Occupy what now?

I haven’t had first hand experience of any of the Occupy Wall Street inspired public occupations that are going on around the world at the moment, because I’m currently in the 1948 territories of Palestine, aka Israel (aka israHELL) which pre-empted Occupy Wall Street with its July 14 social justice movement, and the tent occupation of Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, in July and August.

Since people started occupying public spaces in different cities in Aotearoa I’ve been trying my best to keep updated on what’s going on through friends, facebook, and even the capitalist media. Every article I’ve read on Stuff or the Herald makes me roll my eyes, and then I have to remind myself that journalists are generally stupid, and have a knack of misrepresenting social movements even when they’re trying to be sympathetic. It wouldn’t be fair to judge Occupy New Zealand based on what the capitalist media is publishing about it.

I want to share some of my thoughts about the occupy ‘movement’ (one of my thoughts is that occupying pubic spaces isn’t a movement, it’s a tactic) but I think I need to do it with the disclaimer that for the time being I’m only a long distance observer, not a participant.

There’s a couple of things that really bug me about Occupy [wherever] and I think one of them has to do with the way it’s become a brand. It’s like activists are trying to use capitalist marketing techniques to sell the concept of opposing capitalism. Occupy Wall Street got a lot of media attention globally, so sympathetic activists around the globe decided to franchise this successful brand in their own communities, without thinking about whether it’s appropriate to their own context or paying attention to critiques of OWS. This tactic of copying what activists do in North America and Europe because it gets lots of media attention is also what happened with Climate Camp and Slutwalk and I think it was a mistake in those cases too.

I think trying to sell people a brand, or an idea, is an effective way to sell a product, but it doesn’t work if you’re trying to change the world. We’re not trying to convince everyone to like us, we’re trying to engage them in a dialogue (that means a two way conversation) about what it is we don’t like about our society, what kind of society we’d like to build instead of it, and what’s a good way to do it. It’s not about getting as many people as possible to identify with a brand or slogan (the 99%) it’s about working together with a bunch of other people to change things.

That’s why I disagree with the most common criticisms that people make of Occupy [XYZ]: that it’s ideologically incoherent, that there’s no clear leadership, that they don’t have clear demands and so on. I think that’s the whole fucking point. It’s not a political party with a party line that’s handed down by the leadership to the rank and file. It’s a space for people to engage with each other about social change and exchange ideas, opinions and skills. It’s not a group of people asking the state for something, It’s a group of people working together to build something new. It’s creating a space – actually multiple spaces around the world – for people to come together and see that they aren’t the only ones frustrated by the lack of justice in the world.

The criticism that I will make is that because it’s a very broad struggle there’s a common tendency to silence more marginalised voices. The ‘movement’ is supposed to represent the poorest 99 percent of people on Earth. But within that 99 percent there’s a lot of inequality. There are people with more and less access to resources. There are people with more and less power in the world based on their ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, physical ability and other factors. Social conflict is far more complicated than just 99 percent versus 1 percent.

Over and over – and not just in the Occupy [insert place] ‘movement’ – any kind of inequality within the movement gets ignored because it’s seen as divisive. Because addressing colonisation, racism, sexual violence, transphobia, homophobia or ableism might alienate some people who benefit from those things, or at least benefit from not having to think about them. What really divides social movements isn’t indigenous people, people of colour, women, queers, transfolk or anyone else who is marginalised, what divides social movements is people who don’t want to address their own power and privilege.

I think part of the problem goes back to what I said about Occupy as a brand. Some activists act as if getting people on their side is the goal of the struggle, rather than being a strategy towards achieving the goal (the goal being building a just and equal society). So they tailor their message to make it appeal to as many people as possible. Which means ignoring issues like antisemitic conspiracy theories or the participation of men with a history of sexual violence, not to mention the fact that they’re ‘occupying’ land which is already under colonial occupation.

This is why I’m nitpicking about occupying public spaces being a tactic and not a movement. A movement should be defined by its goals not its tactics. Personally I wouldn’t be involved in a movement unless those goals include ending racism, sexual violence and colonisation.

I know this whole rant sounds like I’m just tearing Occupy [___] to shreds when I haven’t even put any work into it. But honestly I’m only going to the trouble of saying these things because I think Occupy is exciting and inspiring and has awesome potential for liberation. This is an exciting time to be alive. People around the world, me included, are realising that we don’t have to sit alone at home feeling sad and disempowered, that lots of other people are also frustrated at the world, and that when we all get together we have power to change things.

I suspect that I don’t agree with lots of those people about what the solution is or even what the problem is (I think the problem is capitalist economics, national borders and hierarchical governments. I think the solution is a socialist economy, horizontal direct democracy and the abolition of national borders). But it’s a chance to have a dialogue about what needs to change, what the alternatives are, why different struggles are connected. It’s really important to me not to let that chance pass me by. Not because I’m too afraid to alienate other people by being open about my political opinions, and also not because I’m so jaded and cynical that I can’t be bothered engaging with anyone who doesn’t have the same political opinions as me.

Some reccomended reading:

On decolonising Wall Street:

Indian Country Today

Tequila Sovereign

Native Appropriations

On decolonising Aotearoa:

Te Wharepora Hou

Mellow Yellow

On conspiracy theories (and it includes lol cats)

On sexual violence

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Occupy what now?

  1. my early morning semi thoughts, yep, you are right about the brand stuff, but I think it goes further than just the obvious sluwalk and occupy media brands, even before that I think folks in the activist scene like to grab what ever is cool in overseas circles and adapt it here, eg FNB and ABC are two “brands” that have been tried a lot here and never really taken off, mainly cos they have been adapted from the U$A instead of coming from genuine need here. I’m not suggesting that homelessness and prison support stuff aren’t needed here, but that transplanting the form of a U$A movement is not the same as building a genuine one here.
    You also said occupy is ” a very broad struggle there’s a common tendency to silence more marginalised voices”. Of course. that is the nature of braod movements and too often we arent used to this cos we hardly ever get to be part of a broad movement. our main aim should always be to operate in these broad movements and be trying to figure out how to push them in a direction that recognises more marginalised voices.
    I’m sure you agree with this, I point it out cos often lots of activists prefer to avoid broad movements cos it is safer in our little groups. but if we want to make a revolution, our main priority should be getting involved in these broad movements, and trying to promote better politics with in them. sometimes (when dealing with nice but ignorant people) that should be done gently, other times (deliberate fuckwits), being quite forceful is the way to go. taking the easy option of avoiding these movements is always counterrevolutionary

  2. I agree that working within broad movements is neccessary to building a revolution. I also get why lots of people prefer to stay in their safe little groups. Lots of us have worked really hard to build spaces where we don’t have to deal with racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of oppression and I think it’s totally valid to choose to stay in that space. Not everyone has the time and energy to engage in political dialogue and challenge oppression — but it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

    • Mark E

      ah yes, sorry, I should correct myself, yes those safe groups are necessary and needed and if folks wanna stay in them thats fine, but they are not going to change the world without coming out and joining in those messy broad movements. so, to correct my previous comment, taking the easy option of avoiding those movements is not going to change the world, and arguing that small groups are all we need and nothing more, is counter revolutionary.

      PS now that I have used the phrase ‘counter revolutionary’ twice in a week I need to go and wash my mouth out with chocolate.

  3. occupy ak has “antisemitic conspiracy theory” idiots, men with a history of sexual violence, and people who don’t understand colonization in it, and as much as i would rather them not be there, and i hate how unsafe they make me and others feel, they need to be engaged in this dialouge too.

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