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Sunday, February 26, 2012

On The Future Of Occupy...

Feb 26th, 2012
by Stephanie Baselice

The notorious armed response to Occupy Chapel Hill
The first I heard of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, I was visiting my Sister, Adele. Adele and her husband,Thomas, are farmers. They live on a cooperative land trust farm in rural France. Romantic, I know.

It really is, too. It was an amazing trip for me—the first one ever away from my kids. Lots of people pitched in to help pay for the tickets for me to go there.

The farm is amazing and beautiful. Adele keeps a herd of goats and runs a creamery, making yogurt and cheese. Thomas is your classic German intellectual....he listens to podcasts of NPR on his headphones while he works in the market garden, taking very fine care of his organic vegetables. Thomas really, really likes tomatoes. Anyway, he is also quite well read, and keeps up with politics. At breakfast he shared his newspaper with me.

Upon seeing an article about OWS, I was immediately intrigued. Camping in the park near Wall Street; now that was an interesting idea. At the time, Thomas was not particularly impressed. But I was. I thought they were on to something.

A few weeks later, when I was home, the movement had grown bigger. Much bigger. Occupy was on the news every day, and all sorts of news about it that was not in the news was on facebook and youtube. There were live feeds from all over the place by a small army of guerrilla citizen reporters. There was an Occupation in every major metro area, all over the world! There were mini occupations in quite a few minor hamlets, such as my own. Some of my friends were moved, go to New York and check things out. J and I thought seriously about it. He had just lost his job. The Occupation was really interesting now. It had become a locus for our sense of impotent rage and impending doom. A means of expression where we had none before. A kind of political....performance art.

Ultimately we decided the Wall Street Occupation was no place for our two little kids. So I checked out the local scene here in Chapel Hill. It was pretty tame. About 10 tents in front of the Post Office (aka Peace and Justice Plaza...a historic site for local protests). The occupiers were a surprisingly diverse bunch. A few grad students from UNC in Political Science. A few young radical types. A few homeless folks. That was about what I had expected, but they were not the majority. Oddly it was mostly a bunch of middle aged, middle class people (like myself) from various backgrounds. There was a tent with donated food and medical supplies, and a sign up sheet for information emails. To the delight of my six year old son, the tent table featured several boxes of Krispy Kreme Donuts.

It was cold and wet, the October chill filtering into our bones by way of the slow southern drizzle. We went inside the post office and sat in a big organic blob of a circle in the main hallway...Jack and I leaning against a wall of P.O. Boxes. Jack downed a couple of donuts while I tried to grok the geist of the General Assembly. From what I gathered, basically all the Occupations utilize a similar set of procedures and forms. A general assembly each evening at the same time, usually led by rotating facilitators. Achieving consensus is the point--the intention. Working Groups meet after the GA on topics such as Security, Outreach, Direct Action and Supplies.

At the Chapel Hill GA, One representative from each group gave a report. While most comments were driven towards the working groups which would be meeting after the GA (in order to keep the larger meeting to a manageable length), theoretically anyone could speak. Decisions were all made by consensus. A set of hand signals I had never seen before was in use to indicate desire to speak, points of order, agreement or disagreement, and other expressions. Jack ate about 4 donuts, and then ran out of patience for the consensus process. We went home and I made some dinner.

Over the next few weeks a I went back a couple of times. I would have liked to go more often, stay longer, and see more, but my life was exploding. The stress of our situation had my husband and I fighting all the time, interrupted only by our efforts to manage stuff and take care of the kids.

Suddenly the occupation of Wall Street was shut down, kicked out of the park. Crackdowns happened at the same time, all over the country. Oakland CA had some really ugly ones, with rubber bullets and other types of urban crowd control weaponry. Pictures were posted on Facebook of injuries. National news coverage disappeared.

The Chapel Hill Occupiers were still at the Post Office. A direct action group split off from the GA and decided to occupy the Yates building, an abandoned car dealership in Chapel Hill. The owner of Yates lives out of town, and the building has sat empty for 10 years. The group decided to occupy the building, and use it as a community center. They organized a dance party. Free meals arrived, donated by a local restaurant. Yoga classes were held.

After a night of sleeping bags and kumbyah, a Strategic Emergency Response Team (SERT) came and surrounded the building, arresting everyone (including the press) at gunpoint. Local politics have been in a tizzy ever since, with lots of vitriol flying over the internet about “black bloc” anarchists, and postings of articles how the anarchists are a “cancer” on the nonviolent Occupation movement. The Chapel Hill Occupation decided to shut down the tiny tent city and pursue other avenues of expression. Except one guy. He is still there. From what I understand he had no where else to go.

So what now? Where will the Occupation go from here?

I ask my friend N, who has become a somewhat reluctant spokesperson for the Chapel Hill Occupiers. She tells me there are many different roads being pursued toward the future of Occupy. Her path is with Nomadic Occupation...calling attention to different areas with mini occupations and staying only long enough to garner a bit of media attention for those strategically chosen locations. She hopes more middle class folks will join the cause, and embrace the principles of creative non-cooperation and consensus....before it is too late. I tell her I think things will have to get yet even worse before middle class people will let go of their lifestyles to establish survivalist group housing. Keeping backyard chickens is one thing....eating roadkill is a different deal altogether. (Evidently my MIL has a good pressure cooker recipe for squirrel, but I have not been inspired to try it yet).

Still, I agree to come check out the next event, a protest over increasing local restrictions on the public use of space. We talk about the bill of rights. We talk about the economic crisis, and how its impact is more structural adjustment than recession. We talk quite a bit about the Yates Occupation. Evidently that group told her they wanted to highlight the way buildings sit empty, owned by far away landlords, while local folks needs for space are not considered. We discuss the town manager, who was in charge of both the SERT response to the Yates occupation, and the move to place greater restrictions on our right to peaceful assembly in Chapel Hill. We talk about the overlapping and confusing system of town regulations, which serve to insure that any public assembly will be illegal in some way, leaving the door open to shut down this constitutionally protected right for reasons of any political motivation or administrative whim.

We spoke a bit about the hand signals and the form of the general assemblies. I was curious where they came from. She informed me they originated with the Athenian Senate, and were further developed by the Quakers and Civil Rights era anarchists....the evolution of the forms and procedures of consensus are very interesting. I make a note to study this further.

I ask my friend B, who works for the town, to tell me the government side of the Yates Building Occupation story. He tells me the SERT had been called in because the group in the Yates building were “anarchists” and they had “not ruled out violence”. Hmm. But they had not engaged in any kind of violence. Dance Party? Yoga? Free Snacks? Where was the emergency?

Anarchists. Everyone is scared of them. Because we associate the term anarchy with the kind of violent nihilism of A Clockwork Orange or The Crow. Chaos. Lawlessness. At minimum, fires and broken windows. Property damage for sure, with strong potential for human casualties. But what does the term mean, really?

So even though I have some idea, I hit Google. With my background in Political Science, I was able to filter quickly through a lot of hotheaded material and discover the disturbing truth about Anarchists. They are Anarchic. Which is to say, there are many different ways to be an Anarchist. Almost as many ways as there are to be say..a Christian?

No really, there are many theories of Anarchy. Some are nonviolent, some not. Basically the idea is of anarchy is that individuals should govern themselves, and cooperate with those nearby to get stuff done. No one is in charge. Personal accountability and responsibility are highly valued. Anarchists are profoundly anti-authoritarian, feeling the state is an exploitative system, as is industrial capitalism. They are against the existence of the nation state, believing this to be an inescapably oppressive structure, oriented towards the production of wars. They are strong proponents of decision making by consensus, rather than hierarchy.

Beyond that, anarchy can go lots of different ways. Some groups are avidly Marxist, some not particularly so. Some groups are anti-capitalist—well, most are to some degree. But some are reformist, some revolutionary. There is no general consensus of Anarchists. So if you know the term, you don't really know what any particular person or group means when they call themselves anarchists, unless you talk to them. Which my town failed to do. They just brought in other guys in black outfits. With assault rifles.

My Friend H, who is a middle class Dad and very involved with Occupy, says the anarchists add “a shot of adrenaline” to the movement. He feels they provide energy and excitement. Another friend B, talks about the need to create a public conversation about trading “destructive order” for “creative disorder”. The existing system of economic distribution is the order we are accustomed to. But it has been profoundly destructive for people and the planet. Anarchists are certainly big on the “creative chaos” factor. Their re-framing of procedures and systems we take for granted is valuable to anyone questioning the status quo of our economic system which funnels a massively disproportionate share of wealth to the 1% at the expense of the 99% of the population. A system which values ownership over human rights and decency. But how far should the movement go? To this point, the Occupy movement has essentially been theater. The Occupations were a form of creative disorder. Non-cooperation with the status quo, in front of millions of I phones, posted to social media.

The buzz online is that there is conflict within the Occupy Movement about the direction of the future, with those who adhere to a strict policy of non violence pitted against those who favor keeping open the possibility of violence, or at least some property damage, for a few specific situations, such as self defense or protection of others in the group. Some make a case for leaving open the option for symbolic property damage. The official word, as I understand it, is that the future of Occupy will include “a diversity of tactics”. The actions of the group, in general, have to this point been quite disciplined and non violent.

But it seems to me the future of Occupy depends heavily on its ability to manage its anarchists, their image and reputation. Because there is always some minor official who would rather call in a Strategic Emergency Response Team than start a conversation.


  1. The Occupy Movement is like when you sit down to write and end up with almost nothing you originally envisioned. Way does lead unto way and these things are organic. We'll see...

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