Global Solidarity and the Occupy Movement

On December 1, 2011, twenty-four people joined together in a small Pennsylvania town to show their solidarity with the protesters of Tahrir by targeting a company that makes tear gas used in the suppression of crowds in Tahrir Square. Their numbers were not great, but their example anticipates the kind of consequential solidarity that could develop globally. More than a message gone viral or a day of simultaneous protest about inequality’s injustice, focused actions that publicize the chains of injustice linking distant sites can transform the ways in which we think not only about solidarity, but the conditions movements seek to change.1

Occupy Wall Street’s Genealogies and Affinities

In one of the more literary efforts early on to explain Occupy Wall Street, the novelist and Times Literary Supplement columnist Michael Greenberg explained in The New York Review of Books 2 that Adbusters out of Vancouver hatched the idea for OWS in 2011’s midsummer, and took off “when combined with anarchism, the hacktivism of the WikiLeaks phenomenon, and the arcane theories of Guy Debord and the so called Situationists on [sic] the May 1968 student demonstrations in Paris.”3 Later that summer, he writes, Anonymous joined the movement, the hackers whose association with “V for Vendetta” iconography is most apparent in the Guy Fawkes masks they wear. Tahrir Square in Cairo also was a major inspiration for OWS, which leads Greenberg to conclude with more global resonance than I would imagine:

The protesters in Zuccotti Park seem to have heralded the membership of a significant portion of our population in a new form of Third World, a development that our media and government appear to have been the last to absorb. (14)

That worldly reference of OWS is echoed in many places and is substantial in many ways, but it is also made to look much simpler by the ways in which global solidarity appears on Facebook pages or twitter feeds.4 To the extent those across the Occupy world articulate the same goals, diagnoses, methods, and lineages of OWS, the cultural politics of global solidarity are simple. But they are also less dynamic than they might be otherwise. Each of these struggles has its own powerful and particular history. Their recognition can extend solidarity in a deeper fashion, in a way that acknowledges and embraces the challenge of difference. With that embrace, we can have a richer understanding of the 99% and a world made with it, rather than the 1%, in mind.

Tahrir, Los Indignados and Vetëvendosje

The ongoing mobilization in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and its extensions across Egypt are the most recognizable global precedents for OWS. Even beyond resemblance, Egyptian activists in particular have connected with Occupy Wall Street physically and symbolically.5 Reflecting an increasingly common practice, activists from the Egyptian movement sent a letter of solidarity to Occupy Wall Street. It began this way:

To all those in the United States currently occupying parks, squares and other spaces, your comrades in Cairo are watching you in solidarity. Having received so much advice from you about transitioning to democracy, we thought it’s our turn to pass on some advice.

Indeed, we are now in many ways involved in the same struggle. What most pundits call “The Arab Spring” has its roots in the demonstrations, riots, strikes and occupations taking place all around the world, its foundations lie in years-long struggles by people and popular movements.6

We are not told who these activists are, but in fact, this is one of the common qualities of this part of the Arab Uprising and the Occupy movement: while there are many ideas, there are no leaders. For the Egyptian Revolution in particular, the multivocality of the movement was striking.7 The Egyptian revolution and Occupy are not alone in this range and relative anonymity.

The Spanish Indignados movement, also known as 15M, is frequently identified as a kindred spirit preceding and occurring with Occupy.  Although identified with May 15, 2011 for its founding moment, that movement built on preceding mobilizations and planning three months earlier, organized around a vision of politics that opposed politicians of all sorts for their distance from everyday life. Like the Egyptian mobilization, it has had a decidedly democratic aspiration, if notably non-partisan, with distinctively multivocal expression.8 The manifesto issued before the May 15 demonstration has subsequently taken off, reproduced across Europe. It begins this way:

We are ordinary people. We are like you: people, who get up every morning to study, work or find a job, people who have family and friends. People, who work hard every day to provide a better future for those around us.

Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic, and social outlook which we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.

This situation has become normal, a daily suffering, without hope. But if we join forces, we can change it. It’s time to change things, time to build a better society together…9

The text goes on to identify a range of priorities and truths that do indeed signal a broad and compelling vision of an alternative society. The same list could appear on the placards of Occupy Wall Street or any other site of the Occupy movement across the world. The text concludes with a call for “an ethical revolution,” emphasizing “We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy, and who I buy from.” With Occupy’s global takeoff, 15M has become more self-consciously identified with the global Occupy movement.10

Kosova’s Vetëvendosje shares many of the same critiques offered by 15M and Occupy, even if it does not enjoy the same kind of recognition among most in the North American Occupy network. Like the trans-European and North American based movements, it is deliberately broad in its political currents and pointed in its identification of the alienation of publics from political and corporate elites. Vetëvendosje also offered a letter of solidarity with OWS, but with it, goes beyond many expressions of global solidarity in an important way. I found this passage particularly significant for extending solidarity beyond resemblance, and toward focus on how Occupy movements might link more consequentially:

Your fight at the core of global financial power marks a crucial moment of resistance in the long chain of demonstrations and actions carried out by people in different countries; people that are facing oppression from the same repressive system of illegitimate power. 11

Although European, Vetëvendosje differs from 15M and the Occupy movements. First, Vetëvendosje is hardly leaderless. Their leader Albin Kurti’s message, in fact, is growing in global recognition, for while his critique is grounded in the particularities of Kosova’s struggle, its themes have much broader global resonance.12 Indeed, these resonances travel even more readily than the arguments of Vetëvendosje might because of the movement’s striking visual cultural politics, from the everyday graffiti across Pristina in particular, to the striking graphics of Fisnik Ismaili. 13 Vetëvendosje’s different organizational culture should not matter to the cultural politics of global solidarity if a second difference is taken seriously.

Vetëvendosje’s emphasis on self-determination (the Albanian name in fact means self-determination) invokes clear anti-colonial and anti-imperialist traditions, which for the dominant tones of Occupy and 15M are relatively muted. By itself, critiques of global power do not complicate solidarity’s extension, but the forms of struggle that occur with self-determination, and not only self-expression, can challenge the global identifications of the Occupy movement. The history of Kosova’s liberation struggle, and Poland’s Solidarność, illuminate.

Poland, Kosova, and the Geopolitics of Solidarity

Solidarność, Poland’s 1980-81 mobilization of more than 9 million men and women is arguably modernity’s largest and most consequential movement.14 Two of its qualities are of particular importance for thinking about the Occupy movement.

The power of Solidarność rested first on its embrace of solidarity as ethic, strategy, and tactic. Communist authorities typically ended protests, even occupations of factories, by negotiating deals with local protesters. That system of repressive tolerance began its obvious end when those in the best position – notably those occupying the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk – refused to go back to work when their local demands were met. The significance of that resistance grew dramatically when demands moved from redress to restructuring, toward systemic changes that empowered the whole of the labor force and civil society. Among the demands that accompanied the formation of Solidarność were rights to independent trade unions and free expression.15

Although the relevance of solidarity is evident in its name, the “self-limiting” strategy of Solidarność is not. The movement knew that it could not press for change as far as it might – to call for free elections, for example, would have not only invited the repression of Polish communist authorities but the potential invasion by the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviet Union. Thus, the movement constantly worked to figure how far it could press without evoking full repression, always on the edge. Activists and analysts wondered during those days of an independent trade union in communist-ruled Poland how long it could last; finally, on December 13, 1981, nearly 30 years ago, the Polish authorities imposed martial law and arrested most of its leadership, putting an end to that experiment in self-organization.16

Although rarely stated explicitly, this self-limitation was not only about demands, but also strategy and tactics. During martial law and the near decade of repression following, the underground resistance to the Polish authorities deliberately avoided any kinds of provocations that would have appeared to legitimate the state’s violent reaction.17 The Polish opposition knew from their own history as well as that of their neighbors, that violent confrontations too readily reproduced Soviet domination.

Of course this commitment to non-violence worked within a global framework defined by Cold War. Some of those who supported the rights of free trade unions in Poland did not support them in their own countries, for example. At the same time, solidarity clearly extended beyond the conventions of geopolitical alliance, and in fact, helped to develop a sense of solidarity across civil societies and their movements regardless of Cold War divisions. The cultural politics of global solidarity are relatively easy when the movement mobilizing support is non-violent. War especially challenges simple identifications.

Just a little over a decade ago, debates over what some called humanitarian intervention in the Wars of Yugoslav Succession prompted a profound realignment of politics in Europe and America.18 It was relatively easy for those not ensnared in Cold War and nationalist logics to identify with the non-violent resistance of the Kosovar democratic movement associated with Ibrahim Rugova. But as that movement failed to generate the consequential solidarity and transformation most Kosovars sought, and as the Kosova Liberation Army emerged as a viable alternative enhanced with support from the USA and NATO, the challenge of a solidarity based on simple recognition and identification grew even as the prospects for Kosovar self-determination were changed.19

Violence and Consequential Solidarity around Egypt and Beyond

Solidarity is easiest to realize when principles, practices, and aims are identical. It becomes more challenging when the object of solidarity shares an affinity with, or enjoys active support by, an opponent or enemy. That difficulty is magnified when violent resistance is part of the struggle. For that complex of reasons, non-violence is generally the best method to generate and maintain global solidarity among movements and publics. But of course that commitment is not always realistic, nor is it always a reflection of how resistance works. Indeed, the opposition between a peacefully changing Egypt vs. the rest of the Middle East is wrong, as activists from Cairo suggested in their letter of support to Occupy on October 25, 2011:

Those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces: by the government’s own admission; 99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed, and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down. Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks even as they fired tear gas and live ammunition on us. But at the end of the day on the 28th of January they retreated, and we had won our cities.

It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose.  If we do not resist, actively, when they come to take what we have won back, then we will surely lose. Do not confuse the tactics that we used when we shouted “peaceful” with fetishizing nonviolence; if the state had given up immediately we would have been overjoyed, but as they sought to abuse us, beat us, kill us, we knew that there was no other option than to fight back. Had we laid down and allowed ourselves to be arrested, tortured, and martyred to “make a point”, we would be no less bloodied, beaten and dead. Be prepared to defend these things you have occupied, that you are building, because, after everything else has been taken from us, these reclaimed spaces are so very precious.20

This letter, published on October 25, precedes these recent days of contest and violence. Many today struggle to maintain the solidarity developed last spring through and despite the injuries, imprisonments and killings out of Tahrir Square. It is, therefore, critical to consider how solidarity works in the face of violence not only among those targeted, but among those who could be its supporters across the world.

Atef Said, a sociologist and human rights lawyer from Egypt, is among those mediating and mobilizing around solidarity with Tahrir Square.21 His November 21 Facebook posting identified explicitly how solidarity might be developed. He writes,

A bloodbath is taking place now in Egypt in Tahrir Square, the icon of all justice seekers and activists of the occupy movement worldwide and the symbol of liberation from all oppression and exploitation of capital and dictatorship (Tahrir in Arabic literally means liberation). Most of the weaponry used against protesters, especially tear gas containers, is U.S.-made. Egyptian military is dependent on the U.S. military aid, as 1.3 $ billion goes yearly to the Egyptian military.22

On November 22, those who occupy Tahrir Square asked the world for the following actions of support:

Occupy/shut-down Egyptian embassies worldwide. Now they represent the junta; reclaim them for the Egyptian people.

Shut down the arms dealers. Do not let them make it, ship it.

Shut down the part of your government dealing with the Egyptian junta.23

Actions have become even more specific and targeted. For example, in those same postings about calls for solidarity with Tahrir, activists proposed to assemble on December 1 outside the gates of the Combined Systems International (CSI) plant in Jamestown, Pennsylvania to protest sales of those tear gas canisters used by the Egyptian military to repress protesters in Tahrir. Such actions are more difficult given the relatively isolated location and the dependence of the local community on the plant’s employment, making the 24-person turnout not altogether surprising.24 But rather than focus on numbers, one should consider the object’s example for consequential solidarity

This CSI protest was not a simple affirmation of support for Tahrir by Americans, but a direct protest by Americans against the Egyptian government’s violence. It focused attention on the ways in which US government policy and US corporate practice facilitate that violence. It is an expression of solidarity that, with sufficient mobilization, public recognition, and policy response, could alter the geopolitics that connects Egypt with the USA. That is, perhaps, what Tahrir’s call for solidarity is about, and why its call extends beyond its immediate importance.

To the extent direct actions are non-violent, to the extent they highlight the violence rained on those who occupy Tahrir Squares across the world, to the extent they begin to highlight not only the negative consequences of the 1%’s disproportionate influence within nations, but also the global flows of weapons across nations that reinforce injustices, we see not only a new expression of solidarity. We see a new meaning of solidarity too. This solidarity is not only about recognition and affirmation of those most like the Occupy movement. This solidarity recognizes the difference in struggles across the world, imagines the connections that make those struggles both similar and different, and shows how solidarity can be consequential. This could be consequential solidarity in the short run, and a different geopolitics in the long run.

***

The multivocal qualities of the Occupy movement alongside the possibilities made by social media invite opportunities for a new kind of solidarity, one based less on resemblance, and one based more on recognition and exchange, inviting not only mutual support but mutual transformations. This is true across the sites of the Occupy movement within the USA and other places across the world with the most similar conditions; but is especially important as solidarity extends beyond relatively privileged and globally dominant sites in the world.

For example, exchanges among globally privileged regions, between, for example, 15M and the Occupy movement’s North American expressions, are easiest. In these, the challenge of gross inequality and its consequences can focus relatively coherently on what happens within places where the 1% are within political reach, in a space where laws and a plausibly independent judiciary can matter. That kind of global solidarity is relatively easy, even if its consequence is mostly symbolic. It also reproduces the movements’ common sense of the problem. But solidarity could be even more consequential when not similarity but implication in a chain of injustice can be recognized. And that is why Vetëvendosje’s articulation of solidarity, and even more the developing solidarity movement with Tahrir Square, matter so much.

Inequality and the dangers of austerity are clearly central to the message of the Occupy movement, and deservedly so. But the injustices made by violence, especially those actions facilitated by global flows of weapons, are not secondary. At least they are not secondary if the global solidarity of the Occupy movement is to be made with variable implications in injustice, and not only ideological resemblances, at its heart.


  1. Author’s note: In appreciation of comments and suggested texts offered by many leading up to this essay, including Gay Seidman, Lucas Kennedy, Besnik Pula, Linda Gusia, Cameron MacDonald, Rahul Mahajan, Mathew Kearney, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, and Chien Wen-Kao. I also appreciate so much the thoughtful readings of this essay offered by Naoko Shibusawa, Atef Said, Nita Luci, Alex Hanna, Gianpaolo Baiocchi, and Shiva Balaghi. Max Strasser’s probing questions, resulting in his piece with Mohamed Elmeshad on October 28, 2011 “From Bringing Down Ben Ali to Fixing Up Wall StreetAlMasry AlYoum, moved much of my subsequent thinking. The advice of Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Paul Price made this essay much better. Thanks to all, but of course I am finally responsible for what appears here.
  2. Michael Greenberg, “In Zuccotti Park,” New York Review of Books LVIII, November 10, 2011, 12-14.
  3. The Wisconsin mobilization in the winter of 2011 is another precursor to Occupy Wall Street, but Occupy analysts and activists have curiously under attended its example until recently. With the recent police violence against protesters at the University of California, Davis, the Wisconsin movement’s mobilization of police officers in its support has become especially important to consider as Ed Schultz, host of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” recently declared. For activists’ accounts of the movement, see Erica Sagrans, ed., We Are Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Uprising in the Words of the Activists, Writers, and Everyday Wisconsinites Who Made It Happen (Minneapolis: Tasora, 2011).  For sociological reflections, see Taylan Acar, Robert Chiles, Garrett Grainger, Aliza Luft, Rahul Mahajan, João Peschanski, Chelsea Schelly, Jason Turowetz, and Ian F. Wall. “Inside the Wisconsin Occupation,” Contexts.
  4. Facebook has many pages devoted to the global resonance of OWS. On a recent day, I could read about developments in Berkeley, Barcelona, Bologna, Budapest, Nova Friburgo, Brazil and Safi, Morocco at http://takethesquare.net/. From that same site, I could also learn how to occupy (http://howtocamp.takethesquare.net/) and read the organizers’ reflections on 10/15/11’s mobilization across the world, where they reported that 951 cities in 82 countries had some kind of mobilization. Twitter also does its work. Its hashtag (#) provides a neat prefix: #occupy or #ows will help get any message in the right tweetstream. Affixing the hashtag to GlobalOccupy or globalchange signals the transnational reference of Occupy. The list can go on, but the point is apparent: Occupy is the keyword modified by its association. And if Occupy is about challenging how the 1% dominate not just the USA but the world, one can readily appreciate why Occupy can travel so easily.
  5. E.g., Russell Keating. “From Tahrir Square to Wall Street: What can Occupy Wall Street Learn from the Activists Who Took Down Hosni Mubarak?Foreign Policy, October 5, 2011.
  6. Solidarity Statement from Cairo,” Occupy Wall Street, October 25, 2011.
  7. Mohammed Bamyeh, “Anarchist, Liberal, and Authoritarian Enlightenments: Notes from the Arab SpringJadaliyya, July 30, 2011.
  8. For sharp elaboration, see Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza (forthcoming), “Politics without Banners: The Spanish Indignados’ experiment in direct democracyBoston Review.
  9. Democracia Real Ya Manifesto, Toma la Calle: 15.10.11.
  10. Aaron Lam, “Spanish Indignados a Force in Global Movements,” October 29, 2011, Epoch Times; also available at http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2011/10/29-5.
  11. Vetëvendosje, October 17, 2011, “A Message of Solidarity.”
  12. Albin Kurti,“International Protectorate,” TEDx talks,Vienna, YouTube, 2011.
  13. Nate Tabak, “From Newborn to the Pimpsons: How Fismail Ismaili went from Hope to AngerBalkan Insight, May 23, 2011.
  14. Jan Kubik, “Solidarność” in Immanuel Ness ,ed., International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest 1500-Present (London: Blackwell, 2009), 3072-80.
  15. See Michael D. Kennedy, Professionals, Power and Solidarity in Poland: A Critical Sociology of Soviet-type Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 52-57.
  16. Jadwiga Staniszkis, Poland’s Self Limiting Revolution: Solidarity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986) captures this part of the movement.
  17. Michael D. Kennedy, Cultural Formations of Postcommunism: Emancipation, Transition, Nation and War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 288-95.
  18. See for example Paul Berman, Power and the Idealists, or the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath (New York: Norton, 2005) and Brian Rathbun, Partisan Interventions: European Party Politics and Peace Enforcement in the Balkans (Ithaca: Cornell, 2004).
  19. Lessons from those times might also be instructive for analyzing the politics of solidarity with liberation armies today: see Michael D. Kennedy “Kosova, Libya, and the Question of InterventionJadaliyya, April 1, 2011.
  20. Solidarity Statement from Cairo,” Occupy Wall Street, October 25, 2011.
  21. For his account of the first wave of Egyptian revolution, see Atef Said, at The Immanent Frame.
  22. Atef Said, “Save the Egyptian Revolution from Military Rule – Your Solidarity is Needed with the Egyptian Revolution,” Facebook, Nov. 21, 2011.
  23. Mosireen, Urgent From Tahrir: Join our struggle for the survival of the revolution, http://mosireen.org/?p=385 (Nov. 22, 2011).
  24. Dan Majors, “24 peacefully protest against Mercer-based tear gas maker,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 2, 2011.

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