Michael Theriault headshot

Bernie Sanders’s run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination may not be formally ended, but it’s done. His followers will lament that the party’s pulpit is no longer shared by a preacher who favors jeremiads on rising inequality and the failures of the economic system. They – and we – should now remember Occupy.

Occupy’s “We are the ninety-nine percent” message on inequality was delivered not by a septuagenarian Vermont senator, but by tent encampments in prominent public spaces. In San Francisco, the smaller of two was before the Federal Reserve Building on Market Street, the larger just east, at the Embarcadero on Justin Herman Plaza.

The City’s labor movement backed Occupy. I visited the larger camp not long after its establishment and found that it refused any leadership structure, including majority rule. I obtained a spokesperson’s visit to our Board of Business Representatives meeting anyway, and at the Board’s behest wrote a letter supporting the protest.

Almost as soon as tents went up, City government heard demands to remove them. The Occupiers, expecting this, established a network to track police movements and to inform supporters when they believed raids were imminent.

One evening a call went out and Building Trades members gathered with hundreds of other supporters at Justin Herman Plaza. We intended to form a human shield. Some of us expected to be arrested. We thought that if the process of arresting us slowed the police enough so that dawn came and commuters streamed from ferries through the plaza, the tents might be saved and the protest continue.

The Occupy network sent word that it had seen police mustering on Treasure Island and Muni buses arriving to bring them our way. After midnight but well before commute hours we saw the buses crossing the Bay Bridge.

Then they didn’t arrive. The network reported that the buses had passed the exit for us and continued on to Tactical Squad headquarters near Potrero Hill, where they had disgorged their passengers. The police went home; so did we, convinced that our presence had helped turn them away.

Ultimately we could not save Occupy from itself. We might debate whether or not the utopian project of a small society without leadership structures could survive in isolation from broader society and its problems, but no such isolation is possible. Some of the City’s more troubled homeless residents joined the camp. A rational consensus on basic camp order and cleanliness became harder to achieve. With love and patience, the camp’s founders persisted in trying.

When the City proposed to the camp that it move to a former school facility – now a homeless reentry center – on Mission near Sixteenth, consensus became impossible. Some Occupiers, feeling they had established a new kind of community, wanted to sustain it by accepting the offer. Others wanted instead to go mobile and move their tents from one protest target to another. A third faction wanted the camp to hunker down and defy any attempt to move it.

When the police and Department of Public Works employees came to take down the camp, then, there was no warning network, no call to supporters to defend it, and little resistance.

Now, long after, an organization still proclaims itself Occupy. It calls for protests on proposals to give police tasers, the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, the impeachment of Brazil’s President, Mercy Housing’s relationship with tenants, and sundry other topics. However one might view these causes, they will never unite Americans of different backgrounds and needs. Occupy is now like a tumbleweed “Christmas tree”; it is turned upside down, with empty veins, and one hangs any shiny thing on it one pleases.

Where will the Sanders movement go now that he cannot have the Democratic nomination? Even if some of its adherents reluctantly back Hillary Clinton, where will they go if she is elected? Will the movement be as ephemeral as Occupy?

Although Sanders must have been a reasonably successful mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the day, his campaign hasn’t exactly torqued a nuts-and-bolts connection between rhetoric and implementation. In his interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial staff, he revealed ignorance of the fact that Wells Fargo is one of the big banks he intends to dismantle. Without concrete action to which they can devote themselves, without even the project of utopian governance of Occupy, what will his followers do? Protest, maybe; but protest without well-conceived alternatives to its object is only wind.

There persists in this country a movement that has fought inequality more effectively than any other: Ours. As factionalized as we may be, as variously democratic or hierarchical the leadership structures that govern us, and despite decades of assault from business and politicians, the labor movement continues to give many individuals and families, whether our members or not, far better lives than they would otherwise have.

Union members among Sanders backers should regard us with fresh eyes and advocate and work to advance our efforts, even and especially if this means advocating and working to change how we advance them.

And to his followers who are not yet unionists, we can say: Take us up as your hammer against inequality.

Organized Labor


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