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.