BY BRYAN PERKINS
Occupy Baton Rouge
“If you want to affect any real change, you have to work inside the system.”
There’s not a self-identified occupier who hasn’t heard these words or something to their effect. I would almost guarantee it.
Being one of those “occupiers”, I don’t agree with this assessment of the situation, not entirely at least. At the same time, I’m not writing this essay to argue against it. Instead, I’m writing to analyze the commonly accepted definition of “the system” and the repercussions of allowing the political establishment to control the terminology we use.
When this refrain is sung, it often falls from the mouth of Democrats who, not unlike concern trolls, claim they support the aims of the movement but are worried about the strategy of working “outside” the system. The problem arises then as to their misconception of what constitutes the system. This refrain is invariably followed by a chorus of vote, vote, vote. A chorus that reveals the depth of the singer’s political analysis.
“The system”, according to those who hum the tune thus described, only allows us to express ourselves once every three or so years–depending on the level and branch of government. The only thing we can do to affect it is to vote for a representative, is to play their game. Everything else is outside.
I think this a limited vision of the system. Our democratic process as it stands was not forged in the voting booths, it was forged by the masses in their workplaces and in the streets, forcing the establishment to pay attention to the very people our government was created to represent.
Women and blacks didn’t win suffrage by playing electoral politics, they won it by taking their bodies and voices directly to the people. Workers didn’t win a shorter workweek by electing a savior to think for them, they won it by shutting down their factories and reminding those in power who really makes this country run. We will not win our government by replacing one politician with another, we will do it by taking control of our own lives.
Throughout history, “the system” has been affected by more than the voting booth. Marches and protests do in fact constitute working within the democratic system. We can now see that the song we started this essay with is misguided, because we are already inside, we don’t have to move to get here.
That’s the very problem. We are too far inside. We were born inside. We grow up in the system’s schools. We are taught history according to the system. We are thus formed into the cogs and springs and gears that keep the system running.
If we ever want to make any useful, lasting change, we’re going to have to finally break out of the system. That won’t be an easy task.
I picture us as the first astronauts, born on Earth and told we will never be able to leave. After a long period of research and testing on Earth, we make our first forays outside of the atmosphere, outside of the system.
The Paris Commune! Tahrir Square! Zuccotti Park!
The experiments are relatively brief, and they always end in a return to Earth as we know it, but the experiences are invaluable. We utilize decision making methods that are unheard of within the narrow confines of the system. In doing so, we accomplish feats unimaginable and convert all those who experience the wonders of outer space to a higher level of social consciousness. Through our experiences, we learn that what we once thought was impossible only needs to be attempted again and again.
So, though I agree that we must work inside the system–since that is what we have–to reclaim our democracy, we must also take the fight into our own spaces, out among the stars, where we can shape the new possible. Only then will we come to a planet on which human needs are more important than profiteering, and only then can we imagine the structural changes that will save us all.
BY BRYAN PERKINS
Occupy Baton Rouge
In the beginning, no one knew how it all started. No one really could. I’m not even sure we’re far enough away from then to be able to say with any certainty still today. So, I’m not going to try to get things exactly right. There’s no use for that now. Instead, I want to give a brief outline of my experiences of the Occupy movement, and extrapolate from there as to where I think we need to go.
In its earliest incarnations, I heard of the movement as a planned day of rage. I was unimpressed. At this point, I was still firmly inside the machine, both body and mind. As such, I ignored that initial spark that started off the occupation of Wall Street.
For some time before Adbusters made their call to occupy in New York, Stop the Machine had been planning an occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C. These were no starry-eyed activists. They were veterans of anti-war protesting, and veterans of wars, and they were composed of an advanced layer of the working class. In October of 2011 their occupation started and it has not stopped to this day. But, the mainstream media didn’t care about them. They had been rabble rousing for years by that time. Much too long for cable TV’s attention span.
About a month earlier, a small group of anarchists set up camp in Zuccoti park. It wasn’t their first choice of sights, and it wasn’t their only option that first day, but that’s how history played out. In the beginning, they too were ignored.
Some time passed, and those anarchists were still in the park. In fact, their numbers had grown. The police started to take notice, and the media tagged along. Soon, everyone was following the story, especially after the first two activists were subjected to unnecessary force in the form of pepper spray to the face.
Not too long after that, I was clicking around reddit and someone mentioned that they wanted to start up Occupy Baton Rouge. I might have literally laughed out loud. I definitely posted a comment saying it would never happen here, we are too deep in the south for anything like that to work.
Luckily, whoever came up with the idea–I think it was Chris–wasn’t daunted. He came right back asking why I thought not. After a few more comments back and forth, I realized that the only reason it wouldn’t happen is if we didn’t do it. So, from then on out I was dedicated to making Occupy Baton Rouge a success. I was officially a part of the Occupy movement.
As we fought our own personal ups and downs in Baton Rouge, the entire movement, nationally and internationally, faced similar–if not worse–adversity. There were attempts to thwart the movement, not just from police, politicians, and provocateurs, but from the media as well. It’s this very attack by the media that inspired this essay.
From day one there was a single talking point repeated by every mainstream, corporate news source no matter which capitalist political party they appeared to support. “The Occupy movement has no demands. They don’t know what they want.”
This is when the game began.
Before then, I, and many people like me, believed there were two sides to the mainstream media. The right and the left. Fox News and CNN. Glenn Beck and someone else, I don’t even care to remember their names anymore. What a lot of people learned from this experience was that they were only two wings of the same avaricious beast.
And so, with a new threat to the status quo afoot in these anarchists sleeping in a park, a threat that required a different tactic than the ignorance that had been working with the anti-war activists who had started fighting long before Occupy became a meme, the entire corporate media machine banned together to spin a tale of a movement with a thousand problems and no solutions.
Cornered as we were, and I do mean we because I include myself in this criticism, we went on the defensive. We rushed the process of filtering through the problems of hundreds of thousands of distressed working class citizens, who finally found some camaraderie in realizing they weren’t alone in their recognition of the flaws of our political-economic system, and in doing so, we managed to find one problem, one cause, that we thought everyone could rally around. We found the solution the media was begging us for and we shouted it from the rooftops: Money has too much influence on politics!
With our new banner flying overhead, we clung to easy-to-digest, tweet-sized buzzwords that supported the one singular cause we could agree on and get the media to follow.
End corporate personhood! Reinstate Glass-Steagall! Overturn Citizen’s United!
We started playing by their rules, the very thing we tried so hard to avoid. We dropped our other complaints, and some of our other activists with them, along the way. We weren’t coopted by MoveOn or the Democratic party, sure, but we were coopted by the media machine. We fell into their trap. They knew we were dangerous when we were allowing all the problems to froth out of the oppressed masses, when we understood that they are all interrelated, that the solution must be equally complicated. They couldn’t let that go on, so they focused our ire on one issue and one issue alone. To dissipate our initial energy.
That is where we are today. We’re playing their game and losing. We can only lose if we continue to play their game. It’s rigged that way.
Instead, we must return to the roots of the movement. Not just the anarchist space-making that gave it its media hype–which is nevertheless still important–but to all that activism that before and since has helped to build the Occupy movement, that has lent it experienced guidance, and that has revelled in its ability to finally inject some young, new life into the working class movement, into the antiwar movement, into the feminist movement, the lgbt movement, environmentalism, anti-capitalism of all sorts. We must return to all those long ignored philosophies that advocate for humans in general, not the privileged few.
Until then, we’re just playing their game. And that’s a game we can only lose.
BY BEN VITELLI
Occupy Baton Rouge
People can’t seem to stop eulogizing the Occupy Movement.
Since the eviction of the protestors at Freedom Plaza last November, it’s become a media cliché to report on the “Death of Occupy.” Articles pop up all over the web, blithely reporting on the failed second wind of Occupy, this lackluster “American Spring,” and the May Day general strike that didn’t quite shut the system down.
It should be no surprise that the mainstream media is eager to report on Occupy’s supposed demise. Even ignoring the fact that the corporate-owned media has a strong desire to never see social movements such as Occupy succeed, the media, as a rule, generally needs to put a dramatic narrative to everything it reports. To them, every story ought to have a captivating story arch with a beginning, middle, and an end.
In the media’s eyes, the story that was Occupy began when the magazine Adbusters put out a call to Occupy Wall Street on September 17. Many people heeded the call, yet, according to the media’s story, the movement only received its dramatic momentum when cops were photographed attacking and pepper-spraying the nonviolent protestors. It reached its early demise when the police violently cleared out the various encampments. Now, except for a few curmudgeons who can’t seem to understand that Occupy is over, all that remains of Occupy is its populist rhetoric of the 99%—which has been dutifully hawked up by Democratic front-groups such as MoveOn.org to help refuel the Obama election machine.
This popular narrative of Occupy, with its clear-cut beginning, middle, and end, has been so successful that even those who are still active within the Occupy movement can’t help but absorb parts of it. Lately, many General Assemblies sometimes border on something closely resembling a public support group. On the internet, vaguely self-congratulatory Paul Krugman-y articles, applauding Occupy for “at least shifting the public dialogue,” are posted and reposted to different Occupy-related Facebook groups to remind each other that Occupy at least had a little bit of an effect.
All that’s left for Occupy to do, then, is to sit around, waiting for the Next Big Protest–where peaceful protestors will, again, be filmed brutalized by all-too-eager to attack police officers. And then, after that, to hold their nose and vote in November, hoping that after Obama is reelected and, once again, dashes away all of his campaign promises about Hope and Change, people will remember that passively investing their hopes in politicians is a death sentence. Then they’ll take to the streets again, starting the process all over.
In the United States, we tend to view history as something other people (usually white, upper class men) did long ago, not something we all actively participate in on a day to day basis. In school textbooks, we were taught that the American Revolution was the accomplishment of a few incredibly enlightened, well-educated men. We forget that it took hundreds of thousands of people—especially
young people, women, and working class men–to support and spread the ideas of democracy throughout the colonies.
The problem with how we view Occupy, then, is very similar. We tend to see Occupy as a spectacle taking place at a distance by people very unlike ourselves. Brutal police officers and their photogenic victims, Occupy-friendly celebrities and artists, black block style anarchists, and our cities’ despotic mayors are the characters in this drama who elaborately battle it out for headlines on the stage of our trash-strewn cities. Like most stories we find captivating as Americans, Occupy has become a newspaper story of violence, celebrity and corruption.
By accepting this view of Occupy, we accept at face value much of what Occupy fought against. This popular narrative of Occupy teaches us that only through violence (whether by smashing a window of a Starbucks or by getting smashed in the face by a cop on a rampage) will we bring attention to our cause—preferably the attention of trend-setting celebrities or some not-entirely-out-of-touch politician.
The true magic of Occupy was that it rejected all of these things. No one had any more power than anyone else at the General Assemblies or in the encampments. At the beginning, nobody in Occupy really cared that we were ignored by the mainstream media. We don’t need a bunch of hacks at Time Magazine to commend us for our ability to protest. The only reason we received such a burst of tepidly-favorable attention from the mainstream media and their star politicians, anyways, was because they sensed a loss of legitimacy if they continued to ignore us. And, besides, the goal was never to get them to take a step back and view what their out-of-touch policies have done to the rest of us in the first place. The parasitic 1% couldn’t care less what happens to the rest of us, so long as we don’t openly revolt.
The goal of Occupy was to get together as a community of equals, to claim a future different than the ones they gave us, and to reignite a tradition of democratic progress that reaches back far into our history. The goals of the slowly evolving Occupy movement were something of an experiment. It was a way of exploring new ways of interacting with others. Of showing each other that we can do very fine without the 1%, thank you very much.
Shrugging off Occupy as a momentary fad or a leftist pipedream is to do a disservice to both Occupy and our collective yearning for a more legitimate community. When Occupy began, there was a feeling in the air that another world was not only possible, but that it was possibly inevitable. Our isolation and alienation no longer seemed like an unbridgeable gap:
“Separations are broken down. Personal problems are transformed into public issues; public issues that seemed distant and abstract become immediate practical matters. The old order is analyzed, criticized, satirized. People learn more about society in a week than in years of academic “social studies” or leftist “consciousness raising.” Long repressed experiences are revived. Everything seems possible — and much more is possible. People can hardly believe what they used to put up with in “the old days.” (Ken Knabb, The Joy of Revolution)
Since those days, over 7,200 Occupy protestors have been arrested in the United States. Many have been beaten and tortured. The media has been strong-armed into not reporting on Occupy except in an unfavorable light, and non-participants (but potential sympathizers) are encouraged to sarcastically roll their eyes at those silly protestors who just don’t seem to get it. In light of all this demoralization, Occupy protestors are left wondering what it was all about, grasping at easy explanations for their continued movement such as “shifting the national dialogue” or hoping that this next week’s protest might suddenly convince the powers that be to change their corrupt ways.
While I’m certainly happy that the “national dialogue” has “shifted” (I no longer feel like a crazy person babbling away about economic injustice), celebrating the fact that Obama now has to pretend to give a shit and Romney must now pretend to be human is an incredibly hopeless prospect. This “national dialogue” we speak about is not something that happens when we reach critical mass and the media and the politicians can no longer afford to ignore us. It’s a continued conversation that reverberates among the masses. It’s a process of teaching one another, of questioning the status quo and debating the proper course of action—it’s the sound of agreements and disagreements among individuals who view each other as human beings. It’s the sound of people sharing their visions of a better society and realizing their common goals.
It needs to be remembered that the word “occupy” is a verb. It’s a call to action, not the action itself. The word “occupy” was useful for getting individuals and organizations previously isolated or focused on one-issue grievances out into the streets. Whether the individuals involved wanted to merely overturn Citizens United or overthrow the entire capitalist system itself, Occupy was the first all-encompassing protest movement to occur within many of our lifetimes. Whether or not the word “Occupy” continues to be the word to describe this movement is not important. What is important is that there’s wide community of opposition being formed across many social barriers, and those who hold power are very afraid.