Occupy Portland continues to evolve, as the various committees find more “permanent” shelters and locations, and infrastructure acclimatizes itself to what endless street-siege really means.
There’s lots of thinks to discuss; far more than there is time to discuss them, as there are toilets to be cleaned, and over in Sanitation (where I seem to be finding my more regular home, except for today and tomorrow, which I am taking off) the compost is always piling up. But I want to devote a moment to a topic that keeps cropping up, about which I had a Twitter conversation this morning. That is: radical inclusivity facing off against exclusivity.
The conversation was prompted by this tale of a border-fascist group (the exact organization of which is disputed, but I feel comfortable calling what smells like it, it) showing up Occupy Phoenix, and how the confrontation went down.
The subject of the conversation that proceeded was whether or not the writer of the account took more time to berate allies than condemning the fascists, and whether this was an alienating, divisive act or not, of a kind that might splinter or fracture the growing occupation movement.
Setting aside the fact that the written account seemed to be aimed at confronting the movement itself after the fact for it’s lackluster response to fascism, whereas the actual confrontation with the fascists occurred at the event; I think this is a good cautionary tale not only for dealing with fascists, but also for dealing with a certain passive dynamic of human groups.
Note I’m saying “human groups”, not liberals, sheeple, or any degradatory term for any particular sub-culture of leftists I don’t happen to agree with. Because all of us feel the impetus for general peacefulness and calm in the face of any aggression (I hope). But, it is also appropriate to set passivity aside and raise ones voice at times. That’s the whole point of protest, after all.
I myself have encountered this necessity in Portland, thankfully not in the presence of armed paramilitaries, but to counter the force of what I’d call “passive exclusivity”, as opposed to the active kind that carried assault rifles.
Several motions have been raised both in the GA and other assemblies, proposing some form of “exclusivity”. Mostly, in terms of kicking out “certain elements” from the occupation camp. The term “riff raff” has actually been used. I think we all know what is being referred to here. There are people at the occupation who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with the look of some of their fellow occupiers. For the time being, we’ll just pretend this is an unfortunate, unconscious bias, and not read it as a symptom of any form of class or race antagonism, just because that’s not really the point of what I’m writing (though we should get into that at another time).
Often this exclusivity crops up in discussion of work. While working in the dish line the other night, a guy came up to us and thanked us for our hard work. Then, he preceded to tell us how we shouldn’t serve food to people who don’t volunteer. Regardless of the fact that I’ve never seen that individual doing anything around the camp, I am proud to say we working Sanitation at the time sent him away with an earful.
While it might seem, according to the sort of common sense logic that gives the 53% people a position of ego on which to stand, that “work ought to be a prerequisite for reward”, it is also the beginning of the capitalist exchange, the end point of which is class-based division of labor, and exuberant salaries based on the so-called “importance” of the work being done.
There is only one reason to work, in the Occupation camp, or elsewhere: that is because there are tasks to be done. And there are only tasks that support a single (though, admittedly loosely construed) goal: to make sure everyone is taken care of. The alternative is social Darwinism of a lethal kind. And as long as I work as part of the Occupation, it will be an occupation that includes everyone willing to take part, even if the way in which they take part is only showing up to be fed. When we say this is a leaderless movement, i hope we also mean this is a classless movement. There is no privileged working class above an unemployable class–there is only all of us, part of the same humanity.
To a lesser but no less real extent, I’m also seeing a similar exclusivity occurring between different committees, among individuals who haven’t fully grasped the radical class conception of the occupation. Last night a medic told me he didn’t have time to sort his committee’s garbage because “he had to get back to work.” I asked him what he thought we at Sanitation were busy doing, if it was not work? I obliged him with the favor of sorting his recycling, because he truly was in a hurry, but I think this language slip shows a sort of passive exclusivity, a division of thought that slips back in to our way of thinking, if we don’t unlearn what capitalism has taught us to believe as axiomatic truths, and take it upon ourselves to gently but vociferously correct our fellows when they slip up.
Another big way this exclusivity crops up at the Portland occupation is on the subject of “safety”. Last night a proposal was brought to the GA that would give the Safety Committee (a great, historically-aware name, no? It shouldn’t surprise that this committee is often mis-named as “Security Committee” in practice) the ability to escort people consuming drugs or alcohol out of camp. Safety is an issue at the Portland occupation; we’re fortunate enough to not have to deal with police on an hour-by-hour basis, but the flip side of this is that there have been aggressive incidents with individuals we’ve had to deal with ourselves.
However, the wording of the proposal makes it an easy way to roust undesired members of the community at the will of others. There are many people dealing with addiction that are enjoying the safe space of our camp. There are also those with disabilities who make look unpleasant to some, and speak as if intoxicated, but are productive members of the community. Any of these people might be kicked out of camp by this proposal at the whim of a more articulate person.
I offered an amendment to change the proposal to deal with the actual concern: violent, aggressive behavior by those who are intoxicated. I’m still uncomfortable that I had to offer this amendment. It seems obvious to me how a security procedure might be abused. And yet, the crafters of the proposal, as honest and concerned as their intentions may have been, were unconscious of the way this proposal might be used to segregate our community. (The GA ran out of time on this proposal, so it will be recrafted to accommodate my and others’ concerns, and offered to the GA anew.)
All of this is to make a point: sometimes it is easy to see those that would introduce oppression and exclusivity into a community, and other times it is not. But to keep a community inclusive, especially a community such as our that is building and rebuilding itself daily, it takes the radical step of confronting this exclusivity, regardless of the intention and the source. We need people to speak up and remind us of our privileges, and how they affect our self-governance. We need people to openly reject those who consider it “isn’t an important issue”, or pass it off as a potentially divisive issue. What is far more divisive than speaking to people displaying passive exclusivity openly and honestly, and defending our community against fascism is allowing it to sleep peacefully within our nascent movement.
We’ve made a start that is very inclusive. Part of our hard work will be keeping it so, as we grow.