|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Welcome to the Occupations by Ben Ehrenreich
October 15th, 2011
THEY ARE OCCUPYING RIVERSIDE! They're occupying Oakland and Omaha and Iowa City and Sacramento and Denver and Miami and Kalamazoo and and Hartford and Philadelphia and Buffalo and Austin and San Antonio and Fort Wayne, Indiana! On Tuesday morning, police in Boston arrested 141 protesters. This week cops made mass arrests in Des Moines, grabbing 30 in one swoop, plus 25 in Chicago, 11 in San Francisco, six in DC, another 21 in Seattle last week, and those 700 on the Brooklyn Bridge. Torrance is under occupation!
What a difference a month can make. Until September 17, 2011, I was buzzing along in my usual slow, steady state of localized political despair. In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, people had been risking and losing their lives, demanding to play a role in the construction of their own societies. And it was clear enough, if you paid attention, that they were rising up not just against particular dictatorships but against the local manifestations of a global economic system that had for decades been concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands, privatizing all public goods, tossing everything into the market and dicing it up into speculation-ready bits. The Greeks took to the streets, too — and the Chileans, the Italians, the Spanish, the French, the Irish, the British, the Icelanders. The forty-years-and-running neoliberal transfer of public wealth to private coffers was everywhere becoming too brutal and too brazen to ignore. While mouthing the now nearly universal rhetoric of "shared sacrifice," governments were feeding billions directly to the banks. And people across the planet were showing them exactly what they were willing to sacrifice — their freedom, their lives — to stop the looting.
Everywhere but here. In the U.S., it seemed that Milton Friedman's jolly acolytes had colonized (occupied, even) not only the halls of power but our very imaginations, locking us into solitary suffering, cutting off all possibility of even envisioning some collective response. Politics was for politicians — and for those who could afford to buy one. Even the fleeting, expiatory pleasures of a good riot seemed beyond us. We were pissed, surely and righteously, but beyond voting-booth fetishism, online griping, and The Secret, what options did we have? The jackals in Congress wouldn't listen anyway. They had their orders. Better to stay home, avoid the mailman while there still was one to avoid, and pray that the Law of Attraction kept functioning long enough to keep the cable and the Internet on.
It took the Canadians, in the end, to snap us out of it. I didn't know Adbusters was still around, but a few people did, and they began to gather in a tiny park in lower Manhattan near a certain street with a famous name, a name that spoke, appropriately, of exclusion, fortification, enclosure. There were not many people out there at first, but there were enough, apparently, to make certain other people nervous. People of the exclusive, enclosed and well-fortified variety. For the next two weeks, the mainstream press kept a studious silence while Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Police Department did everything they could to turn an isolated protest into a rapidly growing movement. Every blast of pepper spray, every baton blow to the gut, every protester beaten and dragged away on YouTube made it clear what the stakes were, and who was on what side. While the slogan of the moment — "We are the 99 percent" — can be faulted for eliding enormous differences of class, race, and privilege among us masses of non-billionaires, billy clubs and zip-tie cuffs have a funny way of forging solidarity. The fallen and falling middle class is swiftly learning what the poor have known for too long: that the rich protect their wealth with violence and the state exists to help them do it. Like the picket signs say: "Screw us and we multiply."
In Los Angeles, the police have maintained an anomalously light touch. On most of my visits to the occupation site outside City Hall, I did not see a single police officer, although they surely saw me: the new LAPD headquarters, with its cameras and mirrored glass, is right across the street. Our local politicians have been cleverer than New York's. Rushing to bask in the movement's populist glow, the City Council yesterday passed a resolution endorsing the occupation. When it rained last week, Mayor Villaraigosa wandered the encampment, distributing ponchos, shaking hands, grinning his 100-watt grin. Some activists have fretted about co-optation, worrying that the Democratic Party and the union bureaucracies will contain and ultimately kill off the rising insurgent energy. But no one I've spoken with on the City Hall lawn has seemed in any danger of being satisfied.
The more immediate hazard may come from a different kind of comfort. Last week, the Slovenian philosopher and academic superstar Slavoj Žižek made an appearance in New York's Zuccotti Park, where he warned his acolytes among the protesters not to be satisfied with "carnival." On first glance, this seemed a bit curmudgeonly. Part of the point of this sort of occupation is to reclaim public space, to encourage the sort of noncommercial relationships between human beings discouraged by corporate culture, to build in miniature the society you are fighting to create. This means taking care of one another. It means all the unlikely things that protesters in New York and L.A. and elsewhere are already doing: Setting up free kitchens and libraries and childcare and open air schools and why not a bike repair tent too, along with what rudiments of health care people can provide for one another on a small patch of grass. It means drum circles, if we really must. It means not just chanting and marching together but dancing a little, and arguing too. Anarchists and liberals aren't supposed to agree, but better that they figure out how and to what extent they are willing to work together than that everyone simply stay home. Fighting, too, is carnival. And especially here in Los Angeles, where public space is most often experienced at rush hour with one's foot on the brake, we could use a bit of carnival, a chance to live in the spaces that are allegedly ours without an entrance fee or corporate sponsorship.
Still, Žižek was right. If the cops are being polite and the politicians are eager to make the protesters comfortable, it's not because they're nice. It's because they're not feeling sufficiently threatened. When several hundred protesters left the City Hall campsite last week, marched to a Bank of America branch on Figueroa, and refused to leave until tellers cashed a giant, Ed McMahon-style check for $653 billion made out to the people of California, the chumminess of our brothers in blue evaporated. Eleven people were arrested. The lesson was clear: The protests would be permitted, encouraged even, so long as the protesters didn't try to actually do anything. It's not a fight, in other words, unless you're fighting. Otherwise, as one particularly intense young fellow put it to me on the City Hall steps last night, "We're just fucking camping."