The tents are still up at Turning Point Park, but Occupy Hartford has shown few signs of life in recent weeks. After a strong showing at their kickoff march in early October, active participation has waned. There has been high turnover of activists, both those living in the tents, and those dropping by or showing support from afar.
The declaration of its impending death comes from those who have worked closely with the group, saying that those still involved in the encampment “don’t even know they are on a sinking ship.” In recent weeks, there have been hints that Occupy Hartford was on the verge of imploding.
The inexcusable mishandling of the sexual assault on site may have been the final straw for many who had previously offered their support for the local incarnation of the Occupy movement.
The move away from Occupy Hartford appears to be taking two forms: Occupy Heaven and the Hartford Organizing Group. The latter seeks action and to disassociate itself from Occupy Hartford. The reasons given for the creation of the former vary, but it cannot be due to space, as some have speculated. Even at its peak, Turning Point Park was never close to being overcrowded.
As the discussions over who is responsible for cleaning up Turning Point Park commence, the time has come to look at what, if anything, Occupy Hartford has contributed to activism, the community, and its goals.
The excitement about throngs of people taking over Zuccotti Park in New York City was palpable and contagious to many seasoned activists, a number of whom have been more politically passive since the election of President Obama. These are the folks who, in part, gave the OWS movement a reputation for being made of “aging hippies,” since some had been involved in civil disobedience and marches during the Vietnam War era. In the mix were those who rallied for civil rights. A younger contingent among them had protested the use of 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.
The idea of the 99% seemed to welcome those who had been accustomed to finding their politics on the fringes of society.
But the movement quickly became frustrating as some in the new-to-activism category refused to listen to practical advice given by this older contingent.
One effect: the previously hibernating activists have stepped up their actions outside of the OWS movement and have worked harder to create alliances among existing community organizations.
Introduction to Activism
There is no doubt that the larger OWS movement was responsible for bringing in new blood. The rhetoric of OWS worked its way into the national lexicon. Between the attention from the news media which fueled this continuous discussion, and the visibility of the actions, newcomers were enticed into activism
But locally,while gathered in a visible location, Occupy Hartford offered little in the way of community outreach or maintaining the attention of those new to the ranks.
Those whose attention was earned may have found the handling of incidents at the encampment to be a turn-off from future involvement in political activism.
The remaining newcomers will find ways to work with those interested in taking action; those just showing up for a prolonged camping excursion will lose interest when asked to be involved in less romantic forms of activism.
Visible Protest Site
When the tents are gone, what will remain is an understanding that the corner of Farmington and Broad is very visible. During rush hour, traffic comes to a stop. While standing up at the Capitol building is symbolic, it attracts little attention; now, another location has been identified for those seeking to get out the word about their causes.
Ultimately, though, Occupy Hartford did not fulfill its potential.
Just as Occupy Wall Street had garnered the attention of those around the word, Occupy Hartford had gained a large audience — perhaps not global, but respectable — through its location and early actions. But instead of using that momentum to push them ahead, they wasted important time squabbling over logistics, squabbling over principles, and just squabbling.
Much of this could have been avoided through better planning.
In the rush to jump on the OWS bandwagon, the group did not bother to create a solid foundation from which to build. Discussions about shared principles (if you search the Occupy Hartford website, no results are found for “principles”) and demands happened after the tent city was erected; when an organization is unable to articulate what it stands for amongst its members, how will it be able to put forth a clear message to those it is trying to reach? What’s more, a disorganized movement stands little chance of attracting more, reliable, and effective participants.
We saw this happen.
Those who were interested in the movement at the beginning walked away when it became clear that no meaningful actions were going to occur. Others felt pushed out by the tedious General Assemblies, those lengthy group meetings relying on the consensus process, which often turned into personal attacks due to poor facilitation. For the consensus process to work, a good facilitator is necessary. That’s just Lefty 101.
The high rate of activist turnover in such a short amount of time made actualizing plans difficult-to-impossible.
Another way Occupy Hartford squandered opportunity was by failing to connect-the-dots. Throughout their stay in Hartford, they have received criticism from those on the Right, the Left, and everywhere in between and beyond. At different points, activists responded defensively, instead of engaging with those offering critiques. The defensiveness has been noted by those inside and outside of the encampment; local critics have observed that instead of asking for advice about how to do better, the first response offered by many in Occupy Hartford has been sheer insolence.
While many claimed they were interested in starting conversations about important issues, this was not the case for all; some were only interested in these conversations when they were steering them.
Instead of acknowledging that many camping at the site have been homeless, and then discussing why so many Americans find themselves living in poverty and without shelter, and instead of taking action on those issues, they often swept these matters under the rug. Only now, as the unraveling seems imminent, are public discussions even beginning to happen about homelessness. To those in the community who have been working with the homeless for years, who have constant exposure to this issue because we live in Hartford where poverty is not hidden away, but is instead pushing a shopping cart full of cans down the street several times daily, this last ditch effort is almost laughable.
When the group was criticized for failing to acknowledge that many Hartford residents are living in deep poverty, they appeared to begin to pay attention, at least momentarily. But what became of this?
Too Little, Too Late
After non-stop criticism for occupying space they did not understand, they finally began to get involved in the community.
In other circumstances, let’s say, with a group that is just forming and has yet to go public with its message and action, these pieces of ignorance would have been more forgivable. But when a group declares itself and seeks attention, one expects more of the background work to be in place. And when they have been asked by the community, repeatedly, to work with the community, they are practicing none other than willful ignorance.
Occupiers have recently begun to attend community meetings, the purpose of which is that the community talks and the Occupiers listen. This type of involvement before launching the local movement, or at the very least, within the very first days of it, would have taught the squatters which issues are most important to work on here in Hartford, it would have made them seem more genuine to residents (many of whom have had low expectations about what involvement Occupiers will have in socioeconomic justice once the adrenalin rush wears off and they go home), and it would have helped form alliances, which in turn, provide numbers. While there are some 4,245 people who “like” Occupy Hartford on Facebook, the largest number to show up for any Occupy action was only a few hundred. That was when the weather was mild and the excitement of the creation of Occupy Hartford was still fresh.
Maintaining the Status Quo
An early reason given for why some were protesting was that they did not want to pay their student loans. This kind of complaint being made in a city where so many students drop out, where so many people are functionally illiterate, well, it seems petty. Nobody wanted to talk about the privilege inherent in the ability to receive a quality education which would allow one to even be accepted into college. Vocalizing such entitlement overshadowed more legitimate complaints being waged about the exploitative nature of our current political and economic systems.
Regardless of whether or not those with student loans can pay them off, these individuals will, if they have not already, have opportunities afforded to them which many living in the city they have chosen to “occupy” will not. The economic woes of recent years give a taste of poverty to those who had never needed to think about it before; when the economy picks up, those grousing about student loans will again have job opportunities.
Before then, many will return to nice homes in safe neighborhoods and tell war stories about their encampment. For some of them, this will be treated as a rite of passage, nothing more. The better among them will have figured out spaces in the existing community where they can contribute their time and energy. They will build on what exists. Those truly drawn to effect a change have already begun to branch out and take meaningful action.
But the maintenance of the status quo goes beyond economic and racial privilege. We have seen that the way violence against women has been mishandled. When a woman was screamed at for making a comment that males on site had made, nothing was done with the aggressor other than to diffuse the situation. There was no teach-in about power dynamics. Last weekend, when a woman was molested, the perpetrator was merely told to leave the site. Two anonymous activists have reported that she was pressured by a few at the Occupy encampment to not report the crime to the police. It has also been said that the survivor was shamed for drinking alcohol.
The explanation given has been that activists are learning as they go, but intimidation and sexual molestation are not new problems; there is a lot of precedence for how to deal with these issues.
Neither response to those incidents was revolutionary.
In fact, these responses are ones that we expect from those in power now. If caught doing wrong, those in power try to minimize the situation inasmuch as possible. They may accept the most minimal amount of responsibility for their actions as they can get away with, and then they thrown in a red herring (or three) to take control of what type of conversation they would like to be having about the matter. We saw this same spirit in action several times with Occupy Hartford. When they have said that another world is possible, they might have clarified that they were not the ones willing to create it.
What the most vulnerable in society, what those who have been marginalized by society do not need is more of the same treatment that we have been receiving.
Best Possible Outcome
For those who are seeking to move forward, it can only be hoped that they have removed their blinders. At all stages of Occupy Hartford, activists made mistakes. If their motives are sincere, they should be willing to look carefully, critically, and honestly at what has ensued in the past two months, and learn from that:
- Learn about the issues and community first. Respect the place you are attempting to work in.
- Make allies and build support within community
- Create Principles of Unity
- Create specific, measurable, and achievable goals
- Then, take action
- Welcome constructive criticism from those who would like to see the movement succeed
- Be a little less paranoid about police, being co-opted (especially if there is nothing to co-opt), and each other. Caution and paranoia are not the same thing.
- Listen more than you speak
- Think hard about your rhetoric. It might not mean what you think it does and it might be far less inclusive than you imagine it to be.
- Get off the Internet. Okay, not entirely, but recognize how the Internet is something that not everyone has 24/7 access to. People can use it at the library, etc., but this does not keep them connected to what is going on when the library is closed. Think about other ways that you need to communicate better with the population you are working within. This may mean translating to other languages. This might mean cutting out the fanciful jargon so that those with only a basic education can still have access.
- Learn how to work the media to your advantage. Beginning from a place of hostility does not entice most journalists to speak with you more than they are assigned to. Expecting coverage when there is nothing to cover is unreasonable. Learn how to write simple press releases (no need to take a college course, as this info can be found online and in library books) that make sense and give reporters a reason to show up.
- Learn more appropriate ways of conflict resolution and use them.
Those in the Hartford Organizing Group, an offshoot of (but unaffiliated with) Occupy Hartford, have begun to move in this direction. How their plans will materialize remains to be seen.