La Lutte Continue

Montreal

This was the last leg of my journey. I was excited to be done but also anxious to find closure first. A hundred meters out of the bus depot, English disappeared from all the signs, but I felt strangely at home being on a subway on the way to a meeting as I had so often been in New York.

QPIRG Concordia

I settled into the strike convergence welcoming center—a well lit corner office in the heart of downtown. With the usual awkwardness I started to meet folks and discover the random connections we share that seem to be inevitable in activist circles regardless of distance. I even ran into a couple traveling anarchists I had met in Philly. In the evening people crowded into the common space for a meeting where I learned the distressing state of the strike: Several Cegeps—the intermediary colleges (like middle school for higher education) which form the backbone of the strike—had voted down their strike mandates and the more militant ones that had originally voted to strike were being forced into a revote by administration and reactionary forces. Still people seemed hopeful for outcome of further votes on friday and beyond that the support of universities joining the strike later in the month when they were scheduled to return to class.

My first step was to check out the famous nightly demonstrations. I had been forewarned that after a turn out of 20,000 on Monday, attendance had dropped to about 50 on tuesday. The march indeed turned out to be smallish and competed for attention with the week’s gay pride festivities. But I was impressed by the intensity of the march—the chants seemed longer and louder and more coherent (almost all in french). Compared to occupy it was also much more explicitly anti-capitalist and anarchist, and considerably more youthful.

After the march I found my way to house I was staying at (the home of several of the anglophone student organizers from QPIRG) and though I was excited to sleep after a long day, I got swept into a birthday dumpster diving treasure hunt culminating in a vegan gluten-free cake decorated with sparklers in the shape of a circle-a.

The next morning I woke up to news that some of our friends had been arrested late last night. While we were waiting for news from them, we sat around QPIRG watching “Riot Porn”—videos of militant actions—and listening to the veterans reminisce. I took the opportunity to network with student activists from Montreal, Boston, and DC. They were also in the midst of planning radical frosh weeks or disorientations, and I was inspired by the level of organization—especially in Montreal where hundreds of radicals were being mobilized as mentors for radical freshmen.

Before that night’s demonstration, I made a quick pilgrimage to the local infoshop and anarchist bookstore.

And low and behold I found a copy of Nina’s poster—the same one Noah and I had been distributing all over the US—right in the window.

From there I headed to a Take Back the Night march happening uptown. It was small (about 20 or 30 people) but amazingly there were no police until one cruiser showed up after half an hour and we took the streets the whole way.

The march turned down a pedestrian only street and ended with sparklers.

From there we dispersed to a bar where a benefit event was being held, and I ended up talking with one of the few older marchers, Charles (above). After a long and confusing conversation about Quebec electoral politics, I learned he was an anarchist in the 80s who had became a Maoist out of disgust at the self-destructive lifestyles he saw.

My prejudices were confounded as I failed to find any irreconcilable diference in values between us (he admitted that he saw no issue with anarchism in general—simply the anarchists he had known). When I told him that all of the Maoists I had met before had seemed borderline cultists, he unhesitatingly agreed that such groups exist. The only thing that I noticed was that he seemed to focus on economic oppression to the extent that other forms of oppression (race and gender) seemed secondary.

I suspect there is more to the story as my anarchist hosts shook their heads knowingly when I later mentioned his name. But the experience certainly reminded me that there are many labels for those fighting oppression and our diferences are not always so insurmountable as we fear.

The next day our house full of activists woke together early in the morning, anxious about the important votes to be held that day. The two most militant Cegeps were holding revotes on their strike mandates which would effectively decide the survival of the strike. We went to Cegep de Vieux Montreal to demonstrate to the students streaming into the general assembly. The only anti-strike demonstrators were two suspiciously old “activists” handing out flyers, who refused to identify what organization they were with. After an awkwardly egg-ful breakfast with some vegans at a near by cafe, we went inside the general assembly.

Out of a school of about 5,000, here were 3,000 students gathered on a friday morning to participate in a five hour long democratic process. I was speechless.

Granted this was majoritarian voting, but speakers alternated men and women and there was even sign language translation. Ours hosts drew us together to make sure that we knew that there were undercover cops in the crowd before we did anything. One of them intermittently translated the “boring” procedural votes, which I learned were decisions to throw administrators and security out of the room!

But as the initial awe wore off, I was disquieted by seeing two thirds of the room vote again and again to silence debate and hurry towards a definitive vote—met each time with quickly stifled cheers. A large contingent of these students stood restlessly by the door, while the strike supporters clustered at the front.

Our hopes still hung on a modified strike mandate which would compromise on the militant language of the original—which had called for an unlimited strike until free education “defended by any means necessary”—while keeping the strike itself. But to our horror a return to classes was proposed and greeted with a thunderous cheer. One reactionary gave a speech, saying that he had been “red square” since the beginning and that with the election looming our efforts would be best spent supporting the Parti Quebecois (PQ) and Quebec Solidaire (QS).

The PQ are the main opposition party in Quebec. They are separatists (nationalists) who sporadically use progressive politics to form coalitions. They promise to stop the tuition hike if elected, but most radicals are suspicious. The PQ has called for an end to the strike, paradoxically claiming that it supports the party in power—the Liberals.

QS is a rough equivalent to the Green Party in the US as it’s platform is more or less radical, though its tactics are reformist. Unlike US concerns of “vote stealing,” the main concern about QS within the radical community is that it is a recuperation—a co-opting into the capitalist system—of radical concerns and thus a heat-sink for discontent.

[Also noteworthy: these two were hardly the only signs I saw “redecorated” or destroyed. Apparently one of the major news papers had just run an article about record numbers of election posters going “missing” regardless of party affiliation. Anti-election sentiment seemed to go beyond the radical community, as the majority of signs had been altered—far more than could have been handled by anarchists alone.]

One of my new friends turned to me in disgusts and said, “this is what we get for placing hope for the strike on a bunch of teenagers.” However, the local radicals’ flexibility was admirable. After brief and productive grief they quickly turned their efforts towards consolidating those who had been radicalized by the strike into the lasting radical community. Throughout the day I saw veteran anarchists turning to despairing neophytes—whose only experience with revolt had been this strike—to comfort them that soon the wave of upheaval will swell again. For now there was the hard and inglorious work of planning for the next offensive. My friend joked that if history held, “it should only be five or seven years until the next strike.”

That night we celebrated. Shouting over the music at a house party, a group of activists (all male) gathered around me to recount the history of revolt in Quebec—from clashes with the british, to the spontaneous general strike of ’72, to the Mohawk Warrior revolt in ’90. Even the harder, traveling anarchists opened up to me as the night wound on, drawing me into a conversation about their anthropology graduate studies and internships in Tucson.

My last day sent me off full of hope. In the morning was an anti-capitalist brunch (with crepes!) and in the afternoon I caught the beginning of the yearly anti-capitalist assembly. When I left there were at least 60 people between all the breakout groups and more still coming. The facilitation was considerate and active. Though the beginning part which I saw must have been borring procedure for the regulars, I was astounded simply by the scope of the assembly and the experience of its participants. I have seen large anti-capitalist assemblies before but only ones with a small core experienced with direct democracy barely keeping the newer participants from fist-fights. Something like this could only be the product of a long history of radical organization.

I briefly joined a break out discussion with about 35 people outside titled “Strike WTF…?” Before I had to leave for my bus, I spoke when the facilitator asked for perspectives from out of town folks: I urged them to remember how much of an inspiration they have been to radicals in the US. I told them how I’ve seen the most effective activists in the wake of Occupy move onto cutting their teeth in community organizing where they are. And I encouraged them to help new radicals from the strike shift focus to long-term and less glamourous struggle as well.

Walking away to the metro, I couldn’t believe I was going home. My heart was still with that circle of anarchists on a shade-smattered lawn helping each other through disappointment and preparing for struggles to come. It  has been a long and exhausting summer, but with such comrades I felt light as when I had begun. It is because of people like them that I can continue this fight.

7243 miles

Mojave:

Racing rush hour out of Los Angeles, I was surprised by how quickly the urban sprawl dissolved into desert. Moonless night had fallen by the time we reached our campsite and all we could see were the lights of Baker smudged across the horizon and countless stars above. The desert night was not cold as advertized but steeping hot and the bugs made a sound like rain on our tent.

The morning awoke with mountains revealed all around and nothing else except the occasional car crawling along a distant road.

Los Vegas:

Crossing into Nevada, the density of billboards steadily increased, punctuated by one-casino-towns. We drove past what looked like missile launch sites. Los Vegas, as advertized, rose abruptly from the desert with much fanfare. After getting lost for a while we drove down the strip, thunderstruck.

We ended up in a giant mall, eating at a food court. While the tourists took a break from ogling the sights to shop, I found the mall one of the strange and wildest things I had seen. And like I was on safari, I felt compelled to snap photos of the rituals of marketing, the exotic and overpriced costumes, the spectacle of shady transactions in this desert bazaar.

After arguing with Noah for a while about the marketing’s manipulation of desires, we left that blazing city and headed past lake mead and the Hoover Dam towards…

An “informational” placard at the scenic viewpoint. (read caption in top right)

Arizona:

Expecting more desert we were surprised as we saw sage brush turn into low shrubs and green fields and then into spacious forests with little underbrush that you could see hundreds of feet into with cattle grazing between the trees. And then turning in Flagstaff towards Sedona we dove into a canyon of red rock soft with clinging pines.

Perched above the cliffs, the town seemed like a sprawling gift shop selling a new age reconciliation of a native nature fantasy through crystals, candles, and post cards. We bought some groceries and headed back into the canyon forest to scavenge firewood and cook ourselves a meal.

The morning woke me gloriously. I bathed in an chilly stream and walked in circles through a sunny field to dry off. In flagstaff we got the best breakfast of the entire trip in a hip little Mexican café.

Heading east the land dried up once more as we approached Navajo country. I was sadly unsurprised to see that this had been deemed an appropriate place for what seemed to be a coal burning power plant.

We took a detour to peek at the Petrified Forest and change drivers, when in the middle of wasteland the engine began to make a sickening rattle. We pulled over and on the advice of a passing cop headed back to the nearest town, Holbrook, just in time to break down in the middle of the main intersection. We got towed to Scotty and Son’s auto repair, where each mechanic in turn listed ponderously to our engine until Scotty himself descended from a nap upstairs, replying “howdy” to my “hello,” and pronounced the engine dead.

[Update: the Subaru, which we call Yakul, is in route back to Massachusetts where it will be nursed back to health.]

Though the check oil light had never come on, the engine was apparently bone dry and had torn apart its insides. It would take two weeks to fix. I sat on the curb and stared out at the bleak town. Then I got up and began to make calls.

Throughout I questioned whether this exercise of privilege, connections, and safety nets defeated the point of my stubborn refusal to abandon my mission. But my privilege was involved from the start and now a course of action was presenting itself and I took it. We would need another car.

After discovering that the Flagstaff craigslist possesses a trove of hilarious vehicles—including a “cowboy” camper, a decommissioned ambulance turned RV, a truck “not for sissy boys/girls or hippies,” and a tank—we learned that it is not easy to get a car when you have don’t have one and the nearest rental place is 90 miles away.

We walked two miles to the only dealership in town, and luck had it that Mike, the agent we met – after determining that we didn’t have the money for any of the cars on the lot – offered to sell us his wife’s 13 year old Ford Explorer Eddie Bower edition! Before leaving for the bank our new wheels received the blessings of Mike’s uncle in law, a Navajo drag racer mechanic.

Ford Explorer in center background

During our tour of the town’s bureaucratic institutions, Mike—who seemed not to be missed at work—helped us along and chatted with us about life in Holbrook. Originally from Indiana, Mike joined the Navy after his first wife left him and ended up in Arizona working his way from the bottom up through career path of Northern Arizona’s premier dealership. Throughout the several times we were at his house across the street from the town’s RV park, we saw at least 8 different relations and neighbors wandering in and out, wondering what was going on—his family was taking care of the children of a cousin currently addicted to meth. As far as I could tell everyone in the family but him was Navajo.

By the end of the day we had a new car and a more intimate view of a small Southwestern town than we ever would have had otherwise. And by the morning to the shock – and possible class disgust – of the guys at the garage we were ready to get back on the road.

New Mexico:

Albuquerque has no suburbs. It just pops straight out of the brush and mesas. It didn’t seem to have any visible downtown, but we wouldn’t know because we went straight to an eviction defense of a house on the outskirts of town. I imagined a tense stand off with sheriffs, but instead we found what looked like a neighborhood cookout on the front lawn but festooned with signs and a half packed moving truck looming in the driveway.

The motley assortment of community members, indigenous activists, and anarchists enthusiastically welcomed our screenprinting to distract them from the boredom and fear of waiting for the police. We struggled to patch together the screen which had started to melt while it was parked in the Arizona heat. One anarchist was particularly excited to talk theory and tell stories from the NATO protests in Chicago, where he hailed from. I learned that apparently Phoenix has a vibrant anarchist scene!

I ended up being interviewed by the local Univision channel about my big city activist perspective on their local activism. I with held judgment for lack of knowledge, but made clear my admiration for any who fight oppression where they are. We had to rush out of town after a few hours to try to catch up with our schedule. But first I had a long conversation with my contact from (un)Occupy Albuquerque, Amalia, about unifying North American activists around the struggle against the Tar Sands pipeline—of which the southern part was just beginning construction in nearby Texas. This struggle could present an opportunity for indigenous leadership and the prefiguration of a decolonized community amongst activists.

On the advice of our new friends we headed to far Eastern New Mexico to camp at Lake Sumner, where the stars continued to dazzle us. I woke up before dawn and watched the sunrise, peacefully reflecting on our triumph over engine failure while wading in the desert-bounded lake.

Texas:

We had ten hours to drive to Austin, all of Western Texas to cross. After breakfast at an IHOP in Clovis, NM, where all non-corporate businesses seemed to have gone out of business, we crossed the border into endless dismal ranches where cattle crowded in muddy corrals half-obscured by privacy fences. Motionless oil-wells rusted beneath stands of windmills—more than we had seen anywhere else. For 7 hours the landscape remained almost unvaryingly flat repeating a cycle of farms, ranches, silos, agricultural industry, railroads, wells, and windmills. Then merging back onto the highway after refueling, the tires lost traction, the car spun around, and flipped over into the ditch on the side of the road.

Sometime after sitting in the ambulance, talking to the police, and getting driven by some kind locals to a motel in the nearest city, the shock and denial wore off and I had to admit, this was the end of the road trip. But the question now was what comes next. I clearly had something to learn, but what fate was telling me was a matter of interpretation. Initially I wondered if I was being humbled for living too large, seeking glamorous adventure and calling it activism. Perhaps I had been reckless. Maybe it was time for me to focus on preparing for a semester of activism at Bard—a smaller world where I could actually have an impact. But then I looked at the date: it was the day before the Quebec student strike would restart. Whether or not fate wanted me there, it was certainly a tremendous opportunity, one that I would regret missing.

I don’t know how to reconcile these two directions. Clearly they conflict. But after much soul searching, I decided that this discord wasn’t going to be solved right now, that as far as privilege goes my ability to go to Quebec is a far smaller part of the problem than, for example, my ability to go to Bard, and that I would still have plenty of time to get ready for a radical September after a weekend in Canada. So having not found any convincing reasons not to, I skipped through Boston and onto a bus to Montreal.

Home in Boston for one sweet day

5824 Miles

Washington:

We drove out of Montana, though winding roads in Northern Idaho, to see our good friend Sam in Olympia. Naïve little New Englanders as we are, we didn’t expect a desert and flat, endless wheat fields in Eastern Washington.

But the Olympic Mountains rose (along with the gas prices) and we were in the temperate rainforest that we’d expected.

Olympia, was a relief: familiar and welcoming. Noah was a bit disconcerted by the crusty kids and alt coffee shops, and I suppose I was also a little intimidated (in the way that weirdos and radicals get as their numbers approach plurality). But after falling in love with the bookstore I could hardly complain.

We also made two daytrips to Seattle. The first day we met up with the Mic Check Wall Street affinity group for a student debt noise brigade and some public screen printing.

And if you’re interested in seeing what public screenprinting looks like, check this out

The second day we missed a court solidarity protest for anarchists swept up in a grand-jury inquisition that had machinegun-armed feds breaking into local organizers homes searching for “anarchist materials.” We ended up wandering around the city and finding another sympathetic bookstore.

Portland:

On the way south we stopped in Portland to meet Nina, the designer of the posters we had been giving out all around the country. Down the street from her studio got coffee and discussed reclaiming public visual media. She’s been making viewing stations that superimpose images over corporate billboards.

Northern California:

We zoomed south through Oregon, the sun set, and we were in the Redwoods. We woke up next to a glassy river nestled in a coniferous valley. A quick drive to the coast and in a dinner, empty when we came in, we met a concert violinist from Omaha doing a UFO themed roadtrip, who introduced himself simply as The Dude. Another short drive and we were back in the redwoods.

Oregon

Six Rivers National Forest

Redwood National Forest

We decided to take route 1 down the North Coast and stopped to clamber out on a rocky cove besides some locals fishing.

Oh and we saw elk

We spent the night camped on the beach in Sonoma. We woke up early and finished driving along route 1 through Marin and over Mt. Tamalpais and the Golden Gate Bridge into…

Bay Area:

Our first stop was a bookstore, City Lights, in San Francisco. There was a crafts fair in the ally behind the store.

We quickly headed across the bay to Oakland and Berkley. Our destination was the Fuck The Police assembly where we joined a discussion of an action last Friday in which an Obama campaign office had been “redecorated.” Afterwards we went around to an art co-op and an infoshop distributing zines and posters and met a comic book artist who said he might use Noah as a model for a character. We crashed on the couch of a house an acquaintance of ours was housesitting and recharged a bit watching TV.

In Oakland, we also stumbled upon the best beer store we’ve seen on the trip yet (though are hearts still belong to the Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont).

LA:

Traveling though farmland in central California we saw something we hadn’t seen yet this trip: workers in the fields. White buses towing strange pods sped past us or turned off and disgorged migrant workers. We drove past figures hidden in hazmat suits spraying pesticides.

After a pit-stop in Santa Barbra and the realization that we were now in a biome and culture utterly unlike anything in the North East, we made it into LA in time for a tense Occupy LA General Assembly dealing with the fallout from the infamous chalkwalk police riot

There we met an activist from Move to Amend—an NGO seeking an amendment to end corporate personhood and gave him a silkscreen. Our host that night was another screen-recipient and a sympathetic filmmaker.

We spent the next day hanging out in Venice with my friend, Brian, and managed to loose my camera. So this is the only picture I have for you:

4363 Miles

Colorado:

But first we had to travel through the rest of Nebraska, stopping in a town that was half strip mall half ghost town and at Nebraska’s largest lake. The latter was I think put best by Noah: “Like Cape Cod but crazy conservative.” The water smelled like gasoline. No one swam; they only jetskied.

Eventually Denver and the mountains beyond rose on the horizon.

Denver

The Rockies

We left behind the drought-wracked crop failure and the clouds released. We stayed with Noah’s college friend in Monument. I changed hats from activist to anthropologist to escape some pretty startling culture shock: I hadn’t been exposed to this sort of suburban culture directly in a while, especially the Western-supersized sort. After “cruising” the town sights—the high school, a former house, lists of houses of friends (it seems all there was were houses – giant McMansions turned log cabins)—we decided against going to a house party in favor of a hookah bar in Colorado Springs frequented by high school students. By the end of the night I was amazed that what I had seen exists beyond Disney Channel dramas.

Wyoming:

I spent the next morning arguing with Noah about cultural subjectivity and got my first speeding ticket in Denver. I admit that I’m predisposed to feeling alienated in ways that others like Noah are not, but I also realized that he and I have very different cultural experiences. He kept insisting that people aren’t so different as I thought; I insisted that beyond a vague human solidarity, people are particular and contextualized. I wondered, though, if the functionality of my philosophy has more to do with dissociating myself with all the messiness and oppression of the groups of which I am supposedly a member (U.S. Citizen etc.) in order to focus on the dynamics of myself and my community.

Heavy thoughts defused as we crossed into windblown Wyoming.

We cut an unusual path to the Grand Tetons through the most awfully desolate rural poverty I’ve ever seen. None of the plastic green fields devoid of workers that we saw in Ohio and Indiana, here there were burnt-out barns, bleached dying trees, and broken tractors.

After cutting through a range of pine-covered mountains, we were in the national parks—stuck in traffic with RVs and cruising roadsters. But despite a crowded campsite, and endless parking lots, the Tetons and then Yellowstone proved magnificent. Noah and I swam in an ice-cold glacier-clear lake beneath mountains that could compete with the gigantic sky.

Montana:

Driving out of Yellowstone into Montana, the tourists quickly ebbed and I fell in love with the state when we stopped at a gas station and I discovered a room-sized refrigerator in the back filled with local beer!

1936 miles

New York:

Though Noah and I were excited to leave the Northeast as quickly as possible and get onto fresh sights, first we had to stop in New York to burn images on our silkscreens. We did this with the kind help of the Bushwick Print Lab.

Brooklyn: Bushwick Print Lab

Brooklyn: ready for the road

Now armed with our screens and a trunk full of ink, squeegees, spray bottles, shirts, and spatulas we bid Brooklyn goodbye with some beers on a rooftop and got up early to head out west.

Brooklyn: Skyline

Pittsburgh:

We drove through the ridge-etched landscape of Western Pennsylvania and stopped at a diner in Somerset, a town that seems to be lingering in the 1950’s. An hour later we were in Pittsburgh heading to Berkman fest to help some local anarchists celebrate the anniversary of Alexander Berkman’s attempted assassination of industrialist Henry Frick. We set up to screenprint outside of the bookstore that was serving as venue and hung out with friends of our host until we were surprised by waves of generously-donating older liberals. After packing up for the night we met a group of anti-fracking activists in nearby bar and later discussed American fighters in the Syrian and other foreign revolutions. The next morning after waking up we strolled to The Sandwich Shop—an eatery run by a woman referred to by all the anarchists as Mama—for a slow breakfast with our host, his daughter, and one of their housemates and conversation about military science and police tactics. Leaving behind a silkscreen and lots of other printing materials for our friends to use we set out through endless corn fields towards…

Chicago:

But first we stopped in Bristol, Indiana, and discovered a charming park beside a river, empty except for a family of startlingly blond Midwesterners.

Back on the road, wondering when then farms and 70 mile-an-hour highways would turn into Chicago suburbs, we followed a corner to the expanse of America’s former industrial heart.

“The Armpit of America”

Then shot through night-lit Chicago on the Skyway, we settled into comfortable beds in Evanston provided by gracious cousins. We got up early to see a rally by the Chicago Teachers’ Union downtown – they’re in the middle of contract negotiations and might be on the brink of a strike.

Chicago: Teachers Union Rally

Not having planned much, we wandered around the Loop and went to a museum until the Occupy Chicago General Assembly later in the evening. It was looking like not many people were going to come, but as we’re beginning to learn screenprinting has a strange magnetism that makes even that most hasty plans come together serendipitously. The GA was interesting because many other occupations have abandoned them. Chicago’s ran more as an informal announcement and discussion space. Afterwards, everyone was very excited to try printing and Noah, impressed by the down-to-earth-ie-ness of these occupiers, started networking like a good activist.

Chicago: printing after the general assembly

Chicago: general assembly

Minneapolis:

We got up early and set out, first to Madison where we stopped for an hour, appreciating the remaining recall Walker signs and trying to imagine what the capital looked like when it was occupied.

Madison

Heading to Minneapolis, we thought again that we had started planning too late to get much attention and were hesitant to just print for strangers in a park whose context we knew nothing of. But on the encouragement of our local contacts, we checked out a park in a neighborhood where no particular demographic seemed predominant and class was confusingly ambiguous. We started printing and were quickly overwhelmed by excited children for the next few hours.

Minneapolis

Afterwards we discussed anarchism with our hosts and stayed up late looking at the stars.

Omaha:

We got up with an unambitious plan for the day: drive to Lincoln, Nebraska, and meet one of the organizers of Occupytogether.org, but as she was out of state she put us in touch with occupiers in Omaha instead. On the way we stopped in Des Moines and chatted with some travelers outside of a convenience store who assured us Des Moines was not worth staying in. We weren’t expecting much from Omaha; just hoping to have a bed to sleep in. But after several phone calls we ended up at a vegetarian restaurant, screenprinting in the parking lot next to a troop of fire jugglers. We spend the rest of the night hanging out with our new friends, hearing stories, turning Omaha into a real place in our minds.

Omaha: Fire Jugglers.

Omaha: printing.

Philadelphia Occupy National Gathering *Photo Review*

[Note: In a week I’ll be starting my road trip around the country so stay tuned for some nice short city by city updates]

Hey folks, sorry for the hiatus. The bane of participant-observation in activism in my experience is that when things are going well one is too busy acting to articulate much reflection. So let me catch you up on what I’ve been up to.

The main reason I’ve been out of touch is that I spent a week living in a parking lot during the Occupy National Gathering (NatGat) in Philadelphia.

Nighttime in the camp: Despite the discomfort of living in a parking lot and the discomfort of the sometimes intractable differences that would cause conflict between us, it is a wonder to see people from across the country living together in solidarity.

During that hot week, I came to question “Occupy” and the state of activism in the U.S. more than ever before. But oddly, I think this might have been the point of the gathering. Sure, people outwardly came together “to celebrate the movement,” but the deeper motivation I found in conversations late at night after the marches and rallies was a sort of soul searching. This gathering didn’t produce any immediate answers, but it started conversations and made connections between people of surprising geographic diversity (if lacking in other sorts of diversity).

For me the immediate fracture manifested as I split my time between the NatGat and a parallel Radical Convergence (Rad Con) across town. While this convergence was much smaller, it felt more real and rooted. Here were a dedicated group of local anarchists who have been at work against oppression on the street long before Occupy and will still be long after its gone. As I headed out of the sanitized historic district into North Philly for the Rad Con on the first day, I was relieved to see something that looked more like a real city. Later walking around with this scary looking group of punks we all smiled and greeted the families escaping the heat in kiddy pools on the sidewalks or lounging on their stoops. I was amazed to see them wave back just as cheerfully; these seemed to be that rare kind of activist with deep roots in the community.

Rad Con: You probably wouldn’t expect to see this castle like church in the middle of an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood. You certainly wouldn’t expect to find it full of anarchists!

But as much as I admired these people, I knew I was not one of them. This was brought home for me in the spiteful plea of a Brooklyn activist teaching an anti-racist workshop on gentrification to “stay where the fuck you are.” Sure we could all call ourselves anarchists—and my insecure hope has always been to find the “real anarchists” so that some of their authenticity might rub off on me. But what I was beginning to understand was that I would legitimize my beliefs not by trying to fit in with this group where anarchism was already established, but rather by defining an anarchism in my own community whose battles I know and have the right to fight.

Camp Jams: Every night people would gather in one corner of the parking lot and make music late into the night. Partially this seemed like imagined nostalgia for some kind of a Woodstock festival ideal, and I was bothered by the egotistical aspect of people competing for who’s song gets to be played next. But by the last night, I was willing to let this go and found myself singing along.

I didn’t feel much more at home at the NatGat though. Often times it felt as if they were trying to time travel back to the 60’s. Everyone seemed to have their agenda, their sermon, their escape from their alienation, their project to repent the shame of the oppression they perpetuated. I think its no coincidence that I was reading in David Graeber’s Direct Action right then about the “culture” of activism. Most come to Occupy to escape a certain kind of hypocritical liberal and privileged background which they can no longer bear. And so the conundrum of working within one’s own community is that for these people their community has become their relations with other activists who seek to live outside of alienated society. So perhaps in a way it was perfect that NatGat was so self-reflexive because it was really an opportunity for activism within the activist community.

I still wonder where I belong. In the 4th of July visioning process—in which we brainstormed a giant list of statements about the world we are attempting to build with the most popular points being upvoted to the top—I found myself the unlikely ally of a libertarian on opposing some rather limiting reformist statements. The moment seemed emblematic of some of the problems I have with Occupy. The reformists didn’t hesitate to support statements like “without rulers” “decentralized” “anti-capitalist” and then go straight on to purposing minor sorts of voting reform and demands of the existing government. I’m realizing that in the fall Occupy was so life-changing for me simply because I’d never seen people publicly declare themselves anti-capitalist before. But now I’m seeing that many of these folks don’t know how to go any further than just saying radical things. In the end it feels like a sort of radical pride, revolving around marches and statements of solidarity. I think this is critical, and like the visioning process it opens up the possibility of things that should be obvious – like the top item on the vision “clean water, air, and food.” But these groups of people who had lived together in downtown parks throughout the fall are no more my community than working class punk anarchists.

Stamping your money: One of the main focuses of the gathering was push to get money out of politics. Many people noted that the largest constituency for middle American occupiers is in groups like Move to Amend that embrace these more reformist goals.

The whole time I was asking these questions, I was lucky to have with me a friend from Bard: Zeke—one of the activists who first inspired me to believe that radical change was possible even in the ivory tower. We had this discussion throughout the week, seeking relief in shade from the heat and in words from our frustrations. I won’t speak for Zeke’s realizations, though he seemed to learn from the experience too. But I realized that one of the few things I could still see clearly was how much I’m looking forward to returning to Bard to continue the struggles we fight there. It is there that I feel confident to act, secure that I have knowledge of the battle’s history, empowered with the right of a participant. I know some of this security is the blanket of the ivory tower itself, but I know that I am as well equipped as I will ever be to discern my community from the bubble of privilege it fortifies itself in and begin to tear down the walls from within.

4th of July March: Despite being blocked from entering the concert area for the massive independence day festivities on the pretext of an unrelated shooting, we eventually rallied after the fireworks and marched out of the area along with the crowds of revelers.

And meanwhile, the end result of the gathering and convergence seems to have been positive for others too. The radicals, who separately formed Rad Con because they felt Occupy was no longer a safe space for anarchists, ended up coming over for a dialogue with the NatGat on the 4th of July. They spoke their worries, and in turn I saw many who had been quiet throughout the NatGat (especially people of color and women) stand up and join in this sentiment and everyone seemed to be twinkling their support. It all ended like the resolution of a family fight (though the Rad Con folk quickly went off afterwards for their own set of “festivities” for the night). And for the Occupiers, the next morning they set off on a 99 mile march with the Guitarmy with many more people than I ever would have imaged going for a week long march through New Jersey after a week on the street in Philly. Just yesterday I saw them arrive and I haven’t seen that many people in Zuccotti—singing and dancing despite police brutality—all summer. Who knows: maybe things are on the rise again—for all of us together not just the occupiers!

Labor march: Every day there was a march. This was one of the larger ones where we marched with CWA union, Verizon workers. Strangely the police would let us take the street with groups as small as 30!

Attempted Occupation: When the police first attempted to disperse us, they seemed utterly unprepared. This group of park service got cut off and surrounded and eventually were forced to retreat. Another group of police in full riot gear were forced out of the park by a wall of protesters linking arms slowly marching on them.

Attempted Occupation: Eventually more police showed up and they burst through our blockades beating protesters against a brick wall with their bikes. This protester was trapped and his leg crushed between the police line and the wall.

Unwinding at the camp: after a tense first day, the night ended with a comedy show which drew partially sarcastic criticism for a lack of political correctness.

The Tax Dodgers: This bit of theatrical demonstration provided one of those beautiful moments critical for activist communities where by poking fun at our own seriousness we can revitalize our commitment. The “fans” of the 1% were afforded to opportunity to invert their normal chants to support the corporations.

Morning at the NatGat Camp: Nothing like waking up in a parking lot under 90 degree sun covered in sweat and bug bites to start off your day!

Stepping outside the classroom

There’s something frightening about teaching outside. It’s easy to criticize the assumption that teaching should take place in a classroom or a writing center as an insecure need for a space in which we are allowed to call ourselves educators and service providers, in which students enter as guests and clients. But there’s a very real reason for this insecurity, although it can’t just be avoided by staying in the classroom. The campus-seeking habit allows us to integrate the occupation of education, more or less overtly, into the wage-labor model in which a professional is hired by an institution (a space—the campus) to provide a service to a client. This allows educators to excuse their assumption of power in the teacher-student relationship as something placed upon them: they are hired and thus exist as laborers in a strange sort of solidarity with the student-consumers who are also dependents of the institutional administration. The space of the classroom or writing center, like the space of a CVS in which a clerk and customer interact at a cash register, becomes a sort of temporary humanity-free zone. By entering this space, we agree to take on the generic roles of laborer and consumer as designed for us by the institution’s administration so that the laborer has only limited liability for the effects of her or his service or product on the consumer and the consumer can justify the human costs of her or his consumption upon the laborer. And at the end of the day we leave this space, become human again, and blame the scars of our transactions, not on each other, but on the institutions – the spaces – in which we transacted.

Thus the anxiety of teaching in the “wild”: that participants must accept full responsibility for what is an unavoidably intimate exchange. In unalienated education it becomes impossible to compartmentalize professional and personal selves. Participants must acknowledge and discuss the privilege behind their expertise, begin to question the necessity of every use of authority, and even wonder if their knowledge is relevant to each other over the gape of differing experience. Without a properly sterilized space, we are as terrified to conduct education as we would be to perform open-heart surgery. After all education is supposed to be life changing.

Hyperbole aside, I honestly dreaded going to tutor at a park I’d never seen before in Bed-Stuy on Saturday. I found some safety hiding behind the event it was scheduled to take place during, a pop-up education faire organized by local activists, but I still found myself wondering who would I even be tutoring, what could I possibly give to them without knowing anything about their lives, and how would they see me—as yet another well-meaning gentrifier? I secretly hoped no one would show up.

But when two eager writers, Venessa and Jose, came something automatic kicked in and I started asking questions, making encouraging remarks, pointing out connections and areas to develop. This was good because it allowed me to step back and tweak my tutor-automaton-self as I caught it making mistakes. More than anything else this was what I learned from the day: no matter how careful I try to be, I must resign myself to making a lot of mistakes. Everything about my communication was potentially patronizing—or worse, simply irrelevant. So I tried to make this insecurity my contribution to the exchange; I explained my struggle to articulate my knowledge in a way that would be useful to them and invited them to consider how their expression articulates to people like me.

Both of them saw writing as an outlet for the pain of their lives’ troubles. They were preoccupied by a recent fight that had occurred between Jose and Vanessa’s family, who disapproved of him being her boyfriend. I started with Venessa, who worried that she’d “lost her mojo” and consequently felt pent-up for lack of expression. I had her free write about what she was feeling right then while I turned to Jose.  He said he struggled with academic writing because his anger made his expression difficult to read. I got him to write a bit about the fight and then we did a sort of tactical analysis of angered expression and “objective” expression. I returned to Venessa who mostly seemed to need encouragement, which I combined with a bit of practical advice—writing about specific events in order to illustrate abstract emotions. After working with Jose more we all ended up sitting together talking about how expression can either be uncompromised yet limited in audience or compromised in an attempt at greater translatability. In hindsight I wish I’d engaged more with Venessa’s insecurity about her writing, especially in front of Jose, and I have to wonder if I gave Jose’s issue more attention because of his male aggressiveness (he came to me with a thesis, whereas Vanessa came to me with a question) and selfishly, because his issue spoke more to my theoretical interest. What I did do was turn over the task to them by encouraging them to get each other to write more often and to read each other’s work.

The mutuality of education is too often a mere platitude, but in this case I did really gain from the experience. Venessa’s exuberant thanks encouraged my tutoring and gave me back my “mojo,” Jose’s focus on articulation provided me with the opportunity to consider my own insecurity about the limits of my expression. By clearly taking on the role of the “underprivileged voice” to my “elite voice,” he helped me role play a productive exchange between these divided discourses, which gave me faith that I was capable of contributing something to a broader dialogue. I worry that maybe I forced him into this role with my aggressively apologetic manner. But I think it bears noting that Venessa and Jose were also very active and considerate in their tolerance of my difference. They created a safe space in which I felt comfortable confronting the embarrassing task of finding how my knowledge could actually be relevant to them. So in leaving the classroom and the writing center, we must also consider the kind of space we want instead—maybe not so much sterilized, but a little bit padded. But for now I’m just glad that I found that space for a little while with the help of two other fellow writers.

First Week *Photo Review*

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.

A Conversation of Action

Occupy is not a movement defined by a set of specific demands but rather a tactic—occupation—and the methodology of direct action implied by this tactic. Thus the purpose of occupation is not to achieve a particular political end but to reorganize the entire political process. Its strategy is to cultivate a horizontal network of spaces and people, reclaimed from hierarchical power structures, in which dialogue can facilitate local solution making.

In a globalized world, problems are inextricably global and local and must be approached from both scales concurrently. Occupation is a way to change how we relate systems and particulars. It flattens the geography of power so that systemic social engineering no longer dictates particular solutions. By occupying public spaces and discourses and drawing attention to specific places and symbols, this tactic reasserts the local as the foundation and substrate of the global. This does not mean disregarding global systems, but rather adopting a dynamic viewpoint that examines the entire web of particulars from multiple scales—both broad and focused.

Geographies of Power

Likewise, the tactics used to achieve horizontality must prefigure this paradigm shift. Actions must fertilize change directly in the roots of society—the individuals who are its members. Thus dialogue, because it also propagates horizontally through networks of individuals, is the essential means for engaging societies. Let us consider a particular example:

On Saturday, June 9, a few hours after getting off the bus from Boston and immediately joining a march around midtown, I found myself sitting in a small circle of activists on a shady patch of grass in Bryant Park escaping the searing sun and preparing to discuss horizontal pedagogy. The facilitator introduced this radical theory of education in which students use consensus-based process to choose and examine a shared text, experience, or object. Fittingly, we went on to practice this method ourselves next. It proved difficult to settle on a subject for analysis as we cast about our environment and history for a focus to which we would all have access. But if anything this effort drew attention to the suspicious absence of this step from traditional education. To me it seems obvious that a broken discourse should reproduce itself and stagnate if its direction and focus are chosen entirely by the fully initiated.

Circling through objects around us—a statue, a pipe, our sensory perceptions—to abstractions—the exclusivity of the word “pedagogy,” the relation of inhabitants and spaces—and back again, we finally settled on examining the statue of William Cullen Bryant enthroned at one end of the park in relation with the rest of the park and its inhabitants. The horizontality of this synthesis was undermined somewhat as some had little investment in any particular object for analysis while I was pursuing a preformed notion of examining public space and was the one to propose the final subject. Nonetheless, the horizontal process incorporated others’ ideas into my synthesized proposal, such as a concrete object—the statue—, which lead me to conclusions I would not have reached if I had analyzed the space by myself.

Horizontal Pedagogy: examining a space as text

After viewing the statue, recording the inscription on the pedestal, and deciphering the Latin numerals of the date, we reconvened to discuss. We began with a sort of grassroots art analysis (none of us knew who Bryant was), questioning the classical style of the enclosing structure, the figure’s scholarly garb and chair, the “meaning” of the poem set beneath it—each person contributing what specialized knowledge they possessed. Initially, we limited ourselves to asking questions only to avoid simply regurgitating opinions and instead produce generative inquiry. This helped me redirect my desire to impose terms of spatial discourse towards specific questions about the actual practices of park-goers.

We began to shift towards the abstract, and after I raised the notion of an interaction between multiple designs (as constructed and as used) of the park we began to explicitly discuss space. But the tack we pursued surprised me. We ended up discussing the significance of naming spaces: the fact that the park was named after “an old dead white guy” rather than an indigenous Manhattan or a modern person of color. We compared this to the dual names of Zuccotti Park/ Liberty Plaza and looped back to a discussion—similar to the one we had earlier about the word “pedagogy”—in which we questioned whether the use of an unofficial name was more empowering or if the reclamation of an established name could be equally subversive. We wondered how the names of spaces affect their daily use. Furthermore we considered the mechanisms mediate the naming of spaces (perhaps a dialectic between popular use and official designation?).

Clearly this instance of horizontal dialogue only began the first few steps of a revolutionary process. We didn’t get much farther than exploring the questions, let alone the solutions—or even taking action. But simply the act of radical inquiry is revolutionary in that it democratizes the process through which we collectively view the world—and thus the way we imagine and ultimately reproduce it. What’s more, horizontal pedagogy epitomizes a basic attitude necessary for all socially transformative action. Whether a teach-in or a black bloc, action is about renegotiating collective symbols and narratives through disruption of habitual perspectives and offering of novel alternatives. In the fundamentally asymmetrical conflict of state power and revolutionary counterpower, our actions need to go beyond immediate effects and seek to reproduce further action. To do this, individuals must be engaged by dialogue in which our actions are invitations that facilitate other’s actions in response. We must begin a conversation of action.

About This Story

It would be hard to imagine a place where space is more rationed than the securitized, surveilled, and sanitized cities of America. Traveling to the city you cross the stockade into a corporate fiefdom where the Bloomberg kings and Kelly pikemen fragment and fortify neighborhoods by race and class. And even if you’re lucky enough to have the privilege of mobility, there’s little escape outside the city controlled by suburban colonies that replicate the rules of the metropolis across the land.

But beneath the barricades and beside the sidewalks, are those who refuse their ration and know that they need nothing more than the space they occupy within their skin as passport to the world around them. They make the sea on which these skyscraper-battleships float, and we’re getting ready for a capsizing-storm.It is to this world where space is not rationed that I travel.

This is the story of my search for a city beyond walls, a country beyond borders.

Who am I?

My name is Jack. Since October 2012 when I saw a hundreds-strong march consense on an urgent decision in front of a line of riot police, I have sought to channel my efforts towards deconstructing the oppression I cause and constructing alternative narratives, infrastructures, and spaces in the communities in which I partake. As the product of a privileged suburban New England upbringing, payed for by the inequity and inequality of the system of my ancestors, I seek to understand how to effectively return to the community the resources which have accumulated to me. As a student at Bard College I began by doing what I had experience with: researching, discussing, and writing. I studied the spaces and dialogues of Occupy encampments and the culture of student activism at Bard while immersing myself in first Marxist and then Anarchist literature. Over winter break I worked with Occupy Boston and began to learn how to enter and navigate activist communities. During the spring I focused on campus activism: organizing for student power, coordinating teach-ins, consolidating a radical community, and occupying symbolic and physical spaces.

What am I doing?

I wanted to put my academic skills into tangible use, so I applied for and won an internship grant from the Center for Civic Engagement to work with Occupy Wall Street and other activist groups in the summer. For June and July I will be in New York City working as an educator, an artist, and a student activist. At Bard I am a peer writing tutor with the Learning Commons, so now I am working with Occupy University to start a radical peer tutoring program. I also work in visual media (stickers, posters, stencils) and am now working with OccuPrint on the visibility of OWS. And with my experience of student activism at Bard, I am contributing my skills to the burgeoning American student debt movement budding out of the historic Quebec student protests. In August I will circumnavigate the U.S. stopping at an array of radical activist sites in an attempt to glimpse a picture of activism in the summer of 2012. As a writer, I intend to narrate my experience to contribute another story to the library of our collective imaginings of a better future.

When Space is Not Rationed

For a while
The eagle in flight might say,

“Look dear, I am home—
Space is no longer being rationed.”

For a while you might feel
I am complete,

When the touch from another upon certain
Of your fields

Has the power to dissolve all that
Is known.

Wholeness, I think,
Draws its life somewhere where the breathing
Stops,

Somewhere where the mind cradles light,
Where the only senses that remain

Blush and stumble
If they try to speak with our language so new
It is still trying to
Invent,

Still shaping
Its first intelligible sound,
Still sculpting its first true image of
God.

— Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky)

[Yes, this is the same as the about page. People seem to have trouble finding that though…]