Let me start this blog post by saying that if I had done something actually illegal—well, more specifically, something for which I feared prosecution—I would not be posting it on this blog. Sorry to disappoint. This will make for my third activism-related post in a row, though. For those looking for different content, I suggest you take to the streets and help overthrow our current political order, so I can get back to posting pithy observations about graduate school.
On Saturday, I attended Occupy Oakland’s first “official” event, a protest march through downtown Oakland. Here’s the opening to the blog post that I really, really wanted to write about it:
Question: What do you get when a grab-bag of anarchists furious at the state of society calls for an unpermitted protest march with no prior communication with the police, clearly defined aims, or leadership responsible for the course of events?
Answer: A pleasant walk through Downtown Oakland in the sunshine.
It would have been the perfect segue for a discussion about how the Occupy Wall Street movement has been grossly misrepresented, how policing causes disruption rather than prevents it, and, indeed, how our assumptions about humanity’s intrinsic irresponsibility and lack of empathy should be challenged.
And, for a while, Saturday’s event seemed to be feeding into my erstwhile narrative. The crowd—like Occupy Oakland itself—was immensely diverse. There were heavily tattooed crust punks in ripped “Leftover Crack” t-shirts, parents leading children with signs featuring egalitarian slogans drawn from Dr. Seuss, a smattering of Oakland’s homeless population, and a few old bearded hippies hoping that, if they squinted hard enough, they’d see 1968. There was even a marching band, a soundtrack for a roving street party overflowing with positive energy and community spirit.
At least, until we saw a local branch of Chase Bank. I read an American Journal of Sociology article today that showed how moments of transgressive collective action can be modeled using the same models of sudden, dramatic expansion as wildfires and landslides, and Saturday showed the theory’s validity in practice. Someone suggested we go inside; all of the sudden, the doors were held open and people started streaming in. At first, we were just chanting: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” The few customers who were there fled quickly; the employees just looked confused. The girl next to me was scribbling “Occupy” on all the bank slips in the line up to the tellers’ windows. A few seconds later, it was raining bank slips all around. I heard glass break, and looked over to see that a vase had been knocked off the welcome
We left as quickly as we entered, leaving a big mess but having caused little damage. Everyone was out before the cops came. In the sins of the world, it was a small one, and in part I’m writing this blog post to acknowledge one of the petty grievances against the OWS movement—it causes mild direct and indirect costs and inconveniences—and to tell the world: get over it. Nonetheless, the symbolic outcomes are disturbing. By the time we reassembled outside, the entire tenor of the march had changed. The parents and kids were leaving—it’s hard, after all, to explain to your kid why they have to respect the property of your preschool classmates but you can destroy it if it belongs to a bank. If the media covered the event—and honestly, I’m too scared to look if they did—their reports will dwell exclusively on the two minutes of “violence”, not the three hours of collective effervescence.
We live in a profoundly disempowered society. The result is that most of us are able to make decisions without considering their consequences, because we are convinced the things we value and demand will never be actualized. To me, the perfect example of this is Ron Paul supporters: the only way you can possibly support him is by assuming that he’ll never be elected, thus sidestepping the question of what would actually happen if he were. Our narrative of collective disempowerment stems even to our “leaders.” Sarah Palin can put a target on a congresswoman’s head and then claim she has nothing to do with that congresswoman being shot, because—after all—she’s so heavily discriminated against by the lamestream media that she couldn’t possibly be responsible.
Occupy Wall Street flips this disempowerment on its head. People don’t understand consensus-based decision-making because they see it as an ineffective way to get things done. They miss that the point of consensus is to give us practice in making decisions that actually matter. When a single person can block a collective proposal, they are all of the sudden confronted with the fact that their choices have an impact—not a familiar feeling for most of us, and one that requires a whole new pattern of thinking. On the other hand, all the sudden, radical ideas—“Hey, let’s build an anarchist commune in front of City Hall”—are being put into practice.
And yet, we’re still not accustomed to the fact that, if we chant “burn the banks”, someone eventually actually will. It’s kind of like Spider Man didn’t say: “with a little bit of power, you have to take at least a little bit of responsibility.”