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Winding Down Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America

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Winding Down: Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America

Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, the latest book from the editors of the Brooklyn-based literary journal n+1, would seem to have arrived just in time. As I write, much of what Occupy Wall Street meant in 2011 looks as though it will be a memory in 2012. Major occupations throughout the country, including the flagship encampment at Zuccotti Park, have been dismantled. Others that remain, like the one in Washington, D.C., face the growing threat of eviction and the deteriorating weather of a North American winter in full effect. Mainstream media coverage, ambivalent even during the movement’s high watermark, has turned definitively to a more reassuring, if less comprehensible, strain of political theater in the Republican presidential primary. Whether or not this decline in profile and enthusiasm is permanent, the evident phase-change merits a look back at the movement’s first chapter.

The writings assembled in Occupy!—from the journal’s editors, as well as other writers and thinkers sympathetic to OWS—chronicle the movement’s first month and a half, from the settlement by protesters in a small park in New York City’s Financial District, to eventual expansions in Oakland, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Boston. The book consists of first-person anecdotes about life and activity within the occupations, as well as essays on various theoretical and practical aspects of the movement as it grew. Many of these pieces originally appeared in the Occupy! Gazette, a special newspaper printed by n+1, and on the journal’s blog where content about OWS is regularly posted. Also reprinted are speeches made at encampments in New York by Judith Butler, Angela Davis, and Slavoj Žižek. The book’s account ends two weeks before the Zuccotti eviction and the subsequent Day of Action on November 17 that found some 30,000 marchers in the streets. The preface acknowledges that these events took place as the book was going to print, and its posture is one of defiance: “You can pull up the flowers but you can’t stop the spring…The movement and this book are not over.” It sets the tone for much of what is to come, namely articulate endorsement of its subject. For all the collection’s problems, mistaking its audience isn’t one of them.

That Occupy! rests on that endorsement is a different matter. Since its formation in 2003, n+1 has steadily grown its reputation for culturally charged nonfiction and criticism among a readership largely of young intellectuals. The journal specializes in personal commentary on a range of fashionable left-leaning political and aesthetic issues, often postured against consensus. When the occupation became a groundswell, its writers were among the first sympathizers. But what’s been selected here rarely earns the distinction of a published volume. Occupy Wall Street, when all is said and done, may end up as one of the most documented events in history because so many of its steps were self-documented (websites, photos, videos, whole infrastructures of communication and dissemination all supplying their own digital footprint), leaving much of the first-person content of Occupy! feeling redundant. Amusing though it can sometimes be, the recurring “Scenes from an Occupation” series from several contributors at Zuccotti is overly casual and lean on substance. One such exchange between author Sarah Resnik and filmmaker Astra Taylor entitled “Rumors” dwells on problems of information and misinformation among occupiers, as well as the incidents of sexual assault in the park. Seemingly aiming for the immediacy of emails and Tweets culled together from the moment, they squander the material for a well-structured and potentially interesting essay about the divergence between vision and reality, with respect to safety and (in this case, gender) politics at Zuccotti, the evidence of which otherwise begins to collect in the margins as Occupy! winds down.

By and large the collection is concerned with these occupations as living space—how they function as social and political units, and how the occupiers’ efforts to create a sort of utopia (the word is as appropriate as it is conspicuously absent from the book) are fulfilled and frustrated. As the latter of that binary becomes more dominant in the depiction (the problems with vagrancy, the intractability of the general assembly’s “total democracy,” the infamous drumming circles, and the overall incompleteness of the occupiers’ vision), the writers of Occupy! only ever seem to double down on their support: “It’s problematic, to a certain extent, but the fact is it’s vital that the park continue to be occupied, and the other fact is it’s hard to get much done when you’re living there,” writes n+1 co-founder Keith Gessen. “They actually think that coming to a faraway city and living in a concrete park could lead to political change. And they might be right!” Later on he takes an occupier named Ray into his house when the weather goes bad—generous to be sure, and later when he reads Ray’s blog entries about his recent homelessness, the piece takes an affecting turn. In the general haste to anoint the protest, Occupy! seldom touches the melancholic reality of the movement so deftly as here.

Nikil Saval’s account of Occupy Philadelphia ends on the verge of a similar turn, finding him worried about a recent decision that might alienate the city in the interest of symbolic defiance: “Perhaps there will be general assemblies in the future that are less about how to live, more about what to do. The decision may have woken everyone up from the self-love that had come to afflict our bitter celebration; after all, the point was never just to hold a park.” Saval’s implied disappointment stops short of exactly the sort of critique that is totally missing from Occupy! While the collection’s portrait of the movement as an experiment in community-building is welcome, the absence of any significant opposition to even one of the movement’s various strategies is concerning. Instead, the question of OWS’s political efficacy is for the most part put on hold in favor of, for instance, Rebecca Solnit’s theoretical condemnation of violence as a protest tactic—as though any sane person could think violence was a feasible tactic against the government that introduced the Predator drone. Her invocation of the Zapatistas as a conceivable exception only resonates with the kind of historical that hampers the book’s essay content from time to time. Kung Li’s piece on Occupy Atlanta toes a similar line, drawing a direct parallel between the occupation and the historic activities of the civil rights movement. To what extent can these comparisons be taken seriously? How great is the Occupation’s historical burden; how many causes must it undertake? This is the critique such comparisons open to the movement, but it’s never addressed. The cautious hopefulness of their endorsement and the historical entitlement that entails is assumed enough.

Mark Greif’s “Occupy the Boardroom” encapsulates all of the book’s worst tendencies. Its tedium and insipid tone are only surpassed by the insignificance of the anecdote it relates—about failing to distribute some protester-authored letters to Wall Street bankers. The Occupy the Boardroom project was an online letter-writing campaign with those who objected to big banks’ legacy of predatory lending writing letters to the executives of those same banks. Greif describes his involvement in the project’s physical efforts to deliver those letters to bank headquarters, predictably foiled by police and security. At one point, distressed that custodians have come to dispose some letters that had been thrown as paper airplanes by protesters, Greif vocally objects, “Hey, these are letters from individual American citizens, and you’re treating them like trash.” Whether Greif’s own piece fails to connect with the perceived nobility of his gesture, or it simply dawns on the reasonable reader that this gesture and others like it are vastly sillier than they are noble or even productive, the schadenfreude is almost too difficult to resist. Greif even seems to have misplaced the strategy’s efficacy as disruption: “What goes unsaid, too, is that not reading a personal letter written directly to you is a trespass that leaves us uneasy, an offense against everyone, as uncomfortable as tearing up paper money. It suggests fear, or contempt.” Or disinterest. The imagined aspect of psychological warfare might loom less large to those of us with not quite so romantic a view of posted mail. Tearing up paper money, though—now there’s an idea.

If there’s a corrective to such a piece of writing in Occupy! it would have to be Sunaura Taylor’s “Scenes from Occupied Oakland.” Taylor, sister to filmmaker Astra, brings the most comprehensive account of the intellectual’s encounter with an occupation, volunteering all of her enthusiasms, her disappointments, her fears, and her revelations about the experience as they come upon her. Whether or not it’s the fact that she’s the only contributor that’s reported actually sleeping at an encampment, or that her confinement to a wheelchair gives her a perspective on the occupation that wouldn’t first occur to many (that of accessibility), Taylor’s prose is clear and appropriately dramatic, her narrative is more journalistic than others, and her conclusions are sensible—neither shrill nor clouded unduly by ideology: “I am ashamed that I was so naïve about the cops in Oakland, but even more than this I am furious. I am furious that the police are allowed to brutalize people without being held accountable for their actions.”

For many, it was a similar realization that found sympathy with the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. And it was finally the seeming gluttony for punishment, for inertia, that for many turned the movement sour. Through Taylor’s eyes we see that the latter might have been the truest answer to the former. But nothing else in Occupy! connects the two with any fluency. Eschewing a comprehensive or critical outlook of the topic at hand, the collection satisfies its organization’s need to have made a statement on the matter, even if that statement is mostly mild, flirting occasionally as it does with the insufferable. Timely though it seems, Occupy! as a published document is premature, where much commentary is made, but little is actually said.

Occupied! Scenes from Occupied America was released on December 17 by Verso. To purchase it, click here.