In the US, 2011 will likely be remembered as the year of the Occupy Movement. From Oakland, California to St. Paul’s Cathedral here in London, students, the unemployed, activists, and to be honest, a good amount of nutters took to the streets in locally organized, but globally inspired protests claiming to represent the voice of the ‘99%’ who were being ignored and exploited by corporate special interest. ‘Occupation’ is an interesting political strategy. It is a symbolic seizure, a claim, a hostile (even if non-violent) assertion of control. In the case of the Occupy movement this ‘control’ of the streets was a reaction to the perceived lack of control and marginalization in the democratic process. This strategy, while for the first time executed on a global scale, is not new and brings to mind an important but often forgotten incident from American history, the 19 month long occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay by American Indian civil rights activists.
The Occupation of Alcatraz
On November 20, 1969 about 80 activists peacefully took over the former prison island, until that point under the jurisdiction of the federal government. While this was the most effective attempt, the first occupation was in 1964 when five Sioux Indians made a claim to the island based on the 1868 Fort Laramie Sioux Treaty, which allowed Sioux Indians to take over surplus federal land. Alcatraz, no longer a functioning prison, in their view fit this criteria. The occupation was also part of a much larger American Indian Movement (AIM). The movement’s aims were to achieve tribal self-determination and to end the 1950s federal policy of ‘termination’, which was actually a series of policies that sought to assimilate Natives into American society and end the sovereign-to-sovereign relationship between tribes and the federal government. The 1969 occupiers were also fighting for local improvements, including the return of Alcatraz to American Indians and the funds to build a cultural center and university on the island. The group quickly elected a governing council for the island and established supply lines back to the mainland. The movement began to pick up steam and garnered wide-spread media attention.
The movement encountered many of the problems experienced by Occupy in 2011. Issues such as electricity, water, and safety became practical barriers to a continued occupation. A young girl, a step-daughter of one of the movement’s leaders fell on a concrete slab and died in January of 1970. Leadership and other occupiers began to leave Alcatraz. The movement also began to lose focus when members of the hippie and counter-culture communities from San Francisco began to join the Native American protesters. These factors signalled the end of the movement’s effectiveness, which officially ended on June 11, 1971 when FBI agents escorted the final 15 protesters off the island. They put up no resistance.
The occupation itself and the satisfaction of local demands could be regarded as a failure. As is evident from the current state of affairs, Alcatraz is a tourist destination in the Bay Area for it’s history as a notorious prison and it was never ceded to tribal control. What the occupation accomplished though was raising awareness about the AIM movement more broadly. In 1970 President Nixon officially ended the 20+ year policy of ‘termination’ and heralded a new era of tribal self-determination. For this reason, somewhat surprisingly, Richard Nixon is still held in high regard by Native Americans to this day.
In the words of Dr. LaNada Boyer, a leader of the occupation:
‘Alcatraz was symbolic in the rebirth of Indian people to be recognized as a people, as human beings, whereas before, we were not. We were not recognized, we were not legitimate… but we were able to raise not only the consciousness of other American people, but of own people as well, to reestablish our identity as Indian people, as a culture, as political entities.’
This legacy as tribes operating as ‘political entities’ is a powerful one. Tribes operate exceptionally effectively on Capitol Hill, pushing for broad reforms through organizations such as a the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) and even on specific issues such as education through the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).
It would be presumptuous to assume that the 2011 occupiers could learn from the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz. The issues and groups involved are indeed very different. It is also different occupying an uninhabited island than a populated urban center. What can be taken away though is that as a strategy, occupations can be effective. They can forge a common identity among protesters and raise awareness that would otherwise not be possible. In the case of Native Americans this is an identity that stood the test of decades and lead to increased economic and cultural prosperity.