Since the end of 2011, when police shut down most encampments, the Occupy movement’s future has been uncertain. Without the long-term occupations that gave the movement its name, where would participants meet and make their presence felt? Would the movement be able to sustain itself without these rallying points? Would it release policy demands or try to bring down a big bank?
The upcoming five-day Occupy National Gathering in Philadelphia will address some of these questions, but without attempting to speak for Occupy Wall Street, the Occupy movement as a whole, or anyone beyond those in attendance.
“I think this could be a turning point for the movement,” says Dustin Slaughter, an Occupy Philly activist who is handling media relations for the National Gathering. “Refocusing the movement, prioritizing things. [It won’t be about] a list of demands, but starting to work together on a national scale.”
The National Gathering will last from June 30 through July 4, and representatives from 92 occupations are expected to be present. Caravans from the south, west and north will converge on the city on Saturday, June 30. The Gathering will be packed with actions, workshops and speakers, including Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, influential New York Occupier Alexis Goldstein, organizer Alexa O’Brien and David Gespass, president of the National Lawyers Guild. Activists from the massive demonstrations in Quebec will be in attendance.
Organizers are emphasizing the decentralized nature of the summit and the movement. Even the general assemblies, which were such an important part of the movement’s practice of direct democracy during the occupation phase, have been less active since the encampments were rolled up by the police. But Occupiers around the country have remained in touch and continue meeting in semi-autonomous working groups on a variety of interrelated projects.
“We’ve learned a lot in the past eight months about how to make things happen in a horizontal movement,” says Nathan Kleinman of Occupy Philly, one of the first Occupy activists to run for political office (although his Democratic primary opponent sued to get him removed from the ballot). He adds, “The General Assembly can be more divisive than it is uniting.”
The centerpiece of the weekend will be an exercise that relies on Occupiers’ ability to collaboratively develop a document that will outline a vision for future action. The concept, as explained by recent Occupy Wall Street transplant Jason Ahmadi, is that representatives will meet on July 4 and break into groups of three. These small groups will come up with a short list of visions they have for the movement and then meet with another small group to compare lists. Items that appear multiple times will rise to the top of the list, and this will continue until all the groups have combined and the list is complete.
“It’s important to have this experiment in direct democracy where we show a model that includes all voices, includes all visions,” says Ahmadi. Compared to this process, “the visioning document itself is almost secondary.”
The rest of the weekend will consist of a lively combination of festivity and protest, including a “know your rights” training and actions in support of universal health care and Verizon workers, who are locked in protracted contract negotiations with the company. There will also be actions against big banks, including a circus with a “tight rope walk of debt.”
Lately, banks have been a focus of Occupy Philly’s attention. On June 13, 13 Philadelphia Occupiers were fined $500 each, plus court fees, for a sit-in at a Wells Fargo office last November. The bank has been accused by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission of racist predatory lending practices targeting the city’s African-American neighborhoods, which experience high foreclosure rates. The circus event will be devoted to fun and games, with the purpose of calling on people to move their money from big banks, especially Wells Fargo. It will be held on July 3 outside the annual patriotic concert on Independence Mall. National Gathering organizers are encouraging attendance of other July 4 festivities around Center City, including the Roots concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. No one wants a dour revolution.
The fragmentation of the Occupy movement will be on display as well; alongside the National Gathering, there will be two other concurrent events. The Radical Convergence, based in West Philadelphia, is being held by largely local activists who no longer identify with the “Occupy” brand, if they ever did. “It is a space for those who have felt Occupy in its current form demonizes and excludes radical dialogue, strategy, and action,” the website reads. The Radical Convergence, however, will collaborate with the National Gathering on food and actions.
There will also be an Anarchist Anti-Summit, although it is not clear who is organizing it, where it will be held or what they will be doing. Organizers of the National Gathering and the Radical Convergence, as well as this reporter, have all tried to find out, only to reach cordial, anonymous and uninformative spokespeople.
Occupy activists have been repeatedly frustrated by coverage of the movement in 2012, which generally ranges from non-existent to caustically dismissive. But as Jacobin’s Chris Maisano recently pointed out, social movements “grow and develop unevenly, moving by fits and starts, hitting peaks and valleys along the way.” The National Gathering will be a chance for the occupiers to test the limits and sustainability of its horizontalism, while setting an agenda for the future.