On Saturday, the Radical interrupted what might charitably be called a seven day grade-a-palooza to attend one of the 1500 events that have spun off around the globe from Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park. Earlier in the week, our neighborhood Blockwatch (which tends to focus its efforts on baking cookies for our “friends” the police and reminds us to watch out for African-American people who, organizers imagine, live elsewhere and drop by to steal white people’s $hit) sent out a portentous message that the demo was expected to be massive. The po-po, they warned, would be using our neighborhood as a “staging area” and we should avoid downtown.
I could have gotten interested in protesting our neighborhood hosting police in riot gear, but instead decided just to attend Occupy Shoreline. Armed with a camera, a bicycle helmet, nail clippers (to cut plastic ties) and $100 to make bail if necessary I pedaled up to the Shoreline Green and found a small, friendly, cross-generational and multi-racial group making cardboard signs and chatting about stuff. In total, I would say there were about 150 people on the Upper Green (where we had been “confined”), half of whom were my age or older. There was a small tent encampment, a location for people to drop off clothes for redistribution, organized discussion groups, and a few lively drum circles. There was a man with grey dreadlocks dancing in what looked to be a discarded carrot cloth suit from the Farmer’s Market, where community volunteers dress as vegetables for fun. I’m not sure whether this man is a regular vegetable, or whether he picked up the carrot suit — which looked a little the worse for wear — at the Goodwill Thrift Store. There was a nice man strumming on a guitar, and a number of people walking around with hand made signs and flags. Read about it, and a small group of counter protesters, here. There are about thirty tents of activists who claim they plan to remain indefinitely. Very few students from Oligarch University, right across the street, appeared to be interested.
Less like the demonstration we had been warned about (hence my bike helmet, bail money and clippers to avoid hours of having my circulation cut off by annoyed coppers), it seemed more like an old-fashioned “Human Be-In”, those countercultural events organized by the Diggers that began in the Bay area in the 1960s and spread East. There were few police and no drugs, as far as I could tell. There were discussion groups forming here and there, some generated by the organizers and others constituted by random people talking about politics. The crowd was reasonably racially integrated for a town that is specially and socially quite segregated. I saw nothing that explicitly referenced feminism, although there were lots of women who seemed to be in leadership positions.
The organizing model is anarchist, with a high focus on de-centralization, ideas being articulated organically at the grassroots, reform agendas filtering upward and enacting change outside formal structures that have been historically oppressive. But these aren’t the kids in black hoodies kicking in the windows of J Crew so we can grab some free tees. They have adopted a counter-cultural look that recalls Karl Marx’s observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) that revolutionaries “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”
Not, as Jerry Seinfeld would hasten to say, that that is a bad thing. I found everyone I met to be sincere and likable, particularly the young people. Those who were organizing the different committees seemed to be identifying as facilitators rather than as leaders, and they experimented with different models of conversation to try to ensure full participation and dialogue across differences. As Todd Gitlin put it in his October 8 article in the New York Times, this quality is something that distinguishes the Occupy movement from its Tea Party equivalent on the right. Anarchism, he argued, has a long tradition in Left politics. “In this recent incarnation,” he explains, anarchism is not about destroying government “but a theory of self-organization, or direct democracy, as government. The idea is that you do not need institutions because the people, properly assembled, properly deliberating, even in one square block of Lower Manhattan, can regulate themselves.”
What is the place of the university-trained intellectual in all of this? You’ve got me. I decided to do some archiving, and snapped a bunch of pictures to be uploaded to The Historian’s Eye, an interesting new project out of Yale’s American Studies Department that encourages us all to collect and forward evidence of the history happening around us every day. I took part in some of the conversations, in the spirit of democratic exchange with strangers that was fostered by a congenial, curious and peaceful atmosphere. But mostly I just listened, trying to use my intellect and experience to process what was going on around me with as open a mind as I could manage.
The conversations I dropped in and out of were sophisticated and worth listening to. They reminded me (if we needed to be reminded) that ordinary people often have a keen understanding and insightful critiques of the conditions under which they live their own lives. A Canadian woman in the United States to visit her new grandchild told me she had come to the Green because, as she pointed out, Canadians are constantly demonstrating about something and Americans in the United States seem so passive. ”Why are you all not up in arms about the appalling state of your health care?” she asked me with genuine curiosity. She also told me, when I asked to record a longer interview that she didn’t think she had much to say, and then went on to talk about the comparisons between US and Canadian democracy in a lively and well-informed manner.
It’s less clear how the conversations of which I was a part translate to real change, or can impact a political process driven by statistics, polls and other forms of info glut, but simultaneously profoundly alienated from the lives of real people. I dropped in on the Direct Action Committee, which was meeting in a circle that spontaneously expanded to include new people as they arrived. Various ideas were floated, one of which was to enter the community organizing process through institutions that were already organized and had a constituency. Working through the churches to draw in more members of the African American community was one strategy that seemed to be gaining traction. I suggested organizing around education, since our schools in Shoreline are devastatingly bad, but serve as a collection of people with real grievances that aren’t being addressed by the policy structure. This received several approving nods, but it would involve direct confrontation with city bureaucracy and may not be viable for that reason. Demonstrating against the banks was very popular, but no one was clear how that would work, what the message, or who would care since all of our banks in Shoreline have long since been swallowed by gargantuan national and international institutions. There was one interesting exchange between an African-American entrepreneur who was advocating for the group to demand that banks support small business start-ups at the grassroots; and a young white woman who argued that none of that would be effective unless the profit motive itself were addresses. Unless larger, structural interventions were made that would empower individuals rather than put them in thrall to the banks, she argued, these small businesses and the people they employed would not survive. Do I have to point out that the entrepreneur’s position was lodged in an intellectual tradition of African American self-sufficiency, perhaps best articulated by Booker T. Washington, that seeks independence from powerful institutions, not their elimination?
But what will these interesting conversations between organic intellectuals come to? It isn’t clear. I live in a city where democracy is more or less a joke, and where no one notices because we are liberals and all the elected officials are Democrats. Mayor John DeStefano, backed by a local construction industry to which he has delivered millions of dollars of public money, runs city government with an iron hand. He is currently about to be elected to his tenth term, something that is not exceptional in this small place. Few city offices are truly contested. Few candidates are elected to the Board of Aldermen unless they are DeStefano’s people. One individual I know who was going to run for an alderman’s seat held by a person who has literally slept through most meetings for the last decade — which is how the mayor likes it since someone wakes her up to vote the way he wants her to — was told explicitly that should s/he run against the Mayor’s wishes, s/he would end a political career right there.
One of the things I have real doubts about is what an anarchist model contributes to a city like ours, one that is characterized by decision making only at the top, and where forums for ordinary citizens to have influence have become irrelevant. When and where forums for citizen engagement do exist, our politicians circumvent them, knowing that the chances they will be voted out of office are small and that people gradually become frustrated when their participation is demonstrably meaningless. Simply speaking to someone can be a challenge. My Alderman, for example, has a telephone extension that is never answered and has no answering machine; I once wrote him an email and it was returned, saying that the address did not exist. Today, an illegal installation of a monument to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and her family was installed in a historic Shoreline park. There was no public hearing about the project, and the Parks Commission approved it on the condition that the community consented. However, the community was never asked for its consent: the Mayor called in a half-dozen cronies instead and has claimed that he believed he had done enough. Despite organized and well-publicized community protest against both the process and the design of the monument, and unanswered questions about who initiated and paid for the project, it proceeded without a hitch (rumor has it the cost was born by a local construction firm that has been awarded $141 million dollars worth of school construction contracts in the past five years. Surprise.)
One answer to this question would be: If the political process is broken, stop doing politics. Do something else. But what else? Under what conditions, in a political culture where elections are the beginning and the end of the distribution of power, does an anarchist model that rejects the political sphere and calls another kind of public into being, produce concrete gains? Is this the argument for an anarchist political strategy? If so, how does it actually work?
These are the questions that Occupy Wall Street and its satellite projects are asking: I hope they last long enough to get us some answers.