Physical Space and the Occupy Movement

In a previous post, I pointed to Simon Critchley’s argument that Occupy‘s “task is to create a location for politics.” Here are two more arguments being made in this direction, by Occupy participants.

In Arun Gupta’s “What happened to the Occupy movement?”, the New York City-Occupy activist writes:

The real stumbling block for the Occupy movement is also the reason for its success: space, or now, the lack thereof. Understanding the significance of political space and Occupy’s inability to recapture it reveals why the movement is having difficulty re-gaining traction.

Americans have become so enmeshed in the transience of work, life, housing, play, finance and the proliferation of virtual spaces that it is easy to forget taking collective action in a shared physical space is how social change happens from below. Take the labour movement. The history of industrial workers’ struggle starts with the insight that capitalists are their own undoing, by amassing workers in a common space – the factory – where they become aware of their common interests, as well as their potential power to stop the machinery of capital. The same is true of student movements. The shared educational space can unite students around common grievances and goals. And for the civil rights movement, black churches played a pivotal role.

Now, Occupy Wall Street differs in that it appropriated a private-public park and reconfigured it as a political space. It was a manifestation of the central concept of the Occupy movement: there can be no political democracy without economic democracy. Its potency sprang from the same source as the Arab Spring, Spain’s Indignados and the Wisconsin labour uprising – peacefully liberating public space and governing it through participatory democracy.

And similarly, from the west coast Some Oakland Antagonists emphasize the centrality of physical space for the movement. In “Occupy Oakland is Dead. Long Live the Oakland Commune”, they write:

So what then killed Occupy? The 99%ers and reactionary liberals will quickly point to those of us in Oakland and our counterparts in other cites who wave the black flag as having alienated the masses with our “Black Bloc Tactics” and extremist views on the police and the economy. Many militants will just as quickly blame the sinister forces of co-optation, whether they be the trade union bureaucrats, the 99% Spring nonviolence training seminars or the array of pacifying social justice non-profits. Both of these positions fundamentally miss the underlying dynamic that has been the determining factor in the outcome thus far: all of the camps were evicted by the cops. Every single one.

All of those liberated spaces where rebellious relationships, ideas and actions could proliferate were bulldozed like so many shanty towns across the world that stand in the way of airports, highways and Olympic arenas. The sad reality is that we are not getting those camps back. Not after power saw the contagious militancy spreading from Oakland and other points of conflict on the Occupy map and realized what a threat all those tents and card board signs and discussions late into the night could potentially become.

No matter how different Occupy Oakland was from the rest of Occupy Wall Street, its life and death were intimately connected with the health of the broader movement. Once the camps were evicted, the other major defining feature of Occupy, the general assemblies, were left without an anchor and have since floated into irrelevance as hollow decision making bodies that represent no one and are more concerned with their own reproduction than anything else. There have been a wide range of attempts here in Oakland at illuminating a path forward into the next phase of the movement. These include foreclosure defense, the port blockades, linking up with rank and file labor to fight bosses in a variety of sectors, clandestine squatting and even neighborhood BBQs. All of these are interesting directions and have potential. Yet without being connected to the vortex of a communal occupation, they become isolated activist campaigns. None of them can replace the essential role of weaving together a rebel social fabric of affinity and camaraderie that only the camps have been able to play thus far.

May 1 confirmed the end of the national Occupy Wall Street movement because it was the best opportunity the movement had to reestablish the occupations, and yet it couldn’t. Nowhere was this more clear than in Oakland as the sun set after a day of marches, pickets and clashes. Rumors had been circulating for weeks that tents would start going up and the camp would reemerge in the evening of that long day. The hundreds of riot police backed by armored personnel carriers and SWAT teams carrying assault rifles made no secret of their intention to sweep the plaza clear after all the “good protesters” scurried home, making any reoccupation physically impossible. It was the same on January 28 when plans for a large public building occupation were shattered in a shower of flash bang grenades and 400 arrests, just as it was on March 17 in Zucotti Park when dreams of a new Wall Street camp were clubbed and pepper sprayed to death by the NYPD. Any hopes of a spring offensive leading to a new round of space reclamations and liberated zones has come and gone. And with that, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland are now dead.

[Hat Tip: Jodi Dean]

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