via Stress FM:
Occupy Wall Street as seen by AFFECT
3 July 2011: Adbusters puts out its initial call to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th, 2011.
2 August 2011: New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts organize a first general assembly in the Financial District, which then occur weekly in Tompkins Square Park in the lead-up to September 17th.
17 September 2011: The occupation of Zuccotti Park begins.
21 September 2011: Red Channels puts out a call to join the occupation of Zuccotti Park.
22 September 2011: There is a solidarity march in New York protesting the execution of prisoner Troy Davis in Georgia.
24 September 2011: The one-week anniversary of the occupation, featuring a large unpermitted march, and over 80 arrests. It is these arrests that start to attract wider media attention.
27 September 2011: More of the Same releases “The Carcass in Our Heads: A Mic Check”, a zine on Occupy Wall Street.
1 October 2011: The two-week anniversary of the occupation, featuring another big march, this time over the Brooklyn Bridge, leading to over 700 arrests, and even more media attention.
4 October 2011: The 16 Beaver Group organizes an event, “Liberty Plaza and its Conflicts”.
5 October 2011: Another large march is called to protest the recent police brutality and arrests, now joined by the institutional left and labor unions, who obtain protest permits for the first time. That night an attempt was made to storm the police barricades protecting Wall Street, and snake marches occur in the Financial District throughout the night.
8 October 2011: The three-week anniversary of the occupation, another large march, this time ending up in Washington Square Park, with rumors that there will be an attempted occupation, expanding and multiplying the territories. No occupation is attempted, making it the first Saturday since the occupation of Zuccotti Park without a major escalation or offensive.
10 October 2011: Occupy Oakland occupies Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, renaming it Oscar Grant Plaza in honor of a man killed by police in Oakland on New Year’s Eve 2009.
13 October 2011: The first attempted eviction of Zuccotti Park. A large mobilization forces the owners of the park and the New York Police Department to abandon its plans to “clean” the park. Occupy Brooklyn has its first general assembly.
14 October 2011: An “Anti-Authoritarian Anarchist Autonomist Open Assembly” takes place in Brooklyn.
15 October 2011: The four-week anniversary of the occupation, and part of an international day of action. This time there is an explicit plan to occupy Washington Square Park, following a convergence in Times Square, but the park is entirely surrounded by police, and the protestors decide to avoid any confrontation and leave without a fight. There is later an attempted occupation of First Park.
22 October 2011: Occupy Sunset Park has its first general assembly.
22-23 October 2011: Artists Space is occupied.
25 October 2011: Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland is violently evicted by the police, but re-occupied the next day.
2 November 2011: Occupy Oakland calls for a general strike, where the Port of Oakland is blockaded. That night in Oakland there is an attempted occupation of an empty building, formerly the headquarters of the Travelers Aid Society. The Direct Democracy Working Group forms in New York.
8 November 2011: A “NYC Anti-authoritarian, Anarchist, Autonomist Open Assembly” takes place in Brooklyn.
14 November 2011: Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland is again violently evicted by the police.
15 November 2011: Zuccotti Park is violently evicted by the police, with many arrests, everything in the park is either confiscated or destroyed, barricades set-up all around the perimeter of the park, in addition to a huge presence of private security and police officers that would become a fixture throughout the next year.
17 November 2011: The two-month anniversary of the occupation of Occupy Wall Street, large mobilizations throughout Manhattan. The New School is occupied. Death to Capitalism Cinema operates a 24/7 screening space inside the occupation.
21 November 2011: Attempted occupation of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School.
25 November 2011: The New School occupation ends.
7 December 2011: The Our Lives Are Not Negotiable Reading Group begins.
12 December 2011: A West Coast Port Shutdown is initiated by Occupy Oakland, as a kind of general strike, with many cities along the coast blockading their ports.
17 December 2011: The three-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and an attempted occupation of Juan Pablo Duarte Square, and more marches.
1 January 2012: Following the annual noise demonstration outside New York’s federal prison, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New Year’s Eve celebrations turn into an attempted re-occupation of Zuccotti Park.
7-15 January 2012: The 16 Beaver Group organizes “The Crisis of Everything Everywhere” seminar.
11 January 2012: Strike Everywhere calls for a Global General Strike on May Day.
28 January 2012: Occupy Oakland’s Move-In day, with an attempted occupation of the Kaiser Convention Center, leading to over 400 arrests. In solidarity, New York attempts to occupy a vacant condominium building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
14 February 2012: Occupy Wall Street calls for the May Day General Strike.
4 March 2012: Strike Everywhere organizes its first “Open Assembly on the General Strike”.
17 March 2012: The six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, another attempted occupation of Zuccotti Park. Union Square is occupied.
21 March 2012: Union Square is completely shut down at midnight, it would then be barricaded and protected by hundreds of riot police each night from 12-6am for the next few months.
22 March 2012: A large unpermitted march protesting the death of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was murdered in Florida.
28 March 2012: The Rank and File Initiative organizes a fare strike in New York subways, and Strike Everywhere organizes its first “Precarious & Service Workers Assembly”.
14 April 2012: New York’s anarchist bookfair leads to an unpermitted march.
1 May 2012: An attempted national general strike coordinated by the Occupy movement.
The following questions were posed by e-mail by Ana Bigotte Vieira and Miguel Castro Caldas between November 2012 and January 2013.
Part I. From the initial call to occupied Zuccotti Park
What was at stake when people decided to occupy the streets? I mean, to live in public space, and not only to do a demonstration? And how did you choose the square in front of that Wall Street building?
The decision to occupy public space in New York, and elsewhere in the United States, happened at different times, for different reasons, by many different people. There was never a coherent political program behind the Occupy movement, nor a specific goal among its participants. This has allowed for much projection among both its supporters and detractors, which includes both its participants and spectators. You could see in it whatever you wanted, good or bad, as each action or inaction, statement or silence, demonstrated whatever you wanted it to about the present moment, the people, their thoughts, etc. We can say, though, that for many what was at stake was simply experimentation, an attempt at a different kind of political articulation, taking inspiration from the revolts that had been taking place all around the world in 2011.
The initial call to Occupy Wall Street was, by and large, treated with cynicism and skepticism here in New York, if it was acknowledged at all. The call came from outside the city, from a publication called Adbusters, which is based in Vancouver, Canada, 3,000 miles from New York. On July 13th, 2011 they put out a call on their website, followed a few days later by a Facebook event page, to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th. At the time this seemed to be the extent of the “organizing” they did, relying almost entirely on social media, hashtags, memes, going viral, etc. A lot of the on-the-ground organizing was to be left to those actually living in New York to figure out. This led to some confusion and resentment from those who would get involved, and led to plenty of others initially not taking the call very seriously.
A series of general assemblies started in New York on Saturday, August 2nd to figure out what to do with this call by Adbusters. These were initially organized by local activists, some of whom were involved in the local anti-austerity organizing of the previous year. Many more were newer presences, who were just curious. The meetings occurred weekly at Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which has its own long history of organized and militant resistance to the state, including being host to some riots in the late ’80s.
For some who showed up to these assemblies what was at stake was simply developing a broad and functioning New York City General Assembly, which at the time seemed a little more ambitious and potentially more radical than simply a failed “day of action,” or demonstration, which many of us expected September 17th to be. These early general assemblies were often pretty small, around 30-65 people each week, which in a city of over 8 million, is not much to speak of. Even in the week before, there wasn’t much optimism that people would actually show up. But of course people did. Some of the initial discussions in the assemblies before the occupation spun around tactics—like whether or not violence was proper, what violence was, etc. Some of us of course pushed for tactical diversity and for communications media that would not be centralized. And some of us did not like the “We are the 99%” slogan which would later become so popular.
Here you can already see, before the occupation even began, a number of contradictions and divergent perspectives. There were those treating the weekly assemblies as autonomous actions in their own right, which should be developed and expanded, and thought of as independent from any calls or dates which did not themselves originate from the assembly itself, or even from New York. And there were others who thought the call and projected date should be taken seriously, that they gave us something specific and material to organize around, which made the assemblies often feel more like planning meetings than an assembly, as such. This split, if you will, would continue during the occupation of Zuccotti Park, as the general assembly quickly became a forum to manage the specific details of daily life in the park, rather than a body to work towards an ongoing revolutionary movement in New York.
Another of the contradictions was that, as mentioned, the general assemblies were not very big, and thus could hardly be said to speak for the population of New York City, never mind the United States. In the end, the online organizing initiated by Adbusters perhaps did more to capture popular imagination, and inspire participation, than did these rather modest and often dysfunctional early assemblies ostensibly meant to organize the city. What this led to was that many of those who would come to occupy Zuccotti Park were not New Yorkers, they didn’t live here, didn’t work here, didn’t grow up here, and as such didn’t have many social or political connections outside of the park. They arrived in New York for Occupy Wall Street, the online campaign, without much awareness of past struggles in New York, experience organizing in the city, or the knowledge or capacity to really spread the movement to different areas of the city, or involve more of its population.
So, the different approaches to the function of the general assembly within the Occupy movement, as well as its participants’ relationship to its online and virtual mythology versus the material struggles and spaces of potential intervention in the city: these might be seen as some unresolved contradictions.
Adbusters’ call seemed to be inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, and to a lesser extent the occupation of the kasbah in Tunis earlier that winter. These indefinite occupations in Egypt and Tunisia were the urban communes that came to signal the ongoing commitment to the insurrections which took place in these countries. The call to Occupy Wall Street was not seriously committed to attempting the kinds of insurrections we saw in Tunisia or Egypt, but rather it was like those occupations which took place earlier that spring across the Mediterranean in Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon, and Athens—more symbolic, populist expressions of “direct democracy,” as a response to austerity and crisis.
The occupation that began in New York on September 17th, as well as those that spread throughout the United States that fall, though they weren’t explicitly insurrectionary in intent, or in result, did come to represent a rupture in American politics. The experimentation that took place in the occupied parks and plazas—as well as around them at the actions, marches, protests, and rallies which emanated out of the parks, often spontaneously and uncontrollably—went far beyond what could be accomplished at a demonstration, mass mobilization, or even a riot. The occupations experimented with the participants’ social relationships, social reproduction, subjectivity, the temporality of protest, the distribution of food, clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, and other supplies, decision-making, self-organization, etc. For many this living in public space, collectively, became a kind of prefigurative politics, an enacting of the commune to be created in a revolutionary process.
Zuccotti Park is four blocks from Wall Street, and is across the street from the site of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t the first location chosen to occupy, as those were already gated off by police and private security the night before the occupation was to take place. Zuccotti Park remained open as a technicality, as New York’s public parks have gates and strongly enforced curfews, something which dates back to the late 1980s when the city was preparing for the gentrification to come. Public parks in New York often close at nighttime, 10 o’clock or midnight, but Zuccotti Park was privately owned by the building across the street. New York often makes deals with the developers of large skyscraper buildings where, in exchange for constructing so tall a building, they’re required to create some public space nearby. Zuccotti Park was one of these “privately-owned public spaces,” or POPS, which meant it was required to be open 24 hours a day, and that it was up to the private owner, and not the city or its police department, when it was closed. This was the legal loophole that led to the first few days of arrival for occupiers.
Can you describe to us the park and its infrastructures? Can you tell us about the working groups that were born? Cooking, cleaning, feeding . . . several ‘invisible’ tasks were made visible in the occupation. How was the work being distributed? Can we speak about a gender politics in the park? What kind of tasks were being done by whom?
Some of the main permanent infrastructural elements of the park occupation—besides the blankets, sleeping bags, air mattresses, and tents that were distributed and erected for residence—were the kitchen, medical booth, library, media headquarters, etc.
The kitchen—trays of food on park benches—served meals throughout the day to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Food was donated by restaurants, markets, individuals, retrieved from garbage bags all over the city, and a lot of it was ordered online for delivery by people around the world. In the first days there was an enormous amount of pizza, as there was a request on Twitter, #Occu-pie or something, for people to order pizzas delivered to the park. Later the food became much more diverse and healthy, often of exceptional quality. It was impossible to go hungry at Zuccotti. This was one of the best parts of the occupation, enabling much of the work people would do in and around the park, and one of the most powerful instances of prefiguration, of the possibility of a commune.
There was a medical area for first-aid, with some basic items like bandages and aspirin. This undoubtedly came in handy after some of the rowdier marches that might have included some rough encounters with the NYPD. Some of the volunteers were trained nurses and doctors, and as there is little public health care in the United States, this too became a significant prefiguration of the occupation. Nearby was a stand where you could get clothes, gloves, hats, scarves, pillows, blankets, etc. This attention to caring for each other was remarkable, and crucial.
An impressive number of books, pamphlets and zines were collected and loaned out at the OWS library—crates of books on park benches. Many people were likely exposed to new and radical ideas by perusing the literature offered there. You could print hundreds of flyers, leaflets, and zines, and they would disappear almost instantly; there was a real hunger at the park for radical literature, new ideas. As so many of the people in the park were getting involved in politics for the first time, developing an analysis almost from scratch, it seemed to make a real impression. Looking back, more should have been written and distributed at the time, but it all happened so fast, we were so unprepared, it was hard to figure out what to do, when, how. . . .
The media area was also an important item of infrastructure, a covered space around some benches that contained all manner of computers and electronic equipment for live-streaming, etc. Before the gas generators were confiscated by the Fire Department, this was also the park’s power source. Later there were attempts to model a sustainable, ecological way of life by introducing a bicycle-powered generator, and a system for recycling the “gray water” from washing dishes. The sentiment was appreciated, but it also felt like this was the beginning of a fetishization of the park itself, a process of turning inwards and adding endless frills and improvements, bells and whistles, with bizarre amounts of technology showing up, like large video monitors, digital info-tickers, etc. People were treating Zuccotti as a mini-society to be ordered, organized, and made more comfortable, while forgetting the antagonistic nature of the struggle itself, not to mention the fundamental absurdity of trying to construct a new society in miniature in a tiny park in lower Manhattan, surrounded by police, hostile politicians, and Wall Street. This suspicion was borne out when massive, high-quality tents were purchased and installed for the winter and Zuccotti began to look like a real village, the areas and zones of specialization became static, and the park lost some of its spontaneity, its sense of possibility. Somewhere along the way the thread had been lost, things had become professionalized.
Personally I very much appreciated the nic table, where you could at any time of day or night get a hand-rolled cigarette for free. When this table disappeared I knew things had taken a turn for the worse and the rough-and-tumble days of early Zuccotti were giving way to a more antiseptic, bureaucratic existence.
There were of course Library and Kitchen working groups, along with Structure, Sanitation, Security, Comfort, S.I.S. (Shipping, Inventory and Storage) and many more to deal with logistics in the park. All of the working groups were constituted purely on a volunteer basis. There was no formal distribution of tasks, people pitched in wherever they were inclined or saw the need. For the most part the system worked, as there were more than enough participants to maintain what really was a very small physical space.
People of all genders worked in the kitchen and did cleaning duties, although it’s likely that certain normative gender roles were reproduced, with “care work” generally reinforced to be the domain of women. Its being out in the open, outdoors, in public, and within a political organizing context did open up dialogue on these issues, however, questioning whose responsibility is our very reproduction. The “gender politics” of Zuccotti seemed to appear most visibly around the issue of safety and security. A “Safer Spaces” working group formed, informed by feminist and queer politics, that tried to contend with issues around abusive language and behavior in the park, without resorting to the NYPD. There was at least one individual with a past record of abuse who often came to the park, and there were allegations of sexual assault taking place in the park, with at least one man arrested by police. There were areas or tents for women or queers only to sleep. Again, we might say that some of the more visible, vocal members of Safer Spaces were women, and that the ones causing problems men. Perhaps more than the cooking and cleaning, this care work around safety deserves more of an analysis on gender in the occupation.
Other difficulties also arose. There were differing ideas about who should benefit by the “services” provided at Zuccotti. In a very short time, some people had acquired the idea, not without some justification, that they were “activists” in a “movement,” and were annoyed by the people who came to Zuccotti merely as spectators, as “tourists.” Despite the rhetoric about fighting for economic justice, there was a certain amount of tension on the part of some participants when it came to the—seemingly “non-political”—homeless population that came to Zuccotti to eat or sleep. The Kitchen working group even went on a kind of strike, serving only plain food for three days, apparently as a protest against all the work they were doing to feed “non-movement” people. These prejudices against the homeless showed a remarkable lack of consciousness.
Part II. Enacting The Commune
It’s very interesting this idea of the experimentation on staying together in a certain place, a public space, a privately owned public space (therefore a space in which the conflict between private and public is all time in tension), without knowing until when, and the statement that “the distribution of food, clothes, and other supplies, decision making, self-organization, etc.” is itself a “prefigurative politics, an enacting of the commune to be created in a revolutionary process,” as you say. What happened to this process? What did it really prefigure?
The occupied camps and parks, whether publicly or privately owned, were evicted all over the country, and in many cases they were brutally repressed by the police. It was a coordinated national campaign among the mayors in the different cities with larger occupations, and most were evicted around the same time in mid-November (New York’s eviction was the early morning of November 14th). Some new city ordinances were passed or enacted to provide a legal justification to prevent any of the occupations from reappearing, and in the meantime the police were experimenting with new tactics in dealing with these occupations, and the protests in general. In some cases parts of the movement tried to move from the park occupations into empty or vacant buildings, or other spaces that were generally in disuse. These were also evicted by the police and private owners. As the occupations were the foundation and defining point of the movement, where most of the energy, excitement, and inspiration came from, once they were evicted, most of the other forms of organization based on them slowly dwindled away.
This speaks to some of the external conditions which prevented these processes from expanding, or even continuing. Internally, at least in New York, there was a lack of experience, organizational capacity, and militant perspective, which we think led to missed opportunities in critical moments which could have expanded or escalated the struggles taking place. There were some tendencies at the time, which ended up being dominant, whose focus was on maintaining Zuccotti Park and its general assembly as the center of the movement—not just in New York, but also nationally—rather than expanding into other outdoor occupations around the city, or into buildings. As momentum and numbers were growing committed support for these tactics would have been critical in decentralizing and diversifying both the character and territories of the occupation movement in New York. Had there been serious attention given in October or November to expanding outdoor or indoor occupations in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or Harlem, who knows what could have happened, or what potential was there. Instead, people from the outer boroughs, where all of the poorer or working people in New York live, including ourselves, were expected to come to the Financial District, or Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, in order to “join” the movement—often represented by white college graduates in their twenties and thirties who had been in New York just a short time—rather than being encouraged or supported to fight where they were at, where they know. This was a misreading of New York’s history and tradition of struggle, which has been most militant when it was based in the neighborhoods where people lived, and also a tactical failure because lower Manhattan is where the police are most concentrated and strong.
Of course more could be said about other shortcomings in the variants of the activist, anarchist, democratist, idealist, leftist, movementist, pacifist, reformist, statist, and workerist analyses which informed the mistakes we all made last year. The point is they were made, that we should take some of the blame and be self-critical, and to learn from these experiences in order to be better prepared and better organized in the future. We raised many of these issues at the time last year, but remained a kind of minority tendency, unable to really influence the situation in the ways we hoped, or to actively intervene in ways which garnered wider support for what we wanted to see.
What was prefigured was the possibility of the commune. And the demonstration and lived experience of the necessity, and reality, that the commune will have to be fought for.
Aren’t you in these last words of yours—reproducing a rhetoric of ‘failure and success’, something OWS seemed not to fit in, as it didn’t have demands? Is this OWS “prefiguration” waiting for something to come (as the prefix ‘pre’ seems to gesture towards)? Is it really a prefiguration?
As an experience and a movement, OWS deserves to be critically evaluated. There is already a huge market of leftist literature, often somewhat romanticizing and idealizing, that focuses on those aspects of OWS that we can all appreciate—the self-organization, horizontality and distrust of leaders and political parties (many currently-disillusioned OWS participants had undoubtedly voted with enthusiasm for Obama in 2008), the vaguely anti-capitalist character of some of the slogans that appeared on the cardboard placards at Zuccotti, the reclaiming of public space, the courage shown in taking the streets in defiance of the NYPD, the making-public and visible of solidarity and “reproductive” and caring activities, etc. Some of these ideas and practices (e.g., horizontal assemblies with “consensus process” and hand signals, “occupying” space) were directly borrowed from the anti-globalization movement of 1999-2001, or the student movement that emerged in New York and California in late 2008-2009. What distinguishes OWS is the context of deep economic crisis (including the de-classing of much of the US’ middle strata), and its vastly more confused and complex nature.
Now that the movement is definitively over and survives only in some fragments such as the anti-debt group Strike Debt, hurricane relief activities under the banner Occupy Sandy, and small neighborhood assemblies, it behooves us to examine in what respects OWS resembled a radically anti-capitalist commune, in what respects it did not, and why OWS and the Occupy movement more generally were ultimately not able to survive, grow, or have more effects than they did. Unquestionably the majority of participants did not have in mind the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order, but even the most modest of reformist, social democratic wishes that were implied or explicitly stated by OWS participants, such as the prosecution of Wall Street CEOs for flagrant crimes, a solution to the housing and foreclosure crisis, relief for the heavily indebted, a jobs and economic stimulus package, a serious regulation of investment banks, etc., were steadfastly ignored by the US political elite and came to nothing.
Of course the language of success and failure can seem crudely instrumental, and it is always difficult to evaluate and predict the effects (above all the “subjective” effects) of a given social movement. But it seems impossible to maintain that the Zuccotti encampment and related activities were perfectly self-enclosed and sufficient unto themselves, and that they did not point in certain (contradictory and confused!) directions. The Occupy movement contained certain potentials that remained unrealized for various reasons. No formal list of demands was issued by the OWS general assembly, but we can be certain that a multitude of desires were experienced and expressed at the encampment and various protests, desires that remain and that may provide the material for future interruptions of capitalist normality.
Can you explain to us a little bit more about the demographics of OWS in Zuccotti, compared with the demographics of Union Square’s occupation later in March-May 2012?
OWS was always an extremely heterogeneous beast, containing many strange bedfellows. Supporters of conservative free-market libertarian Ron Paul who wish to “End the Fed” (the Federal Reserve bank) protested alongside communists; ex-soldiers with pacifists; social democrats with anarchists. Partly this was enabled by rhetoric borrowed from “Democracia Real Ya!” in Spain, where some of the organizers of the anti-austerity occupation in Madrid had pretensions of including people from the political left and right, or even discarding the distinction completely. There are also few social groups with any love for Wall Street banks—the only explicit target of the protest—so almost anyone could participate on the basis of anti-bank disgruntlement. The idea of not making demands was a dominant one, but—rather than an uncompromising stance that refuses to negotiate with the oppressor, preferring instead expropriation and direct action (much less a nihilistic will to destroy the existent)—many participants interpreted this to mean that OWS was a broad, populist umbrella (the 99%!) that excluded no one by having no defined program. While utopian, and also undeniable that the call and tactic drew some of the initial numbers, it’s debatable whether the contradictions which came from this motley crew facilitated or inhibited more meaningful political organizing and action as time went on.
The level of political culture and critical analysis in the US is generally low, and participants in OWS were often young, shocked into protest by their relatively recent experience of the effects of the economic recession. So we can say that most participants were newly politicized, unencumbered by any definite political identity or ideology, but also therefore susceptible to naïveté, mythologizing, mystification, with vulgar understandings of some of the political and economic processes and legacies which got them in this position (and here we might also include ourselves, to be clear). Some felt they were part of something radically new and ineffable that transcended all that came before, others relied on pop culture simplifications of the civil rights or counter-culture movements of the mythical ’60s for their ideas about the meaning of protest or revolution.
OWS was, from start to finish, a complex, contradictory phenomenon, and we can only make a few crude generalizations about its composition. First, that its participants were mostly young and middle-class, experiencing economic hardship and dim future prospects for the first time, possibly carrying a heavy load of consumer debt, and angry about the injustice of the bank bailouts and economic inequality. Few had more than a vague politics. The inexperience of many participants led to much creativity and experimentation, but also a tendency to fetishize those creations (the “people’s mic,” the general assembly, hand signals, the slogan of the 99%, etc.) and overestimate their significance. OWS unquestionably exceeded the boundaries of ordinary protest for New York City and the US, and surprised everyone in doing so, but this sometimes led to unjustifiable expectations and an unwillingness to see the scope and seriousness of the struggle.
Much has been said about the whiteness of OWS, and given the racial composition of New York City this certainly is remarkable. Participation was diverse, but definitely white-dominated. The location in the Financial District and the middle-class character of the average participant and their concerns probably weighed heavily here. If we want to speculate further, the heavy police presence and the friendly attitude of many towards the NYPD, who were often bizarrely viewed as a potential ally at least in the early days, may have been factors. It is probably also a problem of languages, codes and styles that alienate, and of mutual mistrust and suspicion. New York is a heavily segregated, racialized and racist city. People of color, if we wish to employ a reductionistic category, currently tend to mobilize behind established labor, immigrant or community groups, or Marxist-Leninist organizations. Protest marches over the executions of Troy Davis in Georgia and Trayvon Martin in Florida provided an opportunity for OWS protesters to join with more racially diverse crowds, but these were brief moments and the march for Martin occurred in February 2012, long after Zuccotti had been evicted.
Like most other social categories, women (and, to a lesser extent, queers) carved out a niche in OWS and had spaces and working groups dedicated to their diverse and contradictory concerns, but for the most part their identity as women was not highlighted, and the degree of women’s participation was a subject of constant concern. Sleeping overnight at Zuccotti was not always a very safe proposition and this undoubtedly had an effect on the number of women campers.
The campers themselves represented a special demographic within OWS, the ones who felt most committed, who had perhaps traveled there from another city, or had no other home or employment. Within the park, a rough division famously developed between the uphill, eastern side, composed of more clean-cut activists, and the downhill, raucous, “lumpen” west side with its uncontrollable drum circle. Our impression, although we could be wrong, is that the small, precarious Union Square “occupation” in the spring of 2012 was mainly composed of these downhill, dedicated but very marginalized types—the so-called “traveler kids” and crust punks, the homeless, those with mental health issues, etc.
Some of us were really inspired by the notion of occupying Union Square, especially as a lead-up to the May Day General Strike. Union Square is a central, popular, location in New York City, connecting the west side and east side, uptown and downtown, Manhattan and Brooklyn, so there is tons of circulation of people that actually live and work in New York, across all class and race lines (so-called). Also, many of those who hung around the park tended to be the kind of rejects and subversives we liked being around: breakdancers, the unemployed playing chess at 3am, kids cutting school, weirdos trying to flirt with each other, queer youth from around the city coming to hang out, skateboarders, punk rockers from the suburbs, people doing bike tricks, others drinking and smoking pot (both illegal outdoors in New York), geeks on blind dates from the internet, organic foodies, juggalos and juggalettes, whatever. This was all totally different than who was otherwise around Zuccotti Park in the Financial District, a social and cultural wasteland that no one would ever go to unless to protest, or work for, the banks. In some ways the explicit antagonism of being in the Financial District helped clarify positions, but it also allowed the occupation and many of its marches to be almost entirely cut off and removed from people living in New York. In that sense, a Union Square occupation seemed to have more in common with Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya, where it seemed the tactic was to occupy the central square of the city as a social rupture, not just an act of political protest. Ultimately, the occupiers of Union Square tried to maintain the spirit of Zuccotti but had been abandoned by the thousands of people who had participated in that encampment in one form or another. Lacking the numbers from the fall, the police had an easier time clearing the park, in the process evicting everyone listed above from using it, the first time in history Union Square had been entirely shut down.
Part III. From Taking Over Space to Taking Over Time: Reclaiming the General Strike in the US
Can you explain to us what it meant for US politics that OWS tried to reclaim the notion of general strike, especially because in the US certain forms of striking are illegal?
The US is notoriously hostile to workplace organization. Workers’ rights are under threat from the usual large institutions, but also (or by way of) popular culture. The much-lauded American Dream states that if you work hard, you’ll be rich, and if you’re poor, it’s because you didn’t work hard, which is your fault and not anyone else’s. Following this logic, the system is arranged in such a way at its most fundamental level, and it’s difficult for people, even those most directly hurt by this system, to grasp the more abstract factors that create income inequality. A movie came out a few years ago called The Pursuit of Happiness in which Will Smith plays a homeless father who somehow works his way up into being a big-shot at a Wall Street firm. This is considered as heartwarming as it is plausible, and taken as the rule rather than the exception—there is some function in place that fosters the belief that, rather than this man being exceedingly fortunate, the millions of other Americans in poverty are lazy and self-destructive. American culture is constantly replaying this myth over and over and refuses to reject it as false, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Unions are viewed as an impediment to this Dream playing itself out in its natural course. Union-busting laws are called “right-to-work laws,” with the ludicrous implication being that the purpose of unions is to prevent people from working. The notion of striking, likewise, is portrayed as an act of militant laziness rather than a principled way of maintaining basic working conditions. Striking is rebutted on the grounds that the strikers are, on a personal level, lazy, whiny, ungrateful for their jobs (in this time of high unemployment), unconcerned how their disruption affects those around them, etc.
This is all the result of a long history of conflict between mostly unbridled American industrialists and the local working class, which has historically been based upon the free labor of slaves from Africa, and cheap labor from subsequent waves of immigration from all over the world coming for the above-mentioned American Dream. Unions and “collective bargaining” were formalized, legalized and integrated into US capitalism in the 1935 Wagner Act, as part of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. But these gains didn’t last very long, coming under severe attack and restriction after the labor struggles following World War II, leading to McCarthyism and the Red Scare, and the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which is still in force. Since 1947 striking has been mostly prohibited, if not outright illegal in many cases, and there has never been a call for a national general strike in the US, something which has become fairly common in many European countries, especially in the last few years. Ronald Reagan’s crushing of the air traffic controller strike and union in 1981 was another drastic blow. The number of strikes in the US, much less victories, has steadily declined ever since.
Even before the May Day General Strike was called, OWS seemed to re-invigorate New York and US labor. After the occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1st, 2011, in which 700 were arrested and transported to jails in city buses, the local TWU (Transport Workers Union) announced its drivers would refuse to transport OWS protesters to jail in the future, a sign that unions were sympathetic to the underlying message of OWS and trying to feed off its energy. On October 5th, several thousand union members from the TWU, the Service Employees International Union, the United Federation of Teachers, the United Auto Workers and others, marched with OWS protesters in downtown Manhattan. Art handlers from the Teamsters union were locked out of their job for several months by the auction house Sotheby’s, and their dispute became a rallying point for some OWS protesters, who added a certain militant flair to what would have otherwise been another anodyne affair. On March 28th, 2012, militants, some of them associated with OWS, collaborated with rank-and-file members of the TWU to chain open the entrances of around twenty subway stations around the city, enforcing a “fare strike” and enraging the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the NYPD, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The idea of a general strike first re-appeared during some labor unrest in the public sector in Wisconsin in February-March 2011, where the governor was trying to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in response to the state’s budget crisis. Although the threatened general strike never materialized in reality, the struggles in Wisconsin were some of organized labor’s first major popular acts of resistance to austerity in the US since this crisis began. We had to wait for the general strike in Oakland, California, on November 2nd, which was a tremendous inspiration, as it was called by the Oakland Commune (the Oakland version of Occupy) and shut down the major port in the city with the aid of rank-and-file members of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (the last real general strike in the US also occurred in Oakland, in 1946). An even more ambitious strike was called by Occupy Oakland for December 12th, the aim being to shut down ports all along the West Coast. This was largely successful in Longview, Oakland and Portland, partially so in Anchorage, Long Beach, San Diego, Seattle, Vancouver, and other cities. Union leadership opposed the strike, and the fact that the Occupy movement was autonomously calling for these strikes was certainly an innovation in the history of US labor organizing.
The May Day strike was, from the beginning, conceived as operating outside of the authority of union bureaucrats, and even reached outside the bounds of the traditional “worker” identity at the point of production, to include the precarious, domestic laborers, the unemployed, and all those who are in a position to halt the flows of capital and disrupt normality. It was perhaps the biggest possible horizon for the Occupy movement, a coordinated national strike, called for by an autonomous and decentralized social movement, aiming to withhold all forms of labor and to block the flows of capital, in the process rejecting all forms of political and economic representation and mediation. Unfortunately what we saw in New York on May 1st was extremely weak in terms of industrial actions, and made little dent in economic activity, but the resulting mobilization was exceptionally vigorous and large as a May Day protest and celebration (part of the aim of some general strike organizers being to resuscitate the memory of May Day as a day for workers and anarchists).
The issue of unions and union officials remains a knotted one. Although unemployment is high, and only a small fraction of employed workers are unionized in NYC and the US, not only is the idea of striking associated with a violation of the work ethic, but it is also considered the prerogative of unions only, and self-organized or wildcat strikes are very rare in the US these days. No unions in New York supported the general strike as such or organized for it, although they mobilized their members for the usual May 1st march. It seemed unions were willing to use OWS to gain visibility for themselves and put on some airs of vitality, perhaps even use Occupy protesters as foot soldiers in ongoing contract disputes, but when it came to following Occupy’s lead in taking offensive action, union leaders quickly changed their tune. They could conveniently point to the restrictions of the Taft-Hartley Act, which would make a coordinated general strike “illegal,” although taken in its true meaning, the very concept of a general strike cancels the notion of operating within legality.
So actual strikes in NYC were mostly in the form of student walk-outs, people calling in sick, taking vacation days, freelancers losing a day’s pay, etc. A small amount of sympathetic cultural spaces, retail stores, restaurants and cafes closed for the day. A “wildcat” march, essentially a black bloc, was several hundred strong and assertive. Other marchers ended up in the Financial District, which was completely militarized by the NYPD.
The general strike was, therefore, a step towards making even the most elementary forms of workers’ struggle possible again, in that it sought to recast the strike in terms of its positivity. Something like a free university in Madison Square Park, for example, showed that professors and students weren’t merely interested in playing hooky. In theory this general strike would have worked towards reversing these false assumptions about striking and about the workers’ struggle generally—to recognize that protesting isn’t merely whining, that striking can be more than vegetating, a jab at the “rugged individualism” glamorized by American culture, a term synonymous with isolationist greed. The general strike was even more audacious than a typical strike, being that it, like OWS, cannot even be tied to any specific demands. The past couple of months in the US have seen both promising momentum for worker organization (fast food workers organizing in NYC) and huge blows towards it (right-to-work laws in Michigan). What long-term effects, if any, the General Strike on May 1st had on the larger climate of the Worker’s struggle are impossible to say for now.