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The Local 99 Percent

Occupy Albany takes its place in the national Occupy movement, brings people together—and needs you

by Miriam Axel-Lute on December 1, 2011 · 1 comment

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Before this fall, Albany’s Academy Park was not a particular locus of political activity. Rallies are usually saved for the more open park by the Capitol’s east steps. Bounded by the Capitol, City Hall and the County Courthouse, Academy Park’s shady curving sidewalks, statues and fountains generally have not hosted more than an occasional press conference.

Until Oct. 21, 2011, that is. If you stop by Academy Park today, you’ll find Occupy Albany, one of hundreds of occupations that sprang up in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street encampment that began on Sept. 17. Depending on the time of day, you may hear a stream of tooting car horns indicating their support for the signs people stand by the road with—signs with messages about economic inequality, financial sector wrongdoing, and reclaiming democracy. “Robin Hood was right!” “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.” “We are the 99%.” In fact, there tends to be a steady stream of honks at the sight of the tents lining the walkways even when no one is actually brandishing a sign at the moment.

If you wander up to view the artwork on display along the Washington Avenue side (the camp is an official First Friday location) or to check in on the info board that lists actions, speakouts, meetings and tasks, you are likely to be greeted, engaged in conversation, offered free food. If you arrive on a bike, you might be invited to join the transportation working group. If you stand by the road long enough, you probably will be recruited to unload one of the couple-dozen-per-day drop-offs of donations, fleeting glimpses of the large external network of support that keeps the encampment functioning.

“Albany loves the idea of this . . . people have continuously dropped off food and resources for us,” says Sharmain Hossain, a college student who participates on the team of meeting facilitators. That includes not just the usual suspects, says Victorio Reyes, director of the Social Justice Center, who set up a satellite office of the SJC at the occupation for a while. He recounts a night when a group of young women “who were dressed super fancy, high heels, they had been eating at DeJohn’s, bought a bunch of extra food and brought it over. And that happens all the time.” Another day, Delmar’s Four Corners Luncheonette showed up and fried cider doughnuts on-site.

Hang out a little bit longer and you will hear someone call “Mic check!” “Mic check!” Those around will pause whatever they are doing to echo it back. Once enough people are paying attention, an announcement will be relayed in the same fashion—phrase by phrase. Often it has to do with a meeting—“Public safety working group, will meet, at the sidewalk crossroads, in five minutes.”

“You’re in a public space, but there are these intense discussions,” says John Jaye, 31, a self-identified “strong independent” and small-business owner who comes by two to three times week. “Someone random will come by, listen in, sit down. For me it’s really inspiring to see public space being used in a critical way. I’ve facilitated a lot of the political-strategy working-group meetings—and often a group of people will come by who have the most specific knowledge on the most important things. I can’t imagine another context where that kind of fluidity and serendipity could happen. That’s really beautiful.”

As with Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Albany functions as a direct democracy, using consensus process. Daily decision making “general assemblies” are supplemented by a raft of specific working groups that handle everything from “human comfort” and safety to PR, direct action, outreach, and political strategy where much of the detailed work gets done. At first the idea of having to reach consensus seems daunting. But, say those who have experienced it, rather than dead ends, the process forces people to take a less confrontational approach to disagreement. Jaye says the idea first made him roll his eyes, but he’s found that “in a political climate when we are forced to pick sides across arbitrary lines–Democratic, Republican, left, right—consensus reprograms people to focus on common ground, looking for areas where we all agree as opposed to entrenching ourselves.”

Direct democracy can be slow. Albany’s occupation took longer to coalesce than many others around the country. Reyes recounts that three different people—none of whom came from the existing activist community—tried to get something started, found each other online, and began to work together, leading to the first meeting, which outgrew the Social Justice Center, which Reyes had offered, and took place in Townsend Park. That meeting ended in a solidarity statement with Occupy Wall Street. When the second general assembly—attended by a couple hundred people—didn’t result in a decision about starting an occupation before Oct. 15, a day on which there was a call out for national actions in solidarity with OWS, there were grumblings about this being a time for action, not debate. An independent solidarity event at the Capitol was organized.

But others praise the slowness, saying that in the end, everyone owns the decisions that have been made. Certainly its late start has not hampered Albany’s occupation, which has gotten national attention for both its good relations with local law enforcement and its antagonizing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Slowing down is so intense,” says Emma Potik, a 35-year-old Albany resident who was drawn to the movement by chance to participate in something truly radical—as in getting at the root of issues. “I try to rush things that can’t be rushed. But there are people around to tell me, ‘But this is how we can actually make this work.’”

Creating a functioning mini-society and direct democracy from scratch, especially with people—and that would be all of us—who are not used to operating that way, is also hard. Some women have spoken up about being disrespected or harassed at the site. Many have noted the ongoing overrepresentation of white men at general assemblies. At one point some older teens took it upon themselves to deny the freely available communal food to a group of younger teens until they carried out a set of camp maintenance tasks. Integrating the growing number of homeless among the full-time occupiers has been a learning curve for all (and not necessarily supported by some who grumble about only wanting activists). There is a growing unease about the accessibility of the daily “general assemblies”—held with people standing up, now in the dark and cold.

Can a movement that is about the 99 percent persevere without leadership from all parts of the 99 percent, especially those bearing the brunt of the burden of the systemic ills under discussion? What does it take to make space for the very poor, for example, victims of foreclosure, or working parents, to fully participate?

No one officially has or should have power over anyone else in the Occupy movement, says Potik, but people are uncomfortable learning to operate that way and owning when they are wielding power. Power dynamics within the 99 percent are on the table, she says, but off to the side.

Potik says there are those who recognize the need to step back and make room for the voices and participation of various underrepresented groups. However, if there aren’t enough people doing that, then  those who don’t realize they are dominating just fill in the space that has been left, making things at least temporarily less diverse. “We have the occupy 1 percent,” she says, and argues that accessibility issues—things like child care and willingness to discuss the frequency, location, and format of meetings—are going to be key to keeping the occupation growing and relevant.

“We have to be careful not to set up our own form of bureaucracy,” agrees Bhawin Suchak, a teacher at the Albany Free School and media activist who has been involved in and documenting both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Albany form the beginning. He notes that changes have been made and others are being discussed, like having general assemblies throughout the city, not just in the occupation, as in happening around New York City so communities “can have their own discussions—keeping a thread to larger movement,” while addressing what affects them most.

“Whenever we’re organizing and trying to make change, we are affected by the context in which we do that,” says Albany Common Councilwoman Barbara Smith, who has attended many of the local occupation’s early meetings and events and calls the occupy movement the most exciting social movement to come along in her lifetime. “We live in a society that is riddled with injustice, inequality, oppression. It’s hard to leap over that. In fact the more useful expectation is not to leap over it, but to confront and challenge that. We live in an unjust society, that’s why people are occupying. The role of ally can be something everyone can play—everyone has circumstances they don’t face.”

The details are frustrating and not yet resolved. And yet, says Potik, at least in the occupy movement at large, there has been, from the beginning, a conversation about how to overcome problems of class and race—not an assumption that they could be ignored.

“We don’t have to see it as a sprint,” says Reyes, one of the organizers of Occupy Albany’s People of Color Caucus. “Occupy Albany is not defined by what happens tomorrow, but over the whole time there and what happens after it no longer exists. The idea that what happens at GA is the occupation is not accurate. That’s one of the beauties of how it’s organized. It’s a canvas.” The POC Caucus, he says, makes sure there is a space for people of color to make their contributions to the movement—like a well-attended “What’s Your Bailout?” speakout—and stand together and have those contributions recognized.

Even among those who voice critiques, the overwhelming sentiments about the occupation are of excitement and optimism, even relief, and a sense of something new being built that is about both calling out business as usual and envisioning alternatives. “I’ve been waiting for this all of my life,” is a common refrain, among those who have been involved in political activism already as well as those who haven’t.

“It’s not just a protest against. It’s an articulation of different ways we could envision our society,” says Suchak. Justin Secor-Rubenstein, a 24-year-old small-business owner who says that the Occupy movement brought him out of feeling jaded and wanting to retreat into the woods, says he’s been present “about 70 percent of the time since it started” and “seen a slow but noticeable difference in the how people view the camp as hallowed ground. People are aware of their behavior here. There’s a sense of generosity, of kindness. Apart from the political aspirations, this is an opportunity to build a community and see that it is possible for a swath of people to get along in this manner.”

Ira McKinley, a formerly homeless filmmaker who works for Grand Street Community Arts and has been involved in and documenting the occupation since the beginning, describes the occupation as having the kind of community he remembers as kid, where his neighbors looked out for him.

“There’s cooperation. People are raking the leaves every day, dishes are getting washed, people are eating, drinking coffee, snuggling and staying warm,” says Reyes.

“This isn’t about camping. We are rebuilding civil society that we have lost,” agrees David Sickler. It’s difficult sometimes, he says. “Some people are used to fighting to get by. Here, if you ask, it will be given, but it’s hard to give up [that habit].”

The occupation has, of course, held a number of specific direct actions and events to get its message out and put pressure on the 1 percent: voluntary arrests challenging Gov. Cuomo’s enforcement of an 11 PM curfew on the state-owned Lafayette Park that abuts Academy, marches in support of the “Robin Hood” financial transfer tax and the New York state “Millionaires’ ” tax, groups of customers closing their Bank of America accounts en masse, flash-mob caroling about overconsumption in the malls on Black Friday. Actions like these represent important work of the occupation in terms of keeping the pressure on and visibility up and the conversation going, but it is interesting that those who talk about being involved don’t necessarily see them as central to the experience.

The steady visible physical presence, the new process, the naming actual root causes, the stepping back from partisan (or bipartisan) limits on what the conversation be, the wider base, and especially the connections between people who wouldn’t have otherwise met—these are the things that come up over and over. “We’re right here where they can’t deny us,” says McKinley.

“There are hundreds or thousands of activists in the Capital Region,” says Reyes, and “every one of them stops by over the course of a week or two. In terms of what I’ve witnessed in the past 10 or 15 years that I’ve been organizing, this has attracted more new people than any other movement. The feeling I always got from other movements that they mostly brought in people who might have been predisposed to certain leanings. Here, it’s such a wide range of people who are turned on by it.”

“I thought I’d gotten to know the activists in Albany,” says Potik. “But I know single people in Albany now. People have come out of the woodwork.” Sicker says he’s met people who live down the street from him but had never spoken to him.

The diversity is tangible. On the first day of the occupation, with a drum circle in the background, and a Shabbat service happening down the hill by the children’s play area, I stood by the road and held a sign next to an African-American woman my mother’s age. She lived in the Albany Housing Authority building at the corner of Henry Johnson Boulevard, and told me they had recently been organizing a block association to deal with some visible prostitution problems. The first foreclosure action committee meeting included a local real estate broker. The regional labor council put out a resolution of support.

Veterans for Peace invited Occupy Albany to march with them in the Veteran’s Day parade. Coming in behind the usual range of military vehicles and bands, some of those participated said they didn’t know how they would be welcomed. Carrying signs like “No more soldiers’ lives for the 1 percent’s profits” and changing “We are the 99 percent; You are the 99 percent,” they reported a near-universal warm reception.

No matter what the short-term achievement, says Reyes, “People who have become involved will become seasoned activists, and the work will be reflected in so many brilliant ways. You’ll go to some cool event five years from now and it was organized by someone who became an activist in Occupy Albany. The landscape of Albany will change.”

While each local occupation debates its course for the winter (Stay visible and outside? Turn attention to abandoned buildings? Spread out to build community in other ways?), considers long-term sustainability, and conducts the daily work of keeping its community clean, fed, and safe while reaching out, staying relevant, and keeping the pressure on, many don’t entirely realize the effect they are already having—and that they are not alone in trying to figure out how to press forward and make change in the space, the new conversation that the movement has already opened.

As part of my day job, I have attended two conferences since the Occupy movement started—one a meeting of a network of social-justice funders, which had many community organizers and labor organizers there as presenters, and one a summit on regional equity attended by well over 2,000 community leaders, policy wonks, advocates and organizers. At each, the atmosphere was electric, and the new “movement moment” was on everyone’s tongue—how it changed things, how could the Occupy Movement help and be helped by, all of those who have been in the trenches for so long. The New Bottom Line coalition of community organizing groups that have been fighting for—and getting arrested for—bank accountability for a couple years now, after first worrying that the occupations would steal the thunder from their planned series of actions against big banks over this fall, have been embracing and riding the momentum and publicity the new conversation has given their work, from anti-eviction blockades to protests at bank shareholder meetings.

In her closing speech to the funders group, Angela Glover Blackwell, leader of PolicyLink, an organization devoted to advancing economic equity, said this was the most exciting moment of her life. And, she noted, she was around at the end of the civil-rights movement. “But this time, everything is on the table,” she said. Necessarily, then, she said, we fighting for access to the system as it was. Now we are looking at the system. At the policy summit, an Occupy Wall Street representative shared the stage on a panel with the director of the White House Office of Urban Policy.

The changed conversation is a tremendous coup in and of itself. Occidental College professor Peter Dreier has graphed phenomenal spikes in media mentions of “inequality,” “greed,” and “richest 1 percent” (jumps of three to six times the previous levels).

So is the renewed courage among those who have been working on behalf of various segments of the 99 percent. But because it seems so well-nigh miraculous, so spontaneous, so unstoppable, there seems to be a sense among many who aren’t directly involved that the Occupy movement is a force of nature, something to be grateful for, that will keep on giving of its own accord.

On the ground, in the occupations like Albany’s, which are providing the daily visibility, the presence, the connections, the momentum, the sense of a “movement,” there is, alongside the hope and excitement, especially for the full-time occupiers, a sense of isolation and exhaustion. Even for Albany, which has not faced anything like the level of police harassment and evictions of most other occupations, and indeed has become a national model for how local law enforcement can interact with the movement, camping in the rain and cold is wearing. On a given day it’s hard to tell what difference is being made. They fear people are tired of their message, of their slow deliberate progress. People drift away, back to their lives, after long hours cooking, patrolling, organizing. Challenging interpersonal dynamics become more challenging when fewer people are around. Fewer resources means more time devoted to keeping things running, and less time devoted to analysis, next steps, moving the agenda.

And yet, this can be almost a blessing in disguise, because it will force the movement to expand. The occupiers are directing energy toward how to better welcome their larger support network. Potik has begun trying to organize people she knows who have expressed support but not gotten involved directly, to make a regular commitment to show up and help out and participate, in however small a way. She notes that “if you leave it to the full-timers, the activist types, they can’t do it all. Maybe in some of the bigger cities they can, but here they can’t. We’re one of the smallest cities with a standing occupation. But that’s a strength, not a weakness, because we need everybody.”

See occupyalbany.org for a list of upcoming events and ways to get involved, or send an email message to occupyalbanypr@gmail.com to get announcements of upcoming events and meetings.

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