Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Occupation in Philly, Day 16 (October 21)

We Are Our Own Demand

Over the past few days, numerous people from across the political spectrum, at this and other occupations, have basically told me the same thing: “I’m feeling more alive than I have in years.” They nearly all remarked that they became disillusioned with politics at some point and stopped doing much of anything. They “disappeared” into private life, zoning out, often grappling with depression and/or isolation, becoming cranky, or misdirecting their anger toward friends. Or, alternatively, they had never done much of anything political at all; they had never cared one wit about politics. In every case, each person’s story of becoming reengaged had nothing to do with the messages, slogans, protests, or marches of this occupation movement; instead, it had everything to do with moments of self-activity with others. And maybe even more striking to me is that among those long experienced in collective projects and processes, the reawakening seems especially strong, as if they’d forgotten or almost never really believed in the power of their own ideals.

Right after Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, after a mere eighteen days of people building their own city in a square–a city within a city–I wrote a piece called “Waking to Revolution” for a collaboration picture-essay book project I’m working on with Erik Ruin. A few of the lines seem to fit here:

“I’ve long believed that self-organization works—better than any other form.

That people, all of us, can and want to self-determine.

That we can and want to self-govern, guided by dignity and even love.

But what I realized that morning was, deep down,

I had also come not to believe it.

Since utopian notions are negated by almost everything today,

I had unconsciously lost that trust.

The uprising began with a surprise.

As if from nowhere, overnight, people discovered their collective strength.

A euphoric self-confidence took hold.

This jolted other people—like me—to recall that possibility begets possibility.”

There is something wholly different here in this “occupy everything, together” experience, which began with the surprise of Occupy Wall Street and its near-contentless, carnivalesque spectacle. The lack of a message or coherent messages, and/or sheer volume of utterly contradictory messages, along with the relatively vacuous and even problematic “occupy” and especially “99%” slogans, and the often-absurd hodgepodge of political (and sometimes nonpolitical) participants coupled with a widespread newness to politics and way-too-friendly attitude toward police all appeared antithetical to a movement, much less one with demands, dreams, or solutions. And as usual, those with massive platforms to shape public discourse toss out the annoying and predictable “But what do they want?” This, in turn, has thrown some occupiers into a frenzy of wanting or needing to find  “the message”–so far to little avail. Frequently, those who want to hammer out a message most are those who are used to either trying to control circumstances (these seem to be few in number, since at least in Philly, most efforts at containing this chaotic encampment meet with kind resistance), or those who are used to bringing their ideologies, party or organizational line, or ethical imperatives to bear on every situation or movement. This includes those of us who identify, as I do, as anarchists, and in many cities, anarchists were either latecomers because of this (Tossing out the standard dis, “They’re just liberals”) or are largely uninterested in the occupations, because they aren’t leading with a distinctly radical (or distinctly anything) politics.

I admit to being just as skeptical, just as perplexed, and indeed just as thrown off guard by Occupy Wall Street and the rolling waves of occupations soon after. But from the first minute I stepped foot on that plaza a couple blocks from the actual Wall Street, what oddly compelled me was that I didn’t get it. No one there seemed to get it. I asked person after person why they were there, why they had come, and most could only find the vaguest of words–an intuition, something just brought them, they simply decided to check it out. This isn’t the stuff of grand revolutions, much less movements. I guess I’m so used to leading with ideas, with aspirations, as part of the politics I do with others, that I couldn’t see–nor seemingly, could the occupiers understand it either–why the hell people were occupying, were sleeping on concrete, through rain, without tents. This occupy everything business, that seems to be everyone and anyone’s business, has humbled me; has changed the way I understand social transformation to happen, by and with whom, and from what demands or principles. No manifesto here–and thank goodness; just messiness, misfits, and mayhem, and out of it all a meaning of such depth that, well, I continue to marvel at it, even if it still seems so schizophrenic and fragile.

Two and even three years ago, a relatively small band of anarchist insurrection, too, wanted to occupy everything and “demand nothing,” but their lack of demands emerged out of a critique of hierarchy in general and capitalism in particular: we won’t ask power-from-above to give us anything, whether demands or what we choose to occupy; we’ll occupy spaces, sans permission, and sans demands, we’ll negate everything, and see what people fill these spaces with; find your friends; build your commune; communize!

But the anarchist insurrectionists had it wrong, much as I also hold to a critique of hierarchy and capitalism, and much as I think “anarchism” as a way to describe a new form of social organization based on nonhierarchical relations and structures is right. It wasn’t about finding your like-minded friends and building a commune with them from a particular critique. It is, it seems, about being tossed together willy-nilly with all manner of folks, most of whom don’t have a critique of hierarchy or capitalism, on a corporate-owned plaza (with the owner’s permission!) or, in Philly’s case, a municipal plaza (with the city begging us to accept its permit!). Within this panoply of people, there are tales galore of hardship, loss, suffering, oppression, and underlying them all is a sense of being utterly alone and powerless, like the walking dead, unseen and unheard and unacknowledged.

Lately, as I noted above, the story I keep hearing, again and again, isn’t one of loss. It’s one of what we’ve found: “I feel alive for the first time in years.” Or more poignantly, “I feel alive for the first time ever.” Each tale begins with the experience of participating in a general assembly or a working group for the first time. It isn’t always a picture-perfect experience. Invariably, though, the narratives involve a tumble of words–far more articulate, animated, and inspiring than those used to convey that same person’s “message” or “demand”–describing that moment of awakening, that instance of qualitative engagement in shaping, building, indeed constituting this do-it-ourselves encampment roughly stitched together like some crazy quilt of humanity with things like cardboard, tarps, pallets, duct tape, and string. It’s the intense aliveness that seems to be demanding the impossible, more than any revolutionary ever could.

Without anyone putting it into words, or crafting something like sound bite or status update of a slogan, our occupations have birthed what no one saw coming, in all its rich potential: our doing is our demand; our demand is in the doing. We’ve constituted this space of possibility out of necessity. Suddenly, many diverse and seemingly mismatched people are stuck together, for better and worse, to wait out the pundits, politicians, and police, or even more mundane, without quite knowing why, to wait. Because things have gotten so untenable, so unlivable, for so many of us–in our varied, differentiated ways–that waiting somehow seems preferable to standing still in the deadness of this present historical moment. But we didn’t wait. We couldn’t. We needed food, shelter, a sense of safety, fun, media, spaces for kids, art, education, health care–everything we increasingly need and can’t get in the world as it is. We had to self-organize in this commons that we found ourselves in, and we had to suddenly start negotiating a way forward, together, almost without a shared “forward” in mind. A critique, a vision, messages, principles, and maybe even forethought and aims–much as this goes against all I believe–all would have offered the same deadness and disempowerment of daily life. The fact that we are collectively discovering how to birth possibilities, with an openness forced on us all by our differences, coupled with a strange “waiting for Godot” air about the occupations, perhaps has allowed for an experimentation that no one could have predicted. That can’t fit on a banner or a leftover-pizza-box sign or Facebook page.

People, inside and outside our occupations, keep repeating that we don’t have anything unifying us, that we don’t have a message. But we’re living our message–the forms of living life that we’re daily expanding, daily deciding for ourselves, are pointing beyond capitalism, beyond states, beyond hierarchy, even if most people still have no language for that. Words–and again, this too goes against what I believe–almost don’t matter. It’s how we’re behaving, together and toward each other. Badly at times. With much difficult. Stumbling and hurting and falling over each other. But also good at many other times. With many successes and innovations, supporting and caring for and sticking by each other.

This evening, a bunch of well-heeled, smug, condescending elites gathered in City Hall to show a fancy PowerPoint presentation of a $50 million renovation of the very plaza that we’re occupying–a symbolic slap in the face to most of Philly residents. We weren’t supposed to be there, but we crashed the party. A whole bunch of us. More of us than them. They talked about how they were dramatically enhancing the city center with this hefty price-tag of a privatized-public-space project, with things like a cafe, free movies, and architecture that–by law–had to contrast with the historic structure of City Hall. Right where their cafe is supposed to go now sits our food tents, providing three meals a day and snacks for free to hundreds of people, including many without homes. We air free movies, and sometimes two at a time, many nights. And our architecture of encampment is a beautiful contrast to City Hall! One after one, occupiers spoke with eloquence–frequently, I suspect, a newfound eloquence, from the practice we’re getting in our general assembly–about all the absurdities of this project, especially its many-million-dollar fountain with lights and smoke–the smoke and mirror of capital gone mad.

We then trooped outside, past security guards and police and barriers, walking back around to our side of City Hall plaza, to join our fellow assortment of occupiers for our evening’s general assembly, already in progress, and this night, it felt like an exuberant celebration of our self-empowerment, our bringing this space, this place, and ourselves to life.

There’s no better demand! And no better way of us demanding the impossible than doing what seemed impossible a little over two weeks ago at this occupation in Philly: “That we can and want to self-govern, guided by dignity and even love.”

(Photos by Dave Onion, http://www.flickr.com/photos/multilectical/)

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2011 by in Dispatches from Occupy Philly.
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