Wednesday, July 17, 2019

One Thousand Definitions of Freedom: what Occupy teaches us about resistance

Occupy Wall Street began with an image. In July 2011, the Canadian organisation Adbusters came up with a striking poster of a ballerina,serenely perched atop the Wall St statue of a bull. It stated the date of the protest – September 17th – and the hashtag that gave the movement its name - #occupywallstreet. But more importantly, it asked the participants a very important question: What is our one demand? Ironically, this is also what other commentators have been asking ever since, but that does not mean that Occupy should have – or could have – given one such demand.

Photo by Michael Fleshman

The misunderstanding starts when considering what OWS used to be seen as. It was not a march, though marches started there, and neither was it the start of a revolution, as many of the activists thought it was. Matt Stoller called it a ‘church of dissent’, and it traces back to concepts like Bey’s TAZs – Temporary Autonomous Zones outside of formal structures of control, a form of ‘taking a break’ from the controlling mechanisms one is subjected to in their everyday life. Of course, while an example of TAZs could be considered to be The Burning Man Festival, and that is very different from what Occupy did with its encampments, the truth is that what the Occupiers wanted was the same as what the festival-goers want: freedom.

In fact, Mike Konczal came down to ZucottiPark (or Liberty Square, as was christened by Occupiers) to ask 15 different participants what they thought about freedom. With definitions ranging from succinct – ‘freedom from necessity’ – to ones that read more like academic paper abstracts, there is no doubt that the Occupiers came to Zucotti Park to show that they want to be heard – that they want to be free. In a way, the #occupy demonstrations’ goal became their occupation in and of itself, the maintaining of a space where everyone can take part in the decision-making process irrespective of their race, background, or what is in their bank account. The Occupiers resist the corporations, the racism, the wage gap, impoverishment, global warming – in other words they resist the present, the status quo, the existing institutions that perpetuate the world as it is now. By occupying Zucotti Park – deliciously ironic, as it was a private park built in exchange for a tax break – they stood up against the present and screamed, as Holloway would put it, against everything they considered to be the problem with the world right now.

But Occupy consisted of many people, and a high number of people means a high number of problems. As fifteen different people had fifteen different conceptions of freedom, the 1518 occupy protests around the world had their own different sets of grievances. Within each of these protests, countless of people were standing up against different things that they thought was the issue. As the horizontal, consensus-based organisation of Occupy encouraged participation, self-expression and diversity, it also created an impossible situation: how do you find the one demand to address everything? And to be honest, what all the critics meant with that was one demand that is feasible, acceptable, and quite sensible – say, tax cuts or a few more dollars towards higher education. But that’s impossible.

That is impossible because, putting aside the issue of diversity for a moment, Occupy was standing up against the present situation, against the institutions perpetuating what made them feel miserable – whether that was foreclosure, student loans or the gears of capitalism. By issuing any demand, they would have put their success at the consideration (some would say mercy) of the institutions they reject, and that would defeat the point of their scream.

So what, then, remained to be done? Occupy chose to stay. To occupy. To scream. They got evicted from the park, but they scream in other ways – Internet activism, symbolic occupations in other locations, production of educational materials. When a demand was not possible, they made their existence a demand. Some would say that it failed – that Occupy is 99% dead, instead of the 99%.

But if Occupy was dead, why would I be writing about it?

Ana Maria Cupes

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