Another Occupy is Possible

A guest post by Levi Jacobs.

black marker, brown cardboard, red flags, blue jeans

sage, cigarettes, sweat mix with city smog and fried food:

in a circle we stand, breaths fogging, arms raised,

lie fragile under layers of tarp, blanket and winter night,

layers of poverty, police, and political scrutiny–

the sun sets fire to polluted streams, raises

factory stacks like charred fingers clutching sky:

powerlessness and power war in the returned Gaze of the cops,

antipathy, anger, appreciation in the honks of passing cars,

(never) doubting a small group of people can change the world.

Occupy is on our minds. With the May issue of American Ethnologist featuring articles on Occupy, and the New York Times noting recent social science interest in the movement, Occupy seems back on the anthropological radar—just as it is dropping off many screens outside academia. While this may just be a symptom of the speed with which our research and publishing tends to move, I’d argue there’s a better reason why anthropologists are researching and writing on Occupy. Early on, we maybe all felt we knew what it was about: economic inequality, the bailout of the rich, the newly-homeless foreclosed-on middle class and a permanent protest of all this, starting with Zucotti Park. As Occupy encampments sprung up nationally, then internationally, then started to get closed down, many of us became less and less certain of what Occupy is really about—homeless issues? Direct democracy? The banking system, or capitalism in general? Reform or revolution? It’s difficult to get a read on Occupy, not only because the interests of ‘the ninety-nine percent’ seem so broad, but also because there are multiple ninety-nine percents, with each Occupy locality made up of local people working autonomously on local issues, as well as translocal ones they might share with the larger Occupy movement. Is it even a movement? Towards what? Even locally, the diversity of concerns, goals and people involved in Occupy make this a hard question to answer.

That’s where anthropology comes in. The articles in this month’s American Ethnologist do a good job of talking about issues in two Occupy localities—Ljubljana, Slovenia (Razsa and Kurnik) and Boston, Massachusetts (Juris)—as well as their implications for Occupy taken more broadly. As part of a seminar on research methods, three colleagues—Dani Merriman, Meryleen Mena and Willi Lempert—and I worked this spring to understand them within Occupy Denver, asking in what ways Occupy Denver could be called “the 99%,” and seeking participants’ visions of success for the movement.

What we found was a divide between participants who defined success in terms of particular social/political goals, and those who saw success as bringing in more people, moving Occupy Denver closer to being the literal 99% they thought was needed for real change. The goals of the first group varied widely, from stopping environmentally-damaging mining corporations to promoting ethnic and gender equality, and tended to have local as well as translocal foci. Both these versions of success reveal an underlying struggle I argue is central to Occupy’s future viability—the struggle to move from what many see as a white, middle-class movement to one of the 99%, including historically marginalized people and their concerns alongside the newly-disenfranchised. In the case of those concerned with particular issues, these were often issues affecting populations other than middle-class white folks; for those wanting to increase the numbers of the movement, there was a sense that Occupy actions wouldn’t really be successful until they included a much broader swath of the Denver population. What is needed is not just class consciousness—it’s ethnicity, race, gender, age, queer, native, historical, pan-class consciousness of the issues that have so far kept the poorer 99% of Denver citizens from working together for a more equitable society.

Is this possible? I would like to say yes, and many Occupiers do, but it hasn’t happened yet. Many of our informants felt marginalized or excluded by others in Occupy Denver, some uncomfortable identifying as part of the movement, others asserting they would leave if things didn’t improve. Because of lingering gendered, hierarchical, etc. thinking in the movement, it’s easy to dismiss the entire project as doomed to failure—but I think this is a mistake. What we saw in Occupy Denver is not a status, but a process, a gradual coming to consciousness of people who originally joined the movement for much different reasons, as they come to understand the positions and problems of their social ‘others,’ and own their part in these. Eloquent witness to this is the older white man who spoke at an Indigenous Activist Teach-In. He said he wasn’t raised aware of or concerned about marginalized groups, but now felt “we need to support the gays, the blacks, and the Indians.” Far from politically correct (and certainly not representative of most Occupiers), he is nevertheless closer than he was pre-Occupy—and his presence at an Occupy teach-in alone speaks volumes. Education towards consciousness of the 99% happens in more informal spaces too—in speeches and people’s mics, discussions during General Assemblies, conversations had before and after events, or sitting around encampments, when they were the norm—Occupy Denver’s is one of the last remaining, scheduled for illegality May 29th. With or without encampments, Occupy continues, and central to the process in Denver is nurturing consciousness of what it means to chant ‘We are the 99%.’

Is this messy, multi-faceted process, then, a movement? Towards what? From research in Denver, at least, I would argue it is—not yet a movement towards any one or several particular things, but a movement together, towards a political and social body conscious of itself in ways US citizens never have been before. Forget about the encampment—this is Occupy’s real experiment, getting the 99% to agree on more than their disagreement.

It’s not there yet. It may never be. Trying to be a movement of the 99% means nothing less than the collective overcoming of the Differences we anthropologists have fetishized since the discipline’s inception. Yet this may be what really needs to happen—it may be what is happening. So we can’t write off Occupy yet. If anything, as one of the greatest social experiments of our time, anthropologists need to be writing more on it.

Levi Jacobs is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Colorado. Interested in intersections of spirituality and conflict, he researches Pentecostal Christianity and spiritual rehabilitation practices in northern Uganda. www.levijacobs.com

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

17 thoughts on “Another Occupy is Possible

  1. Well, there is an emerging (still interim) International Organization for a Participatory Society which aims at solving the difficulties you have brought up in the article. (www.iopsociety.org)
    Among the interim committeemen there are David Graeber and Noam Chomsky.

  2. Occupy is emergent and fractal. What Occupy is and what it is about depends, like all fractals, on the scale at which you want to explore it.

  3. Surface-level research at one ‘encampment’ is not enough to make broad-based generalizations about the movement as a whole and the inclusion or exclusion of certain groups may speak more to the city than the idea that has been put forth by various other groups as a collective whole.

    Here in Miami, for example, we had speakers from WeCount (an im/migrant worker group in Homestead), PowerU (community organizers in Miami’s historic and mostly black Overtown neighborhood), R.Y.P.E (a feminist group made up of a large number of radicals), Miami Autonomy and Solidarity (an anarchist group made up of people from a variety of ethnicities, genders, and sexualities), OneStruggle (an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist group), Food Not Bombs (who also spoke of local issues with government relating to the homeless), and various others. When we marched there were black and pink (queer anarchism), black and red (communist and syndicalist anarchism), and black and green (green anarchism) flags flying along side American flags. During the N17 call for action Occupy Miami teamed up with various community groups as well as labor unions. Other cities will be different based on the diversity of the population. I can support the gay rights movement, and I do, but because I am not in that struggle I can never be a part of it. That is not my struggle to be a part of. If there are not enough vocal queer activists in your city it certainly doesn’t mean that queer rights groups are left out of Occupy.

    The Occupy movement is essentially limitless due to the lack of a political line and a diversity of backgrounds and struggles. Revolutionary or reformist, right or left libertarian, those distinctions aren’t for the Occupy movement to make and people looking for them will always be disappointed with what they find. Occupy has brought people together like few other mass movements have in recent years. Folks have gone from feeling disempowered to having large networks of people to contact with the same grievances as them.

    To say what the Occupy movement is about, what its problems are, and what its goals are shouldn’t be left for anthropologists to decide. It won’t be decided at one general assembly either. If there is a movement has embraced the fact that there is no one struggle but that there are common problems that many struggles face, it is Occupy. Ultimately, that is about as purposeful as the movement will get. If you want absolutes you’d have to look at the various caucuses and affinity groups which have come together or talk to the already existing organizations about the impact Occupy has had and them. You’d probably be surprised by what you find.

  4. DWP,

    While that is true, it also doesn’t mean that they don’t. Being a member of a typically disempowered group does not mean you are automatically powerless. Especially in a city where you have queer black women making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Sure, they may be involved in a struggle, but it’s one few activists care about.

    Here in Miami Occupy has gone a different direction it seems. We rarely meet or organize a OM anymore but come together to support the causes of various groups.

    My whole point is no one location is representative of Occupy as a whole and making sweeping generations without looking at other issues makes no sense. This is where everything I have read falls short.

  5. Josh, not really sure what in my comment you are disagreeing with. I certainly did not say that being a member of a traditionally marginalized group means one is totally powerless. In fact, that is quite a leap from what your wrote, which actually did not imply such a totalizing generalization. I was simply pointing out that having speakers from traditionally disenfranchised groups does not automatically mean that certain power asymmetries or the dominance of certain groups are not also existing and being reproduced. Not sure what there actually is to take issue with in my stating this, or how one then concludes that I am saying that (individuals from) traditionally disenfranchised groups are totally powerless.

  6. Correction, the sentence should read: In fact, that is quite a leap from what I wrote, which actually did not imply such a totalizing generalization.

  7. Also, Josh, can you please clarify the following as I am a bit lost and not quite sure how it relates to my comment and the post it linked to:
    “Especially in a city where you have queer black women making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Sure, they may be involved in a struggle, but it’s one few activists care about.”

    What queer black women making hundreds of thousands of dollars are you referring to? I’m rather confused on this reference.

  8. DWP,

    I don’t disagree with you. I can clarify the other point later but it’s a Miami specific reference.

  9. My initial impression of the Occupy movement was that it was the rather noble quest to force a tax increase on the super-rich – something that would never happen without such a display of will and action. That seemed like the aim, and it’s a really good one, and would doubtless benefit American society a great deal.

    But it seemed like that aim fell by the wayside, and the whole thing turned into Generic Left-Wing Protest ™, with just about everybody turning up and transforming the thing into a cavalcade of flags, slogans, and groups using the popularity of the movement to induce adrenaline-soaked protest-neophytes to join their ranks. Protesting has the incredible ability to create pseudo-consensus, and that seems to be what happened with Occupy (c). The raise-taxes thing was lost in everybody trying to push Occupy in different directions, believing that that was what everybody else wanted.

    The Occupy movement is essentially limitless due to the lack of a political line and a diversity of backgrounds and struggles.

    Probably true. And that’s not good. It should have been precise, focused, and based on a single issue. Which it was, for all of five minutes. This is the pseudo-consensus problem: everybody in the protest overrates everybody else’s agreement with their position. Everyone thinks that everyone else is there for their pet activism. So Occupy turned into nothing – just a loud flash in the pan. I expect the internet is to blame; Stonewall would probably have been attended by anarchists if the internet had been around to publicise it, and as happened with Occupy, that would have cheapened and destroyed the point of it all.

    I wholeheartedly support gay rights, and civil rights for all people for that matter. It’d be really weird not to. But I don’t see why gay rights should be included at all in the Occupy movement, which was about taxation. You’ve got to choose your battles.

    Those are just my personal views from across the pond.

    Why is this a thing anthropologists are discussing, by the way? There’s a whole discipline devoted to understanding industrial and post-industrial societies. I realise that there isn’t a solid line of any kind between anthropology and sociology, and that in really getting to grips with humans you’ve got to make sense of both areas of expertise, but I’m not sure there’s much to be added by anthropologists, of all people, to one of the biggest long-term news stories of recent times, and one of the most studied. Especially when there are hundreds of un-studied human societies throughout the world, places ethnographers have never been and which are changing fast. Division of labour?

  10. Al West,

    Occupy from the very beginning was never based on a single issue. Media reporting of the subject has been terrible since September of last year and continues to be so. People made assumptions based on what they wanted Occupy to be and when they found out it wasn’t they complained that whatever group they disagree with destroyed it. Anarchists get the brunt of this blame even though they have clearly been in the minority at every event I’ve been to that has been Occupy related, even the ones organized by anarchists.

    BTW, it was never ONLY about taxation. Taxes may have been a part of it but they were not the only part or even a dominant part. If anything Occupy was simply about equity and it remains so, just with some groups pushing that more toward equality.

    It continues to amaze me that people who have little to no direct experience on a subject, and that this is happening on an anthropology blog, though not solely here, seem to be authorities in it. Is Occupy about civil rights? Yes. Is it about social justice? Yes. Is it about environmental justice? Yes. Is it part of the alter-globalization movement? Yes. It is about all of these things because these are all things that affect the general population. Maybe when people stop trying to categorize and essentialize the movement and actually start looking at what its about, maybe even get involved at an intimate level, it will be obvious why Occupy doesn’t have and shouldn’t have a political line. Maybe they will realize that separate issues are tackled by the various caucuses and affinity groups with the support of the larger group they are apart of. Maybe they will realize that most (but not all) of the items sold with Occupy related insignia go to legal funds to make sure people get out of jail, or go to help groups such as Food Not Bombs who have been providing food for most of the encampments, or go to fund buses to help people get across the country for different events.

  11. Especially when there are hundreds of un-studied human societies throughout the world, places ethnographers have never been and which are changing fast.

    Hmm. Al West, if the societies you mention are un-studied then how could we know that they are changing fast? Fast compared to what? Would a transformed society still beckon an anthropologist’s gaze?

  12. Hmm. Al West, if the societies you mention are un-studied then how could we know that they are changing fast?

    There’s “terra incognita” and then there’s “un-studied”. Some societies exist that are terra incognita; their languages are unknown, their social structural forms are unknown, they don’t trade with anyone. There are a few societies in Brazil and New Guinea like that, of course, and in Brazil, at least, the law and FUNAI prevent them from being contacted until they decide to do it themselves. So that’s one kind of lack of study.

    But most of the un-studied groups are part of state societies – they trade with the outside world and have often done so for centuries, they may even pay taxes and adhere to laws. But their languages and social structural forms have never been recorded; their rituals have never been observed by an ethnographer. Gregory Forth’s book “Dualism and Hierarchy” was the first ever ethnography of Keo people in south Flores, and it was published in 2001 (IIRC). There are many parts of Indonesia, the Philippines, New Guinea, Peru, Brazil, etc, that have never been visited for more than a few weeks by a trained ethnographer.

    So we know their societies are often changing fast because they’re in contact with the world. Their lives have never been studied by any ethnographers, however. And there does seem to be a difference.

    As for whether anthropologists should study them when they’re fully integrated into democratic states with internet and market economics, of course they should. But you’d learn a lot less from them about the human diversity of planet earth, for a pretty obvious reason.

    Anyway.

    Josh,

    I didn’t claim to be an expert, and I didn’t note much more than you said in your initial post. You said that Occupy seemed to start with a relatively clear aim, and then it diversified. You seemed to think that this was a good thing despite acknowledging the failure of the movement to accomplish any aim. I disagree with that assessment. The reason it failed was precisely the diversity of aims. The campaign for African-American civil rights had one major aim and a variety of methods. The UK campaign for libel reform has one clear aim and a variety of methods. Gandhi’s protests used a variety of methods to achieve one aim.

    But Occupy became a movement that was about its method. Occupy was the street protest. And look at the magical thinking of so many participants! “We just need more people, and then change will occur.” It reminded me a great deal of Harvey Whitehouse’s Inside the Cult. Occupy’s success doesn’t depend on having a really, really super-diverse rainbow coalition of voices speaking in unison on every issue blighting America. I don’t think any protest has been successful that has tried to do this, and it is probably impossible to achieve anyway.

  13. The Wisconsin uprising had a broad base, but the tiny “occupy” demonstration in NYC (a couple thousand folks) suggests the problem: The working class (often union workers) stayed home.

    The question of why the “blue dog” Democrat refused to bark is the real story of the “occupy” movement.

    and by the way, both the article and the commenters are quite condescending.

    For example, This described a meeting in Denver, and we are supposed to believe this guy who never cared a fig about the poor was suddenly enlightened:

    “….Eloquent witness to this is the older white man who spoke at an Indigenous Activist Teach-In. He said he wasn’t raised aware of or concerned about marginalized groups, but now felt “we need to support the gays, the blacks, and the Indians.””

    Presumably the poor “indigenous” were now grateful that there actually exists a white man who is concerned about them. (not).

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