Occupy LA: The Return of the Radical Imagination
by Timothy Malone
I won’t spend a lot of time laying the context in which the Occupy Movement emerged, for I do so in my ethnographic film on Occupy Los Angeles, available here
Some words of introduction are in order, though, to explain why I selected the Occupy Los Angeles site for ethnographic research, the meaning of the title (in particular the ‘return of the radical imagination’), and my own position within Occupy Los Angeles.
It was fortuitous that at the moment I was assigned an ethnographic project for this class, word began to spread of an action in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street (NY), in Los Angeles. I first received notice of the ‘general assemblies’ being held at Pershing Square in preparation of the October 1st ‘Occupy Day’ from activist friends on Facebook, through an ‘event invitation.’ I followed the link to a fan page for ‘Occupy Los Angeles,’ that, at the time, had 46 members. Discussion between organizers, on the Occupy Los Angeles wall, circled around things to be done – where should we occupy? How do we get the word out? What type a committees do we need? I sent a private message to the anonymous administrator of the FB page.
me: Hello. My name is Timothy Malone, and I am a graduate Student at Claremont Graduate University. I am also an anarchist/activist with an interest in documenting/filming the formation and development of Occupy Los Angeles. Can you, perhaps, give me some guidance about how to proceed, organizers to talk to, etc?
response: Sounds good to me. i don’t have the authority to grant you access. Why don’t you come to the general assembly tonight, and present your project to the group? I’m sure they’ll give you an open hearing..”
I packed my camera (which I borrowed from a family member, as this was to be my first filmic project) and a notebook, and made my way to Pershing Square. The date was September 28th, three days before we would occupy City Hall.
As of the writing of this paper, the Occupy Los Angeles Facebook page has about 47,000 members. At the peak of occupation, 485 tents lined Downtown Los Angeles’ city hall, and we went from a marginalized movement of activists to be dismissed, and ridiculed, in mainstream representation, to a leading news story. On day 7, I walked around the Occupy Los Angeles encampment to document media representation / how much media was present. There were two vans, one from KNX 1070, a local radio station providing on the hour news updates and traffic reports, and a KABC local news van. I walked across the street to the Michael Jackson trial, situated literally on the adjacent corner. The courthouse was encircled with 30-plus news vans, reporters camera in hand with their crews and expensive lights. By the night of eviction, a media pool was formed by LAPD to restrict access to journalists, and to limit the potentially hundreds of media representatives attempting to gain access to Occupy Los Angeles in its moment of confrontation.
This ethnography attempts to document, from my subjective position, developments from September 28th until November 30th (58 days and nights of occupation), the night that LAPD stormed and evicted the encampment at City Hall. Ethnography served as an invaluable research tool for telling a story of this movement from the ground up. Not just an observer, I was (and am) an active participant in Occupy Los Angeles. I have voted in general assemblies, attended committee meetings, marched and staged acts of civil disobedience in front of banks. I won’t spend time trying to defend the ‘objectivity’ of this project. I am aligned with the goals of Occupy, and I write this ethnography in the hopes of providing not only a communication of our message to outsiders about who we are and what we do, but also as a tool by which we can be self-critical; perhaps take a look at some of our practices, ways of organizing and decision making, and ask ‘have we been effective?” What can we do to improve? How do we keep pushing forward, and actually survive the eviction from physical locations of occupation?
Why film? And why write a supplementary paper? There is something quite engaging about the visual.To evoke the cliche, a picture is worth a thousand words – with film, that many more. To see peoples faces, to hear the sounds of protest, the buzz of helicopters above seems to convey a sign that is more robust and immediate in experience than allowed for in purely textual presentation. Information seems to be communicated in real time about who is participating, ‘what’s it like down there’ at the protest/encampment, etc. Though potentially problematic, for it is much easier to mistake the visual symbol for the real (1), to borrow from Baudrillard, and to mistake my video for ‘what really happened,’ I hope to remediate naturalization of my narrative through self-reflexive film-making practice, as well as context through text, this traditional paper. The ethnographic paper also allows me to weave a co-narrative, perhaps allowing for a grounding, and a theoretical depth that purely filmic techniques do not abide, or fully explore. Why this particular shot? WHat was I thinking in selecting this material arrangement versus another? Why is this particular moment important for OccupyLA, theoretically? The text can help lay bare the structure undergirding the filmic project, as well as deepen it.
What do I mean by a ‘return of the radical imagination?’ I am arguing that the Occupy Movement in general, and Occupy Los Angeles in particular, represent the re-emergence of a radical potential after a long period of repression, and effective marginalization. The collapse of the Soviet Union led Francis Fukayama to theorize ‘the end of history,’ as neo-liberal capital would have no rival nor fetter to its ever-expanding market construction, barrier penetration, process of multinational globalization. (Fukayama, The End of History) Radicalism was ideologically and explicitly tied with the failure of the Soviet system. Radical Movement once again emerged in the late 90’s with the anti-globalization struggle (ie, ‘Battle in Seattle’), but was soon rolled back, as post-september 11th 2001, organizers were afraid to sound anti-american, or to be equated with ‘America’s enemies,’ terrorists, or divisive in a time of ‘national unity.’ In 2003, the radical imagination began to awaken again with an international protest movement forming to challenge the United States invasion of Iraq, only to be effectively sidelined and marginalized by traditional liberal organizations such as moveon.org and labor unions channeling radical energy into the reformist (the degree of effective reform perhaps limited to an unpredictable degree, to many liberal hopefuls) liberal establishment and the election machinery of Barack Obama, and his ‘hope’ and ‘change’ marketing scheme, brought to you by the same people who market us toothpaste.
Occupiers sense a fundamental limitation in traditional politics, in the two-party system. In interviews, one question I asked all participants, was ‘what brought you out to the street, to participate in this movement? Why Occupy?’ Money’s corrupting influence in politics was a near universal response, in one form or another. This is a mainstream view of occupiers, at least in LA, and i would imagine universally, across occupations in the United States (answers may vary in Greece, or Spain. I don’t now). In this system of legalized bribery, democrat-republican politics are always and already co-opted by concentrations of capital, rendering citizens/activists political agency deeply constrained, outside of acts of civil disobedience (protesting, occupying, etc.) Occupiers seek a radical engagement with the political/social/economic structures of society, and the mechanisms by which such an engagement should take place are often disparate. Nonetheless, occupiers are apparently engaged with the political system at a meta-level, interested in engaging with reformulating structure, as opposed to operating within it through electoral political campaign, lobbying, etc.
There is a more important radicalization that is occurring at the Occupy camps across the country and in L.A., in my opinion. It is in the very decision-making structures of the occupying movements themselves. The General Assembly model, which is the sin qua non, irreducible element, of the Occupy movement is a radical re-imagining of what it means to be a citizen/participant in a democratic society. The General Assembly, with its functional committees and affinity groups and its consensus decision making is putting into action Anarchist practice. We have people of a wide variety of political affiliation at Occupy Los Angeles, from disillusioned Barack Obama liberals, to Ron Paul / end-the-fed Libertarians, to anti-civilization, burning-man ‘hippies.’ No matter the political ideology espoused, one thing is shared: the political structure of Occupy. Whether or not it is explicitly calls itself anarchist, or participatory democratic, or horizontal, such a model has been theorized by the anarchist tradition since the 1700’s (Marshall, 4). The term anarchism bares some negative connotation, largely due to popular misunderstanding, linking the term to disorder, chaos. As a political theory, the anarchist tradition has always meant, in reference to itself, a complex, ordered, systemic arrangement, with the minimal amount of illegitimate authority or unnecessary constraint on individual flourishing. The tradition also recognizes the need for community in order to allow for such individual flourishing. It is a model by which power flows from the bottom up in all institutions, and all authority must justify itself. (Chomsky, Government in the Future)
This is an important move. It has been theorized by anarchists that people come to consciousness of their own potential, and the society’s revolutionary potential, through doing. Whether or not a disaffected liberal democrat considers himself an anarchist, or knows anarchist history and theory, if there is such a thing, if they occupy, they take part in anarchist social structures. The lesson learned, through doing, is that elites, whether of the capitalist manager or marxist vanguard, are not necessary. People are fully capable of managing their own affairs, from the bottom up, in ever more complex arrangements of participatory democratic structure. Who cares what you call it, theorize it, think about it. Anarchism is in the act, in the doing of anarchism. Anarchism is confident enough in itself, and its practice, that it does not care whether or not it is recognized as such.
The second radical principle, undergirding the occupation, is constructing the new world in the shell of the old. First formulated by Mikhail Bakunin (Marshall, 281), what he called ’emancipation through practical action,’ as a challenge to Marxism with its material dialectic, its stages of history that must be waited for (i.e., only a society at a certain level of industrialization can achieve liberation and equity in power), anarchists assert that we must build anarchist organizations, institutions, and develop anarchist consciousness here and now, within the margins of existing society, immediately. For if people are to someday manage their own affairs, to put it simply, they must have practice with self-management. In communities, in work places, in schools; In political movements challenging capital. Whereas traditional marxists advocated a vanguard taking state power, then instituting mass scale education programs which would shift consciousness of the people, anarchists have consistently argued people must be empowered now, living self-directed principles, if the ‘revolution’ is to be successful. Instead of an explosive taking of state power, followed by a dictatorship of the worker, anarchists have conceived revolution as happening in fits and starts, a factory at a time. In a school, or government body, no matter how small. The revolution would be not an explosion, but a slow accumulation of victories and ‘liberated spaces,’ and a reliance on an interdependent connection of self-managed institutions as the institutions of capital and the state which functions on its behalf, become more and more burdensome, illegitimate, repressive; fall into crisis. Revolution doesn’t happen in some theorized future, but right now, and is in fact all around us, all the time. To anarchist anthropologist David Graeber it has been with humanity since time immemorial. (Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology)
In summary, the radical structure of G.A., committees and consensus are an irreducible radicalism at the heart of Occupy LA and all other occupations, a shared structure. The other deeply radical principle at the heart of occupy is the creation of alternatives within the shell of the old, not in theory, but living them, in practice. The Occupy movement serves as a model, has a demonstration effect to its participants and its observers. People can manage their own affairs, democratically. These two dynamics make up the radical engine of occupation that drive it forward, potentially protecting it from co-optation by the liberal establishment, as well as drawing the most ire from elites on both sides of the traditional left right spectrum. The story is unfolding and the future is not written. What will happen to the Occupy movement, and its impact on society is still unknown. Hopefully, through careful analysis of what we are doing right, and where we need improvement, we can figure out how to keep this ship afloat – changing discourse (from the debt, to questions of inequality in mainstream discourse over recent months, for example), altering perception of possibility (and what a social movement looks like), and eventually affecting the very structures by which power is distributed, decisions are made, leading to epiphenomenal results.
Most importantly, I participate. I am there for marches and actions. I participate in General assemblies and committees. Beyond participant observation, I participate. When I am participating, I bring my camcorder; i bring my notebook. I film sometimes those things which strike me as important, whatever conscious and unconscious mechanisms are at play in that process. I record observations and take notes. I comment while I film, often, reflections in the moment, things to think about, ideas that come fluttering. I interview people an ever-evolving set of questions that changes as conditions on the ground change, as new developments of varying import arise.
I have interviewed 60 people, to varying degree of ‘thoroughness.’ I have conducted 20 ‘in depth’ interviews, on site, at the occupation. I have tried to pay attention to getting a representative sample as I can across ages, racial identification, sex, sexual orientation (if visible, i.e. flying a LGBT banner). I have tried to represent traditionally marginalized voices. How successful I have been is for other to decide. It was coded in my methodological attempt to document Occupy LA.
I have had dozens of conversations with activists on and off site.
I also did a lot of sitting, watching, feeling. I filmed the evolution of the camp, from October 1st, through eviction, seeing the rise of tent population, charting the emergence of symbolic culture, artwork, performance. I engaged with conversation on social networks; interviewing, engaging conversation, watching and commenting on livestreams when I couldn’t be present. I did not camp at site due to the fact I have a 10 month old-daughter at home that requires my presence. So I engage virtually when i couldn’t be on-site.
All of these engagements formed a ground, a framework of interpretation, upon which particular conclusions could be derived. In this work, I draw theoretical conclusions about what’s happening on the ground, with qualification. For I wish to privilege those interviews, those conversations and voices i hear at occupations. My contribution is to try to draw something from these, perhaps to think about responses and questions within theoretical frameworks which I have access to. Hopefully I am successful in letting the occupiers themselves do the speaking, and my intervention, after the fact, is able to contribute to the continued development of our shared aims.
Reflexivity and Position
Let’s be clear – It is “I” behind the camera. In my film, my voice bounds the entire project. There is only footage of days (in this project) that I was actually on site, using my borrowed camera. There were events I missed, and people I did not interview. There were selections made in my filming, and collection of field notes. Very often, I found myself wrestling with questions such as, ‘Is it appropriate for me to film this? What are the ethics involved, as I can’t know all the potential uses that such a project will be put. If a personal argument breaks out between occupiers, is it a violation of decency to keep the camera rolling? There were certain occasions where I intuited it was better to keep the camera off, whether that be my own intimidation at filming something (actually feeling like my gaze was voyeuristic, or intrusive), and there were people I didn’t approach for interviews because I wasn’t ‘comfortable, caught a bad vibe, etc. These are all very personal choices that structure my project, and need to be recognized so the viewer does not walk away thinking ‘this is THE story of OccupyLA.
I make no effort to still my voice on camera. Sometimes I am engaged in conversation with others. My hand shakes with movement. I hold no objective position; don’t really even attempt one.
Let the reader also recognize that I’m a 36 year old, white, relatively privileged male. Though I have tried to be conscious of the privilege that carries, not only within the Occupy movement, but within social movements for decades, it is not for me to decide my success in this. Questions of white privilege and patriarchy are right at the heart of current debates happening in General Assemblies, in particular on the West Coast. Many of my perspectives are going to flow from my position.
I am also an anarchist, thus in deep sympathy with the structures and intentions of the Occupy movement in general.
I am also a graduate student, bringing with me a series of lenses of interpretation, some useful, some not. Regardless, my perspective is going to be deeply informed by academic discourse, and how relevant all of it is to events on the ground is uncertain. I hope to hold my theory lightly, let it flow and adapt to changing conditions, rather than fit events into pre-determined theoretical molds. But nevertheless, I am positioned, and can’t escape that.
General Assemblies and Consensus
As I described above, the General Assembly meeting, its processes, and its committees/affinity groups form the core structure of the Occupy movement, not only in Los Angeles, but across the country, and even internationally. The concept of General Assemblies has its roots in anarchist tradition, in particular the Spanish Revolution of 1936 (perhaps, the largest-scale, successful anarchist project in history).(Woodcock, 329) In more recent manifestation, the general assembly model is employed in the indignados movements in Spain which emerged May 15th of 2011 in response to the european fiscal crisis, and lack of confidence in Spanish politics. and in the anti-austerity movement in Greece emerging May 5th of 2011.
In my film, I devote a section to the general assembly in Los Angeles ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsBOVVV1lu4&feature=related ; Clip begins at 6:35). A group of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street, and Occupy LA participated in the indignados movement in Spain, and actually brought the general assembly model to the United States, and trained/developed alongside potential occupiers the practice of general assemblies and consensus prior to actual occupation.
The General Assembly was instituted in Zucotti Park, and on the first day of planning. David Graeber, Anarchist anthropologist, was instrumental in its formation.
“When Graeber and his friends showed up on Aug. 2, however, they found out that the event wasn’t, in fact, a general assembly, but a traditional rally, to be followed by a short meeting and a march to Wall Street to deliver a set of predetermined demands (“A massive public-private jobs program” was one, “An end to oppression and war!” was another). In anarchist argot, the event was being run by “verticals”—top-down organizations—rather than “horizontals” such as Graeber and his friends. Sagri and Graeber felt they’d been had, and they were angry.
What happened next sounds like an anarchist parable. Along with Kohso, the two recruited several other people disgruntled with the proceedings, then walked to the south end of the park and began to hold their own GA, getting down to the business of planning the Sept. 17 occupation. The original dozen or so people gradually swelled, despite the efforts of the event’s planners to bring them back to the rally. The tug of war lasted until late in the evening, but eventually all of the 50 or so people remaining at Bowling Green had joined the insurgent general assembly.
“The groups that were organizing the rally, they also came along,” recalls Kohso. “Then everyone stayed very, very late to organize what committees we needed.”
While there were weeks of planning yet to go, the important battle had been won. The show would be run by horizontals, and the choices that would follow—the decision not to have leaders or even designated police liaisons, the daily GAs and myriad working-group meetings that still form the heart of the protests in Zuccotti Park—all flowed from that.” (Bennett, David Graeber, the Anti-Leader)
These are the anarchist roots of the General assembly, and the Occupy Movement, in particular. From the major sites of occupation (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Boston) the general assembly has become the default organizational structure of all occupy sites.
A general assembly is a regularly held gathering of all who are present and wish to participate. In OccupyLA, the general assembly is held nightly, at 7:30 pm. All issues of importance to the occupation are resolved within the General Assembly, and the General Assembly is the only body in any particular occupation that has the right to ratify decisions, to speak for, or to make official proposals on behalf of an occupation.
On those first days, questions ranged from ‘who are we?’ and ‘What do we hope to do?, to tactical questions such as “what type of relationship do we wish to have with police and the city, what is our stance on violence versus non-violence? Mundane questions, ‘where will we sleep, and how will we eat?” In particular, the question of the relationship with the police was a contentious one, and has remained from those first pre-occupation GA’s until today. Should we work with the police, in a cooperative fashion, recognizing them as inherently ‘part of the 99%’ whether they know it or not? Should we adopt a position of a priori resistance, perhaps institute a training program for occupiers on police brutality and how to defend oneself? After all, at the time of these meetings, video was emerging of the excessive force on display in New york; the pepper spaying in the face of defenseless women, mass arrests, etc. Should we adopt a position that recognizes the police as the defenders of the very economic and political system we are trying to challenge, hired thugs who in their professional role, abdicate their humanity? This issue would come to challenge the solidarity of the movement, and really be quite divisive over the unfolding of occupy. But the position adopted in those first GA’s was to allow a liaison team to maintain contact and planning with the city and police. We are a non-violent movement, and if we could avoid unnecessary confrontation, we would. In my interviews, I asked what occupiers thought about our relations with police. Responses varied quite dramatically, and often differed along racial lines (to be explored more later in this work).
Back to the structure and processes of GA’s. The basic premise is to give all participants equal power and voice. It is a consensus model, meaning that the entire collective must agree on a proposal before it can move forward as the ‘law’ of OccupyLA (agreement, disagreement, hesitation, etc is all registered through a series of communicative hand gestures, documented in the clip provided above). In original GA’s, committees were proposed by participants in a general discussion of what needed to be done. Media committees, administrative committees, social networking committees, finance, food, etc all formed, and were ratified through full consent of GA participants. If you wished to be a part of a committee, you show up, and instantly are a member of that committee. Committees proceed on the same consensus model as the General assembly.
Sometimes, the business of the day grows too burdensome to be handled by the general assembly, so the committees become necessary in order to delegate these duties. The committees then come up with proposals to submit to the general assembly. If the General Assembly grants consensus to the proposal, than it is adopted by the general assembly. If no consensus is granted, then the proposal is sent back to the committee, which works with dissenters to either reformulate or scrap the proposal. (An explanation of this process is also provided in more explicit detail in the clip above) Participatory-democratic in structure, the GA/consensus model allows for even a lone voice of dissent to block a proposal. Those who feel voiceless may, in the general assembly (at least in theory) feel their voice powerful enough to either support a proposal, or singularly block an action. It is an ultimate defense of minority (but also deeply susceptible to abuse). General Assemblies, for this reason require a good deal of faith and good intention to maintain functionality. Someone wishing to derail need only block everything from moving forward, thus throwing a major monkey-wrench into the machinery.
Night after night, general assemblies have met, committees have deliberated at varying times and formed proposals, some adopted by the General Assembly, some not. New committee groups have formed as needs arise. Affinity groups also developed – these are committees not necessarily functional, and do not require the consent of the General Assembly. If people want to form an affinity group they just get together with others, and do it. They may also bring their business to the GA, but the key difference is that Affinity Groups do not relate to the functional necessity of the occupation. Study groups, affinity groups focused on entertainment events, particular identity blocks may form to discuss OccupyLA and the needs of their respective community are examples of types of Affinity Groups.
An interview question I asked occupiers: “How do you feel about the General Assembly? Is it an effective tool?” Responses were largely affirmative. Though recognized as a rather cumbersome process to get to consensus, most felt it was worth the effort. Participants seemed to recognize that granting a voice to those who perceive themselves as voiceless, or in fact are voiceless, is a realization of one of the great hopes of Occupation.
But there were criticisms. One thing I noticed is the degree to which race, class, gender structure one’s experience of the General Assembly. In my research, if you were white and male, you were more likely to hold a rosy view of the GA/consensus model. The critique, often formulated by people of color, revolved around the reality that once systemic mechanisms of repression are lifted (as in the flattening of electoral hierarchy / representative government, institutions that have historically repressed and marginalized like the prison-industrial complex, which limits voice and participation), many internalized and real privileges remain to particular groups, as well as conditioned norms of interaction, beliefs and experience. Many of the women I spoke with voiced concern that the GA was dominated by male voices, and an effective informal male leadership was developing. Some people of color affinity groups thought their issues were being sidelined to privilege the issues and concerns of white, liberal activists. For example, there was huge contention with regards to the attitude to be taken by occupy towards police. Many occupiers representative of communities of color who have experienced and organized around issues of police brutality felt sufficiently marginalized by the General Assembly (which had become rather heated) and shouted down, that their affinity group left the occupation. They desired not to be specifically named or represented in this study, so they won’t be.
All in all, the general assembly functions, making some great progress towards the formation of actions, keeping the occupation functional, developing a voice internal and external to the movement. But problems remain, and they are those which are derivative of the fact that OccupyLA comes out of a city, and a nation, that is racially structured, built on genocide, homophobic, patriarchal. Many remnants from the society at large leak into the general assembly, whether conscious and mostly not. A recent proposal formulated by indigenous activists desired a name change, from Occupy to Decolonize. The word ‘occupy’ bears negative connotations for indigenous communities, because these activists still consider the United States ‘occupied territory.’ For these activists, it is a function of white privilege that the term ‘occupy’ would even be suggested, let alone adopted, if indigenous concerns were prevalent in the minds of organizers and activists of this movement. Many white activists (though not only white) have argued, ‘what’s in a name? We can reference the occupation of Palestine and Iraq/Afghan wars, occupying space is actually what we are doing? People of color very often don’t know what ‘decolonize means, that’s an academic term,’ etc.
In theory, the General Assembly should be able to navigate these issues. In practice? Sometimes. And different participants of OccupyLA had differing conceptions of our effectiveness. Often race, gender, sexual orientation played a role in one’s experiencing of the general assembly with many of the privileges and internalized power arrangement of the larger social structure in which OccupyLA is set, having determinative impact. Committees and affinity groups form to remediate these problematics, but they require democratic participation from those who would most benefit from attending them, which may or may not happen. Issues arise on the fly in real time, are emotionally charged, and need be dealt with in immediacy. (Individual voices expressing multitudinous views will soon be posted alongside the other videos provided above, but due to time constraints have not been edited yet. I will present for viewing as soon as complete)
Generally speaking, despite criticisms, some rather devastating in particular circumstance, the general assembly / consensus model has functioned to liberate a radical engagement and imagination of participants. If something needs be done, you form a committee and do it. Yourself. If you disagree with something, your voice is immediately heard (barring internalized repression, like a woman’s voice not being heard due to the existence of patriarchal structure). The assembly itself is structured, objectively, democratic, in that their is no leadership (though particular voices may become dominant due to a variety of interlocking, enmeshed factors, that all need be disentangled on the ground, on the fly). The most important aspect though, to my conceptioning, is the degree to which people are engaged. Whether its on a committee, consenting or blocking an action in a general assembly, or fighting it out in a general assembly breaking process, this is a different type of engagement. It’s a radical one of direct voice. Its riddled with problems. But at the same time, joyous and liberative to participate in. And the majority of the voices on the ground i spoke with agree with me in that assessment. They all agree with it in theory, as desideratum. And that’s important, for OccupyLA is an open-process in flux, moving towards a goal of anarchist social organization.
Demands: What does the Occupy Movement Want?
This is an issue at the heart of the Occupy movement, nationally and in Los Angeles. The question animates not only discussion in the occupations themselves, but in mainstream media representation of the movement. It is often asserted that Occupy has no demands, or that the demands are so disparate as to be meaningless. I have argued elsewhere that the very question arises from some assumptions that need to be tested before one can proceed; the main question being, who is asking us for demands, and relatedly, is providing a list of demands to traditional centers of power (whether media, or the political system) the strategy we should adopt?
For another class (Visual Research Methods), myself and three classmates including Tamara Ramirez, engaged in a discourse around this very question through video, available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSBFM0ef3z4 Is it possible that refusing to provide a list of demands to those who implore us to do so, is a viable political strategy? Mass media would like to be able to discuss occupy between commercial breaks. There is a principal in media, knows as concision. You only have a couple of minutes to communicate an idea. The beauty of concision, to quote Noam Chomsky, is that it only allows one to repeat conventional wisdom. (Chomsky, Concision in the Mass Media)
Secondly, to make a demand on the political system, to quote one of my interviewees is to ‘instantly recognize the political system as legitimate (as in, able to answer demands). And it is not.”
For to have demands may limit the very discourse, constrain it within dominant institutional functioning. If you have a demand on someone, or an institution, and they answer it, your reason for being ceases.
“The ultimate weakness of demands is their temporal limitation. A demand is essentially a statement of the conditions on which one will relent, and implying that relenting is possible casts the protest as temporary. In fact, Wall Street will permanently exert pressure on the government with ever-changing demands and campaigns and projects, and that is what Occupy Wall Street will have to do. The steadfast determination, the permanence implied in that word, Occupy, is not only the movement’s only hope for change – making people power a permanent countervailing force to wealth power – but also its good light. People like that this isn’t a weekend of protest and panels, that it operates, as it likes to chant, “All day, all week.” Demands would turn that chant into “All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street, until you do the following things,” which is an unattractive rallying cry, not to mention its scansion deficiency.” (Myerson, On Demands)
The point is to bring political representatives to a general assembly, and to represent an alternative model of governance, in fact self governance. The very anarchist political formation is in fact a demand, a demand for the political system to itself liberalize, to invest in people the right over their own person (denied in our political and economic system to the degree available in the Occupy model) and to dismantle itself as an illegitimate form of authority.
I have thoroughly documented peoples actual demands, as well as their ideas about they very question of demands in my ethnographic video and related clips. As with all questions asked of so many people, responses varied. And attitudes varied within General Assemblies to this perpetual request for demands from elites and institutions of authority.
In OccupyLA’s General Assembly, we have formed a ‘demands committee,’ whose aim is to formulate an expansive list of demands for ratification in the general assembly. They work regularly with one another, and occupiers, in the hopes of developing an exhaustive list. One particular difficulty facing this working group will be that, dependent on the question asked, Occupiers probably have an answer. That is, the occupation represents a radical alternative to ‘business as usual,; so depending on what you are asking, an opinion (or a multitude of them) will flow from the mouths of occupiers about how this or that particular social ill may be remediated. There are specific proposals that have a general consensus, for instance the idea of instituting a Robin Hood tax, a tax on all financial transactions, of a few percentage points. People want to roll back corporate person-hood, reinstitute the glass-steagal act. But there are others that want to see Marijuana legalized; that’s why they are there. We in Occupy accept that position, and if brought to the committee, will be adopted. We do not have a series of demands for the political system, but have imagined together and lived a different way to do politics, and to answer all of the multitude of social ills facing the current political configuration. Ask about the particular problem, and you’ll get a ‘demand.’
I don’t mean this in a dismissive way. By analogy, what’s the demands of Marxism? A revolution in the ownership of means of production? What are the demands of the tea-party? Yes, one may flippantly say ‘make government smaller,’ but what does that mean specifically? They have demands on education, what to do (or not) about global warming, immigration. They have a world view, or a paradigm. So does Marxism, and it attempts to establish myriad, and interconnected platforms to meet topical reality. It is the same with the occupy movement.
Get money out of politics. End the drug war. Democratize the workplace. These are all demands I have heard. And many more besides. Abolish student loans, green and localize the economy and food system. Decolonize. The liberal democratic establishment cannot accommodate these demands, so why offer them, except to demonstrate our separateness from them? Media often represents the demands as bearing no connection, but they are deeply interconnected, and largely reactive to a multinational arrangement of globalized capital, its capacity to influence political systems internationally and domestically (even locally), and is rooted in a history of Eurocentrism, colonialism and imperialism. End the wars. Abolish the fed. Publicly financed elections. Dream Act. LGBT rights.
Dependent on the social ill foregrounded, the demand flows. This is not a protest, but a social movement. And it is directed towards an atemporal, yet historically situated interconnected neoliberal system with deleterious effect in interlocking and wide public spheres. This is not its weakness, but precisely its strength. A living wage. No more homelessness. Occupiers dare to dream up radical solutions. They have them. Just ask. I did. (Paper continues below three video clips)
Where do we go from here?
On November 30th, I sat at my desk to write this paper, with the television news on mute, and several livestream windows from the OccupyLA encampment active in my browser. Rumor had been floating around OccuoyLA all day that this very evening, our experiment in anarchism and direct democracy would be raided. AT 9pm, on Kcal 9 news, images began to be broadcast of a massive police staging at Dodger Stadium, in preparation for an action. 30 mta buses, scores of police vehicles, hundreds, then over 1000 officers (the number would be estimated as 1700 officers reengaged in the eviction of OccupyLA). I, along with many others, jumped on livestreams, communicating to our friends, family, co-occupiers, what we could see going down in real time. See it on the TV. Report it on the livestream chat room, twitter developments with #occupyla hashtags, inform the other occupations through posts to their Facebook occupation pages.
I continued to write my academic paper, reflecting that this was the perfect metaphor for ivory tower academia, what is wrong with the separation between critical academic programs and activism on the street. I had a presentation the next day, that I couldn’t miss. While OccupyLA was being raided, I was writing a paper about OccupyLA. Instead of standing with my brothers and sisters in ideology and action, I was a layer removed, insulated. It felt vampiric. It is vampiric. For in my academic pursuit, my research which will be occupy and movement focused, this dichotomy will continuously arise. It can be mediated to varying degrees of success, but I think it important to recognize what was made transparent to me that day. It is in anarchist theorizing – radical politics is in the doing. Your theory is marginalized, if not lived in action.
Leading up to the raid, many of the people I talked to had the future on their mind. First off, what to do if the raid comes? WIll you resist, and be arrested? Will you leave? Answers varied with the majority positing their uncertainty, waiting to feel it out in the moment. Some were absolutely committed to let the state incarcerate them as a political act, to draw attention to the cause, and the dedication and belief of participants. Many talked of space – how important is a physical site to occupy? Some voices, including the homeless, were explicit in their desire to maintain a physical occupation. For the homeless, the reasons are transparent; OccupyLA had become a safer place, a more accommodating one than the streets of Downtown LA. It was taken up in conversation I was privy to among occupiers, what about our homeless population? They weren’t necessarily ‘occupying’ in the same sense activists were. They brought potential for problems; drug and alcohol abuse, crime, etc. But as a movement, how could be we ethical if we were to turn away, police a population so severely decimated by current structural arrangements? They were accommodated.
Many activists maintained a tie to the idea for physical space because, as they expressed it, it gave us a room to practice. The insight of Bakunin, and anarchist theory in general, of building the new within the shell of the old. Everyday Life developed in the encampment. A community, an economy of gift/exchange. Neighborly relations, cooperative and antagonistic. A method for maintaining security. For these occupiers, the encampment, controlling the space, was and is the occupation, a necessary and vital component of what we are doing. It was a novel, and new way, to live a social movement.
Others felt that an actual tie to physical space was not imperative for the success of OccupyLA, and the Occupy movement in general. The refrain is “you can’t evict an idea.” Occupiers I have spoken to have talked of still holding GA’s on city Hall steps, still planning actions (for example, the December 12th west coast port shutdown, in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, who first called for it), perhaps an evolution of tactics. Today, Occupy LA occupied evicted homes. Different occupations across the country have discussed occupying shuttered factories, and reopening them for community needs, health facilities, schools, etc. The idea is with the disbursement of the camp at city hall, seeds from the home base will be spread throughout Los Angeles, in the lobbies of banks, outside of homes about to be foreclosed on, in facilities shuttered not because people don’t need their services/products, nor because their aren’t people to work in them, but because it doesn’t enhance the profitability of those who own the means of production.
By default, the ball is in the court of the latter argument. We were evicted. Actions continue, almost daily, general assemblies are being held. As of right now, it is too early to tell which side of the argument will prove to be correct,,,,,,,
List of References
1. Fukayama, Francis. The End of History. http://www.kropfpolisci.com/exceptionalism.fukuyama.pdf
2. Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible. PM Press. Oakland, Ca. 1984
3. Chomsky, Noam. Government in the Future. Audio Lecture. Retreived from Youtube, 12/1/11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kPlEJlmWuc
4. Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Retreived from abahlali.org, 12/1/11 http://abahlali.org/files/Graeber.pdf
5. Woodcock, George, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. p. 329 Broadview Press, Ontario Canada. 2004
6. Bennett, Drake. David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street. Bloomberg Businessweek, 26-October-2011. Retreived from http://www.businessweek.com 12/1/11 http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/david-graeber-the-antileader-of-occupy-wall-street-10262011.html
7. Chomsky, Noam. Concision in the Mass Media. Audio Lecture. Retrieved from Youtube. 12/1/11 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlL2Jj-kCNU
8. Myerson, J.A. On Demands, Once and for All. retrieved from jameyerson.com 12/1/11 http://jamyerson.com/2011/11/29/on-demands-once-and-for-all/