Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Occupation in Philly, Day 20 (October 25)

Commons Not Capitalism

This post about “day 20” is less about a specific day and more about the blossoming over the days here of a commons. A commons against capitalism, and if it is allowed to grow, perhaps it will someday become a commons beyond capitalism.

This morning, I awoke to news that another newly formed commons, across this continent—the occupation in Oakland, California—was brutally raided, rousted, and destroyed by riot police, who then arrested some ninety people. Those in power in Oakland first isolated that part of the city, to prevent others from coming to the aid of this two-week-old encampment. One of the first acts of the Oakland occupation on city hall square, called Frank Ogala Plaza, was to rename the space Oscar Grant Plaza, in memory and honor of the young black Oaklander who was murdered in cold blood by police on New Year’s over two years ago. The occupiers plan to regroup today at 4 p.m. at the Oakland Library, but their embryonic commons of a general assembly and working groups, makeshift homes, self-managed food and health care, music and education, safety and new ideas like a service-workers’ union has, for the moment, been squashed by those who want to hold power close and are scared by the sight of people trying, with all the contradictions and difficulties it entails, to spread power among everyone, and use that shared power to envision our own cities, to sustain our lives in common. [Update: the 4 p.m. reconvergence in Oakland turned into a massive peaceful march of some 2,000 people, to which Oakland Police Department is responding, as I post this, with clouds of teargas. All eyes on (re)occupy oakland, and bravery in the face of brutality.]

Like our Occupy Philly experiment did two weeks or so ago from the city of Philadelphia, the joyfully occupied Oaklanders got a letter from the city of Oakland, a week or so ago, claiming to be concerned about the occupiers health and safety. As the facilitators of the Oakland general assembly read the letter out loud, cries of “Burn it! Burn it!” rang out, and then some people grabbed the letter, set it on fire, and the assembled community cheered, because even after a week, it seems, these occupiers already knew that they themselves, not the city and its riot police or capitalism and its corporations, were the ones concerned about and acting on their own health and safety.

Two days ago, on the other side of this North American continent, in Philly, I participated in one of the most inspiring moments—among many—at our occupation: a teach-in/workshop called “Private, Public, Commons” organized by Dave, Layne, and Sarah. It was held in the scrappy open-air school of life we’re forging on Dilworth Plaza, a dreary and deadening concrete mess of an architectural nightmare that people (us & others) have transformed into a space of life, for free. (We’ve yet to rename our plaza, but sections of the encampment have self-designated spaces as, for example, Solidarity Avenue for a fire-safety lane between tents, or the City Hall Row Houses for the pallet village now housing the formerly homless beneath the marble edifice of city government.)

Let me step back here from stories of Oakland, which has my utmost solidarity today for what’s been temporarily destroyed, and this tale from Philly, which has my utmost love today for what’s being currently created, to fill in my notion of “commons.” A commons is a simple idea really, and something that humans have done throughout our existence, even before we had languages, even before we made up the word “commons” in multiples languages. A commons is something held by people in common, to be used, shared, and enjoyed. It can be a physical space, like a field for grazing or planting, or a library or park; it can be knowledge, like the ideas within our libraries or free and open-source software; it can be those things that sustain all of life, like the air and water; it can be some of the things that make us most human, such as dignity, love, caring, art, and our imagination.

What all commons share is, precisely, a deep sense of sharing, in which our usage does not diminish the commons but rather increases its “worth” for everyone, and its worth is determined not by money or its exchange value but instead by how useful it is to everyone. We thus have a shared interest in sustaining our commons. For instance, we borrow and return books to our libraries because we’re glad for their use, when desired, and happy that others can later read a book we also enjoyed, and happy too that there are plenty of books, always, for us to borrow over the long haul. And our use, enjoyment, and sharing doesn’t have to be equal but rather can meet each of our needs/desires within the parameters we’ve set to sustain our commons overall. So with the library example, I might want to borrow one book for two weeks, you might want to speed read four books into two days, and since there are plenty of books to go around, it’s all good!

But besides “commons” as what we hold in common to use, share, and enjoy, there is the implicit and essential corollary: a commons is inherently something that is self-managed and self-governed by everyone who uses, shares, and enjoys those commons. If we share a field to graze our individual sheep on, each and everyone of us knows that if one of us overgrazes their animals, the field won’t sustain any of our sheep, so we will need to figure out informal and/or formal ways to voluntarily manage our usage, sharing, and enjoyment such that the commons is sustainable and yet still commonly useful, shareable, and enjoyable. Much more than management, though, a commons needs to be self-governed, or decided on through forms of direct democracy and/or collective decision-making; again, implicit to the notion of something held in common is that we also all commonly have the ability to determine use, sharing, and enjoyment, and there parameters around that.

At present, we still have some commons. But most of what we might think as commons is distorted into what is called “public.” Public means that there is some entity—a group of people, a government, a police force, etc.—that gets to have control and final say over the use, enjoyment, and sharing of that space. So a “public park” or “public library,” while certainly wonderful spaces in many ways, are ultimately shaped and determined by people who may not even use, enjoy, or share the space. A park or library commission can decide to kick certain people out or not allow a bunch of behaviors, without having to worry about whether most or all of the people using those spaces agree. Increasingly, our “public” places are being turned into “private-public” partnerships, such as the renovation plans for our occupation site. The city of Philly has decided to offer its public plaza to a private developer under a thirty-year lease. The city already circumscribes behaviors, activities, and events on the plaza, not permitting things that many people would enjoy, use, and share, if they were to determine this space themselves. Soon, under this private-public partnership, they won’t even be the veneer of a representative process to determine usage, enjoyment, and sharing; a well-paid developer will get to decide.

Contrast that to Occupy Philly, where occupiers have been working like busy bees to decide together—via our general assembly, working groups, and various autonomous forms of self-organization—ways to truly hold this space in common for a rich variety of use, enjoyment, and sharing, from three free meals a day for hundreds, to free movies and arts festivals, to people-powered media and self-organized safety, and on and on. Today, for instance, two folks created a bicycle repair area by simply bringing a big cardboard sign, spreading out books and zines on bike maintenance along with a variety of bike tools on the ground, and set about working. Another group of folks have been offering showers to anyone camping at our occupation; each person gets 15 minutes, a fresh towel, and soap/shampoo, and it doesn’t matter whether you have a home to go to or were homeless before finding a tent at Occupy Philly. There’s a free “people’s law school” that anyone can attend, and a self-managed free library, where tonight other folks (with the library’s OK) spread out big sheets of cloth to paint banners, with passersby tossing out slogans.

We’re daily creating multiple mini-commons, linked into one big occupation-as-commons—all of which, even when it falters or has to grapple with the issues of such an open space, offers a qualitatively deeper sense of social fabric, sociability, and humanly scaled community, in person. As I mentioned in a piece written two days ago, this experiment in a commons has elicited, time and time again, the comment from its communal creators and users: “I haven’t felt this alive in years.”

Let’s go back to our classroom on “Private, Public, Commons” of two days ago, in the sunken, circular, empty “fountain” on the plaza’s southwest corner. Perched on the couple rows of steps leading into the gray-concrete circle, which smells slightly of piss, we heard about the campaign here in Philly to save libraries as a commons, and experiments in other times/places around the world that made their own commons. More and more people stopped, listened, and then joined in, as we turned toward a marvelous visioning session. Our teach-in facilitators had brought along four big sheets of paper, each with a category at the top: “Transit,” “Libraries/Rec Centers,” “Schools/Universities,” and “Vacant Land,” and a bunch of markers. They asked us to split into what became people’s city planning brainstorm groups, to imagine our own commons in relation to these four categories, without worrying about contemporary constraints on our ideas. Without hesitation, four small groups scattered around this barren spot, with the colorful tents of our occupation dotting the landscape behind us, to sketch out what seemed, at first, like flights of fancy. Rarely have I seen people so willing, so ready, to suggest a new world, rather than getting stuck in complaining about the present or letting their visions be hobbled by the present. Our big yellow sheets filled up with new commons that both pointed beyond the status quo and yet seemed, when we presented them to each other, completely doable—especially given all we’re already doing—freely, voluntarily, gladly—to “renovate” Dilworth Plaza with our occupation.

The contrast between “their world” and “our world” couldn’t have been sharper this day. A small, elite, unaccountable group in Philly, as I mentioned above, are about to engage in a $50 million dollar, give or take, revamping of Dilworth Plaza, with construction to begin soon. Many at our occupation are starting to ramp up our opposition to this expensive renovation, with possible ideas like “You can have your fucking playground, when you fix our city.” A centerpiece of this urban “renewal” project—and no doubt the most expensive element—is a giant interactive fountain that turns into an ice rink in the winter. As fountain, it features colored-steam that in three colors, follows the subway lines beneath it, and leaps into action when a train passes underground. Here, imagining a people-centered city amid the 1970s-ish urban “renewal” of City Hall plaza, the “Vacant Lot” working group offered up the idea of filling the dilapidated empty fountain we were sitting in with a permaculture-inspired fish-farming pond as part of integrating free, plentiful food into our city, and another person added that we could freeze the pond in the winter for our own people’s (free) ice rink, perhaps using rainwater runoff as our source in both cases.

The ideas came so fast, so furious, so strong and inventive! Our four categories suddenly seemed to overlap, converge, and become even more exciting when interrelated to each other, as one working group after another presented its notions. A passerby spoke, saying she was a city employee and how much, from her office in city hall towering menacingly above us, she admired what we were doing; how she didn’t care if she lost her job for supporting this occupation, our common renovation of space and life. A woman who was participating in this teach-in stood up and gave a powerful oration, explaining (to paraphrase) that “capitalism not only creates class but is a class. We don’t want that school anymore; we want a different university. It involves just showing up. We’re making our own university; learning what we want; we’re making our own classes. And there are plenty of rooms in our university.” She then advocated that everyone the world over should form an “occupy everything union,” in which “we are all card-carrying members of occupy everything,” a union from which we “work” to make our own commons, continually, such as we began to do, with such excitement, in this workshop. Another person who got caught up in the dialogue as he wandered past, pointed to the four big sheets of ideas now hanging from the jagged concrete of the fountain, and said, “Why aren’t we taking these ideas and turning them into a plan, making them a solution, making them happen?”

Why indeed not? Or maybe, to put my posi spin on it, “We are indeed doing so.” Little by little, here on our haphazard and organic commons-in-gestation, we’re testing out notions of life held in common. Those who’ve stepped in of late—from authoritarian leftists to a new wave of liberals to mainstream media—can’t see the forest for the trees (or the beauty within this concrete plaza).

A couple days ago, I attended a “radical caucus,” and most of the nonlibertarian leftists (that is, to put it bluntly, those who want to “push” movements in their own direction and then control them) talked about how people on this plaza weren’t talking about politics, weren’t doing anything, weren’t anticapitalist. For sure, many people don’t understand themselves as opposed to capitalism per se—although many do, implicitly and explicitly. Yet it matters little to me in this occupation whether the occupiers use that language or not. Just as I don’t care that we have words like “commons,” now or eons ago, for what we’re doing. I said this in another piece: this is my own unlearning and relearning process in what’s a new type of social uprising. It seems almost immaterial that people self-identify as radical, anarchist, socialist, anticapitalist. Because materially, pragmatically, on the ground, and most poignantly in their changed selves and changed hearts, they are behaving in ways that defy the logic of capitalism, defy the logic of privatization and even “public.” They are acting politically in the most liberatory sense of the world “politics”: deciding the world for themselves; taking power collectively in the name of values such as cooperation, solidarity, sharing, and dignity. And as hokey as it sounds: love of humanity, in a way that sees people for their worth (as one of my working group comrades said last night, he used to be homeless, which made him invisible as a person; here, the many homeless people are now housed are also part of the food, safety, comfort, and other working groups, as people.) We are doing something, and that something is huge—perhaps one of the few direct actions that can truly, if increasingly propagated beyond our occupation, undo this awful world and let us remake something worth calling life (as in the “I’ve never felt this alive” sentiment): we are crafting, all over Dilworth Plaza, multiple commons of commons.

Or as the occupiers of Tahrir wrote today in the (UK) Guardian to the occupy movement: “So we stand with you not just in your attempts to bring down the old but to experiment with the new. We are not protesting. Who is there to protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant? We are occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatised and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios and police ‘protection.’ Hold on to these spaces, nurture them and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings? Whose labour made them real and livable?”

For those who are doing & making in our occupied plaza, and for those who are listening & dialoguing in the plaza and beyond, and for those who want to join in & self-organize (please do!): Even if our Philly occupation meets the same crass and cruel riot-cop fate that assaulted Occupy Oakland and Oscar Grant Plaza this morning [and now, into this evening], we will carry this commons in our heart, and our hearts will supply the energy for other commons elsewhere.

For audio of the teach-in and report back during it, go to http://occupyphillymedia.org/audio/public-private-commons-workshop; http://occupyphillymedia.org/audio/private-public-commons-reimagining-philly-report-backs.

Photos: “Private, Public, Commons” Teach-in photos by Dave Onion, http://www.flickr.com/photos/multilectical/; pictures of signs from Occupy Philly today by Cindy Milstein.

3 comments on “Occupation in Philly, Day 20 (October 25)

  1. Richard Moore
    November 12, 2011

    This is a very inspiring report. It describes the creative collaborative process going on at the Occupy Philly sites, and out of that it develops a philosophical vision of ‘the commons’ as a more general organizing principle, a ‘commons beyond capitalism’.

    Occupy Philly serves, evidently, as an example, a ‘commons in microcosm’, a model of effective democratic collaboration. As the report says:
    We are doing something, and that something is huge—perhaps one of the few direct actions that can truly, if increasingly propagated beyond our occupation, undo this awful world and let us remake something worth calling life…

    The key phrase is ‘propagated beyond our occupation’. Indeed, if change is to occur, the commons culture needs to propagate beyond occupations generally. It needs to take root in communities, the most fundamental of all human ‘commons’. Communities taking charge of their own destinies, in an empowered spirit of creative collaboration.

    If a new collaborative world is to be built, it needs to be built from the bottom upward. Global society cannot switch all at once from a hierarchical organization to a decentralized organization. The decentralized processes need to be established at the grassroots level, to become operational, before there begins to be an alternative to the existing regime.

    It seems to me that the focus of Occupy needs to shift to the local, seeking opportunities to build collaborative relationships within the community. Seeking to transform the community into an empowered commons. Not an easy task, but it’s one that a group like Occupy Philly might well be able to tackle, given this glowing report.

    rkm@quaylargo.com

  2. reinhabitsandiego
    November 12, 2011

    this post made my day!
    love the reframing of an occupation as a commons. just beautiful!

  3. Pingback: creating a Commons? « reinhabit sandiego

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This entry was posted on October 26, 2011 by in Dispatches from Occupy Philly.
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