The First Weekend of Occupy Austin
October 10, 2011 § 11 Comments
From its official beginning on Thursday through this weekend, Occupy Austin has gone through major changes very, very quickly. It’s ’franchise’ operations like these that will determine the future of the Occupy movement; that is, if it really is a movement and not just a long protest against Wall Street or a short-lived Internet fad. From my experience here, I can say that the Austin branch got off on a much less radical foot than some of its cousins in Boston, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, etc., but also that these difficulties expose some of the fault lines endemic to the movement and to the state of American populism more broadly.
The biggest issue has been with the initial assumptions of the people who started it, and their tenacity in hanging on to those assumptions. I imagine that’s the case everywhere, to some extent. But the Austin ‘occupation’ was started by some neo-hippies whose unorthodox notion of horizontalidad involves establishing close communication with the police and city government, and whose equally unorthodox notion of nonviolent civil disobedience involves working entirely within the law. This was made clear to everyone from the beginning. I stuck with it in the hope that leadership would broaden. And it has, but not without effort.
The first day set the tone — it was, essentially, a block party on City Hall, albeit an explicitly politicized one. The atmosphere was carnivalesque in just the customary Austin way: bizarre forms of personal expression, anti-authoritarian populism, weird conspiracy theories, inked-up hipsters, peace, love, and drum circles. Somewhere around 1,000 or more people showed up for the General Assembly. Ron Paulites gave a strong showing, but the only conspicuously absent groups were advocates for mainstream candidates — I think it was the second day I saw one lonely soul wearing an Obama 2012 T-shirt and carrying a clipboard. What finally won me over about that day was the ease of political discussion, even with ideological opponents, without an immediate breakdown. I ran a workshop on the 2008 debt crisis that even got the libertarian to take a Marxist analysis seriously (the really interesting thing here for me was that all 10 or so of the twenty-something white kids agreed on my Brennerian interpretation of what happened and why — the sticking point was the definition of capitalism).
Since the ‘occupation’ zone is a public space, it’s a perfectly legal spot on which to assemble. The catch is that Austin city ordinance does not permit sleeping overnight or camping on city property. The underlying social consequence is of course that (like is typical in the U.S.) it’s illegal to be homeless. Coinciding with the first day of Occupy Austin was an attempted illegal ‘tent city’ across the river, organized by homeless activists and advocates. Their declaration of solidarity seemed to take the Occupy organizers off guard, and who eventually offered a limp non-response on the Facebook community wall. While we were partying that afternoon, the tent city was blocked by police. Some anarchists put up a tent in front of City Hall as an act of solidarity. It was almost torn down that night, but the crowd insisted otherwise and the police relented, letting the symbol stand as long as we didn’t put up any more. After much debate, this prompted another limp official statement at the next day’s General Assembly (which I did not attend), posted online as “We don’t necessarily want to break the law, but we respect the tent city’s right to civil disobedience and stand in solidarity with them.” I believe this was modified (without being edited in the online minutes) to “We support Tent City’s right to Civil Disobedience, we stand in solidarity with them, but the members of Occupy Austin do not necessarily want to break the law, and therefore wish to remain separate from that movement.” Both versions manage only to cancel out their own attempts at content.
The next day, I happened to be sitting near the same group of young anarchists, discussing the tent city with the emerging celebrity anthropologist and Occupy Wall Street organizer David Graeber, when they started putting up another one next to the first. Being already disgusted with the GA’s non-stance and not thinking any of this was especially radical, I helped them do it. Almost immediately, we had people come up to “peacefully remind” us that what we were doing was illegal (in violation of a park ordinance, not even a misdemeanor) and that we were “violating consensus.” A crowd was forming around us, getting angrier and angrier as we incompetently struggled to erect the tent against the heavy wind that kept blowing it over. A GA was going on at the same time, and quickly divided over the tent. Some were permitted to commandeer the mic and incite the crowd against us. A group started chanting things like “WE WANT TO BE SAFE” and “TAKE DOWN THE TENT.” Meanwhile groups of police placidly strolled around and through the space, with no acknowledgement of the principled stand being taken by their staunch defenders. A middle-aged woman, who earlier had been confiscating signs with curse words on them, loudly demanded we take the tent down. When we didn’t she went off to get the police and it took several people to talk her down. While someone who actually knew how to assemble tents helped us, another boomer in a cowboy hat started taking it down. When we rushed to stop him he muscled through us, saying, “I’m a combat veteran and this tent is coming down.” Again, a group of peacekeepers were forced to corral him.
With the tent finally up, we had a heated debate with one of the original moderators — let’s call him M — and some of his supporters. They reiterated the importance of working through legal channels, the dangers of risking “the entire movement” and “other people’s personal safety” for “one stupid tent.” David tried to explain to them that presuming and creating hierarchies within oppositional movements by appearing to grant them legitimacy was a police tactic to force an elite to feel ‘responsible’ for everyone else, and that the only personal safety threatened was our own, by the other occupiers. They said we had jeopardized their decision to petition city council for a special permit to let us camp overnight. They threw out fantastic scenarios involving riot cops dispersing the entire group, of heroic occupiers, acting out of solidarity alone, throwing themselves before police nightsticks to protect a tent they didn’t even support. They defended the police, or as they referred to them, “peace officers”: “they’re the 99% too,” “they facilitated our march to Bank of America.” We asked M about his political convictions and if he thought the Occupy Austin GA had the authority to quash dissent. “I have radical thoughts,” he assured us, “but we have to respect the consensus process. And anyway, we’re really only disagreeing on timing. Which is sort of arbitrary, isn’t it?” I asked him if he was not permitting dissent in theory but not in practice, and insisted on the importance of nonviolent civil disobedience. His reply stunned me into silence. “What was MLK fighting against?” he asked me. “A lot of the same things we are, but let’s say primarily racial oppression,” I said. “And that’s still here, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s why we have to take the fight to the next level!”
At that point David ran off to do an interview with Al Jazeera and what was left of the conversation died back down. That night, the second tent was taken down by a bipartisan team of police and occupiers.
By the third day, it was clear the ‘occupation’ was off balance. After another discussion circle (probably the best organized thing so far) I brought up the tent city debacle and how people felt about civil disobedience in general at that night’s GA. We had just come off a successful bid to incorporate a solidarity statement with indigenous people’s struggles thanks to the participation of what seemed like our first ‘real’ activists, and emotions were already high. Though most seemed to agree with nonviolent direct action and a diversity of tactics within those bounds, the whole thing degenerated due to the moderator staff’s inexperience and overaggressive bid for control of the debate.
I dwell on this incident at such length because, unfortunately, it was the most significant event to occur over the weekend aside from the heavily managed Bank of America march. That and several non-starter attempts to establish basic principles, demands, etc. While I’m sure I made clear my fundamental ideological disagreement with Occupy Austin’s self-appointed ‘steering committee,’ I don’t think it would have mattered as much had we been a little more like Occupy L.A. That operation seems just as in love with the police as ours (oddly enough), receiving official support from the mayor and City Council. The only arrests attributed to Occupy L.A. were quickly disclaimed. However, they also seem to be much more effective organizers, making alliances with major unions (AFL-CIO) and progressive orgs. If we were visibly moving toward those goals, we probably wouldn’t have as much time to dwell on institutional compromises, nor the sense that they’re being engineered by a cadre of neoliberal hippies behind our backs (does anyone know if other Occupy groups require that all core value proposals be funneled through a Mission Committee?).
The absurdity of the whole thing highlights an important difference of opinion across the Occupy movement: is it an institution unto itself, with its own distinct goals and the right to exclude those which aren’t deemed ‘universal’ or ‘inclusive’ enough? Or is it a resource, a clearinghouse of sorts, through which differently privileged, differently oppressed groups of people can provide mutual aid? Is it a proto-state, or an open call for help? The former would be a response to media and institutional pressure to be ‘on message.’ Pressure from above. The latter would be a response to pressure from below.
Yesterday, the same community activists who pushed for indigenous solidarity successfully helped organized an Indigenous People’s Day March for this afternoon, against the worries of the usual crew of white middle class End the Fed types that the movement is getting “hijacked” by “personal interests.” As a concession, we’re stopping at JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America on the way. There weren’t as many people last night as I would have liked, but I think amidst the chaos and abjection some people are changing their minds.