There is No Society Without Social Space: An Interview with Marisa Holmes on Organizing Occupy Wall Street

Marisa Holmes’s new book “Organizing Occupy Wall Street: This Is Just Practice” is the first study of the processes and structures of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), written from the perspective of a core organizer who was involved from the inception.  The story she tells incorporates collective statements, structure documents, meeting minutes, live tweets, and hundreds of hours of footage from the OWS Media Working Group archive. Agency met recently with Marisa to get her take on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the OWS moment, what worked and what didn’t, and to understand the lessons–both the inspiring and the cautionary ones–coming out of it.

Agency: One of the fascinating things about the story you tell is the incredible amount of preparation, planning, and alliance-building that preceded the initial Zuccotti Park occupation–despite the popular belief that OWS sprang up organically overnight. What were the critical preparatory steps that we need to learn to replicate? And why do you feel all that work was largely invisible to the public eye? Do you see this as something missing in the social movements and uprisings that have come since? 

Marisa Holmes: Yes, OWS was organized. It required quite a lot of planning in advance, both online and in person. There were intergenerational dialogues between organizers and direct connections with global struggles. Thus, what we did was historically grounded, and adaptive to the current context. The New York City General Assembly (NYCGA) held weekly meetings throughout the summer of 2011. Working groups for tactics, media, arts and culture, legal, medical, food, and outreach, all started in the NYCGA. The seeds of what the occupation would become were planted there. We created the scaffolding for an emergent organization.

People who came to Zuccotti Park could plug right into a structure and process for decision-making. They were also given the tools to step up and take on specific roles. For example, we held trainings every day in facilitation and direct action. The media center would teach people how to livestream and edit video. The kitchen was always open for people to lend a hand cutting vegetables. As the occupation grew, and more people came, the complexity of the organization increased. Each working group had its own unique culture, with corresponding roles, tasks, and expectations. Self-organization worked, even at scale. What we did at Zuccotti became a model to replicate. There were over a thousand other occupations across the globe. Many of them adopted our collective statements and mimicked our processes.

This organizing work was invisible–and still is, to some extent–because the state and capitalists, and all those who seek to silence us, don’t want it to happen again. They don’t want new generations of organizers to know what came before, or what to do. They don’t want any lessons learned to be passed down. They would prefer we live in a state of collective amnesia, disconnected from one another. This makes it much easier for them–our enemies–to divide and conquer us. Thus, it is imperative that we tell our own stories, from the streets, and keep radical history alive.

Agency: The importance of accountability is something you highlight as a critical lesson learned. But calls for accountability can get a lot of pushback. How do we overcome this problem? How can we address the issue of accountability early on before conflicts lead to crises and disaffection?

Marisa: Accountability is key to any movement or organization. In my book, I describe at length the way the Safer Spaces Committee in OWS worked to address harm and conflict. I argue that community agreements for anti-oppressive behaviors were not prioritized and should have been foundational to the culture of OWS.

Often, accountability is reactive. There’s some horrible incident that occurs, and then the individuals and/or community members around them react. They try to set up makeshift structures of support with little training or background. If, instead of reacting, movements and organizations set up such structures in advance to train people in dealing with conflict and to hold transformative justice practices, then they’d be better prepared.

Harm, conflict, and abuse will happen. This is inevitable because we live in a society built on generations of trauma and violence. We’re all broken. If we start from this position, then it is less scary when problems come up. We’re better able to deal with them. Making accountability foundational to the work is primarily about shifting culture. It’s about undoing all the white supremacist, patriarchal, ableist patterns we’ve inherited. It’s about treating each other with love and respect.

Agency: What, in your opinion, are the three biggest misconceptions about OWS still circulating today? And what negative impacts do these have on our ability to challenge global capitalism, economic inequality, and systemic oppressions?

Marisa: That OWS was disorganized. This completely obfuscates the organization that did exist, which was horizontal, autonomous, and directly democratic. This type of organization was very effective at organizing large numbers of people.

That OWS engaged in electoral politics. This renders the radical experiment of OWS as some sort of primitive pre-history to the real politics of the state. This misconception forecloses on the possibility of a directly democratic future.

That OWS enabled fascists. This transforms the movement into a generic form of populism, that could go left or right. It adds to the narratives by fascists, who attempt to claim OWS as their own. It also adds to narratives by the Department of Homeland Security that paint the radical left and right as converging.  The notion that OWS enabled fascists couldn’t be further from reality. OWS was part of the radical left and opposed fascism. 

Agency: Looking back on OWS, it’s hard not to notice that one of the most enduring social movements (if you can call it that) in the years since the 2008 crash is the Tea Party or MAGA movement, and you discuss this in your book. But are there any connections to be drawn between the failure of OWS to grow and consolidate in its original form, and the rise of right-wing populism?

Marisa: I argue that neofascism is counter-revolutionary. MAGA is neofascist and has used some of the same tactics and strategies as OWS, including social media, but for its own horrifying ends. Could this have been prevented? What would the world look like now, if OWS had persisted? These are interesting but speculative questions.

A backlash was probably inevitable, and we were totally unprepared for it. OWS was co-opted by the Democratic Party, which tried to direct the grassroots momentum into an electoral agenda. This rendered the movement toothless and ineffectual. 

OWS was also subjected to intense repression by the state and corporations. It was deemed a domestic terrorist organization. There was widespread surveillance, infiltration, and disruption of our activities. If we had been more prepared to face our enemies, then perhaps we would have grown even larger and more impactful over time.

The Tea Party and MAGA have a fundamentally different relationship to the state and corporations. They are of course projects of the Republican Party and aligned with some parts of the state. They are aligned with some corporate interests. Thus, they are protected from the kind of co-optation and repression that OWS experienced. They are useful to those in power because they can be leveraged against the radical left. For all these reasons, they have persisted–although they’re now reaching a breaking point.

Agency: In your book, you note that our “contemporary challenges” are to build “more intentional, intersectional, accountable, equitable, and resilient movements.” Where do you see this happening most effectively? In which of these four areas are movements making the most progress, and what can we do to build on this?

Marisa: More intentional and prefigurative movements are needed. Out of these four areas, the most advancement has happened around being intersectional. This is in large part due to the rise of Black Lives Matter. From the beginning, which I’ll place in 2014 with Ferguson, there was an emphasis on coalitional politics. Queer and femme folks were at the center of organizing. There was a conscious internationalism with drawing connections between policing and militarism. The commitment to working at the intersections has only deepened over time and can best be expressed in an abolitionist position.

There has also been some advancement on being accountable. First, the #MeToo movement opened space for survivors to speak about their experiences and put abusers on watch. Second, the Disability Justice Movement has been emphasizing the need for care. This work has been more influential in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as more of us are becoming disabled. There is more attention, compared to a decade ago, to addressing harm, conflict, and abuse, both at an individual and collective level.

Efforts have been mixed on the achievement of equity. The labor movement has certainly become more radicalized and militant in the last decade. In recent years there have been historic strikes across the service, health, education, and entertainment sectors. There is a more popular understanding about class and the need to redistribute resources. In movement spaces there have been fundraising campaigns and mutual aid efforts to provide for more disadvantaged members of communities. However, I haven’t seen a real commitment to addressing power relationships within organizations and movements. There needs to be more attention paid to our own structures of resources. For example, having access to a bank account or social media account gives someone a lot of power. One way to address this is to ensure that decisions about money and communication are made democratically. Another way is to ensure regular rotation of roles.

The most work needs to be done around resiliency. I keep seeing wave after wave of organizers go hard for a year, maybe two, and burn out. Actions happen in exceptional moments, flare-ups, and then there are periods when very little appears to be going on. Unfortunately, some organizers, especially those who are younger or new to the work, mistake these flare-ups, which could be characterized as insurrectionary events, as the revolution. They don’t understand that revolution is a process that takes organization and time to achieve. It takes regular people working odd jobs and trying to survive. It takes families and children. We need to build structures that support people organizing on a part-time, volunteer basis, over the long term. We need to integrate healing into our spaces and practice a culture of care.

Agency: Existing public spaces and “reclamation of the commons”—where activists could gather, meet, create embryonic communities—were a critical resource for OWS and connected uprisings. Going forward, should activists be making the preservation, defense, and expansion of such public spaces a priority in our organizing? Do you see this becoming a focal point for organizing again?

Marisa: Public space has continued to be a very important site of struggle. In 2020, for example, there were multiple occupations of public spaces, such as George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, and Abolition Park in New York City. In a neoliberal or late capitalist context, where people are individuated and isolated from one another, it is essential to maintain and create social interactions. There is no society without social space. When public space is reclaimed as a commons and transformed into social space, this is especially powerful. The act breaks the separation of the public sphere and the state. There is no separate space then to dissent and air grievances, but rather a self-organized alternative to the state.

Agency: In your book, you draw on other people’s accounts, but the heart and soul is your description of events and processes you witnessed and participated in yourself. This might sound trite, but to what extent did OWS change your life? Is there a sense in which you were a different person before and after? To what extent is this true of other people you worked with at the time?

Marisa: OWS changed my life, and I’m sure the lives of many other people who participated. Individual transformations are integrally linked to collective ones. We are part of movements. We make them happen. It is impossible to disentangle one from the other and discuss a movement only as a separate entity or identity. On a personal note, I’d say I became the best version of myself during OWS. I learned a great deal about facilitation, action planning, and media work. I learned how to connect people, and weave together coalitions. Most of all, I learned that the majority of people are well-intentioned and, given the right conditions and opportunities, will take action. People want to be free but are held back by the fear of repression and the unknown. The role of an organizer is to break through that fear and open space for love and trust.

Agency: Veterans of OWS have gone on to all kinds of other activism, some more mainstream, some less. Is there a connecting thread that still binds them together? At the same time, do you see some of the conflicts and problems that arose in OWS reflected in the journeys former Occupy activists have taken since then?

Marisa: 2011 was a lot like 1968. Everyone claims to have been there and has their own take on what happened. There are certainly “veterans” of OWS who never stepped foot in Zuccotti. There are people who came to OWS and participated, but with different intentions and expectations for the movement. There are also people who genuinely believed in what we were doing, who simply came away from the experience with different analyses. There are those, like myself, who participated from the beginning, believed in the project, and continue to do work along the same lines to this day. For example, the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council (MACC), operates via assemblies, working groups, and affinity groups. 

There is very little connecting thread between former occupiers. We have inherently different political positions, which are in conflict with one another. I can only imagine a temporary alliance, such as a united front against fascism. 

“Organizing Occupy Wall Street: This Is Just Practice”

This book is the first study of the processes and structures of the Occupy Wall Street movement, written from the perspective of a core organizer who was involved from the inception to the end. While much has been written on OWS, few books have focused on how the movement was organized. Marisa Holmes, an organizer of OWS in New York City, aims to fill this gap by deriving the theory from the practice and analyzing a broad range of original primary sources, from collective statements, structure documents, meeting minutes, and live tweets, to hundreds of hours of footage from the OWS Media Working Group archive. In doing so, she reveals how the movement was organized in practice, which experiments were most successful, and what future generations can learn. Available through Springer.