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