Note: This is a blend of description, analysis, reactions and personal reflections. I am not an organizer or any person of responsibility within the Occupation, I am simply a participant who has been to the Plaza a bunch of times. I have attended General Assemblies, listened to speakers, engaged in conversations, and gone on marches.
With apologies to Lisa Wedeen
(CAVEAT: If you just want sexy pictures and ethnographic descriptions of the occupation, or just hate navel gazing and desire hard data, skip this part. I’m going to talk about some personal stuff that brought me to the Occupation. It might be boring or cutesy or whatever. But I’m a peacock, ya gotta let me fly!)
For a slew of reasons the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest (event? festival?) really jacked up my emotional level. It’s as though the cynical and romantic parts of my activist soul are at odds with each other. It started really simple, with Cynic letting out a frump saying “Oh, another occupation, we know how this will go!” and Romantic sighing in return “Perhaps, but it’s got all the things about activism you agree with!” This quickly got out of hand, and pretty soon it got catty, feelings were hurt, stakes were needlessly raised and no one could get to sleep without a house call from Dr. Bulliet’s Frontier Whiskey (“It’s the Frontieriest!”) This entry is hopefully going to try and exorcise some of these demons. Like Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself sucks for everyone involved except Jacques who owns the liquor store down the street, which you go to even though there’s one right across the street because of the personal relationship.”
I’d really like to think of myself as something of a radical activist. Labor Unions, JWJ, SLAP, CIW, Marxism, Chomsky and trips to Chiapas, right? La Luche Sigue!
I’ve also felt really burnt and spurned by activism in the past, particularly the Last Great Push of the end of my Undergrad. Between feeling excluded from groups I was a part of, not being able to find an activist or non-profit job after school, and finding out one of my mentors gave me the ‘affectionate’ nickname “Freako” behind my back all contributed to general feelings of dejection and rejection when it came to activism.
Add to this A Graduate Education in Lefty Politics, and it’s a Perfect Storm for the Cynical Radical, with George Clooney playing the part of Misbegotten Radical Dreams with some fun lines for Mark Wahlberg as the Remainder of My Idealism. (Spoiler Alert! They all drown in the movie)
This all played out like duck soup when the Occupation(s) happened at the New School. Had I been a bit more aware of the situation, I could have gotten some excellent field notes for a dissertation book contract. The Politics of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: An Auto-Ethnography of Self-Denial (From Below). Since I knew that I wasn’t going to be included in any activist or radical events, once the Occupation started blah blah blah I’m sure you get the picture (i.e. I stayed at home for most of it).
So when this whole Occupy Wall Street thing started going on, Cynic ate it up“Oh yes, more professional activist/anarchists setting up collectives to break down hierarchies… oh and Adbusters put out the call? How rich! Chortle Chortle! I will now go live the real radical dream by drinking some fair trade coffee while reading a book about non-state spaces and then watch a documentary about Algeria. Maybe I’ll write my dissertation about non-state space coffee! It sure is great to be an Anarchist!”
The problem that Cynic simply could not foresee is that I’ve recently gone through some intense personal “Structural Adjustment Programs,” whereby the IMF required very stringent policy changes to my Emotional Strategy (specifically, that I should start having them). Now that we’re a couple of months into the new Emotional Extension Strategy Program (EESP), well, shit gets me all sorts of worked up! I see people fighting for goals that I care dearly about and engaging in processes that I completely agree with and suddenly Romantic is going all Micky Ward on Cynic (too many Wahlberg references?). Like Middle King says, “Cynics are really just secret romantics that don’t want to get hurt again,” so I think I got Cynic’s number on this one.
And so, with my emotional innards in full out Angsty Avril mode, I went down to the Occupation. Again and again. And I marched. And got stuck (kettled?) on the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge. And escaped from the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge. And I’ll probably go back tomorrow.
And the whole experience has been utterly amazing.
(end of navel gazing… sorta!)
Liberty Plaza and the Wall Street Occupation
(or “Zuccotti Park” if you hate freedom and Am’rca)
The plaza itself isn’t very big as far as city plazas go, about 33,000-square-foot according to Wikipedia. Since only real estate agents and carpenters can think in terms of square footing, its about half of a small city block, or about 6 hogsheads on the east end and 12 long tons on the south end. Really, I have no idea how large it is. Here’s a picture of it empty.
Fun Fact: Mr. John Zuccotti was the Chairman of Brookfield Office Properties, one of the largest real estate companies in the country, who donated the money to renovate the plaza after 9/11.
The WSO has enacted a few semi-permanent uses in particular parts of the space, including a sleeping and rest area, a kitchen and food storage center, a medical space, a library, a media center and an art display. During down times, when no particular scheduled event is going on, people are spread throughout the park engaging in various activities, though the largest masses of people seem to be on the Broadway side of the park. This may have to do with all the foot traffic on Broadway, so it’s the perfect place to hand out Ron Paul flyers and the Occupied Wall Street Journal (has anyone found an online copy of this? or a PDF? If so please let me know because it’s totally awesome).
Fun Fact: Liberty Plaza is privately owned!
While the Broadway end is usually full of people milling about, the Trinity end tends to be a little more demure, probably because this is the sleeping area. Here you can find lots of Occupiers taking naps or constitutionals, resting weary bones before the next march or action. Also in this section is the impressive Sign Display and Arts section, with countless cardboard signs, slogans, art pieces and artists spread on the ground and against the harder geography of the plaza. This is quite an engaging part, and it has grown considerably each day. It’s clear that this is a big draw for many of the passing pedestrians, so it’s a great place to interact with folks who are curious about the Occupation but aren’t really sure what to do with that curiosity. I’ve noticed quite a lot of supportive foreigners (and occasionally a French person) who come to this part to read the slogans.
One more visual part of interest are the handful of stalls by the Weird Red Thing; mostly vendors selling falafels and dirty water dawgs, but a couple of stands selling I HEART NY shirts and even 9/11 memorabilia. It’s kind of interesting to see non-activist types wandering around the Plaza with a mix of trepidation and inquisitiveness eating a gyro platter with hot sauce out of a Styrofoam container.
There is always a sick drum circle going on somewhere in the plaza.
And a sick meditation circle. I like to hang out near them because of the sick incense.
The feeling is more festival than activist protest… but it’s not a joke or a drug den or a drop out. It’s mostly intelligent people who are deeply committed to a cause, or multiple causes. There are hundreds of conversations going on around you, important and passionate conversations. If this were the 70s we would call it “rapping…” teach-ins and education and art and real, physical, social connections.
Who Is There?
The people who are in the Plaza during the day are a real mixed bag: the “professional activist” type are certainly around, and might be the majority of the folk who sleep there. Even so, there is quite a bit of diversity [binary warning!]: old and young, activist (buttons n stickers) and curious lay folk (designer jeans), radical (locks) and liberal (Strand Book totes), [binaries over] labor organizers, hipsters, unemployed people, identity politics activists, lumberjacks, veterans, LGBTQ folks, tourists, visitors, libertarians, students, artists, puppies, and some people in suits (the hardest to stereotype, really).
I should say as a caveat to that “diversity” statement above. There do seem to be more white people than people of color, and they have noted in the General Assemblies that the proceedings tend to be dominated by white males. Let’s hear it for the weighted active stack!
The People’s Microphone
Cynic was in full force when I read about the People’s Microphone. “People talking in small sections and then everyone else repeating? That sounds so overly romantic, lame, stupid etc. etc.”
But to see it in action is just astoundingly beautiful, even when it takes a bit for it to get rolling. The first General Assembly I attended began as a dream fit for a doubter. I couldn’t hear a thing, people were complaining but not trying to fix it (myself included) and the various hand signals and process points were bogged down and completely illegible. But just as the Cynic was affixing his smirk and preparing an argument for leaving and going to Starbucks, the tide of the microphone turned. People stepped up to help relay. Speakers spoke up. Listeners stopped the proceedings when they couldn’t hear.
Let there be sound. And it was beautiful. And I basked in the glow of the Romantic.
But it gets better! Part of the divide that I was feeling in this moment could be defined in this statement “I can’t hear what these people are saying about their protest.” A clear delineation between me & mine and them & theirs with no room for Our. But as soon as you start to (somewhat gloriously) be able to hear the proceedings, someone behind you shouts “Mic check!” that (apparently) international signal for “I can’t hear what the hell you’re saying.” And suddenly YOU become part of the people’s microphone, and when you give voice to something, even someone else’s words, you can’t help but make it your own. I think this is how their protest became our protest.
On Leaderless Revolutions
My own perspective, which is a hodgepodge of Marx, Chomsky but mostly Zapatismo, is that you are always going to have leaders and hierarchy and power relations, and that the problems of power and its uses are grounded in authority. For me, the idea is that power is distributed through hierarchies that are not only created by the members (I almost wrote “body politic” but I’m not really a theorist), but that are fully accountable to the members. Chomsky uses the example of restraining his grandson when he tries to run across traffic. My examples are either violin teaching (how lame can I get, really?) or the multiple levels of government in the Zapatista caracoles.
How does this relate to the Occupation? Well, so far I have found it kind of hard to determine who is making the decisions. Maybe I’m missing some key General Assemblies or something, but the process is not very transparent to me.
(UPDATE: After reading the minutes from the 10/2 GA it seems perhaps more straightforward then I thought! There are two informational tables [that I have somehow missed every time I’ve been there] with information about working groups, essentially the autonomous committees of the GA. I am going to try and attend a Labor Outreach Group on Monday. I’ll let you know!)
Some of this was particularly apparent during the march over the bridge. It seems that taking the carpath was an intentional action on the part of the Direct Action Committee. I think that’s awesome, and I’ve been to many powerful events where people could decide whether or not to get arrested (particularly thinking of the School of the Americas Watch actions in GA). On Saturday, though, this “diversity of strategy” wasn’t really articulated. Again, maybe I missed something, but all I heard about the route was, well, “Don’t hijack the route!”
I’m not sure if I’m being clear here… the point I think I’m trying to make is that its often hard to tell what is going on at the Occupation in terms of planning and direction. This is not a critique, and in fact I think its part of the beauty of the bottom up process. But at the same time, things are going on, decisions are being made and I’ve been at (UPDATE: somewhat!) of a loss as to how this all happens. Granted, I’m assuming that there are people making decisions and actual organizers behind all the organization, and maybe I’m totally wrong.
But… I doubt it! And as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t make it any less radical or anarchist or whatever it the process wants to be so long as there are genuine attempts at being transparent and accountable. Which I think happens, though I need to think further on this…
This is a comment, not a critique.
A challenge for the Occupation is how to make radical politics legible to folks who aren’t hip to it. Hand signals, the people’s mic, consensus, autonomous working groups… I LOVE these things. I mean, I really love them. I’m doing jazz hands right now! For me, though, it’s a totally transparent process. I’ve been here before and I’ll be here again and I totally buy what you’re selling (though please, keep your surplus labor).
Once I cheered at a really good speech and someone yelled at me for not making sparkle fingers. I get it, I do… but still! I stuck my tongue out at him.
It’s really difficult, though, to adequately describe this to someone who has never encountered it before as a viable type of politics. I think I’ve spent a number of GAs explaining to someone next to me or behind me why we do this and why we do that. But I imagine if the only type of politics you’ve engaged in is an electoral vote, is hard to see not only how the GA works, but why it works that way. Maybe I’m trying to say: it’s not readily visible why process is important to this radical/alternative/whatever politics.
Is there a better way to explain this to people? Maybe. Actually, I’m sure we can always refine our method and our outreach. But when I read comments that are thoroughly confused about the process (“they dnt even vote! how is that democ???”) I wonder how to surmount this. I probably just need to be committed to having these side conversations during the GAs. Which I am.
Hateorade: Don’t Drink It!
A few last thoughts about political inclusion and the goals of the protest.
One: I’ve had a number of conversations (and read like, a billion internet comments) to the tune of “Yeah its all well and good, but they really should be doing X.” Well let me tell you, I’ve been that person and I have seen the light my friend.
All I can say is, if you think that something should be done differently, some message should be tweaked, some action should be adjusted, then by all means go to a GA and get on the stack and make your proposal to the group. I will pay you $100 if at the end of it you feel that your voice was not heard and your proposal not considered. It’s kind of a mental leap to realize that the political process is open to you not just as a viewer, but as an active participant. I’m here to tell you that it IS open.
And on top of that, if you’ve got some thick, thought out, particular things you want to do? Go to the info table and write that shit up! Form an awesome autonomous working group, grab some folks, make an announcement and get to work. Nothing is stopping you but your cynicism. And remember what Middle King says: “Cynics are really just secret Romantics that don’t want to get hurt again.” So let that romantic out, baby!
UPDATE! The above quote by Middle King makes my proofreader want to vomit. Apologies!
My therapist would call this last paragraph “Clinical Projection.”
(My personal goal would be a Sports and Recreation Working Group. Let’s see if I can muster the courage to do it!)
Two: I hate to break it to you, but the Occupation does have some goals (trajectories? points? whatever.)
“But for those who believe that protests are only worthwhile if they translate into quantifiable impact: the lack of organizational sophistication or messaging efficacy on the part of the Wall Street protest is a reason to support it and get involved in it, not turn one’s nose up at it and join in the media demonization. That’s what one actually sympathetic to its messaging (rather than pretending to be in order more effectively to discredit it) would do. Anyone who looks at mostly young citizens marching in the street protesting the corruption of Wall Street and the harm it spawns, and decides that what is warranted is mockery and scorn rather than support, is either not seeing things clearly or is motivated by objectives other than the ones being presented.”
BOOYAH Glenn! Droppin’ truth like a young Brett Favre.
Thoughts on the Brooklyn Bridge
As I mentioned, I ended up on the carpath of the Bridge on Saturday. I’m sure you’ve all seen the videos and read the reports so I will only add a few thoughts. The first is that, from the back of the march where I was, hobbling along with my broken foot, there was no indication that walking on the carpath was an arrest-able act. And by no indication, I mean there was no hinting, or eyebrow wiggling or Irish gesturing. I mean, really, I wasn’t there to get arrested and if I thought it was hinkey I just wouldn’t have done it.
“But Biko, taking the lane is obviously illegal!” you rightfully reply. And I hear you. But the tricky part is that the cops were seemingly escorting us across the bridge rather than stopping us. There were “blue collar” cops all along the march route, doing their respectful “blue collar thing,” which mostly translates into chit chat and trying to prevent people from getting hit by cars. The officer corps were scattered around as well, telling people to stay on the sidewalk via bullhorn. But once we got to the bridge, nothing really changed from that scene. Blue collar cops just chillin’ hard, thumbs in their belts, not really paying too much attention, and on the bridge just working to make sure there were no car-human interactions.
So we’re getting to the point on the bridge where you can’t climb up to the pedestrian walk. The only way to go is backwards or forwards. Directly behind me, and closing in, there was a wall of cops. From the back of the march it was impossible to tell that this is exactly what the front of the march was also seeing. So at a certain point the march stopped, and it wasn’t clear what exactly was happening. People started to freak out because the police kept getting closer (and this is where it was obviously a bit of a direct action communication breakdown), as no one in the back was interested in getting arrested.
At one point we sat down for a bit, rather confused, and then we stood up, and then someone up on the pedestrian path shouted “they’re arresting people!” and pointed toward the front. Then the police in the back began to roll out the red carpet (by which I mean orange nets) and it got pretty raucous for awhile, because, well, it was really surprising and no one wanted to get arrested. Somehow I got out through a gap in the net: drop off the bridge to my left, a rather frightened looking police officer to my right. I think I was able to get out because of the Freedom Party folk, who were not really in a mood to be stopped. Somehow I was right in the middle of them?
Maybe this is lame, but I was really scared during that and pretty upset for the rest of the day. I was trying to figure out why this was the case… I’ve been in worse situations when it comes to cops and MPs and batons and goofy riot shields, and the police in this situation were fairly tame. I think the issue was that I felt fairly alone and isolated for most of the march, and once the situation became heated, this translated into some heavy amounts of stress. When I look back I’ve always had an Alie or a Krissy or an Eldest King in those situations. The feelings of camaraderie go a surprisingly long way to making one feel like they’re safe. To have cops bearing down on you when you’re isolated? Totally different. The rules for the march asked people to make sure they had a “march buddy,” someone who knows your name should something go wrong. I’ve come to believe that this idea is much more important than just a name or a phone number.
Any maybe this is where I bring it back to the beginning. On some very important levels I feel like I understand how this is “our” protest, and not “theirs.” But I still feel isolated, like I haven’t quite figured out a way to actually join. I’ve been participating and showing up, trying to be a body, a set of hands, a voice. But for all of my conversations I haven’t felt any real connections with anyone. Conversations seem awkward and not really lasting. Maybe the people I’m talking to are in a similar situation, feeling feet on both sides of the line. Between my own personality and learned desire to engage people in conversations when they’re doing cool shit (thanks Political Ethnography!), I want to say that I’m giving it a good try but its not quite settled in. Maybe it needs some more time, or I should show up with some of my own marching buddies, if only they weren’t all in Philly and Noho.
This is where I think the “professional activists” have their most important strength: when you work with people multiple times you develop a sense of community. But that’s really hard to develop, and even more difficult to join if you’re someone on the outside. Years at the bookstore and months with Struggle Buddies never really gave me a sense of being in a community I could trust and depend on, so I’m sure that some of the issue is me.
What to do about it, though?
As Doc sez “I know you guys wanna win, but you gotta do it TOGETHER!”