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Occupy, Year 2 Begins
A mid-September sunny day in New York City draws those with the day off to go to the parks and laze along the avenues, walking by the workers on call, cleaning up after tourists, holding together a city that always seems held together by the sweat of its massive workforce and a dose of city pride. Beneath the massive Washington Arch, a woman in a wheelchair, beside other men and women in wheelchairs and other prosthetic devices, holds a sign that says, “Occupy Wheelchairs.” The Occupy Wall Street Disability Caucus is holding an assembly to proclaim its presence at Occupy, Year 2.
Behind their wheelchairs, on the Arch, is a sculpture of Wisdom (made by Stirling Calder, the father of Alexander Calder), whose hand holds a book with Ovid’s quip, Exitus Acta Probat, which can be loosely translated as “all’s well that ends well.” It is a good hopeful slogan for the Occupy festival in anticipation of S17 (September 17), the day OWS returns to the canyons of Wall Street to shut down Money.
A man tells his three-year-old child, “let’s go occupy the playground.” It is the spirit of the moment.
The Occupy Catholics have a homemade sign: “We aren’t protesting. We’re advertising Love.”
A man in a police uniform holds a sign, “To understand us watch Inside Job. A film about Corporate Greed, not 9-11.”
The Goths are by the fountain, posing for photographers, intense.
At the other end of the Park, three young OWS veterans are training the crowd for S17. Lock your arms, sit down. Here are the National Lawyer’s Guild observers. Here are the bystanders. Here are the standard bearers, carrying large flags, one, black, says Occupy, another white, says 99% Occupy. I am reminded of the anti-NATO demonstration, where the Occupy detachment had the best chant, “Shit’s Fucked Up, Shit’s Fucked Up and Bullshit.” That seems to be the sentiment here as well.
Angela has come down from Boston. She’s a dancer. Melissa is from Toronto (Canada). She works as a teacher for special needs children. Trevor is from Montreal, and makes his life as a musician and a writer. Tyrone is from Newark, and he’s a singer. Kevin is from New York, and he’s a carpenter. They smile a fair amount. Their societies seem to have passed them by. I can’t see any of them in Corporate Blue, or see how they would be able to cover up the piercings and the tattoos in Money’s suffocating workplaces. Occupy is not just a protest movement for them. It is also a space to break out of the lonely seriality of everyday life in the North and seek novel forms of community. Angela is frustrated by “everything that is wrong with the world.” She wants “real relationships between people, positive relationships.”
Not far from the wheelchairs is a row of four old typewriters. Ben, who had been active in Occupy Charlotte, is typing on one of them. He is excited to be here, in the midst of the color and chaos. The antique machines are courtesy of the Direct Action Flâneurs, whose typewriters and yellow paper allow people to tell their own stories. Ben is excited for the renewal of OWS, but he knows that it did not go away: it went into other struggles, “branched out” into anti-eviction fights, he says as an example. Where will OWS go, I ask? “It is hard to predict these things,” says Ben.
If I had asked Ben, he’d have shown me what he was typing. The Park is a place of sharing. All around me is paper. As OWS does, it also thinks, it also documents. The fifth issue of Occupy! can be picked up from a table. It is from n + 1, who participated with Verso Books and others to create the 2011 collection Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America. In #5 of Occupy!, Astra Taylor, one of the editors of the Verso collection writes, “Occupy has stripped me of the self-righteousness and surety that comes with being a spectator. The comforting certainty of staying on the sidelines is gone.” From afar, Occupy obviously seems to be fated to failed, or is simply a waste of time. Up close, Occupy is a group of ordinary people “fed up enough to take the risk of trying to bring about something new.” As she notes, “Something is infinitely more than nothing.”
As the second anniversary neared, I went back and read as much as I could on Occupy, Year 1. There’s the Verso book (Occupy!), there’s Amy Schrager Lang and Daniel Lang/Levitsky’s edited volume Dreaming in Public: Building the Occupy Movement (New Internationalist, 2012), and there’s Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy and Mike McGuire’s We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation (AK Press, 2012). “Reality is never a simple thing,” writes Kate Khatib, whose reflection summarizes what most writers indicate, “Our demand? We want everything and nothing. Our perspective? We are all a little bit right, and we are all a little bit wrong. What matters is that we are doing something.” All the paper I have read on Occupy suggests this fact: something is being done, taking over public space to begin with, and then drawing that energy into the fights against eviction and against banks, against this and against that.
In the Year II issue of Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy (September 2012), Jeremy Brecher quotes from Bertolt Brecht’s A German War Primer:
General, your tank is a strong vehicle.
It breaks down a forest and crushes a hundred people.
But it has one fault: it needs a driver.
Our dependence on the 1%, Brecher writes, is contingent on the “cooperation of the 99%.” This is a call for a non-cooperation movement against war and capitalism. The system has failed. Jobs with dignity are not on offer. The writer Junot Diaz captures the essence of our contemporary system of Zombie Capitalism, “In the old days, a zombie was a figure whose life and work had been captured by magical means. Old zombies were expected to work around the clock with no relief. The new zombie cannot expect work of any kind – the new zombie just waits around to die.” The new zombie is sent to war or to prison. Or the new zombie can Occupy, build new solidarity economies, join collectives that experiment with new forms of political and social life, and shout themselves hoarse outside Money’s buildings. As Lemony Snicket put it in the New Internationalist collection, “A story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring of even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.”
At the Museum of Chinese in America, I attend Gathering the Grassroots: The Frontline of Asian American Mobilization. Esther Wang of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities recounts that OWS reminded organizers of the importance of “taking risks, putting out a vision, stretching the imagination.” Those who do the “down and dirty work of building power of our community members” saw the need to “push more imaginative policy changes against mortgage foreclosures and against unethical banking practices.”
Fahd Ahmed of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) agrees, but is also cautious. In preparation for the May 1 (now Immigrant Rights as much as Labor Rights) rally, OWS representatives showed a lack of sensitivity to the undocumented workers who wanted to demonstrate but were not prepared to get arrested (and deported). DRUM members did not trust the OWS crowd. For the first time, they voted not to join the protest march. The intervention of the People of Color Working Group helped shape an important tenet of the OWS Direct Action principles, “respect diversity of tactics, but be aware of how your actions will affect others.” It is there on paper, but not always in the impatience of those whose privilege blinds them to the social location of others. There is work to be done.
Susanne is at the table for Strike Debt. She is a graduate student in American Studies at NYU, and is one of the people involved in the production of The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual (2012), which contains “practical information, resources and insider tips for individuals dealing with the dilemma of indebtedness in the United States today.” Clearly written, and yet dense with information, the manual takes you through the mysterious work of credit scores and fringe finance, provides a roundup of the kinds of debt (credit card, medical, student, housing, municipal) and offers specific suggestions for defaults and bankruptcy. The manual oscillates between offering tips for individuals who are underwater (there is a superb set of sample letters for procedural requests and to sue credit agencies) and offering suggestions to break out of the shame of debt and into the pride of a social movement (You are Not Alone/ You are Not a Loan).
Student debt is now over $1 trillion, just above credit card debt. No longer is the credit card a convenience for purchases. It is now the “plastic safety net.” A 2012 study by Demos shows that 40 percent of households used their credit cards to pay for basic living expenses (including food and rent, medical care and insurance). As Demos’ Amy Traub put it, “Americans are using credit cards to make up for the inadequacy of the public safety net, and to give themselves a raise at a time when unemployment remains high and real wages are in decline.” This is, as Strike Debt puts it, “history in reverse.”
The Manual ends with a litany of ways to deepen the resistance. Strike Debt has a campaign called Rolling Jubilee, a mutual-aid project that buys debt at steeply discounted prices and then abolishes it (to get involved, write to firstname.lastname@example.org). It has plans to create a Debtors’ Union, to remove debt from an individual-bank relationship to a much more equal debtors-bank relationship. To Wall Street and its minions, Strike Debt says, “We owe you nothing.”
This is the kind of boldness that emanates from Washington Square Park. And it comes with a big smile.
Vijay Prashad covered OWS for CounterPunch last year. He is the author of the lead essay in the AK volume (“The Concerns Everyone”) and is the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK) and Uncle Swami (New Press).