Strike is a verb! (part 1)

From taking over space to taking over time: Occupy Wall Street as seen by AFFECT

"AFFECT is a front group based in New York City. We came together out of a number of different formal and informal assemblies, groups, projects, tendencies including our various degrees of participation in the Occupy movement. We have published a number of texts on anti-capitalist resistance in Portugal, and have been focusing in recent months on anti-police organizing as part of an insurrectional strategy."

The following questions were posed by e-mail by Ana Bigotte Vieira and Miguel Castro Caldas between November 2012 and January 2013.


Part 1: From the initial call to occupied zuccotti park
What was at stake when people decided to occupy the streets? I mean, to live in public space, and not only to do a demonstration? And how did you choose the square in front of that Wall Street building?

The decision to occupy public space in New York, and elsewhere in the United States, happened at different times, for different reasons, by many different people. There was never a coherent political program behind the Occupy movement, nor a specific goal among its participants. This has allowed for much projection among both its supporters and detractors, which includes both its participants and spectators. You could see in it whatever you wanted, good or bad, as each action or inaction, statement or silence, demonstrated whatever you wanted it to about the present moment, the people, their thoughts, etc. We can say, though, that for many what was at stake was simply experimentation, an attempt at a different kind of political articulation, taking inspiration from the revolts that had been taking place all around the world in 2011.

The initial call to Occupy Wall Street was, by and large, treated with cynicism and skepticism here in New York, if it was acknowledged at all. The call came from outside the city, from a publication called Adbusters, which is based in Vancouver, Canada, 3,000 miles from New York. On July 13th, 2011 they put out a call on their website, followed a few days later by a Facebook event page, to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th. At the time this seemed to be the extent of the “organizing” they did, relying almost entirely on social media, hashtags, memes, going viral, etc. A lot of the on-the-ground organizing was to be left to those actually living in New York to figure out. This led to some confusion and resentment from those who would get involved, and led to plenty of others initially not taking the call very seriously.

A canadian anti-consumerist magazine [Adbusters] made the original call to occupy Wall Street
A series of general assemblies started in New York on Saturday, August 2nd to figure out what to do with this call by Adbusters. These were initially organized by local activists, some of whom were involved in the local anti-austerity organizing of the previous year. Many more were newer presences, who were just curious. The meetings occurred weekly at Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which has its own long history of organized and militant resistance to the state, including being host to some riots in the late 80´s.

For some who showed up to these assemblies what was at stake was simply developing a broad and functioning New York City General Assembly, which at the time seemed a little more ambitious and potentially more radical than simply a failed “day of action,” or demonstration, which many of us expected September 17th to be. These early general assemblies were often pretty small, around 30-65 people each week, which in a city of over 8 million, is not much to speak of. Even in the week before, there wasn’t much optimism that people would actually show up. But of course people did. Some of the initial discussions in the assemblies before the occupation spun around tactics—like whether or not violence was proper, what violence was, etc. Some of us of course pushed for tactical diversity and for communications media that would not be centralized. And some of us did not like the “We are the 99%” slogan which would later become so popular.

Here you can already see, before the occupation even began, a number of contradictions and divergent perspectives. There were those treating the weekly assemblies as autonomous actions in their own right, which should be developed and expanded, and thought of as independent from any calls or dates which did not themselves originate from the assembly itself, or even from New York. And there were others who thought the call and projected date should be taken seriously, that they gave us something specific and material to organize around, which made the assemblies often feel more like planning meetings than an assembly, as such. This split, if you will, would continue during the occupation of Zuccotti Park, as the general assembly quickly became a forum to manage the specific details of daily life in the park, rather than a body to work towards an ongoing revolutionary movement in New York.

Another of the contradictions was that, as mentioned, the general assemblies were not very big, and thus could hardly be said to speak for the population of New York City, never mind the United States. In the end, the online organizing initiated by Adbusters perhaps did more to capture popular imagination, and inspire participation, than did these rather modest and often dysfunctional early assemblies ostensibly meant to organize the city. What this led to was that many of those who would come to occupy Zuccotti Park were not New Yorkers, they didn’t live here, didn’t work here, didn’t grow up here, and as such didn’t have many social or political connections outside of the park. They arrived in New York for Occupy Wall Street, the online campaign, without much awareness of past struggles in New York, experience organizing in the city, or the knowledge or capacity to really spread the movement to different areas of the city, or involve more of its population.

So, the different approaches to the function of the general assembly within the Occupy movement, as well as its participants’ relationship to its online and virtual mythology versus the material struggles and spaces of potential intervention in the city: these might be seen as some unresolved contradictions.

Adbusters’ call seemed to be inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, and to a lesser extent the occupation of the kasbah in Tunis earlier that winter. These indefinite occupations in Egypt and Tunisia were the urban communes that came to signal the ongoing commitment to the insurrections which took place in these countries. The call to Occupy Wall Street was not seriously committed to attempting the kinds of insurrections we saw in Tunisia or Egypt, but rather it was like those occupations which took place earlier that spring across the Mediterranean in Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon, and Athens—more symbolic, populist expressions of “direct democracy,” as a response to austerity and crisis.

The occupation that began in New York on September 17th, as well as those that spread throughout the United States that fall, though they weren’t explicitly insurrectionary in intent, or in result, did come to represent a rupture in American politics. The experimentation that took place in the occupied parks and plazas—as well as around them at the actions, marches, protests, and rallies which emanated out of the parks, often spontaneously and uncontrollably—went far beyond what could be accomplished at a demonstration, mass mobilization, or even a riot. The occupations experimented with the participants’ social relationships, social reproduction, subjectivity, the temporality of protest, the distribution of food, clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, and other supplies, decision-making, self-organization, etc. For many this living in public space, collectively, became a kind of prefigurative politics, an enacting of the commune to be created in a revolutionary process.

Zuccotti Park is four blocks from Wall Street, and is across the street from the site of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t the first location chosen to occupy, as those were already gated off by police and private security the night before the occupation was to take place. Zuccotti Park remained open as a technicality, as New York’s public parks have gates and strongly enforced curfews, something which dates back to the late 1980s when the city was preparing for the gentrification to come. Public parks in New York often close at nighttime, 10 o’clock or midnight, but Zuccotti Park was privately owned by the building across the street. New York often makes deals with the developers of large skyscraper buildings where, in exchange for constructing so tall a building, they’re required to create some public space nearby. Zuccotti Park was one of these “privately-owned public spaces, or POPS, which meant it was required to be open 24 hours a day, and that it was up to the private owner, and not the city or its police department, when it was closed. This was the legal loophole that led to the first few days of arrival for occupiers.

Can you describe to us the park and its infrastructures? Can you tell us about the working groups that were born? Cooking, cleaning, feeding . . . several ‘invisible’ tasks were made visible in the occupation. How was the work being distributed?Can we speak about a gender politics in the park? What kind of tasks were being done by whom?

Some of the main permanent infrastructural elements of the park occupation—besides the blankets, sleeping bags, air mattresses, and tents that were distributed and erected for residence—were the kitchen, medical booth, library, media headquarters, etc.

The kitchen—trays of food on park benches—served meals throughout the day to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Food was donated by restaurants, markets, individuals, retrieved from garbage bags all over the city, and a lot of it was ordered online for delivery by people around the world. In the first days there was an enormous amount of pizza, as there was a request on Twitter, #Occu-pie or something, for people to order pizzas delivered to the park. Later the food became much more diverse and healthy, often of exceptional quality. It was impossible to go hungry at Zuccotti. This was one of the best parts of the occupation, enabling much of the work people would do in and around the park, and one of the most powerful instances of prefiguration, of the possibility of a commune.

The kitchen at Zuccotti
 There was a medical area for first-aid, with some basic items like bandages and aspirin. This undoubtedly came in handy after some of the rowdier marches that might have included some rough encounters with the NYPD. Some of the volunteers were trained nurses and doctors, and as there is little public health care in the United States, this too became a significant prefiguration of the occupation. Nearby was a stand where you could get clothes, gloves, hats, scarves, pillows, blankets, etc. This attention to caring for each other was remarkable, and crucial.

Medical station
An impressive number of books, pamphlets and zines were collected and loaned out at the OWS library — crates of books on park benches. Many people were likely exposed to new and radical ideas by perusing the literature offered there. You could print hundreds of flyers, leaflets, and zines, and they would disappear almost instantly; there was a real hunger at the park for radical literature, new ideas. As so many of the people in the park were getting involved in politics for the first time, developing an analysis almost from scratch, it seemed to make a real impression. Looking back, more should have been written and distributed at the time, but it all happened so fast, we were so unprepared, it was hard to figure out what to do, when, how...

Zuccotti’s library
The media area was also an important item of infrastructure, a covered space around some benches that contained all manner of computers and electronic equipment for live-streaming, etc. Before the gas generators were confiscated by the Fire Department, this was also the park’s power source. Later there were attempts to model a sustainable, ecological way of life by introducing a bicycle-powered generator, and a system for recycling the “gray water” from washing dishes. The sentiment was appreciated, but it also felt like this was the beginning of a fetishization of the park itself, a process of turning inwards and adding endless frills and improvements, bells and whistles, with bizarre amounts of technology showing up, like large video monitors, digital info-tickers, etc. People were treating Zuccotti as a mini-society to be ordered, organized, and made more comfortable, while forgetting the antagonistic nature of the struggle itself, not to mention the fundamental absurdity of trying to construct a new society in miniature in a tiny park in lower Manhattan, surrounded by police, hostile politicians, and Wall Street. This suspicion was borne out when massive, high-quality tents were purchased and installed for the winter and Zuccotti began to look like a real village, the areas and zones of specialization became static, and the park lost some of its spontaneity, its sense of possibility. Somewhere along the way the thread had been lost, things had become professionalized

Tents at Zuccotti

Personally I very much appreciated the nic table, where you could at any time of day or night get a hand-rolled cigarette for free. When this table disappeared I knew things had taken a turn for the worse and the rough-and-tumble days of early Zuccotti were giving way to a more antiseptic, bureaucratic existence.

Get your dose of nicotine
There were of course Library and Kitchen working groups, along with Structure, Sanitation, Security, Comfort, S.I.S. (Shipping, Inventory and Storage) and many more to deal with logistics in the park. All of the working groups were constituted purely on a volunteer basis. There was no formal distribution of tasks, people pitched in wherever they were inclined or saw the need. For the most part the system worked, as there were more than enough participants to maintain what really was a very small physical space.

People of all genders worked in the kitchen and did cleaning duties, although it’s likely that certain normative gender roles were reproduced, with “care work” generally reinforced to be the domain of women. Its being out in the open, outdoors, in public, and within a political organizing context did open up dialogue on these issues, however, questioning whose responsibility is our very reproduction. The “gender politics” of Zuccotti seemed to appear most visibly around the issue of safety and security. A “Safer Spaces” working group formed, informed by feminist and queer politics, that tried to contend with issues around abusive language and behavior in the park, without resorting to the NYPD. There was at least one individual with a past record of abuse who often came to the park, and there were allegations of sexual assault taking place in the park, with at least one man arrested by police. There were areas or tents for women or queers only to sleep. Again, we might say that some of the more visible, vocal members of Safer Spaces were women, and that the ones causing problems men. Perhaps more than the cooking and cleaning, this care work around safety deserves more of an analysis on gender in the occupation.

Other difficulties also arose. There were differing ideas about who should benefit by the “services” provided at Zuccotti. In a very short time, some people had acquired the idea, not without some justification, that they were “activists” in a “movement,” and were annoyed by the people who came to Zuccotti merely as spectators, as “tourists.” Despite the rhetoric about fighting for economic justice, there was a certain amount of tension on the part of some participants when it came to the—seemingly “non-political”—homeless population that came to Zuccotti to eat or sleep. The Kitchen working group even went on a kind of strike, serving only plain food for three days, apparently as a protest against all the work they were doing to feed “non-movement” people. These prejudices against the homeless showed a remarkable lack of consciousness.

Tourists not permitted