The vague call for #OccupyWallStreet almost immediately — and thankfully — spun away from the hip cynics at Adbusters. Rather than keeping to the parameters of purely symbolic and temporary protest, Occupiers in NYC began to take cues from Oaxaca, Brazil, Madison, the Arab Spring, the Spanish and Greek indignados, and the campus occupations of 2009, reclaiming public space and property for extended periods, often in defiance of elected officials, the police, and mainstream media.
I was present at the second of three pre-occupy meetings for setting up #OccupyOakland, where the organizers set a tone for what would follow, much of it pleasantly surprising to this old and mostly jaded critic. The meeting started on time! And while there was the usual left-activist attempt to make certain that everything remained “peaceful” during the takeover of public space and for as long as that space could be maintained as an occupation, a rather insignificant number of people there were interested in making any such proclamations. Unexpected. Also unexpected was that at the first meeting — and in sharp contrast to most other #Occupies I knew about — the #OO organizers had decided to refuse negotiations with the police or the city administration, and would not allow politicians (at least the professional, electable sort) to participate; along with No Asking Permission, the stance of No Demands was to be honored. It looked like the predominant organizing principles were to be anarchist.
However, there seemed to be a bashful — and I believe inaccurate — assumption that anarchists and other folks who appreciate horizontal organizational and decision-making tools are still in the minority among social change activists. This is the only explanation I can come up with for the explicit discouraging of political discussions at the pre-occupation meetings and at the first few General Assemblies at Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza — where and when should political discussions take place then? Enough objections to this suppression made their way through the appropriate facilitators to the point where they could no longer be ignored, and finally political discussion was opened up at the GA; the first were about unwanted sexual advances and interpersonal violence at the Plaza — important topics to be sure, but where were the discussions about the strategic and practical consequences (both for occupiers and the forces of law and order) of reclaiming public space or overturning the legal parameters of private property?
Perhaps the anarchist organizers thought that political conversations should remain strictly on the level of tactics, the better to avoid inevitable conflicts; but these conflicts (philosophical, analytical, practical) won’t magically disappear just because nobody talks about them face to face. So rather than the usual lowest-common-denominator of activist coalitions, there is no common denominator beyond the indiscriminate “We Are the 99%.”
This leaves the door wide open for white liberals who’ve only recently noticed that they actually aren’t entitled to a safety net; Leftists who are desperate for cadre even as they become less and less relevant to people’s real lives; union bureaucrats wanting to rope more people into their hopelessly corrupt rackets; and the usual assortment of progressive pimps for the Democratic Party – all trying to insinuate themselves into positions of behind-the-scenes influence, which has taken place too many times to count. Just to be a camp in front of City Hall filled with disenfranchised and marginalized people was enough for most of the non-professional activists; and even that (with its attendant visible concentration of the many social ills built into a post-industrial capitalist environment — of course quickly identified and exaggerated by mainstream and right-wing commentators) still has a strong political content beyond the banal observations of economic injustice. An associated problem is that this concentration of addiction and mental health challenges, along with a rapid resort to interpersonal violence among non-activists was accompanied by the reflexive activist adoption of the role of unpaid social worker.
I heard Angela Davis extolling the virtues of #OO one evening, trying to colonize what folks were doing by insisting that those sorts of activities had been initiated by the Black Panthers. Pace Professor Davis, most parts of #OO have very little — if anything — in common with the various activities of the patriarchal paramilitarists of her past. At the peak of their influence, the Panthers wouldn’t have been able to mobilize the numbers seen at more than a few #OO events, especially given their explicit attachment to a hierarchical organizational form. In the meantime, the largest protests and gatherings are organized horizontally, a testament to the broader influence of anti-authoritarian ideas.
Shutting down parts of the Port of Oakland on November 2 and December 12, where thousands of people mingled in the streets (in the notable absence of the cops), created an intoxicating and contagious atmosphere that had much more to do with the festive environments of Burning Man and Oakland’s Art Murmur. Sharing food, clothing, first aid, and child-minding; sharing skills and exchanging ideas; making posters and banners; starting conversations with complete strangers (my favorite overheard statement: “I never thought I’d see anything like this”)… all of that happened within a context of tentative and, yes, stumbling attempts at creating some kind of authentic (albeit temporary) community, one unmediated by commerce and other relations of institutionalized domination. For a few days, a few weeks, people were acting free. By being free. There were problems from the beginning to be sure — one wag commented that it was like a cross between a Rainbow Gathering and jail — but exercising freedom after a lifetime of exploitation and hierarchy is not easy or necessarily pretty (cf. Orwell on revolutionary Barcelona).
When Occupiers come out of hibernation (certainly before this issue is back from the printer), I’d like to participate in a rejuvenated momentum of reclaiming more than just public space, valuable as that is for showcasing various symptoms of capitalism in crisis. Setting up camps in plazas and parks means that most #Occupies kettled themselves; people serious about opposing the ruling class and their mercenaries need to think more strategically, and shouldn’t give the cops and politicians any voluntary assistance. Taking over buildings and other defensible spaces is definitely on the agenda.
I’d like to see more anarchists come out as anarchists (the “Demystifying Anarchism” flyer was a good beginning) to explain why we use horizontal forms of organizing and decision making, if only to help to counter the machinations of bureaucrats and identity politicians. Hierarchs don’t like being forced to use those forms, and will do anything they can to bypass them whenever possible, using any number of excuses.
I still don’t know what #OO means in terms of lasting anti-capitalist and anti-statist projects, but I know that anarchist-influenced tools and methods have made reluctant and/or accidental radicals out of many. Despite not being shy about pointing out what I consider to be significant shortcomings, most of the observations I’ve been sharing with my friends since early October are notable for their unselfconsciously optimistic tone. There were many moments during my time at the Plaza and at the shutdowns when I was overcome with joy, knowing that I was part of something important; some of those moments brought tears to my eyes. Who could have imagined?