Eight years later, in 2019, Occupy Wall Street is long forgotten, ancient history. Yet last Saturday at the Bernie Sanders rally in Queens, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, not only because Sanders kept using the term “one percent” to describe the ruling class, but because of the stark contrast in the way the two movements were organized. They couldn’t be more similar. Yet they couldn’t be more different. Let me explain.
The overwhelming impression I got at Bernie’s rally in Queens is that the content was better than the form. In spite of how the only thing I disagreed with about the proposals Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez were making is that they didn’t go far enough, something about the rally itself left me cold. It was the usual top down, Democratic Party rally. Pre-approved signs were handed out at the beginning of the rally. Chants were started from the speakers podium. The speakers list was pre-selected by the campaign. Our role as supporters was to listen passively, chant and clap.
What a contrast it was to Occupy Wall Street.
Occupy Wall Street in many ways was the mirror image of the Sanders campaign. Let’s call it form over content. Indeed, it became a cliche after awhile to make fun of the media for repeatedly harping on Occupy’s non-existent demands. “What are your demands.” Bernie has plenty of very specific, moderate sounding, but in the end, radical demands. That’s what makes his campaign so dangerous to the ruling class. We the people hear “Medicare for All” and think “hey. Why not. It makes sense for mom and dad. Why not for all of us.” Some of us know enough about American history to hear “free college tuition” and think “just like the University of California or City College in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of us agree that student loan debt is massively usurious and should be eliminated. But the upper-middle-class and the ruling-class hear the same demands and think “oh no. My taxes are going up. There go my kids trust funds. This evil man must be stopped.” Not surprisingly, the corporate media has mocked Bernie’s movement for having too many demands in a way very similar to how they mocked Occupy Wall Street for having no demands.
The problem, however, is that unlike Occupy Wall Street, which was a genuine threat to the establishment, which took over downtown areas and threatened to disrupt business as usual until Obama coordinated a violent crackdown with DHS and local, militarized police departments, the Sanders campaign is following the rules of a traditional Democratic Party run, even after it was demonstrated in 2016 that the Democratic establishment will not allow him to get the nomination. Bernie is not going to win nomination and in the unlikely event that he does the Democratic Party elite will stab him in the back the way the sandbagged George McGovern in 1972. In some ways Bernie is leading people back into an elitist, neoconservative party that will betray them and leave them cynical and alienated.
In some ways, however, he’s not. Bernie and AOC directly addressed my cynicism in both their speeches. “No we can’t” is what the ruling class wants us to believe. I’m fairly sure I would have been just as cynical about AOC’s attempt to stop Amazon from coming to Queens last year, and yet she won. But I do think it’s accurate to say that the Sanders campaign commits us to a certain kind of strategy, obligates us to learn certain kinds of skills. For Occupy Wall Street, those skills were “horizontal” organizing, occupying public squares, disrupting downtown business districts, preparing for a revolution that, in the end, would never come. The American people made the conscious decision to choose the banks over themselves. For the Sanders campaign, these skills are fund raising, phone banking, canvassing, the traditional forms of party building Bernie grew up with in New Deal America.
What that means is that for Bernie’s campaign to bear any fruit we have to commit ourselves to taking over the Democratic Party from within over the next decade. In some ways I don’t have the heart for it. But in other ways, if I don’t at least try I’m betraying the next generation exactly the way my parents betrayed our generation by not resisting Reaganism. Will I have the strength and mental discipline to do it?