A compelling study of the spirit that drove this watershed movement, Thank You, Anarchy vividly documents how the Occupy experience opened new social and political possibilities and registered a chilling indictment of the status quo. It was the movement’s most radical impulses, this account shows, that shook millions out of a failed tedium and into imagining, and fighting for, a better kind of future.
|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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THANK YOU, ANARCHY
NOTES FROM THE OCCUPY APOCALYPSE
By NATHAN SCHNEIDER
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Nathan Schneider
All rights reserved.
SOME GREAT CAUSE
#A99 #Bloombergville #Jan25 #SolidarityWI #NYCGA #OCCUPYWALLSTREET #October2011 #OpESR #OpWallStreet #S17 #SeizeDC #StopTheMach #USDOR
Under the tree where the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was founded in 1966, on the south side of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, sixty or so people are gathered in a circle around a yellow banner that reads, in blue spray paint, "general assembly of nyc." It is Saturday, August 13, 2011, the third of the General Assembly's evening meetings.
"No cops or reporters," someone decrees at the start of the meeting. Others demand a ban on photographs.
From where I'm sitting in the back, my hand inches up, and I stand and explain that I am a writer who covers resistance movements. I promise not to take pictures.
Just then, a heavyset man in a tight T-shirt, with patchy dark hair and a beard, starts snapping photos. He is Bob Arihood, a fixture of the neighborhood known for documenting it with his camera and his blog. People shout at him to stop; he shouts back something about the nature of public space. Soon, a few from the group break off to talk things through with him, and the discussion turns back to me.
The interrogation and harrowing debate that follow are less about me, really, than about them. Are they holding a public meeting or a private one? Is a journalist to be regarded as an agent of the state or a potential ally? Can they expect to maintain their anonymity?
After half an hour, at last, I witness an act of consensus: hands rise above heads, fingers wiggle. I can stay. A little later, I see that Arihood and the people who'd gone to confront him are laughing together.
Those present were mainly, but not exclusively, young, and when they spoke, they introduced themselves as students, artists, organizers, teachers. There were a lot of beards and hand-rolled cigarettes, though neither seemed obligatory. On the side of the circle nearest the tree were the facilitators—David Graeber, a noted anthropologist, and Marisa Holmes, a brown-haired, brown-eyed filmmaker in her midtwenties who had spent the summer interviewing revolutionaries in Egypt. Elders, such as a Vietnam vet from Staten Island, were listened to with particular care. It was a common rhetorical tic to address the group as "You beautiful people," which happened to be not just encouraging but also empirically true.
Several had accents from revolutionary places—Spain, Greece, Latin America—or had been working to create ties among pro-democracy movements in other countries. Vlad Teichberg, leaning against the Hare Krishna Tree and pecking at the keys of a pink laptop, was one of the architects of the Internet video channel Global Revolution. With his Spanish wife, Nikky Schiller, he had been in Madrid during the May 15 movement's occupation at Puerta del Sol. Alexa O'Brien, a slender woman with blond hair and black-rimmed glasses, covered the Arab Spring for the website WikiLeaks Central and had been collaborating with organizers of the subsequent uprisings in Europe; now she was trying to foment a movement called US Day of Rage, named after the big days of protest in the Middle East.
That meeting would last five hours, followed by working groups convening in huddles and in nearby bars. I'd never heard young people talking politics quite like this, with so much seriousness and revelry and determination. But their unease was also visible when a police car passed and conversation slowed; a member of the Tactics Committee had pointed out that, since any group of twenty or more in a New York City park needs a permit, we were already breaking the law.
Fault lines were forming, too. Some liked the idea of coming up with one demand, and others didn't. Some wanted regulation, others revolution. I heard the slogan "We are the 99 percent" for the first time when Chris, a member of the Food Committee, proposed it as a tagline. There were murmurs of approval but also calls for something more militant: "We are your crisis." When the idea came up of having a meeting on the picket line with striking Verizon workers, O'Brien blocked consensus. She didn't want the assembly to lose its independence by siding with a union.
"We need to appeal to the right as well as the left," she said.
"To the right?" a graduate student behind me muttered. "Wow."
Just about the only thing everyone could agree on was the fantasy of crowds filling the area around Wall Street and staying until they overthrew the corporate oligarchy, or until they were driven out. As the evening grew darker, a pack of intern-aged boys walked by, looking as if they had just left a bar, and noticed the meeting's slow progress. One of them, wearing a polo shirt, held up a broken beer mug and shouted, at an inebriated pace, "If you always act later, you might forget the now!"
Bob Arihood died of a heart attack at the end of September, after he exhausted himself photographing a march from the Financial District to Union Square. By then, the idea that the General Assembly had been planning for was a reality, spreading fast. One of his photos of the meeting survives on his blog, the only picture of its kind I've found. In that cluster of people around the banner, almost everyone is looking toward the camera; a guy I now know as Richie, dressed in white, is pointing right into the lens. Some look curious, some suspicious, some scared, some indifferent. I'm barely visible in a far corner of the group.
I recognize most of the others now in a way I couldn't then. Some have had their names and faces broadcast on the news all over the world. There's the woman from LaRouchePAC with such a good singing voice, and the group who went to high school together in North Dakota. When I showed Arihood's picture to a friend, he recognized his former roommate from art school. I try to guess what the ones I know best were thinking, what it was exactly that they imagined they were doing there—so expectant, so at odds with one another, so anxious about being watched.
The saying "You had to be there" typically comes at the end of a joke that didn't get the right reaction, that set up high hopes but by the time of the punch line fell flat. If you were there, after all, you'd know that something happened that really was significant or funny or worth repeating. I keep wanting to say those words again and again about Occupy Wall Street—"you had to be there," "you had to be there!"—but I stop myself, because doing so would also be an admission of defeat. Those words are a conversation stopper. If I say them I'm giving up on even trying to convey why Occupy Wall Street was such a momentous thing and such a rare moment of political hope for us who were born during the past thirty years in the United States of America.
For nearly two months in the fall of 2011, a square block of granite and honey locust trees in New York's Financial District, right between Wall Street and the World Trade Center, became a canvas for the image of another world. In occupied Zuccotti Park, thousands of people ate, slept, met, talked, argued, read, planned, and were dragged away to jail. Many came to protest the most abstract of wrongs—the deregulation of high finance, the funding of electoral campaigns, the erosion of the social safety net, the logic of mass incarceration, the failure to address climate change—but what they found was something more tangible. There was a community in formation, which they would have a hand in forming; there was work to be done, which they would do with people and ideas that the world outside had insulated them from ever considering.
Before the occupation itself, there was a process by which a few hundred people, inspired by what they saw happening overseas, found the wherewithal to imagine, plan, and resist. After the encampment ended, the many thousands who had experienced it faced a crisis of what to do next.
Over the course of a year of being immersed in Occupy Wall Street, I saw a veil being lifted. Etymologically, the lifting of a veil is what the word apocalypse refers to; after that, one can't go back unchanged. The preceding world has passed, and a new revelation is at hand. Nobody who worked to make Occupy Wall Street happen imagined anything much like what actually did: it altered them and transformed them and messed with them. The movement's most unsettling features were often the same ones that made it work—in addition to being at fault for the extent to which the Occupy joke ended up falling flat.
But disappointment is part of any apocalypse. The fact that the most radical aspirations of Occupy Wall Street remain unrealized is also a symptom of success; images that it promulgated of shutting down Wall Street and mounting a general strike became implanted in people's minds, if even just to provide a measure of how those images failed to become manifest.
This was movement time, the nonlinear and momentous kind of temporality that the Greeks called kairos. The dumb piece of red sculpture that towers over Zuccotti Park—the "Big Red Thing"—now has in my nervous system the chill-inducing and undeserved status of Beacon of the Real, as the first thing I'd see when approaching the occupation from the subway. Under that distracting piece of corporate abstraction, a living work of art brought every aspect of life into a sharper kind of focus. It was a utopian act, but in the form of realism. With artists mainly in charge, Occupy Wall Street was art before it was anything properly organized, before it was even politics. It was there to change us first and make demands later.
And so it did. Like probably thousands of other underemployed Brooklynites who otherwise had no business being in the Financial District, I came to know that area's twisty streets like the neighborhood I grew up in. And, now, fearing that my generation might slip back into irony and apathy and unreality, I feel an urgent, evangelistic duty to record as best I can the sliver of this reality that I experienced.
What first brought me to Occupy Wall Street, in some respects, dates back to 2001. I was in high school and had an internship at Pacifica Radio in Washington DC. My first and only reporting job there was to cover a protest against the invasion of Afghanistan, just a few days before the invasion began. I followed the course of the march, and interviewed people, and wasn't sure whether I should be marching too or standing at a professional distance. It was a moderately impressive display, and yet of course the war went on.
Then, in early 2003, the same thing happened, only more so. The worldwide protests against the invasion of Iraq were the largest mobilization in history, and the war happened anyway. The newspapers hardly even noticed the opposition. A lot of us who were young enough to believe that we could turn back the bombers if our slogans were loud enough retreated into disappointment and the complacent cynicism of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But those protests lodged a question in my head: What would it have taken to make a difference? What would it have taken to capture people's imaginations and keep them from letting the politicians lead us into disaster again?
For the most part, though, I turned my attention to other things. I converted to Catholicism and studied religion. I went to graduate school and started writing for magazines. By the time the middle of 2011 came around, I was putting off finishing a quixotic book I'd been writing for years about how and why people concoct proofs about the existence of God. This put me in a fidgety mood, primed for apocalyptic distractions.
I had been watching revolutions from a distance since the beginning of the year, when people rose up and expelled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, stirring up Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, and more. Continually refreshing my social media feeds, with Al Jazeera on in the background, I tried my best to blog each day about whatever was happening in the Middle East. I wanted to understand where these movements came from, who organized them, and how. Experts in the United States were satisfied with attributing the uprisings to global food prices and Twitter, but the revolutionaries themselves didn't use the language of economic or technological determinism. In interviews, they seemed instead to talk about having rediscovered their agency, their collective power, their ability to act.
Over the summer, I attended a seminar in Boston with civil resisters from around the world. Some were still glowing from recent success, like the Egyptians who'd helped overthrow Hosni Mubarak, while others, like the Tibetan and the two from Burma, remained so far from what they longed for. They shared their goals and their strategies, as well as their sacrifices—for many of them, imprisonment and torture. They had arguments and epiphanies. They learned from what one another was doing and thinking, and grew stronger as a result.
During a break in the discussion, I noticed a photocopied essay by one of those at the seminar, a memoir of her time in the civil rights movement. The essay opened with a passage from a nineteenth-century poem born of the struggle over slavery. It described a moment arising, or a movement, in which a whole society is forced to choose where it stands: "Some great cause, God's new Messiah." When might such a moment, or a movement, come to us in the United States again? Those words became my mission.
I left that meeting with something lit up inside me. I now knew the kinds of stories I needed to learn how to tell—the stories of how people go from wanting to resist to actually doing so, of how by reasoning and creativity they learn to build power. I wasn't interested so much in reporting on more protests, coming and going with the spectacle; I wanted to experience the planning and organizing by which the spectacle, and whatever comes of it, came about. So when I returned home to New York, I started looking for the planning process of some great cause to follow and to learn from. It turned out that this would be easier than I expected—and that the spectacle would be the process itself.
Revolution didn't seem like such a crazy idea in 2011. Just a few weeks into the year, two dictators had already bowed to the power of the people. By late February, the victorious Egyptians were phoning in pizza-delivery orders to the occupied Wisconsin state capitol, in Madison. Unrest followed the summer's heat to Greece, Spain, and England. Europe's summer was Chile's winter, but students and unions rose up there too. Tel Aviv grew a tent city.
While Tahrir Square in Cairo was still full, the boutique-y activist art magazine Adbusters published a blog post imagining "A Million Man March on Wall Street." But the United States appeared to go quiet after Madison, its politics again domesticated by talk of the "debt ceiling" and the Iowa straw poll; when tens of thousands actually did march on Wall Street on May 12, few noticed and fewer remembered.
While following the march that day on Twitter from Florida, however, a thirty- two-year-old drifter using the pseudonym Gary Roland read about another action planned near Wall Street for the next month: Operation Empire State Rebellion, or OpESR. That tweet led him to a dot-commer-turned-activist-journalist named David DeGraw. DeGraw was working through the Internet entity known as Anonymous, which over the past year or two had been emerging from various cesspools online into a swarm of vigilantes for justice. With Anonymous, DeGraw had helped build safe networks for the dissidents of the Arab Spring. Since early 2010 he had also been writing about his vision of a movement closer to home, a movement in which the lower 99 percent of the United States would rebel against the rapacity and corruption of the top 1 percent. An Anonymous unit formed to organize OpESR, calling itself A99.
Through DeGraw's website, Roland helped make plans. Having recently lost his job as a construction manager for a New York real estate firm, he was familiar with the city's public spaces and the laws applying to them. He proposed that OpESR try to occupy Zuccotti Park, a publicly accessible place privately owned by Brookfield Office Properties. On June 14—Flag Day—Zuccotti Park would be its target.
Anonymous-branded videos announcing the action had begun to appear in March and got hundreds of thousands of views. Momentum seemed to be building. When the day came, though, only sixteen people arrived at Chase Manhattan Plaza, where the march to Zuccotti was to commence, and of the sixteen only four intended to occupy.
Undeterred, Roland decided to join another occupation that was beginning the same day near City Hall, a few blocks north. Organized by a coalition called New Yorkers against Budget Cuts, the so-called Bloombergville occupation would turn into a three-week stand against the city's austerity budget. It didn't seem to amount to much on its own, but it eventually proved to be another step building toward something that would.
"The attention we were able to get online," David DeGraw wrote after the flop on June 14, "obviously doesn't translate into action." Consoling himself with the thought that the attempt was at least spreading awareness, he started talking about trying again on September 10, a date chosen in deference to the Anonymous convention of operating in three-month cycles.
Excerpted from THANK YOU, ANARCHY by NATHAN SCHNEIDER. Copyright © 2013 Nathan Schneider. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsForeword: Miracles and Obstacles
SUMMER TO FALL
1. Some Great Cause
2. New Messiah
FALL TO WINTER
3. Planet Occupy
4. No Borders, No Bosses
WINTER TO SPRING
6. Diversity of Tactics
7. Crazy Eyes
SUMMER TO FALL
8. Eternal Return
Works Not Cited