Occupy: Stage Two

from Possible Futures a project of the Social Science Research Council: http://www.possible-futures.org

appeared on 12/21/11


Occupy: Stage Two
 
 
 
            Bloomberg cleared Zuccotti Park in the early morning hours of November 15 just like university administrators often push through unpopular changes during the summer, when students are sparse. His rationale? Safety and health. This in a city where there are potholes inside of potholes, vomit and urine regularly on subway platforms, and gunshots within earshot of most neighborhoods. Walking through the cleared out park the next day, newly lit up for the holidays yet now devoid of life, I found myself with tears of frustration.
 
            Zuccotti, and the Occupy movements across the country, have had a noticeable emotional impact. In New York I doubt we realized the full extent of the euphoria we had been experiencing until the overflowing, creative and communal experiment that was incubating in lower Manhattan---with its cross generational working groups and the poetic vibrancy of the diverse hand lettered signs---had been erased as effectively as the Paris Commune. A friend describes a similar phenomenon in Tahrir Square: normally circumspect professors talking like lovers about the movement, caution and measure out the window. For the last twenty years, left theorists have written obsessively about melancholia, the affect of our age. The lost object of desire. The inevitability of subjection. The illusory nature of moral clarity. Suddenly this Fall, a vaguely remembered buoyancy of optimism, confident judgment, and bright expectation began to form itself in our hearts. Is this what democracy feels like?
 
            Part of the elation felt by academics such as myself has surely been connected to the open-armed welcome we have received. Where the proposals of union leaders are sometimes ungenerously interpreted as a covert strategy of cooptation, the left professoriat has been invited to give teach-ins, their words carried through the people’s mike. The contrast between these responses is no doubt related to the preponderance in the movement of students and middle class folks who had positive college experiences, even while they were amassing debt.
 
The unions, representing millions of workers---and millions of people of color---could do much to make the Occupy Movements more demographically representative of the country if a method of cautious coalition could be stabilized. Union folks I know are quite aware of the dangers of cooptation. In that wonderfully expressive form of labor-speak so many use, the main question among union staffers being discussed today is “how can we help give oxygen to this movement without fucking it up?”  
 
Celebrity faculty who enjoy name recognition among the young should take a lesson from this. They should become similarly wary of cooptation, and avoid spinning the discourse of the protest toward their own favorite concepts and turns of speech. Beyond the sheer political justice of this, there is another potential advantage. By holding back on our desire to read the movement in our own a priori terms, we might remain open to its newness, to its character as event.
 
The concept of the ‘public intellectual’ received much derision some time back for its presumption that the public would care, in this anti-intellectual society, about what intellectuals think.  And there was some legitimacy behind the complaint to the extent that the concept implied that those in the ivory tower should adopt a teaching mode toward the hoi polloi. But another part of the idea of the public intellectual was to be a publically engaged intellectual, that is, a scholar engaged with publics, responsive to them, concerned with them, active in their midst. This means not standing apart but learning together, even while we make available the particular resources our training can offer. The model here would be less Chomsky and more Angela Davis or Michel Foucault.
 
So I hang out at Occupy Wall Street when I can. I eavesdrop on meetings, chat with people, join in the drum-circles, march in the demos. The beauty of the park occupation was that one could go after class, after work, even on a lunch break, and be sure to encounter a workshop or performance or just get into an interesting conversation with some wide-eyed out of towners. Now the park is barricaded, and though there are still workshops and meetings in Zuccotti one must more often find one’s way to the multiple meetings constantly in process at the Atrium or other sites close by, in order to find out what is happening, what is being planned, and what is the feeling of the participants.
 
The day after the November crackdown, I noticed that the kids had a hardy weariness about them, with double circles under their eyes. They greeted each other with the warmth of soldiers. Asking around about one of my own kids, who might be in lock-up, I found nearly everyone had the phone number of the legal defense team penned somewhere on their flesh. The mood was defiant, serious, determined. I ran into Hero Vincent, the 21 year old who still holds the record of most arrests. Twelve hours after the crackdown, and shortly after his release from jail, Hero was back in Foley Square, but he looked crushed, close to tears, scarred, and angry.
 
It’s now a few weeks later and people look more rested. Creative direct actions are happening all over the city, from Occupy dramas played out in front of Broadway theatres (with all the amazing talent NYC can provide), to activists dressed in what they call “straight drag”---meaning suits---performing as a local organizing committee for defense contractor conventions, directing compliant convention goers down the wrong hallways. Bereft of control over the central space of Zuccotti, the occupiers have fanned out, guerrilla fashion, across the city. A sense of positive expectation has returned.  The “99%” bat signal able to be projected on the side of skyscrapers moves around Manhattan. Plans are underway to ‘occupy your homes’---resisting foreclosures with crowds of people 1930s style, ‘occupy your student debt’---refusing to pay up, and occupying the white house lawn. 
 
To learn more about this new stage of the occupation, I’ve been interviewing some young and youngish occupiers about the state of play of the movement, post-crackdown on the parks. I asked them how they assessed the encampments, and how they see the challenges of the new moment. Here’s some of the conversation.
 
Occupy Wall Street, one says, is still a movement-in-formation. The occupation of Zuccotti Park had actually made things a little stagnant, and focused too much energy on organizing the sort of social and material services an open encampment requires. Without the encampment, less energy has to be directed toward clean up and negotiations with the drum circle to maintain limited hours and other similar issues, and so there has actually been more time for planning actions and discussing theoretical questions. It’s a moment for reassessment. What part of civil society do we constitute? What is the relationship of civil resistance to civil society? To what extent are we in opposition to the state?
 
The internet infrastructure of the movement, another says, is its real foundation, more stable than a park occupation and more easily defended. The park was an amazing public democratic space, of course. Its openness and 24/7 quality made it possible to bring in a lot more people than the usual activist ghettos. There were Nobel Prize winning economists speaking in the square, answering questions from the public in real time. Before the occupation took place, and even in its early days, many old hand activists had predicted failure, preparing almost gleefully for the ‘I told you so’ conversations they thought would inevitably arise about why this should have been done with old-fashioned brick and mortar organizing. They were proved wrong, and the old left is still coming to terms with this, with varying reactions. The internet allowed the movement to spread really quickly, with bottom-up participation in the form of new sites and networks that anyone with ideas and minimal resources could generate in a weekend. Grassroots can come with a big or a little “G”: traditional Grassroots means networks of organizations but the grassroots of OWS has been of a different sort, making possible the spontaneity of individual contributions. Decentralized structures together with new internet tools unleashed a perfect storm for creative innovation. Just a small recent example of this is the YouTube video currently going viral about what to do with those credit card offers we all receive in the mail. Other examples include the livestreaming at Global Revolution and the growing archive on Tumblr.
 
            It wasn’t just the old folks who threw stones early on. One 20-something activist recounts how he and his friends frequently went down to Zuccotti in the early days of the occupation just to carp at all they were doing wrong; these nay-sayers became such regulars that that part of the park came to be called ‘sniper’s alley.’ Their critical points were, however, legitimate: They wanted more focus on the wars, more intersectional politics that would foreground race, less naivete about the nature of the economic system that produced the debacle. Yet it was that very naivete, this activist admits, that probably secured the success of the occupation, shielding it from the fatalism of the more experienced. ‘If the snipers from snipers alley had had our way,’ he says, ‘we might have killed it, though what we were trying to do was to give it a stronger foundation with firmer anti-racist politics.’
 
Mostly there is respect for the activists of old. I saw Reverend Herb Daughtry get a lot of applause when he came to speak recently, even though some of his entourage also voiced the refrain of “we did this for decades and no one paid attention.” But unlike Ishmael Reed, Daughtry came down and came with support. OWS relies heavily on these seasoned activists for their legal support, facilitation know-how, and credible community connections.
              
The occupiers I talked to (from assorted ethnic backgrounds) uniformly rejected the narrative Reed gives that explains the success of the occupation by the whiteness of the majority in the park. That’s both simplistic and just wrong. First of all, the occupation has never been all or almost all white, one young woman of color pointed out, and to say so is to erase stalwarts who have been there since day one. At times, the park has been minority white, another chimes in, and the People of Color working group and Spanish Assemblies have been counted at nearly 400. Second, the occupation had timing on its side. By summer the economic crisis was settling in, with more people realizing it is not going away anytime soon. This realization was met only with the bullheadedness of the Republicans and uselessness of the Democrats. There was no release valve between these troubling forces in which an angry electorate could vent. Hope was lost. The occupations that came along by September provided an avenue for expressing rage better than just watching MSNBC. 
 
The Stewart/Colbert and One Nation rallies that happened last year were organized by more establishment players attempting to feed off the class-based outrage around the country, and they allowed some venting, but they carefully avoided political analysis or any large scale critique that might get tagged with the “S” word (socialism). But besides these markedly liberal efforts, there were other earlier ventures into the economic mobilizing as well, from the celebrated Wisconsin uprising to the May 12 teach-in event on Wall Street to the creation of Bloombergville. These should not be viewed as earlier attempts that failed because they were too left-wing, but as proto-OWS actions in which people began to come together, got to know one another, and had the chance to start talking about what the focus should be. Many of the core activists of these efforts are involved in the OWS movement.
 
            The occupation of Zuccotti Park, however, was undoubtedly facing some its own internal challenges before Bloomberg moved to cut utopia off at the knees. I asked activists about the thorny issue of the homeless, for whom occupied spaces have become a magnet in cities all over the country. In Zuccotti homeless people were able to get food, tent space, and even some health care, and all with much greater freedom than restrictive, rule-heavy shelters provide. So it was natural for the homeless to come, though they also brought some of the problems Bloomberg used as an alibi for police action.
 
            One young radical I spoke with had spent the summer in Madrid, and explained that a similar phenomenon occurred there, as well as in Egypt. Capitalism has created massive populations of the dispossessed, as well as what one might call ‘the disinclined.’ But the sector of the population that is homeless is no more monolithic—politically, socially, intellectually---than any other sector. Some assuredly came for a free space to do drugs; others had developed political ideas. The non-homeless activists evinced mixed responses as this cohort began to grow: some said ‘if you want to be here you need to be contributing to the movement’ while others said ‘we are creating a space here for liberty for all.’
 
Yet there was unity around the need to do two things at once: maintain security and provide help. A working group emerged, naming itself ‘Dignity,’ to focus on issues of homelessness; addiction counselors were brought in; and some actually overcame their addictions to heroin or other dangerous drugs. The organization “Picture the Homeless” got involved. Some who initially came for shelter ended up getting drawn into the movement, gaining a new political analysis of their situation and a new direction in their lives. Others continued to repudiate all structures of whatever form and would walk around every day saying “fuck the general assembly” and threatening to occupy it on their own. Paranoia set in when a rumor went viral that the NYPD was dropping ex-cons off a block from Zuccotti; this may or may not be true but in a society with six million people on parole or probation at any given time the movement would have to be doing something really wrong if it attracted none of the so-called riffraff of society. The bottom line is that the homeless should not be marginalized, this activist exhorted: we need to come up with creative solutions to address the harmful elements but the homeless in general are just a part of the movement like anyone else.
 
            Another activist, slightly older, expressed total agreement with the above view but urged that the movement has to be able to speak to working people and their life and their culture. Not everyone is going to relate to ex-cons or transgender sex workers. Some working class persons of color expressed bemused distaste when they first witnessed the ‘happy fingers’ practice---in which participants at meetings can express their support in non-verbal ways. It is undoubtedly useful as a quick way to signal the crowd’s views, but these methods have alienating effects and in-group connotations, symbolizing the strain of the cross-class alliance.
 
There cannot be a litmus test, these activists agreed, of affective response or styles of organizing, or which narratives are at the center. Some of the more middle class and white participants express a level of shock and disillusionment about their loss of livelihood that can generate contempt from less historically advantaged participants. But the coalition has to remain broad, allowing those who experience a drop in entitlement to have a right to their own affective response. Along with the diversity of tactics, many I spoke with agreed that we need also to maintain a diversity of narratives in order to maximize engagement.
 
What principally unites these diverse constituencies is not their affect or experience but their commitment to making social change, one activist emphasized. We cannot forget that this is about change, not charity. If the most marginalized and oppressed are put at the center we run the risk of becoming a marginalized movement. Before it was cleared out there was already emerging a widening gulf between the space of encampment at Zuccotti and the non-spatial movement for which it had become a symbol. We had begun to understand these as two different entities. The site itself was admittedly overfull with the ‘crusty punk’ scene, what some call ‘drainbows’ (or perroflautas in Madrid) who were sucking energy. Yet, as another urged, we should not deride the positivity of the space we created: we cannot know how many tens of thousands of people went into the park during its vibrant two months. It rendered possible the rare opportunity for open conversations on the streets between people who generally ignore each other. It created an ambience and an energy still enlivening the city with an intensity that the predictability of the labor rallies, however heartfelt, have not produced.
 
Yesterday I went to an action of this second stage of the occupation. This had nothing to do with Zuccotti Park but was in East New York, one of the poorest sections of Brooklyn with the highest foreclosure rate in the city. A close relative taught at a public school in this neighborhood, in which what passed as the school gymnasium was a slightly larger than usual padded room. It is a difficult place to raise families, a place where foreclosures regularly result in homelessness.
 
Our rally of about 1000 people was spirited and well-organized. Local residents were leafleted, conversed with, and some took part. We heard stories of human made disasters told by the survivors and relayed through the people’s mike. The comfort station of Zuccotti was miraculously mobile; we got water, bananas, and oreo cookies while we were marching, and rain ponchos were available when the downpour started. Occupiers made their way into one foreclosed house, bringing brooms and cleaning equipment to clean it out, books to make it a home, and quickly managed to build an outside shelter to help maintain the occupation. This while the police and their vans amassed at the ends of the street, with their colored lights circling. In defiance of the threat, we made our own block party, replete with balloons, music, and dancing. The feeling was positive, calm, determined. Perhaps the part of civil society this movement makes up is the hopeful part.
 
Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York
José Alcoff assisted with this article.