“If We Don’t, There May Be No Future at All” (or: “If We Don’t, Who Will?”)
Ben Webster, who volunteers at the Wooden Shoe in Philly but nearly always seems to be staffing the occupation library whenever I wander over there, wrote an excellent piece of analysis on the first two weeks of Occupy Philly, titled “Who Threw the Can of Green Paint?’ (http://occupyphillymedia.org/content/who-threw-can-green-paint-first-two-weeks-occupy-philly). Today, when I yet again stopped by the occupation library, situated under city hall’s arch, with a police car always lurking on the opposite side of the chain-link fence that separates us horizontalistas on the outside from the verticalistas inside this seat of power, Ben was at the library’s main (err, only) table. I told him how much I liked his essay, in a new electronic periodical called Viewpoint (viewpointmag.com). He seemed embarrassed, and remarked that the piece didn’t reflect what he thinks now about the occupation. So much has changed, he explained. I laughed. Is two weeks ago now ancient history, without meaning for the present. Yet those first two weeks of our occupation do seem so different, so far away, and as Ben, I, and some other folks nearby chatted about our occupation now, just over four weeks old, it seemed to me that perhaps the biggest difference–the vast chasm separating the first two weeks from the second two weeks, for those of us who’ve been here since the beginning–is the shift in our own sense of enthusiasm, energy, and potential.
Ben and others around him seemed more drained than usual. He mentioned how many people have drifted away. We talked about the reasons, ranging from thinking they needed to get back to their precarious occupations or educations, to feeling unsafe at the occupation due to gender or power dynamics, to perhaps a lack of patience. Saddest for me is the loss of people with radical politics, political experience in antiauthoritarian social milieus/movements, and engaged as well as politicized intellectual types, along with those eagerly new and open to the kind of self-organized politics occurring at Occupy Philly. Maybe this is just the pacing that needs to happen, if we’re in it for the long haul. A new friend, Ian, later commented to me on our bike ride toward our mutual homes that he was trying to take two or three days “off” from occupation a week, so that he felt fresh and excited when he was around. He noted how one of the arts working group folks who worked nearly 24/7 in the beginning had to totally remove themselves after the first week or two, utterly burned out. Maybe it’s our own damage from the “time” that capitalism creates–fast, faster, fastest, with us needing gratification within minutes or seconds, or otherwise we get bored, tune out, turn to something different. For me, occupation “time” has been about reclaiming time for ourselves, making time our own again, at our own pace. But maybe capitalism’s pace has won, to some degree, drawing people toward some other sped-up enticement as our occupation settles into more of a routine. The drift pertains to some of the emergent or new problems within our occupation, too–real problems of all kinds.
One would think–I would think and hope–that for radicals and particularly anarchists, that would mean problem solving, or more political savvy to know that transformative and indeed what looks increasingly like revolutionary times will take extra effort, extra staying power, and an extra willingness to put aside some pieces of our lives that we were eager to put aside two weeks ago. Such moments don’t come often, and they really need those who are vigilant about freedom, solidarity, direct democracy. For already, forces such as “reasonable solutions” are moving in–a group of folks who are drafting a proposal to condemn property destruction, sans context or strategic intentions, as if a vague and decontextualized “property destruction” will itself destroy our movement (the same folks don’t seem to have a problem with the guy who hangs out at the Ron Paul tent openly, albeit legally, carrying a big gun around our occupation, often with a big dog in tow as well). Or forces who’d like to see our face-to-face democracy become a remote cyber-voting system, eviscerating much of the life of this occupation and its ability to connect us as humans who get to know the fullness of each other through debates, deliberations, and conversation, particularly in a decision-making context.
The folks clustered around the library today, when I saw Ben there, seemed to all share a sort of dispirited air, as if our occupation were headed into its inevitable decline, first with decreasing numbers and then with decreasing temperatures. I soon ran into a friend, who said she’d had a bad two days, feeling like she needs to move away from the organizing part of the occupation, and I too have felt this inexplicable sinking feeling, as if what I’d hope had such promise just wasn’t quite sticking long enough to fully form, to fully gel. Where have so many people gone? Why aren’t they aren’t Occupy Philly as much, if at all, particularly all the many anarchists and autonomists who are skilled “technicians” in self-organization, and so able to bring so much self-activity to life? It should heavy even more heavily on us who dream of freedom, solidarity, direct democracy, and mutual aid to be here now, to stay and work hard to make it work, grow, expand, generalize.
The evening came early, thanks to yet another time–the time of daylight savings, which come to think of it is also capitalist time too. The scheduled talk at the library–my reason today for visiting our radical literature collection–by the Machete collective on intersectionality had just been canceled (hence my conversation with Ben and others), because someone had cross scheduled Francis Fox Piven nearby, on the general assembly stage. She spoke briefly, before jumping into a lovely Q&A dialogue, noting the power of the occupation movement, and remarking that unlike many other social movements, “no one knows when it will end.” Her words reminded me that, yes, perhaps we still are on occupation time–where we are creating a life worth living on our own terms, without knowing where such a life will end up or how long it will take us to get there, since we’ve never done this before. She spoke of the importance of us establishing the physical place of occupation, like picket lines of old, affording us a place to check in with others, to find out what’s happening, to connect with others, and so on. And she underscored that this social movement, like others, will have many ups and downs. But the source of our influence, she observed, is that “we are speaking the moral truth about American politics—extreme inequality, solidarity and empathy and sympathy for all people, for poor people. We in the end are going to triumph, because if we don’t there may be no future at all.” Ah, back to capitalist time, the time we know well: no future.
I milled around in the twenty minutes between her talk and our general assembly, watching so many smart and anticapitalist folks leave after hearing Piven speak. I wondered why they didn’t stay for the GA, this GA, our fourth and potentially final night of discussion about “Should we stay or should we go, or both?” given the looming possible threat of “eviction” given that the city plans to start its $50 reconstruction of our plaza into a playground for the rich, which (cynically in my view) offers some crumbs for the working class in the form of mostly temporary jobs and what seems a crass use of public transit accessibility improvements so that people won’t complain about the playground. Tonight’s GA was intended to help us develop a proposal for Friday’s GA, so that we can use our usual directly democratic process to settle on an official Occupy Philly plan about occupying this space and/or another, and/or expanding. To its credit, the facilitation and direct democracy working group has been helping us occupiers work through a dialogic process to hash out all the options and controversies, all the pros and cons and logistics, all the fears and hopes, of what staying put, moving, or doing both would entail, and the discussion has only seemed to strengthen resolve to stand our ground, on our terms, and create more trust and respect between those participating in the GAs of late. So I couldn’t help but feel sad, again, that so many people who’d been here at the occupation since the first were leaving after Piven’s talk and before this crucial GA.
Yet there, at our GA, other folks came, including some of faces I hadn’t seen in a few days or a week, and the GA space filled up, as we packed close to the stage for a new experiment: the spectrogram. Using our bodies–or as a friend has recently and so eloquently phrased it to me, using our “bodies against power”–we literally walked ourselves through a series of questions related to staying, going, expanding, and combinations thereof. Our facilitators had us stand, forming a half-circle, and with each question we’d move to one “extreme” of the half-circle or the other–signaling “yes” or “no” to the particular question–or move toward its middle if we felt “neutral.” Then, one or two people from each of the three parts of this half-circle explained why they were standing in that spot, with no one able to speak more than once. I saw more laughter than usual; more conversation among people who were only meeting for the first time, and seemingly good ones (for instance, I ended up chatting with someone who is studying political philosophy and shares my passion for Hannah Arendt’s work, among other enjoyable discussion topics); and more concise and inspiring statements than usual, as various people rose to the occasion of describing why they’d chosen a physical position on our spectrogram of occupation. One of my dear friends were particularly articulate at one point, when I was still uncertain why I was standing where I was (it was OK to move around, if you became convinced of another part of the half-circle during these discussions), and another friend said to him, “That was your Braveheart moment!” I heard people speak who I’ve never heard speak before. So many smart, thoughtful comments, and so much “fun,” as the facilitators promised, moving around and visually seeing the results of our deliberations.
The spectrogram was, overall, pretty effective, although it definitely flattened out some of the nuance of the previous night’s conversations on the same topic, and seemed to narrow the options down too far, without considering–as someone later remarked–the “what if” questions of various scenarios. But we still have some work to do tomorrow night to craft a proposal about “staying, going, expanding” for Friday’s decision-making GA on this subject. And the spectrogram had the wonderful effect of infusing life back into the GA, back into our occupation, since it harkened back to our “early days” of things seeming shiny and new and fun. It’s not that Occupy Philly is stagnating, as one person commented this evening to me. But after just over a month in our existence–still a baby, really–it’s clearly time to rethink some of the ways we’ve been doing things, from tinkering with our direct democracy in small ways to make it more democratic (say, increasingly making sure we warn proposals in advance and put out written minutes of decisions afterward), to dealing with power-grab issues such as (to quote my friend and co-occupier from the formative days of this occupation, Sean aka Wispy), “The ‘Dudes Who Do Whatever the Fuck They Want to Do’ working group” versus “the ‘Cooler Heads Will Prevail’ collective”; to addressing reasons various people feel unsafe or unwelcome at Occupy Philly. It’s clearly time to draw in new folks, lots of new folks, especially as actively engaged occupiers, as well as to draw back “old” folks who seem to have slowly drifted away. That means bringing fun and community and that do-it-ourselves anew spirit back into what we do, in increasingly imaginative ways, but also reminding ourselves and each other that we’re part of a transformative moment around this continent and world, and even if that moment is stretching out far longer–and will stretch out far longer still–than we’d ever imagined it on that October 6 when we first occupied Philly’s city center, this is NOT the moment to let go, to leave, to back away, because such moments occur rarely in history. And transformation can go in many directions, including much worse than the conditions that our occupations are decrying.
After the GA tonight, an anarchist I hadn’t seen in a week stopped by; she was beaming, and said how great it felt to be back, and how much energy and excitement she felt around our occupation. I looked around me, surrounded by old and new friends, all of us in close-knit circles near each other, going between our circles to share stories, reflect on the GA, catch up on our lives, talk politics and gossip. There were many warm handshakes, hugs, and kisses, along with congratulatory pats on the back–congratulating ourselves on what we’re doing here. A couple of people who I’ve seen around for weeks now came up and introduced themselves. I already knew their names, and they knew mine, but each said, “We hadn’t actually had a chance to meet and talk.” Under the lights of a moonlit and city-lit sky, I could indeed see the energy and excitement that had, with our spectrogram, become embodied in us, in the power of all of us collectively. The deflated spirits that seemed to prevail earlier this day, and the day or two before that, appeared to be revived, myself included.
One of those people who introduced themselves to me was the “stack” person from the facilitation working group on one of the “extreme” sides of our spectrogram–the side I had stood on for nearly the whole evening. I knew his name–Justin–and knew that I hadn’t found time to respond to a question he’d sent me via email a few days before (such is the time of occupation, meaning little time to keep up!). We ended up talking for nearly an hour, diving into a great conversation about political philosophy and social theory, and how they’re playing out in political reality, here in our occupation reality, and how exciting it was to be relating our ideas of social change to this time of social change. Or as Piven had mentioned earlier, people have critiques of capitalism before social movements, but the movements themselves really work out those critiques in their process.
Two things Justin told me tonight stood out. For one, he talked about how much this process of social change is changing everything, himself included, even in little but equally huge ways. As an example, he told me how there are Christians who get up in the public area at his college and just start talking, explaining their ideas, and how no one else ever does that. But after being at our occupation with its mic check, he decided to get up next to the Christians and engage in neo-soapbox political oratory, even if he felt no one was listening. But a day or two later, a couple fellow students came up and thanked him for his insights.
Second, and more striking to me, Justin explained to me that “occupy everything” was going to change things forever. There’s no going back. Things will be different on the other side of occupation. When I asked him what he hoped would happen, he replied (to paraphrase and perhaps embellish too) that we’ll keep doing what we’re doing in our occupations, and they (the bankers, the politicians, the wealthy, the powerful) will keep doing what they’re doing, because they don’t really care about what we’re doing, since it doesn’t impact them all that much. They are concerned with global flows of capital, not us sitting in parks and plazas. But we’ll start to develop more and more better ways of doing things, like actually providing localized socialized health care, and more and more people will come to our “cities” for health care, and more and more occupations with more and more self-organized ways of caring and sharing will spring up. They’ll start to connect and grow, and people will increasingly look to them, become part of them. Until it’s too late. Until our occupations are the society, and what’s left–the places of the former bankers, former politicians, former wealthy and powerful)–won’t have enough people to make them viable. We’ll have won, because we’ll have created a new world that meets our needs.
I biked back to my part of Philly with two friends, through a night that felt uncharacteristically warm, with the rekindled warm feeling that I’d had in the “early days” of Occupy Philly. When I got home, I remembered that I’d taken a photo (albeit a slightly blurry cell phone photo) of one of several signs made this past Sunday–our one-month occupation anniversary here in Philly–by a new friend, Ron Lester Whyte. His posters contrasted the world of the rich with the destruction wrought by capitalism, but one also highlighted the beauty of what we’re doing here: “imagin[ing] alternatives.” Or as I keep saying, and really feel again this evening: “realizing alternatives.” That Ron felt moved to make these signs and hold them during an interactive event we’d both helped to organize this past Sunday–called “You Can Have Your Playground When You/We Fix Our City”–was just one more instance of so many people being moved, over these luxuriously long thirty-three days of Occupy Philly, to make something of their own accord, from their own passions and dreams, without compulsion, for each other. And the sum of our individually being so moved has added up to us making something together: growing spaces of freedom across what’s been, for far too long under capitalist time, a weary, suffering, downtrodden continent of people estranged from themselves and each other.
If you haven’t reconnected with the occupation in a while, there’s no time to waste–or rather, waste some of capitalist time and make haste to the time of occupation. And if you haven’t connected at all yet, what are you waiting for? Or to quote an overquoted line by June Jordan: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” So we all need to show up, and bring a friend, and another and another and…