The Audacity of Occupy Wall Street
On the ground, it hasn’t been the hardliners who have most exulted in the social experiment that is Liberty Park. Living in the conditional tense requires more than just ideological commitment; it takes the curious mixture of patience and innocence found mostly in the young. At the heart of the Occupation are young professionals and creative types—architects, graphic designers, programmers, curators, musicians, writers, managers, actors and Williamsburg hipsters whose talents primarily lie in stitching birds onto things (see Creative Cash). They take part, on and off, in the General Assembly, but they are mostly concerned with creating the dizzying life-world that has distinguished the movement as a cultural as well as political force. Many of these folks are strivers facing downward economic pressure, but a good number of them could be members of Richard Florida’s “creative class,” those whose presence supposedly signals affluence.
Liberty Park is culture-rich, but not in that way. Its denizens include Katie Davison, a 31-year-old filmmaker who used to direct fashion commercials until her family became “collateral damage in the financial crisis”: her father, once an executive at GMAC, died in a car crash the same day he was fired from a subsequent job. At some point, Katie vowed to stop doing commercial work and started a documentary on inequality and the collapse of the American dream. Her friends said she was crazy, and sometimes she felt that way too until she followed a hunch and got on a plane from Los Angeles to New York on September 16, one day before the Occupation began. She’s been shooting video for the Media group ever since, although like many early Occupiers, she soon faced a dilemma: funds depleted, should she take a paying gig or keep working for the Occupation? She chose both. “I don’t understand how I’m going to balance the revolution and editing this vampire movie,” she laments.
For Katie, who comes from an anti-capitalist background, the appeal of OWS is “beyond political”: it is “spiritual and philosophical.” Her day-to-day work life is defined by the principles of horizontalism, autonomy and collectivism. Like a lot of Occupiers, Katie says that the point of working without hierarchies is to “show through direct action that something else is possible…. This empowers people who have no power in the real world, but in this world they do, and this changes human potential and the human value system.” Katie admits that at times “working with people in an all-inclusive manner has been very difficult.” She’s used to hierarchical structures on production sets (“I’m the director—and I direct”). In the beginning, the Media working group was mobbed with volunteers who said they could shoot; but when the videos came in, it became clear that folks were coming from different skill levels. “How do you create something where people don’t feel bad about the things they are making?” she asks. One solution has been to adopt a collective model in which roles are traded day to day; another has been to set up trainings and classes so that “photographers can learn to walk straighter now.” This focus on empowerment has also informed the relations between groups in different cities—the New York livestream was set up by people from Global Revolution who had been in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. When the Occupation in Washington, DC, took off, Global Revolution sent a team there, and then to Pittsburgh, and the OWS Media group has also been in touch with Occupations across America to share lessons and pitfalls.
The term “consciousness raising” drops without embarrassment from many mouths, and there is an Education and Empowerment working group whose mission is essentially that ’70s thing. All of this comes with contradictions; for example, the now ritualized focus on leaderlessness tends to obscure the relative power and legitimacy bestowed upon early Occupiers. Conversely, the open-ended, consensus-driven meetings have led to situations where newcomers can block proposals that movement die-hards have worked on for weeks.
How this social experiment relates to OWS politics and goals, its future and its capacity to create enduring change, is very much an open question. Will Briar have as many opportunities as its fellow librarians have had? Will Joe get the health insurance and job stability he needs? Can Occupy Wall Street affect the lives of people outside Liberty’s borders?
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Since the last week of September, when Occupy Wall Street hit the front pages after videos of unwarranted police aggression went viral, the question of demands has increasingly weighed on the movement. At first, the issue came from the outside and carried the whiff of appeasement: What do the kids want, and how can they be bought off? Some Occupiers shot back in defiance, “Demands are for terrorists!”
But as the movement has grown—taking in veteran organizers and garnering declarations of solidarity from labor, progressive community groups, left-leaning intellectuals, think tanks and even members of Congress—the question has become more insistent. Some pressure has come from these allies, who have been happy to grab onto Occupy’s unexpected coattails or collaborate on a series of direct actions but who approach politics from a more constituent-based, results-driven model. No doubt, elected officials would also like to see demands made, as everyone from President Obama to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has comically tried to both sympathize with and distance themselves from the Occupation’s primal expressions of frustration and rage. With approval ratings at 43 percent and climbing (that’s almost five times higher than Congress’s 9 percent), the movement has intruded upon electoral politics, and a list of demands that could be rejected or accommodated would certainly help the pols fill out their dance cards.
But the push for demands has come from the inside too. A Demands working group took shape in early October, largely outside Liberty. A hasty New York Times article almost exclusively quoting its members provoked fierce criticism at that night’s General Assembly, which released a statement saying that “the GA has not reached a consensus regarding any statement of demands…and the demands list submitted to the NYT was never presented to the GA.” Likewise, on October 21, OccupyWallStreet.org posted a disclaimer saying that the Demands group is “not empowered by the NYC General Assembly,” is “not open-source and does not act by consensus” and “only represents themselves.”
But a movement that claims to be open to all isn’t in a great position to exile its dissidents, so since that dustup, the Demands group has been absorbed into the process. It now posts its documents online and uses modified consensus rules, although some question the group’s fidelity to such procedures and consequently also the group’s legitimacy. These issues flared up at the October 30 General Assembly, when the Demands group presented its first proposal, a call for “a massive public works and public service program” that would create “jobs for all.” After a heated and messy deliberation that failed to get past even the first round of questions, the proposal was tabled until the next week, allowing Demands to conduct more meetings and outreach.
That General Assembly exposed a clear ideological schism between anarchists, on the one hand, and Marxists, progressives and liberals, on the other, with the former predisposed to reject any demands (like jobs for all) that appeal to the state instead of directly to the people. But the meeting wasn’t particularly well attended—as many Occupiers at Liberty were milling about reading, singing or kibitzing on other matters as were clustered around the human mic—and away from the fray, in the working groups themselves, the issue seemed much less polarized and much less significant. Most organizers I spoke with were open to demands at some point but preferred to focus on movement building for now. “I think one day there could come a time for demands,” says Katie Davison, “but right now I think demands would fracture and divide people…. We need a movement of solidarity that is about values first, and we’re still coming together and finding out what we all agree on.”
There is, of course, a danger that with so much ebb and flow, the movement won’t be sensitive enough to recognize when that moment is reached, or that the Occupation will focus too much on education and empowerment, descending into a navel-gazing stupor. The emphasis at Liberty on the experiential has so far been a politicizing force, its creative chaos a blessing—but for how long? Already many early Occupiers have grown frustrated with what they call the fetishization of life at Liberty, with merely holding the square. “It’s become acceptable just to be at Zuccotti Park,” says Yotam Marom, “but now we need to up the ante. The direct action needs to shift gears again—it can’t just be symbolic. It has to be a true disruption of business as usual.”
Early in the Occupation, Nation writer Jeff Madrick urged the Occupiers to “go to where the injustice is,” and they have—to Harlem to protest the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies, to Verizon’s corporate headquarters to protest on behalf of CWA employees, to wherever New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sets foot to protest state budget cuts and his refusal to extend a state millionaire’s tax, and to branches of big banks to noisily withdraw their patronage in favor of credit unions. If there is some meaningful convergence between traditional social-democratic politics and the anarchist-inflected focus on experience, perhaps it lies in these direct actions. As the members of a new generation put their bodies on the line, they discover that their languishing talents can be deployed in the pursuit of justice. What’s a name for this—organized anarchy or socialism with a beat? What matters is that it’s working for now.
Image courtesy of Jessi Bautista