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Semiformalishmaybe

OWS - Towards a Conclusion

Two days ago was the last full day for OccupyPhiladelphia, at least in its present form. A fair amount of (rambly!) thinking plus a narrative about the movement behind this cut:

Tuesday afternoon, on my way to one of the teahouses I spend my time at nowadays, I was wondering about the end of this protest; the debate a few weeks ago about whether to relocate across the street to the location the city offered was pretty rough, and the decision to stay at the symbolic location right outside city hall may have been showing a reasonable stubbornness appropriate to protests, but also put a time limit on the movement. In order to stay indefinitely, we either need legal/political cover, we need the police to be unwilling to remove us, or we need some way to physically resist the police. The third option is really difficult, the second struck me as increasingly unlikely, and the first unfortunately didn't happen (although the police in PHL have generally been pretty restrained). If we're not to actually stay for good, does the attempt at direct action to stay, possibly delaying the renovation, make any sense? Also, what's next?

As you may know, OWS was sparked by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, 「Adbusters」. It didn't keep an active hand in them; each community governs/governed itself through a combination of open committees and the General Assembly, a large gathering at 19:00 every night where issues are raised, discussed, and voted upon. Processes differ a bit between each Occupy, even as the decisions of the Wall Street Occupy were inspirational for the rest. The combinations of the spaces claimed and the communities each occupy brought together made for a laboratory for governance, a meeting place for people from very different positions in society, and challenges that provided opportunity for growth and stomped out some naïve ideas. I see the movement as having been grand, both as a symbol and an actuality; the combined community we built seemed to work. The people at Adbusters, seeing the writing on the wall, suggested a celebration and an orderly shutdown of the Occupy camps, moving under the reasoning that there is more dignity in that than in being forcibly disbanded by police, and suggesting a large party in each location to mark the end. I'm not sure what I think about that.

Leaving the teahouse on Tuesday, I went to the Occupy location, seeing, as I had heard, that the camp was down to about 40% of what it had been the week before. On Sunday, the city gave notice of eviction and revoked the permit, which cleared most of the homeless population, those with more expensive equipment, and most of the people who had voted the other way in that move-or-not-move vote. I got into a few conversations, and started to notice increased police presence and some news crews; first very large numbers of police going by on bikes, then large swarms of police cars driving by in formation. There were two police who had frequently been on the edge of the park step into it, conversing with news crews and occasionally with Occupy community members; after taking a number of photos of everything I could, I got into a lengthy conversation with one of the police; he was initially very sympathetic to the movement, but felt that it had long overstayed its welcome, becoming a hypocritical, toxic nuisance. We had some back-and-forth; I actually agreed with a fair set of his criticisms (but didn't find them that important, relatively speaking); we primarily disagreed on whether the mere presence of occupy was positive; I believe it serves an important symbolic value and expression of dissent (I should've figured out a way to express the importance of the community itself, but nothing came to mind during the conversation). He felt that in the end, the protest would have to end and the only effective measure of its effectiveness would be at the ballot box; I should've argued that the protest is a sign that significant numbers of people have become disenchanted with the political system itself, particularly when it's a choice between bad and worse, but I only expressed a fraction of that; he felt he scored a big point when I couldn't name PA's representatives in congress; to me this is unimportant because I do a lot of research when election time comes around and if I have to write a letter and then slowly forget who I elected because I have too many other things to think about it, but if I did decide it were important I could learn/remember local political things. I also, as a socialist, really have no chance of representation in government in the US. Still, I think the conversation went well. I briefly spoke with the other cop, but despite getting the impression that something was probably going to happen soon, I decided to catch the last train home rather than be stranded downtown for 10 hours. I was not entirely surprised to see, as I wound my way down beneath city hall towards the rail station, a fair number of police massing down there.

One of the things I would like us to get out of this, apart from the energy and community for future protests and social change, is the will to remove everyone in government office who could've given us cover to remain who did not. If we can remove PHL's mayor and city council at the next election (which I imagine I won't be around for and even were I, being outside the city proper would not have me eligible to vote anyhow), that'd be a great thing. I hope other Occupys that have been evicted will resolve to do the same.

This may be difficult; the "We are the 99%" slogan is not strictly true. Occupy does draw a wide cross-section of society, but it does not at least obviously represent a consensus of 99% of Americans. If we had a vote tomorrow across all of America, we would not see Occupy movements given the entire country with a 99-to-1 vote. Some of this is that a lot of people don't vote their economic interests, some of this is that a lot of people have other interests that are more important to them than economics (e.g. social conservativism), some of this is that a lot of people really don't care or know anything about politics. The swarm of ideas at a given Occupy might legitimately claim to be forging positions that will break a hegemony of power and privilege that disenfranchises 99% of Americans in a variety of ways, but it's only as real as my claim that the secular-socialist-academic consensus I believe in is the 「Will of the People」. Ideas that serve to benefit and act from the theoretical will of the 99% are still worthwhile, and 99% is a good way to change the rules of discourse. I am more interested in more fundamental shifts in framing, but I don't know if we're ready for them. 「Property is Privilege and Privilege is Provisional」 would be a fantastic next step; it would take the philosophical struggle into an assault on the home turf of the libertarians and other property fundamentalists, rather than leaving them an untouched philosophical ground from which to continue to pull on the mainstream. It's also at the heart of what we need to have a national conversation about.

I stopped by the Occupy location this morning; it's fenced off, cleaned up (although it's hard to really make the area dirty given what it's made of), and being prepared for the construction. There are tons of cops wandering about in the streets nearby, presumably to prevent any new gatherings from taking root. I am sad to see the end of the space, at least partly because now the people are not meaningfully together anymore.

I do believe Occupy was a positive experience; not as productive as it might've been, and certainly not very focused. Mistakes were made, but hopefully the community we built will inspire future communities, and hopefully those of us who participated were changed positively by the experience (we should be the start of this generation's mass protest movement, and just the beginning). There are no easy answers, but there are hard problems in our society that won't be solved unless we change our political system, improve our educational system, and get more people to actually engage in discussions and movements that help us build and implement a substantial notion of the public good.

In the longer run, I'd like to see:

  • Break the back of Yuppie culture
  • End suburbia
  • Bring real discussions on religion and politics off of television and into neighbourhoods and workplaces
What role did I play at Occupy, and what did I get out of it?
  • I never slept at a camp; I was a frequent visitor of OccupyPHL and visited OWS and OccupyBoston once apiece
  • I contributed significantly to the GAs in OccupyPHL, offering amendments to a number of proposals, many of which were accepted. I contributed once to OccupyBoston, offering another accepted amendment to a proposal
  • I washed dishes at OWS :)
  • I provided significant donations of supplies to OccupyPHL
  • I talked to a number of people at each Occupy, reigning in bad ideas and talking a lot about the importance of campaign finance reform and Lessig's ideas, as well as my own analyses
  • I took a number of photos
As for what I got:
  • A surprising amount of confidence that the facilitation committees had reasonable processes for genuine democracy
  • A surprising amount of confidence that the de-escalation training offered by the community could calm down many situations that otherwise would have someone taken away by police (to jail or a nuthouse)
  • A reminder that these tools don't always work, and that occasionally people really do need to be carted off by police (and sadness that the community was deadset against that even when someone was very disruptive)
  • Temporary membership in a community, conversations included, which was pretty nice because recently I've been lonely.
  • A reminder of the importance of on-the-ground passion; as a theorist who tends to spend a lot of time in academia and other calm and privileged places, I try to expose myself to this pretty often, at least partly to avoid the selfish sterility of my younger days.
  • The joy of seeing at least some arms from all parts of society reaching out to help the movement, from churches to universities.

If you want more of these photos, see here on my Picasa. There are photos from OccupyPHL, OWS, and OccupyBoston.

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