May 24, 2012

Occupy In A Transitional Period

[This article was written by a young 'rade of mine who has been involved in Occupy Boston since its inception for the folks at the Norwegian magazine Rødt, published by the Red Party there. At a time when there is still real unclarity about how to proceed among many Occupy! activists and supporters, it draws some deep lessons from the movement's first phase last fall. It addresses some of the same questions I talked about in this FotM piece last month.]

by Evan Sarmiento

Shortly before 5am on December 10, 2011 Occupy Boston was evicted from the encampment at Dewey Square, a short walk to our main busing and transit hub South Station in Downtown Boston. The raid came after Boston judge Judge Frances A. McIntyre lifted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the police from taking action against Occupy Boston. The terms 'encampment', 'protest' and 'civil disobedience' are protected under the U.S. Constitution. The state of Massachusetts, in it's official judgement, however, considered the term occupation a deliberate seizure of private property.

Ironically, the Massachusetts judiciary understood the occupation better than many of the occupants itself, who considered our encampment at Dewey Square as more of a rallying cry for the 99% than a permanent form. But, perhaps most interesting was that the state of Massachusetts considered Occupy Boston to be ineligible as plaintiffs, as each court witness claimed not to represent Occupy Boston. Occupy Boston, following upon the general rules adhered to by the entire Occupy Movement, practiced horizontalism and consensus in it's operation and therefore, individuals participating could only represent themselves.
Post-eviction, I spoke at a panel at Harvard University entitled "What is the Occupy Movement?" Emmanuel Telez, a young, voracious legal assistant, co-facilitated the panel. Afterward, we discussed this very strange contradiction. Occupy Boston, in itself, was so heterogeneous to the state and its judiciary that, in legal terms, it could not even exist. To the state, Occupy Boston was an invisible, traumatic element which confronted the State as a non-entity enacting and surpassing bourgeois rights. Some would say, "using bourgeois rights in a non-bourgeois way."

What we lost in our eviction wasn't so much the often chanted "We are unstoppable, another world is possible" but an understanding of our heterogeneity versus the State. In Dewey Square, we stood, unprecedented, reclaiming private space and transforming it into a political carnival, a meeting space and a center for all social-movements. In Dewey Square, we objectively served the people. Our food and shelter committee fed and clothed homeless families, who constituted a sizable bloc of occupiers, rendering around $200,000 in vital services the City of Boston slashed or eliminated all together. But, perhaps understandably, many Occupiers saw the encampment as nothing more than a propaganda stunt, an immature activity antecedent to the production of a "real movement." They, too, were perplexed in defining our own accomplishments, unable to consider the extent of our ideological and political victories during our nearly three months at Dewey Square. 

Our pre-eviction General Assemblies were centers of ferocious debate. Occupy Boston split down the middle. Many community organizers and activists considered our encampment a hinderance. They argued, successfully, that the cost of maintaining an encampment, protecting it from police raid, and altogether expanding the Occupation territorially appeared an impossibility. They argued for the dispersion of Occupy Boston into different spheres: into coalitions with community groups like City Life/Vida Urbana, a community organization which militantly defends working class home-owners from foreclosure, into alliances with Labor Unions like the Massachusetts Nurses Association and producing localized Occupations through-out the greater Boston metropolitan area. To them, the encampment appeared to prevent sinking deep roots among the most oppressed and exploited in the city. In effect, how can we really provide leadership and organize if we are isolated to a small geographic area? 

A substantial minority, including myself, poured our heart and soul into the physical occupation of Dewey Square, serving the people, and the expansion of our forward bases as tantamount to the success of Occupy Boston and the Occupy Movement generally. This trend recognized the importance of what Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Slavoj Zizek called the "Commons," the shared substance of our social being. Public places, housing, food, and the bare necessities of life, all constitute the Commons and underpin our existence as social beings. Practicing a politics of the commons, while not explicitly taken up within Occupy Boston, was central to Occupy Oakland. Occupy Oakland's focus on property spawned heated exchanges around appropriate strategy and tactics, the destiny of the Occupy Movement, and the location of critical fault-lines in our neo-liberal, nearly dystopian, society. 

And so, the day previous to our eviction, Occupiers packed up most of their belongings, deciding to "Occupy Winter" as a decentralized, dispersed movement. Occupy Boston, as an encampment and anti-capitalist form, was evicted ideologically long before our police eviction. A deep desire to maintain camp did not exist and together, as a movement, we struggled to expanded into new territory. While I was disappointed by our lack of commitment to camp and perhaps our lack of understanding of what the encampment represented, I remained optimistic. Winter ushered the Occupation into hundreds of unforeseen areas: Occupy Boston formed a committee to prevent cuts in public transportation. Occupations formed in dozens of working class areas and even spawned a permanent encampment at our only public university University of Massachusetts (Boston). Community groups and labor embraced us, but, perhaps most importantly, a debate over what kind of politics is possible became a national focus of our movement: Should we move forward with occupations of private property? Should we push the limits? How should we work with well-established, grass-roots community organizations and unions? Here, I will begin to touch upon these questions, providing a summation of our overall work in these uncertain, but exciting, times.

The Proliferating Communes

"Why shouldn't communes proliferate everywhere? In every factory, every street, every village, every school. At long last, the reign of the base committees!" I have always considered The Coming Insurrection the founding text of the Occupy movement. Whether admitted or not, the Occupy Movement adheres to this exact strategy. The proliferation of communes, organizations, and coalitions after the eviction of Dewey Square reached a high-point, culminating in a number of formations including: Occupy Quincy, Occupy Weymouth, Occupy Somerville, Occupy Allston/Brighton, Occupemos El Barrio (Occupy The Barrio), Occupy the T, Occupy University of Massachusetts Boston, and Students Occupy Boston. But, the most successful occupations have historically not been tied to neighborhoods, but, to resources. In particular, Occupy Our Homes and Occupy the T have discovered a way to intertwine a politics of the commons inside  a dispersed movement while also building deep roots among the most oppressed and exploited.
In 2007, housing prices in the United States crashed alongside a general economic recession.  Many home-owners ended up owning a mortgage that was worth substantially more than the value of their house. Both the recession and the housing bubble locked home-owners in an untenable situation. Many were both unable to pay their monthly mortgage payment due to unemployment or underemployment while at the same time being unable to sell their house for a profit or even pay off the rest of their mortgage. Between 2007 and 2009, 2.5 million homes were foreclosed. The housing crisis was even more severe on people of color and their communities. Nearly 8% of African Americans and Latinos have lost their homes, compared to only 4.5% of whites. In my state of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending estimate that in some areas, “over 50% of homeowners who borrowed in the last decade are underwater.” These areas are principally inhabited by people of color. Lynn, Massachusetts – one of the most diverse cities in the Boston metropolitan area, has lost many of its residents from foreclosure. M.A.P.L estimated that foreclosures cost Massachusetts up to $4.1 billion dollars per month. 

In the Untied States, accumulation of capital persists, despite the crisis, not by production but by expropriation from predominantly working class, people of color. The British marxist geographer David Harvey calls this “accumulation by dispossession.” Within this situation, Occupy has a specific and urgent political impact. Organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston have organized militant home defense and occupations for a decade. However, the proliferation of Occupy coalitions has enhanced and transformed this work in some areas, operating like a roving picket line or a popular auxiliary to defend housing, sometimes even transforming foreclosed homes into regional bases for meetings and general assemblies. In East New York, for example, on December 7, 2011, over 400 people participated in re-occupying a vacant foreclosed home for a homeless family of four. In addition, the occupiers restored the home, clearing mould, and performing repairs. 

In Boston, the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Society) wants to increase the subway and bus fares by 43%, eliminate the frequently used Green Line 'E' train on weekends, which runs from Huntington Ave to Heath St, and either eliminate or reduce bus service and commuter rail service (trains which connect Boston to it's suburbs and adjacent cities). The MBTA estimates these reforms will impact 9 to 13% of total ridership, with a disproportionate impact on communities of color who will lose night-time bus services and entire service routes through their neighborhoods. Occupy Boston, together with the T-Riders Union, organized a rally at the steps of the Boston Public Library on February 13. Over 500 people, a sizable minority high school students, demonstrated and then packed a public hearing on the MBTA cuts. 

What is new isn't the defense of public services, but the coalition of un-usual bed fellows. Community organizations like A.C.E. (Alternatives for Community and Environment), The Boston Carmens Union and Occupy the T successfully worked together, although with contradictions, to make this successful. This newly constituted bloc of social forces -  community organizations, workers, and occupiers – is what makes our transitional period so unique. But, like any social bloc, contradictions emerge and often the need to maintain one's own turf trumps solidarity. I will describe exactly what is at stake for the Occupy Movement as it navigates the contours of class contradictions with an example from the West Coast in their pursuit of solidarity with the historically militant ILWU, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Occupy The Labor Movement

The Black Orchid Collective, a communist collective formed within Occupy Seattle, maintains the slogan “Rank and File and the 89% Unite!” In the United States, only 11% of the workforce is unionized. The remaining 89% is characterized by highly flexible, precarious terms of employment and typically un-represented within the labor movement. Subsequently, there are two approaches to labor solidarity within the Occupy Movement. One approach, typical of Boston, is uniting the Occupations as the auxiliary to organized labor. Working in common with forces forces like Jobs with Justice, Community/Labor United, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union. A second approach, exemplified by Occupy Oakland, unites not only rank-and-file union workers, but, the mass of contingent workers and unemployed people, whose social power historically remained untapped. 

On November 2, Occupy Oakland, with the acquiescence of union leadership but strong support of the ILWU rank and file, shut down the Port of Oakland. On December 12, Occupy Oakland and Occupy Seattle again shut down their respective ports. The IWLU credited the Occupy Movement as central to only recently successfully concluding negotiations with the E.G.T, a multinational shipping corporation attempting to employ non-union labor at the Longview Port in Seattle. Although victorious, the port shut downs were marred with tension.

At a pot-luck before the port shutdown, a member from IWLU Local 19 demanded that Occupy Seattle not go ahead with the blockade because the International did not support it. While some in the Occupy Movement considered the Occupy the Ports action as adventurist, infringing on the hard-earned rights of unions to manage their own turf, they neglected the strong presence of rank and file IWLU workers involved in organizing the campaign from the outset. One Occupier at the meeting spoke out: "I grew up in the 'hood and the union was never there doing anything to support us; the least you can do is to honor our picket line." This alone defines much of the Occupy Movement.
During my continuing work within Occupy Boston, I witnessed the horrified faces of individuals associated with non-governmental organizations and unions as Occupy Boston charted an independent course, often infringing on territory NGOs considered their own. Co-optation is not a  proper term. Occupy cannot be co-opted, transformed into the reserve army of the labor movement or the Democratic Party. Occupy can, however, be transformed into an auxiliary: "Occupy for Jobs,""Occupy for Education," or "Occupy for Workers' Rights." Instead, we need to Occupy for Occupy.

The strength of the Occupy Movement lies not only in it's relentless struggle against the 1% but more so in it's unintended deterritorialization of revolution. The Occupy Movement has broken the boundaries between community and labor, between housing and education. Established organizations, even those with a radical history like the IWLU, are grappling with a new social movement that encompasses not only unionized workers but workers who have nothing to lose: Workers who are ghettoized, unemployed, contingently employed, nationally oppressed, and historically saw little to no solidarity from the labor movement. The West Coast Port Occupation wasn't just a solidarity strike, but, a political strike of the 99% against racism, poverty, and police brutality. 

The Oakland Commune's theoretical summation of these actions centers on the protagonism of the precarious workforce. The I.W.L.U, alone, was unable to negotiate with the E.G.T. The withdrawl of labor, the traditional strike, proved ineffectual. But, as the Oakland Commune noticed, disrupting the flow of commodities and the tactical use of the roving picket line did. The Occupy Movements on the West Coast not only shut down their respective ports but the functional operations of their cities, confirming the Oakland Commune's theory that the strike can no longer be characterized by the withdrawal of labor, but, the interruption of capital flow. 

Alain Badiou, a French post-Maoist philosopher, argues that politics is a meticulous un-binding. And doesn't the Occupy Movement, in it's experimentation with new forms of solidarity and organization, exemplify the crisis in all established bonds, particularly in the union form as we know it? Occupy's politics dissolved the boundaries of unions, community groups,  even the Party-Left and forged a popular and voluntary discipline. This does not entail a repudiation of community groups or unions. Solidarity actions must always augment the power of the union rank and file where possible. But, it is a criticism of the primacy of respect. Respect, alone, is not solidarity. Solidarity is a two-way street and uncritical, deferential respect for pre-established organizations cannot be foundational to an emancipatory politics. This is not to say that the Occupy Movement is blameless or politically mature, but, that, the Occupy Movement has uncovered and surpassed the limits of the American Left. Yet, these limits are often encountered within the Occupy Movement itself, not only in it's relationships with other social forces, but in different ways of understanding non-violence.

Violence and Non-Violence

The Occupy Movement was founded explicitly as non-violent. On December 1 in Dewey Square, non-violence and violence were confused, each subject to political scrutiny. At that time, we were unable to wash dishes at camp. This was "The Battle for the Sink."

The City of Boston would not allow any equipment onto camp that required utilities like hot water or electricity. The Logistical Committee built, from scratch, a peculiar sink. This sink was, I would argue, magical. It was fed by massive water  jugs and recycled used water in a closed-loop dish washing system. Under our restraining order against the police, any equipment stationed in Dewey Square not violating these rules could not be removed. While I was attending a general assembly on December 1, the logistical committee proudly carried our super-advanced sink directly into the center of our meeting, only to be blocked by two police officers. 

The altercation that ensued was emblematic of the confusion around non-violence. One of the leaders of the logistical committee mic-check'd, assuring the police we were not violent and even asked us to "take a step back" as we surrounded the sink. He pleaded with the police to determine why the sink was being confiscated and demanded to speak to a superior officer. But, by that moment, we were confused and disorganized, the police launched the sink into a paddy wagon. Some of us tried to fall into position, surrounding the sink with locked arms, but, the police stepped over us, tackled us, and injured some.We quickly surrounded the paddy wagon. Some Occupiers were hurling insults at the police, becoming aggressive and chanting "Fuck the Police" or, alternatively, "We want to wash the dishes!" Our group split. Occupiers on the sidelines actually heckled us for being “violent” in our words, being violent for attempting to kettle our own kitchen sink and usher the police away, mirroring the actions at UC Davis where Occupiers surrounded the police, chanting "You can go."  There was a clear division in our ranks.

At our resumed G.A, with our sink stolen, both sides stepped to the microphone. Nicole K. Sullivan, a young woman active in Occupy Boston since it's inception, gave the most truthful and moving comments: 
How is using my body and my voice violence? My body and my voice are the only property that I own. How can you insult me and divide us for using my basic faculties?
In recent times, the issue of non-violence resurfaced. On January 28, Occupy Oakland attempted to secure a new meeting space by marching to the abandoned Kaiser convention center. Occupiers, better prepared after being systematically abused by police in protracted evictions and subsequent re-occupations, carried shields to protect themselves. Some Occupiers considered the act of using shields themselves an "act of violence" or political immaturity, but, they forget that military veteran Scott Olsen nearly died at Occupy Oakland after being shot in the head by a police projectile. Oakland Police assaulted the occupiers, thousands strong, using rubber bullets, tear gas and mace. Some Occupiers returned fire with a volley of "perfectly arced" stones and Anarchists stormed and vandalized City Hall. This situation prompted Chris Hedges, a supporter of the Occupy Movement and well-known liberal, to label Anarchists and radicals of all stripes as a "cancer in the movement." Lines were drawn. Many concurred with Chris Hedges. But, compared with frequent police terror and harassment in oppressed communities, compared to daily hustle most of the 99% endure to just barely survive – what is a few stones and cracked windows? 

The Occupy Movement in Oakland, like in Boston, went from being altruistically pacifistic, even considering insults violent, to defending themselves and throwing stones at police. Why? The Occupy Movement, more or less, always considered the police the “99%”. But, after experiencing  what the police really do, the idea of the police being a component of the 99%, welcome with open arms into the Occupy Movement no longer held credibility. I would never label the actions of  Occupy Oakland ultra-left. They are certainly divisive, in the sense of uncovering contradictions within the 99% and opening up the "two-line struggle," but, they were also timely. Yet, there are surely problems of ultra-leftism and adventurism in Occupy that is much more serious than broken windows or riot police armor scuffed by rocks.

A Local Debate

A difficult discussion erupted in Boston within the Women's Caucus in December, post-eviction. During our encampment, Level 3 sex offenders (those deemed most likely to commit violent, sexual crimes) pitched tents in Dewey Square and assaulted female occupiers. The response of the Occupy Movement was less than swift. The Women's Caucus attempted to pass a resolution barring all Level 3 sex offenders from participating within Occupy Boston. This resolution was blocked by a hand-full of men within the General Assembly. The entire Women's Caucus stormed out. While I would not consider Occupy Oakland's move-in day or protracted strikes symptomatic of "ultra-leftism," this decision was and illuminates some of the problems inherent in horizontalism and consensus where privileged male-bodied individuals can undermine the work of the women's committee. 

The resolution to ban level three sex offenders was certainly un-enforceable. It would not be possible and surely unadvisable to conduct criminal background checks on every single person who participated in Occupy Boston. This practical criticism, however, was not the primary criticism of the resolution.

Many in the Occupy Movement considered barring level 3 sex offenders a concession to statism. They considered this resolution as an excuse to bring law enforcement into the movement, also criticizing the very designation “Level 3 Sex Offender” as an arbitrary label imposed on individuals by a completely corrupted state power. Here, many Anarchists and Anti-Capitalists made the mistake of considering, un-dialectically, the State as a uniform, oppressive entity in counterposing the "plebs" to the State. They equated the State with repression, which is surely true, but, neglected to understand how the State itself often shifted politically with rising popular movements like the civil rights movement and women's movements in the 1970s. They saw the "Level 3 Sex Offender" designation as the practice of a panoptic state which criminalizes its constituents, rather than a real concession wrought by women through street-level struggle. 

In the United States, one out of every five women is raped. The declaration by the Women's Caucus was nothing more than a demand for respect and safety, something lost in the minds of radical anti-capitalists and anarchists who often erroneously conduct themselves in a spirit of ideological purity, rather than in unity and struggle. This is the real ultra-leftism in the Occupy Movement, a danger more serious than the so-called ultra-leftism of the black bloc, autonomous action, or random and unavoidable acts of property destruction.

The Two-Line Struggle in the Occupy Movement

Our transitional period has brought the contradictions in the Occupy Movement to a head. Should the Occupy movement "occupy" for-itself, or, should the Occupy movement become a popular auxiliary to pre-established organizations? Should the Occupy Movement continue to engage in expropriating property, militant action, and developing a new forms of political organization, or, should it maintain itself as a dispersed symbolic protest? 

Some comrades are determined to "Occupy the Left," but, I disagree. The Occupy Movement is a break with the Left. It is a break with a Left whose horizon is liberal democracy, dogmatic prescriptions and territorial disputes. The Occupy Movement has engendered a new Communist current, whose theoretical foundations rest in both Paris, 1968 and the nascent Occupy movement itself. The Black Orchid Collective in Seattle and the Oakland Commune are examples on the West Coast. In Boston, a newly formed Communist group "Red Horizon" works patiently and diligently, asking questions rather than pretending to have all the answers.
The newly emerging Occupy Communist Current has made significant theoretical and practical contributions to the struggle from the understanding of the strike as the restriction of capital circulation to the necessity to build communes everywhere. In the United States, communists often understand the need to conduct refoundation, rebuilding the Communist movement theoretically and practically. We are witnessing an unprecedented refoundation arising not from mergers and conferences, but, from experimental political work inside a mass movement.


The Occupy Movement in this period is characterized by dispersal, the proliferation of communes and coalitions, and deep, dividing ideological conflicts. On one side, the Occupy Movement is seen as nothing more than a pressure group or an auxiliary, which should weave it's strands of struggle together with more dominant and entrenched organizations like the AFL-CIO or the Democratic Party. On the other side, the Occupy Movement is seen distinctly as an occupation, something which practices a politics of the commons, re-appropriating public space, serving the people, and committing a whole lot of mistakes along the way. 

While I was disoriented during this transition, it has brought the Occupy Movement deeper into the lives of every-day, working class people. The dispersion of Occupy into different localities, into the public transit system, and even into people's homes has helped cement a new alliance of forces willing to participate when winter ends. The Occupy Movement is still at the very beginning of the beginning and with it's new-found clarity and ability to challenge deeply held political convictions within the 99%, I am convinced it will become a permanent movement.

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