How to Win a Fight with the 1%

Since its explosion onto the political scene in September, Occupy Wall Street has taken our nation by storm; it has led stirring marches, an attempted general strike, occupations of banks and abandoned buildings, disruptions of political speeches and press events, and a massive West Coast shut down of major port terminals.

The actions, moreover, have already achieved limited successes — besides having created space for Americans to come together outside of the established political system, they have rightly been credited with having stopped fee increases amongst the largest banks in the country, as well as having widely validated the American public’s fury over increasing inequality, generating massive media exposure.

Despite its impressive influence, however, the only real material victory of Occupy so far — its having stopped increased bank fees — was entirely incidental, and was in no way a conscious objective of the Occupy Movement.

The Occupy Movement therefore remains increasingly susceptible to losing its momentum if it does not achieve some tangible gains. We can be certain that if people do not see real results from the Occupy Movement soon, they will move on to something which seems to offer them more; and with our two political parties gearing up for election season, we should take this threat all the more seriously.

Concretely, what this is going to mean for Occupy supporters is to re-orient their organizing from mass, symbolic actions — such as “mic-checking politicians” and waving signs at CEO’s — to more targeted campaigns designed to win real, immediate gains for ourselves.

In order to do this, Occupiers are going to have to learn three important organizing guidelines for their campaigns, exemplified by a growing community organization out of Seattle, Washington: the Seattle Solidarity Network (or “SeaSol”).

They will have to make sure their fights are relevant, winnable, and importantly, make sure they hurt.

Make sure the fight is relevant

For social movements to not only sustain themselves, but also to grow, it’s important for them to be relevant to other people’s daily lives. They must offer something that will, at least eventually, markedly improve their quality of life.

The Seattle Solidarity Network has seen a good amount of growth in its relatively short life span because it focuses on solutions to a problem most people face: naked exploitation. Has your boss stolen your wages? Is your landlord refusing to make needed repairs to your home? Have you been discriminated against?

People — mostly working class people — identify with these problems. These problems are things we and our loved ones face daily; that makes campaigns around these issues relevant to our day to day lives, not just because it affects us and our loved ones, but because we intimately understand them.

In order to attract more people to join Occupy, organizers will have to make the case that the issues they are taking on are of great importance to others.

Make sure the fight is winnable

People need to believe they have a chance of winning something. There is no point in turning out to protest after protest, after all, if at the end of the day you don’t feel like progress is going to be made. Organizers need to achieve concrete victories in order to show people that it’s worth fighting on their side.

A brief visit to SeaSol’s website reveals that all of the fights it has taken on — over stolen wages or deposits, for example — have been rather small conflicts. That’s because SeaSol recognizes that to effectively address a problem, you must have the resources and capacity to hurt your target more than it will cost them to give into your demand.

Or, to put it even more simply: to win, you have to have leverage.

SeaSol shows this relationship — between the amount of leverage they have, and the amount it would cost a target to give in to the demands — in its “winnability graph.”

This graph, while only a vague representation of real life — where we obviously cannot quantify “units of pressure” — nonetheless forces us to really look at what our resources are, and what we might be able to achieve with them.

What if instead of using our time at Occupy to make unwinnable demands — things we are simply not yet strong enough to gain — we focused on winning a series of smaller fights? What if instead of trying to get “corporate money out of politics,” we instead tried to stop foreclosures in our cities, home by home?

With the level of participation in the Occupy movement as it stands, demands such as this are demonstrably more winnable — and consequently, help build a larger and more empowered movement.

Make sure it hurts

Once you’ve decided on a demand that people will find relevant — a demand you feel confident you and other occupiers in your city can win, you’ll want to begin fighting for it with all the resources at your disposal.

SeaSol normally approaches a fight with a few principles in mind.

First, they know that the name of the game here is pressure. Essentially, how are we going to make life very, very hard for our target until they give in?

There are a nearly infinite number of tactics you can use to put pressure on a target — it just takes some creativity. You can, for example, hurt them economically with pickets, boycotts, or blockades. You can target their social connections, and embarrass them in front of neighbors, fellow church goers or business partners with flyers, letters, protests, or sit-ins. You can even target other businesses which are financially tied to your target to put secondary pressure on them.

While there are no hard and fast rules for planning which tactics fit any given situation, the general rule of thumb is that you normally want your tactics to be sustainable (meaning you could, theoretically, continue them for a very long time), you want them to hurt your target more than they hurt you, and you want your tactics to escalate.

A SeaSol organizer put the concept of escalation this way: “it isn’t the memory of what we did to the boss yesterday that makes them want to give in, but the fear of what we’ll do to them tomorrow.”

As a campaign progresses, you want to give the target the impression that things are getting increasingly worse for them — that you are constantly escalating your fight. So while yesterday you may have simply been putting up flyers around their business, tomorrow you may be picketing their shop or disrupting a fancy dinner party.

Next Steps:This election season, as is custom, the presidential campaign will dominate most news coverage — pushing needed publicity for Occupy off the front page. Some organizers and participants in your local Occupy groups will leave to organize for Obama, and nearly every union and non-profit which up to now has been somewhat supportive of you will be going into full fledge “get out the vote” mode, attempting to co-opt your movement for the Democrats.

The only effective countermeasure against this will be to draw in new layers of support from people not yet involved.

In order to do that, you will need to start taking on fights which help and empower them.

And, of course, whatever the campaigns local Occupy groups plan to take on next, it will be important to remember these few tips: make sure the fight is relevant, winnable, and hurts.

John Jacobsen is a labor activist currently living in Seattle, Washington. He works as a welder's apprentice, and organizes with the Seattle Solidarity Network. He currently publishes his work at, and has most recently been featured in LBC's new book, Occupy Everything: Anarchists in the Occupy Movement. John can be reached at Read other articles by John.