Thursday, November 17, 2011

Declaring what Occupy DC stands for

I was prepared to be disappointed. I was prepared to escalate from a simple downward twinkle fingers to an outright block, you “progressive” Democrat, willing-being-co-opted mother fuckers. But, gosh darn it, I was pleasantly surprised.

After being disappointed in some of Occupy DC's choice of actions, including a rally for more infrastructure spending sponsored by the same SEIU that just endorsed Barack Obama as the candidate of the 99 percent, I was expecting the worst when the time came at Wednesday's general assembly to read the McPherson Square chapter of the occupy movement's long-awaited draft declaration of grievances. Perhaps a line about the Koch brothers “corrupting” our long corrupt democracy. Maybe something about a certain someone failing to deliver the change he purportedly promised.

To my chagrin, even my black anarchist heart was rather impressed.

Typically, works written by a committee of people with diverse backgrounds and interests tend to be watered down, unreadable pieces of garbage. So it's actually something of a miracle that a protest movement composed of people whose pet personal issue ranges from the tyranny of “fiat money” to the evil of institutional racism were able to produce a document that was even coherent. While the draft declaration wasn't read aloud by a burning bush, miracles do sometimes happen.

There was a strong denunciation of the collusion between the state and the financial sector. A call to end the wars. An attack on the two-party electoral system. A condemnation of a criminal justice (sic) system that persecutes the least privileged communities in America rather than protect them. While not perfect, by any means – it conspicuously avoided the words “empire” and “imperialism,” for one, and did not adequately stress the disproportional negative impact the status quo has on the poor and people of color – it was, all in all, pretty good.

And then we got to people's grievances with the statement of our grievances. Oh goodness.

Personally, while I would have liked the statement to have a bit more teeth when coming to war – and to have the statement about its impact on “American soldiers and innocent civilians” inverted in accordance with those who actually bear the bulk of its evils – my only real, somewhat nitpicky objection came to a line that declared the government had “failed in its duty” to protect the rights of Americans. At the general assembly, I politely noted that, historically, states haven't been established by people to protect rights, but rather to infringe upon them, namely to enable the economic exploitation of one class, the workers, by another, the owners. The stuff about protecting freedom and all that jazz? It's propaganda from the exploiters.

The U.S. government's founders, I noted, talked a pretty solid game about human rights and personal freedoms – at the same time they were propping up the institution of slavery and carrying out the genocide of indigenous peoples. The founding fathers didn't establish a state to protect the rights of anyone and everyone, I pointed out, but of themselves: the white, landed aristocracy.

Go me.

But I was one of many – about 30 – people that had issues with the declaration, too many to address in the context of a general assembly during a rain shower. So a declaration committee hearing was called, a three-hour lesson in the sometimes unbearable tediousness of consensus.

At the meeting, held in the unbearably ironic setting of a 24-hour McDonald's, people objected to the use of the word “occupation.” Others said, I agreed, that racial injustices weren't adequately highlighted, though the self-righteous, emotional blackmailing way one woman made her case – complete with a claim the majority of the declaration was written exclusively by and for white males (it was actually based on a consensus process involving anyone who wanted to join in at McPherson Square) and a wavering statement she was “scared” because race was only referenced in three of the eight or so clauses – had me groaning a bit.

Another man – a very strange man – said the declaration ought to include references to discrimination against height-disadvantaged people and the plight of men forced to pay child support. Later, when prevented from speaking out of turn to voice his objection to the indisputable fact that the top 1 percent are predominately white males, he got up and very aggressively confronted the female facilitator, standing about six inches away from her face. We all understood why he was divorced.

A man originally from El Salvador then brought up the issue of empire, pointing out that he was only in the United States due to a civil war funded by the Reagan administration. “Here we are in the most powerful city in the world, where the people in the buildings around us literally decide who lives and who dies, and we don't even mention imperialism?” I twinkle-fingered the hell out of that shit.

When it got to be my turn, I reiterated by object to the stuff about the government's “duty” to protect our rights, saying it implied that the state had ever done so, when in fact its purpose is to exploit, not protect. I suggested simply truncating the sentence so as to say that the government had “not protected our rights,” leaving aside the question of whether it was ever intended or capable of doing so. That way, I figured, the language could be inclusive of both anarchists, who compose a not insignificant part of the Occupy movement, and non-anarchists (statists! *boo, hiss*).

See? Even radicals can compromise.

Unfortunately, a lot of people were confused. Many appeared to think my objection was simply that the line didn't make clear that the government has been failing to protect our rights from its inception; the implication it's a recent phenomenon that we're only now noticing because middle-class white kids have read the Wikipedia page about the PATRIOT Act. But no! I replied: it's the idea implied by the word “duty” that the state has the responsibility to protect our rights, that that is what it was established to do.

Let's say you have a spoon. You're trying to cut a steak with this spoon. It doesn't work. So you get more and better spoons. Hell, you even get a spork. Still no luck. Maybe, you might conclude after a few fruitless hours of spooning, a spoon isn't intended to cut a steak – that maybe it's intended to do something entirely different.

Likewise, if the U.S. government has never proven itself capable of protecting the rights of those who live within its borders, as evidenced by slavery to genocide to mass incarceration, then maybe, one might fairly conclude, it was never meant to protect those rights – that references to its “duty” to do so are like referencing the “duty” of a butcher to protect the lives of cows and pigs.

One woman did get what I was saying. But she also uttered the single most upsetting thing of the night: Sure, she said, you might not think the state has a “duty” to protect our rights, but most people in mainstream America do. And we're trying to appeal to them, comrade.

By reinforcing their dangerously mistaken dogma? I might have asked had my alloted anarchist time not been used up. The same objection – appealing to “mainstream” America – was raised by people opposing the use of the terms “empire” and “imperialism,”

“Do you feel your voice has been heard?” the facilitator asked. “Yeah, whatever,” I mumbled.

By the time three hours had passed, we were no further along than when we started, having not gotten past the mere restating of the grievances we originally aired at the general assembly, much less gotten to the point of actually addressing them by way of changes to the draft.

And so we now have to do the whole thing again. And probably again. And again. And . . .


  1. Our message is both too simple and too fantastic to comprehend on first, second, third or fourth audience.

    I blame the state school system.

    But steak cutting spoons and butchers hired for the protection of pigs are apt metaphors.

    In my everyday discussions, I'm finding it useful to emphasize the difference between the Commons and the State. Takes some patience, at first. But once it's established that all the munificent stuff is everyday people getting along with each other, being sociable, creating wealth, et cetera (the Commons) and that the bosses taking credit for what ordinary people do for each other (the State) is an act of theft, it can be easier to drive the wedge further between the expectation of mutuality and the belief that the State can provide the environment for it.

  2. gavin6:36 AM

    I'm not an anarchist but I appreciate your and others' interventions, and your accounts. I don't think the declarations are all that important, either in encouraging or alienating people -- no one is sitting on their couch waiting for the perfect declaration before they come out.

  3. Anonymous8:33 AM

    I twinkle-fingered the hell out of that shit.

    Too funny, but sadly I think that is a part of why a great many aren't taking the OWS movement seriously and even mocking it.

    So much is made of the consensus decision-making system, but at the end of the day any decision arrived at is still going to be imposed from the top down. I'd much rather see the elusive stigmergy in action.

  4. Gavin, yes but there are people who want to say they supported the original draft for street cred. (I get the joke, trying to join in.)

    I'm intrigued by the anti-war/empire angle, which I whole-hearted support for promoting. As Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio says, that should be the first priority and has the ability to unite left and right - civil and just plain libertarians. I've been to OccupyMN a couple times, the first day with a Say No to Iraq War sign. People liked it, but I didn't see any other anti-war signs.

    In DC, which I know mostly from your posts so far, it's interesting in that the old lefty anti-war crowd has it's own occupation. Single issue anti-war people are probably over there. But they lack all energy and youth. While it seems it would be hard to get the McPherson crowd (and other occupations) to rally for antiwar/empire. Thoughts?

  5. I had a really insightful comment but my NoScript addon was acting up and it got posted under anonymous, then disappeared. Now I don't feel like rewriting it, but it was insightful and perhaps paradigm-shifting.

  6. I have to CLICK to read more! Ugh. Too much work. Kidding man. Great post. Really glad you're down there directing shit to some degree. As someone new to anarchism, your point of 'duty' is simple. Not sure why people had trouble with it. Although if the occupiers are willing to convene in McD's....I'd say they're losing some credibility.

  7. gavin9:05 AM

    Actually, I think the Stop the Machine people have succeeded in doing more and more dramatic actions than the decentralized McPherson people. There is some overlap and collaboration in the actions, I believe, but not sure how much.

    I am not in favor of appealing to the right. I'd rather appeal to the huge left base of DC, a city which is majority people of color who are far more disadvantaged by the current system than most of the occupiers. They will not show up if college kids start courting racists and libertarians (who deride the poor as lazy parasites) instead. The Ron Paul asshole at McP has the gall to lecture the homeless about individual initiative, even shouting them down. Fuck him and his ilk, they don't help.

  8. While the anti-war, anti-empire angle isn't as front and center at McPherson as I'd like, I do see some peace signs and I don't think anyone's belligerently pro-war.

    According to the people on the declaration committee who were working on the statement for the past month, opposition to "empire" was one of the top suggestions they received for inclusion in the declaration (there was a suggestion box for just that purpose), but a few sensitive, let's-appeal-to-the-mainstream types on the committee blocked its inclusion in the draft presented at the GA.

  9. Anonymous12:12 PM

    I'm a little confused about the objections to "empire." Even CBS News authors stories about the empire and its prospects ( Max Boot uses the term approvingly, as do Charles Krauthammer and Niall Ferguson ( They don't seem to fear rejection by the "mainstream."

    I guess empire is only a word to be feared if it's used as pejorative.

  10. There's a backlash happening:

  11. jcapan9:34 PM

    I always thought "No war but class war" was a handy synthesis.

  12. Brad Strider11:04 PM

    JM's links are more proof that not everything makes sense when viewed through the race lens, I guess.

  13. gavin5:26 AM

    I don't know what a "race lens" is... In my experience everything makes more sense when you include racism and imperialism. These look like posts by people of color who have experienced racism or other forms of stupidity from occupiers. Not that far out, really -- the occupations started really tone-deaf to racism. In my opinion, they've improved, but it's incomplete and an on-going struggle.

  14. Gavin, of course the anti-war protesters have more direct actions. They are controlled top-down. The problem is, direct action does not equal successful movement. In fact, the anti-war movement has been an utter failure in spite of having massive rallies at some points and times. And once Dems got some power, it evaporated. They got extremely lucky that OWS arose a month before their planned action. If OWS never happened, and there were some people camping out and saying stop funding the military, targeting the Super Committee of all the pointless things to do, it is likely to have failed like all the rest.

    Anti-war is incredibly hard to spread among Americans. Education at occupations is about the best way to do so that exists right now. (Some are floating convincing Iowans to vote Ron Paul in the GOP caucuses. It's possible I guess, but he would still be a pariah in the media). There's a long road to travel and person to person conversations is a good place to start.

  15. Anonymous9:33 AM

    The moment you start claiming "races" in your speech, you will become the racist.

    Do not look at groups of people and give them rights, look at every single individual and give them rights, that way, everyone gets rights evenly that is the only way to avoid racism.

  16. "I don't think anyone's belligerently pro-war."

    Thank FSM for that! The problem is anti-empire is seen as a cultural taboo, even by a bunch of DFH's. If even OWSers don't want to touch it, that's a problem.

  17. I'm happy that folks are providing a better look at OWS than what the crony-controlled MSM "provides." However, and I mean this in the best possible way, I can't help but see Eric Idle in Judaic women's garb, while Sue Jones-Davies, Michael Palin and John Cleese converse:

    Judith: [on Stan's desire to be a mother] Here! I've got an idea: Suppose you agree that he can't actually have babies, not having a womb - which is nobody's fault, not even the Romans' - but that he can have the *right* to have babies.
    Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother... sister, sorry.
    Reg: What's the *point*?
    Francis: What?
    Reg: What's the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can't have babies?
    Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
    Reg: It's symbolic of his struggle against reality.

    I guess amidst all the anti-fiat-money, crony-this&that, Freedom "For" vs. Freedom "From"
    crowd noise, it starts to sound more like 1000 Chrlie Brown's Teachers occupied everything.

    So there. A bit of levity. I now return you to your regularly scheduled, umm, whatever.

  18. Mark, I don't think the failures of the anti-war movement are necessarily due to having an organizational structure. In any case, they seem to have taken an active interest in learning new tactics. They also have people experienced in direct action, which is incredibly useful.

    I couldn't come to the bridge yesterday, but from what I've read, it was basically a failure, designed to be ignored, and successful at that. It was designed by a (purportedly) non-hierarchical organization. It was aimed at Obama campaign talking points. This is a problem. I'm not going interested in spending time and energy supporting Obama.

    So something more than organizational structure is going awry here. I think charlie's agitation is a good way to push the movement away from Obama. It might be useful to focus on his economic policies as well, since that is closer to the heart of Occupy.

    BTW Jo Freeman's "Tyranny of Structurelessness" should be required reading for anyone involved in Occupy:

  19. Charles, you can politely make the point that many people from all stripes of the political spectrum are fed up with "Imperialism".

    I may be a crazy Paulista, but I became one only after hearing him talk about "Empire" in his original "Presidential Exploratory Committee" video (still online after almost five years).*

    Talking about Imperialism is an effective means of drawing people into your movement, precisely because it's a message never offered by mainstream candidates and media outlets.

    No one is going to come to the Occupy movement unless they already share a disillusionment with the current state of affairs. The Draft Committee should go with their strongest truths, and as the gentleman from El Salvador pointed out, American Imperialism is undeniable.

    *Apologies in advance for fulfilling the RP fanboy stereotype of linking to a video every opportunity I get.

  20. So that "Tyranny of Structurelessness," when not entirely abusing the meaning of the word, tyranny, was so full of hanging assumptions, unstated Maoist biases and an almost Orthodox maximalist defensiveness about leadership and natural aristoi (called here, elites and treated as necessary) that it could be a damned primer on how to get a thousand sectarians splits within three years' time and end up with a thousand and one Avakian-type cults of the dear leader, each with the most perfect and final form of not only the revolutionary party to save all the possible tomorrows, but the Only True Doctrine of Revolution, itself.

  21. Gavin, I didn't say that. The failure is mostly due to the knee-jerk war support that is endemic in America. My larger point is that marches to get media coverage hasn't ever brought people into the anti-war movement and it never will. (It would take a damn smart and strategic direct action to do this). While 1-1 conversations can. Even 1-small crowd testimonies can work if the speaker and moment is right.

    The bridge was SEIU. Labor groups had this day on the calendar for a while. So it was hierarchical.

    Mark (I'm getting tired of typing out Name/URL).

  22. gavin4:44 PM

    I dunno Jack, I thought the relevant point was that "structureless" groups end up having informal structures (cliques), which become impenetrable to anybody else and unaccountable because in the name of structurelessness, no one formalizes rules or procedures. And that this tends to benefit privileged people. I don't really understand what your post is about.

    Another useless action today, as admitted by the occupation -- no, we will have NO effect on your commute! I am going to find a way to get out there more in the next week, maybe we can shift the discourse away from how best to be ignored while making cops feel loved.

  23. That's what I'm getting at, Gavin. The writer assumes that without structure - which is actually training, obedience, education, belief and socialization - people with naturally seek aristoi. She doesn't approve, but she treats it as necessarily so. There's a deep epistemic assumption that, sans formal structure, people cannot but help themselves to create so-called informal structures.

    This ignores what structure actually is, and how hierarchies are actually formed and maintained.

    She is separating privilege, and its attendant benefits, from the existing formal hierarchies, in order to criticize the lack of hierarchy as a mirror of hierarchy. On top of being muddled and confused, and poor logic, it's root presumption is that human persons have no choice but to form them, when either educated to do so, or left to their own devices.

  24. ugh - "will naturally seek"

  25. gavin6:56 AM

    Jack, these are not philosophical assumptions -- she's basing her claims on a wealth of empirical evidence from working in decentralized social justice groups for many years.

    You're the one working from an reified assumption of structure-as-hierarchy -- that it is a separate THING that must be fought directly, instead of a kind of social relation that emerges from unequal power among people. Privilege (surely you agree this exists, including in the occupations) is a kind of informal structure because it instantiates itself in social relations in just this way. There are no laws or rules that say tall, white masculine men should be in charge of things, but it tends to happen a lot, including in decentralized groups.

    Freeman has no "root assumption," it's not "necessarily so" -- she LIVED this, it happens, and she walked the structureless walk for a long time, so I'm inclined to listen to her carefully, not write her off as a Maoist or whatever.

    But we don't have to belabor the point. I think we agree that the major issue is that occupydc's insufficient radicalism is succeeding only at marginalizing itself, and that if it wants to do more than serve as a hobby for progressives, that has to change.

  26. I treated with her actual text, Gavin. This is not a reification of behaviors as structure. It's a critique of her concretization of human obeisances as somehow separate structures of conduct.

  27. And to be brief about her argument: what she is suggesting is the absence of formal authority leaves an opening for informal authority which therefore justifies a formal authority. It depends upon a single premise: that authority itself is inevitable, so why not piss on the anarchists and have a formal one?

  28. Thanks for the clarification, Jack. We could do some variation on the old Leninist-vs-anarchist routine, about the best way to dismantle oppressive structures, but there are better things to do with our time and energy. ODC briefly took a building yesterday.