From Occupy to Standing Rock: Paths Forward

Molly Larkey reflects on the lessons of Occupy and Standing Rock.

From Occupy to Standing Rock: Paths Forward

AS THOSE OF US on the left, along with all people of good conscience, struggle to get our bearings in the wake of this devastating election, we have the opportunity to ask some important questions. The will to organize has perhaps never been greater, but the number of issues at stake is intimidatingly large and diverse. It is clear that a politics of solidarity is fundamentally important, since a Trump presidency threatens every progressive movement and marginalized population. Even so, the term “solidarity” seems insufficient to describe a truly intersectional movement, where economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and social justice are conceptualized as one battle.

It is important to remember that this election happened in a country that — even under Obama — has the largest prison system in the world, is invested in extractive and exploitative industries both domestically and globally, routinely drops bombs that kill civilians, and is the second biggest contributor to climate change. It is also a nation that continues to persecute indigenous peoples and people of color with the support of a large share of the population that remains unwilling to reckon with our history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the genocide of native peoples. Global capitalism and neoliberalism are complicit with these — and many other — tragic realities, and are also partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump, whose upset victory was built on the discontent of Americans disenfranchised by neoliberal policies.

As we take to the streets and do the necessary work to protect the most vulnerable people and institutions from the present onslaught, it behooves us to ask: How does our resistance produce forms that are better than the ones we have been operating under?

Nonviolence as Strategy 

The effectiveness of nonviolent resistance as a strategy for shifting public consensus is well documented. The images of police dogs bearing down on praying protesters, or unarmed marchers being beaten by police, have turned the tide of public opinion in ways that other forms of resistance could not. When implemented correctly, it can bring attention to sites of oppression and injustice, turning the violence of the enemy against himself, and showing a repressive regime in its true light.

Mark and Paul Engler’s This Is an Uprising is an essential resource for anyone interested in the strategies of nonviolent organizing. It is a thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling document in which the authors argue convincingly not only for the effectiveness of nonviolence resistance, but also for the need to integrate lessons taken from movements from vastly different political and social terrains, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s and the SNCC’s Birmingham campaign; ACT UP; Gandhi’s Salt March; Serbia’s toppling of Milošević; the Arab Spring; and the fight to legalize gay marriage. The authors also provide a historical appraisal of the theories that informed these movements, including Gene Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” Saul Alinsky’s framework for community organizing, and Frances Fox Piven’s writings on mass uprisings.

The central tenet of This Is an Uprising is that effective future campaigns will integrate all these methods, even ones that were previously considered antithetical. For instance, Alinsky’s belief that change comes slowly, through building long-term relationships at the grassroots level, is, on its face, at odds with the theories of Frances Fox Piven, who posits that change comes quickly through mass uprisings. The Englers insist that both approaches are necessary to effect both broad and sustained change. This synthesis, they argue, will help prepare activists for the inevitable ups and downs that actually define successful campaigns. Disappointment, burnout, and even failure are parts of the process; to surmount them, activists must exercise discipline and patience, as well as responsiveness to opportunities as they arise. It’s easy to forget that both Gandhi's salt campaign and MLK’s Birmingham campaign were considered by many at the time to be legislative and moral failures, or that it took several waves of mass protests in Serbia, with major governmental reprisals in between, to oust Milošević. With time, however, it became clear that these movements impacted public discourse in ways that changed the course of history.

This Is an Uprising also addresses prefigurative politics, the form of resistance where the protest is itself a manifestation of the change that is desired in the broader cultural field. While nonviolent resistance creates compelling narratives around sites of injustice, prefigurative politics embody the alternative social and political forms the activists are working to establish. It is this approach that connects Occupy Wall Street and Standing Rock. In different ways, Occupy and Standing Rock are both prefigurative models of social organizing that resist exploitative capitalism. Both were informed by worldviews outside of traditional politics: Occupy by art theory, particularly ideas of relational aesthetics, and Standing Rock by the culture of the Lakota Sioux.

Art and Occupy

Radical politics in the era of mass media has the daunting task of reanimating the sensibilities of a public that often sees no alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. To counter this narrative-of-no-possibility, activists must use images, words, and stories to reframe the dehumanizing narratives and false histories presented by those who hold power and the media companies invested in maintaining the status quo. During its brief existence, Occupy Wall Street did precisely this, creating a shift in the culture, generating new language to describe late capitalism, and modeling modes of resistance against seemingly intractable economic and political systems.

Yates McKee’s excellent Strike Art looks at many of Occupy’s iconic actions and events through the lens of art and art theory, paying close attention to the artists and art collectives who were directly involved in shaping these actions. As a participant in many of the protest groups and events he describes, McKee is able to provide a detailed narrative of the occupation of Zuccotti Park in 2011, as well as of related actions that occurred before and after. Strike Art tells a fascinating story but, more significantly, it helps us understand how art and radical politics can — and perhaps must — come together to change our political and social reality.

Art has the capacity to shift our very way of seeing; by creating new narratives it can reframe our understanding of the world and of our place in it. In the late 1990s, Nicolas Bourriaud theorized relational aesthetics as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” Art was an integral part of the Occupy movement, from the graphic design of posters, to multimedia spectacles created inside museums and in public squares, to the fugitive spectacle of the Illuminator beaming into the built landscape of Manhattan. Additionally, McKee asks us to consider the Occupy project as one grand multi-authored artwork of relational aesthetics. Many of the original participants in Occupy were artists or arts collectives who were well versed in the theories of relational aesthetics, and who had abandoned the possibility of museums and galleries as viable contexts in which to enact these ideas. The anarchic field of opportunity that was created with the occupation at Zuccotti Park became the ideal context for artist-activists frustrated with the limitations of a capitalist art world.

An important part of relational aesthetic theory is the movement from passive spectatorship to participatory engagement with a work of art, collapsing the distance between the artwork and the viewer. The first event to occur under the rubric of #occupywallstreet is a prime example of this shift from spectator to participant. In July 2011, Adbusters issued an open call to gather at the Charging Bull in Bowling Green Park. At first, the event took the form of an authorized rally with pre-approved speakers addressing the audience from a stage. However, when performance artist Georgia Sagri disrupted the proceedings to call for a “general assembly,” a small group of people split off and began to discuss how to enact direct democracy. These conversations led to the initial occupation of Zuccotti Park.

That moment signaled the first shift from the hierarchical, theatrical, and officially sanctioned form of the rally to the participatory-democracy and collective-decision-making framework that became the signature aspect of the Occupy protests. Importantly, Sagri did not come up with the idea out of nowhere. She was a member of the leftist art collective 16 Beaver, which had been an important site of dialogue on the practice of art and radical politics since 2000, regularly hosting visitors who were participants in the Arab Spring and other global movements. 2011 had been a particularly active year for 16 Beaver, which organized, among other gatherings, an open seminar on debt and the commons lead by the preeminent scholars George Caffentzis, Silvia Federici, and David Graeber.

By turning the traditional, hierarchical form of the rally into a process-oriented enactment of direct democracy, Sagri and fellow activists enacted something akin to a performative utterance: instead of describing how the world can be different, it reconfigured the materials of social relationships to actually be different. Instead of describing change, it embodied or was the change in a tangible sense. In the process, a multitude of new frameworks and a new shared language for understanding the individual’s role in relationship to late capitalism entered public consciousness. The most iconic aspects of Occupy — the general assembly, the people’s mic, as well as the ongoing use of terms such as the 99 percent, and “occupy” itself — are primary examples of this kind of performative utterance.

That said, even as McKee argues that Occupy’s eschewal of traditional methodologies and markers is what gave it so much potential for creating avenues of radical change, he acknowledges its failure to come up with a set of achievable goals, a specific plan of action, or to quantify its gains in the world of electoral politics. The very lack of hierarchy and leadership that was its trademark also made it impossible to create accountability within the movement. Additionally, Occupy Wall Street was critiqued for not creating space for the most marginalized: particularly people of color, native communities, the undocumented, and the differently abled. Its very strength in creating the image of the 99 percent also erased the specific sets of circumstances and experiences of those who are the most vulnerable under late capitalism.

Standing Rock

The camps created at Standing Rock address many of the problems that made Occupy Wall Street unsustainable in the long term. The protest combined #occupy with #decolonize, creating radical possibilities for an ongoing intersectional movement. This is because, at its core, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is based on a profound intersectionality that correctly identifies white supremacy with the exploitative capitalism and extractive industries that have evicted indigenous people from their land and are destroying the earth. The culture that normalizes the exploitation of indigenous peoples and people of color also normalizes reckless greed toward the earth’s resources.

However, the movement that was created at Standing Rock is based in the concrete political goal of stopping DAPL from being built where it can pollute the land and water of the Standing Rock Sioux. In this, it differs from a movement like Occupy, which did not have a specific goal at its center. This gives the movement that began at Standing Rock both focus and accountability, placing concrete action and goals within the context of the larger struggle for social, environmental, and economic justice.

In order to dismantle white supremacy, it is incumbent to put white privilege in service to movements that hold the causes of native people and people of color at their core. As an indigenous-centered movement, Standing Rock does exactly this, creating a performative model of not only how to organize, but demonstrating what a society based in activism, healing, reverence for the land, and the unlearning of white supremacy entails. In particular, Oceti Sakowin Camp was the largest gathering of First Nation tribes in recorded history, bringing together indigenous peoples who not only had never made common cause, but who, in some cases, had historically made war with each other. In the process, the camp created a structure for an ongoing global indigenous sovereignty movement.

The camp also attracted thousands of non-native allies from wildly diverse affinity groups, who brought their skills and resources to occupy the land with the Sioux. These smaller camps included affiliations of every kind, based on tribal bonds, geography, faith, ethnicity, and other chosen forms of identification. In this way, the camp became a model of co-existence between radically different groups, all within a superstructure of native-centered solidarity, a common purpose of decolonization, and protection of the earth. The values that formed the basis for this cultural co-existence are outlined in a set of documents called “The Standing Rock Allies Resource Packet.”

I visited Oceti Sakowin in late November 2016, where I was given these documents as part of an orientation for all arrivals. The principles outlined at orientation and in these documents were reflected in the different areas of the camp, and reinforced by the people who had become long-term residents. The packet includes: “If You're Thinking About Going to Standing Rock,” “Joining Camp Culture,” “Oceti Sakowin Camp Protocol: 7 Lakota Values,” and “When You Return Home.”

“7 Lakota Values” and “Joining Camp Culture” address the ways in which the culture of the camp may feel foreign to anyone who lives under the normalization of white supremacy, and describes specific protocols that need to be followed at camp, along with the values they reflect: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, wisdom. By following these guidelines and being open to the principles they embody, allies were given the opportunity to unlearn many of the destructive values of American culture, as well as participate as a visitor in a culture of native ceremony.

From “Joining Camp Culture”: 

We DECENTER settler worldviews/ practices and RECENTER Indigenous worldviews/practices and leadership

  • Whiteness and Christian dominance, which are the basis of US settler identity, are built on perfectionism, superiority, purity, competition, individualism, binaries, and suppressed emotion. This impacts how we do our ally work, how we approach the tasks of dismantling oppression, and how we treat each other and ourselves. It’s hard work to recognize and abandon these familiar attitudes that don’t serve us, but it’s the only way forward. Harshness only reinforces settler culture. Practice compassion and humility with yourself and others.

  • Practice noticing and regulating how much space, energy, attention, and resources you take up. When you are with indigenous people, listen more than you speak. Let indigenous people speak first. When you feel the urge to speak, check with yourself about how important it is to the group effort?

“Bringing It Home” instructs readers on how to participate as an ally in ongoing indigenous sovereignty movements, and includes:

  • Know whose land you are on. […] Acknowledge that you are on occupied land when you say where you are or where you are from.

  • Know your family’s history. How did your family end up in the U.S? Was it through a colonial process in another country? If your ancestors are from a colonizing country, what was your family’s connection to land, spiritual traditions, economies, etc. before that country began colonizing other places?

  • Learn together. Encourage learning that is personal, emotional, spiritual, embodied, and communal.

  • Ask Permission. Asking permission fundamentally shifts the entitlement inherent to the settler experience. Cultural appropriation is an extension of genocide, forced removals, and land theft, as settlers take what does not belong to them as if it is rightfully theirs.

  • Know where your water, heat, electricity, etc. come from.

  • Raise Awareness for Standing Rock Responsibly. Those of us who are not from Standing Rock cannot actually speak for those in the struggle or represent the struggle. As we push for visibility of Indigenous-led struggles, which are too often invisibilized in the movements for human rights, environmental justice and climate justice struggle, it is crucial that we are responsible in how we help in making it visible. Our goal as non-Native supporters should be to amplify the Indigenous voices from camp — not to speak for Indigenous people or replace their voice.

The Sioux leadership also invited specific leaders from affiliated movements to join Oceti Sakowin. This added a broad base of skills, knowledge, and experience to the camp. In particular, leaders from IP3 (the Indigenous People’s Power Project) and from the Two-Spirit movement had a powerful impact on the culture. Two-Spirit is an intentional term created in the 1990s for indigenous people who identify as LGBTQAI+. IP3 is an offshoot of the Ruckus Society, which “provides environmental, human rights, and social justice organizers with the tools, training, and support needed to achieve their goals through the strategic use of creative, nonviolent direct action.”

IP3 was invited by the Sioux Council to train water protectors to react strategically and nonviolently to the pipeline construction and its militarized police force. The camp of IP3 also made art from images provided by indigenous artists across the country, which the water protectors wore when participating in actions. In this way, art was unified with nonviolent actions under the principle of “show, don’t tell.” The image of a praying water protector being maced by police in riot gear told the story of the movement without reliance on words, while the art worn by the water protectors conveyed the beauty of indigenous cultures and highlighted the vulnerability of the water protectors’ bodies. Everyone at camp was invited to make the art, providing essential space for creativity and self-expression.

The Sioux leadership also invited Candi Brings Plenty, who is Lakota Sioux, an LGBTQAI+ activist, and a leader in the international Two-Spirit movement, to head the Two-Spirit camp at Oceti Sakowin, as well as to sit on the governing Council. In doing so, they placed gender and sexuality justice at the center of the camp’s culture. This was reflected not only at orientation, where Two-Spirit principles were taught to all arrivals, but in the trans-sensitivity of the legal support services; in the medical areas, where specific healing times were opened up for Two-Spirit folks; and at the actions on the frontline, where Two-Spirit folks were often asked to lead the prayer.

The sensitivity to differently identified people was also present in a general language of care that was supported in practice throughout the camp. There were multiple points of access to healing in the medical areas, where bodywork, therapy, acupuncture, and other forms of medicine were made available to anyone who needed them. Healing groups also formed spontaneously. For instance, a quilt-making group was formed by women-identified people who had suffered sexual violence. In this way, the culture of the camp incorporated the realities of trauma — not only the trauma happening in real time at the hands of the police, but also the historical trauma suffered by native people, people of color, and women in a patriarchal and white supremacist culture.

Where to?

Creating ruptures in the social imaginary creates backlash. The current administration is a backlash not only against neoliberal capitalism but, more fundamentally, against ruptures in the monoliths of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy made by Occupy, Black Lives Matter, feminism, LGBTQAI+ activism, Indigenous Sovereignty, and other social justice movements.

In order to prevent further backlashes and backsliding — to move forward toward a more just political, economic, and social reality — we need to implement an unprecedented politic of solidarity. We need to convince those who aren’t yet on our side that our vision of the future is more beneficial to them, and more actionable, than the falsehoods promised by exploitative capitalism. The social imaginary is sorely lacking in images of alternatives to capitalism, though these alternatives do exist, in manifold ways. The impact of our political activity will be largely dependent on its capacity to reach people in their lived reality, as well as our capacity to nourish ourselves and our allies with our visions of other possibilities.

This is An Uprising emphasizes the need for patience, discipline, and a combination of approaches, demonstrating that the most enduring change is brought about by pressure coming from many fronts at once. Political movements often get trapped in infighting, wasting valuable time and energy on shouting down those who have different approaches. To resist the forces of exploitative capitalism and the current administration effectively, we must welcome everyone, on whatever ground they are able to enter, without compromising our foundational principles.

Even though Standing Rock and Occupy grew out of specific circumstances, we can synthesize lessons from each of them. By grounding our movements in prefigurative politics, we show what we stand for, and demonstrate the viability of the social, political, and economic relationships we propose. With Occupy, alternative political and economic forms were creatively manifested in the shape of the protests themselves. Some questions based on the successes of Occupy might be: How do we change the social imaginary through our relations with each other? How do we implement nonhierarchical communication? How can our use of language be transformative? And most importantly: How do our movements model the societal change we wish to enact?

A fundamental lesson from Standing Rock, and other movements that center indigenous peoples and people of color, is that all future organizing must be based on intersectionality and the unlearning of white supremacy along with patriarchy and capitalism. Because of the historical and ongoing nature of oppression of native people and people of color, inclusivity isn’t enough; we need to become allies and co-conspirators. We must be aware of how our social structures replicate white supremacy, as well as patriarchy, ableism, and religious intolerance. We must always pay attention to who is speaking, and ask: Who doesn’t have a voice here?

Standing Rock also foregrounded the need to withdraw from the banks that are invested in DAPL. A crucial part of strategic nonviolence is to withdraw financial support from oppressive economic systems. We must continue to get our institutions to withdraw from banks that are invested in DAPL, as well as other extraction projects around the globe. When we take our money away from exploitative capitalism, we also create opportunity to support other kinds of economic structures. There are many kinds of enterprises not based in exploitative capitalism, such as cooperatives, credit unions, farmers markets, timebanks, POC-, feminist-, and queer-owned businesses, and businesses that support the most vulnerable, such as the formerly incarcerated. By working with these already-existing alternatives to exploitative capitalism, we expand their reach and their power. Find them; use them; promote them.

We also need to be aware of the constant presence of trauma and the need for healing. Standing Rock created a culture of care based in the acknowledgment of trauma, and provided space for people to express and heal the rage and pain that, in many cases, has been suppressed through generations of genocide, cultural appropriation, physical violence, and erasure. As we move together toward the unlearning of patriarchy and white supremacy, we must bring extra empathy and care to the structures we are building. And if we are to create systems of care in our political and social structures, we must first do so in our organizing. The clarity of our vision, and our conviction that there are enough resources on the planet for all of us, will help us to implement social, political, and economic relationships that are based on both justice and connection.

In the document “How to Talk About #NODAPL: A Native Perspective,” Kelly Hayes makes plain that indigenous fights are necessary not only because they affect the health of the planet, but also because indigenous people simply have the right to live — a right that has been denied them since the arrival of Europeans on this continent:

Every Native at Standing Rock — every Native on this continent — has survived the genocide of a hundred million of our people. That means that every Indigenous child born is a victory against colonialism, but we are all born into a fight for our very existence. We need that to be named and centered, which is a courtesy we are rarely afforded.

So if you have been with us in this fight, we appreciate you, but we are reaching out, right now, in these brave days for our people, and asking that you keep the aforementioned truths front and center as you discuss this effort. This moment is, first and foremost, about Native liberation, self-determination and Native survival. That needs to be centered and celebrated.

Finally, it would be criminally hypocritical to take lessons from Standing Rock without stating unequivocally that we must continue to support indigenous struggles in absolute and concrete ways. Oceti Sakowin has been dismantled, but the fight against DAPL continues, along with other indigenous struggles against extractive industries. With that in mind, I urge readers to continue to support Standing Rock, and other ongoing indigenous sovereignty movements, through the resources listed below.

Standing Rock documents:
Stand With Standing Rock:

Legal Support for Water Protectors:

Support for IP3 through the Ruckus Society:

Other Pipeline Fights:


Last two photographs by Jen Rosenstein.


Molly Larkey is a visual artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. She received an MFA from Rutgers University and a BA from Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

Molly Larkey is a visual artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. She received an MFA from Rutgers University and a BA from Columbia University. In 2013 and 2014, her work was included in several group exhibitions at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. In addition, her work has been featured in exhibitions at PS1 MoMA, New York; The Saatchi Gallery, London; LACMA, Los Angeles; The Drawing Center, New York; Horton Gallery, New York; Ochi Gallery, Ketchum; Samson Projects, Boston; and Human Resources, Commonwealth & Council, Control Room, Post, and Weekend, all in Los an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.


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