Occupying Video

The Underbelly of Globalization Caught on Camera

by Chris Robé

2 January 2012

Photo (partial) by
Louise Macabitas 

But unlike Right Here All Over, this video does not suffocate the viewer with its inclusivity, but merely offers one person’s somewhat rambling outlook for thought. Additionally, its use of more youthful music and quick cutting makes the video more engaging and exciting to watch than the slow-paced tempo of Right Here All Over. Nonetheless, the video’s strange soft-lit appeal towards family strains against its more dystopian opening or, more so, it reveals the sentimentality that underlies such a seemingly cynical outlook. The video holds a Romantic worldview, typical of Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau and the early Marx, that views humanity as estranged from its surroundings and needing to re-reconcile itself with nature.

Perhaps the most insightful videos emerging from the movement are the ones concerned with process. This can be most readily seen in Consensus and The Time for Action Is Now . The first video is geared towards those completely unfamiliar with non-hierarchical, consensus-based processes. We watch a general assembly taking place in Washington Square Park where the human microphone echoes how the group came to a consensus the week before in establishing a declaration of principles for the occupation of New York City. Participants twinkle with their fingers in approval. As the announcement progresses, the camera sweeps over the immense numbers of people who are participating. An Asian woman follows, noting: “I don’t think it is possible without the process. The only way you keep people involved is you have a process where everyone can be heard.”

The video carefully shows the process at work and has people explicating on how it works. Various individuals tell us how the hand-signals work: from twinkling (approval), a triangle shape (point of order), to crossed arms (blocking). It also provides valuable testimony. One male participant states: “Some decisions I might not agree with. But because I was part of the process, because I saw how it was made and how good the intentions were, I honored the decision even if I didn’t agree with it.”

These accounts strongly contrast the skeptical portrayal often provided by commercial news media coverage of the consensus-based process. The New York Times, for example, recounts pointless meetings that last for hours: “one night in mid-October, hundreds of people had gathered, trying to agree on whether to buy brewing equipment, coffee and tea… An hour later, the same proposal was being debated” (“A Protest Reaches” 28).

Overlooked, however, is how consensus-based decision making serves as prefigurative politics for OWS. Pregifurative politics means that the political means should emulate the desired ends. One cannot reach just ends throughout compromised and undemocratic political processes. OWS people are implementing the type of non-hierarchical type decision-making in the present that they want future political configurations to embody. If a world of hierarchy leads to pepper spraying police, Wall Street oligarchs, and political functionaries who all defend minority interests, so OWS reasoning goes, then better to have consensus-based, non-hierarchical decision-making that does not relegate one’s sovereignty to often unaccountable representatives who embed themselves with the privileged.

Todd Gitlin, former president of Students for a Democratic Society, in an 8 October 2011 New York Times op-ed was one of the few mainstream commentators to note that OWS’s “anarchist impulse is nothing new in America. There were strong anarchist streaks in the New Left of the 1960s” (“The Left Declares Its Independence” SR4). Matter of fact, this impulse stretches back from the ‘60s with the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to the ‘70s with feminist consciousness raising groups to the ‘80s in anti-nuclear actions to the ‘90s in the direct action demonstrations of ACT UP and to the 2000s of the alter-globalization movement.

It’s only appropriate that The Time for Action Is Now documents the OWS movement currently occurring on City University of New York—Hunter Campus, the very campus that in the late ‘60s held student protests for open admissions policies for black and Latino students. Unlike Consensus, this video thrusts the viewer into consensus-based decision-making without any orientation. We watch students, faculty, and staff discuss during various general assemblies the importance of affordable tuition, tenure, and the need for a more representative body on the Board of Trustees. One student nervously states regarding her actions: “I don’t want to get expelled. I don’t want an adjunct to get fired.” Members from CUNY Law School immediately chime in that they are in solidarity with OWS and will offer free legal services to anyone the administration attempts to punish.

Once again, the viewer is visually linked with the protestors. The camera sits level with those squatting on the ground, a part of the circle that forms the general assembly. Its handheld footage personalizes the images, offering a sense of the rhythms of the filmmaker. Diverse groups of people speak about the issues concerning students and faculty. This diversity becomes a hallmark of the CUNY system, of what an affordable education allows for and contrasts against the more white-dominated and male crowds often seen at other OWS assemblies.

Not surprisingly, the issue of race has arisen in a series of OWS videos. In Occupy the Hood, Malik, from Queens, states how people of color were underrepresented at OWS even though Wall Street practices have been negatively impacting communities of color for decades. He notes, “If the white community has a cold, we have the flu. So what I did was I went on the internet and made a Twitter as a sounding board, and it worked.”

The style is much more minimal than other OWS videos. It largely consists of a two-shot of Malik and another African-American male with a red Che Guevara shirt speaking before a handheld camera. The camera swivels a bit to gaze upon other participants. Malik relates a series of useful information directly to the camera: “And they stopped the welfare and they stopped food stamps on October first in Detroit.” An occasional photograph of protestors and famous supporters like Cornel West intersperses the mere three minutes of footage.

Malik asserts, “We’ve been occupied for years. Wall Street has been built upon slave bones.” A shot of a flag waving “Debt is Slavery” follows showing the linkages between the metaphor and the historical reality. He continues, “They’re feeding more people here than my mayor feeds.” The camera turns around to show a table of food being dished out to a line of people. The camera zooms in on some apples, bread, condiments, and boxes of additional supplies. The other man adds as the camera swivels back, the sound of his voice fading back in: “I want to thank all the people who have donated to OWS. If it wasn’t for you guys keep on funding it, keep on donating, keep on sending clothes, sock, shoes, tampons and tampax for the ladies, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, a lot of things wouldn’t be possible. We just blessed.”

A sense of urgency pervades the sequence not only in the amount of information mentioned, but also through the rough camera-style that frantically scans the backdrop while simultaneously trying to focus upon the two speakers. It’s trying to ingest as much as possible in a very limited amount of time. Furthermore, the sequence’s rather spotty sound and minimal editing suggests that its makers do not have much familiarity with video production but are nonetheless jumping into it since the moment requires it.

The minimal production style speaks to the poverty and neglect that have suffused urban communities. The video lacks the music, smooth editing, and general gloss found in the Manhattan-based OWS shorts. Unlike the New Age demeanor of Where Do We Go From Here with its moderate pacing and smooth camera movements that imply the socio-economic privilege that informs the video’s very form, Occupy the Hood captures within its shaky camera movements and choppy editing the poverty and deprivation that consumes low-income areas. 

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