Democratic Left Magazine - Summer 2015

Making Sense of Occupy Wall Street

By Barbara Joye

 

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement

By Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky
228 pp., Oxford University Press, 2015

 

Even as protesters filled Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square in New York City, commentators were analyzing the phenomenon known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS). With The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, sociology doctoral candidate Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky may have written the definitive book to date. He comes to the subject as a participant-observer, narrating the rise and fall of OWS in a lively, engaging style and sorting out “the kaleidoscope of interpretations” and questions OWS raises. His observations are augmented by quotes from some of the 80 interviews he conducted in New York City and elsewhere.

 

Some of Gould-Wartofsky’s conclusions contradict the corporate mythology that OWS has had no lasting impact in the United States. Instead, he places it within the “99 Percent movement,” to recognize its many antecedents (the Spanish indignados, Tahir Square, the Wisconsin Capitol sit-ins, other NYC mini-occupations, and so on) and the subsequent projects OWS spun off or influenced. Throughout, he emphasizes the fallout from the Great Recession that motivated most of the participants—student debtors with uncertain futures, unemployed and underemployed people, the foreclosed and homeless, beleaguered union members, and disillusioned voters.

 

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Left to right: Nelini Stamp, Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky, and Cecily McMillan, Photo by Reid Jenkins.
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Not Waiting for Lefties to Engage the Arts

On the April 15 national day of action for Fight for $15, members of New York City’s DSA chapter went to the rally and march, then headed down to The Barrow Group Theater in Midtown for a staged reading of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty and a panel discussion on why unions matter.

The first performance of this 1935 play is a legend in the American theater, a testament to the power of art. Performed for a one-night benefit for New Theatre Magazine, Lefty was loosely based on the New York City taxi driver strike of the previous year. Odets used the story as a springboard to declare open war on capitalism in the midst of one of the most difficult economic periods in U.S. history and to uncover an unspoken rage just below the surface, a sense that the lives of working people were overly determined by their dependence on a system bent on keeping them in their place. It was performed by The Group Theatre—itself a somewhat radical collective of artists who lived together, made work together, and developed what became known as an “American acting technique.” Contemporary accounts describe the play seeming to unleash something dramatic, communal, and undeniable. By the end of the performance, the 1,400 audience members were stomping and raising their fists to “Strike!” with such vigor that the performers worried the balcony would fall down. It would soon become a much-produced and popular play in small theaters and union halls across the country.

 

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Worker Co-ops Gain Traction

By Carmen Dixon and Alexis Posey

As income inequality has grown, so has interest in alternative economic practices, including economic cooperation or worker co-ops. Last year, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, allotted $5 million over a five-year period to develop worker cooperatives, and this year, the New York City Council approved an allocation of $1.2 million for 2015 toward the same goal. The New York initiative serves to strengthen and expand the pre-existing worker cooperative economy in the city.

 

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There are more than 40 worker cooperative businesses in New York City. Businesses such as Apple Eco-Cleaning and Pa’lante Green Cleaning are made up of mostly immigrant women who were once making low wages as domestic workers. Other businesses range from bookkeeping to construction to travel agencies to translation services.

 

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Calling In and Showing Up

Five Steps to Being an Effective Ally

As socialists, we believe in solidarity. We know that an injury to one is an injury to all. But how do we practice solidarity in our everyday lives and in our campaigns? If you’ve ever wondered why your local chapter only attracts a certain kind of person, ask yourself how you can become a better ally to the people you want to work with. The DSA National Office, with the Young Democratic Socialists, is field-testing a workshop to help members of locals become better allies so that we can build a stronger movement to change oppressive institutions and social structures. What follows is a brief outline of the steps you can take on your own or in a group to begin the process. If you want to follow up with a more detailed workshop, get in touch with the National Office.

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Regulating the Police

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By Bilal Dabir Sekou

The city was devastated by fire, looting, and violence. Federal troops were called in. The year was 1967. The place was Detroit. Forty-three people died, most of them African American. As the embers cooled, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an 11-member commission chaired by Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., of Illinois. The job of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (popularly known as the Kerner Commission) was to find out “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

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Are We "Privileging" Movements or Clubhouses ?

I have been involved in many organizations that fight for social justice and equality. These groups were diverse in spirit and representation. Why would they not be? Coalition work has been a part of the left since its beginning, and I always believed that any successful effort to organize the working class would have to give priority to communities that have been crushed under the heel of oppression.

It was not until I served as adviser to a queer and trans person of color group at the University of Alabama that I started questioning this outlook. We began each meeting by having attendees give an accounting of all their privileges, which felt a bit like Confessional. The few events that we would have that were open to the public (it was normally a closed group, which is why my wife, who is white, bisexual, and served as co-adviser, was not allowed to attend meetings) would always begin by telling white people in the audience to “think thrice before speaking,” which kind of defeated the point of an open event. Eventually, it got to the point where even non-black queer people of color felt uncomfortable coming to meetings.

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Paying a Price for Sexual Orientation

Editor's note: In light of today's announcement of the Supreme Court's decision affirming the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry, we thought our readers would find Christine Riddiough's article on the struggle for LGBT rights of interest.

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By Christine Riddiough 

As this issue of Democratic Left goes to press, the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on whether state laws preventing same-sex marriage are constitutional. Whatever the ruling, events in Indiana, Arkansas, and other states reveal that the fight for LGBT rights is not over. There is still no federal legislation forbidding discrimination against people because of sexual orientation. Such legislation, at this point, needs to be won on a state-by-state basis.

 

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Socialists and the U.S. Political System

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By Joseph M. Schwartz

Michael Harrington often quipped that the problem with American socialism is that it would be American socialism. By this he meant that socialists in the United States cannot simplistically import lessons learned from Europe, Latin America, or Africa. We live in a continental nation of 50 different states, and, thus, 50 distinct political systems. We also operate within a republican constitutional structure that our “founders” consciously devised to make radical democratic change difficult. If we are to be effective, we have to understand and grapple with the structural biases built into our system. These involve our famous system of checks and balances and separation of powers, plus states’ rights and electoral procedures that are biased in favor of a two-party system.

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Organizing with Class and Identity

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Annette Bernhardt/Flickr

One of my favorite DSA T-shirts reads, “We organize with class.” It sums up what makes us different from other progressive activists. We understand that the capitalist class has an inherent interest in exploiting the working class and has structured society and all of our institutions accordingly. Yet, we also recognize that the ruling class shapes institutions and social relations not just to regulate and control people based on their position in the economy but also on their gender, race, age, sexual orientation, and other categories. In other words, based on other aspects of their identity.

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