OWS as WoodcutsImpressions of a Movement by Chavisa Woods
im·pres·sion·ism 2. A literary style characterized by the use of details and mental associations to evoke subjective and sensory impressions rather than the re-creation of an objective reality.
(Part one of three)
There is a road that leads into town and there is a road that leads out of town. These are not interchangeable. Although they may appear at first to be the same road, indeed, may even appear to support two-way traffic, I think you will find that they are two very different roads imbued with specific trajectories. The road leading into town is dark, at first. A mile and a half back, the sign informed you there were two miles remaining. The dark, painted highway feeds into your headlights. There is a faint glow coming up on the left. As you approach, the glowing intensifies, seems to hum audibly and the car lights moving in a loop, entering and exiting the vast parking lot, twinkle like little bugs around their innate destination, the Super Wal-Mart. This passes in a moment giving way to another half mile of empty road, along which a slowing of speed is enforced. Traffic begins to bustle, and you see laid out before you, not a ghost town at all, yet you find a grotesque array of neon skeletons dancing atop the graves of the ones they cursed to gain animation. On the right, the glowing, plastic figure of the TacoBell/KFC hybrid wiggles its rusty hips. Directly across from it, the MacDonald’s stands tall and bright, looming. You can smell the decay emanating from golden arches even with your windows rolled up, and if you turn down the little road leading passed the sign boasting the billions served, you can access the Dollar Tree, also glowing green, attracting moths below the stars. Continue on the main road and pass Hardees, then Wendy’s, the CVS, the large chain grocery store, and dotted in between these, numerous gas stations pretending to compete down to the penny to get you to squeeze their handle. When you come to the expansive, corporate “Family Video” store that put the town’s family owned video store out of business, you are nearly out of the neon gates. Beyond this lies the school, touched only by the dimmest lamplight. You pass the few businesses local to the area that have somehow managed to remain alive, though most guess, not for much longer. Now you begin to pass houses. One charming little residence after another, with a splotch of yard separating it from its neighbor, pulls you into the fully residential streets lined by thin and breaking sidewalks, giving way to a small park, and again, rows of houses. You are coming upon the road leading out of town. If this seems eerily familiar to you, if you feel like I have just described the layout of your hometown to a tee, that is simply because the road leading into almost every town in the U.S.A. is the same road. It has been for the last twelve years. When I was twenty-one, I took that road into my hometown in the rural Midwest to tell my family that I had made the decision to move from St. Louis to New York City. The conversation went like this:
Me: I’m moving to New York City
Concerned Family Member: You make sure you’re careful over there.
Me: I will be. I promise.
Concerned Family Member: Don’t get involved in any of those Cults.
Concerned Family Member: You know, where people all live together, like, and share everything.
Me: I already live in a collective (in St Louis). You know that. What do you mean?
Concerned Family Member: I mean one of those places where they live together and share everything, and have the same political ideas, and go to meetings all the time and all that.
Me: Yeah, I live in an anarchist collective. That’s what we do. (Protest together, do shows together, put out a paper through indie media.) I showed you. I’m already doing that. But it’s not bad. It’s not a cult. (eyes rolling)
Concerned Family Member: (shouting) I just want you to stay away from the weirdos.
At that point, I had hot-pink dreadlocks, several piercings, and I was wearing clothing that I’d sewn together myself from pieces of clothes that didn’t fit. I seriously wondered which people my "concerned family member" might have been referring to who could have been weirder than me. But I didn’t push any further for an explanation. This conversation was either a sign that when he looked at me, he still saw that same sweet little redheaded girl he’d taken to church every Sunday morning, or that he was trying, in a round about way, to tell me that he didn’t at all care for the way I was living. Two weeks prior to this, I’d spent seven hours in jail, ostensibly for un-paid parking tickets, of which I’d accumulated five, adding up to about one hundred and fifty dollars. The police who arrested me were waiting by my car, which was parked outside of C.A.M.P. (Community Arts and Media Project), the collective where I lived. They informed me that they were going to tow my car, but since I’d shown up, they would arrest me instead. That same day, at least twelve of my friends were also arrested, mostly on misdemeanor charges; one for littering, one for J-Walking, one man was charged with attempting to incite a riot while walking down the an empty sidewalk with a folded up cardboard sign under his arm, also on his way to C.A.M.P. All of those arrested were, in one way or another, helping to organize a protest against the World Agricultural Forum which kicked off in St. Louis the very next day, (the day after our arrest), and more specifically against Monsanto, which is based in St Louis, and which apparently held tremendous sway over the local government and law enforcement. We’d been extremely active in helping to organize anti-war protests, weekly, for two years. Other than occasionally bashing heads during demonstrations, the cops hadn’t paid us much attention. The protest planned against Monsanto was much more passive than many of the anti-war demos had been, and yet the local law enforcement, with the help of privately hired (Monsanto) security, reacted more aggressively than I have been witness to before or since. They raided and shut down two of the four Major STL collectives, rendering several people homeless for months, destroyed personal property, made continuous arbitrary arrests, sent spies to our meetings and surrounded us with snipers, helicopters and secret service photographers when we held a sign-making day in the city park. I, like many others, was passionate about stopping Monsanto in its tracks and raising awareness of its practices for two reasons. First and foremost, the fact that one corporation was on its way to literally controlling the production, price and quality of the world’s food was completely fucked. Secondly, but not necessarily less important, this was the kind of issue that had the possibility of galvanizing support from both the right the left and everywhere in between. Monsanto’s practices and the decisions made at the WAF impacted working farmers all over the world, and had a direct impact on “everyday Americans” who did their food shopping primarily at corporate owned grocery stores selling Monsanto produce. It was a moment, we thought, for activists to come together with U.S. working farmers, traditionally non-activist individuals and families, on a seemingly non-partisan issue- the quality, price and production of the nation’s food. What we quickly learned was that food activism was too complex to maintain long-term support from the so-called “real America,” because it involved lengthy and specialized education on things like seed patent laws, seed saving legislation, the effects of genetic engineering and diverse bio-engineering processes, terminator technologies and, you see, I’ve lost many of you already. Compounding this was the overwhelming reality that taking on a private corporation was much more dangerous and difficult than taking on the federal government, if not, at the time at least, impossible. When we protested the war, we were corralled and occasionally beaten by local police. When we protested Monsanto, we were evicted, jailed, marked as terrorists, and many found themselves in years of litigation that stunted their political lives. Yes, it was startlingly obvious to us after just a few months of working against Monsanto, that corporations were not only more powerful than the government, but in control of all levels of the governmental apparatus. Still, within this un-churned reality lie the frozen seed that would later bloom into a much more sustainable movement. It wasn’t Monsanto or even individual corporations we should have been going after, but the very fact of the type power such corporate entities hold over our society. I am standing on a marble block. It is September, 22nd 2011. This is the first time I have visited Zucotti Park. In less than a week, tens of thousands of people including New York’s labor unions and student groups will join together to protest the rampant corruption that has become emblematic of Wall Street and corporate control of government, flooding Foley Square in numbers previously unimaginable. I am standing on a marble block repeating the words of a woman who is standing in the middle of a circle of about two hundred people. My voice is loud and carries along with the unanimous, booming voices of all of the others who are repeating her words as well. This is the human mic. We are saying, “It is going to get cold. We will need scarves and hats. We shouldn’t buy them from the corporate owned stores that use sweatshop labor. I run a knitting group that meets twice a week. If you want to learn how to knit, meet me over there, (she points) and sign up.” Don’t worry, it’s alright to laugh here. After I attended my first General Assembly, I found myself rolling my eyes and giggling under my breath as well. I expected impassioned speeches invoking us to take to the streets, and people espousing tirades against income inequality and the need for a revolution in the U.S. What I found (that first night) was more endless collective process, DIY kids and the occasional libertarian screaming at me that I absolutely had to “VOTE FOR RON PAUL OR LEAVE THE COUNTRY!” I was extremely skeptical that the movement would have staying power and be translatable to the larger public. At first, I was pretty turned off, even as a person familiar with the workings and the necessities of the so called “lifestyle politics” that have been intrinsic to activist movements in the U.S. I have lived in and associated with many collectives around the country, and the world for that matter. I know the meanings of terms like, grey water, dumpster diving, crusty, tofudie, freeganism, and am even familiar with primitive anarchist tactics for surviving both the future nuclear/environmental apocalypse as well as the current corporate apocalypse. Although I myself had once been a crusty DIY kid, I knew that the movement needed to be about more than individual lifestyle politics to have a meaningful impact. Many have seen the U.S. activist underground as having the same values as the systems it is shucking. The choice to live “separate from society;” the choice to shop as little as possible, to make one’s own clothes, to grow one’s own food, places the onus and tremendous importance on personal individual decisions in the same way that the free-market society places the most significance on the individual decisions of consumers. The choice to be a non-consumer or conscientious consumer as a political action has been highly criticized as elevating individual and consumer-rights narratives as plausible tactics to achieve economic justice. Other than the theoretical downfalls, when individual lifestyle becomes the beginning and the end of an activist’s tactics, it has little effect on the larger society, its people and its structures. We may choose not to buy sweatshop clothing, for instance. But that choice alone, even if supported by large numbers, does little to educate the larger public on issues surrounding sweatshop production and does not call out for laws regulating the wages and conditions of workers hired by U.S. companies abroad. DIY lifestyle activism has been viewed as the waning ghost of failed movements past; radicals retreating back into themselves after their real movements died. These criticisms are valid. Still, it is in no way a harmful, disingenuous or easy choice to live alternatively and conscientiously. It is a good beginning. It simply must not be the end, or there will be no movement. As I continued returning to Zucotti Park, it was as apparent to me as it had been the first day that these sustainable living strategies and ideas of “lifestyle politics” were the core of the camp. The park was structured as a massive activist collective. When I stepped into the park, every time after the first time, I felt like I was home again. Embodied within the occupation was the substance of each and every collective house that had opened its doors to me and so many others, in one way or another, throughout the years. Inside the park was Stone Soup, was Bolozone, was, the Germantown Collective, was C.A.M.P. was Indie Media everywhere, and on and on. Just as in a collective where one chooses between weekly duties such as cleaning, maintenance, food collection and preparation, different facets of the OWS camp were set up as volunteer groups accessible as open source sites, where people could step in, get trained and participate at will, according to their talent and inclination. And it worked. Run completely by volunteers, the OWS Kitchen fed hundreds of people three meals a day, every day, for free. The People’s Library collected and cared for hundreds of books, available to anyone who felt like reading them. The Media Center maintained multiple websites and groups, as well as running a live-stream of the general assembly every day, accessed worldwide. Sanitation kept things surprisingly clean for the circumstances, whatever Bloomberg had to say. Pulling from years of experience, these “lifestyle activists” not only influenced the movement, but provided a dynamic foundation that made the occupation of a tiny park in downtown Manhattan, sustainable for nearly three months. In the end, no small feat. But this was not the end of it at all. This was the platform that propelled a surprisingly large and ever increasing movement, including not only underground activists and leftists, but people from nearly all facets of society, actually primarily made up of the so-called “real America.” The U.S. has finally become politically activated. People are leaving their houses, taking to the streets, the parks, the ports. Ten years of war didn’t get them out, not in these numbers. Years of watching their hometowns being eaten alive by chain stores that pay them minimum wage, do not put profits back into the community, all the while running the local businesses into the ground, didn’t get them out. Watching their food become synthetic replicas of food, didn’t get them out. None of these, as individual issues, were able to instigate a nation-wide movement of and by the people advocating for their own best interest. Yet here we are, standing shoulder to shoulder, the activist weirdoes who knit their own clothes standing next to Mr. and Ms. Main Street, and everyone in between, often hundreds of thousands strong; truly, the 99%. As I joined the march October 5th, I felt like someone was reaching into my gut, taking hold of my spine and shaking my body like a rattler. The outpouring was larger than any demonstration I’d seen since the early marches of the anti-war movement in 2001. ‘How is this finally happening?’ I wondered. I hopped up on a light post, waiting to for my friends to meet me, and watched as the stream of people rushed around me chanting ‘WE ARE THE 99%,” children on shoulders, signs in hand. People’s expressions were electric. Some were shouting and angry, a few were crying, but most people were smiling ecstatically, cheering and busting out with joy. When I met one of my friends, I remember jumping up and down and shrieking, “Is this really happening? How is this finally happening?’ We took our sustainable, collective houses out of the houses and into a neighborhood that represents the very antithesis of sustainability and collectivism. Cutting to the core of issues that had previously been parsed, we began addressing economic injustice and corporate control of our government. Making our processes public and accessible, we created a new, communal home for many and a home away from home for hundreds of thousands and growing. The fact that OWS began as an occupation and tent city is emblematic of the unsustainable manner in which private property was manifested and managed within the corrupt systems OWS stands against.
The road that leads out of town is a residential street. Americans can always go home again… and again, and again. When all else has been lost, when the world has been unkind, at least Americans can go home. Home, with its significant other, home with the 2.5 children, delicious snacks and unending television, adrenaline pumping video games, the beer in the fridge, the cushy couches and the family pet. The American home is its own world away from the world. As you drive down the road leading out of town; passed the little tree-lined houses, the garage on the left, the swing gently blowing in the wind, televisions glowing through beige curtains; as you note the cry of the dog barking through the fence, the smell of the freshly cut grass and the dim hum of power lines above; you may begin to notice ominous signs, signs of what has passed and signs of events to come. Look closely and you will see that every other house has been turned into a hollowed site, hallowed out as if gutted by some otherworldly creature, the windows bashed through like gaping eye sockets, shards of glass still hanging from the frames; the doors boarded up like a taped mouth still wanting to scream. Ghosts of chucked furniture leave impressions in the overgrown yards. Something has gobbled up the land, the food, the shops, the schools, and finally it came for people’s homes. The houses are empty and the residents have taken to the street leading out of this weird town, heading toward another, possible world.
“You watched in awe at the red white and blue on the Fourth of July. While those fireworks were exploding, I was burning that fucker and stringing my black flag high. *Cause baby, I’m an anarchist, and you’re a spineless liberal.” –Against Me
“Get out there and buy that water and gas. Ramadan, orange alert. Everyone put on your gas mask.”- Ani Difranco
“In forming a pro-life group, confidence is one of the most important elements. Have people start wearing the pro-life rose or the Precious Feet or the pink and blue ribbons.” -Fr. Frank A. Pavone
Every revolutionary movement must have a dash of color. The queers know this best, having claimed the whole damn rainbow. The civil rights movement went in the opposite direction, placing their bets on black power. Many anarchists keep it chic and simple as well, standing precariously atop their understated black blocs. The communists are eternally revolting in red. Iran had/(has?) the lively flourish of the green movement. Tunisia and Egypt claimed the pleasant pastels of the Arab Spring. Now it is autumn in New York and our revolution has been painted orange. Orange not so much like the turning of the foliage glowing in the fall sunset, bur more reminiscent of that napalm dawn forever hovering over the Martin Sheen’s imminent apocalypse. This beach is safe to surf. Play Misty for me, mister officer. This is a peaceful protest. I’ve got another puzzle for you; Umpa, loompa doompa, doompady doo. The numerous pepper spray incidents that have glossed Occupy Wall Street, at least momentarily, with the carroty sheen of a sympathetic movement, have also proven endless fodder for comedians. Just a few days after, I forget exactly which one of these assorted sprayings, I found myself watching SNL’s version of Michael Bloomberg delivering an apology for the recent police violence while reassuring protestors that, “All pepper spray used was made of one hundred percent pure Cayenne pepper extract without any added oil or trans fats, and was salt free.” This episode came on the tails of the first attempted Zucotti Park eviction disguised as a power-cleaning. After reassuring protestors that they would be allowed to remain in the park indefinitely, the faux-mayor noted that there was one contingent; “The second, and I mean the second I see a demonstrator lighting up a cigarette (in the park), we’re moving in.”
On November 15th, almost exactly one month after the failed eviction, heartbroken, my head pounding and my bones rattling like tom-toms with every step, I make my way to Zucotti Park as I have several times a week, regularly since September. It is a Tuesday, and normally I would have been attending my working group meeting (the rather contentious Demands group) held at 60 Wall Street, in the public atrium of the Deutsche Bank Building. But this is not like any other Tuesday of the last couple of months. Through the wee hours of the morning I watched, on live stream, as the NYPD gutted the edifice of our dream. Since September, I’d seen the occupation of Zucotti Park grow from little more than a couple dozen activists and travelers sleeping on the ground in makeshift tents, blankets and bags, to a miniature village, complete with a working library, media center, free housing sites, a communal place of worship, a people’s kitchen with capacity to feed hundreds of people three meals a day, and most importantly, a “government” that met daily which was truly for the people and made up entirely of and directly directed by the people.
The park that was ours the day before, is now completely surrounded by police and barricades. One small, two foot opening makes up the exit, another the entrance. At the entrance, about twenty police stand watching as higher-ranking officers in white shirts take their time inspecting bags and selecting who can and cannot enter. Three very goth kids with large bags are turned away. The line of people waiting to get in runs down the sidewalk and twists around the block. I step into the line, then quickly hop the barricade, not willing to wait my turn. Those standing on blocks near the baracades inside the park help me get in and out site of the police. My feet land on the hard cement, stinging my arches. I am alienated by the bars of light emanating from the ground. Zucotti park is home to a light-art installation that had previously been duct-taped over by the residents of the occupation. I was told it would be quite bright, if not for the tape. It is at points nearly blinding. The park is completely cleared of everything that had been there just a day before. People pace around looking dazed. Many stand along the interior barricades, holding signs and chanting at the cops to “Leave us alone. NYPD, go home!” I light up a cigarette and am immediately approached by a young man asking if he can have one. I gave him a cigarette. We stand smoking. He’s young, I would guess around twenty-one, blonde and thin. He has a scabbed over gash above his eye and some rather serious scratches on his lip. “The police did this to me this morning,” he tells me. “They really messed me up. They took me to this, like, storage shed with a few other people and asked us questions for a couple of hours. But they didn’t arrest us or charge us with anything. They let us go. Everyone they took there was beaten up. I think they let us go without charge so we won’t bring abuse cases against them.” I find this shocking, not only because I believe these actions are illegal, but also, this is the fourth time I’ve heard the exact same scenario laid out by a protestor who’s been beaten by the police. I have heard “this place they are taking people” described as “a storage shed,” and “a warehouse facility,” and “like a bunker.” One of the four people who told me about this bunker was a twenty-three year old woman who was (not arrested, but I guess the right word is) captured during a protest in September. She recounted her terror as the two male police officers that had beaten her badly and called her a “stupid-cunt-- bitch,” led her handcuffed out of the car through a dark, empty parking lot and into a storage-shed. She didn’t know if they were still acting as NYPD officers or simply as two men set on showing this “stupid-cunt-bitch” who’s really boss.
It’s seven O’clock. I’m sitting next to her. The G.A. is about to begin. This is the first G,A, after the park was cleared. Cecily, the young woman who was captured by the police in September and I are sitting on a marble ledge, which allows us to see the speakers over the heads of the people sitting on the ground. This is where I’ve often sat during the G.A. for the last few months. It’s a familiar spot. There are cops in the park tonight, patrolling, and setting everyone on edge. The cops didn’t come into the park before. It was ours. The facilitator shouts “Mic check,” and the G.A. begins. The facilitator announces, via the human mic, that we are going to hear from the legal team first. Cecily stands up to look for someone. Two cops, a man and a woman, are standing on the far end of the ledge where I am sitting and where Cecily is now standing. They notice her upright position and approach quickly. The male cop shouts “Hey, hey,hey. You can’t stand on this!” Cecilly turns her fiery eyes on him, “According to what law?” “I’m just telling you right now, you can’t stand on this,” he tells her. The female cop comes in, touches her shoulder, and after a bit of back and forth, Cecily hops down, standing on the ground, on the ledge below the ledge. The ground below is full, shoulder-to-shoulder, with people sitting for the G.A. She might be off the top ledge, but Cecily isn’t done. She keeps going at the cops about the law. I and a few others join in. I feel like I’m arguing with my high school P.E. teacher, the ex-marine who hated me. The cops tell us they are trying to protect us. ‘From the ledge?’ we ask. “It’s dangerous,” they tell us. “You could fall. We’re here to protect and serve. That’s our job, protecting you. To serve and protect, that’s us.” We laugh at their answers and jeer at them that they’ve never been concerned with our safety before. “When this movement goes down in history,” a young man tells them, “the NYPD, you’re the oppressor. You realize that, don’t you?” We point out that they are not legislators, they are law enforcers, so if they are enforcing something that is not actually a law or a rule, they are just harassing us and illegally abusing their power. All this seems big for their heads. The male cop leans down, as if letting us in a secret. “Look, this is my assignment, keeping this ledge clear. My supervisor’s not around right now, so I guess you can sit on it. But don’t stand. And if he comes back around, I gotta kick you off, okay?” I guess ten minutes of arguing wore him down. “Whatever.” Cecily and I hop back up and sit on the ledge. I can finally listen to the speakers and I take part in the human mic. A woman gets up and makes a speech about the eviction. She says that we may have suffered a loss, but we are not defeated. When someone speaks at the G.A. it is not just them speaking, everyone is repeating after them. So it feels like you are making the speech too, like maybe their words are your words as well, since they are coming out of you. There are people standing two rows deep along the sidewalk just outside the barricades behind us; people who either couldn’t get in, or didn’t want to wait in line. One of them shouts that they can’t hear and we should mic check in their direction. I turn toward them and aim my voice to that part of the crowd. After a few minutes, six cops come down the sidewalk, shouting at people to keep moving and clear it. Clear it for whom? The only people on that sidewalk are there to hear the G.A. People mill around, at first barely moving, but when the cops start getting more aggressive, they reluctantly clear the sidewalk, at least momentarily, except for one woman. The woman who does not move is small, frail, at least eighty years old. She blinks against the mist and leans with both arms on the barricade for support. Her silk scarf is wrapped around her head and shoulders for warmth. She is the perfect image of a little grandmother. Strike that; a great-grandmother. She’s not moving. She either didn’t hear them or is pretending not to. Within a couple of minutes, two large male cops are standing on either side of her, telling her to move. Our ledge guard also makes his way over and stands in a slight lean, hovering above her. I stop mic checking to gape, along with many others. People start shouting, “Leave her alone!” Even the cops must realize how pathetic this looks, three large male officers fsurrounding one eighty something year old woman who simply wants to be allowed stand still on the sidewalk and listen to a meeting. She smiles at them and starts talking to them. She doesn’t move. She’s not going to, it’s obvious. She’s just going to use her elderly powers to talk at them until they feel too ridiculous and leave. After a good fifteen minutes, our ledge guard is the last one standing there. He looks like he’s really trying to explain something to her. She just keeps smiling and nodding, leaning on the barricade. Something catches his attention. He looks up. It’s an officer in a white shirt coming down the sidewalk, a supervisor. The two ledge guards quickly skip back over to us on the wet marble ledge, apparently putting themselves in grave danger. The man taps at Cecily’s back with the tip of his toe, “You gotta get down,” he tells her. She doesn’t look up. “I was told we could sit here.” “No, I told you, if he comes back, you gotta get down.” I hop down and stand on the ledge below the ledge. Cecily doesn’t move. I feel totally defeated and tired, and also, I feel like this is the wrong hill to die on, getting arrested for sitting on a ledge. All the spunk is out of me. The night before I stayed home instead of trying to get to the park from Brooklyn at two a.m., because I knew I had to get up for work in the morning. I had a part-time job that was my main source of income, and I didn’t risk much three days a week. That was my rule for two months. I was willing to put myself in positions, if necessary, where I might get arrested on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The other three days, I was out of commission when it came to disobedience. So I didn’t rush to the park at two a.m. on November 15th, because I didn’t want to lose my job. Weirdly, at seven in the morning, I lost my job anyway due to completely unrelated circumstances, a health emergency suffered by my boss. So here I am, suddenly jobless the week before Thanksgiving, broke, too poor to be protesting poverty instead of looking for another job, even for a moment, and on top of it, the movement I loved has been evicted from its headquarters. If the cops wantes me to get off the ledge, I’ll get off the ledge. What does it matter? They just destroyed more than three-hundred-thousand dollars worth of electronic and housing equipment, just tossed it in a dumpster and smashed it. Now they’re set on being petty bullies. Sit, stand, lie down, roll over. Fine. I really don’t give a shit. If they’re trying to wear us down, it’s working with me. Cecily stands up, right up on the ledge and begins shouting at the crowd. “Do you think we should be allowed to sit here?” The male cop grabs her by the elbow and tugs hard. Her eyes widen, but she doesn’t budge. The kid has spunk, but god, I’m too tired for this right now. Fine. I hop up beside her, not standing, just sitting on the ledge again, which is about all disobedience I have in me at the moment. and take her bag and computer, cradling them in my arms like they’re fragile puppies. Suddenly two hundred eyes are upon us. The G.A. has come to a halt over the “War of the Ledge.” A cop on the other side of the barricades starts hollering at her to get down. She turns to face him, while the ledge guard holds her arm. “Is it illegal to sit here?” she asks the cop on the street. He looks confused. “Illegal?” He repeats. “Ah, come on just get down.” I’m being shoved left and right. Half of the General Assembly is rushing the ledge. Everyone who can fit on the ledge is hopping up and sitting on the ledge. The two ledge guards begin pushing people’s shoulders and yelling at us to get down. Finally, something comes out of me that isn’t completely worn out and pathetic. Recalling the officer’s previous words, I begin chanting, “Stop harassing! Start Protecting!” Within seconds, two hundred people are chanting this as well. The officers’ eyes widen. They step back, smashing the potted plants on the other side of the ledge, and to my amazement, they retreat. The ledge guards are gone. We cheer. People turn around and find their places again as the G.A. continues.
This was a small victory. A very, very small victory after a defeated night and a horrible day. The scene above is an example of the mildest form of police harassment I have experienced while protesting. Often, this type of harassment quickly escalates into more serious violence. Officers enforce arbitrary rules, many times rules that weren’t even rules before that moment, which is not their job. Their job is to enforce the law. If officers are enforcing things that are not laws, what are they officers of? From where do they derive their power? Officers chide people for doing things that are not illegal, and this escalates into police violence when people refuse to comply. The NYPD comes into peaceful protests under the auspice of “crowd control.” But the tactics they use to control crowds create many more conflicts than there would have been if the police had been left out of it. During the Times Square march, police used very strange tactics to control and break up the crowd, which was later estimated to include more than two hundred thousand people. Five blocks are barricaded off between 42nd and 47th street. The police have also placed barricades between the sidewalk and the street, further dividing the crowd, and allotting the sidewalks one-way traffic. If you stand in the street, you find yourself inside a one-block square pin. If you want, for whatever reason, to move to a different block, you have to go through the narrow, barricaded one-way sidewalk area. I find myself on the sidewalk, trying to get from 44th to 46th street. The half an hour I spend trying to walk two blocks is one of the few times in my life when I genuinely question whether or not I am going to make it out alive. The density of the crowd is beyond shoulder to shoulder, but elbows to ribs. We are trying to move forward, which is all but impossible. We take about two steps every thirty seconds. To our right are buildings, where people are pressed up against and slinking along the marble walls and glass doors. To our left are barricades lined by police, and if some of us were allowed through or around the barricades, it would solve the crowding problem. Although the police keep telling us loudly to, “Keep it moving forward,” going around the barricades where there is much open space is not an option. When people die in crowds, it not usually from being trampled. In a crowd crush, the density becomes so great that people’s stomachs and torsos get smashed, making it impossible to breath, thereby suffocating them. The people in this crowd are being careful with each other. We are the 99%. We quietly check on the person next to us every few seconds, our eyes wide with worry and agitation. There are children in the crowd. Next to me is a small girl around eleven. Her mother and a few others are keeping a watchful eye on her, making sure she doesn’t get knocked over or stepped on. Out of nowhere comes an abrupt surge. People behind me push forward, people in front of me push back. It starts going in waves. I feel three men pressing in on me from the sides. It’s difficult to breath. I am panicked. Others are yelling and falling over on each other. I feel totally helpless and out of control as I also fall sideways onto the person next to me. I turn to see a line of cops about twelve long, with their arms linked, running through like a pack of football players, pushing people aside, shouting, “Go! Go! Go!” Everyone is screaming at them. I shout too that their going to kill someone. This is their tactic for breaking up the crowd, just rush through and shove? After they pass, we collect ourselves, try to stand upright, make sure we’re not leaning on anyone, check each other to see if anyone was hurt, and finally continue trying to move forward, although more slowly now, more cautiously. This was the same day that produced the videos of the NYPD charging horses headfirst into masses of protestors. One of the horses took a knee, most likely propelled by sheer terror. Whatever he reason, it is telling that even a horse refused to take part in this psychotic behavior perpetuated by the... (Insert barnyard animal metaphor here.)
After the march on October fifth, thousands of people gathered in and around Zucotti Park. You may have seen the video of the white-shirt police officer waiving his baton aimlessly into the crowd, bashing people in the head and stomach wantonly as if clearing a cluster of flies. I was there, about five rows back from that officer when he began swinging. Although I didn’t have a clear view, I was told immediately after that his actions were propelled by a barricade getting knocked over. The police were trying to break up the crowd, which consisted of people talking while standing on a sidewalk that would have otherwise been completely empty. They began jamming barricades in between people. When one of the barricades was knocked over, the cop freaked out and started swinging his baton, bashing anyone who happened to be near.
The line of people standing in front of me are very tall. The crowd surges back. I jump back with them. People are trying to get away from something. Then the crowd surges forward again, hard. They begin chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” “What’s happening?” I ask a woman running out. “A cop just started hitting people,” she hollers, and continues quickly on her way. I hop up and down, standing on my toes, trying to get a view of the street. I hear screaming and shouts of pain. Emanating from about two rows in front of me, an empty, plastic Aquafina bottle goes flying through the air, smacks into the side of a police van and falls to the ground. The crowd goes silent, the cops begin tapping their batons. A large man with a shaved head, one of us protestors, climbs up a light post and begins making an impassioned speech. “This is a peaceful protest!” he shouts, pumping his fist in the air. “If you can’t be peaceful, go home and go to bed. The cops are the ninety-nine percent, too.” “Bulshit, Bulshit! Who do they serve? Who do they serve?” I counter-chant along with about ten men standing below him. They look surprised that I’m countering with them. I guess it’s because I’m a woman. But the surprise passes, and they nod me in, as the minor infighting continues. In the media, I have repeatedly seen these incidents reported as “protestors instigating violence.” The famous image of the young man, his head and face bloodied, crying in direction of the camera, was met with many disclaimers including reports that he had thrown a pencil and some double AA batteries at the police, therefore, he had instigated the violence.
The question of violence or nonviolence, as it is posed in relation to and even within the U.S. occupy movements, I have thusfar found, for lack of better words, pretty silly. OWS has consistently been a nonviolent movement, taking part in nonviolent actions and demonstrations that bring awareness to issues of economic injustice. Throwing an empty water bottle at police van while a cop is trying to bash you in the head with a baton for no apparent reason, is not violent and does not define a movement as violent, even if happens every day. This is a negligibly aggressive, individual defensive reaction to brutality. Minor property destruction is not violent. It is not passive, or even peaceful. But from a world perspective, a violent movement requires some level of armed struggle, as we have recently seen in Syria, Libya and some parts of Greece. Major property destruction such as setting a car on fire in the middle of a riot, bombing buildings, even throwing a Molotov cocktail or punching a police officer, not as an act of self-defense, but unprovoked, is violent behavior. Attacking a person is violent behavior. So far, within the OWS movement, we have only seen this type of violence from the police; the use of weapons and unprovoked attacks. If a portion of the members of the OWS movement agree to integrate these types of actions into their tactics on a consistent basis, then you will be dealing with a violent movement. Until then (and I am pretty sure that day will never come) please stop calling kids throwing whatever they can find in their pockets at people with guns who are attacking them, violent behavior. In truth, the majority of the activities of the Occupy Wall Street Movement consist of behavior that is strikingly less violent than most found elsewhere in our current social and governmental structures. For instance, if you look to the legislative and electoral processes of our country, you will find extremely violent tactics consisting of leaders publicly tearing each other apart, vying for positions of power. You will find legislation impacting the public sector being pushed through as bills laden with earmarks benefiting the corporations that helped put the bill’s authors in positions of power; bills which are seldom amended, but must be voted for or against as a final entity, the choice being to further corporate corruption (and often deregulation) or sacrifice the wellbeing of the nation’s most vulnerable, or both. The behavior of our government officials is violent and chaotic, like an animal flailing to survive by eating the meat found in the trap then chewing its leg off to get free, but repeating this action indefinitely, possibly infinitely. OWS is built upon process oriented organizing, long (sometimes tedious) strategy meetings and extremely nonviolent, non-aggressive collective consensus building. Many of the original and continuous participants of the NYC OWS movement are collectivists and yes, even anarchists. Although most anarchistic tactics are startlingly less violent than the mainstream systems we deal with on a daily basis, the word anarchist can still be used to strike fear into the hearts of Americans, and red-baiting (associating a group with socialists, communists and anarchists) has the power to possibly delegitimize a movement. Red-baiting has power, because the public is painfully unaware of what these words actually represent. If we want to take some of the power out of red-baiting, I believe we must begin by acknowledging that these associations are true, and open a discussion about what that means in relation to OWS. Collectivist, Directly Democratic and yes, Anarchistic systems have produced many of the outputs of OWS. This is not as terrifying as it sounds. Let’s break it down: The core of Anarchism relies upon nonhierarchical strategies of self-governance. This has produced what so many government officials have lamented as being a “leaderless movement.” This does not mean that total chaos ensues or that no one is in charge. We are all in charge of different aspects of whatever we are working on. The goal is to make the different roles people might take on, horizontal. This means that one person’s role does not rest in a power structure above or below another’s (as in a hierarchy) but alongside the other’s, with equal power, although with different tasks. For instance, at a General Assembly the facilitator facilitates the meeting. (Anyone can be a facilitator. All you have to do is go to a short facilitation training and then volunteer.) The facilitator does not lead the meeting. They do not have veto power on votes. They do not set the agenda, they do not respond to questions on agenda items. They take stack, facilitate, gather feedback, move the agenda forward and (ideally) allow large numbers of people to have a meaningful and respectful conversation, following the rules of consensus. The person or group proposing the agenda item takes their cues from facilitators, responding directly to questions from the members of the general assembly, who may make amendments to any proposal at any time, which may be rejected or accepted by the person or group making the proposal. This is consensus building. Proposals change and are re-shaped in real time, directly by the members of the G.A. during the meeting, in order for the group to reach consensus. Consensus building re-shapes the original proposal through directly democratic amendments. Then, when all possible amendments have been heard, accepted or rejected, a vote is taken on the final version of the proposal. For a proposal to pass the OWS G.A. it requires ninety percent consensus. Although it may at first seem that this is a “larger majority,” ninety percent consensus actually takes power out of the hands of “the majority” who control the vote within the typical fifty-one percent democratic process, and requires also the consensus of minority members, the additional thirty-nine to forty-nine percent who typically have been left out of majority rule voting systems.
Yes, the systems of governance within OWS are Directly Democratic, Anarchistic and some even Communistic. But make no mistake, although the voting, governance and rules of communal living and “sharing” found in the park camp pull from these types of theoretical institutions, the majority of the people involved in the OWS movement are not, I repeat, ARE NOT people who define themselves as such, at all. Most of those in OWS do believe that capitalism can and should work, but feel the current systems have become corrupt. The fact that consensus building, nonhierarchical systems of governance communal living and directly democratic organizing works on a small scale, organizing a few hundred people in a park, or as means for a political movement is, to most, not translatable to the scale of federal or even state governments. OWS is protesting economic injustice. Just because these are the systems producing the movement’s action does not necessarily mean that the actions of the movement are (consciously or primarily) advocating for these systems to become more activated. (Anyway.)
I’m sure I just terrified many people. As mentioned before, terms like Anarchist, Communist, and Socialist strike fear into the hearts of so many Americans. I almost feel I am not quite allowed to use these words publically, even if the are what I mean. But again, this fear comes from the fact that although I know what I mean, most probably do not. When you see images of people tossing flaming bottles in the air, news anchors consistently call out Anarchy as having taken over. When we are taking part in non-hierarchical, democratic, cooperative process, we are, and I quote ABC news, "Very organized. Not just Anarchists." But when bottles are smashing Starbucks window, again, the Anarchists have arrived, chaos and violence has ensued, and all may soon be lost. This is symptomatic of a particular North-American relativity. The fact that more than 10,000 people took to the streets in Oakland in peaceful protests, and later that night, a contingent of less than two hundred people took part in property destruction, could paint Occupy Oakland as a dangerous and violent movement, is more than troubling. Bill O’Reily said, “These people (OWO) hate capitalists. If you’re a capitalist and you go there, they’ll drag you through the streets and kill you.” While most even in the mainstream media find this ridiculous, it shows that the bar for what constitutes a violent revolt is set very low by the far right. More than two million U.S. homes have been lost to foreclosure in the last three years, profiting many of the select few who saw fit to gamble the nation’s assets and the basic life-standards of people living in those homes. Approximately forty five thousand people in the U.S. die each year due to lack of health insurance, while The nation's five largest for-profit insurers closed 2009 with a combined profit of twelve point two billion dollars, increasing their profits that year by fifty-six percent, all in the midst of an economic recession. The U.S. military has been responsible for more one point five million deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. The same government officials who decided to go to war, profited (and continue to profit) from stocks and investments they held in weapons manufacturing companies. The violence we are fighting is incomparable to any instances of property destruction or non-passive defensive actions perpetrated by the OWS movement. Within this climate, accusations of an unduly violent movement are underwritten by absurdity, skewed through the lens of a North American relativity regarding exactly what levels of security a society is entitled to. OWS has not only been relatively non-violent, this has been an absolutely peaceful protest, thus far. (I am neither advocating for or against a violent or nonviolent movement. I am simply asking you to view pre-set definitions of violence, potentially violent “types” of people and ideas of nonviolence with new eyes.) We have been lucky in some ways, and I have been surprised to see that the coverage on even the mainstream news stations have often showed the violence for what it is, mostly one sided and instigated by the police. The nonviolent tactics of OWS and the disproportionate reactions of law enforcement have done much to garner support from greater society. Still, there is an ever-present insinuation that an unconscionably brutal revolt is gestating below the surface of this people’s movement, and the warning by both liberals and conservatives alike, not to let the so-called violent contingent take over. University California Chancellor, in response to the protestors who were pepper-sprayed orange while sitting on the sidewalk, made the claim that, “Linking arms is non non-violent” behavior. If linking arms is no longer considered nonviolent civil disobedience, nothing is. There are many ways to disobey and resist non-passively, yet nonviolently. When I was taking part in protests during the RNC in 2004, I was apprehended by an NYPD officer. The officer lifted me off my feet, spun me around, then planted me back on the ground and took hold of my wrists, one in each hand. I twisted my wrists down and in, (in case you wish to nonviolently resist arrest, it’s down and in, not up and out.) and in a second, was free from his grasp and running away. Was this resisting arrest? Yes. Was this nonviolent resistance? Yes. I also knew that I might have gone limp and dropped to the ground. The dead weight of a completely relaxed and rubbery body is much more difficult to carry than one that is tensed and actively resisting. I learned these and other resistance tactics as a child. I was taught these tactics not by leftist or anti-corporate activists, but from educational videos and during seminars for a very different contingent all together; the Pro-Life Movement. Since 1993, Pro-Life radical activists have intentionally and successfully murdered eight people within the U.S. (mostly abortion providers and their families), and since 1977, in the United States and Canada, are known to have been responsible for seventeen Attempted murders, more than three-hundred and fifty death threats, more than two-hundred incidents of assault and battery and three kidnappings. *Also, since 1977, in the United States and Canada, property crimes committed by pro-life radicals have included forty-one bombings, one-hundred-seventy-three arsons, ninety-one attempted bombings and arsons, six-hundred-nineteen bomb threats, more than twelve-hundred incidents of vandalism, and one hundred attacks with butyric acid ("stink bombs").
I can only imagine the reaction if any one person associated with OWS, or any ant-corporate or perceived leftist movement took part in even one of these types of actions. Those who define themselves as Pro-life (for instance) do not constantly have to defend their beliefs against accusations that they are part of what could easily be viewed as a domestic terrorist organization or even a militant movement. And yet, any members of anti-corporate people’s demonstrations who end up defending themselves, however mildly, against a violent police attacks, (instead of bowing their heads and finding the will to take it), are immediately reminded of Seattle, where one brick went through one Starbucks window, injuring no one, as if this incident caused irreconcilable trauma to the people of this nation, and all actions resembling this must unilaterally be condemned.
Obviously, this phenomenon goes beyond the afore mentioned “North American relativity,” that defines violence not based on constitutions of violence worldwide, or even in relation to the violence our own government inflicts abroad, but on the insulated relativity of the mall-like safety and security North Americans have ludicrously been socialized to feel entitled to, as if it is an absolute standard. Homegrown movements such as the Pro-life Movement, Free Market Neo- Liberals and the Tea Party (whose members regularly show up to demonstration with loaded weapons, just because they legally can) are not burdened with the onus of having to answer questions of violence or non-violence, even though at least two of the above have been responsible for inflicting more violence domestically and abroad than any other organizations or ideological institutions I can think of. Yet labels like Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists, are monikers that easily strike terror in the minds of millions, and have the power to permanently mar a movement if those associations are made. It has been conditioned as such, simply because the latter threaten the very root of the power structures that have placed those who currently control the nation’s definitions at the top. (Libertarianism also shakes the foundation of those structures, yet does not, for reasons of another essay, hold the same weight of terror, yet.) Those structures are founded solely upon placing financial profit above everything, including the wellbeing, life and death of humans and other living things. It is an inherently violent structure made of innately violent material, and the ones who serve and protect these structures are bound to use violent tactics to do so. OWS and its counter parts have committed to peacefully and non-passively confronting these structures, and will continue to do so even if we are painted orange in the face, again, and again, and again. There is no bogyman anti-capitalist vigilantly army set on burning the suburbs to the ground preparing to crown, no matter how many members are marked with certain spooky labels that are associated with movement. If we do occasionally defend ourselves by smashing some trashcans or throwing a bottle at an empty bank window, remember it’s very little compared to what we all have allowed them to destroy in our passivity.