'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, October 05, 2011



UPDATE 1: A compelling story of insisting upon inclusion within OWS:

On Thursday night I showed up at Occupy Wall Street with a bunch of other South Asians coming from a South Asians for Justice meeting. Sonny joked that he should have brought his dhol so we could enter like it was a baarat. When we got there they were passing around and reading a sheet of paper that had the Declaration of the Occupation of Wall Street on it. I had heard the Declaration of the Occupation read at the General Assembly the night before but I didn’t realize that it was going to be finalized as THE declaration of the movement right then and there. When I heard it the night before with Sonny we had looked at each other and noted that the line about being one race, the human race, formally divided by race, class . . . was a weird line, one that hit me in the stomach with its naivety and the way it made me feel alienated. But Sonny and I had shrugged it off as the ramblings of one of the many working groups at Occupy Wall Street.

But now we were realizing that this was actually a really important document and that it was going to be sent into the world and read by thousands of people. And that if we let it go into the world written the way it was then it would mean that people like me would shrug this movement off, it would stop people like me and my friends and my community from joining this movement, one that I already felt a part of. So this was urgent. This movement was about to send a document into the world about who and what it was that included a line that erased all power relations and decades of history of oppression. A line that would de-legitimize the movement, this would alienate me and people like me, this would not be able to be something I could get behind. And I was already behind it this movement and somehow I didn’t want to walk away from this. I couldn’t walk away from this.

And that night I was with people who also couldn’t walk away. Our amazing, impromptu, radical South Asian contingency, a contingency which stood out in that crowd for sure, did not back down. We did not back down when we were told the first time that Hena spoke that our concerns could be emailed and didn’t need to be dealt with then, we didn’t back down when we were told that again a second time and we didn’t back down when we were told that to block the declaration from going forward was a serious serious thing to do. When we threatened that this might mean leaving the movement, being willing to walk away. I knew it was a serious action to take, we all knew it was a serious action to take, and that is why we did it.

I have never blocked something before actually. And the only reason I was able to do so was because there were 5 of us standing there and because Hena had already put herself out there and started shouting mic check until they paid attention. And the only reason that I could in that moment was because I felt so urgently that this was something that needed to be said. There is something intense about speaking in front of hundreds of people, but there is something even more intense about speaking in front of hundreds of people with whom you feel aligned and you are saying something that they do not want to hear. And then it is even more intense when that crowd is repeating everything you say– which is the way the General Assemblies or any announcements at Occupy Wall Street work. But hearing yourself in an echo chamber means that you make sure your words mean something because they are being said back to you as you say them.

And so when we finally got everyone’s attention I carefully said what we felt was the problem: that we wanted a small change in language but that this change represented a larger ethical concern of ours. That to erase a history of oppression in this document was not something that we would be able to let happen. That we knew they had been working on this document for a week, that we appreciated the process and that it was in respect to this process that we wouldn’t be silenced. That we demanded a change in the language. And they accepted our change and we withdrew our block as long as the document was published with our change and they said find us after and we will go through it and then it was over and everyone was looking somewhere else. I stepped down from the ledge I was standing on and Sonny looked me in the eye and said you did good and I’ve never needed to hear that so much as then.

Please consider reading Manissa McCleave Maharawal's post in its entirety. Interestingly, she initially declined to go to the encampment, because she had heard or intuited, like her other brown friends, that it was a mostly young white male scene. But the police brutality, and the subsequent protest against it, persuaded her to visit it with a friend. And, afterwards, she persuaded more of her friends to accompany her upon her return. It is tempting to read her account in heroic terms, but it is actually a example of what is perpetually necessary to create and expand the inclusiveness required for any legitimate social movement.

Hat tip to Jews sans frontieres.

INITIAL POST: Preliminarily, it must be acknowledged that Occupy Wall Street is the one of the most significant protest movements of the last 15 years, and retains the potential to become one of the most transformative protest movements in US history. For now, it is comparable in terms of its social impact to the direct action civil disobedience in Seattle in 1998 and the protests against the Iraq war in 2003. It signals the end of the malaise that has, with the exception of the period just prior to the launching of the Iraq war, so immobilized Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11.

Commenced just six days after ceremonies centered around the tenth anniversary of the attacks, the occupation of Wall Street by a small group of protesters shattered the effort of Obama and others to characterize the US as a country defined by the war on terror and the post-9/11 generation who fights it. Veterans have been prominent among the protesters, and they have expressly separated themselves from such a jingoistic portrayal of their experience. A Pew Research Center poll states that 1 out of 3 post-9/11 veterans believes that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not worth fighting and that 6 out of 10 have what the Center describes as isolationist tendencies.

Despite the fact that fewer than three weeks have elapsed since the protests began, the entry of the participants of OWS into the financial district of New York City has already taken on the gloss of historical romanticism, as reported by Kevin Gosztola of firedoglake:

Less than one hundred went into a park on September 17 and did not leave. The police appeared intent on forcing them out of the park but the occupiers found out late in the night they would be allowed to stay. An opening was created. One occupier tweeted it felt like a mini Tahrir Square. And, in the first week, with very little media attention, those who were tired of letting Wall Street and the top 1% ruin their lives and other people’s lives—somewhere between 50 and 200—occupied the park.

Those who slept in the park the first week, especially on the first night, are the vanguard of this movement. They were not part of some known community group or union. They were not affiliated with any campaign launched by any liberal organization. They were not even directly connected to any of the more radical groups in the country, like the Socialist Workers’ Party or Communist Party USA. They were not being visited by celebrities or media personalities. They were just students saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. They were people who were fed up with growing poverty. They were citizens who were no longer willing to tolerate Wall Street influence over politician, who tailor legislation and policies to benefit corporations and the richest 1% at the expense of the other 99% of Americans.

Gosztola isn't entirely accurate here, as it has been reported that anarchists, syndicalists, progressives and communists involved in previous actions designed to highlight poverty and inequality in NYC, such as the Bloombergville, have played a prominent role. Indeed, it appears that OWS evolved out of the Bloombergville earlier this summer:

Part protest base camp/part community center, Bloombergville reclaimed public space for dissent in a way that has not occurred in New York since 9/11. It also created a common ground for a variety of left groups and tendencies to work together in a way also rarely seen in this city.

Operating under the banner of New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, the majority of the protesters, like Hales, were in their 20s and 30s, face a future of limited job prospects and see a political system disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people. They drew inspiration from mass occupations of public space that have recently propelled protest movements from Egypt to Spain to Madison, Wisconsin as well as from the Hoovervilles of the 1930s.

Bloombergville organized daily protests of as many as 200 people. These actions culminated in a raucous June 28 demonstration in which 13 people were arrested for barricading the entrance to the office building at 250 Broadway. City Council members, who have offices in the building, were inside negotiating the final details of the budget. A near-riot ensued when police attacked protesters who had surrounded and briefly blocked the two police vans called to carry away the arrestees.

Organized through a general assembly that met each night at 8 p.m., Bloombergville also served as the movement’s living room. People could drop in and share donated food and drink, debate politics for hours, take out books from the Bloombergville Library, attend evening teach-ins at Bloombergville University led by City University of New York (CUNY) professors such as Frances Fox Piven and Stanley Aronowitz or take the stage during open-mic night.

The response to OWS on the left was initially muted. Max Ajl acknowledged that he was initially dismissive because when someone calls a protest in America lately the joke is usually on the Left. Similarly, I didn't think much would come of it, either, which, in a bizarre way, was a positive sign, because I have rarely, if ever, anticipated the success of a protest movement in advance, having been especially gloomy about the ones that generated the most support. Curiously, a post by lenin over at Lenin's Tomb about the anti-semitism of Gilad Atzmon, a post that became a debate over the relative lack of merit of Atzmon and Slavoj Zizek, has generated over 188 comments, while his more recent post about OWS has only generated 29, most of them several days after it originally appeared on the site. One suspects that, among Leninists and Trotskyites, there is apprehension about the lack of any vanguardist leadership and the amorphous nature of the motivations of the participants, even as their allies in NYC have worked actively to organize it.

Conversely, Pham Binh and Louis Proyect have stood out as a clear-eyed, rational left voices about the importance of OWS, probably because they have been able to visit and talk with the protesters. Binh has posted a number of important on the scene reports, such as this one, and both have effectively asserted the importance of relating to OWS in a non-sectarian fashion. Proyect accurately summarized the situation as follows:

There is a very strong possibility that over the next five years or so the mass movement that is taking shape today might take on epic proportions and mount a serious challenge to the powers-that-be. It will be absolutely incumbent upon Marxists to figure out a way to relate to that movement not as learned professors chiding it from above but as dedicated participants whose loyalties are to the movement rather than their own group. If they can meet that challenge, the movement will be all the more powerful as a result. If they function in a narrow and self-interested manner, they will have nothing to offer. As someone who has been impressed with the relative open-mindedness and transparency of the ISO, I wish them well.

Such an admonition obviously applies to leftists of any kind, and not just Marxists.

Meanwhile, the police and the progressive political establishment displayed no such confusion. Faced with a protest movement that showed the potential to become larger and larger, the NYPD moved to suppress it with force, through the indiscriminate use of crowd control measures, pepper spray and and arrests, because, of course, that's what it usually does, and also because, unlike others, it knew, from direct experience, that OWS had evolved out of the Bloombergville, thereby revealing that the vitality of the movement remained even if the Bloombergville had been torn down. For liberals and progressives, the problem was equally acute. Van Jones and his allies, such as MoveON.org, many mainstream unions, such as SEIU and AFCSME, and other progressive organizations, had constructed Rebuild the Dream as a means of channeling social discontent into innocuous forms of protest that do not imperil the reeelection prospects of the President. But then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the people moved forward without them, and they found themselves in the embarrassing situation of having an expensive conference in Washington, D.C. while people were being maced and arrested in NYC. And, even worse, people all over the country announced plans for their own occupations. To show you bad it is, there will even be an occupation in Sacramento, starting tomorrow. Progressives therefore did the only thing they could do if they wanted to avoid becoming politically extinct: they embraced OWS, starting with a large march in NYC today.

Among leftists and progressives, there is this great angst about the need for OWS to issue a statement of demands. I've even posted a couple of comments in response to the suggestions of others at Louis Proyect's site, The Unrepentent Marxist, about the need to prioritize immediate human needs over legalistic reforms of the US financial system. And, while I am nervous about the fact that there seems to be some hesitancy to do so, which may reflect an inability of those involved in OWS to develop a consensus in support of it, such angst misses the point. In his seminal work about the Italian protest movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, States of Emergency, Robert Lumley addressed the transformative aspects of feminism in a climate of social turbulence, emphasizing the ability of its proponents to generate new ways of looking at society by highlighting the subjective differences of people and the challenges of creating a new language in order to express such a perspective. Something similar may well be happening during the collective gatherings of OWS, gatherings in which all are empowered to participate in the actions of the whole. Before people can organize themselves to act politically, they must first understand themselves sufficiently to envision themselves within a movement. It is this paradoxical process of personal and collective evolution that is most threatening to the progressive groups that have embraced OWS, and we will soon learn if they can accomodate themselves to it instead of substituting themselves as they have done in similar instances in the past.

Jack Crow of The Crow's Eye may have captured the mood when he described the people involved in OWS as the self-organized:

It is Emergency which defines our coming age. It is to Emergency - and the preface to our age of Emergency was written in the extended verse of the War on Terror - that every justification for continued maintenance of the forms of power will refer. It is Emergency which mobilizes the masses. It is in the name of a succession of Emergencies that the ruling class and its states will attempt to strangle the arising and invigorated struggles against them.

So it means something, I think, that the folks involved in the OWS experiment have begun by rejecting the acculturated norm of Emergency and its consequent hierarchies, urgency, command orientation and urge to assign marching orders and battle order.

I know for Trots and Leninists like Richard Seymour, and the various dialectically constrained parties of Europe and sheltered academia, the OWS reclaimers and the inherent argument of their method are at best problematic, because it recommends abandoning the hierarchical and partisan organizational mode which dominated resistance to capital, imperial nationalism and colonial powers over the last one hundred fifty years. It further anticipates a fight which exceeds the limits of the party structure, and its intellectualist vanguard, who are obedient to norms which are no longer really prevalent. Those engaged with today's conditions are proving forward enough to identify the functional unity of state and corporation, as well as recognizing that the apparatuses used to obtain, process, share and utilize information, security and the capture of privatized knowledge are nested within each others' overlapping spheres of influence and authority.

The struggle, it seems, has only just begun.

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