Occupy Wall Street is wintering. That’s not to say its seasoned recruits are taking time off, though there surely are equivalents of the “summer soldier and sunshine patriot” that Tom Paine invoked in his address to the Valley Forge winter encampment of the revolutionary Continental Army 236 years ago. But it’s been business as usual at 60 Wall Street, in the cavernous atrium of the Deutsche Bank building, where OWS working groups have been meeting continuously since the early weeks of the occupation. In those well-attended huddles, all sorts of plans are being made for re-occupations in the months to come – an American Spring to rival the Arab one – and the air is thick with proposals for ever bolder actions.
Still, it’s not a bad time to take stock of the early months of the movement. The publication of two books is an occasion either to reminisce about, or catch up with the momentous events that originated in Lower Manhattan just one week after the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The respective publishers, Verso and OR Books, are natural allies of the movement, and are to be saluted for delivering the first two book-length treatments – there will be many others in the year ahead.
Both volumes are documentaries of the heady life of the encampment at Zuccotti Park, though each book has a distinct flavour, and they deploy quite different methods of reporting. Occupy! Scenes From Occupied America reads like a series of diary entries – on-the-ground vignettes, testimonials of events, and snap analysis of where it might all be heading. Included are fragments of speeches by visiting luminaries – Angela Davis, Slavoj Žižek, Rebecca Solnit, Judith Butler – but the bulk of the entries are from writers with close ties to New York City’s left-wing media organs: n+1, New Inquiry, Triple Canopy and Dissent. By contrast, Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America by Writers for the 99% (OR Books, £10) takes the form of a more orthodox narrative, quarried out of interviews from a field ethnography of Zuccotti Park undertaken by many hands and then polished by a team of writers.
Most of the contributors to these books are movement participants – not armchair analysts or journos on a short deadline – so the pages of each volume ring with authenticity.
On the face of it, any book about Occupy might have been superfluous. After all, the movement has been so meticulously documented by its own participants through a variety of media–official websites, blogs, tweets, livestreaming and other social media channels, in addition to alternative radio and TV, and a steady flow of pamphlets, gazettes, journals and other print outlets. Never has a protest movement documented and broadcast its doings in real time with such utter transparency and to such a far-flung audience. In some respects, the sheer volume of self-generated media has even pre-empted the need for conventional media coverage. Forging an alternative society – and many occupiers saw Zuccotti Park as a prefiguration, if not a microcosm, of such a society – requires the creation of your own autonomous institutions.
Despite this spate of agit-prop, reflection and analysis, the conventional book formats stand up quite well, and, on certain topics, are indispensable. Occupy! abounds with insights on how the occupiers have dealt with internal challenges to their experiment in direct democracy. A general assembly in full flow is a galvanic prospect; “more than one speaker,” it is noted, publicly “expressed love for the general assembly”.
But the GA’s horizontal culture is also an open invitation to assassins of this kind of joy. Complaints about the neglect of race and gender are the most common, righteous cause of disturbance, and when the outcome reinforces the GA’s reliance on the “progressive stack” – whereby speakers of (white, male-identified) privilege are encouraged to “step back” – the interference has an alchemy that is breathtaking.
Manissa Maharawal describes how she and other members of South Asians for Justice stood up to block the GA consensus on the Declaration of the Occupation of Wall Street: she “felt like something important had just happened, that we had just pushed the movement a little bit closer to the movement I would like to see”.
GAs also attract their share of people “damaged by capitalism” and further frazzled by brutal policing and the roughneck life of 24/7 activism. Their fractious behaviour is at odds with the smoother, educated norms of civic speech, and they often violate the rules of GA process.
As the Zuccotti Park occupation wore on, the increasing presence of the homeless – the most vulnerable of the 99% – became the acid test of whether OWS was up to the task of heralding a new kind of society based on mutual aid. In the calendar entries of Occupy! this theme comes more and more to the fore. Indeed, Christopher Herring and Zoltán Glück’s long meditation, “The Homeless Question” is worth the price of admission alone. Noting that some occupations – in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Oakland – had been more forthright in feeding and servicing the homeless, they faultlessly argue that the burgeoning unhoused population “should not be seen as a liability for the movement” (a not uncommon perception around OWS) “but a reminder of why the protest exists”.
Occupying Wall Street offers a detailed rendering of how daily life was organised in the Zuccotti Park encampment. The challenge of accommodating the homeless is also part of its record of how quite different populations came to co-exist in the half-acre space. Most absorbing is the book’s account of the social geography of the park, conspicuously visible in the divide between its east end, where ideological open-endedness prevailed, and the west side, or self-styled “ghetto”, where the more radical groupings set up shop, along with the drum circle. As one of the westenders, a member of Class War Camp, put it, “This side of the camp isn’t for reform. This side’s for revolution, you know?” Unlike the east side “liberal college kids”, he added, “we have nothing to lose. We don’t want to fix the system, we want to fucking burn it to the ground.”
Writers for the 99% (the book’s collective of writers) do not shy away from pointing out that the less educated, poorer and more precarious sleepers in the “ghetto” were not only underserviced by OWS’s support systems, but also lacked ready access to the resources offered by sympathetic residents of Lower Manhattan.
Such observations highlight just how difficult it is to expunge the toxic residue of race and class that poisons our existing society. For those who want Occupy to be a living, breathing alternative, every act of fellow-feeling is an opportunity to set a better norm. As many occupiers say, “the process is the product”.
• Andrew Ross’s Nice Work If You Can Get It is published by NYUP.