Monday, September 26, 2011

Building Occupations?

     I've been thinking about the tactic of building occupation recently.  Given the recent events, this isn't terribly surprising.  One might go as far as to say my focus on the subject is tedious and predictable.  In any case, the police response to the recent Tolman occupation has produced the usual assortment of videos along with this particularly overwrought 'analysis.'  (Someone needs to gently pry the well thumbed copy of the collected works of Guy Debord out of the assembled hands of the occupationist, demand nothing crowd.)  My blase response to this kerfuffle is not meant to dismiss the experience of the folks who got manhandled by the police.  While these acts of police violence are pretty mild compared to other forms of state violence, getting pepper-sprayed, hit by batons, and tackled/arrested isn't a whole lot of fun.  Neither am I dismissing the political project contained in the action.  On the contrary, I was glad to see our Berkeley comrades give the somewhat moribund defense of public education movement some well needed energy.  Instead, the response comes out of the fact that the entire narrative of the event has become so predictable.

      I understand that this response may come across badly.  After all, we don't have social movements to provide jaded intellectuals new forms of entertainment, but let me make a political argument regarding this predictability.  The initial occupations produced a real burst of energy for the 2009 movement.  They put the California movement on the map internationally, and shifted the terrain of debate within the movement.  As much as I hated the overripe prose of the movement, the initial organizers understood the need to create powerful images to drive the protests, and brought in a playfulness in their political theater that brought in a wide variety of subcultural groups into the Northern California events.  But more than anything else, they brought a certain level of novelty into the movement.  The police weren't really sure what to do with these kids who were occupying fairly random buildings, bringing out enormous crowds of undergrads, and generally not showing the forms of stultified cooperation that has seeped into so much of protest culture.  I don't want to slip into nostalgia for those times.  There were a lot of mistakes made, and frankly, the early organizers left quite a bit of a mess behind both literally and figuratively for more conventional activists to clean up.  But they did something new for the movement, and shook some cobwebs off in ways that we all had to respond to.

       Two years later, building occupation is no longer all that surprising.  Indeed, the UCI police recently organized a training around the tactic.  (See here)  In effect, the act of occupation has shifted from novelty to an expectation of daily life.  Rather than seeing that as a success, I think that we might want to see this fact as a signpost for the predictability of our tactics.  The police have decoded the narrative, and are ready and waiting for us.  At the same time, I'm not suggesting that we return to the predictable old forms of protest.  I've spent too many hours walking in circles, carrying signs, and saying the same chants.  Instead, I think we need to rethink our modes of militancy.  Instead of direct confrontation and static conflicts over specific location, perhaps we should try to attempt to hold onto the benefits of mobility, flexibility, and retain our right to a myriad of lines of flight.  With a few exceptions, the police are going to win those static fights.  They have tactics and tools at hand to deal with them.  (For further discussion, take a look at this intervention.)  If we go back to the original occupations, the actions proved that one location is as good as another.  One doesn't need to confront some imaginary sovereign in the administration building to produce an effect.  Why don't we push this further through a multiplication of targets, temporary engagement, and a refusal to trap ourselves in one location.  Clearly, the full meaning of such an approach can only be produced in the struggle itself, but our emotional investment in static and losing confrontations can be gotten rid of much sooner.

      I want to make it clear that we need to discuss a lot more than tactics.  We need to discuss our forms of organization, our relations with allies, our forms of popular education, but those are best left for another discussion.... at least for now.

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