Michel Bauwens: Occupations as a Political Tactic

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Michel Bauwens

A short story of occupations as a political tactic (#OccupyWallStreet update)

Excerpted from Shareable, By Willie Osterweil:

“There have been many resistance movements throughout history which have made use of the occupation tactic. In the United States, the unemployed Coxey’s Army, which marched across the country decrying injustice and unemployment in 1894, camped out throughout the summer as they converged upon Washington. In the summer of 1932, tens of thousands of WWI veterans and their families occupied parks, military bases and a number of public buildings in Washington D.C., demanding the immediate cash payment of their service certificates, referred to as a ‘bonus’. These ‘Bonus Marchers’ shut down much of the city, and faced the police in camp evictions similar to those we saw this year. In the Depression, many Hoovervilles—the shanty towns of tents and temporary structures built by the homeless–had serious political content, as portrayed in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, that is often washed out of the history books. Though a less-favored tactic in the 60s, many university buildings–most famously at Berkeley, Columbia and University of Wisconsin, but occurring all over the country–were occupied at the height of the anti-war movement. At the time of his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. was planning a tent-city occupation of Washington D.C as the first step of his Poor People’s Campaign. Fellow organizers went ahead with the plan, and ‘Resurrection City’ took over the Mall for more then a month in May-June of 1968.

In the last thirty years, occupation has been a key tactic in many of the anti-globalization struggles throughout the world. Started in the eighties, but truly gaining momentum and size throughout the nineties, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (The Landless Workers Movement) in Brazil redistributes farmlands through occupation. Sem Terra gives strategic and material support to landless tenant farmers. From dozens to thousands of itinerant farmers and their families will occupy fallow or abandoned land and build a farming community there. Often facing eviction by police, political repression or violence from (negligent) land owners, these occupations have been largely successful at redistributing land, and 1.5 million Brazilians are associated with the movement, which is still a vibrant political force in Brazil today. Sem Terra, which is organized on a non-hierarchical consensus model, is the largest social movement in the world, giving lie to the claim made by many liberals that consensus and horizontal organization cannot scale.

In 2001 in Argentina, facing the results of major economic crisis, a number of businesses, predominantly factories but also a hotel and several retail businesses, were occupied by their workers, who restarted their machines and brought them back into productivity without management. These businesses were worker-owned and -managed, with total profit and decision sharing, and usually proved to be more efficient and productive per capita, while paying out a much higher wage. Many of these ‘recovered’ businesses continue to this day. And though not part of the anti-globalization movement, the massacre in Tiananmen square in 1989 came after seven weeks of continuous occupation by students and intellectuals demanding liberalization and modernization of the Communist Party.

The occupation is a powerful tactic for a number of reasons: it foregrounds the political issues of everyday life and public space, it produces a positive communitarian solution to the problems it critiques, it is highly visible and struggle is continuous in a way that radicalizes its participants. It has been used throughout history in fights for social justice, peace, and revolution, but now its moment has truly arrived, and there are many more occupations to come.”