The following is a constellation of ideas and reflections, based on recent conversations with people I care about and influenced by several books, essays, and blogs I have read recently and in the past five years. I don’t want to drop names or structure this in a formal footnoted way, so if you recognize yourself as one of the nameless friends I paraphrase, know that you touched me and influenced at least one of the stars in this amorphous little dipper. If you have talked to me on the phone, gotten a letter from me, or had the privilege of talking politics with me on whiskey in the last 3 months, then you will already be familiar with most of the subject matter. I want to write more about all of these things down the road, but for now I just need to get these words out of my brain and into the cloud.
On November 4, 2008, my best friend and I procrastinated down to our Ditmas Park polling station to cast our votes for Barack Obama, each of us admitting afterwards how dirty we felt for legitimizing a failed system, hating ourselves for being suckered by the brilliant community organizer riding that white stallion named Hope. She and I met back in 2005 at at a Brooklyn College Anti-War Coalition meeting, and worked together on countless rallies, marches, protests, forums, leaflettings, film screenings, and anything else we could possibly think of doing to put an end to the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had both considered ourselves “radicals” before the ascension of Bush II, but the new realities of a “post-9/11 world” dominated by bloodthirsty neocons, the lasting horror of Hurricane Katrina, viral pictures of dead bodies stacked and live bodies humiliated, Pizza Hut in the Green Zone, white phosphorus, and Blackwater made things immediately pressing.
In the first few months of 2003, nearly 40 million people across the globe participated in marches and demonstrations against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 40 million. The protests continued for years, and we tirelessly raged against attention spans dominated by reality TV and World of Warcraft. Well maybe not tirelessly. We and every other person involved in the anti-war movement were tired. Tired of righteously marching without having any effect on the mechanisms of war. Tired of the factions. Tired of the meetings. And then came Obama with all his hope and change in tow. We didn’t campaign for Obama, but we saw lots of the movement elders head in that direction, leaving us holding a banner in our little circle of indignation.
And it was hard not to be taken in by the hype; we all wanted to rest our weary heads on his shoulder, for him to quietly shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh into our ear, to deliver us from evil. But we watched from the sidelines, grateful for Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and the opportunity to piece together a living out of multiple precarious jobs. I shared election night with my adopted brother, the son of my adopted Brooklyn mother and political mentor. We drank beers at a bar, watching in anticipation with the entire city. And then we screamed and hugged and cried. And when Obama gave his speech, we cried more. Outside was a carnival, a parade, a riot of joy. Laughing, hugging strangers, dancing on cop cars, singing. Ding Dong the witch is dead! I let go of my lefty hangups and truly enjoyed that moment, the glorious feeling of millions of people in ecstasy at the same time. And then everyone went to sleep.
The first time I really pondered the messy disambiguation of Occupy and the 99% Movement was over an IPA, in the company of one of Occupy Seattle’s finest (and I don’t mean in the cop kinda way). It was February 2012 and I was just a month into my new job as a union organizer. We had an intense but respectful debate, the end result of which was an understanding that we might just be in separate but overlapping movements.
The growing gap between rich and poor, the upward redistribution of wealth into a tiny fraction of the world’s hands, the lack of punishment visited upon the Wall Street banks and investment firms that sent us crashing into recession: all of these things were talked about and protested by the organized left prior to Occupy, but the ideas didn’t taste like a burger and fries or have wings of desire. Occupy certainly changed that, and for the countless people unable to get to New York or Chicago or Oakland, the 99% meme created millions of circuit ways, connecting everyday people to Occupy and empowering them to articulate their relationship to capital and the state.
We are the 99%. Who are the 99%? 99% of the US population is somewhere in the ballpark of 300 million. What percent of the 99% occupied a public space? Is “the 99%” the brilliant idea of a famous anarchist, or is “the 99%” significant for its network power – an empty slogan without the participation of millions of human circuits receiving, adapting, and transmitting the messages. Does “the 99%” count if they don’t read anarchist theory? Does Occupy “own” intellectual property rights for “the 99%”, or is it an open source concept that groups and individuals that identify with the movement are free to shape?
If Occupy and The 99% Movement represent two distinct and overlapping crowds within the same swarm, do they have different functions and different goals? Is “the 99%” a group that Occupy wants to engage or organize with, or does their political investment end at representing them at protests? Should that even be a primary function of Occupy considering they don’t have the resources or capacity? Asking questions while walking. * * * * * * *We the occupiers* took space and began a warp-speed experiment of “creating a new world in the shell of the old”. I’m not sure if the element of prefigurative politics animating the reproductive labor of the camps – cooperative and collaborative, at least in theory – inspired as many people as the arrests, the signs, and the 99% meme. I do know that it was “the most important thing in the world” for those of us who left our previous lives behind to Occupy, and I wonder how much that personal experience hampers or helps our ability to keep moving…the despair we brought to the parks, the relationships we nurtured, the new existence we built around ourselves and the trauma of eviction and re-alienation; “[one] day everything was possible, the future was the present and time but a glimmer of eternity,” and the next day was…not the same as before Occupy, but some of the magic was gone. Sentimental urges can lead us to recreate the past instead of pushing onward and against all odds into the future, putting up walls to keep out new people that might muddy our memory, preventing us from seeing the risks we will need to take to keep this movement moving.