Note: If you like pictures you should check out the photo page of this blog (found here or next to the “about” page link at the bottom of any page in this blog). I will occasionally compile these photos into a narrative post like this one but I will post new photos on the photo page more frequently so check there often!
Saturday, June 9:
Summer Disobedience School –
Summer Disobediance School March: “We’re drowning in debt”
Right off the bus I met the SDS in Bryant Park for a discussion on the global history of student movements, a direct action training, and a march around midtown with three public mic checks about debt. I recognized one activist and writer from a march I had gone to in the spring, Sean, and quickly networked out from there. A couple of outgoing older education activists took me under their wing and caught me up to speed on OWS happenings and listed important groups and explained their acronyms – perhaps the most important information for an activist.
Horizontal Pedagogy –
read a blog post about it here
Student Movement Meeting –
Still lugging all my belongings with me in a slowly disintegrating duffle bag, I trekked to the famous “indoor public space”—the Atrium at 60 Wall st—for a meeting of students about building an American student movement along the lines of the protests in Quebec. There were several activists just arrived from Montreal who inspired us all with stories of the nightly casserole protests. I was surprised by the presence of a high school student (with his mother) who expressed distinctly (conservative) libertarian views.
I was also a little troubled by the appearance of a new term, “bottom-liner,” which is apparently now prevalent in OWS circles to refer to an organizer in much the same way as “facilitator” is used in place of “leader”. While I think this makes some sense as groups always possess a core of activists who “bottom-line” a project simply by being always present, there is also potential for abuse of the term to merely obscure hierarchy.
Sunday, June 10:
Debtors Assembly –
At noon I went to a meeting at Washington Square Park on targeting debt and education as an issue. There I met Sean again and we discussed our blogging efforts (check out his blog!). The initial assembly was about 30 to 40 people and was excellently facilitated in a style that succeeded in being horizontal yet practically directive—the facilitators took report-backs from break-out groups and summarized these in to proposals for plenary discussions.
Debt and Education: Building a Political Movement—An excellently facilitated meeting, kicking off a day of events about debt
I noticed another interesting and troubling terminological development. Many were now using the phrase “diversity of tactics” in quite the reverse of its usual connotation to imply that non-violent and reformist tactics should be used in addition to militant tactics (usually diversity of tactics is invoked to protect the right to autonomous militant action from censure by liberals). This did raise some important questions such as militant tactics excluding diversity by restricting the accessibility of actions (its hard for disabled people to take the streets, undocumented immigrants can’t participate in illegal actions, actions requiring extensive security culture make outreach very difficult). So in theory I agree with this attitude, but again I think many people were using this new valence of the phrase not just to say non-violent and reformist actions should be used in addition to militant action but also that they should be emphasized to the exclusion of the latter.
Debtors Assembly: telling stories of debt to dispel shame
At 3:00 we convened for the Debtors Assembly proper where speakers were empowered by the “debtors mic” (a TV reporters mic) to tell stories of their struggles with debt of all kinds. The concept was to establish a safe space to publically shed the shame of debt so we can begin to conceive of debt as a systemic problem (rather than a personal failing) and organize against it. This was amazingly effective and demonstrated surprising diversity of experience from a grungy activist who lived debtless of the grid until he woke up in a hospital with thousands in medical debt to a small business employer who fully participated in the capitalist system until cancer forced him to liquidated his business and fire all his employees to save his own life. People spoke about student debt, medical debt, legal debt, credit card debt, housing debt, and many others.
Debtors Assembly: recounting how student, housing, legal, and medical debt frustrates and ruins lives
At this meeting I also met Shay, a young Native American who—inspired by the healthcare and education services provided to him by his tribe—traveled from the Midwest to make a documentary on Occupy’s struggles to achieve similar services. He seemed amused by my Anarchist leanings, and I was curious to hear his very different viewpoint. We continue to have a productive exchange of ideas as I see him at just about every major event.
Radical Economics –
I went with Shay to Union Square for a teach-in on Radical Economics. First, though, we stopped at the In Our Hearts anarchist info table where I collected a stack of zines for the Bard Root Cellar zine library and chatted up one of activists about local anarchist organizations. I was surprised by two things: first, most of these anarchists—counter to stereotype—were people of color. Second, while anarchists I’ve met in the past have often been hesitant to give information to a stranger and generally suspicious of anyone looking to help out, these individuals unhesitatingly provided me with an extensive list of organizations to check out and explained their relations and histories.
By contrast the radical economics teach-in was a little disappointing. To be fair I came in half way through the meeting of people sitting in a circle on a sidewalk in the middle of the flow of tourists. But the conversation seemed to be less of a discussion and more of a debate between the two facilitators and a couple of the members of the audience. Most of the crowd simply spectated. Also the very public location brought in several hecklers who needed to be answered, deescalated, or taken aside by a group of people and engaged separately to avoid disruption of the main conversation. I was proud of how the crowd was almost half non-occupiers, though.
OWS art cluster –
OWS Arts Cluster: an open space meeting with a tense discussion of privilege and art
Next Shay and I went to a drastically different setting, a meeting of OWS artists in an upscale part of Brooklyn. I was exhausted from a long day of meetings and was a little jarred by the transition from A-type activist conversation to more recursive and wandering artistic discussion. But soon things got tense in a discussion of Art and Privilege, in which one woman became so frustrated with the abstract discussion of privilege that she had to step aside and vent to some friends. Her point was that we should all stop debating privilege as a theoretical construct and instead go out and buy some paint and brushes to give to some underprivileged kids to make a mural. Another person agreed but asked how we begin to change the world so that those kids don’t need us to buy them paint and brushes.
Monday, June 11:
Student Movement Meeting –
We met in Washington Square Park to plan for a march on Wednesday. Many of these activists are students at NYU and remind me a lot of student activists at Bard. The group had started with several experienced organizers, but those had left for Montreal leaving the activists I met to quickly learn how plan marches. This produced an excellent atmosphere in which no one was excluded for lack of experience and because of it things seemed to get done even more quickly (and creatively) than they would have with a couple of senior organizers and many cowed initiates. I had to keep reminding myself though that this group also represented a very privileged group of activists who had housing in Manhattan, didn’t have to worry about getting metrocards, and could do things like travel to Montreal for the weekend to be inspired by the enormous movements there. Another sort of privilege came to my attention through this group as well: Internet access. A large part of their success in organizing came from the enormous amount of communication that they did by email and social networking that seemed to be constantly going on. This would have been hard to keep up with for any activist without a Smartphone and impossible for any activist without regular internet access to participate in.
Later in the day, I ended up wandering around St. Marks with Shay and several other male Occupy activists. They had come at the end of the march planning meeting and as we walked they expressed excitement for confronting the cops tomorrow and told stories of their arrests. More so than many of the other activists I’d met at that point these emphasized their connection to the history of the Zuccotti encampment and told stories of all the people and rivalries there. But I was dumbstruck when two of them began catcalling to girls in the street. I wanted to yell at them for the hypocrisy of opposing economic oppression while practicing gender oppression, but being as I was in a “male space” I felt that it was on me to de-normalize catcalling and couldn’t come up with an articulate argument.
Tuesday, June 12:
Pussy Riot Benefit Concert –
Pussy Riot Benefit Concert: A feminist punk show to support a Russian punk-activist group facing up to 7 years in prison for an action protesting Putin.
My housemates invited me to punk concert in Williamsburg for the legal fund of the Russian feminist-activist group, Pussy Riot. The group is facing up to 7 years in prison for an action protesting Putin. The first two bands were explicitly political and feminist and I was glad to see hipster Williamsburg supporting such a genuine artistic expression. I was also pleased to see that most of the punks were not only women but people of color. But still I felt a little alienated by the chattering, homogonously dressed crowd—as I always do at such events.
Later that night I began to realize how lucky I was to find housing with my housemates, Izzy and Savannah, because it seems their entire friends group is active in the radical community at Brooklyn Collage. We went to a bar where I spent the night chatting with an activist who is making a documentary about student movements in Canada, New York, and Chile. Now it seems there’s no escape from activism, even when I’m socializing.
Wednesday, June 13:
Occupy University Meeting –
I finally caught up with the educators from OccU and began to plan for my tutoring project. In typical activist style we dove in head first and they helped me plan an event for this Saturday. The rest of the meeting covered a variety of topics but mostly served as a discussion space for the educators to discuss teaching strategies. Maybe it’s just my interest, but I think there are few things as cheerful and optimistic as teachers discussing pedagogy. After the meeting there was a “report back” session, a new sort of meeting in which the several working groups that meet on Wednesday afternoons all mingle and exchange information afterwards. This is a great example of the practical side of anarchist organization: the Direct Action working group (one of the largest) began this tradition by calling for other working groups to meet in Zuccotti Park at the same time and participate in the report backs afterwards. Technically speaking this could be seen as a sort of hegemony of a larger group over smaller groups, but in this case it balances horizontality and organization.
3rd Weekly Casserole –
3rd Weekly Casserole March: A protest against student debt in solidarity with students on strike in Quebec.
3rd Weekly Casserole March: An experiment in a new tactic for legally blocking an intersection by marching continuously around the crosswalks. Here we see the cops being kettled (a tactic usually used on protesters in which the police use nets to surround marchers).
3rd Weekly Casserole March: The goal of this march was to do a public mic check of a statement about student debt on the High Line park. However police illegally barred us from this public space hours before its closing time.
3rd Weekly Casserole March: This protester was arrested for, I kid you not, banging pots and pans! The casserole—a tactic derived from the Quebec protests of gathering large numbers of people banging pots and pans to ridicule austerity—is apparently now illegal in New York (we’ll see how this goes on Friday’s march)
3rd Weekly Casserole March: Student activists in NYC have adopted the symbol of the red square from the Quebec protests—indicating that students are “squarely in the red” of debt.
Thursday, June 14:
OWS Screen Print Coop –
OWS Screen Print Coop: One of the organizations I’m working on making mobile screen printing kits with—the coop was born out of the OWS screenprinters guild as a project to establish a full time print operation on the basis of sustainable and responsible labor and sourcing practices.
Feminist Collective –
My hosts, Izzy and Sav, invited me to come to the second meeting of the Feminist Collective they’re forming with their friends and a former professor of theirs. After my experience on Monday with the catcalling Occupiers, I was particularly interested in discussing gender oppression. But I was also anxious of how I would be received, as I was the only heterosexual male at the meeting. Personally, I’ve long been committed to anti-sexism but I’m playing catch up with the terminology of feminist discourse—a field in which language is a key medium of power.
My worries were quickly dispelled as everyone was immensely welcoming. I told my story about struggling to confront atavistic comrades and asked for advice about how I could have better handled it. They seemed excited to discuss this issue and suggested I try to frame my critique by finding my points of commonality with these errant activists and then saying comparing gender oppression to a form of oppression that they might experience themselves. I was really happy to have found a safe space to discuss this experience that I was really quite ashamed of, but I also realized that I had to hold myself back and let others talk. Being welcomed also implies a responsibility: I am trusted and thus must consider my own conduct rather than relying on the censure of authority.
Friday, June 15:
OWS Screenprinters Guild –
OWS Screenprinters Guild: I met members of the guild to spend the day “live printing” in Union Square. This direct and free production of art is a critical form of outreach. The hope is that tourists will stop and wonder why art isn’t always free and how the graphics on the clothes they buy while shopping are really made.
OWS Screenprinters Guild: It seems there is some disagreement over the appropriate level of engagement with the capitalist system of artistic groups within Occupy. The guild places emphasis on live printing over the scale of operation and audience afforded by more monetized operations like the Coop and Occuprint. I think that as ever, there should be a diversity of tactics so that all the benefits are maximized.
Saturday, June 16:
Occupy Town Square Staten Island –
Occupy Town Square Staten Island: Town Squares are a series of events that have coordinated OWS activists with local general assemblies in the boroughs to provide daytime occupations of public space as an outreach tool.
Occupy Town Square Staten Island: I went on a walking tour with Bill (in the red shirt here), a long-time Staten Island local. From the viewpoint of his working class background, Bill articulated to us a profoundly diverse history of the area and its shifting cultural definitions.
Occupy Town Square Staten Island: A stencil tag on the side of a corporate pizza shop across the street from a vacant retail complex, abandoned mid project by developers who’d wiped out the residential block.
Occupy Town Square Staten Island: Rising from this beaten down neighborhood is a monstrous construction site (about twice again the size of what is visible here). While all that remains in the surrounding blocks are aid agencies, shelters, and run down apartments a half-billion dollar court house is being constructed at the same time as austerity cuts to town services.
Occupy Town Square Staten Island: The houses adjacent to the court house complex.
Occupy Town Square Staten Island: I came to the Town Square to test out my ideas of tutoring writing in public spaces. As I’d only just arrive there was no time for proper publicity and no students came expecting me. However several people commented on my idea, including Frank, a homeless man who reminded me of the countless other forms of self-expression—as it turned out he used to be a street artist.
Community Meeting to Discuss the GA –
I rushed back to Manhattan to go to this discussion about reviving the General Assembly. This premise was itself contentious as a group of occupiers claimed to still be carrying on the GA, but former members of the facilitation working group claimed that it did not meet the requirements to be considered the “NYCGA.” It has always been my experience that discussions of process and unified governance produce the most negative and divisive moments of activist life. This experience certainly reinforced this notion for me but also raised some important if painful questions.
What bothered me the most about this meeting was a sort of veiled attack on anarchism by the most constant speakers (who were all male and relatively older). This began with proposals for more hierarchical structures such as a system of delegated roles (which I couldn’t see as any different than representation) including a specific role for an interpreter of process, akin to a judge. Another new buzzword was “values-based consensus” which I should probably learn more about but concerned me because it always came up in reference to someone named C. T. Butler who was billed as some sort of a process guru who would solve all our problems. This and other suggestions seemed to place emphasis on unity of belief at the expense of diversity, and came dangerously close to legislating a sort of community constitution. Thankfully the facilitator kept pointing out that unless we wanted to start using violence to enforce documents such as these, that ultimately consensus must still be a process of forming unity rather than a presupposed unity that is imposed.
What struck me more were questions of privilege which were much harder answer. One homeless activist and another person of color emphasized the concept that consensus can be used as a veneer to self-aggrandizing politicking. These kids can “throw parties with martinis in their uptown apartments and network,” said the former, while less privileged activists cannot afford the time to build alliances. The latter complained, “Autonomy means nothing to me… I don’t consider myself an anarchist [though] I have a little bit of it.” What particularly frustrated me was his assertion that “this is not Spain or Greece… we have a heterogeneous community.” His implication seemed to be that anarchy was a specific (white) culture and would not work outside of that context. I agree that such a culture exists and its terminology can be exclusive, but there are plenty of stateless societies outside of the “west” even if they don’t identify with the word “anarchist.”
The conversation became confrontational as a new group of people showed up and started attacking what they perceived as a conspiracy of members of the Direct Action and Facilitation working groups to monopolize resources and communication. I was tired from a long day and couldn’t take this any longer so I left. On the train back to Brooklyn I sought solace in my tradition of reading David Graeber’s works on anarchy whenever I’m in the subway, but I couldn’t bring myself to the spiritual feeling of optimism I have in such moments. Everywhere I saw the privilege of the discourse. But some part of me reminded me to have hope: it is because our willingness to question ourselves in painful moments like these that another world might just be possible.