Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street roared into existence in 2011, it became the butt of jokes and fodder for mockery. The activists camping out in lower Manhattan—and, eventually, dozens of cities across the country and the world—to protest income inequality and rampant oligarchy were dirty hippies, the haters said. They didn't have an actual, concrete policy agenda, somewhat more serious critics charged, but rather were just engaged in a theatrical bit of cultural expression. Some may have just been there to yell at cops and maybe even get arrested. It was all well and good to call out the 1 percent for shamelessly enriching themselves and corrupting the political system at the expense of the other 99 percent, but what was it all going to add up to, in the end?
For all the bad-faith critiques—and there were a lot of them—of a truly inspiring and singular protest movement that emerged from the Great Recession, there was a fundamental flaw that limited Occupy's ability to change the system. The activists weren't really occupying the "Wall Street" that actually ran things, they were occupying parks. That meant they couldn't actually force the elites they opposed to change the way they did business.
Grinding some of the gears of America's immigration deportation regime to a (temporary) halt, on the other hand, is easier than you might think.
Last week, protesters in Portland, Oregon, furious at the Trump administration's policies successfully forced the shutdown of a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility. They did so thanks in part to Occupy-style tactics, camping out and erecting a quasi-Utopian tent city complete with provisions, communications, legal aid, and other hallmarks of Zuccotti Park circa fall 2011. They also expressed hope that their example might inspire similar actions in other cities—a hope that was promptly answered by, among others, the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council (MACC) in New York City. That group, too, won an at least temporary victory when the ICE building in Lower Manhattan they targeted cancelled immigration hearings Monday. Likewise, an Occupy ICE group in Detroit forced a temporary shutdown there the same day, though they were subsequently forced off federal property by police, according to a local ABC affiliate.
Similar efforts have sprung up in recent days in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, with talk of nascent protests from Chicago to Philadelphia. And while the ability of protesters in those cities to force shutdowns—and the ones in Portland and New York to sustain them—remained to be seen, the early indications were that occupying public spaces is a hell of a lot more effective when you want to stop the government from inflicting harm rather than force it to correct injustices.
"We were watching Portland really closely," Marisa Holmes, an organizer with MACC, told me Monday. "Now it's becoming a national movement of sorts—an Occupy ICE phenomenon—taking different detention centers and facilities around the country."
Holmes, a veteran of the original Occupy Wall Street protests, noted that in New York's case, at least, the legacy of that earlier movement has been instrumental in organizing actions against ICE. From the basic skills of how to train people on worst-case legal and medical scenarios to the infusion of energy that comes from left-wing groups ranging from NYC Shut It Down to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to NYC Anti-Racist Action (a local offshoot of a mostly defunct outfit that employed anti-fascist tactics in the Obama era), protesters have a lot of institutional savvy and experience to lean on.
The other thing that helps is a very tangible target.
"It's one very specific part of the system that we're trying to critique and change," Holmes told me of ICE generally and separating families at the border in particular. "Occupy had this critique—we were critiquing Wall Street and capitalism as a system. There were a lot of different campaigns and things that came out of that, and people continue to do work in specific areas [on issues like] housing and policy brutality. This an immediate response to an outrageous immigration policy."
Not that it's just a bunch of Occupy diehards getting the band back together. In Washington State, 16-year-old Seattle resident and DSA member Laura Couch has been using her time off from school to run the Occupy Northwest Detention Center Twitter account, named for the ICE facility activists have been camped out at in nearby Tacoma in hopes of mimicking the victory won in Portland. "It's not enough just to protest," she told me. "We have to unite and actually change what's happening."
That protest, she added, has had a typical overnight population of just 20 people, though numbers have been closer to 70 or so during peak protest hours like 9 PM local time. She acknowledged there was still a lot of work to do to achieve the volume and disruption of the Portland action, but didn't have any doubt people would stick around as long as necessary. "It's going to be more of a long haul than in Portland—this might take months," she said.
It's still too early to say just how effective protests will be at seriously impeding or even halting ICE operations, especially since much of the damage to immigrant families is happening hundreds of miles south, at the border. But with some of the thousands of children separated from their parents moved to the very states where occupations are taking place, and more structural "abolish ICE" sentiment infiltrating the debate in Democratic congressional primaries, the potential for even relatively modest occupations to make life a lot more complicated for immigration overlords is already clear.
"Occupy itself was sort of an eruption from a field of hot energy under the surface that came and went with respect to what was being felt on the street," recalled Todd Gitlin, a Columbia professor and social-movement historian who was president of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. Comparing ICE occupations to similar actions at Army draft board locations at the height of the Vietnam War, he pointed to the midterm elections as a key measuring stick for what this latest eruption of Occupy-style protests really means, and what activists intend to get before they back down.
"They may or may not feel the need to do something more orderly or organized down the pike, but for now they feel enraged and this seems to be a sort of natural place to put that energy," he told me.
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