November 9th and the Changing Repertoires of Activism

The reports are just rolling in, and boy, has it been enlightening.  A few weeks ago, the University of California Police Department released a report determining that the real source of problems at Berkeley on November 9th was that police weren’t allowed enough “force options”—particular, pepper spray. Shortly thereafter, a quasi-independent review board at Davis came to a somewhat divergent conclusion that, there, the use of pepper spray was “objectively unreasonable.”  And, after seven months of painstaking research, the Berkeley Police Review Board has closed the book on November 9th by declaring that campus police “may” have violated campus norms and procedures.  One wonders: isn’t a “possible” violation of the rules usually the starting premise for an investigation, not its end point?

Of the lot, I think the Edley/Robinson report to the UC President comes closest to saying something interesting about November 9th—which is ironic, because it was the only report which wasn’t tasked with investigating what happened on November 9th.  One thing about the report stood out to me in particular.  Early on, the authors note:

Although we began this project by addressing “protest” activity generally, we soon realized that the central challenge before us related to civil disobedience… It is only when demonstrators engage in civil disobedience—the refusal to comply with laws or regulations as a form of protest or as a means of drawing attention to the demonstrators’ message—that more complicated and controversial issues arise (5)

I think the authors are on to something.  Policing “protest” at Berkeley isn’t complicated, because most of the 50-or-so registered “protests” at Berkeley are sanctioned, contained, and, ultimately, totally meaningless.  The issue, really, is about how to deal with certain kinds of protest tactics that deviate from this predictable norm.

In a sense, I’m grateful that the authors called what we were doing “civil disobedience.” After all, immediately after November 9th, Chancellor Birgeneau sent out an e-mail claiming that we hay “betrayed” the legacy of the civil rights movement.  Now, by calling what we did “civil disobedience”, they are now implicitly connecting us to that tradition.  For me, at least, civil disobedience immediately conjures the image of black college students in the deep south, sitting patiently at a segregated lunch counter, bravely bearing police harassment and violence in order to dramatize injustice and spur legislators to action.  It’s an overly generous comparison, and while I’m not sure we’ve quite lived up to it, I’ll take it.

There’s only one problem: what we were doing on November 9th wasn’t civil disobedience, it was direct action.  While for Occupy Wall Street activists and their ilk this is all fairly obvious, I think that the difference between “civil disobedience” and “direct action” is crucial for understanding what happened in November, and why things ended so badly.  And, because it relates to my current research interests, it seems like a good starting point for a brief excursus into the sociology of protest repertoires.

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Activists like to think of social movements as strategic actors, cleverly adapting innovating new tactics to achieve their goals.  In truth, though, activists tend to resort to the same narrow range of tactics—like marches, demonstrations, and petitions—over and over again, while ignoring a host of theoretically possible other ways to express dissent.  These “repertoires” of protest tend to vary coherently over time and between countries.  As the late sociologist Chuck Tilly demonstrated, prior to the 19th century people “protested” by acting directly to address the problems they perceived.  If a group of people thought bread prices were too high, they would riot and seize the granary.  If they didn’t like a tax on tea, they’d throw the tea into the sea.  If you were pissed off at your feudal lord, you’d burn down his house.

In early 19th century England, though, this changed.  Protesting moved from the realm of the material to the symbolic: instead of acting directly, people sought redress indirectly by making appeals to powerful external actors.  The rise of what Tilly calls our “modern repertoire” of contentious politics, then, is closely tied to the rise of democracy.  Although civil disobedience might seem to be much more radical than an orderly march, it still follows the same basic logic of other actions in that repertoire.  Even if CD by nature emerges from a frustration with the ineffectiveness of institutional political acts, like voting, it still requires a belief that the system as a whole basically works.  You don’t do CD unless you believe that elected representatives will eventually be responsive, if only you show—through breaking the law—that your particular cause is an important one.  The paradox of civil disobedience, then, is that it simultaneously reinforces the legitimacy of the political system even as it trespasses one part of it.  The black students carrying out sit-ins were violating one particular law, but in so doing they were validating “The Law” and the representative-democracy from which it flows as the appropriate way to address it.*

Since the 1960s, CD has become an increasingly routinized part of the protesting landscape.  In annual demonstrations against nuclear power plants, for example, demonstrators will often arrange with the police beforehand, making their own inevitable arrest an integral part of their message.  But this is only part of the story of how protest tactics have evolved in the last few decades.  Although “direct action” never really disappeared—strikes, for example, are in some respects direct actions—I believe (and, hopefully, will someday empirically document) there has been a major upsurge in this tactic.  The “direct” shutdown of the WTO meeting in Seattle, 1999, is a visible example, but projects like “guerilla gardens” started in abandoned lots or Food Not Bombs’ free meals from discarded food are also “direct actions.”  The demise of state-socialism has, I think, effected a change towards anarchist models of organizing that prioritize these kinds of tactics that attempt to immediately, and directly, change society.

This is a major shift.  As John Rawls suggests, CD only makes sense if you believe you live in a “nearly-just society”; DA, on the other hand, is a tool for those who believe that the whole system of representative democracy is broken and the best we can do is work around it at every turn.  And, of course, while the lines between CD and DA are always fuzzy, the two entail profoundly different ways of relating to the police.  As David Graeber notes:

Those carrying out a ‘civil disobedience may willingly surrender themselves to the police; even if they don’t…they act in the full expectation they will wind up in jail…Direct actionists, in contrast…are trying their best to get away with it (Direct Action: An Ethnography: 205).

In short, for the civilly-disobedient, the police are an integral part of the script of a protest; for the direct actionist, they are a hazard.

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A charitable reading of the Edley and Robinson report is that the authors are trying to return us to a previous model in which civil disobedience was, well, civil.  After all, within Occupy, it has often seemed like the tacit understanding between police and protesters engaged in CD—you let us break the law, and we’ll let you arrest us and face the consequences—had broken down.  After November 9th, I found myself wondering why no officer ever bothered to ask me if I would submit to arrest peacefully.  In this respect, Edley/Robinson—with its call for mediation and dialogue—seems like a step in the right direction.

But would it have changed anything?  For better or for worse, on November 9th, we wanted to “get away with it”—not make a statement through getting arrested.  We weren’t setting up an encampment because we wanted to dramatize the irrationality of the university’s rule against encampments.  Nor were our tents a publicity stunt to get legislators to wake up and pay attention to our concerns.  We were making a direct intervention into the operation of the university, attempting to create a real (not just symbolic) alternative to privatization and austerity.  Had the university attempted to mediate, we probably would have ignored them; had they asked us if we wanted to be arrested, we likely would have said “No.”

A lot of occupiers like the way that DA “heightens the contradictions” within our system, forcing authorities into a binary choice between letting protesters do what the want—whether occupying a public space or starting a farm on nominally “private property”—or engaging in spectacularly stupid acts of repression.  The point, though, is that not everyone realizes this is happening.  People like Edley/Robinson continue to believe that they are dealing with a variant of classic civil disobedience, and so they’re confused as to why activists aren’t playing their part.   Sociologically, it’s a fascinating moment, in which there are not just divergent opinions about the issues we’re protesting about, but also different conceptions of what these protests actually are.  For protesters, though, it’s bad news, as the police and some elements of the administration seem to have picked up on the fact that the only way to stop direct action is to beat people into submission – which is why, for all it’s reasonableness, the Edley/Robinson report will be completely ignored.

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* Of course, this may reflect the fact that – were they to do anything more radical – the violence against them would be even more extreme.

The Long Haul

After a fall spent trying to make some social change, this spring I’ve withdrawn into my more comfortable habitus: reading about social change.  I’ve been particularly drawn to stories about the Civil Rights movement, perhaps because I’ve been desperate to remind myself that change does in fact happen every once in a while.

Most recently, I read Doug McAdam’s, Freedom Summer, which chronicles one of the most pivotal moments in the trajectory of 1960s activism.  Frustrated with their inability to draw significant attention from the white, Northern liberals they needed to pass Civil Rights legislation, the black activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee hatched a plan to bring hundreds of white students from elite universities to the deep south for voter registration.  Confronted with poverty and racism that white Northerners had previously ignored, the volunteers were profoundly radicalized. As McAdam charts, Freedom Summer volunteers went back to school in the fall and were pivotal in launching the movements that defined the New Left and the latter half of the 1960s.  Case in point: Berkeley legend Mario Savio, future spokesman of the Free Speech Movement, was a Freedom Summer volunteer.*

McAdam caught up with the activists twenty years later and found that, contrary to the popular narrative about ‘60s radicals, most Freedom Summer volunteers did not “sell out” or turn conservative.  Continuing political engagement, though, came at a price. When the ‘60s were over, the activists felt like they were coming down off of a years-long “freedom high”.  Even those who wanted to fully reintegrate into mainstream society struggled to maintain “regular” jobs or “normal” relationships.  There are some political experiences, it would seem, that you just can’t shake.

This spring, I think many activists could relate: I, for one, am suffering an “occupy hangover”.  Not that my experiences could possibly come close to those of the Freedom Summer volunteers.  I can’t even entirely relate to those who, this past fall, quit their jobs to move to encampments or who spent hundreds of hours in General Assemblies. Nonetheless, as a wise comrade recently posted on facebook, I miss knowing that the encampments were there, that there were thousands of people out there who shared my concern for the state of the world and my desire to do something about it.  Not that there aren’t still protests and demonstrations: I’m excited for May Day and inspired by the creativity and boldness of yesterday’s Occupy the Farm action.  It’s just that, no matter how many people come out for them, the sense of infinite possibility, of existing in a moment of real historical import, has disappeared, crushed by police batons, dishonest media coverage, and the realization that too many people still don’t give a damn.  Looking back at blog posts from the fall, I’m almost embarrassed at the optimism, the naivety: it’s part of why it’s been so difficult to write (the schoolwork doesn’t help either).

My search for a meaningful, post-occupation place to put my energy brought me to where it almost always does: feeding people.  In February, I started volunteering with East Bay Food Not Bombs, which serves over a thousand meals a week, almost entirely from food that would otherwise go to waste. My previous image of Food Not Bombs was one of self-involved hipsters; in East Bay, though, FNB is a fabulous amalgam of squatters from Oakland, remnants of Berkeley’s various communist parties, self-described homeless-activists, and some elderly women who, despite visually fitting the church-ladies-in-soup-kitchens stereotype, have repeatedly assured me that that they are anarchists.  There are limits to the political change that can be accomplished with free food, of course, but in an age where even the most meagre of public benefits are becoming a “privilege”, serving a no-questions-asked vegetarian meal feels radical enough for me.

It helps that, with Food Not Bombs, I’ve been plugged into a community of activists which existed long before Occupy and, I imagine, will persist long past it. Five days a week, we serve in People’s Park, only three blocks away from campus but a no-go zone for most students, who are wary of its residents.  A few weeks ago, I was invited to a “People’s Park Oral History Night” at a local infoshop.  There, a long-haired man in his 70s shared how he and other students seized the park from the university in 1969, declaring it a “liberated” space that would serve as a haven for the dispossessed and a launch-pad for organizing against “The War”.**  “In the 1960s, there were thousands of us”, another old activist said.  “In the ‘90s”—when the university tried to retake the park and activists fended them off in five days of rioting—“there were hundreds.”  Now, he admitted, “There are only a few dozen of us greybeards left.”

And yet, somehow, these activists have stayed committed.  They survived Reagan when, as Governor of California, he declared martial law in downtown Berkeley, and they survived Reagan when, as President, he dismembered the welfare programs they fought for in the 1960s.  They were pissed off when Bush went to war brazenly and openly, and they’re pissed off that Obama is doing it covertly.  The costs of their dedication are obvious: most everyone I talked to has led a difficult life, one in which they traded in financial stability and social acceptance for “the cause”.  And, in the end, they have few tangible victories—other than a couple-acre park that most everyone in Berkeley seems to hate—to show for it.

Hearing their stories made me feel guilty to have taken a pause to focus on my studies after only a few months of activity.  But when I told this to the other activists that night, they all said I have nothing to be ashamed of.  People cover for one another; when one person steps back to take care of him or herself, there’s another at a point where he or she can step forward.  The community is always active, even if we, as activists, have to focus on ourselves once in a while.  I was reminded of how lucky I am to be in a place like Berkeley, where there are older activists to show me that this isn’t just a passing phase, even if there are a few days, months, or even years where I’m behind a desk and not out on the streets.

As if to drive the point home, the next day I learned that one of the Food Not Bombs volunteers was part of Freedom Summer back in ’64.  Who knows what he did in the intervening forty-seven years; but now, he comes down to People’s Park almost every day, wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, and serves food with a bunch of anarchists.

It seems more than a coincidence that infoshop where the event was held is called the Long Haul.

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* Fun fact: the interview report for Mario Savio’s application to be a Freedom Summer volunteer describes him as “not very creative” and “one of those average people”.

** There is only one war in Berkeley: Vietnam.

“I Don’t Actually Hate Bankers” and Other Thoughts on the Open Letter (Part 1)

With all the time I spend reading Marx with other graduate students and talking revolution with other activists, I occasionally forget that my world is largely populated by people who don’t share my particular line of leftist politics.  I’ve been reminded of the political diversity of my friends during conversations about the open letter which a group of alumni wrote in support of Occupy Princeton.  Caveats within the letter’s message that were clear in my activist brain are, understandably, not obvious to others.

I’ve written this post to respond to some criticisms—both voiced and unvoiced—that could be and have been made about the form of the open letter, in the hopes that it will allow us to talk more about its substance: the question of the appropriate role of finance on campus and Princeton’s response to growing economic inequlity.*

“Investment bankers are not bad people; why are you attacking them?”  Princeton graduates working in finance—like Princeton graduates who go on to do more school, become fellows at Teach for America, or work in other industries—are not good or bad people; they’re just people.  I know that Princetonians go into finance for all sorts of reasons: some like the challenge, others the money, and still others because they see the industry as playing a valuable role in our society.  I have friends who work in finance, and I certainly don’t think I’m “better” than them: after all, reading social theory in graduate school isn’t exactly saving the world either.  But institutions matter, and there is now ample evidence that the milieu of Wall Street has created cultures of excessive risk-taking and hyper-competitiveness which have proven themselves to be harmful both to society and the people taking part in them.  

“What Occupy Princeton did was really rude!” As Michael Lewis pointed out in his recent column on Occupy Princeton, an easy way to ignore the substance of a message is to criticize the way it is delivered.  I have some misgivings about the way Occupy groups are using “Mic Checks” to shut down events, but let’s keep some perspective: we live in a society where millions of dollars from anonymous donors can be poured into nasty attack ads and protesters are being beaten, gassed, and shot while peaceably assembling.  The fact that Occupy Princeton’s three minute interruption in a recruiting event might have made some people uncomfortable is not a good reason to ignore it.  Princeton students ought to be made of sterner stuff.

“Wouldn’t it have been better to hold a debate about finance?”  No, it wouldn’t have.  In my time at Princeton, I helped organize a number of debates and lectures on vegetarianism, nearly all of which were poorly attended.  Why?  Because people generally don’t seek out situations where they’re going to be told they’re doing something wrong.  Certainly, I doubt that stressed Princeton seniors would be interested in hearing about how they should not take jobs in one of the few industries still hiring.  But sometimes people do need to be shown the implications of their decisions, and at times the only way to do so is through confrontation.

“Why kick J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs off campus? Shouldn’t we be trying to engage with them more constructively?”  Bankers are well aware that most Americans loathe their industry (although banks are still slightly more popular than Congress and Fidel Castro).  Rather than make a public case for the value of finance, though, institutions like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs have used backdoor influence to thwart overwhelmingly popular efforts at financial regulation.  When Occupy Wall Street started, these same institutions engaged in ad hominem attacks on protesters—deriding them as unwashed, lazy hippies—rather than countering the substance of the protesters’ message.  Given the unwillingness of these institutions to even entertain the idea that they need to reform, the best course of action is to challenge their bottom line—by pinching their top source of employees—and force them to get serious about their obligations to society.

“But Princeton students have a right to work where they want!”  We throw around “rights” too much.  In my time at Princeton, I was told that people have a “right” to eat meat every day of the week, a “right” to have a tray (not just a plate!) in the dining hall, and a “right” to make six figures straight after graduation.  But what if I say I have a “right” to go to a school that does not offend my values by reinforcing income inequality?  Throwing around the “r” word not only cheapens real rights—think, free speech or due process—but also shuts down the possibility of debate or compromise.  All of us have rights, but we also have responsibilities: our conversation should be about what duties we have as Princeton graduates entering a world in which we are incredibly privileged and, as a result, poised to do much more than just make money.

“It’s not Princeton’s job to tell students what they should do after graduation.”  Princeton offers its students a world-class education, which—even for students paying full tuition—is largely funded by others.  In exchange, it imposes certain obligations on members of the community to behave in certain ways and to fulfill certain requirements.  There would therefore be nothing drastic or new about telling grossly misbehaving financial companies to take recruiting off campus; it’d simply be an extension of existing standards that Princeton has about who gets access and support from Princeton.  This isn’t about where graduates are “allowed” to work, but which organizations and institutions get to receive Princeton’s institutional blessing.

“You’re not going to change anything, so why are you wasting your time?”  As I’ve written over and over again on this blog, cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Our conviction that things are unchangeable is a big part of what prevents change from happening, since it provides easy cover for those of us who don’t want to act even when we know we should.  Princeton obviously does change, albeit slowly.  I was recently contacted by an alumnus who mentioned how, in the 1980s, people demanding that the university divest from apartheid were derided as wasting their time on a fool’s errand.  History proved them wrong.  Princeton can either join a national movement to rethink the place of finance in society—or it can, once again, be a laggard, and make Harvard look positively dynamic by comparison.

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* I speak only for myself here, not for the 70+ other individuals who have signed the letter.  Have you yet?  Send me an e-mail!

What does democracy look like, anyway?

Call: “Show me what democracy looks like.”


If you’ve been to a protest—really, almost any protest, but especially an Occupy Wall Street protest—you’ve heard this chant.  No movement should be judged by its chants: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” may not capture a lot of nuance, but “Bring back the Glass-Steagall prohibition on the same financial institution both issuing securities and accepting deposits” just lacks pizzazz.  Still, I’ve always found the notion that a bunch of people in the street shouting is even remotely close to what democracy looks like to be problematic.  If anything, protest is the unfortunate but necessary responses to malfunctioning democracy—not democracy itself.

That said, Occupy Wall Street is teaching us some important lessons about democracy—it just isn’t doing it in the streets.  Indeed, I think even people unsympathetic to OWS’s particular message could benefit from reflecting on what the movement can teach us about the practice of democracy:

  • Democracy is slow.  We tend to judge political systems by the outcomes they produce: do they reach good decisions, and do they do so efficiently?  Judged by this metric, OWS performs only slightly better than Congress: general assemblies are time-consuming, messy, and not very productive affairs.  But democracy really isn’t just about outcomes; it is also about creating a process that meaningfully incorporates diverse values, opinions, and experiences.  Participation in these processes should be celebrated as an end in and of itself.  But doing this takes time.  True democracy will require the acceptance that politics demands more from us that a quick trip to the polls every two years, but constant—and at times, tedious—engagement with the community around us.
  • Democracy requires listening.  As embodied in the First Amendment, the right to speak out is, to most of us, a prerequisite for democracy.  In a sense, our means to exercise this right have expanded dramatically: we can now blast our opinions across the internet through twitter and comment trolling or even “speak out” through campaign donations.  What seems to have been lost is the recognition that expression has value for democracy only when someone else is willing to listen.  It is precisely for this reason that I love the much-maligned “People’s Mic” of OWS.  Repeating the words of another is not a form of brainwashing: it’s a way of slowing down communication, giving us time to consider and internalize other people’s opinions.
  • Democracy involves more than just “governing”.  Within Occupy encampments, the business of everyday life becomes a collective concern.  Even in the marches and protests in which I have participated, basic decisions about which way to turn at an intersection involve a debate followed by a vote.  Occupy recognizes that nearly all of the decisions we take as individuals have impacts on others, and that therefore these decisions should be considered as part of a broader democratic process.  This is different from saying that “government” should be extended into spheres of our lives where it isn’t already; instead, it’s about building respect for the needs of others into our quotidian thinking and personal actions.
  • Democracy requires that losers cooperate.  As became incredibly clear after Obama’s election in 2008, our political system has devolved to the point where the losing party no longer accepts the winner’s electoral mandate, but instead uses every procedural and substantive power to block them.  Occupy Wall Street would seem to take this obstructionism to the extreme by allowing a small number of individuals to “block” a proposal backed by the majority.  In practice, though, consensus decision-making works because many individuals realize that while they may disapprove of a course of action, they’re willing to defer to those who are going through with an action anyway.  Blocks are rarely used because the goal of the process is not to find perfect harmony, but precisely the kind of accommodation that our erstwhile politicians appear incapable of achieving.

Are Occupy Wall Street’s mass general assemblies, autonomous working groups, and arcane procedures of consensus decision-making a model for society as a whole?  Maybe not: my experiences in the last few months make me think that each of these would be a deeply flawed blueprint for a democratic society.  But the collective puzzling-out of what would be a truly democratic system requires, on a deeper level, that each of us build democratic values into our interactions, thoughts, and speech.  If it achieves nothing else, #OWS may at the very least create a generation that can figure out what democracy should look like after all.

Even Princeton

It so happens that the very night Occupy Princeton mic checked J.P. Morgan, I myself was talking about Princeton—or, more specifically, avoiding talking about Princeton.  A cohort-mate introduced me to one of her friends, and she asked me where I went to school before Berkeley.  As per usual, I mumbled something about Central New Jersey.and attempted to change the subject.  My friend wasn’t having it, though: “He went to Princeton”, she said.

My secret out, I offered my stock derision of my alma mater.  Did you know that there are eating clubs where you have to do ten interviews for admission, in a process that’s actually called “bicker”?  Have you heard about how Princeton got sued because so many of the students from its school for public policy went to work for hedge funds?  Or that upper-classmen put on double-popped collars, play croquet, and smoke cigars outside the site where newly admit pre-frosh congregate, just so incoming students start off with the right impression?  The implicit message, as always, was that if she thinks Princeton students are a bunch of over-privileged douchebags, she’s probably right.

The funny thing, though, is that I myself don’t even believe the stereotypes I’m conveying.  When I think of Princeton, I don’t think about eating clubs or polo shirts.  In my mind, “Princeton” is the professor who came into my first class freshman year and announced she had been kicked out of the prison system for teaching Marxism, the misfits who welcomed me into the marching band, and the young activists who strong-armed me into going vegan my sophomore year.  When I sing “In Praise of Old Nassau”, I mean it: it’s just that I’m thinking about the group of upperclassmen who took me to punk shows in Asbury Park when I was a lonely freshman, the old alumni who decided to give a scholarship to a kid who spent his hour long interview talking about anarchism, and the sociology professor who told me to follow my passions into a dumpster.

There are, of course, people at Princeton who are assholes from the second they set foot on campus.  But I truly believe, as Occupy Princeton said in their mic check, that most Princeton students don’t come to campus wanting to work for Goldman Sachs.  A significant minority, like me, arrive completely unaware of Princeton’s reputation as “the country club of the Ivy League.”  By the time we get to Princeton, though, most of us are hardwired to constantly look for the most exclusive eating club, the most selective major, and the most prestigious job.  The sad fact is, if you’re a Princeton freshman looking for role models, the most successful people you see are the ones going into finance.

And so Princeton’s reputation for elitism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The people who have no qualms about turning a half-million dollar education into a six-figure salary are also the people who are oblivious enough to wear Princeton on their sleeve.  The rest of us are afraid to associate ourselves with a name that others have made synonymous with greed and exclusivity, filled with guilt about the benefits we have accrued from a place we claim to hate.  The progressive alumni keep away from reunions, and by extension, each other: after all, it would be a bit incongruous if we expended much effort on a community that we are constantly bitching about.  The result is that a minority—and yes, it really is a minority—of Princeton students get to define what Princeton is to most of the world, and, in so doing, control the meaning of one of the most momentous four-year-periods of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong: Princeton has an awful history.  There is an important conversation to be had about whether Princeton should exist at all—if there really is a place in our society for such a lavish educational experience while public education is being cut to the bone.  But so long as Princeton does exist, those of us who have benefited from it ought to be able to have an open debate about how we can best use that privilege.  But before that can even happen, we need to challenge the basic narrative—that many of us alumni are ourselves perpetuating—that Princeton is an unredeemable, reactionary hell hole.

I’m glad that Occupy Princeton directed their message at the banks: their action had incredible power because, as so many media outlets seemed to say, even Princeton seems to be waking up.  But for me personally, the message they conveyed was one I’ve yet to find the courage to say:

Mic Check! /

We at Princeton /

Are not all assholes /

Some of us /

Are just twenty-somethings /

Who got lucky /

And are trying to figure out /

How to do some good

An Open Letter to the Princeton Community

After the tigers of Occupy Princeton mic-checked recruiting events for Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, a few concerned alumni collaboratively drafted an Open Letter to Princeton Community to send to the Princeton Alumni Weekly and the university administration.  If you are an alum and want to sign it, shoot me an e-mail (also, let me know if you want to be on our e-mail list, discussing further actions that could be taken along this vein).

Bringing concerns about income inequality and economic injustice into the heart of American privilege is itself a good thing; as a Princeton alum, I also think it’s important to seize on this moment to try to change a deeply problematic culture of entitlement on campus (exhibit A-Z).  No letter drafted by a group of people is ever going to express any individual’s views perfectly.  I hope, though, that people who agree with the spirit of Occupy Princeton’s action will consider adding their names in support.

For those who can’t open links, the text is below.

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To the Princeton Community:

When we were at Princeton, we were often reminded that Princeton’s motto is ‘In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.’ Despite this ideal, we have discovered that to many outside the Orange Bubble, Princeton symbolizes something much less noble: greed, privilege, and elitism. We believe that part of this perception stems from Princeton’s strong institutional support for careers in the financial services sector, an industry that includes firms like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, which have taken billions of dollars in public money and used it to pay excessive bonuses and manipulate our political system to their own advantage.

We applaud the students of Occupy Princeton for challenging Princeton’s dominant culture of political disengagement. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your peers and speak uncomfortable truths. Princeton graduates are entitled to work in the industry of their choosing, but if they do choose to work in finance, they should know they are entering an industry with a condemning historical record of breaching public trust and engaging in practices that run directly counter to Princeton’s motto. We believe that the Occupy Princeton protests send an important message to these financial institutions about the University’s values and serve to educate students considering a career in finance.

The burden of showing that Princeton University is more than an elite playground should not fall on the shoulders of students alone. The administration should support—not discipline—those students who are attempting to bring Princeton into a much-needed national conversation about income inequality and economic justice.  Moreover, we urge the administration to stop providing institutional support for recruiting on campus by the worst offenders of the financial industry, such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, until they show that they meet basic standards of accountability and economic fair play.

Lastly, we call on fellow alumni to join us in making it clear to current undergraduates that there are better ways to use the immense privilege of a Princeton education. We say this not just to encourage students to look outside of finance, but also to suggest that they use the skills and connections they have developed at Princeton to achieve positive good from within financial careers.

It’s time to decide whether ‘the nation’s service’ refers to the entire nation, or just 1% of it.


The Zero Sum Movement

The first time I walked into the Occupy Oakland encampment, I felt like I had set foot in utopia.  I had been to Oscar Grant Plaza, in front of city hall, just a few days prior, but left the occupation’s first general assembly quickly after it devolved into an endless series of ideological pontifications: this isn’t going anywhere, I thought.  But it did.  When I returned, Occupy Oakland was a veritable city, except that most cities don’t provide their own power via bicycle generators, don’t provide free food and medical care for anyone who needs it, and aren’t bursting with beautiful artwork and transformative ideas in equal measure.

Over the next month, I returned to Oakland repeatedly—to march in the occupation’s first demonstration, to help them retake the plaza after the first time they were evicted, to aid in shutting down Oakland’s port as part of a general strike, and, once, to show it off to some visiting friends.  It’s funny, because media reports always emphasize how angry occupiers are, and in public, there’s some truth to that.  Yet behind that there was always a palpable sense of joy and possibility.  Every time I left Oakland, I felt rejuvenated and inspired.  If we can create an egalitarian, democratic enclave in the heart of Oakland, with all its racial conflict, violence, homelessness, and deprivation, then how could we possibly deny the possibility of organizing our entire society around these principles?

Somehow, over that same month, Occupy Oakland came to symbolize something very different to the rest of the nation.  Reports of a shooting outside the encampment (no rareity in the 5th most dangerous city in the U.S.) and images of protesters rioting in downtown (actually, they were trying to set up a library in an abandoned building until they were attacked by police, but whatever) came to define the occupation.  The city did its part by deliberately attempting to make the park an unsafe and unclean space.  Eventually, the encampment became not just physically but semiotically contaminated, the manifestation of all the concerns about violence and hedonism that even erstwhile sympathzers had about the occupy movement.  I knew it was bad when my mother told me, just don’t go to Occupy Oakland.

But when, three weeks ago, the call went out to support the encampment against a possible eviction, I felt that I needed to go: Occupy Oakland had given me so much that the least I could do was support their very existence.  We arrived at about 2 a.m., and parked a few blocks away from the plaza, where a line of ambulences were waiting.  I asked one of the paramedics if he had any advice for staying safe: he responded that I should go as far away as possible.  I asked him if he thought anyone was going to die tonight: he said he wasn’t sure.  “That encampment’s a shithole, man.  It’s got to go”, he explained.

I have to admit that when I reached the plaza, I could see what he meant.  Some combination of rain, negative publicity, and news of the impending eviction meant that the camp had fallen into disrepair.  Most of the tents were deserted, save a few strung-out looking individuals, and there was trash everywhere.  In contrast to a few weeks earlier, when thousands had thronged to the street to defend the encampment, this time only a scant few responded.  Those that weren’t frantically packing up their belongings were standing in a nearby intersection, half-heartedly participating in an all-night dance party that had been labeled, appropriately, the “Occupocalypse.”

Few in my generation will experience warfare in the way our grandparents did, even if the response to occupations around the country has turned our inner cities into veritable battlefields.  Tenuous though the military analogy is, I nonetheless bet that night was the closest I will ever come to experiencing what it is like to be in a city right before the arrival of an enemy army.  Anonymous Medics wearing all-black spandex suits and Guy Fawkes-masks came in with reports of police encircling us from all directions, but the information was never put to use.  Rumors swirled, and the mechanisms of decision-making that have defined our movement—the people’s mic and consensus—broke down.  A few black bloc anarchists donned vinegar-soaked bandanas, in preparation for a street fight.  Some local union members marched in a picket line, chanting lines of strength and empowerment that, for the moment, seemed to have lost their meaning.  Confusion, panic, and above all, despair permeated the crowd.

When the police came, the hopelessness of the situation was immediately evident.  There were hundreds of them, coming from all sides, armed with batons, rubber bullets, and assault rifles.  We didn’t come to an open decision, but everyone at this point realized we were there to bear witness, not to resist.  My best-case scenario rapidly shifted: just let no one get hurt.  I left when I could see that it would not be a massacre, and that most of those who were arrested would be given the chance to do so peacefully.  There’s no such thing as “non-violence” when hundreds of police are involved, but I was grateful not to see a repeat of the bloody mess they caused a few weeks prior.

I’m uncomfortable with some of the comparisons between police repression in the U.S. and the Middle East; although the linkages in police tactics and weaponry are important to note, we should not forget our fortune that Americans are not actually being killed yet.  But as I saw that night, you don’t need to harm our bodies to kill our sense of hope and possibility.  Occupy Oakland has not disappeared—indeed, tomorrow they will most likely manage to shut down the port of Oakland, once again, in solidarity with ILWU workers struggling for their right to be unionized.  They will find ways to keep fighting, as will the evicted occupiers in LA, Boston, New York, and Portland.

But without our encampments—our sites of radical, almost playful experimentation in utopia—I fear our movement has lost its innocence.  We spent two months pretending to live in the world we sought to create; now we have no choice but to confront the ugly reality of the world we live in.  They did not let us make our own power: now we must take it.  They refused to let us occupy public space: so we will seize their private buildings.  There can be no denying that this struggle is now zero sum.  But they were the ones who made it that way.

I Smashed A Bank, And I Didn’t Like It

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.”


On Efficacy

Tomorrow, we march.

I’ve been attending so many meetings, assemblies, flyer-ings, and marches in the last few weeks that it’s hard to see them as distinct events.  But still I tell myself that tomorrow is critical; that in a week that saw coordinated crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations across the country, it’s a crucial time to show solidarity and build momentum before the movement whithers away.  I’m so convinced (or perhaps, deluded) about how important tomorrow is that I’ve waived my don’t-be-a-moralizing-prick rule and sent an e-mail to my friends, encouraging them to join me.

Most of them won’t, and they’ll have good reasons not to.  If it’s not raining tomorrow, it’ll be too hot—either way, an unpleasant way to spend a Saturday.  They’ll have papers to write, funding applications to prepare, or, at the very least, hundreds of pages of reading to plough through.  Others will tell me, quite validly, that they really think the best way to achieve “change” is to focus on their degrees, trading short term engagement for long-term advancement, working towards that nebulous point in the future where we will, supposedly, forget about our careers and tenure and families and mortages and decide that now we’re ready to act.  The best reason not to come out, though, is encapsulated by a question that even I’ve been asking myself over and over again during the last few weeks: “You don’t actually think any of this will change anything, do you?”

Well no, not really.  I’m not stupid.  The odds are stacked against any movement for social justice, ever.  I can envision many scenarios in which Occupy Wall Street ends, and few of them are positive.  Eventually, images like that of a New York Police Supervisor beating the shit out of a woman will scare people off—or, if not that, the impending cold will.  Absent that, the grab bag of leftist causes that Occupy Wall Street represents might collapse from its own lack of coherence, dissolving into infighting as so many anarchist movements do.  Supposing the movement does piece together some demands, they will be dismissed immediately.  All told, the rational person would hedge his or her bets and stay home tomorrow.

I ultimately don’t buy the argument that people stay away not because they are apathetic, but because they’re saving their energy for things that are more likely to be effective.  After all, what would happen if we applied this same rationality to the rest of our lives—if we were as cautious about our day-to-day choices as we were about politics?  Why bother making a pass at the next girl at the bar when you know the chances you’ll wind up happily married to her are infinitesimal?  What’s the point of working hard to get ahead when the vast majority of Americans will die in the same socioeconomic cohort as their parents?  And why put on a seat belt given the tiny likelihood of this being the trip where you roll over?

The reality is that we are human precisely because we play long odds; our greatest moments are when we strive for things impossible.  Or maybe I should say improbable.  The funny thing is, things do change.  If you don’t believe me, try a Rawlsian thought experiment.  If you didn’t know what your race, class, or gender would be, would you rather be born in present day America—or the America of 100 years ago?  As catastrophic as things may seem today, I’ll bet you’d choose the America where people have an eight hour work day, a safety net of disability insurance and food stamps, and universal suffrage.  What’s makes that 100 year difference matter?  It was the aggregate of thousands of futile choices, the sum of meaningless individual flailings against an unjust system that, somehow and inexplicably, combined into something meaningful.

Some of our parents went to Washington to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, joining a legion of Don Quixotes marching against centuries of entrenched hierarchy and subjugation.  Some of our parents watched it all on TV.  Have your pick, but if you stay at home, don’t expect me to keep you company.  I’ll be out tilting at windmills.

99% Plus One

In fifteen minutes, I’ll be heading to Shattuck and Central to take part in the first General Assembly of Occupy Berkeley.  I spent the start of this week frantically searching for plane tickets to get me to New York, hoping to stand up and be counted among the protesters of Occupy Wall Street before police repression and collective ridicule brought it to a close.  Even I have to confess a certain surprise at how things have developed in the last week: first, they announced an occupation in Oakland starting on Monday, and—not to be outdone—Occupy Berkeley moved up its data a week.  There are no cracks in the capitalist façade just yet, but at the very least, I’m starting to think this could be my generation’s 1968.

The poignant, emotional counterweight to the protester’s rage is best chronicled by the “We are the 99%” project.  The stories of crushing student debt and multiple minimum wage jobs without benefits speak to the zeitgeist of our time.  But, I have to admit, they don’t speak to my own experience.  Yes, I make $22,000 a year—putting me in the forty-third percentile of working Americans—but I have $0 in student debt and a credit card balance of $2.85.  Academia is not the sure path to a lifelong contract it once was, but as one professor told me “They’re not really getting rid of tenure for us.”  I don’t believe in pretending to face more adversity than I actually do: the precariousness of the present and hopelessness for the future many of the 99% seem to feel is not something I share.  Which makes me wonder: am I part of the 1% and, if so, does this movement have a place for me?

The Republicans, of course, are already crying “class war.”  Much like “socialism”, they don’t know what that means—but as a student of Marx, I’d like to think I do.  I’ll point out the obvious an note that for there to be “class war” there have to be classes—some coherent sense of identification with people in a similar economic situation.  But in a country where we are more likely to be members of Netflix than any political organization and 90% of us are convinced we are part of the nebulous “middle” (en route to upper, no doubt!), the tools of class war have disappeared.  The narrative of the poor and unemployed rising up to fight the rich is a romantic one, but much like the idea that the Tea Party was made up of political neophytes, it’s probably wrong.  When the studies come out on Occupy Wall Street, they will certainly show that while a few participants were truly disenfranchised, many were secure, privileged individuals like myself.  So if not class war, what is all of this?

I am not so naïve to think that we live in a country where thousands of people will take to the streets to denounce capitalism.  In truth, as I see it the underlying foe with which Occupy Wall Street is concerned is not neo-liberalism, or capitalism, or even austerity, but individualism.  I don’t mean individualism in the relatively banal sense of free-thinking and free-expression.  I mean the individualism in the post-Reagan sense, the belief that “society”, as an entity, does not matter, and that our only obligations are to ourselves.  It’s the individualism that manifests itself when crowds at Republican debates clap at letting people without health insurance die in the name of “freedom”, or that stigmatizes the unemployed as destitute due only to their own shortcomings.  And yes, it’s also the individualism that tells us that we shouldn’t protest the current system because, after all, we’re comfortable.

Because this isn’t class war, I don’t think Karl Marx holds the keys to understanding Occupy Wall Street.  For the theoretically minded out there, though, I offer Karl Polanyi as someone who does.  Writing shortly after the Great Depression, Polanyi argued that free markets contained the seeds of their own destruction: in their race to commodify everything, they destroyed the very societies on which they depended.  For Polanyi, action always provoked reaction—the movement of capitalism was inevitably met by a counter-movement of society, which stepped in to regulate the market before it annihilated itself.  Seen through this lens, the seemingly endless consensus-based meetings happening in Liberty Square—which the media loves to mock—are not oriented towards overthrowing capitalism.  Instead, their aim is to recreate society itself—to rejuvenate a sense of collective good and collective efficacy among a generation that has grown up atomized and disconnected.

We are not the 99%.  We are one—one society, risen up to prevent its own suicide at the hands of three hundred million individuals.