Following the recent four-day occupation of an empty bank building at 75 River Street in Santa Cruz and the attempted occupation of an empty warehouse in Seattle, the controversial tactic of attempting to seize and hold vacant private property has been taken up as a new front of a sprawling social movement. These actions move beyond protesting the enclosure of public space and stifling of free speech; they aim to expand the scope of critique to the role that private property plays in our current crisis. This change in scope has not been lost on the landlords. “I’m definitely not in agreement with this group taking over private property,” a local property owner told the Mercury News.
Someday my daughter will ask me how I met her father, and I will tell her about when we occupied the Graduate Student Commons at UC Santa Cruz. At the end of the summer of 2009, a group of college students, graduate students, and staff set about planning a campus building occupation. News of the next school year’s drastic budget cuts had come to the surface, leaving many of us out of jobs and in debt. On top of that, entire departments were being defunded, while class sizes, tuition, and administrator salaries were being increased. The word “crisis” started to echo among us.
Coming out of the city on the train one morning, I passed by Occupy Frankfurt – maybe three dozen large tents, a concentrated but steadfast group. It was pouring rain – my run from the tram to the main train station left me soaking, despite umbrella – but the encampment seemed unperturbed, perched as it is underneath some of the largest symbols of Europe’s finance sector.
“The ruling class in the United States,” as McKenzie Wark puts it in the recent special issue of Theory and Event on the Occupy movement, “is less and less one that makes things, and more and more one that owns information and collects a rent from it.” Every time you buy a CD or DVD, even every time you stream from YouTube or Netflix, you’re not funding artists. You’re funding the 1% and their personal army of metropolitan police, whose major interest right now seems to consist of gassing students and tearing down barns. What’s a politically informed media junkie to do? Probably what you’re already doing – pirate.
There were no broken windows. So that particular liberal defense is off the table. Those who have decided to side with the state instead of this new and radical social movement will find that it is now their illusions that have been shattered.
November 8, 2011. I was shooting pool at State College’s best dive bar when the bouncer came running in, his face flushed with excitement. According to TV news, he told us, the Penn State Board of Trustees had just fired football coach Joe Paterno. Though Paterno had already declared his intention to retire at the end of the season, after allegations that he had condoned an ongoing pattern of child molestation by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the trustees decided they couldn’t wait. Paterno would not be coaching that Saturday’s home game.
Occupy-related protests have steadily increased in number and militancy, and so has the resulting police repression. This has only made it more urgent to to identify and understand recent important steps in the transformation of the movement. These steps were most visible in the general strike in Oakland, and the later occupation of the Traveller’s Aid building, and they have begun to expand throughout the country.
A week ago, mayors across the country, working with shadowy law enforcement organizations, coordinated a crackdown on the occupations in their respective cities. Washington DC’s own occupation was untouched. As cops cleared parks and trashed tents and familiar cities made it into the headlines – Denver, Oakland, Manhattan – DC, yet again overlooked, felt like it hadn’t been asked to the dance. My feelings were compounded when a few days later, on November 17 – a day of action in response to the crackdown, with thousands marching on Wall Street – Occupy DC marched in support of a jobs bill with the SEIU, who that day had endorsed Obama for president. As police beat journalists in New York, DC protestors tweeted photos standing with arms around cops, waving. As 30,000 people took over the Brooklyn Bridge, Occupy DC boasted of barely impeding the flow of rush-hour traffic over the Key Bridge in Georgetown.
Getting arrested, at least in my case, was slow and physically draining. Before continuing, I should note that I draw no analogy between my experience of political arrest and the constant harassment and detention that accompany life on the margins. I am not one of the mentally ill who are removed from public sight to make commerce safe; one of the drug addicts who sometimes pound their heads against the paddy wagon walls until blood flows; one of undocumented immigrants who now populate bank-owned, for-profit prisons; or one of those who attract the police because of the color of their skin. I was also not beaten by the police or held without charges. Arrest for political offense, in my case, meant sitting for a long time in Bank of America on November 16, having ABC Live literally watch my back, and waiting in a cold seat in an improvised pen for two hours. That day-after soreness from having my hands cuffed behind my back was my biggest physical or emotional complaint testifies to this difference.
Even if it were to disappear tomorrow, Occupy Wall Street would have already scored a massive victory. It has fundamentally altered one of the dominant narratives that underlies the majority political and economic thought in this country: that as much as Americans might be dissatisfied with politicians, they have no real complaint with inequality, or the economic system that makes it possible and perpetuates it – namely capitalism. Occupy Wall Street ruptured this narrative through the occupations and massive popular support. Before September the sentence, “Americans are dissatisfied with social inequality” would have been debatable to say the least, pertaining only to a small faction of leftists and academics. Now it can be stated as fact, a fact that the existing forces and powers do not know what to say about.