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Radical Reading: We Are Many

The We Are Many anthology, edited by Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire and published by AK Press, is an ambitious project. In 435 pages, it attempts to both document the historical activist moment that is Occupy and provide a collection of practical lessons for activists. The editors acknowledge that the book is a work in progress, rather than an end, and I would agree with that assessment. This is an accessible book, but it is not a practical manual. The work of assembling all the relevant voices necessarily stands in contradiction to the work of providing something that on-the-ground activists can easily use. That said, the collection is full of gems, some of which could be extracted for a future more practical guide.
What the anthology does excel at is the work of documentation. I was impressed by the diversity of voices included, and the unique “conversational” format that lends itself well to a work that positions oppositional views in one place, for example on race in Occupy or the role of the police. There are no sections in this book–instead there is an editorial ebb and flow where themes come up but are not explicitly labeled. I really liked this technique, and the way journalistic pieces, personal accounts, practical tips, photos, and drawings were displayed alongside each other.
The style of the book gives the reader who was never present at an Occupy a real sense of the movement, an important task given the way on-the-ground activism and writing/reading are sometimes divided and the unsurprising media bias around Occupy. As a writer/reader type who does most of my activism through this blog, Twitter, and public teaching, I found the book incredibly valuable in this sense. The stories included give a picture of the breadth of Occupy both geographically and in form/focus (for example, see the pieces on Occupy Research or the occupied farm on land owned by UC Berkeley). The pictures and personal accounts are powerful narratives that place the reader at the center of the movement and lend both frustration and inspiration. I particularly liked Michael Andrews’ detailed account of one New York march, capturing the joy and collective spirit of a group that confounded the police with its size and evoked a sense of hope for the future. I also flagged Janelle Treibitz’s piece for future reference: her documentation of specific examples of how cultural resistance works is the kind of thing we need to see more in writings from radical organizers.
Of course, this is not a movement without its problems. Authors in this volume at times question the utility of the 99% model and some of its particular issues: are the police really part of the 99%? What about successful artists and gallery owners? How do 99%ers treat each other? Racial tensions are of course a big part of this picture, as is the treatment of certain groups within the 99%. In an excerpt on Rochester’s Take Back the Land occupation, Hubert Wilkerson comments on those occupiers who complained that homeless residents of the occupied park were “stealing” donated food. “So I’m saying whoa, it’s the reality of an occupation where people are trying to change the world, but haven’t started changing themselves.” (p. 53) This uncomfortable theme of hypocrisy within the movement also comes up in the CrimethInc Ex-Workers’ Collective contribution, which discusses the idea of a “black bloc” of violent protestors within occupy that was described by a non-violent occupier and then used to Other fellow occupiers. The Collective suggests that this tactic might explain why Oakland lasted longer than other movements: when protestors used this language, they handed the FBI a very useful device for a divide and conquer strategy, allowing the FBI to extrapolate from a type of action to a type of people “terrorists” that it could then condemn. Rose Bookbinder and Michael Belt discuss the importance of labor in their piece: while many occupiers were young protestors from the suburbs, organized labor represents the actual community being occupied, and it is crucial that labor therefore be included. Similar critiques have of course been made of the idea of “occupying” already-occupied Native land.
If it were possible to summarize Occupy, this would be a much shorter book, but I like the three logics Joshua Clover describes as considerations to use in considering future activist strategies: Occupy had no single demand, no one body could meet Occupy’s demands, and any demand with meeting could not be met by the current social arrangement. (p. 99) This is, as I see it, an essential statement of what it is to be “radical.” Though I was not an Occupier and had many questions about the utility of Occupy, We Are Many has helped me to understand its value as a manifestation of this radical vision: community microcosms with not one vision but many, impossible to achieve through simple government action, grounded in the need for tough conversations and revolutionary paradigm shifts.
We Are Many is available through AK Press.

Occupy Wall Street for a Radical with a Job

I haven’t said a lot about Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement generally because I haven’t quite decided where I come down.  It would seem that this movement is tailor-made for me.  After all, I’ve been waiting for the (peaceful) revolution for a while.  I don’t believe that we can solve our problems through voting.  I’m an enthusiastic student of Howard Zinn, and I’m frustrated by how the myth of economic prosperity has been used to blame and shame ordinary people, to turn natural allies against one another by tapping into our Puritan ideals of “it’s my fault if I don’t succeed.”  I think this country needs a drastic paradigm shift.

The occupy movement addresses this myth in some ways, by pointing out through the 99% concept that ordinary people are struggling, that often it’s not your fault in this country if you don’t succeed, because its structures and its politics do not support you.  I support this tactic.  I love the “we are the 99%” blog, and how it tells the diverse stories of people who are struggling.  I also love tactics like closing big bank accounts, staging teach-ins, and donating to a big library of radical books so that everyone can learn about feminism, homophobia, racism, etc.

But the movement is not perfect.

The occupiers may be challenging the economic prosperity myth, but at the same time we’ve seen racism, transphobia, and sexism in the camps that shows many occupiers are buying into a different myth about power structures.  Just as the idea that America is a great, prosperous country has been used to shame those who don’t succeed, the support for the ideas of white, straight, able-bodied cis men in this country often keeps these Americans from seeing their own faults.  Radical liberals who have these traits tend to dominate discussions and challenge the perspectives of more marginalized people, rather than listening up, or, as Tumblr gleefully terms it, “taking a seat.”  There are reports of rape and anti-trans violence in the camps.  The entire movement suffers from its blind spot regarding the fact that this is already a colonized country, and all us white folks, for richer or poorer, the colonizers.

Beyond these problems, which others have blogged about at length, I have further difficulties finding a place in the movement.  Of course, the “occupy” tactic mostly works for those who don’t have jobs, or those who are able to quit.  I am employed at a wonderful organization that does work I care about, and I have no interest in leaving to join the revolution.  I believe that the work we do is revolutionary–maybe not all of it, but certainly some.  And as much as I believe in revolution, and realize that a revolution needs bodies to take place, it’s hard to tell, in the middle of a movement, whether this is The One.  I still find myself more comfortable writing about change, giving talks, and having conversations than I do waving a protest sign or putting my body in the way.  I believe strongly in a revolution of ideas, in change through education.  That, to me, is the beauty of the occupy movement, and that’s the part in which I feel most comfortable participating.