Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Occupy everywhere, but maybe not the Key Bridge

Shaking from the cold at 3 in the morning on a park bench a few blocks from the White House, warmed only by a paper-thin prison blanket an empathetic passer-by had gifted me, I couldn't help but think: man, am I a bad ass or what?

Well, not really. Mostly I thought about being cold and whether my overwhelmingly witty sign – American Dream = Park Place, American Reality = Park Bench – made it all worth it. And then I thought about how this is what homeless people in the imperial capital go through every night. And how no one cares. And then I was kind of sad.

I had arrived at the Occupy K Street camp in Washington's McPherson Square earlier that Sunday afternoon with high hopes of crafting a slew of strongly worded protest signs and obtaining some much-need winter gear (I usually don't wear shoes in Nicaragua).

Only my aforementioned perceived wit came through. So make signs I did.

“What's that one going to say?” asked a smiling older woman as I worked my magic in the official sign-making tent. One of the decidedly more respectable, bourgeois-looking crowd that shows up on the weekends, she would not have been out of place at your Aunt Judy's Christmas dinner in an anonymous, upper-end suburban development.

“It's going to say, 'Don't Vote for Change (TM), Make Change,'” I replied. Her smile disappeared. A blank stare took its place.

Such is the tension at Occupy DC: Judging by the socialist papers and anarchist symbols I see, there are quite a few radicals on hand at McPherson Square. But there are also quite a few – probably a plurality – who would identify as “progressives,” the sort that see their participation in the movement as a means of countering the Tea Party and building support for the banal, Democrat-friendly reformism embodied by the likes of Elizabeth Warren.

As it happens, the same woman who blank-stared me over my sign had hung about a half-dozen of her own around the fenced in statue at the center of McPherson Square, all of them concern-trolling her fellow – but dirtier – protesters. So-and-so never used the “F-word,” said one. So-and-so called his judge “brother.” Martin Luther King Jr. never referred to the police as “pigs” – the latter one I couldn't help but modify with a sign of my own noting that Fred Hampton, a leader of the Blank Panthers who was assassinated by the police, sure did.

But it is this Respectable Liberal segment of Occupy DC that I believe is more or less running the show, which is no more apparent than in the actions that have received the official endorsement of the DC camp. While I was down with protestingthe Koch brothers and their reactionary brand of faux-free market libertarianism earlier this month, there's no denying they are a liberal bogeyman, a useful distraction for the good, Obama-fearing Democrat from their own party's complicity in the tyranny of the corporate state.

More troubling, though, is Occupy DC's participation in the November 17 day of action organized by labor unions and Democratic front groups like MoveOn.org and Van Jones' Rebuild the Dream. As the SEIU's description of the event, circulated by Occupy DC, makes clear, the call is not for radical change, but for – get ready to groan – passing Obama's jobs bill and standing up to “obstructionists in Congress [who] refuse to create jobs by investing in public workers and infrastructure and refuse to make the richest 1% pay a little more in taxes.”

In DC, the event takes place at the Key Bridge into Georgetown, the very site Barack Obama used to highlight the infrastructure spending aspects of his latest stimulus bill. It's also the same bridge Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pointed to – or rather, one of his staffers – as reason to pass the legislation.

In other words, by engaging in a protest at the Key Bridge, Occupy DC will be helping further an Obama administration talking point, which will not only will give the movement a sickly blue partisan hue, it's on behalf of a substantively questionable proposal.

Now, repairing dangerous bridges is all well and good. But infrastructure spending in general? What's good for the construction worker is not necessarily good for the rest of us. While I sympathize with the out-of-work road builder, I can't bring myself to endorse a boost in infrastructure spending that would undoubtedly mean expanding existing highways and building new ones, further cementing a car culture that has resulted in environmentally and culturally destructive suburban sprawl and the fact that the transportation sector accounts for a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, the action itself will be taking place on the sidewalks of the key bridge, with protesters under strict orders not to obstruct traffic, meaning they will be obstructing pedestrians but not Hummers. Pragmatically, I get that: it's a felony to block traffic on a bridge in DC If you're protesting outside a military base housing drones? Sure, lay down in that road. But if you're protesting for something as lame as more spending on highways, I'd have to agree it's not worth the risk.

But then, neither is the protest itself worth the risk to the Occupy movement.

Unfortunately, those planning the actions don't seem to think so. Like those who facilitate the general assemblies, the action committee is disproportionately white and male compared to the surrounding community rest of the camp at McPherson (full disclosure: I'm white and male too, just observing is all). Based on my initial firsthand impressions, it also leans progressive, not radical, its members seemingly less fearful of co-option than the prospect that others at the camp will not abide by their instructions to not block traffic on the bridge.

By contrast, the criminal justice committee I attended is about 80 percent black and Hispanic and, from what I heard, more interested in direct action against. Specifically, people were discussing protests outside branches of Wells Fargo, which just took over all the Wachovia locations here in DC, highlighting to the local community its role in the mass incarceration of poor minorities by way of its investment in private prison company GEO, of which it is the third largest shareholder.

That sort of protest, I think, could unite all the various Occupy factions while bringing in new members and admiration from the local community. The problem is: the criminal justice committee is not the action committee, through which all “official” Occupy DC events need to go.

But it's a problem that can be fixed. Because of the non-hierarchical structure of the Occupy movement, its domination by the more timid variety of progressive Democrat can be countered. Instead of just complaining about it on the Internet, one can show up at the next action committee hearing and, if something objectionably timid and partisan comes up, try and change some minds – or block it. And radical nuts like me can just walk up and join the action committee and suggests more radical, nutty actions.

I also hope the passage of time will improve things, by which I of course am referring to the process of radicalization. While, like others, I was skeptical of the value of simply creating a living, community space by way of a camp – we ought to be protesting, damn it, not laying around playing drums – after spending some time there I see it as a way of demonstrating that communities can in fact be built on consensus, not coercion.

At McPherson Square, there is free food, basic medical care and an impressively stocked library full of everything from radical literature to Michael Crichton. In the middle of the nation's capital, there is an admittedly flawed but nonetheless functional community not dependent on the use of force that is providing services, to both occupiers and the homeless that were there before, that the city itself refused to adequately provide.

And these sorts of communities have been replicated across the country. How can that not at least open a few minds to the possibility of radical change and, dare I say, the practicality of anarchism?

Yet, despite its overwhelmingly peaceful nature, the Occupy movement from Oakland to Wall Street exists under the perpetual threat of at-a-moment's-notice eviction. If that doesn't show that the system only fears radical challenges to its authority – as opposed to reformist calls embodied by online petitions and confined-to-the-sidewalk protests brought to you by MoveOn.org – I'm not sure what will. And that's why, though I think the movement is currently flawed, I remain hopeful about its future.


  1. Hi, thanks for this post. I share many of your concerns with the gentrification of OccupyDC (I prefer this term because it encapsulates professionalization, bourgeois-ification, whiting up, and the movement away from structural problems to superficial ones). It is particularly interesting that people of color have effectively created their own caucus to pursue these matters. What are the official responsibilities of the Criminal Justice committee?

    There are several possible solutions. One is, as you suggest, pack the action committee with people interested in doing more effective, radical actions. The lack of good actions (ones that provoke some kind of response -- note: this is not a recommendation for ANY kind of action that provokes a response) leaves the occupation flailing and succumbing to internal contradictions. I was there yesterday and it seemed like there was a lot of resentment over sexism or something, but everyone was really vague about it. I noted the signs that you critiqued. Good actions help unite the group around a shared cause and shared struggle. Otherwise the difficulty of homeless people and Vassar grads who work at NGOs camping together will just become more and more apparent.

    The second would be to start more occupations. If OccupyDC can't get its head around the fact that DC is more than just politicians, NGOs, lobbyists and overpriced restaurants, it might realize there is a whole other city with severe problems. OccupyDC has done very very little to engage the DC community. Can you imagine if the occupation did an action in Anacostia or Northeast instead of fucking Georgetown? Stop foreclosures, help a community center, take over a failing school? This would be a more difficult, longer-term project, but it could link up with the existing community activist groups. OccupyDC could decide to help after the fact.

    Third would be to voice these concerns to the GA. I haven't been to one in a couple weeks, so I don't know how the dynamic is. But with some strong comrades, it could really push the issue and maybe sideline some of this silly jobs bill stuff.

  2. Drop me an email or tweet if you're there and we can form a radical caucus. I wanted to raise some concerns at the GA, but it seems they are very process focused, with general concerns relegated to the committees. Of course, if I wasn't the only lone nut we might be able to change that...

  3. I get you about people who participate in bold protests with less that radical views. Today, my university was holding a Recall Walker rally and I signed the petition and then got on the microphone and said we ought to support the occupy demonstrations AND write in Russ Feingold for both Governor and president in 2012 and then some black kid turned and said "Wait, Feingold? I'm supporting Obama!" I was gonna say that I personally thought Obama has been lackluster,but I don't like confrontations and didn't want to sound condescending.

  4. Drop the weak joke about one lone nut. Besides being redundant and lame, you're not a nut and not alone. Anarchy is fine, but it has to be communitarian. (I don't know anything about the sub-versions of anarchy). You make signs that only have a marginal impact, why not speak your mind in a GA? Passing a 90% consensus proposal or action is out of reach of radical ideas, but that's not the only point of putting them to a vote.

    Educate. Radicalize. Inspire. Transform. All that "change one heart at a time" shit. It's how stuff happens.

  5. Mark,

    Instead of telling others what to do, go out and do it yourself. You're having a marginal impact by commenting on the Internet.

  6. I absolutely appreciate this post. Thanks. The first thing that got me was that you support the movement while still holding questions. The second was the great point about investing in infrastructure spending.
    Then I was just into it. Occupy Richmond is the movement near me, so I prefer to stay plugged in via internets to other movements. They just have a battle of egos playing out: against each other, the cops and the city--not the bigger issues.
    Anyways, thanks for THINKING.

  7. jcapan10:02 PM

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  8. The same tension exists here in New York between more radical factions and progressives along with a whole lot of other crap about internal dynamics. Up here, it doesn't always seem like these factions feel any real responsibility to concoct something that the enormous numbers of people who are supporting them can get behind.

    At one point we had two equally dimwitted demands groups. One that wanted an FDR-like New Deal thingy. Another whose list of [something they wouldn't call demands] included 'making New York City the Silicon Alley of Open Source.'

    I think all #Occupys should realize that they are not The Movement. I get a little tired of people thinking this is all happening because some wonderful new method for organizing has been discovered and because today's activists are so much more with it than anything before them.

    I do think the methods are brilliant but without widespread anger and disquiet, they have no funding and no protection from state authority. In economic good times they would have just been a bunch of quickly marginalized cranks, evicted once and done.

    That means it is no more tasked with converting people to anarchism than it is tasked with converting people to liberalism or keeping them welded to the Democratic Party. It is marketing itself as something that aims to find the points of agreement on kleptocracy and agitate accordingly. If it's something else, then it needs to be more transparent about it.

    That's why it's also not really kosher to tut-tut someone for saying what they think a movement should do based on an assumption that they're not already involved. First of all, you don't know whether or not they're physically participating or not. Second, you don't know if they're supporting the movement in some other way - money, protection from police during evictions, participation in marches and actions etc Third, they might have good ideas worthy of investigation by people who, for whatever reasons - free time most often - can more easily put them in play and Fourth, this really is supposed to be about the 99%, which means it really should be open to what people say they want it to do.

    With that in mind, I agree with you completely that #Occupy should not be getting behind any labor actions in support of bills sponsored by the Democrats - not necessarily because they're sponsored by the Democrats - though that's a problem too - but because they make demands of the state that a truly consensus-based movement could not possibly endorse.

    If this is going to remain a wide-net, consensus-based movement, organized labor definitely poses a problem because they are so wedded to the Democratic Party and because they think in terms of the type of pork you describe. Allying with those particular tendencies is a a sure way to alienate any flavor of small-statist or no-statist and, to a lesser extent, left statists who want to see the Democratic Party destroyed. At the same time, organized labor, for reasons that should be obvious is a faction that #Occupy really needs to have on its side as it progresses and becomes more of a threat to the riff-raff. It's quite a problem, I think, but there is a lot of disenchantment in the labor rank and file which could definitely work to #Occupy's benefit

  9. OT,

    A point of clarification: I'm not tut-tutting anyone for offering advice on the assumption that they're not involved; I'm tut-tutting someone trying to offer me advice on the condescending assumption that I'm not already trying to do more than just make signs.

  10. "I'm tut-tutting someone trying to offer me advice on the condescending assumption that I'm not already trying to do more than just make signs."

    Should have been obvious to me. I read you and graze everyone else. Sorry.

    Was condescending and also more like what i was disparaging.

    I ditto your tut-tut.


  11. Dude, no worries. Just don't insult me for my lame, self-deprecating references or you'll truly feel my wrath.

  12. "Just don't insult me for my lame, self-deprecating references or you'll truly feel my wrath."

    I guess so. But I didn't mean to insult. I'll be more careful next time. All the power to you.