Strike is a verb! (part 2)

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

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

Part 2: Enacting The Commune
It’s very interesting this idea of the experimentation on staying together in a certain place, a public space, a privately owned public space (therefore a space in which the conflict between private and public is all time in tension), without knowing until when, and the statement that “the distribution of food, clothes, and other supplies, decision making, self-organization, etc.” is itself a “prefigurative politics, an enacting of the commune to be created in a revolutionary process,” as you say. What happened to this process? What did it really prefigure?

The occupied camps and parks, whether publicly or privately owned, were evicted all over the country, and in many cases they were brutally repressed by the police. It was a coordinated national campaign among the mayors in the different cities with larger occupations, and most were evicted around the same time in mid-November (New York’s eviction was the early morning of November 14th). Some new city ordinances were passed or enacted to provide a legal justification to prevent any of the occupations from reappearing, and in the meantime the police were experimenting with new tactics in dealing with these occupations, and the protests in general. In some cases parts of the movement tried to move from the park occupations into empty or vacant buildings, or other spaces that were generally in disuse. These were also evicted by the police and private owners. As the occupations were the foundation and defining point of the movement, where most of the energy, excitement, and inspiration came from, once they were evicted, most of the other forms of organization based on them slowly dwindled away.

Analyses were disseminated in the widely-distributed Occupied Wall Street Journal

This speaks to some of the external conditions which prevented these processes from expanding, or even continuing. Internally, at least in New York, there was a lack of experience, organizational capacity, and militant perspective, which we think led to missed opportunities in critical moments which could have expanded or escalated the struggles taking place. There were some tendencies at the time, which ended up being dominant, whose focus was on maintaining Zuccotti Park and its general assembly as the center of the movement—not just in New York, but also nationally—rather than expanding into other outdoor occupations around the city, or into buildings. As momentum and numbers were growing committed support for these tactics would have been critical in decentralizing and diversifying both the character and territories of the occupation movement in New York. Had there been serious attention given in October or November to expanding outdoor or indoor occupations in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or Harlem, who knows what could have happened, or what potential was there. Instead, people from the outer boroughs, where all of the poorer or working people in New York live, including ourselves, were expected to come to the Financial District, or Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, in order to “join” the movement—often represented by white college graduates in their twenties and thirties who had been in New York just a short time—rather than being encouraged or supported to fight where they were at, where they know. This was a misreading of New York’s history and tradition of struggle, which has been most militant when it was based in the neighborhoods where people lived, and also a tactical failure because lower Manhattan is where the police are most concentrated and strong.

Of course more could be said about other shortcomings in the variants of the activist, anarchist, democratist, idealist, leftist, movementist, pacifist, reformist, statist, and workerist analyses which informed the mistakes we all made last year. The point is they were made, that we should take some of the blame and be self-critical, and to learn from these experiences in order to be better prepared and better organized in the future. We raised many of these issues at the time last year, but remained a kind of minority tendency, unable to really influence the situation in the ways we hoped, or to actively intervene in ways which garnered wider support for what we wanted to see.

What was prefigured was the possibility of the commune. And the demonstration and lived experience of the necessity, and reality, that the commune will have to be fought for.

Aren’t you in these last words of yours—reproducing a rhetoric of ‘failure and success’, something OWS seemed not to fit in, as it didn’t have demands? Is this OWS “prefiguration” waiting for something to come (as the prefix ‘pre’ seems to gesture towards)? Is it really a prefiguration?

As an experience and a movement, OWS deserves to be critically evaluated. There is already a huge market of leftist literature, often somewhat romanticizing and idealizing, that focuses on those aspects of OWS that we can all appreciate—the self-organization, horizontality and distrust of leaders and political parties (many currently-disillusioned OWS participants had undoubtedly voted with enthusiasm for Obama in 2008), the vaguely anti-capitalist character of some of the slogans that appeared on the cardboard placards at Zuccotti, the reclaiming of public space, the courage shown in taking the streets in defiance of the NYPD, the making-public and visible of solidarity and “reproductive” and caring activities, etc. Some of these ideas and practices (e.g., horizontal assemblies with “consensus process” and hand signals, “occupying” space) were directly borrowed from the anti-globalization movement of 1999-2001, or the student movement that emerged in New York and California in late 2008-2009. What distinguishes OWS is the context of deep economic crisis (including the de-classing of much of the US’ middle strata), and its vastly more confused and complex nature.

Now that the movement is definitively over and survives only in some fragments such as the anti-debt group Strike Debt, hurricane relief activities under the banner Occupy Sandy, and small neighborhood assemblies, it behooves us to examine in what respects OWS resembled a radically anti-capitalist commune, in what respects it did not, and why OWS and the Occupy movement more generally were ultimately not able to survive, grow, or have more effects than they did. Unquestionably the majority of participants did not have in mind the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order, but even the most modest of reformist, social democratic wishes that were implied or explicitly stated by OWS participants, such as the prosecution of Wall Street CEOs for flagrant crimes, a solution to the housing and foreclosure crisis, relief for the heavily indebted, a jobs and economic stimulus package, a serious regulation of investment banks, etc., were steadfastly ignored by the US political elite and came to nothing.

Radicals plant their flag

Of course the language of success and failure can seem crudely instrumental, and it is always difficult to evaluate and predict the effects (above all the “subjective” effects) of a given social movement. But it seems impossible to maintain that the Zuccotti encampment and related activities were perfectly self-enclosed and sufficient unto themselves, and that they did not point in certain (contradictory and confused!) directions. The Occupy movement contained certain potentials that remained unrealized for various reasons. No formal list of demands was issued by the OWS general assembly, but we can be certain that a multitude of desires were experienced and expressed at the encampment and various protests, desires that remain and that may provide the material for future interruptions of capitalist normality.

Can you explain to us a little bit more about the demographics of OWS in Zuccotti, compared with the demographics of Union Square’s occupation later in March-May 2012?

OWS was always an extremely heterogeneous beast, containing many strange bedfellows. Supporters of conservative free-market libertarian Ron Paul who wish to “End the Fed” (the Federal Reserve bank) protested alongside communists; ex-soldiers with pacifists; social democrats with anarchists. Partly this was enabled by rhetoric borrowed from “Democracia Real Ya!” in Spain, where some of the organizers of the anti-austerity occupation in Madrid had pretensions of including people from the political left and right, or even discarding the distinction completely. There are also few social groups with any love for Wall Street banks—the only explicit target of the protest—so almost anyone could participate on the basis of anti-bank disgruntlement. The idea of not making demands was a dominant one, but—rather than an uncompromising stance that refuses to negotiate with the oppressor, preferring instead expropriation and direct action (much less a nihilistic will to destroy the existent)—many participants interpreted this to mean that OWS was a broad, populist umbrella (the 99%!) that excluded no one by having no defined program. While utopian, and also undeniable that the call and tactic drew some of the initial numbers, it’s debatable whether the contradictions which came from this motley crew facilitated or inhibited more meaningful political organizing and action as time went on.

The Federal Reserve drew much ire

The level of political culture and critical analysis in the US is generally low, and participants in OWS were often young, shocked into protest by their relatively recent experience of the effects of the economic recession. So we can say that most participants were newly politicized, unencumbered by any definite political identity or ideology, but also therefore susceptible to naïveté, mythologizing, mystification, with vulgar understandings of some of the political and economic processes and legacies which got them in this position (and here we might also include ourselves, to be clear). Some felt they were part of something radically new and ineffable that transcended all that came before, others relied on pop culture simplifications of the civil rights or counter-culture movements of the mythical ’60s for their ideas about the meaning of protest or revolution.

Populism was often the default position of protesters

OWS was, from start to finish, a complex, contradictory phenomenon, and we can only make a few crude generalizations about its composition. First, that its participants were mostly young and middle-class, experiencing economic hardship and dim future prospects for the first time, possibly carrying a heavy load of consumer debt, and angry about the injustice of the bank bailouts and economic inequality. Few had more than a vague politics. The inexperience of many participants led to much creativity and experimentation, but also a tendency to fetishize those creations (the “people’s mic,” the general assembly, hand signals, the slogan of the 99%, etc.) and overestimate their significance. OWS unquestionably exceeded the boundaries of ordinary protest for New York City and the US, and surprised everyone in doing so, but this sometimes led to unjustifiable expectations and an unwillingness to see the scope and seriousness of the struggle.

Much has been said about the whiteness of OWS, and given the racial composition of New York City this certainly is remarkable. Participation was diverse, but definitely white-dominated. The location in the Financial District and the middle-class character of the average participant and their concerns probably weighed heavily here. If we want to speculate further, the heavy police presence and the friendly attitude of many towards the NYPD, who were often bizarrely viewed as a potential ally at least in the early days, may have been factors. It is probably also a problem of languages, codes and styles that alienate, and of mutual mistrust and suspicion. New York is a heavily segregated, racialized and racist city. People of color, if we wish to employ a reductionistic category, currently tend to mobilize behind established labor, immigrant or community groups, or Marxist-Leninist organizations. Protest marches over the executions of Troy Davis in Georgia and Trayvon Martin in Florida provided an opportunity for OWS protesters to join with more racially diverse crowds, but these were brief moments and the march for Martin occurred in February 2012, long after Zuccotti had been evicted.

 At least one bank-hating cop, retired from the Philadelphia force, joined OWS

Like most other social categories, women (and, to a lesser extent, queers) carved out a niche in OWS and had spaces and working groups dedicated to their diverse and contradictory concerns, but for the most part their identity as women was not highlighted, and the degree of women’s participation was a subject of constant concern. Sleeping overnight at Zuccotti was not always a very safe proposition and this undoubtedly had an effect on the number of women campers.

Queers make their presence felt

The campers themselves represented a special demographic within OWS, the ones who felt most committed, who had perhaps traveled there from another city, or had no other home or employment. Within the park, a rough division famously developed between the uphill, eastern side, composed of more clean-cut activists, and the downhill, raucous, “lumpen” west side with its uncontrollable drum circle. Our impression, although we could be wrong, is that the small, precarious Union Square “occupation” in the spring of 2012 was mainly composed of these downhill, dedicated but very marginalized types—the so-called “traveler kids” and crust punks, the homeless, those with mental health issues, etc.

Some of us were really inspired by the notion of occupying Union Square, especially as a the lead-up to the May Day General Strike. Union Square is a central, popular, location in New York City, connecting the west side and east side, uptown and downtown, Manhattan and Brooklyn, so there is tons of circulation of people that actually live and work in New York, across all class and race lines (so-called). Also, many of those who hung around the park tended to be the kind of rejects and subversives we liked being around: breakdancers, the unemployed playing chess at 3am, kids cutting school, weirdos trying to flirt with each other, queer youth from around the city coming to hang out, skateboarders, punk rockers from the suburbs, people doing bike tricks, others drinking and smoking pot (both illegal outdoors in New York), geeks on blind dates from the internet, organic foodies, juggalos and juggalettes, whatever. This was all totally different than who was otherwise around Zuccotti Park in the Financial District, a social and cultural wasteland that no one would ever go to unless to protest, or work for, the banks. In some ways the explicit antagonism of being in the Financial District helped clarify positions, but it also allowed the occupation and many of its marches to be almost entirely cut off and removed from people living in New York. In that sense, a Union Square occupation seemed to have more in common with Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya, where it seemed the tactic was to occupy the central square of the city as a social rupture, not just an act of political protest. Ultimately, the occupiers of Union Square tried to maintain the spirit of Zuccotti but had been abandoned by the thousands of people who had participated in that encampment in one form or another. Lacking the numbers from the fall, the police had an easier time clearing the park, in the process evicting everyone listed above from using it, the first time in history Union Square had been entirely shut down.