Books

Thank You Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse

Occupy Wall Street posed legal, moral, strategic, and political dilemmas about the meaning of free speech.
The following are excerpts from the new bookThank You Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypseby Nathan Schneider (University of California Press, 2013):
 
Planet Occupy 
 
There was this moment, while I was standing on the steps of the New York County Supreme Court building overlooking Foley Square, when things came together right in front of me. It was October 5, the day of the first big march when organized labor turned out in support of Occupy Wall Street. A few thousand union members, students, and allies were rallying in the square when a few thousand marchers from Liberty Square poured in from the north end on Worth Street. They kept coming, riverlike, and it seemed as if they’d never stop.
 
In the union crowd, people held mainly matching, printed signs. Among the Occupiers, the signs were mostly hand-scrawled on the cardboard pizza boxes that were so plentiful at the plaza. The distinction couldn’t have been clearer. Leading the way was a big banner that I’d seen arrive at Liberty fresh from the printer the night before: “occupy everything,” it said.
 
There’s a memory I have of being a little kid—sitting on one of those orange seats on the Metro in DC, I think—and wondering, What will my generation do? It seemed to me then, there, before that crowd, that I might be looking at the answer. The trouble was knowing what it really was, or what it meant.
 
What it meant should have been obvious: why do you think a bunch of angry Americans would be making a fuss at the exact center of their country’s concentrated wealth and reckless corruption? Yet the more that pundits and their adherents on the outside talked about it, the more they kept harping on the absence of something like the “one demand” that Adbusters had initially recommended, especially one that would fit cleanly into the poisonous discourse in which politics supposedly begins and ends with what politicians are willing to talk about.
 
“How many politicians does it take to change a light bulb?” went a joke Jason Ahmadi told, with slurred words but clear meaning.
 
“Ha! Politicians don’t change anything!”
 
 
The fact was, even though no single policy proposal had been raised by the Occupiers as a whole, by the end of September the General Assembly had approved two significant documents about what it stood for, which were also indicative of the experience of the occupation for those taking part. These were almost completely ignored, however, by the critics who kept demanding demands.
 
“This is not about the demands,” said a facilitator at a GA meeting on September 26. “The demands will come. It’s about the beautiful thing we’re doing here.”
 
The demand, so far, was simply the right to carry out a process—one in which people could speak and money could not. You wouldn’t hear people on the plaza discussing whatever bill happened to be before Congress or the latest presidential talking point. They were deciding not between choices presented by corporate-sponsored politicians but among choices that seemed reasonable to them, on their terms.
 
On September 23, a statement called Principles of Solidarity passed by consensus in the General Assembly as a working draft . (Th is qualification was important again, process.) In its preamble, the Principles stated a complaint about “the blatant injustices of our times perpetuated by the economic and political elites.” The principles themselves, though, were all matters of method:
 
• Engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy;
• Exercising personal and collective responsibility;
• Recognizing individuals’ inherent privilege and the influence it has on all
interactions;
• Empowering one another against all forms of oppression;
• Redefining how labor is valued;
• The sanctity of individual privacy;
• The belief that education is a human right; and
• Endeavoring to practice and support wide application of open source.

***

Sanctuary

Police crackdowns were sweeping Occupy sites around the United States in those days, and all the horror stories made it hard to remember the euphoria with which the movement had begun in September. To return there, I’d sometimes rewatch Iva Radivojevic and Martyna Starosta’s short online video We the People Have Found
Our Voice, filmed during the General Assembly meeting at Liberty Plaza on the evening of September 27.
 
Over the din of voices, the roving focus of Radivojevic and Starosta’s lens passes across nighttime scenes of Occupiers sleeping in bags, of drums, of eating, of hundreds gathered together in one conversation. Then we hear those words through the people’s mic: “We the people. We the people! Have found our voice. Have found our voice!”
 
The thought of court-approved riot police demolishing encampments, juxtaposed with the Occupiers’ constitutional cry of self-empowerment, suggests the extent to which Occupy Wall Street was posing legal, moral, strategic, and political dilemmas about the meaning of free speech. This tension birthed a minor growth industry, especially among legal working groups and activist lawyers at the various occupations, who sought to cast indefinite encampments as a right protected by the First Amendment. But legal justifications were not the only way to rationalize the kind of free speech the occupations represented. They may not even have been honest.
 
During the planning meetings for OWS, participants expected that setting up camp and sleeping in a public space would not be welcomed by law enforcement and that they would probably have to be arrested to make their point. Civil-disobedience trainings were held to teach people how to manage these engagements as safely as possible.
 
The prevailing feeling in those meetings at Tompkins Square Park was that they’d have to wait and see whether the occupation could “hold the space,” as the planners put it. The outcome would depend on how many people showed up. If there were the twenty thousand people that Adbusters had called for, their chances of being able to stand their ground would be high. If it was only the sixty to a hundred people who had been coming to the meetings each week, the odds were slimmer.
 
In other words, while legality was a concern, it wasn’t the only one. Most planners hoped that the occupation would challenge the authorities’ willingness to enforce the expected interpretation of the law.
 
Sure enough, on the night of September 17, the NYPD was ready to clear the park but got the order to stand down. That victory was not a legal one; it was tactical.
 
***
 
Ultimately, the struggle didn’t play out in court; Zuccotti Park remained occupied mostly thanks to extralegal pressures. When the city proposed to clean the park on October 14—effectively a forcible removal—thousands of people arrived before dawn to stand in the way. A month later, when the eviction finally came, it was as a surprise in the middle of the night. Again, the difference was tactical, not legal.
 
Mayor Bloomberg nevertheless defended his decision to clear the park in legal terms:
 
No right is absolute and with every right comes responsibilities. The First Amendment gives every New Yorker the right to speak out—but it does not give anyone the right to sleep in a park or otherwise take it over to the exclusion of others—nor does it permit anyone in our society to live outside the law. There is no ambiguity in the law here—the First Amendment protects speech—it does not protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space.
 
One can see the logic in this posture. In a perfect world, nobody would want freedom of speech to extend to the point that it overly obstructs the lives of others. We wouldn’t, for instance, condone freelance roadblocks or preachers sermonizing in our backyards. (We might similarly object to free speech as grounds for unlimited and unaccountable political donations by those in Bloomberg’s income bracket, but the Supreme Court doesn’t agree.)
 
While a violent nighttime raid was hardly the most humane way of enforcing the city’s concern for law and order, its motivation was exactly what is to be expected of those in power. A New York City judge thought so, too, and upheld Bloomberg’s eviction. Days later, the mayor affectionately referred to the NYPD as “my own army.”
 
From the outset, Occupiers were intent on undermining that very law and order, protected by soldiers posing as police, rigged by and for corporate profits. Appeals to the law were therefore always at least partly a ruse. The call to occupy was meant to be adjudicated not so much by the legal right to free speech as by the one inscribed in conscience.
 
***
 
Winter to Spring 
 
Occupy Wall Street celebrated its six-month anniversary on March 17 in Zuccotti Park with ritual and repetition, a fast-forward replay of the previous fall: reoccupation, carnival, violent eviction, defiance. The big reunion began with a morning chalk-in for families and an early afternoon march around the Financial District. (Actually, there was a choice between two marches: one silent and one rowdy.) As re-renamed Liberty Square—or Plaza or Park—became full once again with hundreds of people, the hardy organizers who had spent the winter in meetings and arguments were drowned out again by joiners, curious visitors, drummers, and reporters. A twenty-four-hour reoccupation was called for, and the Plus Brigades crew led the rehearsal of new defensive formations en masse. People danced, chanted, and held an assembly. Their numbers swelled to close to a thousand when marches from the nearby Left Forum conference joined later in the evening. (I had to leave the reoccupation for a few hours to speak on a panel there about occupations.) The dull gray plaza came alive again. Liberty was back.
 
The police also seemed to be in a particularly nasty mood. There were arrests peppered throughout the afternoon, and they chased away a St. Patrick’s Day procession that tried to stop by the plaza for a visit. As I stood in a line facing a line of cops, one of them snarled to me, “You haven’t seen guys like us yet.”
 
***
Unexpectedly to just about everyone, the occupation at Union Square held. Occupiers were sleeping there, mixed in with the usual nighttime population of loiterers and the homeless. During the day, info tables and food and meetings and teach-ins appeared. Each night, there would be a round of “eviction theater” as the cops tried to push Occupiers off Union Square’s steps. The laboratory of the Plus Brigades meant there was a plentiful supply of activities for each little eviction. One night, when the cops had their riot gear on and barricades were arranged around the steps, Occupiers gathered in huddles and then, all of a sudden, charged the barricades at full speed, only to collapse right in front of them into a cuddle puddle. On another night the game was Hide and Seek, and on another it was a “people’s rap battle” against the cops. Donuts were dangled in front officers’ faces to chants like “Treat us like animals, we’ll treat you like pigs!” and “Show me what a donut looks like! This is what a donut looks like!” and so on.
 
After one evening of eviction theater, in the subway station under Union Square, I waited for my train by a cop who was guarding the nearly empty platform. We talked about the reasons we were each there that night, playing our respective roles. She said that there have to be rules and order. If there weren’t, society would fall apart. Chaos. When I asked why the cops weren’t so violent down in DC, she chalked it up to a North-South divide. Anyway, she said, as if by rote, most of the trouble from both cops and protesters was caused by just a few bad apples. Right.
 
It was clear, anyway, that her uniform had kept her from the bliss—of Zuccotti, of Liberty, of society momentarily fallen apart, of the good stuff that chaos can bring.

Published with permission from University of California Press.

Nathan Schneider is the author of Thank you Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse (University of California Press, 2013).