Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Unsuccessful social movements are doomed to become fodder for academics and cause for continual quibbling amongst those who had once participated. Granted, the very question of “success” (and therefore “unsuccessful”) is pretty contentious. September 17, 2013 marks the two-year anniversary of the day when a gaggle of loosely organized individuals marched up from the steps of the Customs House in NYC and into the concrete-with-trees space known as Zuccotti Park, where they stayed (“they” being this inchoate movement) until the first hours of November 15, 2011 when Mayor Bloomberg saw to it that the park was purged of inhabitants (as well as tents, books, bicycle powered generators, and so forth).
While some of the slogans from the movement have proven to have lasting impact (“we are the 99%”), and while there were scattered successful post-eviction legal battles (such as the library winning a settlement from the city over the destroyed books), the question that remains just below the surface is: was it successful? How much? At all?
As Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has receded into the cultural imagination and into the memories of those who participated it is somewhat understandable that this question should remain uncomfortably unanswered. After all, for many of the participants in OWS (myself included) it was frequently challenging to know what exactly was afoot. Being in the park on any given day (as an active member of a working group) meant that there was work to be done, lots of it. As a member of the library-working group my days in the park were defined by opening the library up, and becoming instantly caught up in the activities of keeping the library going (accepting donations, cataloging books, shelving, re-shelving, answering random questions, etc…). Throughout the course of OWS I was working at two different libraries (not including the one at OWS), but the amount of work that I was called upon to do at OWS was easily triple the workload of either of my “real” jobs. For all of those who denigrated the participants of OWS as “unemployed” there were numerous participants in the movement for whom OWS became an additional full-time job (albeit one without dental).
My point is simply that during OWS the concern for many of us was just keeping this bizarre, maddening, wonderful, infuriating, inspiring space going. We were too intimately involved in the daily survival to stop and ask whether or not we were being “successful.” It seemed, at least to me, that every day we were in the park we were being successful. Yet in the weeks following the purging of the park as I sifted through and triaged the pile of books that had been mutilated by the police and the sanitation department, success was hardly a feeling that struck me.
In the many months since the raid there have been abortive attempts to occupy other spaces, plenty of exciting new activist offshoots built by people who may have met during OWS, enough books published to have demanded their own section in the OWS library, and the emergence of Zuccotti Park as a new rallying and meeting point in NYC. It is also important to parallel these occurrences with other happenings (this is an extremely limited list) President Obama was re-elected, the Voting Rights Act was largely struck down, the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, Chelsea Manning was sentenced, Edward Snowden revealed massive government surveillance programs, climate change continued, the bailed out banks experienced tremendous profits, and the New York City Mayoral primary concluded with Bloomberg’s chosen successor falling to a candidate who had actually expressed measured support for the OWS movement. The second list of occurrences seems in some ways a depressing rebuke to the notion of OWS’s success, for when all is said and done to look at the state of the economy and the state of civil liberties in the months since OWS is to see that it was not only the occupants of the park that found themselves stomped upon by a jackboot.
Before OWS I would frequently find myself fascinated by the degree to which various radical thinkers and authors would obsess over the memory of May 1968 in Paris or the various movements in the US around the same time. It struck me as odd to read those trying to look forward hashing and rehashing past events with a mix of nostalgia and a sense of “what if…” My understanding of such backwards focus was totally shifted by my participation in OWS, and more specifically by the fact that since OWS I find myself obsessively recalling the minutiae of those days and pondering those same “what if” questions. What could we have done, what could I have done, differently? And would it have really made a difference?
It is when I ponder such matters that I come away with a better answer to the question of “was the movement successful?” And I would answer with a reserved and darkly humorous: yes. Occupy Wall Street was a movement that successfully demonstrated that the systems of power (economic, political) no longer feel the need to even pay a modicum of fealty to social movements, it was a movement that successfully demonstrated that it is fruitless to ask for change (don’t ask, just take action). OWS was a movement somewhat befitting a Greek tragedy; however, OWS is not the Dionysian force that rips apart the Apollonian hero, but rather the Apollonian hero ultimately ripped apart by the world that it tried to oppose. In the heart of the bacchanal of the financial district, surrounded by a massive militarized police force, OWS stood defiantly and declared that the cause of justice (social, political, economic, etc…) mattered. And for the crime of naming this cause, this heroic movement was violently ripped apart. The success of OWS was in building a temporary experiment and then having it forcibly demonstrated that the system would only tolerate opposition in the fenced off “Free speech zones.”
This horrid summer of NSA leaks, imperial fantasies of military adventures, sentencing of those who dare speak the truth, and continued profits accruing to the top is filled with occurrences that were foreshadowed in the smashing of the OWS movements. While those warning about the surveillance capabilities of personal technology may have sometimes been ignored in the park the fact was that there was no doubt as to the extent of surveillance of the movement: the police held cameras and they were filming every moment. Those same police (from kettling to pepper spray to purging) made it clear that they were always only one “order” away from cracking the heads of those whose constitutional rights they were supposedly sworn to defend. While the political leadership demonstrated that they could quote slogans and claim to understand the sentiment while doing nothing to address the issues.
The lesson from Occupy Wall Street, the area where it may have been most successful, was in demonstrating that what matters most in these alienated and digitally disconnected times is the act of coming together. Actually coming together. Before OWS I (and I’m sure this is true of many other folks) had experienced numerous events at which those who had come for a rally would gather around and ponder “how many people will show up” at which point somebody would inevitably say that “well, X number of people said they were coming on Facebook.” OWS was a reminder that being there mattered. This is not to disavow those who for whatever reason could not make it to one of the protest camps, but it is to remind us that our disconnection from each other is one of the things that most needs to be overcome. Indeed it was the power of people coming together that seemed to so frighten those who were busily plotting the purging of the OWS camps: the threat of police violence and repeated ascribing of “dirtiness” to the various camps were clearly meant to encourage those thinking of coming to “stay away.” After all, if people actually came to the parks they might find themselves engaged.
Occupy Wall Street was a warning. A clarion call to the public that unless something was done that civil society and civil liberties would be continually eroded by the wedding of corporate, political, and militarized power. The call was largely ignored, turned simply into the spectacle of the overly simplistic slogan “we are the 99%.” Thus, the state of affairs that OWS stood as a warning against has largely come to pass. As the 99% we may all be in “it” together, but the “it” we’re in is the OWS library and the police acting on the orders of a plutocrat are taking it down with chainsaws, with us inside.
In a democratic society, social movements exist as a check against the sources of power, and when they are unable to function as that check it is hardly surprising that the democratic society begins to degenerate and decay. Therefore, it is something of a misunderstanding, a sleight of hand by the system, to think about whether or not Occupy Wall Street was successful, for the very existence of OWS is a demonstration of what a stunning failure (how horrifically unsuccessful) this democratic society has become. OWS had the bravery to state this and to act accordingly. It is disingenuous to try to offer any easy or feel-good solutions, but for me a major takeaway from OWS was the reminder that the first step is to recognize that something is wrong, and the second step is to come together as people, face to face, unmediated by the screens that spy on us and have the bravery to say to each other “this is not right.”
The greatest success of Occupy Wall Street was stating this uncomfortable truth. It is not that Occupy Wall Street failed…it’s that our society has failed.