‘Occupy’: A path to non-violent revolution?

In setting up their own self-governing community, protesters echo sentiments from the Seattle general strike in 1919.

Occupy Wall Street’s success could depend largely on whether protesters manage to remain non-violent [EPA]

Groggily, I made my way to a recent Occupy Wall Street protest at 5:30 in the morning. The protesters were jubilant, having recently been informed that the city had postponed its decision to evict the permanent encampment at Liberty Plaza. As usual, a couple of hundred militants broke away from the main group and marched throughout Lower Manhattan. Befuddled and disoriented, the police could do little to contain the demonstrators, particularly within windy warrens and side streets in the vicinity of Wall Street. I was particularly struck by the scene of police charging protesters on motorcycles, only to be turned back and engulfed by the crowd along Broadway.  

Judging from the protests, the demonstrators have become even more emboldened, and, at many critical moments during the morning, they challenged the police with calls of “revolution!” At previous demonstrations, many activists had been either too timid or meek, bowing all too often to police orders to stay within enclosed barriers and stay off the streets.  But now, the crowd seemed to have psychologically turned the page and entered a new radical phase, asserting its right to head into the streets and push for more militant actions. Perhaps feeling somewhat intimidated and fearing a public backlash, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has not acted to dislodge the protesters from their encampment.

There are already signs that this nascent movement has moved into the mainstream, and both political parties, particularly the Democrats, can ill afford to ignore Occupy Wall Street.  But while the psychology in the country and the political debate may have subtly changed as a result of the protests, it is difficult to ascertain what Occupy Wall Street has achieved concretely. In order to change the system, the protesters will have to start causing real disruption and getting in the way of “business as usual”. Yet, looked at soberly, Occupy Wall Street is still very far from pulling off a mass action which would cause significant pain to entrenched interests.  In a previous Al Jazeera column, I outlined how protesters might conduct a general strike in Lower Manhattan, but at this point such an ambitious plan seems, to put it mildly, somewhat far off.

Tactical challenges

Though Occupy Wall Street has made great strides in New York, the movement now faces a tactical hurdle. My sense from the past month or so is that the demonstrators can only count on young, and predominantly white, militants to turn out for radical weekday actions in Lower Manhattan. As a result, Occupy Wall Street cannot significantly disrupt day-to-day business in the nation’s financial capital. In order to do so, the protesters will need much more support from organised labour than has been offered heretofore.  

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When I attended the early morning protest about two weeks ago, this lack of union support was painfully evident. Arriving at the encampment early in the morning, I tried to spot black, Latino and working class people. Though many labour organisations have endorsed Occupy Wall Street, I saw only two members of SEIU 32BJ, a local union, greeting each other in Spanish. To be sure, the unions have sent some contingents to some of the larger protests, but judging from my own observations of the last several weeks it is usually the younger, anarchist component which is dominating the militant actions. 

If it wants to have a more profound impact on business as usual in New York, Occupy Wall Street is going to have to do a better job at reaching out to organised labour, and the unions too will have to be more assertive instead of merely seeking to piggyback on an already moving train. Historically, as this earlier interview suggests, both sides have failed to coordinate effective political coalitions and therefore many may wonder whether Occupy Wall Street can succeed where others have failed.

It’s a little presumptuous for any one person to suggest where the protest movement should head in the days and weeks ahead. Whatever the demonstrators decide, future actions will be settled on organically and democratically within Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly process, a novel system designed along non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian lines. Nevertheless, I don’t think many within the Occupy Wall Street movement would disagree with the notion that the group must flex its muscles in the coming weeks and not lose crucial momentum in Lower Manhattan.

Building on the Seattle model

Despite the many challenges, Occupy Wall Street already has a very effective working model for political change at its Liberty Plaza encampment. A virtual self-governing community, the square is a powerful symbol to many who aspire to non-hierarchical and egalitarian ideals. Now, all the protesters need to do is solidify the alliance with labour and the unemployed, and thereby expand this model to the rest of Lower Manhattan.

Of course, labour will be reluctant to get out of its comfort zone. But in making its appeal to local unions, Occupy Wall Street might point to earlier labour successes which have arguably led to non-violent revolution. Take, for example, the Seattle general strike of 1919, when strikers upset the local order and came close to launching a true revolution along anarcho-syndicalist lines. 

As I explained in my earlier column, radical ferment was in the air at the time and when Seattle shipyard workers went out on strike in opposition to wage cuts, 65,000 other labourers joined the solidarity struggle. Very soon, Seattle was engulfed in a full scale general strike which shut down the entire city. Strikers meanwhile set up their own self-governing mechanisms by serving food to a whopping 30,000 single men who normally depended on restaurant meals. 

In his book Strike!, Jeremy Brecher writes of the Seattle uprising, “The cooks, waiters, and other provision trade workers purchased the food, located restaurant kitchens, and arranged to transport the cooked food to twenty one eating places in halls throughout the city.” The meals, consisting of beef stew, spaghetti, bread and coffee were delivered by striking teamsters and offered at no charge. Milk wagon drivers meanwhile established an innovative distribution system and set up stations throughout the city.

Occupy Wall Street harks back to this earlier, American tradition stressing anti-authoritarian tendencies. Step into Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan and one is immediately struck by the collective nature of the encampment, which features everything from communal kitchens to a makeshift health centre and even a growing library. General meetings, which follow a curious “call and response” format in which no one person dominates the discussion, elicit a curious response from onlookers. New Yorkers can be an aloof and taciturn bunch tending to mind their own business, but in Liberty Plaza people from all walks of life spontaneously engage in conversation on any number of varied and sundry topics of the day.             


In many ways, the Seattle strikers of 1919 demonstrated that they could keep order and run the city autonomously. For example, teamsters were deployed to haul milk cans and hospital laundry. Moreover, to prevent a public health hazard, the strikers collected garbage and firemen remained on duty so as to head off any destructive conflagrations.  What is more, a “labour War Veterans Guard”was created to replace the police and maintain the peace. Members of the force, who did not sport any weapons, were former army veterans and they pledged to keep order through “persuasive” means rather than resorting to violence. 

In the event, peacekeeping proved unnecessary: observers claimed they had never seen Seattle so quiet and orderly. Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, which relies on non-hierarchical decision making, the Seattle strikers established their own cooperative group comprised of rank and file workers. Called the General Strike Committee, the body acted as a virtual “counter-government” for Seattle. 

Perhaps, the emergence of such a committee reflected the ideological influence of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the IWW or “Wobblies”, which had long been organising in the Pacific Northwest. With its emphasis on the notion of forming “One Big Union”and developing class consciousness amongst the working poor, the IWW reflected a more militant agenda within the labour movement of the day. Feared and reviled by the economic elite, the Wobblies pushed radical tactics such as free speech fights and demonstrations. Eventually, the IWW hoped to shut down all industries and achieve a more just economic system. The general strike represented an important weapon which, if used effectively, could help to unite all working people in common struggle. “The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike,” remarked Ole Hanson, the city’s mayor at the time, “was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact. The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet.”

Lessons of Seattle

Unfortunately, the Seattle walkout collapsed amid pressure from the mayor, federal troops and an unsupportive American Federation of labour. Not only did the shipyard workers fail to achieve wage increases, but union-busting and red-baiting were quick to follow.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, many Wobblies were rounded up by the end of the strike, even though there is still some debate as to how much of a real organising role the IWW may have played in actual events.  Nevertheless, the strike inspired generations of workers who strived to build a more socially progressive order and demonstrated that labourers could indeed circumvent capitalism and adopt cooperative mechanisms of their own.

In setting up their own self-governing community, Occupy Wall Street protesters echo many of the sentiments of the Wobblies and the generation of 1919. Unfortunately, it goes without saying that many of today’s unions hardly eschew the principles of their radical forbears.

If the activists manage to pull off a more broad-based action, however, particularly if such an undertaking is coordinated in conjunction with union support, they might consider the case of Seattle. Occupy Wall Street has shown that it can run its own affairs within its modest encampment, but if activists can widen their control of the local vicinity, if only for a brief time, then such an action would surely provide a potent and inspiring example to many.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Visit his web site here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.