Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

A New Heart in This World

After doing public talks, I often get emails from folks with comments, questions, or thanks. On January 5, following a talk I did at Lucy Parsons Center titled “Occupy Anarchism,” I received one of the most poignant of such emails that I’ve that ever gotten: a touching true story about the capacity of the social movement called occupy to help people regain their humanity and dignity, to become new selves. It reminded me yet again that occupy isn’t about demands; it’s about what it is demanding from & realizing within us. I’d like to share this story, which occurred the night after my talk and was sent to me from a medic, as one among the millions of real-life tales that underscore why occupy already feels like a new world:

“Here in Boston [Occupy], most of our permanent, overnight camp population was homeless, so we had a lot of people who ordinarily had no access to really basic first aid level health care services coming to us—and often times we were dealing with far more complex problems, writing referrals, doing casework, and checking in with people who were dealing with a myriad of problems. Over the course of our encampment, we developed a number of close relationships with some of these community members.

One of our medics acted as a point person for one of these frequent patients, who had been living on the street and dealing with multiple medical and psychiatric issues. This person was incredibly good-hearted and gentle, and while they often kept us busy, they were one of the people we always felt safe with (something we couldn’t always say in camp). Their medic point person went above and beyond—making sure they took their meds on time, helping them make and get to doctors appointments, etc. They started to call their medic “Dad,” and had saved this medic in their phone as that [name].

Last night this community member was brought by ambulance to a local hospital, after having been found hypothermic on the street, having been there several hours after an apparent seizure or heart attack. In an attempt to get in touch with family, the hospital went through their phone, saw the listing for “Dad,” and called—reaching one of the Occupy medics. That medic contacted others who had gotten to know the person, and headed to the hospital to be with that person last night and when they passed away this morning. This person’s biological family wasn’t able to make it there last night, but sent a note saying they were comforted that his friends from Occupy were able to be there.”

This same person sent me a link to another tale, from another Boston Occupy person, about this same event (name changed as writer’s request):

“Z was found laying in hypothermic conditions a few nights ago, discovered after suffering either a seizure or heart attack. . . . He laid on the dark and cold city streets for several hours after the incident struck him. There was a juxtaposition that I often posited [about] people at Dewey Square, even in relation to Z, which was that society had commodified everything and us all to the point where even empathy, in that, if a person were to fall on the street among the general hustle and apathy of the city, he could lay for hours, or all day, before someone paid to care for his situation were eventually dispatched; at least here . . . if a person were to fall, they would at the very least be picked up and brought to the medical tent immediately, if someone wasn’t flying down on foot already. It was no mystery that Z had medical issues, but at Dewey, when those issues presented problems, at least he had his friends around to care for him, immediately.”

* * *

The “Occupy Anarchism” talk and discussion I did at Lucy Parsons a few nights ago was based on the description just below. You’ll also find a story about the evening on a Boston Phoenix blog. Thanks to LPC, in their beautiful new space, for hosting me (I’m always happy and eager to do talks elsewhere, especially at this historical moment, on occupy and/or anarchism:

As the “do-it-ourselves” uprisings and occupations that have swept across the globe from Egypt to United States are proving, the ethical practices that anarchists have long advocated are becoming powerful everyday experiences for millions, with people self-organizing everything from civic defense and trash collection to tent encampments and general assemblies. Indeed, the contours of the US occupy movement in particular could be viewed, in large part, as anarchism in action. Yet despite its obvious debt to anarchism, OWS and its lightning-speed proliferation across North America seemed to come as a surprise to anarchists, and in many ways, our learning curve as antiauthoritarians has been just as great as for those many liberals and political newcomers who overwhelmingly populate(d) the spaces of occupy. That surprise has created novel challenges and contradictions for anarchist theory and practice as well as anarchists’ own self-understanding. More surprisingly still, it also appears to have cracked open the potential for fundamental social transformation in a way that our recent anticapitalist efforts never could do on their own. Cindy will offer some reflections on occupy anarchism within the quirky, compelling experiment of occupy everything and then facilitate a conversation.

In Jamaica Plain, Anarchist Writer Cindy Milstein Speaks to Radicals on Occupy’s Roots

by Liz Pelly, PHLog, January 9, 2012


Cindy Milstein smiles and talks with her hands to a room of 25 attentive listeners, mostly twenty-somethings and some older, all sitting in folding chairs. Standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass storefront  at Jamaica Plain’s Lucy Parsons Center, a radical bookstore and community space, the anarchist author and activist speaks of her experiences in with Occupy Philly, anarchism, and the intersections of the two.

“Implicit in the very beginning of this movement is that it’s completely, completely indebted to anarchism and other horizontal and anti-authoritarian movements around the world,” she said during her two-hour talk [and discussion], holding a single sheet of paper, barely looking at it. “And it wouldn’t have emerged if it hadn’t have been for all of us. But nobody knew that at first … there’s a pre-history to it that we understand but that almost no one who is in a lot of the Occupy movement understands.”

Milstein is a board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies. She is the author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations, published by AK Press in 2010.

“I’ve been a big proponent of direct democracy for a long time,” she says. For Milstein, direct democracy has always been key within her own discussions of anarchism. “We don’t like the state, but we have to have a replacement … Direct democracy. It’s what I’ve always dreamed of,” she adds, explaining that although the Occupy movement has revealed how difficult direct democracy is in practice, it also reinforced that it’s “the right thing to do.”

Milstein regularly talks on anarchism. On Thursday night, she recalled giving a talk on anarchism at Occupy Philly. It was met with the common reaction: “I don’t understand how anarchism works,” attendees told her.

“I never in my life thought I would be able to say this, but this is how it works,” she told them, staring around at the Occupy encampment. “This is it. I mean, this is what anarchists want.”

Anarchist principles provided the framework for the Occupy movement, she said, drawing from her experiences at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Philly. As the [Boston] Phoenix outlined in October, “Many of the national Occupy movement’s organizational tools — the lengthy general assemblies, the finger-waggling exercises in consensus-building, the free food and clothing available throughout camp — come from anarchist models of direct action, horizontal organizing, and gift economies.” That article also pointed out that Occupy Boston specifically drew from local activists, anarchists, and DIY enthusiasts who have “long organized non-hierarchically in collective houses and radical book shops.” The Lucy Parsons Center — founded in 1969 and recently reopened on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain —is one of those shops.

“Every single working group that started, all the working groups were structured by anarchists, not because we had a secret plan or because we coordinated it or even talked about it, but because this is what we do well,” said Milstein about Occupy Philly, her face growing red as her talk proceeded. “We love doing collective projects. We had all been waiting for this moment.”

“Its all so indebted to our experience and our histories, and other people who are revolutionaries who are interested in horizontal experiments,” said Milstein. “So implicit is a debt to something that people don’t even understand.”

But Milstein pointed out that it wasn’t necessary for people to totally understand anarchy or even understand “Occupy” to feel moved by it — even without words or language or understanding of horizontal politics, it was the “feeling of shared suffering under capitalism” that drew the masses together over the past five months.

“Its probably the only time in human history that capitalism is so not only globally dominant but so deeply entrenched in shaping who we are, in the very fibers of how we think about who we are, our gender, our sex, it commodifies everything,” she said. “Capitalism seems to have become triumphant in a way where its almost hard to see what would be beyond it.  And in a way that’s created this sense of possibility for people to have a sense of shared suffering under capitalism … Capitalism so structures how we feel about the world that it does feel wrong to most people now.”

Coming to Occupy as an anarchist, Milstein said she had to reflect upon what she wanted her understanding of anarchism to do within Occupy. “That, to me, has been really perplexing from the first minute.”

“I’m so excited we’re going to do this here, I’ve been at OWS since the first minute,” a young woman told Milstein at the first meeting of Occupy Philly.

“What brought you to Occupy?” Milstein asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “I’ve just had this intuition since I was a baby that something, something … I don’t know, just everything’s wrong, I’ve always felt that everything’s wrong .. Everyone in NY was mad at us because we didn’t have answers for how to fix it … how would any of us know how to fix it?”

Milstein recalled this initial memory on Thursday night — a moment that made her rethink her position as an anarchist at Occupy. “If someone can’t even describe where they are and why they’re there, to try to get them to do things that anarchists would do and feel really comfortable doing felt odd, and has continually felt odd in this whole thing.”

The convergence of anarchist ideas with mainstream activists forced radicals like Milstein to take a wide view. “Even though we have been at the forefront of this whole thing … in a certain way, we almost are at the back.”

Milstein doesn’t want to turn everyone into an anarchist, but rather, wants its aspirations to be recognized. “I hope we can live in a society where it has the values of an anarchism as a political philosophy as a way of organizing society, self-governance, self-determination and self-management  .. but I don’t care if everyone is an anarchist or not.”

Even so, she does not plan to drop the word “anarchist” for another term. From Milstein’s perspective, anarchists still maintain necessary critiques of power and hierarchy, and its relationship to capitalism, gender, and class. She said, “I wouldn’t hold on to the label if it was meaningless.”

More thoughts from Milstein on Occupy and Anarchism can be heard via AgainstTheGrain.org’s “Anarchism in Thought and in the Streets” podcast.


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This entry was posted on January 10, 2012 by in Dispatches from Occupy Philly.
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