A conversation about what the #Occupy movement means today, and what it needs to do to survive.
There’s a hint of nostalgia in crisp September air. As the fall leaves show the first signs age, police, who far outnumber a few singing and chanting protesters, form a continuous ring around lower-Manhattan’s Zuccotti park. Today, #S17, is the second anniversary of events that inspired a season of protest across the country.
Today’s gathering at Zuccotti park was a demographic cross-section of previous years. The morning hours included a smattering of college-age protesters, neo-hippies, musicians, gutter-punks, and union organizers marching between various downtown protests. The General Assembly, a semi-regular meeting conducted as a unified chorus of synchronized shouts, was smaller than previous years, but is still a great spectacle and example of organizational ingenuity. The protests were no more rowdy than in the past, and the police I spoke with all agreed that in spite of a few arrests earlier in the week most demonstrators remained peaceful.
This is a significant anniversary for Occupy Wall Street. As with previous years, today’s #Occupy protests lacked a cohesive message beyond a general dissatisfaction with economic opportunity. While #Occupy has never lacked identity, from its early days as a small AdBusters-inspired culture jam, accusations of ambiguity have dogged Occupy. While the 2008 economic collapse helped provide impetus for the initial sit-ins, Occupy represents a sentiment of resentment towards broad rang economic conditions that existed long before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the beginning of the Great Recession. Today, organizers continue to refer to Occupy as more akin to a gun shot than a tea party.
Politician and Brooklyn-born hip-hop activist George Martinez sees this week’s anniversary as an opportunity for the Occupy movement to pivot beyond one-off events and create a more inclusive and organized structure. During a phone interview while on tour in Florida, Martinez refers to the initial protest and subsequent commemorations as “convergence moments,” and stresses that while anniversary events are important, the movement needs to strengthen its organizational capacity. Martinez is leading the charge with a series of events focused on local activism at college campuses across the country.
Martinez has experience with political activism. In 2012 he ran for Congress in Brooklyn’s 7th congressional district, and helped organize Bum Run the Vote, a grassroots amalgamation of hip-hop culture and local policy-focused politics. This year he’s evolved the organization with the Global Block Foundation, an non-profit dedicated to localizing and activating the Occupy message.
“People paid attention to my run [for congress],” said Martinez, “and I’m hopeful we can inspire 100 candidates to run in 2014 and literally bum rush the vote to take our message of what we’d like the world look like right in to the halls of power.”
Martinez helped produce and is touring behind Occupation Freedom, an album of Occupy-themed anthems. As he visits college campuses around the country, he sees hip-hop as opportunity to “connect cultural moments to learning opportunities.”
The Global Block Foundation is more of an extension of the Occupy spirit than an official offshoot. But if he’s successful in orchestrating the success of future candidates, Martinez will also be in part responsible assisting a slow but seemingly-inevitable transition from free-form protests towards involvement with structured politics.
That Occupy would mature was a foregone conclusion two years ago; since its inception both web and legacy media have speculated about Occupy’s transition towards structure. Today, Occupy is challenged with fragmentation as organizers like Martinez urge sophistication and action, while those still in the park insist that the “Meeting is the Message.”
This week’s celebration in downtown New York City and across the country serves as a reminder as much as a memorial. With time we’ll learn if #Occupy Wall Street can evolve the message, or if it exists only in the moment as an annual gathering of the tribe. To organizers like George Martinez, the tribe is alive and growing, and the joy his voice is undeniable.
“We’re continuing to lay down the foundation,” he tells me, “it all comes down to a good groove and a funky hip-hop spirit.”