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Three Books, Two Tales

Occupy Gets Booked

by RON JACOBS

Occupy!Scenes From Occupied America is a well-conceived and  attractive book about the first weeks of the Occupy Wall Street movement that was recently published by the Left imprint Verso Books.  It reads like a journal, except the entries are not from just one writer, but a collection of several.  They range from the well-known like prison activist and Black Panther Angela Davis to a young activist named Manissa Mahawaral.  Edited by a small group of occupiers and the editors of the journals n+1, Dissent, Triple Canopy and The New Inquiry, this text primarily covers the scene at the Zurcotti Park encampment in Lower Manhattan where the Occupy Wall Street movement more or less began.  Part diary and part reflection, some of its most compelling moments come when the younger occupiers write about various realizations they have during the course of the occupation.

My favorite anecdote of this type is from an activist involved in the Occupy movement in Oakland, CA.  When she first began participating, she found the dislike of the police from certain members of the camp to be disturbing.  After all, they too were part of the so-called 99%.  However, after a few days in the camp and the violent police attacks on the Oakland camp and protests following the first raid on Oscar Grant Plaza, her understanding of law enforcement’s role in protecting the wealthy and powerful changed dramatically.  “I am ashamed,”  she writes.  “I was so naive about the cops in Oakland, but even more than this I am furious…that the police are allowed to brutalize people….”  It is moments like this where the Occupy movement becomes transcendent and more than the collection of individuals, groups and and encampments that it is.  Interspersed throughout the book are a number of drawings and collages that are not only visually appealing but also clever statements about the essential issues involved.

The book is not just a collection observations from the frontlines.  Also included are analyses of the economic reasons behind the movement from Left Business Observer editor Doug Henwood and a fascinating discussion of the history of the space where Occupy Atlanta was situated.  This latter piece is also one of several pieces that discusses the role of people of color in the movement.

As one of the first of many books about the Occupy movement to be published,  Occupy! Scenes From Occupied America sets a high standard.  One hopes it is read by many, especially among those that couldn’t or didn’t make it to an Occupy camp before the State’s onslaught on them.  This movement should not die.

Hot on the heels of the aforementioned book come OR Books addition.  Titled Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action That Changed America, this work covers similar ground to  Occupy! Scenes From Occupied America.  What it lacks in graphics, it makes up for in content.  Written in a continuous narrative broken into chapters, Occupying Wall Street differs from the collection of vignettes contained in the Verso Books text, while also maintaining a more or less chronological telling of the original Zurcotti Park encampment from its beginning to its eventual destruction by the police on November 15, 2011.  In addition, Occupying Wall Street spends more time placing the Occupy movement in the context of the international wave of protest that has swept from Greece to Britain to Tunisia and Egypt to the United States and a multitude of other localities around the globe.

Written by a larger collective of writers who modestly call themselves Writers for the 99%, the OR Books text functions as a description of life at Zurcotti Park and within the Occupy movement over the period noted above.  If Occupy! Scenes From Occupied America is a journal of the Occupy Wall Street movement, than Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action That Changed America is the literary equivalent of a wonderfully written diary.  These two books are not exclusive to each other.  in fact they are companion volumes that read together provide an engrossing and well-told description of one of the most hopeful protest movements to erupt in the capitalist world in decades.

The Young Lords Rise From the Pages

Speaking of attractive books to arrive recently on my bookshelf, the Haymarket Books reprint of the Young Lords 1971 book Palante: Voices and Photographs of the Young Lords, 1969-1971  certainly deserves a mention.  The Young Lords Party was a revolutionary group of Puerto Rican youth that organized primarily among the young and working-class residents of New York’s Puerto Rican barrios during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Borrowing some of their style from the ideologically similar Black Panthers, this group was a dominant force in barrio politics during much of their existence.  Their straightforward approach to solving some of the economic and political inequities in the barrio attracted  thousands of supporters in the barrio and hundreds of powerful enemies in Christie Mansion and other edifices of power in New York.  When I attended briefly attended Fordham University in the Bronx from Fall 1972 through Spring 1974 one of my smoking buddies was an active member of the group.  His knowledge of Marxist theory was impressive as was his commitment to the struggle in the barrio.  Needless to say, he and I had many intense discussions that taught me as no book possibly could the colonial situation of the Puerto Rican people and helped me unlearn years of misinformation about that island nation.

Palante is a history, explanation and discussion of the Young Lords Party from the perspective of its members in 1971.  There is no bourgeois nationalism repeated in these pages.  Instead, in the best tradition of other revolutionary nationalism, Palante argues that cultural and social freedom for the Puerto Rican nation is inseparable from economic freedom and a socialist revolution.  For those uncertain of the difference, let me quote writer Earl Ofari from a 1969 article he wrote about the two phenomena as they relate to the black people of the United States :

“Revolutionary nationalists, unlike cultural nationalists, recognize that it is impossible to resolve the problems of black people under the structure of American Capitalism. This has led Huey Newton to correctly point out that one who adheres to the philosophy of revolutionary nationalism must of necessity be a socialist. For revolutionary nationalists, by and large, take the position that in order to oppose capitalism it is mandatory that one adopt an outlook of international working class solidarity with particular emphasis on the struggles of Third World people against Imperialism.”

The Young Lords believed the same analysis applied to the situation of the Puerto Ricans.

Looking at it today, the most striking aspect of this book is not the audacious (by today’s standards) writings calling for a revolution in the United States and an independent Puerto Rico.  It is the collection of photographs.  Difficult to pry one’s eyes away from, the photos herein rank up there with the best photojournalism has to offer.  The struggles of the young revolutionaries and the people they worked with are evident in the faces on these pages and the places and actions set down in a darkroom forty years ago.  The pride of a people realizing its power and the anger of that people realizing why and who has wronged it radiates from the stark black and white images that fill the last half of this beautiful work.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.