Occupy Wall Street

“Che Guevara was not a communist,” a girl says without glancing up from her cell phone, nodding in the direction of a group of five people wearing occupy the hood shirts; the face of Che in between the words occupy and hood. From where I sit, it’s too loud to hear what someone might have said to provoke this comment, which seems to float upward and hover in this atmosphere of politically charged statements. But don’t get me wrong, no animosity is felt between the two groups, or any of the groups occupying Wall Street. For me, this is the basis of the occupation’s success.  I decide that the phrase–this is what democracy looks like–now a staple to the movement, is in fact incredibly apt. The whole reason this is a democratic space is because there is nothing reductionist about it. Unlike other protests that have occurred in  North America over the past decade, OWS is about inclusion; if the environment is your thing, anarchy, Jesus, well, you’re welcome into this space.  To see Zucchoti Park is to see complexity, but, in a society based on spectacle, image making, and concrete statements, the complexity is constantly being reduced, for both good and bad.

Take for example, this dichotomy of 1% and 99%. The logic behind this is inclusion, the argument that pretty much everyone is part of the 99%. But to say that that 1% (often referred to as bankers) is not concerned with the 99% is to simplify something of great complexity. How much funding for NYC arts and cultural organizations come from that 1%? You like the Bang on a Can marathon?  Did you go see The Creators Project this weekend? Stop by the IBM Think exhibition at Lincoln Center? How about Target’s free Fridays at MoMA? I’m told by an elderly man that this is class warfare. I must muse over this. I’m hearing the word working class a lot, but I’m pretty sure the working class no longer exists. All of us, even that 1% on Wall Street, work for a wage that is determined by market forces. Whether that wage is minimum or maximum it is a wage that is spent on means of consumption (food, clothing,  shelter) of many different scales. In the end, it is a wage that determines and is determined by the forces of production and reproduction.We are blaming individuals as opposed to institutional structures, and even then, I find it problematic to see our institutional structures as entirely negative. Which is why, when I go to hear Brian Holmes speak over by Mark di Suvero’s sculpture I’m both fascinated and disturbed by the whole act of repetition, the communication technique used at the General Assembly meetings.

Because loud-speaker devices cannot be used, in order to be heard throughout the Park, the  human speaker must pause after every sentence or two and let the audience repeat it so that the statement ripples through the crowd. Now here was someone who’s work and ideas I absolutely love, yet, I initially felt uncomfortable engaging in this act of repetition whose origins seemed to be somewhere between the game Telephone and famous 20th century dictators. Isn’t this form of communication just one of the many things we are standing up against? We must think before we repeat, right? Yes and no. Voices are suddenly being heard for the first time. People who wouldn’t usually listen to each other  are. Everyone has a different agenda, but, by repeating what each person says, we are acknowledging the many diverging opinions that make up this space. The General Assembly is a huge component of Zucchoti Park’s democracy. The more General Assemblies you go to, the more you understand and appreciate the structure of these meetings. There’s a vocabulary of hand gestures that allow individuals to silently express themselves, wiggling fingers for agreement, thumbs up and down…confirming that this is an ongoing process of direct democracy.

“We need to find new forms of refusal,” Holmes concludes.

The crowd repeats it, as do I, and then the moderator opens the meeting up to questions. A flabby man with grey sweats and a blue shirt that says Army in white lettering steps over the people sitting, through the people standing, and makes his way next to Holmes. He cups his hands together. “I’m doing a television show and need three volunteers.”

The crowd repeats it. “I’m doing a show and need three volunteers.”

“To be interviewed about Occupy Wall Street.”

“To be interviewed about Occupy Wall Street.”

The phrase barely reaches its second repetition before a sea of hands shoot up. An unsettling wave of skepticism momentarily washes over me as I’m reminded of Zizek’s cautionary note during a different General Assembly, “Don’t fall in love with yourselves, carnivals come cheap.”

I whole-heartily support OWS. I am proud and humbled by this collective movement and yet I cannot align myself with any one statement I hear being made. I am, in fact, so uncertain about the world  that I don’t know how to speak. But my confusion is not entirely a problem for me. As awe-struck as I am by Occupy Wall Street, I’m equally awe-struck by contemporary history, structures of powers and individuals that have brought us to this current state. It is so fascinating I risk treating it as I would a  good novel; anticipation, horror, wonder, and shock, the plot is so engaging I forget I am actually a part of it.

And this brings me back to the present. The physical place that is being occupied. This first thing I’m struck by is the high level of functionality, which seems absolutely organic, something I would have never thought possible. There’s a clothing donation and distribution box, a food area, a sanitation section. I’ve decided this is where I belong, on the logistical side of things, because at the end of the day, what draws me to OWS is it’s ability to create a working space. I’m happy to wash some dishes, to sort trash,  simple tasks that are in themselves reductions and binary but help distract me from the larger binaries that remain unanswered.

A few Saturday’s ago, I went to the Au Bon Pain nearby to get a coffee and, like the other 50 people, to use the bathroom. Since late September there’s been twice the amount of staff at this franchise, but no one is getting time and half for their extra hours. I ask the guy behind the register if it’s been annoying to have so many more clients. He shrugs his shoulders, “Nah, it’s cool.” In the 45 minutes I sit drinking my coffee, the staff empty the bathroom trash three times. As I get up to leave an elderly police officer walks in from outside and gets into the men’s line. His head is down but I can see his face which looks sad, tired or perhaps  just indifferent. He has a frail body, wiry hair, and thick glasses. Looking at him, I’m reminded of my grandfather. He waits behind two high school kids wearing classic Jordans, dark rinse jeans, and white tee shirts hand painted to say Occupy Wall Street. They’re carrying plastic H&M bags and cameras. The kids observe the cop, trying to decide if and how they should react to his presence. But the cop doesn’t even look up. He keeps staring at the ground as he walks into the stall,  confrontation has been avoided, either intentionally or unintentionally. In the end, the boy and his friend seem okay with that.

New forms of refusal means not placing blame in obvious places. This cop, like these teenage boys helps constitute this 99% that everyone is speaking of. Class structure is just one of many structures flourishing under our present socio-economic system. As Karl Polanyi makes clear in The Great Transformation, early capitalist society was not just about an agitated working class. There was also the peasantry. Although both groups were essentially exploited under this new economic system, they were not in solidarity. For some, the question was hours in the work week, for others it was a question of land laws and agrarian tariffs. Occupy Wall Street will continue to be a success so long as it continues this pattern of inclusiveness. This inclusiveness must stretch across many spheres and must ultimately reach even that so called 1%. It’s a system, not people, that needs to be destroyed. For that to occur, 100% must understand why. Trying to include everyone is obviously messy and complex, but not anymore messy than our current system. To keep binaries such as 1% and 99% is just another way of keeping structure of “us” and “them,” structures that will inevitably retain class-based, racially based, occupation-based, gendered, religious sentiments.

One of the greatest critiques of the protest is that there is no clear objective, no singular demand,  and therefore, no way to gauge whether conditions have been satisfied. I completely disagree with this critique. I think to make change we need to get even messier, so that people no longer know who’s part of the 99% and who’s part of the 1%. Hopefully, this will become so confusing that the complexity of our current structure is weakened to the point that the only thing left to do is move forward.

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