The Occupy Movement at Its Peak

(English translation of a French email interview, November 10, 2011)


A passing aberration? Or one of the most important political movements since World War II? From here in France it is difficult to accurately judge the nature and the scope of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has now spread to hundreds of American cities. To get a better idea of what’s going on, were are presenting an interview with Ken Knabb, an American revolutionary who has been taking part in Occupy Oakland.

For many older French radicals, Ken Knabb, an expert on the situationists and an active revolutionary since the 1960s, has long been “our correspondent in the States.” His tireless, decades-long activity in circulating radical news and theories between the United States and the rest of the world — notably via his website — has made him a key source of reference. Virtually all of his writings have been translated into French, and most of them have been collected in Secrets Publics: escarmouches choisies (Éditions Sulliver, 2008).

In Oakland, where the port has been blocked for the first time since 1946 by the November 2 general strike (called for following the severe wounds inflicted by a police grenade on an Iraq war veteran who had been taking part in Occupy Oakland), Ken is currently in the thick of the movement. We believe that this interview will help French readers understand the unprecedented scope and depth of this movement, which remains largely invisible on this side of the Atlantic.



What happened on Wednesday, November 2?

At Frank Ogawa Plaza, where Occupy Oakland has been located during the last three weeks, there were probably more than 50,000 people who visited at one time or another during the day, some no doubt simply out of curiosity, but most with an enthusiastic sympathy for the movement. Perhaps 20,000-30,000 took part in the marches to the port (there were two separate marches, one beginning at 4:00 p.m., the second beginning at 5:00). The port was blocked until the next day. During the day there were also various smaller marches in the nearby city area to block or picket various banks and businesses. On these occasions there was a small amount of vandalism by a few people. Late that evening some people occupied a nearby vacant building (with the aim of turning it into a library and meeting center for Occupy Oakland). Police attacked, retook the building, and arrested nearly 100 people (many of whom had not even been involved in the occupation).

Were there internal debates regarding the window breaking?

The vandalism, along with gestures of a few dozen people to set up barricades in the street, have provoked extensive debate within the movement. Most people feel that such tactics are not wise, that they accomplish nothing, that they are in some cases the work of provocateurs, and that in any case they seem to have the same effect as if they were the work of provocateurs (discrediting the movement, distracting attention from the more significant actions going on). At the same time, many people are sympathetic to the emotions behind such actions, and do not wish to denounce mere property destruction as such. So they are not quite sure what to do.

Is the encampment continuing? How many people are involved full-time?

In Oakland there continue to be regular general assemblies almost every day and Occupy Oakland is larger than ever. The encampment was reestablished less than 48 hours after its October 25 destruction by the police. Perhaps 200 people live there round the clock. Many others visit or participate in the assemblies or contribute in various ways.

What is the social composition of the movement? Is there a core group that can be socially situated?

It’s quite varied. Occupy Oakland, for example, is perhaps 50% black and Latino, whereas occupations in other parts of the country may be mostly white. Some occupations are primarily very poor people, homeless people, etc., others include a lot of white-collar workers. Young “prĂ©caires” [people whose work situation and future prospects are precarious] are certainly among the most numerous participants.

Here in France people are not aware of the scope and depth of the movement. Can you tell us something about what it currently looks like in the United States as a whole?

There are actual occupations in several hundred cities, plus planned occupations in a thousand others, including in regions usually considered rather reactionary. These occupations range from a few dozen to several hundred people, but each of them are supported by hundreds of other people who contribute food, supplies, etc., and who take part in assemblies and demonstrations. The movement is continually growing. The winter months may make things more difficult, but the occupations will certainly continue, even if they have to move to indoor locations in some regions. There is a spirit and determination reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement fifty years ago: regardless of police harassment, we are in the process of winning. Our adversaries react against us, but they have no idea of what is really happening. They don’t understand that this is not just a series of protests, it’s a movement. And at the risk of sounding extravagant, I would say that this is the beginning of an implicitly revolutionary movement.

Can you give us an idea of the sorts of issues that are discussed in the assemblies or elsewhere?

People discuss all sorts of things. Above all: (1) Particular practical issues about the occupations. E.g. how to organize the tents, the food, other supplies; how to organize the assemblies (usually with a facilitator, with consensus or “modified consensus,” e.g. 90% support is necessary to pass a proposal); how to respond to police repression or harassment, how to respond to city demands about code violations, etc. And (2) External political issues. E.g. whether to demonstrate or picket at some bank or business, whether or how to take part in support of some issue (about the economy, or homeless people, or prisoners, or the environment, against the wars, or a hundred other issues).

Do people have some specific notion that a different kind of society is possible? Are there proposals for how to get there?

The idea of a different type of society is implicit in all of this. Most of the time, however, people are not talking about that sort of thing because they understand that it is far more important to pay attention to what they are doing now. They understand that this process is a major part of any ultimate solution. In my opinion it is of almost no importance whether people say they are for or against “capitalism” or “the state”; it is far more important that they are now engaged in a process and in a manner that already is very nonhierarchical and noncapitalist. In this process I believe that they will develop far more effective ventures than if they concerned themselves with debating between various nuances of radicalism.

Is the rest of the population hostile, indifferent, or sympathetic?

Much of the rest of the population is relatively sympathetic, in part precisely because most of the occupations have not engaged very much in radical rhetoric (Oakland is somewhat of an exception in this regard), but have presented themselves as a simple, common-sense manner of addressing problems that everyone is aware of, in a manner that is consistent with early American traditions (coming together in town assemblies to discuss and debate what to do regarding various practical problems). Almost everyone I know is very sympathetic, even if they have not yet begun to participate.

I have heard that the mainstream media were at first hostile or indifferent, but that some of them are now expressing some sympathy. Is that correct? And what is the movement’s attitude toward the media?

The movement is focusing on creating its own networks of communication. The mass media remain relatively hostile, but the movement is so widespread and evokes such popular sympathy that the media are nevertheless obliged to not express that hostility too openly. The occupations’ attitude toward the media varies. Some are hostile; others take care to be friendly, to welcome the media, show them around, etc. But above all, it is important to note that this movement no longer depends on the mainstream media because it has spread primarily by way of alternative, interactive, participatory media such as websites, blogs, emails, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube videos, etc. And even much of the general population gets much of its information from videos that circulate on the Web or via Facebook.

Are you happy like in 1968? Or like in other great moments of breakthrough that you have experienced?

These last six weeks have been by far the happiest days of my life! I lived through all the events of the 1960s, but nothing from that era compares with what is happening here now. The spread of this movement has been absolutely astonishing. It surpasses my wildest dreams. Each day there are new and amazing developments, most of them positive. To mention just one recent example, today huge demonstrations have been taking place at the University of California in Berkeley, following some campus police violence last night, and the students have called for a November 15 strike throughout the entire University of California system.

Are there feelings of connection with the recent Arab movements?

Definitely. The Arab Spring is seen as one of the major inspirations, along with certain of the occupation movements in Europe, notably in Greece and Spain. But the movement here is primarily based on its own experiences: the example of an occupation in one American city, publicized almost instantaneously via Facebook and YouTube, may be imitated in a hundred others. The examples might be slogans or homemade signs (which manifest a creativity comparable to the graffiti of May 1968 France) or they might involve broader tactics or strategies.

[November 10, 2011]


English version of an email interview of Ken Knabb by Serge Quadruppani. The original French version appeared at the Article 11 website November 10, 2011.

No copyright.

Others articles on the Occupy movement:
The Awakening in America
Yesterday in Oakland
Welcome to the Oakland General Strike
The Situationists and the Occupation Movements: 1968/2011
Looking Back on Occupy