Category Archives: Occupy

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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Occupy Theory

Nicholas Mirzoeff

“Mic check!”

General assembly, sparkly hands, consensus, concern, temperature check, block, process: this is the vocabulary and embodied performance of occupy theory. Each word has an equivalent embodied gesture, which is the means of indicating how you’re feeling about a proposal: fingers up for feeling good, horizontal for not sure, down for against.

The strongest sign is raised, crossed arms for a block: an ethical or safety concern over a proposal that might cause you to leave the movement. Proposals are “consens-ed” by facilitators so that a clear majority approve. It’s not always quick but it is always interesting. It’s occupy theory.

Don’t make the phrase into a noun: it’s not a theory of occupation. Occupy theory is what you do as you occupy. It is the process that has become in some sense the purpose of the direct democracy movement, known by its signature instance Occupy Wall Street, or #ows.

There have been a variety of star theory people come to Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street is based, and to Occupy Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village from Zizek to Spivak and Andrew Ross. Given the performative nature of occupy theory, it’s not surprising that—to judge from the Twitterstorm and Facebook frenzy—it has been Judith Butler who best captured the moment. She presented a set of demands for the impossible, echoing the Situationist slogan “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Seen in printed form in which the line breaks represent a pause for the “human mic” that has become a signature of the movement, Butler’s talk is a prose poem.

So what is this occupy in occupy theory? While occupation of public and private spaces is a long tradition of industrial protest movements, there have been concerns from indigenous and Palestinian groups about the term “occupy.” In New Mexico, they have neatly re-rendered the term as “(Un)occupy.” So somewhere between occupy and un-occupy—or more exactly oscillating between them—is occupy theory. It’s the latest version of what I have called the “right to look” which is at once the invention of the other and the consent for the other to invent you.

The first claim of the right to look is the right to existence, the right to be seen to exist. The people posting on “We Are the Ninety-Nine Per Cent” a collaborative blog, have used the webcam format to have their stories told and made visible. These assembled self-portraits together present a set of claims. The individual self-photograph transforms a data point within the statistics of debt, unemployment and insurance disaster into a person. This person is not performed for the sake of pity or charity but as a constituent member of the emerging “people.”  As Rancière has put it, “a `people` of this kind is not an assemblage of groups and social identities. It is a polemical form of identification that is drawn along particular lines of fracture, where the distribution of leaders and led, learned and ignorant, possessors and dispossessed is decided.” That is to say—we are the ninety-nine per cent.

Nor is the performative expressed “Occupy Wall Street” quite as simple as it seems. The occupation is not on Wall Street but round the corner at Zuccotti Park. Named for the director of Canadian conglomerate Brookfield—the company hoping to bring tar sands oil to the U.S.—Zuccotti is occupied because it is a private-public park, a zoning variance that has the requirement of permanent public access to a generic piece of urban landscape in exchange for extra height to a building or other such one per cent goodies. Much as New York City Mayor Bloomberg is itching to expel the occupiers—and he may yet succeed in finding a way—he has no legal recourse at present. Washington Square Park, as city property, is always closed between midnight and six a.m. so the occupation there cannot be permanent. Occupying is being done in the variant space between the security-regulated public commons and the deregulated zones of the neoliberal private market.

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Bernardine Dohrn on Occupying Wall Street

Occupying Wall Street

Bernardine Dohrn

Up from the musty subways, two blocks down Broadway, the controlled chaos of Occupy Wall Street leaps into view, part happening (musicians drumming, piles of clothing, an efficient and tasty food service, a library, the medical unit) part street fair (homemade postering, people browsing, the brilliant Beehive Collective art posters, bustling tables of conversation) and part BugHouse Square/Union Square (debates, engaging passers-by, speakers, daily democratic meetings).  Liberty Plaza, formerly Zuccotti Park, is long (going East/West) and narrow (up and downtown).

Occupy Wall Street is entering its 4th week.  It’s fresh, a break, visceral bolts of lightning.  Pointing fingers at the fat cats, it challenges the gouging 1%.  It unites the 99.  It (so far) has no program, no demands.  It occupies the park at the foot of the stone and glass citadels.  Located just two blocks East of the World Trade Center abyss, and blocks West from the Tombs (the massive gulag that cages the poor and people of color, Occupy Wall Street is multiplying, replicable.  The titans roost high above all of our cities.  This occupation is decentralizing itself.  Sparked by the young who have no jobs, but have crushing student loans that will keep them indebted to the banks and banking universities for decades (Cancel the Debt!), witnessing their parents’ homes foreclosed, they see the gross financial/corporate money grab for what it is and in contrast, they illuminate another way of being.

Two inventions are stunning to experience: the General Assembly, the daily horizontal, consensus-seeking, rebellious, anarchist meeting; and the peoples’ microphone.  Since the police prohibit amplification, the occupying forces invented a living mike, repeating every 6-8 words from the speaker.  When Naomi Klein spoke, she kept turning on the stage as in a theatre in the round, and as the crowd swelled, she had to wait until 3 echoes of her thought were repeated out from the center before continuing.  It was funny and hard to catch the rhythm but it also involved all of us in restating her words, making them our own, amplifying out.  We were all both speaking and listening, and the exuberance is contagious.

I approach two women holding Grannies for Peace signs, but all is not juicy here.  I’m a granny for peace, I begin, looking for somewhere to join in.  A torrent of complains flow forth: “This is just a Be-In!” (I remember my first Be-In at the lakefront in Chicago, 1966, I liked it.)  “No politics!  No demands.”  They aren’t wrong, but not right, missing the flame.  I move on.

OWS is the inheritor of the 1999 Seattle challenges to the World Trade Organization.  It openly acknowledges the inspiration of Tunisia, Egypt, Wisconsin and Greece.  Flanked by (some) important union support, multiracial (to some extent), revolted by endless US invasions abroad and national security wars against immigrants and the poor at home, and zealously passionate about climate change and protecting the earth, OWS is nurturing a beginning, a seed, a spark.

The police presence is massive, ominous and ugly, despite the extended and firm non-violent civil disobedience stance of the occupiers.  Wall Street itself is blocked off by police barricades, making visible what is implicit.  OWS says in response, “Occupy Public Space” and “Generate Solutions Accessible to Everyone,” living differently so everyone can live.   Join us.  Quickly.

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