by Andrew Lichterman
These are some reflections on the occupations, having spent time at several and followed many others from afar. The occupations share similarities, but also have local characteristics. I can not speak for any or all of them, but as a participant in the debate they have sparked I can speak, and that is the point. This is some of what I have heard, and some of what I want to say. It is not a time to speak with one voice. The conversation is only beginning. The more it grows and the longer it goes on, the more reason for hope.
Occupy everywhere: reclaiming public space
The occupation movement is a response to internal colonization, to a sense that there is no space in our cities and towns and lives that has not been invaded by immense organizations in which we have no voice. In most aspects of our lives we are commanded or exploited, presented with pre-made, limited choices or no choices at all. And even that is only if our existence is either useful or profitable to the huge organizations that control both the necessities of existence and most social space, real and virtual. If we are neither useful as workers nor profitable as consumers, we are thrown away, pushed aside, squeezed out. Soon there will be no place left to go.
A popular trope used by the mainstream media and in professional political circles to denigrate the Occupy movement is to express puzzlement about “what those people want,” to say they have no “demands.” Yet the immediate “demands” of these occupations are clear. The first is that we have the right to reclaim public spaces (regardless of their legal definition) for their rightful purposes, which are the discussion necessary for the construction of communities that are fair, democratic, and work for all of us, and for the physical activity of constructing such a community. The second demand, equally important, is not really a demand but a call, addressed to all who hear in their capacities as human beings. It is “join us.” It is a call that appeals first to all of us who are politically homeless in the current order of things, who lack the wealth or the position in an increasingly rigid, polarized, and inequitable society to have a voice.
The political classes–government officials elected or appointed in or out of uniform, party operatives, NGO professionals, propagandists masquerading as reporters and analysts in the corporate-owned media– can not–will not–hear either the demand or the call. They cannot hear the call because it is not addressed to them as they demand to be addressed– in their status as officers, officials, or professionals. The demand for the moment only says to those who insist on their roles and prerogatives in the machinery of destruction: you have done enough damage. Leave us alone, while we figure out what to do about it. This demand leaves no place for them so long as they remain within their well-paid roles and does not pay homage to their status, so they refuse to hear it.
The call, on the other hand, addresses people differently and presents us with different choices. For those with no organized power or voice, the choice is: remain silent, and sooner or later one or another of the immense organizations that dominate the life of this planet will take what little you have left. The system we inhabit is inexorably using up the world, and those in the upper echelons of organizations deploying great power plan to be the ones who remain comfortable as long as there is comfort to be had. For those with some measure of power, privilege, and status, the choice is: Come down from your office towers and out of your fortresses, shed your uniforms and your suits, your guns and badges, abjure all claims to status and privilege. Begin with us a new conversation about how we can make a democracy, and how we can find a different path forward for a society gone terribly wrong. Here you can claim to be no more than one more human being with one voice, but also will be no less.
Right now, it is difficult to imagine those still benefiting from the current order risking what they have for an unknown future, its vision not yet defined. Those at the top almost certainly will hold hard to power, and today’s true “middle classes”–the experts, professionals, technicians and propagandists essential to the operation of the vast organizations of corporate capitalist modernity–have a long history of hedging their bets but ultimately siding with the powerful. Yet all of us on some level must be aware that we have constructed a society sustained by fragile systems of production designed for short-term elite profit rather than long-term collective survival, and bristling with weapons capable of destroying not only civilization but much of the biosphere. The choice is narrowing down not only to nonviolence or nonexistence, but to one form or another of peaceful, democratic revolution or nonexistence. The need to transform our global energy, agriculture, transportation, and production infrastructure, and with it the values that ultimately determine the demands we place on the planet and each other, will strain all of our capacities for the foreseeable future. We are unlikely to survive this time of transition unless the risks of the changes to come are fairly shared, with every voice being heard.
Occupy the United States: No more company towns
“Our question then narrows down to this: can those people who live in or come to Chickasaw be denied freedom of press and religion simply because a single company has legal title to all the town? For it is the State’s contention that the mere fact that all the property interests in the town are held by a single company is enough to give that company power, enforceable by a state statute, to abridge these freedoms.” Marsh v. Alabama (1946) 326 U.S. 501, 505.
In Marsh v. Alabama, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the rights to freedom of expression could not be denied to people who lived in company towns, municipalities whose roads and streets and sidewalks were owned by the employers of most who lived there. Sixty five years later, most of the United States has been reduced towards the anti-ideal of the “company town.” Much of what people experience and believe to be public space is legally defined as “private property,” dealt to one or another enormous real estate developer or opened to “the public” in complex deals that over time have ceded ever more control of our built urban environment and what we can do there to those interested only in how they can profit from our presence. Zucotti Park, location of the Wall Street occupation village, is the product of one such deal. Any lawyer who has represented people trying to be heard in public by speaking or leafleting likely has discovered that significant places where people gather or assemble in American cities and that most everyone experiences as “public spaces” today are, in fact, “privately owned.”
But this is only one symptom of the disease threatening the body politic. Not only direct privatization but the accretion of myriad local rules, regulations, and police practices have favored commercial interests over expressive rights. Events that bring cash-rich “consumers” into public streets and squares, even if they foreclose other uses, are favored over events that have no commercial value, regardless of their character as political expression. At the central square in the large town nearest to my home, a commercialized, permitted farmer’s market is welcomed by local officials and police; Food not Bombs efforts to feed to homeless are greeted with hostility and harassment. Local police even have attempted to exclude people distributing leaflets in what is literally the town square, a traditionally protected forum for expression, at times when permitted events like the farmers’ market were present, claiming that such commercial events foreclose other uses for their duration–despite the fact that such events present a rare opportunity where ordinary people without enormous resources might communicate with large numbers of their neighbors. (The leafletters eventually were allowed to proceed, but the chilling effect remains). The default position in many jurisdictions seems to have become that attempts at public political communication are presumed to be prohibited–especially where they might distract Americans from their primary functions of buying and selling. To many of us, public police agencies look more and more like private security, their main function being to protect the property of their paymasters, and to be sure that only paying customers are allowed on the premises.
The result has been that public spaces, and the city itself, have been reduced to places geared almost entirely to serving business functions: places to work and consume, to make, buy, and sell packaged things and experiences whose crafting is controlled by powerful private organizations.
“More generally, in the course of the last two or three decades, public places, from large urban centers to remote suburban and exurban areas–have been visibly and functionally transformed into simulated theme parks. The intimacy, vibrancy, contact, and contestation of the public realm have been replaced by physical separation, inaccessibility, inertness, and a form of order largely enforced through the built environment itself. Public life itself has been fundamentally altered by these and similar changes. The ‘messy vitality’ of the public streets, parks, and squares has given way to a ‘filtered, prettified, homogenous substitute.’ In short, place has increasingly become less public–both in terms of its title and its character.” Timothy Zick, Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.201.
All of this is how the corporate colonization of everyday life plays out in everything from architecture to the legal lexicon and the informal police practices of American public space. The particular forms the occupations take in the United States are in part a more or less conscious response. They are also a response, however, to other manifestations of the concentration of wealth and power that diminish the significance of traditionally protected forms of public expression. A pervasive “security” ideology in which the smallest imaginable threat of physical danger outweighs any political rights the citizenry might have has been used to eliminate most physical access to public officials in contexts where a critical message might be delivered. Public events where high government officials are present resemble to ordinary inhabitants at street level nothing so much as an armed assault, with one’s town or city invaded by heavily armed units complete with air cover. Only the hardiest protester is likely to venture near in the face of this, and would be even less willing to do so if they understood the vast array of invisible surveillance and monitoring also now routinely deployed.
And, of course, there is the utter corruption of a political system awash in unlimited money, the price of meaningful access to public officials now far out of reach for all who lack great personal wealth and have interests not represented by one or another wealthy, powerful organization. There is also the concentration of the mass media, both within the United States and globally, that has occurred over the last thirty years, with a handful of media giants controlling most of the world’s airwaves and publications. One can point to the countervailing trend of cheap means of communication, from the e-mail and the internet to versatile mobile phones, that have given people with meager resources an unprecedented capacity to communicate laterally with large numbers of people. In a sharply polarized economy and society, however, an expanded conversation among the relatively powerless is only a first step towards a politics that can bring significant change. There remains the key role of the “town square: ” a place where all can have an equal voice in the conversation about who we are and how we will govern ourselves, a place for the expression of a public will that those who claim to rule in our name can not ignore. Such places, real or virtual, have existed only in a few places and always have been incomplete, never achieving fully equal voice for the inhabitants of any country. Today the fragile, partial achievements of democratic movements past are everywhere under threat from the concentration of wealth in an insular upper stratum of immense organizations and by the political power that such concentrated wealth brings. Where fragments of the town square remain, they must be defended. Where none exist, they must be created.
We have discovered that in a starkly two tier world, the wealthy and powerful may be willing to let us chatter among ourselves, so long as we remain otherwise obedient, invisible, profitable objects. Hence the internet discussions and mobile phone networks and whatever organizing they enable remain only a means leading to another end, the demand not only for a hearing but for a collective process of decision where all have an equal voice. When large numbers of people find their participation in the channels that allow them to communicate not only with each other but with their governments blocked or marginalized, there is nothing left but reclaiming public space, and by doing so demanding that the public conversation begin anew.