This is something that I’ve been sitting on for a couple months, and so I thought I would post it. It seems related to the question of politics and the New Aesthetic, but at the moment I’m not quite sure how. Something to do with the relationship between what we are actually doing, and how we talk about what we are doing. At any rate, I think there is some good language in here that I wanted to put out there.
Douglas Rushkoff doesn’t really understand Occupy. At least in this talk, his words don’t understand Occupy. He might understand it, but he just doesn’t talk about in during this video. That might not be his fault, of course. There are many things that are more complex than words easily impart, especially in the limited time frame and audience of a keynote talk. I’m going to try here, but I won’t necessarily do any better.
But nevertheless, this talk doesn’t get Occupy. Occupy isn’t a fully distributed movement. It is not the commons. It isn’t hyperlinks. It isn’t Twitter, where everyone gets 140 characters, and then what they do with that becomes integrated into some Klout curve of follow counts and RT quotients. As a friend told me, “Occupy is not a platform.” I know this, but it took the friend to remind me. I wish it was these things, because I get social media. I really like using Twitter, and my use of that platform is fulfilling to me. I wish Occupy could be the same.
Everyone says “Occupy is this, Occupy is that, Occupy is everything” and you start to believe it, because if social media was some sort of metaphor for Occupy, then by occupying I wouldn’t be doing anything different than my normal life (if you’re me, and like to chat on Twitter all day). I live half my life on half a dozen networks, I work and Occupy on networks, my friends are networked. So yeah, it’s fractals, it’s rhizomes, it’s the music of the spheres. Why not? I’ve used drugs. I read Deleuze. It all sounds good.
But that’s just the spectacle of Occupy, according to the people that need to keep reminding themselves and re-viewing the spectacle to remind themselves that it exists (i.e. they’re not living it every day so they have to talk about it). The spectacle of Occupy is a “Non-Demand-Based” political occupation of public space. Their emphasis. The weird thing to most people is the lack of demands, and they need to name this as a platform. “Well, if you’re doing something I don’t get, and it’s got a lot of people and it’s distributed, there’s a mess of computers and maybe drones, then it must be the internet.”
No. Occupy is the public street. The Street is just like it always has been. The street is dirty, messy, stretches your understanding of what is and isn’t violent, and is nuts. There are many different streets, and they each have their own character. But there are certain streets that we are starting to pay attention to again. It’s not just a square in the Middle East somewhere, and its not just the National Mall. It isn’t even Main Street, USA. The Street that all of a sudden we are forced to pay attention to is a weird strip of land that we saw everyday for years, that we ignored as innocuous green space. It is a college campus, that is supposed to just be a frisbee park, or a background in Admissions brochures. The Street is in a different place, but it’s still The Street.
There’s a temporal difference as well. The Street is still The Street, but now the smart people are back out in the street, and so The Street is actually doing something “interesting”, and not just being blocked by peasantry standing in the way of JP Morgan’s car. The bourgeoisie are in the street, either because they’ve been forced there, or because the interesting things are going on out there. The Street is relatively safe, despite what the media will tell you. The media refuses to use history as a comparison. But they’re just another vendor with a product to sell, and history is not it.
If you don’t think that people build homes in The Street all the time; if you don’t think that riots happen all the time; if you think that people aren’t protesting capitalism outside of the mall every day of the week; if you don’t think that people are always capable of defending themselves against the police if they choose to do so; then you are merely more interested in a different narrative that is not the narrative of The Street, and so you’ve been choosing to ignore it. What Occupy is, is that The Street had a good old fashioned flash mob, and decided to all show up in the same place at the same time, and then people actually showed up, and we’re repulsed by The Street, but actually kind of got into it. And then the Media noticed. It was a word, it was capitalized, and because of a number of pictures that happened at the right time, the word got capitalized, and then the Media could use it to sell advertisements.
This happened in Portland on October 6th, when I met people that I’ve been working with for the last six months. Best flash mob ever. Since then, it’s been business as usual, and that means The Street, as usual. Fighting the narrative that refuses to recognize The Street. Every few weeks we take over The Street, and remind the consolidated forces of power and capital that it isn’t just a roadway. We keep thinking about it, planning it, coming up with better ideas, breaking down bad ideas, and solidify the organization of The Street in the process.
This isn’t a popular movement, it never was, and it never will be. The world is just too multiplicitous of a place for everyone to ever be captivated by anything in particular. We struggle to understand voter disengagement. But can you ever get everyone to do anything? Can’t even get half the population of a supposed “American Culture” to all watch the Super Bowl. Can’t you imagine if you were a popular speaker, but couldn’t even get half of a room to all listen to you at the same time? There will never be a majority of people. A majority of a sample set, maybe. If you force everyone you ask to answer a question as either yes or no.
But The Street keeps doing it’s thing, which is lots of things, each and everyone doing their own thing. The interesting thing about The Street, at least the Occupied street, is that there is still, after six months, a critical mass of really smart people willing to join in this particular sample set. And not just to answer yes or no, but to start working on some really difficult projects.
My personal project is that I’m trying to destroy mainstream media as a capitalist business model, and make it a form of political history. Yeah, we could use some help. It’s not easy to deconstruct a hierarchical system of publishing that relies upon selling marketing material, and remake it into an anarchist media organization. But we’re working on it, and getting a lot better. We don’t have a platform. We couldn’t use one. Facebook is not going to solve this problem, because that is not what the platform will let you do. Twitter won’t solve the problem. No one tool is going to make The Street function better. It’s going to take a whole lot of tools, that will have to be begged, borrowed, and stolen. How is Facebook going to help me when a cop tries to smash my camera with a baton? How is Facebook going to help me when a rogue hacker feels personally insulted by something on our website and threatens to attack us? Who is going to help us? What former institution, what State platform, is going to guarantee a nice, fair, distributed lifestyle for the street? The Police as Platform? Our education system as Platform? Representative Democracy as Platform? Occupy as Platform? Fuck that. It’s not just leaders that have failed us. It’s the systems that anyone with a famous name has tried to sell us. Jordan, Clinton, Jobs, Lin, Obama, Zuckerberg. Fuck ‘em all. We’re going to need a solid crew of real experts who want to keep working in the street, not just some flashy apps, and “platforms”, and the assholes who are going to collect money from us for the privilege of attempting to get on board.
The General Assembly is not platform. It’s not the point, anymore than your homepage is the Internet. It’s just how you start. It’s how you learn about consensus, which is the point. Everyone works on a modified consensus, anyway. The real work goes on in Committees and working groups, in the affinity groups that we use to take The Street for public use and shut down corporations. It’s about how you stay in The Street, not about how you got there, or when and why you decide to leave. Many people think that if we can just get the people to the streets, then everything will take care of itself. But it’s getting the people into the streets, and giving them the tools to figure out what they are doing there, and what they are going to do next. There’s no platform for that. Seen any good Occupy apps? Of course you haven’t.
And here’s what is going on in The Streets.
Learning programming; figuring out how to print things without wasting quite so much material; figuring out what sort of music helps you stay awake on a 40 hour drive because there was no other way; the fine art of quitting smoking, starting again, and quitting again; pre-protest yoga; studying drone silhouettes; sleeping in office buildings; sleeping in cars; sleeping on concrete; sleeping while standing; SEO and social media (yeah it’s in there); dodging bill collectors; ducking the cops, cooking for people with gluten intolerances plus lactose allergies; making a business model to keep a storefront to use it as a place to have meetings; helping a store owner with his/her business model to keep the storefront to use it as a place to have meetings; man/zone defense theories of police brutality media coverage; conveying opinion in meetings by hand signals alone to save time; trying to stay married; trying not to wonder about whether or not to have kids; arguing about whether or not broken windows are violence; healing from wounds; learning how to type on a laptop while running from armed men; picking a collaborative editing platform and sticking with it for the benefit of the people who can’t adopt to new software so quickly; arguing with drunks; de-escalation training; union negotiation; the fine art of threatening people in a non-criminal way over the internet; consensus process; conspiracy theory literacy; and, if there’s any money, getting drunk every now and again to forget all the things you can’t plan or skill out of the equation and remain huge, angst-ridden empty variables, like the inside of a prison, or death.
And it’s a little bit romantic, at least when you sum it up in one long run-on sentence. That’s a privilege of being on The Streets in this country, as opposed to somewhere else where they would be no time or place to glorify it in such ways. And when you’ve been doing it for six months and you’ve already realized that this is what the rest of your life is going to look like, it doesn’t really seem that romantic anyway. It certainly doesn’t seem like you’ve happened upon a new renaissance paradigm. It seems more like you’re fighting a war, but it’s a war that everyone else refuses to believe exists. You start to wonder if maybe if you died from it, that would prove that you’re not crazy. Or maybe it would only prove that you are.
And that’s not the Internet. It has the internet in it, but only as part. It’s life.
Okay, a quick word. Alexis Madrigal, whose opinion I very much respect, wrote this piece not exactly defending the police officer who pepper sprayed a bunch of absolutely peaceful students at UC Davis. Not defending, but sort of giving him a bit of sympathy by way of drawing blame to the institution that allowed the event to take place, rather than the individual (though Alexis clarified that he does not consider the officer blameless).
I call bullshit. Absolutely. As an Occupier committed to non-violence, I cannot and will not excuse the actions of this police officer under any condition.
First, go find the video on Youtube if you haven’t seen it. (You’ll have no trouble finding it.)
It is brutality, plain and simple. This is brutal violence. Those people were sitting on the ground, and a person used a large amount of poisonous chemicals to cause them immense pain, to the point that they vomited, and a number were hospitalized. THEY WERE CHEMICALLY INDUCED TO VOMIT PAINFULLY, each and every one of them on purpose, by one person.
We MUST blame the individual. The system of policing in this country is broken, simply because we cannot blame the individuals. They are allowed to hide behind their badge, their authority, our respect for the hard job that they do, and the vast bureaucracy that goes into reinforcing these things. Policing is a tough job, with unimaginable stress. But in this job we allow sadists to serve, and it damages what authority such a dangerous job deserves.
I would make Arendt’s argument about little Eichmanns, but it’s been made it before. Instead, let me relay my own anecdote.
At Portland’s occupation, just a couple of weeks ago, I witnessed an ugly scene. The Safety Committee was stressed beyond anything you can imagine. There had been threats, fights, weapons in camp. The actual police force was doing very little to help remove the violent element that had come into the camp (they excuses varied, but mostly they circulated around the claim that they couldn’t arrest anyone without witnesses).
On this day, the Safety Committee called an emergency meeting in the center of camp. The meeting was started under the best intentions: to determine once and for all how we were going to deal with safety issues. We had to do something, and the Safety Committee, despite all their incredibly hard work and dedication, were not making headway.
There was a lot of emotion at that meeting. It started off angry. The Safety Committee said that they refused to let things go on as they were, without a plan for going forward. Others echoed this anger, as they were fed up with the troublemakers in camp, too. Things started to turn ugly fast. Someone suggested rounding all the troublemakers, the drug users, the people who weren’t helping out, and running them all out of camp. Some people, who represented a much more aggressive element at the camp (not on the Safety Committee officially), carried large sticks and poles. There was aggressive, sexist, homophobic language. Eventually, a fight did break out at the meeting, between these new, self-appointed “peace makers” and a random person who didn’t do anything.
I’m not going to spend time describing it in full, but let me just say: it got real. I’ve been in some sketchy situations in my life. I’ve been in riots, and in the middle of brawls, and it crowds of drunk, angry, bored, aggressive people. I’ve been threatened by people I believed were capable of following through. But I’ve never seen a situation like this. The danger was palpable. For a period of five minutes, I could have seen this angry crowd do just about anything. That’s not an exaggeration.
Afterwards, people said a great many things. They said that it wasn’t the Safety Committee that upped the aggression level at that meeting (and it’s true, it wasn’t). They said that people were angry, tired, and emotional (and it’s true, they were). But there is nothing that anyone could say to me that excuses what happened.
Being committed to non-violence means this to me:
I will not be part of a society that uses wild, uncontrolled aggression to manage its problems. I will not be part of a society that includes sexist and homophobic language in its vocabulary for engaging its community. I will not be part of a society that allows people who do these things to take the lead, and to define these behaviors as the norm, or even merely excusable in the worst of times. I will take a zero tolerance approach towards anyone or anything bringing these things into my society.
This is not just a moral pledge; this is an ethical promise. I was prepared, after seeing this meeting, to walk away from the occupation and not look back. If I couldn’t stay and make things better, then I would leave, and hope others would too.
Luckily, things calmed down greatly after that day. There were still safety problems, but the aggression level calmed down, and I personally did not witness anyone acting in that way again. Now, our camp has been cleared out by the police, and the issues we’re dealing with at Portland’s Occupation are entirely different.
The fact that we are willing to tolerate violent individuals in society is not the reason that we have violence. But it prevents us from getting a foothold in the fight to stop violence. As Occupiers, we are not just conscientious rejectors of a violent society; we must quash the violence of individuals in the new society we are trying to make, and we must do it with our own non-violent action.
This is how this works: The minute someone suggests violence against other people as a strategy of improving society, they are removed from the conversation. If we can engage them in argument, and bring them around to a better understanding of why violence is not considered, then excellent. But if we are to create a strategy to ethically reject violent behavior against other people, we cannot ethically consider violent behavior as part of that strategy. The moment that someone in our society takes a violent step towards another person, we make it clear that they are no longer part of our society. And again, and again, and again. We won’t accept it. If we hold firm in this ethical action, we will find we are on the side of the overwhelming majority. Given the option, most people will choose to be part of the side that is always peaceful. The reason why is obvious.
The police, just like the Safety Committee, do a hard job that few want to do. They often have to defend themselves. But the fact that they do a hard job is no excuse for any one of them to commit violence against another person. That they are part of an institution with little effective means for accountability is no reason to excuse a violent act. That they are wielded as weapons by certain powerful forces in society, is no excuse for any one person to be the person who commits a violent act against another person. Until an individual does such a thing, they are just like me, and they are part of my society. But the minute they decide to do that thing that I find inexcusable, they are on their own. I will welcome them back, as soon as they reject that violence, now and forever.
Once Lt. Pike has rejected violence, and made steps to convince our society that he is committed to this rejection, we’ll welcome him back. But until that time, there is no one else to blame for those students’ suffering other than Lt. Pike, and the other officers that pulled the trigger.
You might think it is easy for me to say this, but it’s not. It’s a supremely difficult thing to say, and to mean it. It means setting yourself against the majority of society that is willing to excuse such behavior, because they think it can be excusable. But this is the fight we’re fighting. All of us who have decided to non-violently occupy, are making this new non-violent society ourselves, only by our commitment to that non-violence, one day at a time. Mistakes will be made, and strategies will be improved. But not a single act of violence will be excused or justified.
And the number of us committed to this grows every day.
I’ve been busy at the occupation, and that’s prevented me from actually writing any more notes about the occupation. I know that’s the typical blogger excuse first-line, but in this case, I’m going to share with you exactly what I’ve been busy doing, so I feel that’s fair.
I’ve become the point-of-contact for The Portland Occupier, a project birthed out of the Media Committee, but operating unofficially and of its own autonomous accord. The way most occupations are running, and Portland’s being no exception, is that for any action or statement to be “official”, it must be approved by the GA. Open committees, on the other hand, are made of autonomous, self-organizing individuals, and they can work on their own as they see fit. So The Occupier is an unofficial, official news and content channel, if you get what I mean.
And here is where many of my notes have been going. I’ve put my WordPress management skills to use, and have been drumming up content from any contributors we can grab. As for myself, I started a column today, called “Kick Out the Anarchists“, which is surreptitiously titled. The goal is to demystify and explore anarchism, as this is one of the major bugaboos of people inside and outside the occupation, alike. I’m hoping this column can be a vehicle for many of the notes I would have about the occupation, anyway. Maybe in this way, putting all my blog-column philosophizing to some use.
All of this being the goal, of course. In the same way that the occupation strives to be a model for the organization it hopes to put into the world, I feel we ought to do the same with media. And just like the organization we’re enacting in the parks downtown, our media has a ways to go before we can say that is fully successful. But hey, we do what we can, in the face of the massive challenges.
The stated goal of much media is to be objective, regardless of whether or not it quite makes it there. I don’t agree with that idealism–and I like to think that the work we’re doing at The Occupier is a more realistic effort. We are, of course, for the occupation, and the writing and content that we publish is obviously from that perspective. In a way, I feel, that is more honest. We don’t have to respond to the niggling complaints and bullshit that the media drags up as the “counter-argument”. We don’t want to ignore legitimate complaints either. But there is no shortage of legitimate stories of all kinds that need telling regarding the occupation. If you want to know about the condition of the restrooms down at the park, you can go and look for yourself. Or, I can save you the trip: they are bad. There are hundreds of people using them daily, and precious few volunteers to clean them. That’s the story. Have you learned anything?
There is a certain positivism to our reporting, I think. I have complaints and gripes about the way things are going at the occupation. But this sort of personal, critical subjectivity, which I normally launch into wholeheartedly on my own blog, I smooth over when I write for The Occupier. This is, in a way, it’s own objectivity. It’s not about crafting a golden PR message, or rejecting criticism–it’s about focus. From the bathrooms, to peace and safety, to finance, to the GA–there are countless places to find things that are “wrong” with the occupation. And we should do these things. But what is the point of a laundry list of problems? Does the detailing and complaining of everything that is wrong translate into objectivity? These are not things that need to be “revealed” to the general public. We don’t need whistle-blowers, at least at this stage in the occupation. If something is wrong, believe me, people know about it. The whistle blown becomes noise, which distorts the picture. On the other hand, drawing the entire camp into focus, is the work that needs to be done. Problems in context reveal the shape and the motion of the occupation, whereas infinite zoom is dizzying.
I can’t believe, as the perennial curmudgeon, that I’m even making this argument that optimism is somehow more accurate than deep criticism. I guess what I feel is that at the occupation, criticism is something that is donated often, and in large quantities. What we don’t have is the context that makes criticism useful. When you see toilets that need cleaning, are those simply seen as gross? Or are they seen as the realistic effect of hundreds of people trying to live together in public space? When GA is frustrating, is it just frustrating? Or is that an emotional side effect of attempting to make a functional direct democracy? Are the challenges of the safety committee just “crime statistics”, or are they the problems of society, condensed in a microcosm? This is not just optimistic framing. It’s objectivity, defined through subjective contextualization of events.
And of course, this is hard to do well. It is all to easy to lapse into optimistic gloss, or fall the “other” direction (though dualism is hard here) into boring, content-less shill. It’s like walking a narrow fence between advertising propaganda and mindless drivel. It’s trying to tell deep stories, that interest people but can also problematize, without simply criticizing. But hey, if we weren’t experimenting, it wouldn’t be any fun.
So check us out. Even contribute, if you like. More notes will follow.
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.
There are many things that ought to be said about the Occupations that are not being said.
Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that there are many things about the Occupations that are being said; though, those I believe are most important are not being said within range of the human microphone. Neither the human microphone of the GA, nor the human microphone of the blogosphere, which sees generally agreeable sentiments by writers and thoughtful people echoed and rebounded off of this claimed, political public space, much like the one out there in the street.
If only it was so simple that what I mean is that I am the one with things to say that I’m not hearing said. Then I could compose an essay, yell it out to the world on my blog, and then wait to hear if there was any echo at all. But it is not just me, but many other people who are saying things under their breath, or only to their fellows in the dish washing line, or to a crowd of only fifteen or twenty half-interested people just waiting for their turn to speak. And I can’t speak for them. They can’t necessarily speak for themselves. They could speak at the GA, and many of them do–but the substance of what is said would necessarily change.
There is the sort of speaking one does when one is addressing a crowd, and there is the sort of speaking one does when one is cleaning a bathroom used by over 500 people. There is discussion, and there is consensus, and there are demands. And then there is work, and sweat, and fatigue. There is enabling of subaltern voices. And then there is un-thanked volunteerism.
There is no doubt in my mind that the latter is what makes a revolution. A protest is a raising of the voice, but a revolution is a made with the hands. And that is why Occupy Portland, the occupation in my hometown, is certainly a revolution. And this revolution is a revolution of problems.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about “direction”, both on the internet and off. It’s what I’ve pejoratively begun calling “directionalitarianism”. Everyone is “concerned” about the lack of direction in the “movement”. Well, yes. Lack of direction is all of our concern, and it is why we’re in the streets. We’re concerned about the lack of direction facing our generation, and people of the majority class. The direction we’ve proposed is occupation. You want to see coherent demands? Look at the occupation camp. That is the demand. The demand is to make something, by volunteerism alone, with only contributions: not loans, constituent-rights granting donations, share-holders, parties, or voting blocs. This is a revolution about problems. The problems are debt, corruption, exploitation, and so forth. As well as lazy hangers-on, co-opting political elements, the moralizing effect of “mainstream society” and its government and police force, personal addiction, mental health, the cold, the wet, and sheer fatigue from working so hard without tangible reward. The revolution is combating these problems ourselves, with nothing but what we have, and have together. This is the only direction we need, because it is what we are dealing with. And if you look at the people working, you can see this direction inside of each of their muscles. In each of these hard-working hands, is more phalanxes of bristling riot cops than any public budget could throw at us.
But enough of these words. Let me relate to you some of the things being said through hard work, and some of the problems being confronted by our revolution here in Portland. I won’t be able to speak these voices–you’ll have to go down to the camp yourself to see it. But I can at least show you a few pictures. And maybe, you can see the scope of the problem we’re facing, and how we might begin to tackle it.
Brief intro: the GA has empowered certain committees to work under their own guidance for certain goals. I’ll start my little tour with these committees, because they are the most obvious locations of work and progress at the camp, and also excellent starting points for anyone arriving at the camp, and wanting to know where to pitch in.
The kitchen is the biggest area of the camp. I estimate it serves at least one thousand meals a day, for free. Most of the contributions dropped off at the camp are food, and these are distributed, prepared, and served here. They kitchen staff are all registered Food Handlers in the state of Oregon (a requirement for any food service establishment) and they are following all best-practice regulations about serving, sterilization, and hand-washing, in the attempt to not attract the ire of authorities on the basis of a technicality. Dish washing is perhaps the easiest way to help at the occupation camp, as people are always jumping in and out of the line.
The kitchen is also probably the biggest area of interaction for the camp as well, because while there are many people who don’t go to the GA (more about that later), everyone shows up for food. I’ve heard some ire about this, and some grumbled suggestions of closing the kitchen to people not volunteering, but I’ve also heard this loudly rebuked. Right now, there is plenty of food, and I personally see no reason to not give food away for free.
Contributions needed: Food. Raw materials, sauces, and spices, especially.
Work needed: dishwashers, servers and cooks with valid food-handlers cards.
Sanitation is not sexy. But it is very important, and only recognized when it is not getting done. This is why I’m listing it second. Adjacent to the kitchen is the recycling sorting area, where recyclables and compost are sorted, and trash is bagged to be hauled out. Sanitation is also responsible for camp clean-up and bathrooms (there are public restrooms at either end of the park, and also two porta-potties, contributed from I don’t know where). They also seem to fill the water tanks at the fountain, when needed.
Last night, the one woman in charge of sanitation was very overwhelmed. She had just finished cleaning the bathroom at 11 PM, and then someone bitched at her about the state of the porta-potties. I could have yelled at that person complaining. I told the woman doing sanitation how I thought she was doing a great job, especially for doing an unwanted task that no one was volunteering for. She asked me if I wanted to help pick up trash, which I did :) I actually swept and sorted two bags of garbage yesterday, which felt really good, not least of which because as I bent down to pick up cigarette butts and soggy newspaper around the park, I got more “thanks” from other occupiers than even washing dishes during dinner time. In fact, right now I feel guilty that I’m sitting in a wifi cafe writing this essay, rather than being down there picking up trash. That is the first thing I’m going to do when I get down there is afternoon.
Contributions needed: trash bags, and large buckets. ALSO: help hauling out garbage, but I believe there is a separate transportation committee organizing volunteers for this.
Work needed: cleaning, gathering, sorting, hauling. Wear a pair of rubber gloves, and you’ll be fine. There is plenty of hand sanitizer around for you to use afterward.
The coffeshop is called “Rumors and Miss-Information Cafe”. And of course there is one, because it is Portland. There is plenty of coffee, but the main commodity needed right now is hot water. They were relying on donations of hot water from nearby restaurants, but are trying to rig up a system to boil water off-site. They have plenty of propane, but they don’t want to run afoul of regulations against open flames in the park.
Contributions needed: hot water, if you’re nearby. Maybe cold-brewed coffee?
Work needed: I’m sure you could speak to someone about helping with the off-site boiling process.
They have the coolest sign, are working on the most impressive projects, and are probably the sexiest committee, even though I did not see a single female working with them, and that should be fixed. These are the makers of the occupation. They’re working on solar panels, bicycle power generation (one is working, more on the way), and other energy needs. The kitchen is working all on electricity, I believe, and they’ve run generators and battery backups for media and info tents.
They’re also working on tarping the whole camp, and in places, organizing the tent city with “Burning Man like” spoke roads, to ease emergency access. This is actually a bigger challenge than power, because they aren’t laying out roads ahead of time, but trying to consensually organize a city already laid out, without telling anyone what to do. Also, it’s been raining heavily, so drainage is a problem. It’s been a mostly catch-up game so far, making sure tarps don’t collect water, and sweeping up flooded sidewalks as they occur.
I wanted to volunteer with Engineering initially, but I think what they really need, besides materials, is people with very strong technical know-how, perhaps already assembled into a small team. Plans are in the works for a common build-area, and a bike repair workshop (naturally).
Contributions needed: check the website for current needs regarding power generation, but they need gas, pallets, tarps, and rope. They also have an oxy torch, but no gas.
Work needed: strong technical knowledge, or strong technical will to see projects through despite challenges.
Another sexy committee. They have a nice little hut/yurt, with a growing library, organized, as they will tell you, according to the Dewey Decimal System. (Sexy!) Check out is free, of course. They also organize the sign-ups for teach-ins and lectures.
One of the most impressive aspects of this committee is that they are archiving the occupation. All the minutes of the GAs, notes taken by committees, letters, statements, handouts, photos, and anything else that is donated is being scanned. The scans are being stored digitally, and also printed and sorted into folders, so anyone can come into the library and peruse them. They are not currently available online, but I’m hoping to personally talk to them about at least setting up a Dropbox or something, so this is not lost.
Contributions needed: books and magazines, non-fiction especially. Fiction is good, but they’d rather have a more usable research library, and not just a dumping ground for old paperbacks. ALSO: bookshelves, and watertight containers for storing papers and books, folders, and other office-supply type stuff.
Work needed: People to sort and organize, and if you can offer printing services.
Info is the first stop for people looking to contribute and volunteer. They are also, apparently, where most complains are delivered. I think there’s obviously a good duality there. If you have a problem, you should probably volunteer.
Volunteering seems to be a little confused. There are several lists you can put your name on, and no indication that these really followed up. However, this is a good place to see what committees are needing, because they report daily on what they need to Info. Then, you can go to that individual committee’s members, and see about contributing directly (most have contact info on file at Info). For example, there is a dishwashing list and schedule at Info, that has some scattered email addresses, and lots of blank spaces. But, if you simply go over to the dishwashing station they will put you in line, or tell you they are good right now, but check back in ten minutes. Volunteering is more about initiative, than signing up.
Info also runs the Post service, which are basically runners going around and spreading info to the various committees, and bringing it back. They also seem to have a good supply of tarps, rope, and tape, which they are distributing.
Contributions needed: tarps, rope, tape. Especially duct tape. And markers, both permanent and whiteboard. They also take cash contributions here. (Not “donations” though. A tax thing.)
Work needed: If you want to work with them, ask. Or, tell them what you can do or contribute, and they’ll point you in the right direction.
I couldn’t get around to every committee yesterday, and things are evolving so fast I don’t feel comfortable detailing the status of every committee. But here is a list of other committees that exist, and you can probably guess what sort of stuff they need. Or, check the website, OccupyPdx.org, for latest requests. Or even better, go down and ask!
First-aid, etc. Medical training would be a great thing to contribute, as well as supplies. I know they are working on getting mental health facilitation up and running.
A new committee, launched yesterday.
From what I can tell, it’s one coordinator organizing people who can drive vehicles for pickups and deliveries. THEY VERY MUCH NEED VEHICLES AND DRIVERS! See Info booth to learn how to help.
They update the website (such that they can) and also include the video collective. They don’t speak for the occupation, but release statements in solidarity with the occupation. I know they very much need Mobile Data hotspots and modems.
- Police Liaison
Just one person, who is empowered by the GA to communicate with the police, reporting back to the GA on what the police have to say, though not to negotiate, make statements, or reveal information without the explicit approval of the GA. I imagine she might want a break, now and then, though only she personally was approved by the GA.
People who have volunteered to be on the front lines to observe and passively-resist (though I’m not sure that’s the properly approved terminology) in case of physical conflict with the police. Also, people trained to generally assist with in-camp safety. This means making sure no one is intoxicated or incapacitated, or suffering a health issue. I don’t believe they have any mandate to do anything though, other than offer advice, and notify medical if needed.
- Sexual Assault Working Group
Available for advice or consult. I know they need folks, especially those with training.
- Short Term Tactics
A brainstorming and proposal-crafting committee. All well and good, but I personally am of the opinion that Sanitation needs more volunteers. :)
- Long Term Goals
My comments are the same as above.
* * * * *
With so many people working so hard to craft this occupation from nothing, with almost no plan, frustration is inevitable. Many people have strong, differing opinions, of course. And when we’ve all been standing on our feet in the rain for three hours, trying to decide together whether or not we’ve been following the GA process that we’ve agreed upon, in order to make a serious decision that could decide the future direction of the occupation and could result in everyone’s arrest… well, you can imagine it’s a challenge to keep it civil. And then you get back into the center of camp from an only barely-satisfying GA, and see the same half-drunk guy banging on a bucket with sticks is still going, just as off-beat and un-syncopated as he was four hours ago, and suddenly you can feel that pounding inside your brain…
But this is what society is. This is what democracy looks like. What I’ve learned in the four and a half years since I left academia is that the democratic system, as advertised, is a sham. There is no honor or glamour in working for a minimum-wage, because there is no boot-strap to pull on in the vast majority of cases. The economic system treats all of us, the hard-workers and the layabouts, precisely the same. We’re expendable. We’re certainly not worth anything. And we’re all dumped in the streets together. So I say, let’s not reach for boot straps, but let’s reach for the lamp posts. Let’s rewire them, put in outlets and USB charge ports, and convert them to solar.
For my part, I’m going to contribute my hard-working efforts towards raising us all up, to build a new society from the street. There are enough of us to do it. And it doesn’t have to be the walled garden, the gated community that the so-called 53% strive to build. Because that is built from steel and cinder block. The architecture of safety and security is the architecture of a prison. I look around myself, and I am in the streets. So the streets will be the model for my home and society. And the streets are crowded with people.
So let the problems rain down, both literally, in terms of the weather and mud, and figuratively. As I tweeted earlier this week, I’m not intimidated by much. This generation watches Al Jazeera. This revolution will be a revolution of solving problems. And if that is a problem for anyone, then they can either take it to the GA, or it can become a problem for them.
The water fountain in Chapman Park. While some doubt the usefulness of the Portland Water Works’ constantly bubbling fountains, this one is now primary water source to a city of 1000 people.
The first priority near term goal of the Portland Occupation has been achieved. The police have said there will be no arrests or harassment as long as the occupation can share the space with the marathon to everyone’s satisfaction. As of 11 AM last night, it appeared there was consensus to do so, and the police have been true to their word, with no arrests at the encampment, although there was one incident off-site in which two people were arrested for graffiti. The first priority of any occupation–the defense of the space–has been achieved.
Of course, this presents the next short-to-medium term problem: what’s next? This is an occupation without firm demands, but still, a community must have goals. Dealing with imminent issues of a threat towards it’s existence is a good rally point for a community, but after that’s been secured, what will continue to define the space and people?
The occupation swelled on friday night, and there is hardly room for more tents. The occupation needs room to grow, and proposals for off-shoot locations or new locations were being suggested in the GA. While long-term goals might not yet be on the table, this is an occupation that is going somewhere, or evolving into something. It would behoove us all to look ahead. Many detractors use the lack of forward plans as a criticism. I don’t think a roadmap to anything is necessary; but all the same, we should be sure our driving skills are up to the challenge.
In a tweet earlier today, Alexis Madrigal suggested (apologies for no link, but I’m blogging by phone again) that a leaderless, consensus movement would not look strange to anyone familiar with open-source tech. I think there is such a relationship. There is something of “Maker-dom” here, and perhaps that is the key.
It’s already there, of course, in the craftspersonship that anyone clever can display on a camping trip when the wind starts to blow the tarp away, or when your trying to cook dinner even though you forgot to buy several items. Both those examples are in fact occurring at the occupation. And for those who are taking part in the consensus groups, there is certainly a volunteer spirit in play.
But I think we need to dig deeper. The occupation needs projects. Something needs to be built. The crazy suggestion, “let’s build a giant airship!” keeps coming back to me. I think everyone could agree that a protest airship would be awesome, just as everyone would agree that it would be near impossible. Where would we get helium? We would would face opposition not just from the police, but from the FAA. There would be a serious risk of people getting hurt. And what if the Oregon Tea Party deploys anti-aircraft gun batteries?
I don’t like the idea because it is “just so crazy”, and because I think the occupation should “aim for the moon and hit the stars.”. I like it because people built airships a hundred years ago, and they did it without computers. People build their own drones now, and control them with their cell phones. People build amazing things, just for fun. We can and do amazing things all day long. The question is, how do these amazing things become not just amazing, but part of the occupation?
I hope that the occupation transforms into a Maker Fair, but one without a permit or venue, that never ends. I hope we build amazing shit. Protester in Iceland are rewriting their constitution. Clearly we can do something as big, or bigger. What if your hobby was not only fun, but built a city? This is what we have the opportunity to do now Occupy Portland has the initiative now, of all the occupations in this country. What are we going to do with it?
Update: as of about 10:20 PM when I left, consensus had been reached to continue to occupy and hold at least one block of the park, despite the 9AM deadline to vacate. We’ll see what happens tomorrow morning.
I’m writing this on my phone from the park, where fifty yards away a consensus group is in process to decide whether or not the occupation will move tomorrow morning to let the marathon use the park. I think this represents the non-permanent, transitory nature of this whole process pretty well.
Until there is a decision or other hard information about what might happen tomorrow morning at the police deadline of 9 AM, let me share some of my other thoughts from the day.
Today was the largest protest event I’ve seen in Portland. Also the most diverse age range. A lot of “middle age” folks, not the typical 20-somethings and older folks you see at protests here. A lot of people in their thirties and forties. Now, at night, the more typical younger folks remain, but seeing this large range of ages really made me think something might be different about this protest.
However, some things are the same. The “organizers”, even though there aren’t supposed to be organizers, are college-aged activist sorts, the kind of people who are ready to speak up. Certain people will naturally “take the mic”, and these sorts are doing so. There is some effort to allow “anyone” to speak, but mostly it is the usual suspects.
And I think these usual suspects could use a major dose of “drink some water” type Burning Man lessening of intensity. No one is being tear gassed yet, so we can all take a breath and maybe say please and thank you.
The march was a major show of solidarity, but how this will evolve into an occupation remains to be seen. Although this is billed as a protest for everyone, it is and it isn’t. Many people are here, but they are mostly pursuing the same goals they would otherwise being pursuing, across a spectrum of issues and stances, with a wide range of tactics and strategies. I don’t think this occupation needs unity per se, but it needs a program. Whether goal oriented, wild and erratic, situationist, or all of these, programmatic tasks need to be proposed. We need to build something. Play a game. Otherwise, this is just the same drifting we were doing last month in different places, now just in the same place. We need to do something with the space that we’ve defined and occupied. We need to figure out what makes this public space public. Some sort of human architecture should be designed here. The consensus process shows some process–I’m pretty impressed and think it has potential. I hope that after we conquer the short term goal of tomorrow, we can get some more short and medium term goals going.
Let’s not just storm the castle. Let’s build one. That’s inside out, has baba yaga legs, and flies.
oh, and my experiment kind of worked. I met some people, one of whom I’d actually had prior Internet contact with. His name is Ben (hi Ben, if you’re reading this!) and he wore an excellent mask. Hopefully when I get my mobile Internet kinks worked out (major signal, battery, and data plan SNAFUs today) I’ll find some other virtual friends in physical space.