The Occupy Movement: Déjà vu All Over Again?

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Executive Secretary of the San Mateo, California Community College Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 1493

I participated from early morning to late at night in the November 2 Day of Action in Oakland, which included marching with the AFT Local 1493 contingent to the Port of Oakland.

I also was in attendance for the student strike at UC Berkeley on November 15, and took part in the General Assembly (GA) of 10,000 students, faculty, and community members.

The GA was then immediately followed on the steps of Sproul Hall with the Mario Savio Memorial Address, presented this year by UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich and titled: “Class Warfare in America.”

For some reason the young woman standing next to me turned to me and said: “Is it déjà vu for you all over again?” My wife, standing on my other side said, “Oh, how insulting.” But I immediately said that I didn’t take her remark in that way at all.

For it is true that the Occupy movement is not the first social movement I have participated in. When Martin Luther King brought the civil rights movement to Chicago when I was a young boy of 14, I immediately became involved in this movement for social change. Two years later I became an activist in the anti-war movement, and then I joined SDS.

I say all of this merely to note that my observations of and experiences in the Occupy movement come from a certain background of prior experiences in social movements. That said, the Occupy movement is quite extraordinary and different from other movement experiences I have had. In prior movements there were several organizations in place doing political work prior to the movement assuming mass dimensions.

The Occupy movement has become a mass movement almost overnight with no previous organizational expression. But the premonition of this movement to come was clearly revealed in the struggles of public worker unions in Madison, Wisconsin, not long ago. In fact, I think Madison should be considered the first Occupation, at that time of the Wisconsin State Capital building.

The Occupy movement also appears to be a spontaneous movement that on principle wants to remain leaderless, also different from previous American social movements.

There was a press conference held just before the opening rally of what was called the Oakland General Strike on November 2. It wasn’t really a general strike of labor, but I liked putting a focus on a discussion of what the Oakland general strike of 1946 was really all about and what it looked like, as it was the last general strike in U.S. labor history.

At the press conference a young woman spoke quite eloquently about what the Oakland General Strike/Day of Action was about, and what the politics of the protest meant. She gave her name as Louise Michel. Reporters then asked her to spell her name, and she did.

I was delighted with the historical reference, but I was sorry that none of the press people understood the reference this spokeswoman for the Occupy Oakland movement was making. Louise Michel was the outstanding woman leader of the Paris Commune of 1871.

This movement just happens to be putting on the political agenda various subjects that I have taught in my political science classes at several community colleges in the Bay Area since 1986. In my class on the American political system, I start with a discussion of the structure and distribution of income and wealth. This is the very subject that the Occupy movement has been able to put center stage in U.S. political discourse since its emergence on September 17, just a few months ago.

I also have taught political philosophy over the years, and the politics of the Occupy movement very much reminds me of the debate between John Locke, advocate of the theory of representative democracy, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, advocate of radical or direct democracy.

The Occupy movement has found representative democracy to have failed, functioning in the interests of corporate power, the 1%. The Occupy movement, instead, is practicing the kind of direct democracy that Rousseau called for in the form of the GAs that meet on a regular basis every few days. In the GAs politics are discussed and debated. And then decisions are made on the basis of a consensus process. It truly does appear to be democracy in action.

At the time of this writing, a student strike at UC Davis has been called for Monday, November 28, in response to the horrific repression of the Occupy student movement at UC Davis, much like what happened earlier at UC Berkeley.

This repression is even more severe than what happened to the student movement of the 60s, which I was a part of. I can only conclude that this is a reflection of the serious nature of the economic crisis that we are now in.

The Occupy movement has called for a West Coast-wide shut down of the ports on December 12. This is, I think, the most important and serious social movement to have emerged in the last 40 years.

And the Occupy movement is now becoming an international movement. The last time something like this happened, around the world and at the same time, was in 1968. I remember that time well.

Yes, that young woman had it just right: It is for me déjà vu all over again.

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