Cross-Activism: Occupy Wall Street Becomes Occupy our Homes, Addresses the Racialization of Poverty, and Ressurects the Legacy of May ’68
“In contemporary capitalism, race it the modality through which class is lived.” -Stuart Hall
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Seems that Occupy Wall Street has, like a living organism evolving to various environments, mutated again. It has now become Occupy our Homes, and in one of the poorest parts of New York City, East New York. From the HuffingtonPost:
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Until three days ago, Teresa Bolton didn’t consider herself part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Bolton is 55 and lives in East New York, Brooklyn, an hour’s train ride from the skyscrapers of Manhattan’s financial district, where the movement was born. But when occupiers appeared on her block this week, as part of a new national campaign to help homeless families move into vacant houses and resist foreclosure-related evictions, she opened her door.
“Occupy Wall Street came to me. I didn’t go seek it out,” she said . . . The street was relatively quiet on Friday afternoon. The exception: a few neighbors milling about on the sidewalk and a steady stream of white 20-somethings filing in and out of a house down the street. The neighborhood is home to mostly poor African Americans and Caribbean immigrants; Occupy Wall Street protesters are overwhelmingly white. On Friday, those activists were the only white people spotted in the neighborhood, besides the police officers stationed nearby. The house had a large banner stretched across it that read, “BANKS STEAL HOMES,” and a sign perched on the roof declaring, “FORECLOSE ON BANKS NOT PEOPLE, OCCUPY WALL ST.”
On Tuesday, the street had been packed with hundreds of protesters, community organizers and neighbors who joined a marching tour of foreclosed homes in the area. Out here, there are plenty: East New York has the highest foreclosure rate in the city. The march ended at the house with the banners, where a homeless family of four plans to live. For now, more than a dozen occupiers are staying there, along with the father, Alfredo Carrasquillo, as they make renovations and address lingering security concerns.
How and if the authorities respond to the squatters will partly determine the future of Occupy Our Homes, a national campaign aimed at the nation’s foreclosure crisis. So far, police in East New York have observed but not attempted to enter the premises.
Here we see how activist movements radically grow, mutate, and become more than just about themselves, but a general call for change. In other posts I’ve called this ‘cross-activism.’ Cross-Activism is when an activist group starts to protest for the demands of other oppressed groups, in an attempt to form bonds of commonality.
The Occupy Real Estate movement described here shows us how this works. The largely white twenty-somethings of Occupy Wall Street decide to take someone else’s concerns as their own, in this case, the largely African-American neighborhood of East New York. In doing so, people who may have considered the aims of Occupy Wall Street distant from their concerns now see it in a new light.
There is danger here, of course, namely, colonization. It’s quite possible that the Occupy Wall Street protesters could simply use the poor folks of East New York for their own aims. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s happened here. Reading the rest of this article, it seems that there’s been an exchange, a mutuality of benefit.
Learning from France in May ’68: From the University to the Factory
A similar thing happened in 1968 in France. May ’68 is a monumentally important moment in French history. It began in the university system, when students began to protest against the fact that they had no say in the curricula, and hence, had to learn what old-fashioned teachers wanted, despite the fact that much of this was increasingly out of touch with the needs of modern society. The protesters took over the Sorbonne and various other university structures in the Latin Quarter. And the rest of France saw this as a local issue, between students and faculty.
Until a decisive moment came. Some of the student leaders decided to go visit another protest going on at nearly the same time. At the Renault car factory at the outskirts of town, factory workers were on strike against management. When a group of students showed up to protest with them, for factory worker rights, at first the factory labor union leaders were confused. What were these young, highly educated kids doing at this working class protest full of older workers with little in common with them? The students argued that what they shared was opposition to similar types of oppression, that management of factories and the universities were part of the same larger problem.
The leaders of the workers and the students began to talk, lean each other’s language, and plan to protest together. When they soon called for a general strike all across France, a critical mass had been achieved. Four million people joined the general strike. Paris ground to a halt, as did cities across France. The government nearly toppled. While May ’68 ultimately didn’t change the government, it had a massive influence on France from then on. And it certainly reformed curricula, leading to, amongst other things, the formation of the ‘experimental’ university at Vicennes (now St. Dennis). For more on these issues, see the work of, amongst others, Kristin Ross, in her recent book May ’68 and its Afterlives.
While many have debated whether or not the successes of the movement, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Factory workers were striking for their own rights, students for their own. According to Deleuze and Guatarri, in their work Anti-Oedipus, each of these groups can be called a ‘subjected group, which is to say, they are oppressed, and are fighting against this own oppression. And as I’ve argued before, any idiot can argue against their own oppression!
But it’s much harder to be what Deleuze and Guatarri call a ‘subject group,’ which they describe as a group which is against oppression as such, not merely in content (ie: particular oppressions), but also form. That is, rather than fight solely against one’s own oppression, one fights against this and the oppressions of others.
Towards Languages of the Oppresed: Laclau, Freire, and Leaning to Speak Each Other’s Language
Political theorist Ernesto Laclau has argued that this is precisely how coalitions which can actually create change ultimately form. He says that it becomes possible to create a ‘counter-hegemonic bloc’ when various oppressed groups join together. The difficulty, of course, is that they aren’t all oppressed in the same way, and they need to literally forget a language which can allow them to organize. This is what I’ve called a ‘language of the oppressed,’ a language that allows group to see common cause and fight against the dominant powers that keep them all separately oppressed. And its important to note that such a language is never unitary, it is always multiple, shifting, changing, for power and oppression are constantly changing, and manifesting differently in different situations. Languages of the Oppressed need to be as multiple as the forms of oppression they seek to fight.
We can look at Occupy our Homes for an example of how this happens, from the same article as before:
On Monday, people associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement knocked on the neighboring door — where James, who declined to give his last name, lives — and explained their plans to move a homeless family into the vacant house. The group spoke with James’ wife, who told him about the plan.
“I’ll be honest,” said James, 44, who has lived on the street for six years. “My first thought was, OK, are the police going to come here, shoot up the place and drag people out the door? Bullets don’t know addresses.”
But there are also five vacant houses on the block, James said. That night, he thought about the number of people who have lost jobs, homes and their sense of security since the financial downturn began.
“Basically, I am always going to be in support of anything that is for people,” he said. “I agree with this concept. It is better to foreclose on banks than it is to foreclose on people.”
James remains concerned that the police may pay an unexpected and messy visit next door, putting his wife, four children, and grandchild in danger. But he also hopes that the idea of occupying foreclosed homes will catch on around the country.
Just before noon on Friday inside Lechonera Restaurante 2, a Dominican restaurant down the road, the lunch crowd is busy with plates of stewed pork, rice and beans, and heavily seasoned fish. While no one appears to be talking about the nearby occupation or its broader goals at Lechonera, an Occupy sign hangs in the front window. On top of the toilet in the restaurant’s only bathroom, a copy of the Occupy Wall Street Journal waited for a reader. The publication is produced by people associated with the movement.
“A man came by on Monday, if I remember correctly, and he told me what they were doing,” said Evcely Olivera in Spanish. She has owned and operated Lechonera for seven years in this spot. “He asked if they could hang a sign in the window, and I said yes, of course. I like the general idea.”
Olivera said that although she is familiar with Occupy Wall Street, she does not speak enough English to follow all its activities and organizing efforts. Still, she likes that someone has come to the neighborhood and said something about all the wasted, vacant houses taken from families who never had much money.
Back at Bolton’s house, her husband, Doyle Coleman, stood on the porch painting the front of their home. The two of them weren’t concerned that the occupiers are mostly white or that someone would be living down the street from them without a lease and not paying rent.
“People come into this country every day from all over the world, so what’s the matter with an American citizen occupying anything in the United States?” she asked.
“Well said,” Coleman responded, nodding.
The couple have been renovating their home as they could afford it. The floors and stairs are currently stripped down to the bare wood. “No credit cards, no contractors, no debt,” Coleman said, dipping his paintbrush and delicately touching up the frame of the house.
Inside, above the computer, hangs a framed photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King. Bolton thinks there’s a strong parallel between the Occupy movement and the civil rights movement.
She was born not long after Rosa Parks refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake’s order to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. When Bolton was a small child, after the law was lifted — but when racism in the South was still a powerful force — she rode the bus with her mother and wanted to sit upfront, but her mother, worried about her daughter’s safety, insisted they sit in the back. Bolton sees the occupation down the street as a similar gesture of defiance.
“The difference now,” she said, “is nobody is telling them, ‘Get out.’ People here are saying, ‘Stay right here. Stay here. Stay put.'”
Notice that Bolton finds strong parallels to the civil rights movement. Here is a language of struggle that is already there in the local community. Occupy our Homes needs to learn to speak that language. And folks like Bolton can teach them this language. Notice how Bolton says “Basically, I am always going to be in support of anything that is for people . . . It is better to foreclose on banks than it is to foreclose on people.”
According to political theorist Paulo Freire, there needs to be a pedagogy of the oppressed, which is to say, various oppressed people need to teach each other how to understand the ways in which each is oppressed. And in today’s world, all are oppressed in one way or another by the capitalist worldsystem. So the Occupy Wall Street organizers, while often white and twenty-something, need to listen to Bolton and others like him, because he is a teacher, one who can show them how to forge a language of the oppressed suited to the conditions, one that can help broaden the movement so that Occupy our Homes becomes national, grass-roots, and diverse. Systems in dominance always stay in power by means of ‘divide and conquer,’ and only the formation of a language of the oppressed can help bring groups together to have great enough numbers to fight back against tyranny, even if of a majority, one of the greatest fears of the American founding fathers.
For example, we see that Bolton uses the word ‘people,’ and differentiates this from ‘banks,’ even though the Supreme Court has recognized corporations as ‘persons.’ Bolton is teaching us how to broaden the language of the movement. Laclau argues that counter-hegemonic blocs need to use certain terms from various parts of a struggle in a way that allows them to become ‘surfaces of inscription’ for the needs of many different groups. For example, by arguing for ‘people,’ we could easily broaden this movement to fight for immigrants rights. Why are people being denied healthcare, when they work and live here? This allows for a displacement of the rhetoric of citizenship, even as it also displaces the language of corporate personhood. Here is a powerful word that can be deployed in a manner which can bring various anti-hegemonic groups together, while fighting the corporate personhood that is angering the Occupy Wall Street protesters so much, as well as distorting our political system (for example, the Citizens United decision).
While the fight for ‘people’ might mean slightly different things for each group in a coalition, they all nevertheless see the fundamental similarities, enough to find common cause. And that’s the point. The term doesn’t have to mean the same thing to all these folks, in fact, it’s best if it ‘refracts’ into local variations, because this allows it to mutate, grow, and develop as circumstances require. Policing purity of word usage is what corporations should do, not activists. Diversity is the strength of activist groups. And that’s precisely why Occupy our Homes is such a great start.
Learning to be Taught, and the Economics of Cross-Activist Protest-Gifting
In all this, it’s essential that the Occupy Wall Street folks approach this as students going to meet their teachers: teach us about how you’ve been oppressed, help us learn the language of your struggle, the symbols of anti-oppression that moved you in the past, and help us find ways to have common cause. And of course, whenever protesters first show up to do some cross-activism, they have to prove themselves to be something other than colonizers, or even tourists. Rather, they need to win trust, and that only comes by time, and humility, the willingness to be taught. Only others are the experts on their oppression, no matter how many facts we have about the suffering of others, first-person testimony is the only way to really learn, the only way to be open to being transformed into an instrument of the liberation of someone else, and potentially, vice-versa.
This is why cross-activism always has to start with an open gift. You go to someone else’s protest, and you ask to join, to show that you want to help something happen which does not directly benefit yourself. Fighting for someone else starts a circuit, where they want to return gift with gift, and this brings about the potential for exchange. You came to my protest, now I’ll go to yours. You asked me about my oppression, so I’ll ask about yours. You wanted to be taught by me, so I’ll allow myself to be taught by you.
And if done right, this sort of politics of refraction can bring about the sort of massive changes that we saw in May ’68. Or when the white-freedom riders joined the civil-rights protests in the American South. This is why queer folks should start protesting for immigrants rights and rights of African-Americans. Even if for nothing more than self-interest! These groups have historically, due to the fact that the Church has provided bulwarks against oppression by whites, been skeptical of LGBT rights. But if queer folks start doing some cross-activism, watch these barriers come down. Al Sharpton, for example, is a strong advocate of LGBT rights. How did that happen? I’m not sure. But I’m thrilled to see his cross-activism every time he argues for LGBT rights.
The only way we can develop cross-activism in others is to start with ourselves. Someone has to take the first step, show up at somebody else’s protest, ask someone else how can I advocate for you?
It all starts with the gift, the gift of protest, of listening, of being humble enough to be taught, even by someone you might not normally see as a teacher, someone without formal education. No-one can teach me what it’s like to be homeless but someone who’s lived it, and I can’t imagine, no matter how many books I read, what that could be like, until I’m willing to be taught by first hand experience. Book learning is great preparation, but we need to train our bodies, our affective systems as well, we need to have faces in our heads so we can visualize who we fight for, real live people that can motivate us to make things right. And that requires person to person contact. According to Samuel L. Delaney, it’s only when we put ourselves in situations beyond those filled with people ‘like us’ that we grow. He calls these ‘contact situations.’ But how do you produce real contact?
Perhaps it can start by showing up at someone’s protest, saying, I’m here to help, teach me.