Occupy Together: The Transnational Foundation of Occupy Wall Street
by Timothy Malone
Context for Occupation
The Occupy movement has come to capture the national imagination. Since the pitching of first tents in Zucotti Park in the original Occupy Wall Street action in late September, media coverage has shifted from relatively sparse, dismissive, even ridiculing (by both conservative and “liberal” media centers) to headline making news. Many occupiers that I have spoken with at OccupyLA (I am currently conducting ethnographic research for another project, as well as producing a film) attribute the explosion of sympathetic sentiment with the emergence of video footage of police repression, the use of unnecessary violence against a non-violent, peaceful group of protestors in New York in late september and early October, the raid of the Oakland encampment, up through the pepper spray incident of students at the Occupy UC Davis action. No matter the cause, there has been a qualitative and quantitative shift in coverage of the Occupy movement over the last two and a half months.
This increase in coverage has born largely positive effects for the occupy movement. It has privileged discourses on inequality, allowed for recognition of sympathy with the aims of the movement in large swathes of the U.S. population. It has brought issues of Wall Street recklessness and corporate control of the political system into the national discussion. Despite these positive effects, there is one story that has been systemically elided in mainstream representation: the transnationality of the Occupy Movement.
The dominant narrative depicts the Occupy Movement as largely national in character, bound to particular cities in the United States – New York, Boston, Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles, etcetera. On particular ‘big story days,’ such as the October 15th international day of action, we see stories of riots in Rome, or protests in Greece and London. The tone and tenor of the representation limits the explicit connection that exists between these transnational sites. They are reported as disparate, only loosely connected. They are not ‘one action,’ but protests in separate places, separate times. Such a stance performs a couple of ideological functions:
First, the movement appears smaller, less organized, and less directed than it really is. As opposed to a transnational social movement, directed at the multinational-corporate / financial system, the Occupy movement and respective encampments are concerned only with domestic politics, and relatively fractioned off from one another.
Second, by not recognizing the Occupation Movement as transnational, entwined with actions in Tahrir Square in Egypt, the indignados movement in Spain, the striking students in Chile, or the anti-austerity protestors in Greece, etcetera, a shared antagonist remains hidden. Though it manifests in particular places differently, effecting policies specific to particular countries and regions, the neoliberal economic order and the process of multinational globalization is the site of resistance, across actions and movements. This must remain hidden, for this neoliberal economic order is profoundly undemocratic, super-cedes states (and thus their democratic mechanisms) and invisibility is one of the primary mechanisms by which it is able to perform its work. If people knew what was happening they would more likely resist, or at least be in sympathy with those who do. You can’t recognize the movement as transnational, directed at a transnational structure of finance and capital, for that reveals that structure.
Naomi Klein, in her work “The Shock Doctrine,” describes an international order of finance and capital which maintains a veto power over the developments of nations and societies through loans and ‘structural adjustment programs.’ Countries in financial crisis, whether that crisis be historical (as in the case of the formerly colonized countries), or a more contemporary one (suffering the effects of political transition, war, natural disaster, environmental devastation) may appeal for a loan to the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Money is loaned to meet the immediate needs of the country, or to benefit a voracious power elite in the case of autocratic societies, on the condition that the political leadership ‘structurally adjust’ its political system and economy: open up its markets to foreign investment, aka multinational capital. The loan may or may not remediate immediate concerns of the country in duress in the short term. In the long term, it means a giving away of a country’s infrastructure, allowing for privatization of everything from energy to water supply. It is the imposition of a development model, theorized at the University of Chicago by Milton Friedman and his acolytes, that has been shown to lead to massive wealth extraction, rising inequality and the construction or solidification of domestic elites linked to transnational capital, resulting in capital flight. (Klein, Shock Doctrine)
The fundamental principle is that when a country is in crisis, you ‘shock it.” The population is willing to accept a disadvantageous socio/political/economic (selling off of its infrastructure) because it has no choice, facing immediate crises (Domestically, think T.A.R.P. and Wall Street bailouts). The policies prove beneficial to multinational capital, but harmful to the populations of those respective countries.
Within a globalized system of capital, it is not only the countries in the traditionally defined ‘third-world,’ which face ‘structural adjustment.’ Finance capital has an effective veto power over first world governments, as well. For if finance doesn’t like a particular policy or set of policies instituted by a national government, it may withdraw its investments, its capital. International finance may move it to another country, freely. National economies in a global system require capital to keep the engine running, so they are willing to institute policies harmful to the population, yet ideologically masked through rhetoric of ‘free-markets’ that do not too directly challenge finance. This is precisely what happened in Argentina in the 90’s, leading to a massive run on banks, riots and street protests, and a series of governmental changes – eventually resulting in the eviction of the IMF from the country.
The societies which most benefited from this multinational arrangement of globalized capital were beginning by 2008 to fall into crises, themselves. With the Wall Street collapse and subsequent economic recession, the United States government, financial sector and population all began searching for answers to stabilize the system. Certain programs are off the table, due to the role of finance’s veto power. You can’t nationalize health care, even though to do so would by itself eliminate the deficit (Baker, What we’re not being told about Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan). You can’t roll back military spending significantly because it is the keynesian mechanism by which the entire high-tech economy, (everything from biotech, semi-conductors to satellites) is subsidized. So politicians in the United States have settled on what is the equivalent of our own version of the shock doctrine. Namely, roll back all social programs that have any effect or benefit to the population. Social security, medicare/medicaid, education, governmental agencies that function to remediate the deleterious effects of capital like the EPA are all now vulnerable to either elimination or privatization. The solution to the crisis becomes to further the very policies which drove the crisis, because, those with an effective veto per over the political system are not in crisis, at all. Profits are way up, as is income inequality. In the moment of crisis, we are told we have to ram through legislation harmful to the population because there is no other option. The traditional political system, the two-party system, go along with it, for their elections are financed by these same interests.
The U.S. economic crisis was not limited to the United States. As described above, we live in an interconnected and globalized economy in which multinationals not lack respect for national boundaries and sovereignty of political systems, but have power over them. Banks all across the world bore deep exposure to the toxicity at the heart of Wall Street, through mutual investment, and through “insuring” such investments. As the Western European and Mediterranean countries began to suffer systemic infection from the U.S. crisis, they also proposed controls and mechanisms to restrain damage that was largely the expense of their populations. Politically unwilling to engage / challenge multinational finance, which held a knife to the state / political system’s throat, austerity cuts (rolling back the social safety nets), across Western Europe and Greece, were proposed as the only solution to avert economic catastrophe and systemic failure.
The structural connections between global multinationals and financial power on the one hand, and Egypt on the other (and the resultant Occupation of Tahrir Square) are quite different, but no less explicitly connected. For 30-plus years, the United States had maintained, through military action and aid, an autocratic regime headed by Hosni Mubarak. Along with Israel, Egypt has functioned as offshore military base for the United States, ensuring that the oil-producing middle east region maintained ‘stability,’ a technical term, meaning firmly under “our” control. Energy plays a vital role in maintaing the global capitalist order, an order the United States as hegemon is explicitly interested in maintaining. Oil fuels capitalist economies, and control over it also ensures an effective veto to any independent challenger to the global capitalist order, for instance a nationalist country that wished to use oil profits for the better development of its country and for the welfare of its population. Such independent nationalism cannot be tolerated in the region, for it would represent an effective challenge to the U.S., by extension the multinational/financial capital it represents. Similar in that the Egyptian state is embedded within a transnational system of global capital integration, conditions in Egypt were, and continue to be, much more repressive than in the western democracies: a qualitative difference which should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, protestors in Egypt bear a connection to the Occupiers in New York and across the United States, as they do to Greece and Spain, and everywhere else with an Occupy encampment, as they are resisting a government installed in order to function on behalf of the self-same globalized system. (Chomsky, It’s Not Radical Islam…)
It is within this context that social movements across the world began to emerge, most visibly in Egypt, Spain, and Greece. Though the ‘demands’ of these protestors, these movements, perhaps seem disparate on the surface to some lacking context, it is easy to see their interconnection if the framework of international capital driving social and economic crises is understood.
Imagining A Global Movement
“The imagination, especially when collective, can become the fuel for action. It is the imagination, in its collective forms. that creates the ideas of neighborhood and nationhood, of moral economies and unjust rule, of higher wages and foreign labor prospects. The imagination is today a staging ground for action, and not only for escape.” (Appadurai, Modernity at Large, 7)
Arjun Appadurai is referencing a ‘community of sentiment.’ What unites protestors in Tahrir Square beyond the effects suffered from an ideologically cloaked transnational world-capitalist system? How do we as activists relate to one another? How do we move from isolated cries into a collectivity, engaged in analysis of our shared situation, and action? On the ground at OccupyLA where I am performing an ethnography to document its developments through time, I have conducted multiple interviews, and with thoughts to this project have asked, “Do you feel connected to other protestors, internationally? In particular, those in Tahrir Square, the indignant in Spain and Greece?” It was the only question that I asked occupiers in my interviews that yielded a Universal answer. “Yes.”
We are connected. Why? How?
Both Appadurai and Benedict Anderson (Anderson, Imagined Communities) theorize that print capital, and beyond that, media, have the capacity to generate in their users/consumers a sense of “community with,” a “shared sentiment.” In the case of Occupy, and associated transnational movements, the sentiment shared seems to be, through the consumption of texts critical of the global order of capital, watching news coverage of assaults on protestors in Egypt, sympathizing with anti-austreity measure protestors in Greece and Spain due to a shared identity of what I am calling a “radical” position. It is radical not because it necessarily aligns with a Marxist or Anarchist project. It is radical in its analysis, not its prescription. The content of this analysis, for those in the Occupy movement of the United States is, generally, “We are in a shared struggle against multinational corporations and finance capital, with all its attendant structures and institutions (militarism and the support of dictatorship), with other protestors and movements across the world. For Egyptians, who know very well the support provided by the United States to Mubarak’s dictatorship, they see a movement developed within the imperial center, challenging a political and economic order which uses force within Egypt to create a ground for itself. Protestors in Greece and Spain know the international nature of finance as well.
We are natural allies against a status quo power arrangement, and it is transparent, given you have a radical analysis of global order as assumption. That assumption is formed through text, media, and subjectivity formation.
“…electronic mass mediation and transnational mobilization have broken the monopoly of autonomous nation-states over the project of modernization. The transformation of everyday subjectivities through electronic mediation and the work of the imagination is not only a cultural fact. It is deeply connected to politics, through the new ways in which individual attachments, interests, and aspirations increasingly crosscut those of the nation-state.” (Appadurai, 10)
The internet has played a function quite radical in facilitating ‘individual attachments.’ Last spring, as events ramped up in intensity in Tahrir Square, Facebook groups formed, solidarity pages, and spread amongst activist circles. A meme spread, ‘black out your profile pic in solidarity with the Egyptian Uprising.’ Activists within the United States were identifying with, imagining a connection facilitated by technology, beyond reading and sharing sentiment. Friend requests were sent. Twitter feeds followed. Communications developed between organizers. Beyond a purely imagined solidarity, networks began to establish which would come to bear organizational fruit from Egyptian protests to what would become the Occupy Movement (discussed in greater depth below).
How many media representations indicate that the original call to Occupy Wall Street came from an international culture jamming organization, Adbusters magazine based in Vancouver, inspired by what they saw happening in Tahrir Square? A full page “ad” ran, asking the question, “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” Activists in Canada, sympathetic with Egyptian protests, floating an idea to its American activist audience – is it possible to occupy wall street, to set up tents, to maintain a camp in the middle of the financial capitol of the world, in the same way activists encamped for days on end in Tahrir? (Kaste, Exploring Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Adbuster Origins) The very origin of the occupation was explicitly linked transnationally, through an imagined community, largely shaped by political identification or activist stance; an identification/stance fueled by traditional print text, media representation (of the critical sort), social networks, and a variety of internet based communication tools.
Connections and solidarity, though, was not just imagined. In April of 2011, organizers from Egypt’s April 6th movement (the original organizers behind the Tahrir Square actions, who had been attempting to rally Egyptians to the cause since 2008) came to New York to discuss the Egyptian Revolution taking place, in University settings. (Myerson, Occupying Wall Street and Tahrir Square)
To egyptian activist/organizer Ahmed Maher, though, lecturing at University wasn’t the most important reason for the trip; “What really matters is meeting with young American bloggers and activists.” Issues of inequality across societies was a common meeting point for activist to discuss, linked to hierarchal systems of transnational capital, blocking independent development in Egypt, and driving the United states deeper into economic catastrophe.
Maher and his comrade Waleed Rashed spoke with American activists about their experience organizing in Egypt, the uses of social media and traditional mechanisms for generating support, what they hoped to accomplish. Rashed advised the audience of activists, many in the room who would come to play a vital role in the establishment of the first Occupy encampment in New York City, “Don’t worry if the revolution doesn’t come tomorrow. It will come. It is only a matter of time. Just keep working.” Perhaps Rashed would be surprised at the speed in which ‘the revolution’ did in fact come. (Myerson, Soccer, Cabs and Revolution…)
Marisa Holmes is an activist filmmaker who helped organize the Wall street protests, as well as engaged in a filmic project to document developments in Egypt post-Mubarak. She adds a rather startlingly insight to the transnational nature of Occupation, the globalized system being resisted: “The tear gas used on protestors in Tahrir Square was manufactured by Combined Systems Inc., a US based company. The same company provided the pepper spray used in UC Davis demonstrations…This is a period of global unrest. It cannot be stopped. We will occupy everywhere.” (Myerson, Occupying Wall Street and Tahrir Square) And to add, it’s a global system being resisted.
In recent weeks, Tahrir square has been retaken as revolution is not a goal achieved with the ouster of Mubarak, but a continual process. Protestors are now aligned against a military dictatorship, and demanding greater citizen participation and democratization. Protestors have been photographed with signs expressing solidarity with the Occupy movements, from New York to Oakland, and in interviews expressed solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, and have recognized (imagined?) the global nature and interconnection of this citizens movement, called in Egypt, the battle for Tahrir square (and throughout the region, Bahrain, Syria, etc. the ‘Arab Spring’). In still others, there have been occupations. In Western Europe and the Mediterranean, we have heard of Los Indignados, or the indignant.
Transnational Activists and Transnational Models
The transnational connections of Occupation are not limited to traveling activists, shared ideas / analyses, nor to novel communication vehicles like those facilitated by the internet. A transnational component is inscribed in the very heart of occupation, in the structure: the general assembly model and their associated mechanisms of organizations.
The General Assembly model can be traced throughout anarchist history and theory as the participatory democratic model by which social movements can most effectively organize themselves so as to ensure equal voice and egalitarianism amongst its participants (Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible) The General Assembly emerged most visibly in the Spanish Revolution of 1936 (perhaps the largest-scale and most successful anarchist project in history).(Woodcock, 329) In more recent manifestation, the general assembly model has been used to structure decision making and participation in the indignados movements in Spain, emerging May 15th of 2011, in response to the european fiscal crisis and lack of confidence in Spanish politics. as well as in the anti-austerity movement in Greece emerging May 5th of 2011.
The General Assembly is a leaderless, radical-democratic vehicle by which proposals are produced, discussed, and ratified. Composed of ‘assembled persons’ (whoever is there, in the square, and desires to participate), and rooted in a process of consensus, the General assembly functions horizontally. All business of the occupation is handled within it. Proposals are made to the entire General Assembly and must be ratified, through consensus, which means 100% agreement of the entire body. Consent, disagreement, hesitation to endorse are all effected through a symbology, a series of body/hand gestures. Often times, the business at Occupy grows to detailed, too specific to be handled in the G.A., so committees and affinity groups are formed, within the G.A. in order to facilitate the needs of the collective. Such committee/affinity groups use the same symbology and require consensus as the G.A. itself. Proposals are made by committees and brought back to the G.A. for ratification.
If a singular voice wishes to ‘block’ the proposal, she may. The proposal then goes back to the committee which formed it, for re-theorization or to be scrapped, depending on the committees capacity to come to resolution of the issue that drove the block. If a proposal is reformulated, it goes back to the G.A. for a consensus taking. I have documented the General Assembly in action, from formation on Los Angeles, through its development, in my ethnographic film, available here (clip begins at 6:35):
The clip demonstrates the formation of committees, affinity groups, as well as the symbology of Occupation, a set of communication tools, shared not only across Occupations, but internationally as well, in the indignados movement.
In fact, in Los Angeles, several of the activist/organizers I interviewed participated in formations not only of occupations.’s nationally (Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York), but were participants in the indignados movement in Spain. OccupyLA participants were trained in the structure of General Assembly by transnational activists, who had gotten the model from Spain.
The situation was not different in the original formation of Occupy Wall Street, in New york. David Graeber (Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology), anarchist anthropologist, played an instrumental role in the formation of the occupation, as well as in ensuring that the G.A. would become the mechanism, or radical engine, at its heart. He described a situation on August 2nd at Bowling Green, a planning meeting for some kind of action on Wall Street in September. When he arrived, the same old ‘verticals’ were present, activist organizations with hierarchical structures, giving speeches., planning a traditional ‘march.’ He was disheartened.
“But as I paced about the Green, I noticed something. To adopt activist parlance: this wasn’t really a crowds of verticals—that is, the sort of people whose idea of political action is to march around with signs under the control of one or another top-down protest movement. They were mostly pretty obviously horizontals: people more sympathetic with anarchist principles of organization, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy, and direct action. I quickly spotted at least one Wobbly, a young Korean activist I remembered from some Food Not Bomb event, some college students wearing Zapatista paraphernalia, a Spanish couple who’d been involved with the indignados in Madrid… I found my Greek friends, an American I knew from street battles in Quebec during the Summit of the Americas in 2001, now turned labor organizer in Manhattan, a Japanese activist intellectual I’d known for years… My Greek friend looked at me and I looked at her and we both instantly realized the other was thinking the same thing: “Why are we so complacent? Why is it that every time we see something like this happening, we just mutter things and go home?” – though I think the way we put it was more like, “You know something? Fuck this shit. They advertised a general assembly. Let’s hold one.” (Graeber, “What Did We Actually Do Right?)
To the chagrin of the ‘verticals,’ Graeber and his associates did indeed hold a General Assembly, in another part of the park. As the meeting conducted by the verticals fell into disarray because of disagreement about how to proceed, people began to make their way over to the general assembly. By the end, the “horizontals” had won out. Everyone had come over. Occupy Wall Street would not be led by the traditional activist organizations / hierarchy, (ie. World Workers Party, the Answer Coalition), but would instead be structured as General Assembly, run on consensus.
The transnational element of this formation is transparent – a Korean Wobbly (an international, anarchist workers union interested in workers’ control of production), Zapatista paraphernalia (though the nationality of those donning the garb is not known, we at least have an instance of ‘imagined’ solidarity with a movement in Chiapas). We see reference to the Indignados, a movement Graeber himself indicates participation in, Greece and Canadian protests/activists as sites of influence. From its very foundation, the Occupy Movement not only imagined itself as connected in a struggle with a series of social movements in varying locations and across time, but was structured by people traveling across borders, bringing their experiences of radical-democratic engagement and participation with them, as building blocks and alternative vision.
Graeber is not the only theorist of anarchism and ‘horizontal’ structure (as opposed to vertical also known as ‘anti-authoritarianism’ in activist parlance) to participate in the active formation of Occupy G.A. mechanisms. Marina Sitrin, post-doctoral fellow at the City University of New York has been an instrumental voice not only in the formation of Occupy Wall Street, but in theorizing the ‘next step’ post-eviction from particular encampments for the Occupy Movement. Sitrin’s major work, horizontalism emerges from her experience within Latin American social movements, in particular horizontal groups in Argentina organizing around anarchist principles, living an experience of direct democracy, and constructing a vision of a new world within the shell of the old, through practice and action. It is fast becoming a canonical text amongst ‘horizontals.’ She spoke of the anarchist principles undergirding the Occupy Movement and their international connections:
The ways in which we organize in these spaces of assemblies and working groups is inextricably linked to the vision of what we are creating. We seek open, horizontal, participatory spaces where each person can truly speak and be heard. We organize structures, such as facilitation teams, agendas, and variations on the forms of the assembly, from general assemblies to spokes councils, always being open to changing them so as to create the most democratic and participatory space possible… The creation of alternative institutions and solutions has already begun in the United States. With or without encampments, the constructive phase of the Occupy movement is here, and all indications are that it will not slow down, as it has not slowed down in Spain.,,, This is the beginning of the occupation of an encampment that will never be dislodged: the world.” (Sitrin, Occupy Wall Street: Beyond Encampments)
Beyond trafficking in people across borders, or ideologies, or tactics, the very mechanism of organization and decision making is, at it’s roots, transnational. Borrowed from people and movements not bound by national lines, participants in these actions/structures have not interest in even ‘taking the state,’ to borrow a Marxist conception. There is no need for it. The general assembly, shared transnationally, theorizes in its very structure, a transcendence of national boundaries, through a series of interlinking assemblies, stretching from community and workplace, to a federated system that can theoretically reach international levels.
On November 28th, an Egyptian born, American activist addressed the General Assembly of Occupy Los Angeles. Protests in Egypt had re-initiated, and that very day, international news reports carried images of state violence and resistance in Tahrir Square. She proceeded to give us a ‘status update’ (to borrow Facebook parlance). Using the “people’s mic,” she announced to OccupyLA the death of 36 Egyptians and thousands injured that day, with Tahrir square becoming ‘the largest hospital in the world at this moment.’ She went on read a prepared statement, in order to express through her own voice, and the voice of our occupation, our solidarity with the Egyptian protestors:
‘People of Egypt! We stand with you! From Cairo to California! In Love! And In Solidarity! We are WITH you!”
The voices of the occupation rang off the walls of city hall, into the frigid, night air. As i put down my camorder, looked around at the assembled peoples i was occupying space with and up at the sky where an LAPD police helicopter circled, flood light ablaze, I felt connected with protestors across the world, in my own encampment, and wondered, how long until the state moves on us?
The next night, as I prepared a presentation of my ethnographic film on Occupy Los Angeles, a raid of our encampment was conducted, in which 1700 officers bussed in from Dodger Stadium in riot gear, and with threat of force, removed our localized manifestation of global solidarity, carrying several hundred off for an extended jail visit. I watched the eviction on television’s local news. I had five browsers up and active, watching OccupyLa’ers move their way about the event, recording with cell phones, broadcasting through Livestreams. I engaged in ‘chats’ on the livestreams, sending updates from what I had seen on the news about police movement. I chatted with other occupiers about what was happening. We tweet bombed, updated Facebook accounts with status updates. I went on other Occupy Wall Pages, letting them now about the eviction in progress, sharing livestream links, so other occupiers could observe in real time what was happening in LA. I linked livestreams and updates to the Occupy Together Page, Occupy Rome, Occupy London, Spain, Greece. So did others. On chats, people across the world began to appear, expressing solidarity from their respective countries, offering advice from their own experience about how to manage the unfolding event/tragedy. Many just expresses their rage, frustration, or sadness. One spanish protestor, engaged in chat, simply wrote, “Basta!”, or ‘enough, the signifier of not only the Spanish Indignados, but an expression of solidity, shared experience, sentiment.
From the formation of the Tahrir square protests, up through the spread of Occupy around the country, the internet has functioned as vital communication tool, effecting shared sentiment and notions of solidarity across the global movement. In egypt, a video was produced and uploaded to youtube by Asmaa Mahfouz, activist and organizer, which would go viral and help to catalyze popular participation in its revolution ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLPjkFNeL7M ).
Wael Ghonim, Egyptian activist and google executive, created a Facebook page entitled, “We are al Khaled Said,” in honor of an Egyptian youth slain by Egyptian police. Said, it is claimed, was in possession of evidence of illegal activity by Egyptian police. He was apparently killed, beaten to death for it. The first version of this Facebook account was taken down, due to a violation of facebook’s ‘terms and services,” but soon thereafter, it appeared again, with an english version, apparently created to generate international attention. Ghonim is presumed to be behind the reintroduction of the account(s), and was subsequently arrested and held for twelve days. (Coker, Google Executive Emerges….)
Both Facebook pages, Mahfouz’s and Ghonim’s became sites of conversation, connection and planning. By January 24th, 85,000 people indicated they would ‘attend’ the protests the next day, according to an events page created to represent the growing movement. (Hauslohner, Is Egypt About to Have a Facebook Revolution?)
After being releases from Egyptian detainment, Ghonim asserted: “I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him […] I’m talking on behalf of Egypt. […] This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started […] in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the internet.” (Smith, Egypt’s Facebook Revolution: Wael Ghonim Thanks the Social Network)
During those early days of Egyptian Revolution, I was asked to join a ‘group’ on Facebook, entitled ‘Black out your Profile in Solidarity with the Egyptian People.’ I was invited by an old high school classmate, who was now a lawyer/activist in the bay area, and had not seen, in person, in 17 years. The ‘group’ would grow from a few dozen people, to several thousand within the next few weeks, and blacked out profiles became a meme of indeterminable, but rather significant degree.
As the technology becomes more and more ubiquitous in our daily lives, it has been exciting to watch the use activists, transnationally, have put these technologies. When I first joined the ‘Occupy Los ANgeles’ Facebook page, we had 46 members. At the time of this writing, there are 48,000. Multitudes of those are from other occupation sites, domestically and internationally. They have received ‘updates’ about what’s happening on the ground, in real time, over the last two and a half months, inspiring contact, coordination, and a deepening of a shared imaginary/sentiment.
On November 28th, two days before eviction with events in Egypt up from in media representation, I asked several OccupyLa’ers their thoughts with regards to the International aspect of occupation. “Do you feel connected to other protestors internationally, in particular those protests in Egypt?” One interviewee provided some useful illumination on the context.
He described himself as ‘one of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street,” participating in early August G.A.’s and planning meetings in New York, for the coming action. He came to LA in mid-october, because it was ‘too cold” in New york, and thought that because of the weather in LA, the occupation would have more of a chance at longevity anyway.
He spoke of the transnational nature of Occupy, from his perspective. He spoke of telephone conversations he had had with organizers in Italy and Spain, to organize the October 15th ‘International Day of Action.’ October 15th saw actions all across the world, and was largely coordinated through such informalized communication networks, with organizers and activists from previously shared struggles communicating through telephone, Facebook, twitter and other social networks. The 15th of October was chosen for the day of international action because it represented the 5 month anniversary of the Indignados movement’s actions, in Spain. I did not hear that explicitly transnational connection mentioned in a singular mainstream representation of the day’s coordinated actions. Mass media images showed massive riots in Rome, clashes with police in Spain and Greece, yet never mentioned in dominant discourse were the explicit connections, the context in which such a coordinated action developed. The scale of some of these protests were mind-blowing. Here’s an example of Spain:
The interviewee spoke of Tahrir. “Yeah, I’m connected. A lot of people got killed today. A lot hurt. I don’t feel CONNECTED. I feel RESPONSIBLE…. you know, partly. I’m helping to organize this action here. And people over there are getting killed. A lot of people are laying their lives on the line, and all of us here aren’t suffering like that. It’s important to remember how serious this is.”
In a recent interview with Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, novelist and activist Arunhdati Roy captured the transnational potential of the Occupy movement, and it’s relation to her home country of India, and by extension, a multitude of international sites:
“I mean, it does need a lot of thinking through, but I would say that, to me, fundamentally, you know, people have to begin to formulate some kind of a vision, you know, and that vision has to be the dismantling of this particular model, in which a few people can be allowed to have an unlimited amount of wealth, of power, both political as well as corporate. You know, that has to be dismantled. And that has to be the aim of this movement. And that has to then move down into countries like mine, where people (tend to) look at the U.S. as some great, aspirational model. And I can tell you that there is such a lot of beauty still in India. There’s such a lot of ferocity there that actually can provide a lot of political understanding, even to the protest on Wall Street. To me, the forests of central India and the protesters in Wall Street are connected by a big pipeline, and I am one of those people in that pipeline. (Goodman, Amy. Arundhati Roy: Occupy Wall Street Is “So Important Because It Is in the Heart of Empire”)
Envisioning the transnational flow of multinational capital which is always invisible, recognizing the institutional nodes which produce the flow, and reformulating one’s subjectivity (based on recognition of being enmeshed within this circuit), and reaching out to others in solidarity – this seems to be the mechanism of not only transnational imagination, but of explicit connecting of activists and networks in this movement; and it is a still unfolding process.
Occupy is in a precarious position, what some are calling the second stage. Across the country (the degree of national coordination not yet understood), Occupy movements / protestors have been evicted, perhaps beaten, jailed. Occupiers disagree on the relevance of maintaining a physical space – is an actual encampment necessary to achieve our ends of envisioning an alternative structure, to living the new within the shell of the old?
Many of the voices I spoke with at Occupy LA speculated that there was something special about maintaining physical space. It was read as an opportunity to demonstrate to ourselves and to outsiders that much of what we accept as natural, is not. Judith Butler for one asserted the importance of occupying a physical space through time, as it meant the protest never went away. Even when asleep, the protest is happening. (Elliott, Judith Butler at Occupy Wall Street).
Others have spoken of the eviction as liberation, a blessing in disguise, Now occupations could like seeds scattered, form mobile and multiple occupation sites – new parks, bank lobbies, in front of foreclosed homes, blocking eviction. On December 12, Occupy the Port will be conducted from Occupy sites all over the West Coast, from Oakland to Los ANgeles, and back to Vancouver. Workers in Japan have signed on, in a transnational expression of solidarity, refusing to load ships headed for West Coast ports. The question will be, based on media’s fractured representation of the international dynamic of the Occupy Movement, will they do the same with future actions? Without an encampment will actions be reported as smaller, more disparate, disconnected than they in fact are?
Marina Sitrin argues that Spain may provide some examples for the second phase of Occupy, beyond encampments:
“In the case of Spain, this expansion began in June, when the movement decided to focus its energy more on the assemblies and the working groups than on maintaining the encampments themselves. To maintain the miniature models of a society that the movement wished to create did not necessarily contribute to the actual changes that were needed in the populations that needed them the most. Which is why the decision to move away from the encampments was nothing more than another impulse in the constructive aims of the movement: the real encampment that has to be reconstructed is the world…the viability of a movement is not only defined by its capacity to withstand pressure from the outside, but also in its ability to reach and work together with people outside the space of the plaza or square. It is this—the going beyond the parameters of the plaza—which the assemblies and the working groups have already started to put into effect.” (Sitrin and Caballud, Occupy Wall Street: Beyond Encampments)
What will become of our precarious social movement, in what some describe as a moment of crisis, others as a second stage? Though the future is unknown, we may be certain that as long as the transnational flow of capital, multinational corporate globalization process persists, it will continue to have its discontents. The state and the nation are already superseded by our adversaries. The degree to which our seemingly (at first glance) disparate movements can interconnect, strengthen flows of communication, bodies, and ideas is the degree to which we may bring about another world that we all have imagined together, as possible, beyond national boundaries.
List of References
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