11 November 2011

The Open Letter to the Occupy Movement

I've been scarce on this blog for a few weeks. I've been busy dealing with Occupy Las Vegas, which is deeply problematic. I'm not going to air the dirty laundry here, not because I don't want to, but because I don't know how. More than being busy, engaging with this movement has been baffling and I've had enormous trouble coming to any analytical conclusions. My initial post about the history of the tactic was mostly just chronicling and name checking, which is easy but does little to move forward our understanding. I don't think that I'm alone in this bewildered speechlessness, and I think the awkwardness between the left and the occupy movement is in fact a crucial object for analysis.

I'm going to have a longer piece coming out in the Hypocrite Reader about this topic but I wanted to explore a genre of this awkwardness that won't make it into the article here. That's the genre of the open letter.

There are a few key examples of this to discuss. The first is a letter that came out early in the movement from the anarchist collective Crimethinc entitled "Dear Occupiers: A Letter from Anarchists." It has been the most widely circulated of a number of anarchist open letters. A quick search for "occupy letter" on indymedia brings up letters to occupy San Diego, Bristol, Chicago, and Portland. Following the Oakland general strike and day of action on November 2nd, the Bay area indymedia site had numerous letters from various parts of the protests to other parts.

The Crimethinc letter, with its characteristic quality design, lays down some very basic political points; a sense of history asserting that "occupation is nothing new," attention to the diversity of social subjectivities claiming that "The '99%' is not one social body, but many," the imperative to be radical (etymologically) in our critique explaining that "the crisis is not the result of the selfishness of a few investment bankers; it is the inevitable consequence of an economic system," and the need to be open to a diversity of tactics including property destruction (understandable considering Crimethinc's affinity with black bloc tendencies). The tone of the letter is up-beat but authoritative and the message is clear, "we've been at this a long time, let us show you the ropes."

The distance expressed here is not entirely surprising considering the tradition of anarchists imagining themselves exterior to the masses. It is surprising because so many anarchists were involved in the origin of the occupy movement. Adbusters, who made the original call, is an anarchist project, prominent anarchist David Graeber has touted his involvement in the beginnings of the movement, and the wave of university occupations in 2009, which in many ways introduced the verb "occupy" to radical circles, was championed by grad students of varying proximity to anarchism autonomist, insurrectionist and "electro-communist."  For such a central pillar of North American anarchism like Crimethinc to need to engage with this movement through an "open letter," and to sign it "from anarchists" is bewildering. The strange spot anarchists have found themselves as if they were parents. For anarchists the movement is a child who has matured into a dim reflection of oneself. This may be changing as certain encampments develop (see Cindy Milstein's interview on Against the Grain) but not at others (see an anarchist report from Occupy Denver).

There have been letters that do not come from such a clear ideological background, but that does not mean they don't share the same awkwardness around the movement. Vancouver-based activist Harsha Walia posted an open letter to the Canadian activist site rabble.ca. It was her way of reaching out with what she thought were some needed and supporting critiques. Just like the Crimethinc letter, her points are largely explications of basic principles rather than pointed criticisms. For example she advises the movement against being too forgiving toward the police, stating that, "One lesson that I can offer is for the Occupy Together movement to learn about police violence and police infiltration. In some cities, Occupy organizers have actively collaborated with police and sought permission from police and local governments to carry forward their activities. There is only one way to say this: the police cannot be trusted."

The fact that marginalized communities are at the front lines of police brutality and that movements have faced intentional opposition from authorities isn't anything new to an activist. She brings it up of course because the movement is mostly not composed of activists, but of ordinary folks fresh to politics. What's more striking however is that she would have to address this lesson to the movement as if it's exterior to the wisdom and experience of activists. When integrating new folks into organizing you have to always re-teach lessons and re-tell stories, but it's always as our knowledge. An organizer would not stand in front of a room of workers and say "you guys should remember that labor leaders of the past had to fight for the weekend," they'd say "our predecessors fought for the weekend."

What's so strange about both Crimethinc's letter and Walia's is that activist and folks on the left would have to use so blunt and distancing a genre as an "open letter" to the movement. It indicates to me that the movement doesn't fit into the discursive and practical strategies of the current left. All we have are broad and basic statements to an undefined audience.

This however isn't only a liability, but is also part of the movement's strength. The last instance of the open letter I want to bring up is from the Oakland Police Officers Association. Released the day before the November 2nd general strike, the letter tries to explain to the citizens of Oakland the awkward spot the police find themselves in. "As your police officers, we are confused," it says. They were told to remove protesters one day, then the next they were told not to, and then the city tells its staffers that they may leave work the day of the strike if they wish. The police want to act as the clear physical manifestation of the will of the state, but in the face of the occupy movement the state itself seems dumbfounded. In a city like Oakland saving face with the liberal establishment is as crucial as creating a "good business climate."

What perhaps confuses the cops more is who they should tell about their confusion. The letter is addressed to "the Citizens of Oakland," which certainly does include the police officers, but the letter includes numerous places where they struggle to include themselves in their audience. The letter opens with "We represent the 645 police officers who work hard every day to protect the citizens of Oakland. We, too, are the 99% fighting for better working conditions, fair treatment and the ability to provide a living for our children and families. We are severely understaffed with many City beats remaining unprotected by police during the day and evening hours," and ends with "We love Oakland and just want to do our jobs to protect Oakland residents." This dance may be slightly disingenuous, but it demonstrates the difficulty with identifying who in fact one would speak to about who whole occupy thing.

The confusion of what the social subject is behind the occupy movement should not be seen as a failing. Rather I take it as an indication of how early we are in the process of social transformation. For now folks fighting for social change have trouble seeing themselves as part of one movement and those who have been struggling do not identify with the new mass movements that are arriving. It's hard to exist in this indeterminate space and be patient for some clarity, but we have to. Committing to the confusing and uncomfortable present is not only the way to reach a more mature moment, it's also our only option.

1 comment:

  1. One way to get a handle on the phenomenon, if not in what direction it might develop, is to try to figure out what's motivating people. Do you have a sense of what's attractive about this for those who aren't already ideologically committed? I've been seeing an increasing number of commentators arguing that Occupy represents a complete rejection of the established political economy as hopelessly corrupted. Then there's the related idea that "People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something." So it's an attempt, perhaps naive or perhaps just desperate, to imagine a different society.

    On the other hand, if you look at We are the 99 percent, the predominant sentiment seems to be "we worked hard and still got screwed - things just aren't fair", which is maybe more conservative in substance if not in political implications. Do any of these impressions strike you as particularly fitting what's motivating the people you've been meeting?