On Occupy: Aimless Nostalgia and the Need for a Damn Plan
“Whose training?” the young organizer shouted. The response came as a groan rather than a roar, a few tired voices out of the hundred or so gathered, repeating the fill-in-the-blank response mechanically: “Our training.” It was Saturday, September 15th, and we were in Washington Square Park to prepare for the Monday that would follow: the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
The mood in the park was one of ebullience tempered with disorientation. Some people held signs with the familiar anti-corporate and populist slogans of the movement, their cardboard text shouting that they represented the 99% to anyone who passed, reminding us that corporate rule isn’t democracy. Some attendees representing more formal organizations had set up tables to try to attract recruits to this political party or that environmentalist group. Still others gathered under trees, smoking what smelled like weed, sitting in large circles, many of them in the black and dirt-stained white unofficial uniforms of traveler punks.
While it may have been radical and powerful last fall to simply stand up and declare who we were (“The 99%!”), we are past that moment, and now we need organization. We need tactics. Above all, we need a damn plan.
The “action training” that was gathered near me and had lead to the above-quoted interchange made my heart sink. I’d seen these kinds of trainings before. As the facilitator ran us through the various hand-signals used in Occupy discussions, I was struck by the thought that it was unlikely at this point that anyone in the gathering wasn’t already familiar with them. This in itself is indicative of a larger issue: the Occupy movement, or what remains of it, has become inward facing and self perpetuating, a spectacle of empty signifiers.
There was a palpable feeling of directionless anticipation, something akin to the crowd at a concert, but no one knew who the headliner was or when they’d perform. We were all there because we cared about something bigger than us, but it was unclear exactly what that was and how it was going to manifest itself in that park.
It’s ironic. The Occupy phenomenon, inspired by pro-democracy protests in the Mideast and North Africa, as well as anti-austerity protests in Europe, has always been about the rejection of elite control of our “democratic” process and the resurrection of popular influence on discourse. From the horizontally run, consensus-based encampments to the protest signs to the chants, everything about the movement has been infused with the spirit of direct democracy, with the idea of “the people’s” will being paramount, and that money shouldn’t rule politics. But when we find ourselves in an Occupy space, we find it extremely difficult to express any ideas except for the same old, dead slogans from last fall.
This is not a new state of affairs. The last large Occupy gathering I attended was in Washington, D.C. on January 17th. Thousands of us gathered in front of the capitol, ready to make our voices heard by our out-of-touch congress. And then… what? There was a lot of standing around, and in the boredom people began to antagonize the police, leading to expected brutality, arrests, and chants of “Shame! Shame!” (Call me cynical, but I think that if the police aren’t ashamed by now, a chant won’t make a bit of difference.) Later, the large group attempted a massive general assembly via three-wave mic checks, the first ten minutes of which were taken to explain basic hand signals and to go over the nonexistent agenda.
Occupy celebrity Cpt. Ray Lewis chose that moment to engage in civil disobedience by standing in forbidden grass. Of the roughly three thousand gathered in the general assembly, half sped off to yell impotently at the police, and moreover, to observe the spectacle. When the capitol police declined to arrest him, Ray proudly strode off to a corner of the lawn, surrounded by live-streamers and fawning fans. The assembly, struggling to function in the first place, was ruined.
Ray was hanging around NYC for OWS’s birthday. His sign implored passersby to watch a movie called Inside Job if they wanted to know why we were protesting, amending the sign to clarify that this was not a movie about 9/11. Another familiar face—the anti-Semitic protester who encourages passersby to google for “Jewish Bankers”—had also amended his sign, this time to tell us that he is not part of OWS, and that his sign is a form of free speech. We see on these signs the history of myriad interactions, previous misunderstandings whose repetition a hasty change has been made to prevent. Standing around a park with a sign has become routine enough to warrant such conveniences.
For people who’ve put their bodies on the line to promote a radical new vision of the world, we’re awfully good at falling back on substanceless cliché and well-worn patterns of action. This isn’t particularly surprising in some ways; raising your voice to the world, whether it’s in an assembly or in a march, can be scary, and any generic rhetorical flourish or chant (“Overturn Citizen’s United!” “This Occupation is not leaving!”), no matter how shallow or meaningless it has been rendered with the passing of time or shifts in context, can provide a defense. Things have gotten to the point where “Whose Streets? Our Streets!,” a once radical call for militant action, has become a corny Occupy shibboleth, a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of “secret” handshake, a moment of, “Hey, remember that time?”
We can see that much of what used to be revolutionary momentum has become fossilized–the once living social tissue of a movement has been replaced with solid deposits of mineral nostalgia, form only and no function, communicating an inscrutable message from the bygone Mesozoic of Fall 2011 when this stuff actually had power.
When the 17th rolled around, I assembled with my affinity group (AG). Most of us were Boston activists, and we’d all met through Occupy. Occupy Boston, like most other Occupy groups, has seen its share of dissolution and confusion, and exists in a state of quasi-death, or perhaps un-life, where, despite being completely non-functional in any practical sense, it continues to lumber on in one form or another, a zombie organization shambling purposelessly forward, unseeing, unthinking. While the “official” OB assemblies and meetings have become graveyards for activism, action and organizing are still happening in the decentralized networks of friends and affinity groups that formed out of the Dewey Square occupation, and it was with one such group that I was rolling on that cool Monday morning.
We assembled with hundreds of other Occupiers at a morning spokes council. It was decided (or rather, the decision was presented as a near fait accompli by NYC organizers to the eager but mostly disoriented mob who affirmed it with up-twinkles that spoke more of “sure, why not” than of considered endorsement) that all those assembled would attempt to augment the ongoing “people’s wall” action on Wall Street that would ideally restrict access to the New York Stock Exchange. This proved to be a mistake. Because we didn’t have the advantage of overwhelming numbers, the NYPD was able to easily deflect us, and the whole group ended up dispersed and confused.
My AG was able to regroup, though, and undertake our planned action–we would block intersections for as long as we could, then as soon as the police arrived we’d disperse to regroup somewhere else and try again. This decentralized action was extremely effective. We were able to completely shut down intersection after intersection, and our continued successes led to more and more groups joining our actions. Occupiers, disoriented after being dispersed by NYPD, were eager to join in whenever they saw us effectively controlling traffic.
This highlights one of the more prominent internal contradictions of this movement. The occupied spaces of last fall were autonomous communities, places where people could build trust and friendships through mutual aid and support and through working towards a common goal. This is directly opposed to the grandstanding mob, the shallow, leaderless zeitgeist of the overarching Occupy movement. No bonds are stronger than the bonds formed through struggle, and nothing is more fleeting and more alienating than the empty gestures of a dead movement.
Realizing this, we face a critical decision: we can continue to cling to the mere representation of a revolutionary moment, a moment that has passed, or we can stride forward into a different model of organizing and embrace that which was always the true strength of our movement, that of community. If we’re to form any kind of bulwark of people-power against the corporate-state complex, we need to act with strategy and intention, not inertia, nostalgia, and cultish mimicry of what once was.
After the morning’s flash intersection occupations, my affinity group and others repaired to Battery Park to prepare for afternoon actions. There was an action spokescouncil that my group sent a spoke to, but although they spent a long time in discussion, all that I heard from them was that the spokescouncil was a mistake that sapped our energy. It seemed that we needed to just push forward with action rather than discuss endlessly in non-functional gatherings of prohibitively large groups of people. So our AG along with a few other trusted groups from NYC and New England planned a large, flashy, high-octane version of the morning’s actions: we were going to shut down West Side Highway.
The word spread that there was going to be some kind of action in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, and the meeting place was Pump House Park. When I arrived at the park, a comrade and I, awaiting the arrival of other Boston AG members, were drawn to a large crowd of people who were visibly Occupiers. As the group swelled to hundreds, the people there assembled grew antsy.
It was short lived, and the price in arrests and injuries was high, but with a scant few occupiers we had taken a major highway and shut it down.
But not ten seconds after the temp-check, this plan appeared to have been discarded. The march continued, chanting “One! We are the people! Two! We are united! Three! This occupation is not leaving!” a chant which, since the November 15th OWS eviction, has always seemed nonsensical to me. What is the audience of our action meant to take away from that chant? I’ve heard justifications of it based on a metaphorical use of “occupation” and what activities can and cannot be considered to be “occupying,” but I doubt such linguistic hoops are so naturally jumped through by your average person on the street.
They spontaneously began chanting and walking in a seemingly random direction. “Mic check!” came the cry from one activist pushing back against aimlessness and indirection. Over the people’s mic, they got a temperature check from the crowd for waiting patiently for a facilitator who was on their way, whose arrival would allow an actual assembly to decide what action the group wanted to take. The temp-check passed, and the group began to make its way over to a shaded area to wait.
After a short attempt to mitigate the farce by instigating less embarrassing chants, I left with my comrades to find a group with a clue. We found it in the form of the group planning the West Side Highway shutdown. The air was tense as we made preparations, including dispatching a group to invite the large group of aimless occupiers into our action. We made our way to the corner of Liberty and West, and waited for the right moment to begin the action.
When the large mob arrived, we pushed into the street, chanting “All day, all week, OCCUPY WALL STREET!” and the mood was high. We were able to completely block traffic on the busy artery. The police showed up almost immediately, and began brutally assaulting people and arresting them. When one of my comrades was hurt, I grabbed them, pulled them from the street, and spent the rest of the conflict assisting to provide privacy for those being treated by street medics. Eventually, our group was dispersed, and traffic began flowing again. It was short lived, and the price in arrests and injuries was high, but with a scant few occupiers we had taken a major highway and shut it down.
Imagine how effective we could’ve been if the “aimless group” were as organized as the group that actually planned the action. There is no reason we can’t be at that level of organization. Our movement has made powerful enemies, and if the people are ever going to truly take control of their own affairs and throw off the yoke of “The One Percent” (to use Occupy phraseology), we are going to need to be able to operate with intention and with efficacy. While it may have been radical and powerful last fall to simply stand up and declare who we were (“The 99%!”), we are past that moment, and now we need organization. We need tactics. Above all, we need a damn plan.