Monthly Archives: November 2011

Occupy Time

Jason Adams
Williams College

“Time and I, against any two” – Baltasar Gracián

[Author’s Note: this piece was composed while Occupy Oakland, Portland, Denver, and other cities were under attack, prior to the eviction of the epicenter, NYC’s Zuccotti Park. The events of the past weekend, it would seem, render the already developing shift from space to time necessary, as well as inevitable.]

Until recently, a casual observer might have thought that Occupy had developed a time management problem, that it was increasingly managed by a static image of space. While it initially began with the declaration that September 17th would be the starting date and that it would continue for an unspecified period, the focus soon shifted to a general strategy of occupying public space. While this produced many victories, a certain ossification also emerged. What should have been one tactic amongst others began to harden into an increasingly homogenous strategy. For many of those involved, maintaining this spatial focus became the sine qua non of the movement, even in the face, for instance, of the changing of the seasons and ongoing police evictions. In nearly every history-altering moment of the past however, from the Paris Commune to the antiglobalization movement, it was the element of time that proved most decisive. There is a reason, for instance, that the clock towers were the first target chosen by the French communards. Occupy is no exception: as the Jesuit thinker Baltasar Gracián held, beyond all other considerations, it is time rather than space that best positions one to win. Indeed, even those events of the past that are currently narrated as failures can always be renarrated as successes, in that they have left behind possible successes that remain to be actualized. The recently viral image of police surrounding the 2012 Olympic Countdown Clock in London is evidence enough that the primacy of time is well understood in some quarters.

Rather than maintaining this spatial strategy at all costs, what is most interesting about Occupy now is that it is increasingly complicating static images of space: it is, in short, occupying time. This has meant a shift to a more fluid, tactical approach, one not only appropriate to the specifics of constantly changing situations deployed from above, but one that more importantly, allows it to bring forth new ones, from below. Indeed, the initial introduction of an open duration for the Occupy events already oriented the subsequent events primarily towards the temporal and the tactical rather than the spatial and strategic. This was truly its greatest strength and is the major reason the spatial strategy did as well as it did. While Ken Knabb and others have linked Occupy to the Situationists’ promotion of factory and university occupations during the French Events of May 1968, what was most central for the latter was once again not space but time. What they called for and what Occupy is increasing calling for was the “creation of situations.” Already this approach has made it impossible for the actions to be declared a failure once and for all, since it was the temporal focus that enabled the creation of hundreds of new “situations” nationwide and worldwide.

For instance, when one occupation was evicted by police, more often than not, several more have simply appeared elsewhere. Or, if laws governing public parks were cited as an excuse, existing occupations simply moved to private rather than public space, such as abandoned buildings or foreclosed homes. As one online commenter put it, while Rome wasn’t built in a day, it wasn’t dismantled in a day either. The tactical innovation the open timeframe enabled also allowed the coordinates of each situation to be produced by the enactors themselves, on their own, distinct terms. Thus, while the originally spatially-oriented events in lower Manhattan gave birth to Occupy Wall Street, it was the temporal structure that enabled the emergence of Occupy the Hood in Queens several weeks later. Had it simply been billed as a conventional one-day protest confined to a single space, the few hundred who initially showed up in the streets near the New York Stock Exchange would not have even registered in the media, let alone countless peoples’ affective attachments, as is now the case.

Perhaps then, if transforming the collective situation remains the primary concern, some consideration of the space/time as well as strategy/tactics relationships is in order. For instance, consider the temporal quality of the moment in which Occupy has emerged. Today, the experience of time has become greatly accelerated, much more so than just one decade ago. Whether or not one has access to the social media sites or smartphones that are increasingly turning the old, spatially-defined continents into new, temporally-defined telecontinents, trillions of dollars in financial transactions still speed around the globe daily. Beyond the rhetoric of the “digital divide”, this continually creates new realities that everyone is faced with. The most recent example is the economic crisis. It was not only attributable to unsustainable, individually-purchased mortgages, but more importantly, to what brought them to market in the first place: the massively increased pace at which global financial transactions occur. This is one reason, perhaps, that the spatial strategy is evolving into a temporal tactics. As Karl Marx argued in the Grundrisse, economics is ultimately a matter of time. The less time required to accumulate money in the first place, he held, the more time available to mobilize other forces to produce more of it. Thus ever-increasing speed is a primary basis for the contemporary mode of production. Today it is not time is money but money is time.

While speed is often mobilized from above though, this is not the only form it takes. Accelerated capitalism forces its subjects to spend more and more of their time working, but even this is subverted constantly. For instance, on-the-job chatting, texting and websurfing are all increasingly narrated as in need of monitoring and management. Indeed, it is often through the very means introduced to control time more thoroughly, that such activities are rendered possible. In Marx’s terms, the means of production are brought into conflict with the relations of production. While today’s accelerated capitalism attempts to intensify accumulation through continuously revamped social communication technologies, with each new innovation it also enables its reversal by movements like Occupy. This is why accelerated capitalism is faced with a “counter-temporality”, the creation of, rather than response to, situations. Paul Virilio has creatively engaged this question with respect to the tactic of the work stoppage. Rather than just occupying space, as he felt was more effective during the feudal era, he argued that in the modern period it was the strike that is most powerful. For him, this was because “it spread to a whole duration. It was less an interruption of space (as with the barricade) than of duration. The strike was a barricade in time.” This is particularly the case with the general strike: such temporal tactics do have a history in the United States, but in the years prior to the Oakland General Strike, the Seattle WTO protests were the closest one of its major cities came to pulling one off in many decades. It is worth considering the relationship of these two latest attempts, because in both cases the tension between space and time were as central as that between strategy and tactics.

While it is well known that the Seattle WTO protestors occupied the downtown space, the first significant event of November 30, 1999 occurred earlier in the day. At that time, thousands of workers and students disrupted the predictable rhythms of transportation, restaurant, stevedoring, and educational industries by walking out, calling in sick, or taking the day off. Time was also key to the eventual success of the later events. The spatial strategy of the Direct Action Network (DAN) had been that all protests downtown would consist of a nonviolent occupation of every street, sidewalk, and greenspace surrounding the Convention Center. Likewise, that of the AFL-CIO was that they would march in a big circle from Memorial Stadium towards the Convention Center and back to the starting point. Crucially though, the union leadership had assured the Seattle Police and the Secret Service that they would specifically not venture into the city’s core, where it was well-known that direct actions would be underway. Finally, the Seattle Police and the Secret Service based their own approach on what they had learned from DAN/AFL-CIO. As a result of this knowledge, their reasoning went, they would simply flush everyone from the downtown actions back into the labor march as they were making the loop back towards the Stadium. In other words, they would link all three strategies such that the already-existing hierarchy of time would not be interrupted and the WTO conference would occur as scheduled.

But that of course, did not happen. The main reason the Seattle WTO protests successfully forced the cancellation of the conference was that this static image of space was overcome both temporally and tactically. At the very moment the AFL-CIO members would have been rounding the corner back to the stadium, thousands of rank-and-file members of the International Warehouse and Longshore Union, Sheetmetal Workers, Steelworkers, and other unions broke off and marched through a line of parade marshals to join the actions downtown. At that same moment, the black bloc, homeless youth, and, as might surprise some Occupiers, many who had proclaimed nonviolence began countering the police assault on the protesters, which had intensified long before any windows were broken. Between these two breaks from the interlinked spatial strategy, a new countertemporality was introduced at the very moment the Seattle Police and Secret Service had intended to mobilize it to their advantage. This is why the two protest groups—around 25,000 mobilized by DAN and about 25,000 mobilized by the AFL-CIO—are not remembered today simply as the 50,000 who were flushed out of the downtown space, like so much refuse. Rather, they are remembered as the 50,000 who shut down the meetings of one of the most powerful arms of global capitalism: “Seattle,” today, requires no further qualifier. While space was occupied temporarily, time was occupied permanently. Continue reading

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The Story of an Eyewitness: Occupy Oakland, 25 October 2011

Tarnel Abbott

At 14th and Broadway, in Oakland, California, looking at the Jack London oak tree around which the police would not allow peaceful protestors to gather, I sat on a bench on the sidewalk and was blinded by tear gas at point-blank range and deafened by a flash grenade. When you are blinded and deafened it is hard to disperse.

I had marched with this spirited crowd of about 1,000 people for several hours. They were mostly (but not all) young, and ethnically diverse. There were a few people with children in the crowd. One kid scampered over someone’s car, but that is the only disorderly act I witnessed. I felt so proud of the peaceful nature of the crowd. I had a sense of joy also; they were full of life, full of determination, full of hope. It was a hope that is born of knowing that the old social order must change, that we can and must move to a better future than what is programmed for us by the 1 % at the top—the 1% who control the money and the power. I was made hopeful because this crowd could articulate so beautifully, so simply, and so powerfully their unwillingness to be disenfranchised. These people are aware that their country, their society has been hijacked by the wealthy, the corporate elite, and the media. I looked at these people around me and felt that we shared a desire for economic justice, freedom, and democracy. If we are unsuccessful, the Iron Heel will come down harder than ever.

Around 8 p.m. the marchers stopped at Broadway and 14th Street. Apparently an order to disperse was being read by the police but could not be heard at the back of the crowd. I went forward with another woman who was trying to find out what was going on. I told the officers that they should be protecting our First Amendment right to peaceful assembly. I saw a young cop pleading with his eyes and nodding in sympathy. Heartbreaking. I asked who was in charge; of course none of them could answer because they had gas masks on.

As I got closer to the front I could hear the order to disperse, which included a threat of bodily harm. I saw a veteran in a Navy uniform with his flag standing with the crowd. I saw confusion, fear. I sensed a bit of panic. No one knew what to do. I walked to the sidewalk and occupied a bench. My sign said “99% R FED UP.” I hadn’t come to be arrested, but at that point I would have been willing to be arrested for defending my right to peaceful assembly.

It is true that Jack London is my ancestor. He is my great-grandfather, but, more importantly, he is a working-class hero and a visionary. I looked at the Jack London oak tree in front of City Hall and felt possessed by the spirit of the great man. I thought of him standing there on his soap box making socialist speeches and getting arrested because he didn’t have a permit. I thought of him writing “Revolution” and Other Essays, The People of the Abyss, and The Iron Heel. I felt that I was witnessing the Iron Heel of fascism being challenged. I knew that I too had to resist it. Something came over me so that I was completely unwilling to be bullied into leaving. I felt like a mother protecting her young. I felt calm, but angry. I remember hearing a countdown, then a man who had jumped up on the bench beside me leaned down and said, “Are you brave enough to stay here?” I answered, “I don’t know.” A woman behind the bench gave my shoulder a squeeze (her name is Anne Weills). I felt the moment of calm before the storm,and I was overcome with being in the moment. Nothing was thrown at the police.

The next I knew, everything changed. There was tear gas spewing from a canister near me, and I felt paralyzed, transfixed by the billowing white stuff. Then a flash of blinding light and the boom/crack of a flash grenade shot into the crowd in front of me, and I was deafened. And still I sat until I was enveloped in the gas and blinded, my eyes and face and throat felt on fire, and the limits of my body made me stumble away, fall to my knees and retch. A shocked young man was yelling, “They shot someone, they shot someone” (Scott Olsen, a Marine veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq had been gravely wounded by a police projectile). I was rescued by Anne Weills, who is a lawyer-legal observer, and a kind young man who helped me get my breathing under control.

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