Thursday, March 1, 2012

Occupy Austin

It has been a criticism of the Occupy movement since its inception that there is no coherent, unified message. Different people who have had the opportunity to speak out on the movement’s behalf in a public space defend this, saying that by not having a message it enables the Occupiers to stand with one another and win over hearts and minds – it was all about unity.

Attending different Occupy events, this seems largely to be the case. Certainly there are some things certain Occupiers believe that would repulse other Occupiers. The very first time I stepped foot at the main Occupy Austin campsite, at City Hall, the first person I had a chance to speak to was a middle-aged man with a “JFK Knew” baseball cap who told me that the only chance for a savior in this country was Austin-based radio personality Alex Jones.

I almost left.

Jones, for those who don’t know, is a fairly right-wing conspiracy theorist who believes 9/11 was an inside job and the Warren Commission was full of bull. My stance on these issues has always been that it doesn’t really matter if Lyndon Johnson was the gunman on the grassy knoll and the planes that hit the World Trade Center were drones piloted by George W. Bush personally – it would only lengthen the already enormous list of state crimes. Which puts me well to the left of even most Occupiers.

Characteristic of the movement is a vague sense of directional anger, much like the Tea Party, and their anger is focused in the same general direction – moneyed politicians and financial institutions. Actually, my central disagreement with Occupy from the outset was its focus on economic matters, which don’t particularly interest me. But despite the freedom of anyone to speak at the General Assembly, there is a real reservation on my part to use the podium as a preaching opportunity about ending wars, decriminalizing “sin” activities like drug use, prostitution and gambling, and wiping out personal debt, among other things.

This, to me, is why Occupy has stalled. Meetings have focused on what the movement should do next, but by and large the political and social issues are not discussed in any depth – except in the case of the reading group, which has been my main avenue of participation. This is a group with a rotating list of facilitators who bring in radical, or at least relevant, texts that can be related to the Occupy movement. We’ve read everyone from Naomi Klein to Ted Kaczynski and explored topics like the media and the Spanish Civil War.

At its beginning, the reading group attracted quite large crowds. We met on the Occupy grounds while the sun was out and invited any spectators to join in. At one of the more memorable reading groups we had, a homeless Occupier decided to sit down and discuss with us, but his comment had very little to do with the reading. Instead, he reported feeling betrayed by the movement, which did little in his mind to speak up and reach out to homeless needs. Many Occupiers, particularly the permanent ones, were homeless individuals, whose bodies constituted a big chunk of the physical Occupy presence. He felt used for a movement that looks increasingly bourgeois. Angrily, he made his point and left.

Our numbers in the reading group, and the numbers of Occupiers generally, has significantly dwindled. Occupy has refused to elect any spokespeople, stand resolutely firm on important issues with near-unanimous consent, and exploit the remarkable diversity of its membership. Of course, in my experience it has been nearly totally white or Latino, but people from different income brackets, military backgrounds, college educations, homelessness and poverty have been in attendance.

For me, the defining moment of this failure was one of the last significant non-reading group Occupy events I participated in – a march to the city jail on the day after dozens of Occupiers were arrested trying to protect their food table. Standing with a group of furious activists demanding the release of their peaceful brethren unfairly locked up was inspiring. People came around with water bottles, a benefactor from ordered a bunch of pizzas, and it felt like a moment of real solidarity. When the Occupiers were released, people went home.

What occurred to me at the time was that we went home too soon. No one wondered who else might have been locked up in that jail unjustly. Had we stayed there and continued chanting until all the cells were emptied, we would have expanded enormously our ally base with non-violent incarcerated individuals when the prisoners and their families learned once and for all that we were on their side. But instead we claimed our own and went home. The homeless gentleman who interrupted our reading group to call us all hypocrites had been vindicated.

That said, the relatively bourgeois makeup of the movement – and I don’t use that term too condescendingly, it isn’t as though I’m talking about the Second Percent here – might be a serious boon. Professors have dropped by, and there is a legal division to protect the arrested victims. There are professional radio broadcasters to beam the message across the airwaves, and the movement enjoys a fairly significant social media presence, locally and worldwide. And when the news media covers events, it is probably better if the cameras are focused on the less-shocking aspects of the group than the younger, drug-oriented or slovenly looking segments, from a simple public relations standpoint.

Yet something still smells a little fishy when you get the sense that the movement is composed primarily of people who are experiencing real hardship for the first time, folks who in the 90s might have been in a privileged sort of position. But then again, not being on the street and destitute shouldn’t preclude a person from doing the right thing. And nationally, Occupy is taking worthwhile steps to come to the aid of families in need by occupying foreclosed homes and properties, a serious action which I applaud. Most important to the group, I still maintain, is the physical presence. Nothing screams at the powers of a society better than massive clumps of bodies. All the blogging in the world won’t accomplish what tens of thousands of people clogging a street or a courtroom can, and the folks still making up the brunt of Occupy Austin have been aggressive in confronting local officials and are having some persuasion in this direction.

My hope is that in the future, Occupy will take its 99% claim a little more seriously and exercise aggressive affirmative action. Americans of all stripes are being railroaded by powerful interests, and the welcome net ought to be extended with more sympathy and force toward “undesirable” social entities – non-violent criminals, homeless people, and the like. It’s done a good enough job so far of attracting a variety of people, but it’s been like a magnet waiting for people to come to it. What the movement needs now is more aggressive outreach, engaging people who have yet to come out to Occupy and demonstrating their allegiance to the poor, the underprivileged, the hungry, and the sick. Lobbying City Council is one thing, but using the resources the group has from the generous donations of local businesses and sympathetic groups to set up food tables in poor neighborhoods, for example, is another thing entirely, one which strengthens solidarity with the underclass, rallies them to the cause, and demonstrates an alternative way of successfully running a society – compassion rather than greed, and giving rather than demanding.

Kyle Schmidlin

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