people calling for it, seemed to be a large part of the point: a general strike was to take place without, and indeed against, the working-class organisations with the real power to withdraw labour and fight capital.
I remember talking to someone who had been in the camp about the general strike. He said something along the lines of “it would be a positive outcome if occupiers can help to destroy the unions by exposing them when they didn’t call their members out on May Day.” This was likely a throwaway comment borne out of frustration, but to me it said something about how far some had travelled toward the dead end of ultra-radical, pseudo-revolutionary posturing as a principle, strategy and tactic.
Why do you think the movement declined?
The effect of the federally coordinated eviction of the camps in November-December 2011 cannot be underestimated. People who had experienced the heights of a movement in which another world seemed right around the corner, especially if this was their first experience of organising, were simply not prepared to deal with this level of state repression. In particular, it showed that state power was not going anywhere, whereas much of the anarcho-liberal common sense which animated occupiers saw the state as an irrelevance – change the world without taking power.
The other problems I’ve mentioned played a definite role in the decline of Occupy. It was difficult for the movement to sustain its mass character once it had gotten entrenched in the camps, into a certain group of people and basically a way of life that it was hard to break out of even with all the right intentions of doing politics on a mass scale.
Ultra-left adventurism played a role in turning some people off, but it would not have had such an impact were the movement not already in decline. I think basically we have to acknowledge that in a period of such devastation of the working class both economically and politically, movements will necessarily have an episodic and fragmentary character.
Jen Roesch, a member of the ISO in New York, has written about the decline of OWS:
In the confusing first days following the eviction, the informal leadership networks that had run the encampment and made many of the pivotal decisions scrambled to figure out what to do next. There were no structures that could bring the thousands of activists who had been developed through the movement into that discussion. Instead, a dwindling and increasingly passive majority of activists waited for urgent directives, frequently by text message, to know where to go. There were fierce debates, but these took place almost entirely behind closed doors. Meanwhile, Occupy’s liberal and union movement allies were trying to figure out how to channel the energy into electoral campaigns like Obama’s re-election run.
We experienced something similar in Poughkeepsie, which being so close could not avoid being impacted by what went on in the mother camp.
Occupy was already in steep decline by the end of November, and by the new year it had effectively ceased to exist. Neither myself, nor many others, realised this at the time. But actually, after the New Year, I had very little involvement in what Occupy activities were left.
What are some of the major lessons you would take away from the experience as an Occupier and a socialist?
Looking back, it would be easy to make a long list of everything I did wrong. I think most of the mistakes were necessary lessons of being involved in mass organising for the first time in my life. In his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Hegel refers to “the wise resolution of Scholasticus, not to venture into the water until he had learned to swim.” Just as no book on swimming can teach you to swim, all the manuals in the world about how to organise or build the revolutionary party will be meaningless without that experience.
I can name one thing I think was significant that I could have done better, which was to build and maintain a space for revolutionary organisation, tradition and education. My biggest failure was that I did not successfully wear in turn the hats of occupier, student activist and socialist cadre. Basically as the ISO we liquidated ourselves into Occupy, because there was tremendous pressure against doing anything else. But the movement disappeared so quickly that we did not successfully build anything for ourselves out of it, except perhaps in the form of organising experience. In some places there did start to be a conversation about how we could transform the energy of the camps and the mass actions into a consistent organisational project. But that was broken off by the eviction of the camps.
I’m going to quote Jen’s article again, because she expresses the need for a political project much more eloquently than I can:
to withstand the inevitable repression – let alone to translate Occupy’s broad appeal into material gains – would have required a much higher level of democratic, accountable organization and leadership. It would have required prioritizing space for political discussion and a mechanism for deciding on strategies, tactics and demands… Occupy’s ideological impact far outstripped its ability to translate [militant tactics] into sustained organization. The failure to create a vehicle (or vehicles) for political development and collaboration among a substantially enlarged layer of new activists was the biggest loss.
If we don’t have this kind of organisation, we’re going to be condemned to endlessly repeat the failures of Occupy. That’s why I’m still a part of the ISO today. The experience of Occupy made me cling much tighter to my organisation. We need organisations like the ISO, not only to help build the revolutionary party of the working class in the long term, but in the short term to find out some lessons and to give us all strength and hope when a movement like Occupy goes into ebb tide.
Did the experience of Occupy have an impact for the people and in Poughkeepsie beyond the camp itself? What about in the period afterwards and now? More generally do you think that the Occupy movement as whole has had a lasting impact on US politics?
I moved away from Poughkeepsie when I graduated from Vassar, so I will not be the best placed to answer the first question. As in many other cities, activism around specific issues like housing did not disappear, and may have taken on energy after being freed from the anarchist common sense of the camps which was averse to making demands on the state as a principle.
The anti-foreclosure working group was turned into Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, which has maintained itself as an activist NGO. Its leaders are some of the people I worked with during Occupy. maintained connections there for a while during my time in Occupy Our Homes in Washington, DC. I hear it’s still going pretty strong.
The anti-state sanctioned violence movement, of which #BlackLivesMatter is only the most prominent group, has a separate dynamic. Nevertheless, it did take on some of Occupy’s energy. After I left Poughkeepsie, the ISO branch oriented on the local movement against the planned county prison expansion, which gained ground for a while in the form of the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN). This was formed out of a discussion group of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow in May-June 2012 which connected Black activists including a former Panther, academics from Vassar and elsewhere, and a few Occupy people in the aftermath of Trayvon’s murder.
Donald Trump owns a golf course in Hopewell Junction, to the south of Poughkeepsie. I was reading about a feminist protest there the other day, something like “Pussy Grabs Back!” All of this is to say that radical organising has not disappeared from the area. How much of a role Occupy Poughkeepsie played in catalysing it, I can’t say, but I doubt that it had zero effect. I’ve either lost touch with people still in the area, or they have left as well. There’s still an ISO branch in the Hudson Valley, based now in New Paltz instead of Poughkeepsie, but most of us who founded it have since moved on.
Nationally, many of the people who first tasted activism in Occupy were found five years later as ground troops in Bernie Sanders’ campaign. I don’t know whether this has been the case in Poughkeepsie as well. I didn’t personally get involved with the Sanders campaign, because of the ISO’s analysis of the role of the Democrats I discussed above. Nevertheless, it is impossible to conceive of Sanders as a national phenomenon without Occupy. The feeling he gave voice to, that America is the most deeply undemocratic and inegalitarian society in the developed capitalist world, was one that Occupy organised and concentrated.
Mostly what Occupy was effective at doing was to change the conversation to this. It was incoherent, and resisted many of the methods that could have made it a more lasting force. But it changed the conversation, and this was enough given how defeated the US working class has been. We started from very far back, and if Occupy will not be seen as the most significant step at the end of this road.