The Wheel, Reinvented: ‘Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America’

Remember when ‘Occupy’ was the word of the year, and the protester was the person of the year? Yep, that was only last year. Following the Arab Spring and massive street protests in Spain and other places round the world, the spirit of revolt had even, suddenly, seized America.

Or so it seemed.

A few months later, the large camps that had sprung up in New York and other major US cities are gone, due to a combination of winter weather, police raids (‘the Constitution doesn’t protect tents’, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg decreed in October) and the inherent limitations of this form of protest. Sure, actions and discussions go on here and there; spring-time efforts at revitalization are in the air; and the social wrongs that motivated the protests in the first place remain in place; but the momentum, at least for now, is lost.

Occupy! Scenes from an Occupied America was published just as the tide was turning, though the authors could not have known this at the time. With contributions from 29 radical and left-wing writers (including well-known figures Judith Butler, Angela Davis, and Slavoj Žižek), it offers honest reflections, red-tint illustrations, and vivid participant reports inspired by the protests at their peak.

The value of the volume now lies in what it can tell us about why one snowballing movement of popular rebellion came so quickly to a halt, and whether, and how, it can ever start rolling again. “‘They read some books in college and now they think they know how to fix the world,’ one tired cop told some tourists as I walked by”, wrote one of the authors in September (13). Without being tired or cynical, we ought to agree that fixing the world will take more than reading books and setting up tents in parks.

That’s not to say the protests achieved nothing — quite the opposite. Suddenly, class division — the issue that more than any other gets kicked under the carpet of boosterism and make-believe that is American politics — was top of the agenda. Of course, it wasn’t the protests alone that did it, but the job losses, the foreclosures, the cuts, and the long lines at the food banks. ‘We are the 99%’ spoke to the widespread discontent created by an unequal economic system plunged into a crisis, and called for a positive sense of solidarity among the millions of people affected.

The slogan found instant resonance, but there were problems. For one thing, ‘We are the 99%’ concealed certain other unsightly divisions — race, for example, or ideology, or the fact that, while many of the 99% are desperately poor, others are still doing OK. Just like the protesters themselves, these and other fissures resisted being evicted from the camps. In a light but sober tone, the pages of this book register the rumors about sexual harassment and theft in the camps, about backroom dealings, and about cop infiltrators; as well as the frictions between the homeless and the protesters; between drum circles who insisted on drumming at all hours, GAs (General Assemblies) needing peace and quiet to debate, and neighbors wanting to sleep; between extremists intent on deliberately provoking the police, and advocates of non-violence (the essay on this topic by Rebecca Solnit is first-rate); and so on.

For another thing, the protesters quickly got bogged down (sometimes literally) in a multitude of mundane chores — running soup kitchens and medical tents, finding toilets, etc. (don’t miss Keith Gessen’s chapter, ‘Laundry Day’) — apparently in the naïve belief that a better society could be built from scratch, as if the occupied spaces were desert islands and the protesters some innocent, naked, collective Robinson Crusoe. Alas, if they had truly read those books in college — or anywhere else — they would have known this kind of thing has been tried many times, and can only go so far.

Utopian socialist and religious communities in the 19th century, hippy communes in the 20th — these are perhaps some of the experiences documentary director Astra Taylor had in mind when she wrote that ‘each wave of kids reinvents the wheel, believes they’ve fashioned it for the first time, and then there it goes, off the rails. I hope a fraction of them dig in for the long haul and build some sort of infrastructure so the next generation isn’t left repeating this pattern.’ (20-1)

What works for the long haul, in politics just as much as in engineering, is an understanding of the history, scope, and heart of the problem, and the patience and skill to find solutions that match. This, of course, is easier said than done, and this book ultimately does little more than gather together tentative and differing assessments, with one chapter trying to reassure us that it’s ‘OK to want to get something but also not be sure exactly how to get it, or even what it is’ (14), and another wondering whether the protests are only ‘displays of futility’, and whether the ’99 percenters … will be viewed by future historians as the necessary fallen of the age of post-industrialization, the great adjustment, or whatever name, probably in Chinese or Brazilian Portuguese, they give our present moment of economic and social realignment.’ (26).

Alongside such diverse attempts at making sense of the protests themselves, the book now and then wanders off into background areas that are surprisingly revealing. There is, for example, a short piece on the Quaker roots of consensus decision-making; one on how and why the New York Police Department turned to ‘order maintenance policing’ in the 1990s; and another on immigrant workers in New York’s Chinatown — less than a mile from Zucotti Park, yet almost a world away.

Altogether, this collection is a readable witness to a significant moment in history, and a fair reflection of some of the confusions and dilemmas faced by those hoping, and struggling, to transcend it. One thing, however, can’t be doubted: time and again, our unjust social system will create not only dramatic popular mobilizations such as those lived in America last fall, but also the need for far-sighted strategies that are both more realistic and more ambitious than anything the Occupy movement has generated so far. Protesters won’t storm the covers of mainstream magazines every year, but the work of building a sane society will remain an urgent priority for a long time to come. ‘After all’, as the writer reporting from Occupied Philadelphia says, ‘the point was never just to hold a park.’ (162)

RATING 7 / 10
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