Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Occupation in Philly, Day 39 (November 13)

Occupational Hazards

It might be an accident, or perhaps mere coincidence. Over the course of the brief-yet-long life of occupations across what is now called the United States, certain dilemmas and/or troubles seem to beset many of our communes at once. It’s hard, from the worm’s-eye view we occupiers have at our own occupations, to notice this larger pattern. It’s hard not to get caught up in the quite-real entanglements and minutia within each of our own spaces. And it’s hard, even for those of us who’ve dreamed of such extended revolutionary periods, to maintain a focus even on our own occupation, and so people drift back into their own lives. For all the critiques of the “summit-hopping” model of anticapitalist convergences, I fear that we too—those of us seeking nonhierarchical social transformation—really only have the limited attention span for adrenaline rushes, whether in the form of brief and dramatic mass mobilizations or, recently, the exuberant start of an occupation or its occasional spirited defense.

Probably not at all by accident, while we’re getting caught up in looking inward within our occupations or losing interest in them, those with a bird’s-eye view are targeting us as their prey. There’s the eagle—noted for its “strength, size, keenness of vision, and powers” (Webster’s)—of the US government and its policing agencies, Even if we can’t see it or convince others that it’s circling above us, we can hear the pounding of its wings on the air as it bears down, ready to tear us all apart. (Sometimes, of course, it visibly swoops on an occupation—in Oakland or Portland, say—but so far we’ve managed to scurry out of its way and draw greater numbers to our side in the process.) We don’t have much evidence of how these eagles function to divide and conquer—save for the occasional undercover cop or infiltrator who gets outed—but one can guess that various absurd rumors, various absurd fights or disruptive individuals, and various not-so-absurd thefts (missing banners or missing computers), among other things, are some of the ways the US government and its police are trying to subvert and destroy our occupations.

Then there’s the parrot of some city governments and their policing agencies—skillfully, brightly, and visibly echoing our language, or mimicking exactly they think we want to hear, in order to happily charm and thus cage us. Philly’s Mayor Nutter has been taking this tack, such as insisting that he too is part of the 99%, for instance, or talking about how we’re living side by and side and need to cooperate, playing nice to divide those occupiers who believe the politicians’ lies from those who maintain a healthy or outright skepticism. (This all changed suddenly today, coincidentally after the mayor won reelection a few days, we decided Friday night via our GA not to leave our plaza, and allegations of a rape at Occupy Philly circulated this morning. Suddenly, on a Sunday, Nutter held a press conference and played nasty, now trying to divide us by vilifying and discrediting Occupy Philly. He used everything in his arsenal, from health and safe “concerns,” to accusing us of not caring about social and economic issues, to trying to point the finger at certain “radical” and new elements within the occupation; see http://occupyphillymedia.org/content/text-mayor-nutters-statement-occupy-philly-november-13. Stay tuned tooccupyphillymedia.org for news of press conference in response to the mayor’s lies and assault.)

Finally, there’s the hawk of what a friend here calls the “militant liberals” who are occupiers, but to my mind is also comprised of the reactionary, patriarchal control-freak occupiers with a “militant attitude [who] advocate immediate vigorous action . . . warlike policy” (Webster’s)— a war against nearly every occupier who doesn’t agree with a hierarchical and often oppressive set of values. These folks are, within Occupy Philly, currently trying to battle against our direct democracy—for example, with a petition to dismantle the GA after they didn’t get their way, and/or through notions about changing to remote versus face-to-face voting; wage war on transparency and accountability—for instance, one of their friends used his Facebook admin privileges to post a clearly editorializing piece just before a contentious GA last Friday, in the official name of our Facebook page, “Occupy Philadelphia”; and drive wedges between people by spreading false and often vicious rumors (whispered in person, posted ad nauseam online, or phoned in anonymously to mainstream media) and/or creating incendiary, slanderous Web sites.

These birds of a feather are indeed flocking together, in explicit and implicit conversation, strategizing about how to bring us down. Indeed, more than strategizing, they are actively working—often hidden in the shadows, so they can attack without our foreknowledge—to kill our flights of fancy, this movement of a humanity that increasingly recognizes itself as bound by the song of the many “yeses” promised by the egalitarian world we’re daily innovating.

I don’t want them to get the best of us, or kill off our movement or even people within it, metaphorically and literally. We can’t let them use “whatever means necessary” or whatever is at hand to tear us apart and destroy our fledgling experiments in a safer, self-governing, egalitarian society. They seem to be assaulting us from all sides of late, alternating between good-cop and bad-cop strategies, and using every little weakness they can find within our occupations to attempt to disparage us, to evict us, to shut us down.

Yes, there are real problems within our occupations—from sexual assault to people saying racist things, from poorly facilitated general assemblies to dysfunctional working groups. There are also real-world problems that collide with our occupations—such as the murder of another young black man right near Occupy Oakland. The world of capitalism, militarism, homophobia and sexism, youth curfews, poverty, prisons, lack of mental and physical health care, home foreclosures and homelessness, nation-states and borders, and all the other concerns that brought us to occupy in the first place don’t stop outside our door. They are, in fact, what propelled so many of us to say “enough is enough,” and what’s driving our innovations in the practice, still so imperfect, of different ways of being and doing.

These past few days, within the self-made boundaries of occupations dotting big cities and villages, so many crises and dilemmas, divisions and acrimony, accusations and attacks have suddenly, inexplicably, seemed to appear. I awoke to perhaps a half-dozen of them here in Philly—and that was only counting the crises, not the dozens and dozens of in-fighting emails and ongoing scapegoating.

It struck me that too much of this is too coincidental, given its near-cookie-cutter resemblance from occupation to occupation. It struck me that those with much to lose after always tried to encourage divisions among the rebels, revolutionaries, and heretics struggling for a better world.

Sure, a certain amount of crises and dilemmas and heated arguments between us will happen, as we struggle to remember that we can be better people, better to each other; as we struggle to find new ways of living, deciding, sharing, cooperating, and caring; as we struggle to undo the damage within ourselves. But every time I am “on the ground” at Occupy Philly, or “out in the world” beyond it, I am reminded that by and large, people are pretty good to each other, have good intentions, and are trying hard to make these beloved autonomous space work, or are thoroughly inspired by them, if they aren’t at the occupations, and are changing their own places and spaces in ways too. I am reminded that by putting all our amazing heads together, we come up with some pretty phenomenal—and phenomenally better—ways of self-managing our many new communities.

We’re not perfect, and we’ll never be perfectly peaceful. Conflict happens between people; it’s as “normal” as needing to eat, sleep, and love. What counts is how we do conflict, or how we openly, humanely, and kindly work through conflicts toward a new level of resolution and even reconciliation. I’d hope we’d do conflict well, or as well as we often do eating, sleeping, and loving, which sometimes also all needs a bit of extra hard work and attention to ensure they are done well.

The fact that by and large we’re able to disagree at our occupations and still be friends or become friends, talk things through to the point of mutual understanding, de-escalate situations that become a little heated, and all the other ways we’re learning to better coexist are in so many ways is proof positive that we’re on the right track. But we’re doing much more than that. We’re testing out other models for dealing with political, economic, and social problems, or as Francis Fox Piven reminded me last week, we’re asserting ethics in terms of how we deal with problems (a “moral economy versus a market economy,” to cite a lovely piece by anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin). After the nonrelated murder right outside Occupy Oakland last Friday night, people instantly started talking about more trainings in conflict resolution and medic skills; here at Occupy Philly today, word of a possible sexual assault set a women’s and allies caucus in motion, and spurred on plans for self-defense training, among other things.

We aren’t doves. Rather, as I wrote in a piece for a picture-essay book I’m working on with my artist friend Erik Ruin, I’d assert that we’re “scrappy carrier pigeon[s], transport[ing] our courage upward to the next rebel commune, so the next time & the time after that & perhaps even now, we’ll know how to do-it-ourselves even more beautifully.

Thus, we too need to start flying above the fray, not to destroy ourselves from within, but instead to see the expansiveness of what we’re doing across the global landscape of our self-constituted, horizontally organized communities, and from this pretty incredible vista, start banding together more, in smarter and smarter ways. I don’t want the forces of power-over (be they feudal lords, clergy, kings, or presidents), which time and again have thwarted the highest of human aspirations (freedom, justice, dignity) for their own ends, to win this time around. We need to try our damnest in this moment of potential to outsmart them by taking the high ground, by out-organizing them from below.

I don’t pretend to know what “outsmarting” such powerful forces actually looks like.  We don’t even really know what “democracy looks like.” Yet we’re trying to figure out what direct democracy could and should be, slowly and, I trust, surely. So maybe we can put our savvy heads together, and figure out what “outsmarting” the forces of social control and social suffering looks like.

Here are some tentative thoughts—maybe more for my own benefit and reminder, than yours—in a simple list form, of ways to perhaps be smarter that also just might perhaps make us stronger, that just might bring us a little closer to winning, because the eagles, parrots, and hawks wouldn’t be trying so hard if we weren’t already winning to some degree:

  1. We all need to breath.
  2. We all need to stay calm.
  3. We all need to stop believing and spreading rumors.
  4. We need listen to, dialogue with, and offer empathy and especially solidarity to each other.
  5. We all need to take care of ourselves as well as each other.
  6. We all need to work toward safer spaces, promising each other that when bad things happen, which they will, we’ll do our best to deal with them in far more humane ways than top-down structures.
  7. We all need to refocus on the concerns and dreams that brought us to occupy.
  8. We all need to redouble our efforts to put those concerns and dreams into other people’s ears—those people still “outside” occupy but likely inspired by it.
  9. We all need to refocus on improving and expanding our forms of direct democracy, self-organization, and mutual aid.
  10. We all need to redouble our efforts to put such forms into other people’s hearts—those people who haven’t yet seen the power of deciding for ourselves.

(Yet another photo lifted, with ongoing thanks, from Dave Onion’s flickr picks, available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/multilectical/; patch & especially slogan appreciated, with amused thanks to BryBry; and title for this piece borrowed, with well-deserved thanks, from Erik Ruin, who is probably annoyed that I didn’t return his call today.)

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2011 by in Dispatches from Occupy Philly.
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