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Thoughts from Last Night’s Occupy Wall Street Conversation at the New School

A view of the panel at the New School (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Occupy Wall Street and the Right to Protest: What’s Next?” was a conversation which took place yesterday, Wednesday, October 26, on the heels of The New School’s Teach-in on October 22. The event highlighted the perspectives of critical theorists, historians, lawyers and sociologists and presented their predictions for the future of public protests. The conversation featured the following individuals:

  • Nancy Fraser, Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science and Department Chair, The New School for Social Research
  • Joseph Giacona, student, The New School for Social Research
  • Gideon Orion Oliver, Executive Committee of the National Lawyer Guild, New York City Chapter
  • Jeremy Varon, Professor of History, The New School for Social Research
  • Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology, Brooklyn College
  • Eli Zaretsky, Professor of History, The New School for Social Research

Attending the discussion last night was fulfilling in an unexpected way. You enter a panel discussion that has “what’s next” in its title with an expectation of possible forecasts and predictions but I left with a thousand more questions. The panel and audience was filled with expertise, passion and this penetrating question:

What are all the variables in the past, present and future that determine what is shaping this movement and what we can we do today, right now, to continue to shape it?

One of the first comments made in the conversation was that at the very least Occupy Wall street shows how many people wanted this. Another valuable question posed was what is our relationship with lasting results when it comes to protesting?

The Streets

A fundamental aspect of the conversation began with what is the street today? Joseph Giacona, a panelist and student focused on this topic in his remarks. As a daily participant in the protests who also excused himself from the conversation early to attend said, “I entered this much more moderate than I am now.” Which is I think how many feel.

The street as lively public domain is in many places suffering neglect. Rebecca Solnit devotes a chapter of her book Wanderlust: a History of Walking to the solitary stroller and the city that investigates culturally based histories and relationships with the city street in regards to public space. She writes:

“The word citizen has to do with cities, and the ideal city is organized around citizenship – around participation in public life. Most American cities and towns however, are organized around consumption and production … and public space is merely the void between workplace, shops and dwellings.”

The history of streets as places of connection within flow, conduction and avenues of civic activation is often now just a means to an end. Beginning with the physicality of it, Occupy Wall Street is raising potent questions of what our relationship is with our streets, the physical arteries that connect the vital organs sewing together our social fabric. And if are arteries are clogged with consumption and production, then this is our current social fabric. Clearly this is one underlying reality the occupation is blasting. Obama’s election may have sparked an atmosphere of activism but not to the extent that Occupy Wall Street has. Maybe his election needed to happen to ready the soil but the growth appears to be coming from the asphalt of our unprotected streets.

Crisis/Harbinger

One role of artists and protesters is to disrupt. Within that disruption, we hold up a mirror. The disruption itself is social alchemy necessary to knock perceived realities around in the individual and collective psyche. As an artist I know very much about what happens when you give birth to an idea. It breaths its own presence and life and then you’re only role is to run alongside of it. Keep up. Not control it, nor tame it. Just keep up. The only constant is change. This disruption has duration and each new day as new developments happen and new people join in we watch it become something else and more questions are asked. The conversation also asked the question could this movement hold its integrity and momentum, and yet evolve into what is needed? Or as poet T.S. Elito succinctly wrote:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.

Speaker Nancy Fraser, outlined the financial, ecological and social reproduction/social bonding crisis we are facing. She stated we are facing invasive new forms of commodity and a big part of the Occupy Wall Street story is about expansion of commodification and our rebellion against being swept along in this massive river. What are our other crises? Crisis of leadership? Crisis of accountability? Competence? Humility? People come together out of shared experience from a common crisis and all crisis is opportunity. So, what’s next is also asking the question, what is our opportunity?

Radicalism/Action

Radicalism was another focus of the conversation. Defiance, that incredibly refreshing social alloy. Is this movement inciting something that will be of a lasting change, a refusal to be governed by any power in the way that we were before? Are we also asking where is our space for radicalism? Where is our public space for pathos? If we mute it, it will come out regardless in either volatile uprising or epidemic neurosis.

Panelist Jeremy Varon began a conversation on government as the custodians of borders. Alex Vitale spoke about the power of direct action tactics. He addressed the conflicts that arise when power structures are threatened and then become preemptive. He spoke of how in the 1960s there was a state of negotiations management that was employed during protests and public assemblies and since the Seattle 1999 WTO protests have been obliterated. Now there exist mostly protest policing, command and control, preemptive decision-making. In an individual psychological mind this is called worry or anxiety and is a projected false future generated from fear. Preemptive policing is no different. It removes all communication, negotiation and peaceful assembly to create powerful change. It removes presentness. It is also based on the idea of order and promotes separation.

Another very important question that was raised is what is our definition of violence? In a time where the leaders of our world can get away with blatant war crimes without question or investigation, what right now is our definition of violence?

Questions asked in regards to the future of the movement was, will/does the character of the occupation shift with the weather, the weekend, the holidays? Where is the line between important cultural ritual and controlled free time? Have both of these been hijacked by consumption and production as well?

A member of the audience expressed her frustration with experiencing too many protests where momentum stalled out and ended with a holiday or poor weather and then what began as something powerful ended as only a picture of democracy than actual change. Her point and delivery incited applause.

Other potent topics included challenging the political left. Why are decisions to order crackdowns of public assembly being made by liberal democratic mayors? What does this say? Speaker Alex Vitale also emphasized individual action and participation. “This is not about waiting for their articulations of their demands. We all own this thing. Get out on the streets and take leadership,” he said.

Eli Zaretsky added his thoughts on the role of radicalism. “We need a permanent radical presence. That is action oriented. America has a fantastic history of both freedom and crisis. The word crisis itself means a turning point. We have a deep history of revolutions for freedoms in slavery, industry and the counter culture movement of the 1960s. Developments that began in the 1960s and the repression and suppression that followed have led the country into even deeper moral demise and we have the opportunity to pick that up again now,” he said.

He also spoke of teach-ins, an invention of the 1960s antiwar movements, and suggested we do take back the universities at the designated space for radicalism. His comments ask the questions will we spin our wheels again? Will we learn from our experiences? Is this a question of history? Are we spiraling upward?

“This movement has incredible potential, how can we make sure it is not squandered? This is an educational moment,” said Nancy Fras.

So what other questions can we ask as we watch these challenges to old definitions of power as hierarchy evolve into new understandings of power as meshwork and networks? Networks have the opportunity to create interrelationships and restore social bonds and create fundamental redistribution of opportunity. How are our environmental concerns inherently tied into our economic concerns? Last, of all the characters and relationships in this plot, what is the looming role of the many forms of debt?

Some Links of Related Interest:
  • A report from the New School’s teach-in earlier this week (Deliberately Considered)
  • A “deadly” crackdown by Ugandan authorities on recent protests (Time)
  • A teach-in by War Resisters last May 12
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