Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Brief Comment on a Critique of Occupy Wall Street

     I recently came across an interesting critique of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon on Racialicious recently.  There's a larger conversation around identity that could be taken on with this piece, but I don't think that I'm the person to do that, and it would be a distraction from the questions of organization that I want to discuss.  This is not to say that I'm discounting the questions of identity, and more specifically, the racism implicit in the behavior of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, but that I want to consider those questions through the question of organization, rather than working through the framework offered by Racialicious.  I don't intend this as a critique of that particular framework, but as an argument that the identitarian perspective needs to be taken seriously, even if one doesn't accept it's intellectual framework.  As this piece reveals, the refusal to engage with the long history of organizing around a variety structures of oppression and domination around categories of identity, also damage the ability of social movements such as Occupy Wall Street become a counter-hegemonic force, or perhaps more specifically, to live up to its claims of representing the 99%.  

    OWS protesters often make it seem like they are the birth of social justice activism, that they are here to teach us how to protest because none of us know what the fuck we are doing and need their wealth of experience to help us out. I was not at all surprised when that woman so naturally assumed that she, as a white woman, knew better than me – she thought that I had found a blowhorn somewhere and decided to play around with it. It didn’t occur to her that we had been planning this for weeks and thinking critically about every step, that it was led by a civil rights organization that has been at work for decades, that we had applied for 4 different kinds of permits so that our event could safely and effectively achieve its purpose.

     The actions of these OWS protesters showed that they were at the march and vigil, not to show their support for Danny Chen’s family or the ongoing work on their case, but to provoke and garner attention for themselves and their brand, and then try to turn our strategic work and planning into a nonsensical, self-righteous tantrum. They acted like tourists on vacation in the social justice world, and our efforts and long-term goals were expendable in light of their self-interested pursuit of an interesting experience.

    The two paragraphs above manage to identify all of the significant criticisms that I have had with the "Occupy" movement in my fairly limited interactions with them.  The first paragraph lays out two common assumptions that occupy protestors fall into, a lack of recognition of other social movements, and within that context, a tendency to take over actions when other activists don't behave in the same manner as the "Occupy" encampments.  Through its very particular history, the "Occupy" movement has produced a number of tactical and organizational methods, some patchwork responses to necessity, some quite clever innovations that we'll probably be using for years whether the movement survives or not.  However, as the organizational model moved out of New York, there was a tendency to fetishize those methods, that is, to see a set of contingent practices as the only practices that one can use to organize successfully.  It's understandable when new "Occupy" activists lean to heavily upon these now familiar techniques to begin organizing.  After all, the social structures of the country don't exactly encourage the kinds of horizontal cooperation that are crucial to organizing.  But when those activist refuse or can't recognize that other situations may call for other techniques, or that other histories of organizing may exist that naivete quickly becomes a form of chauvinism, and when it ignores the needs and histories of activists of color, a form of racism.

      In addition to slipping into chauvinistic behavior, the commitment to one set of tactics also limits those movements abilities to respond to different situations.  For instance, as the "Occupy" movement moves away from the encampment model, different tactics and conversational styles are going to be required.  Additionally, the police and politicians are going to develop responses to these additionally successful responses.  The anti-globalization movement is an excellent example of this.  The action in Seattle was a spectacular success, but each following mass action in that model was less so.  Why? Because, the novel became the familiar, and the police were able to develop a set of responses to that model of protest.  Without an ability to adapt, we're going to see the movement quickly collapse in the same manner as the anti-globalization.  The movements that the "Occupy" protestors are all too often ignoring have dealt with issues of police violence, cooptation, and neutralization.  Moreover, they have come up with some pretty impressive new forms of protests themselves.  When movements engage in this sort of nonsense, they not only lose the important ability to grow in numbers, but they lose out on histories of counter-systemic movements.

     The second issue is the obsession that the movement has with the brand of occupy itself.  Rather than acting as allies for a variety of social movements, the "Occupy" movements have the uncanny ability to look like they are more interested in promoting themselves.  As a practical example, when the "Occupy LA" protestors showed up to labor protests in Los Angeles, their main slogans weren't focused on worker's issues, but were a continual drumbeat for the "Occupy" movement itself. This didn't offend anybody, but it effectively cut off any meaningful conversation between the public sector workers of ReFund movement and the "Occupy" movement.  "Occupy" wants to take a kind of vanguard role in social movements, but any vanguard role is created through a willingness to do hard work, to make sacrifices, and most of all, to take the responsibilities of mutual aid seriously.  If the groups took up those responsibilities, they would get a lot more traction, rather than the embrace of the brand model introduced by Adbusters at the beginning of the first "Occupy."  That model is going to translate into a very small and isolated movement.  I would prefer not seeing that.         

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