So I just arrived back, not even a half hour ago, from a march against police brutality through the streets of Oakland. As I stare bleary-eyed at the local squat’s communal computer screen, I can feel a blister festering within the damp and encrusted confines of my sock, along with an arthritic flaring stretching from my lower back to my neck after the blocks upon blocks of heavy treading. But I am pushing through my discomfort and exhaustion to deliver you this column. For a little back story, early last Tuesday morning cops in riot gear– with the assistance of 17 other departments– brutalized the Occupy Oakland camp at Oscar Grant Plaza. They utilized tear-gas, rubber bullets, batons and other “non-lethal” weaponry to evict the camp– arresting, injuring and leaving one Iraq war veteran, Scott Olsen, in critical condition. They also seized tents and belongings. However, the occupiers retook the plaza within days and the militancy of the camp– already strong– has only intensified. Cities all over the globe, including Cairo, have held solidarity actions with Oakland. So it is with this bevy of support and outrage that this march commenced.
I camped in the rechristened Reverend Avery Alexander Plaza those first three nights, curled up in my sleeping bag on the concrete– a time I can describe as nothing short of magical.
But I have to admit, I left New Orleans a little deflated. After gathering with some anarchist comrades around bowls of oatmeal that morning in early September, I participated in the march from OPP that led to City Hall and the beginning of Occupy NOLA. I camped in the rechristened Reverend Avery Alexander Plaza those first 3 nights, curled up in my sleeping bag on the concrete– a time I can describe as nothing short of magical. People were reclaiming space to hold general assemblies and make decisions by consensus. Committees were forming to address the needs of the camp. Possibilities for a new kind of society based on mutual aid were arising where just one week before the continuum of capitalist reality had seemed as isolating and hopeless as ever. I was ecstatic.
But in that time I witnessed the waves of idealism crash against the harshness of reality. For one, people were burning out. In other cities (with more grassroots infrastructure), duties such as– for instance– meal servings would have been streamlined by the local Food Not Bombs group; the Food Committee of Occupy NOLA, however, was scrambling to establish a rotation of volunteers, kitchens and meal plans almost from scratch. Also, because the occupation was not created in a vacuum, the same shitty dynamics of the dominant culture began playing out within this supposedly “safer” space and the logistical challenges of occupying the plaza were only increased over the proceeding days…
Conflicts began a week in. One of the measures utilized by the group is a method called the “peoples’ mic” (which has since been discontinued). This began in New York, where there are stricter laws regarding amplified sound in public space. The peoples’ mic is essentially an exercise in which whoever is speaking breaks their sentences into fragments and those within earshot will repeat these bits so that it can be audible for the surrounding clusters. When someone on stack is speaking too quickly or not enough people are repeating, folks who can’t hear will call out “mic check” to correct this. The facilitator of the first general assembly, who had been a part of Occupy Wall Street and presented the idea, told the group:
“It may seem odd at first…” (It may seem odd at first…)
“…but I think you will find…” (But I think you will find…)
“…it has its benefits.”
You get the idea. Although it makes the assemblies slower overall, I appreciate the peoples’ mic for a number of reasons. One, it keeps people concise and discourages rambling. Two, everyone is invested in the conversation rather than simply being talked at. And as someone who is very meek when it comes to speaking to a large number of people, especially regarding the use of an intimidating mic to do so, it can be much more welcoming to hear those around you reinforcing what you’ve said.
But a small contingent within the camp were critical of peoples’ mic, as well as the consensus process overall. They complained there wasn’t enough action (ironically, not the anarchists!), that their aspirations and individuality were being stifled by the restrictive assembly process. In the interest of trying to understand their positions, I theorize two misunderstandings at work: firstly, what consensus actually exists to accomplish and the fact that individuals are empowered to take whatever action they desire without explicit “permission” so long as it does not adversely affect the camp; and secondly, that social movements go on for decades and if all we’re getting “accomplished” one week in are discussions and creating a space from which to perhaps springboard future action, that’s actually quite a lot.
So at a general assembly, a person from this group stood up to present a “proposal” and proceeded to mock the peoples’ mic and disrespect the group by making us waste time idiotically repeating statements with no constructive value whatsoever. Somewhere in there, a proposal was sussed out that a mobile PA be made available for those who do not wish to use peoples’ mic. Not an unreasonable proposal, actually, I’d say. Perhaps one with a few minor logistical difficulties, but not anything insurmountable. Some agreed and “friendly amendments” were added. Others chimed in with their misgivings. “Amplified sound is how the cops talk to us,” one man pointed out. “This is how we talk to us.” Meanwhile, as the assembly discussed this agenda item, a small group of the proposee’s cronies– who, it is important to note, had been staying on site but not participating in the assembly– wheeled in a cart rigged up with a PA and microphone and proceeded to fiddle with the controls. It was feeding back for a while, causing a small disruption before one man took it upon himself to use the mic to address the crowd about why it was such a good idea. A woman got on stack and told the crowd– using peoples’ mic, of course– that the night before many of these same men had been using this PA to drunkenly call people “pussies” at 2 in the morning for not attending their earlier autonomous march on the federal reserve. A small argument ensued and I could feel the knot in my stomach growing tighter before someone finally expressed what I’d been too nervous to say: “I offer a friendly amendment that this microphone not come with a group of disrespectful men.”
The exact details become hazy at this point, but what I’m sure of is that at some point an older man (in a “9/11 Truth” shirt no less) gained access to this microphone and proceeded to talk over a woman who was speaking. “What’s that you said? I can’t hear you?” he mocked as he drowned out her as well as others telling him what he was doing was inappropriate and that he needed to shut the fuck up. In the midst of this, another man walked up behind them with a banner reading “Leadership Needed: Apply Within.” “I apologize to the group for leaving,” I heard someone declare. The assembly then regressed into a shouting match, followed by a lady comrade and the older man needing to be physically pulled apart. “I would like to ask the GA what it is I should do as facilitator…” I heard my friend shouting over the din, before he threw up his hands and walked away. Women were telling these guys that their behavior was not acceptable and of course–they refused to listen. What happened next was all too predictable: the assembly had imploded, the women who had been disrespected– as well as their feminist allies– were abandoning the camp and the men with the PA who had instigated this disruption were left standing in a circle giving speeches over their ever-useful microphone. It was a coupd’etat! I felt sick. I felt angry and sad. I left.
Fortunately for Occupy NOLA, many of us who were questioning our continued involvement have trickled back in. This is largely due to the example of a few dedicated occupiers. I am not dissing anyone who does not wish to return; but it would seem that if we are struggling for the impossible dream of revolution, we shouldn’t throw up our hands at the first signs of conflict– even if they are with those who should be our allies. Within this amorphous “99%,” we are all coming from vastly different backgrounds and analyses– and though it can be frustrating, I think ultimately this is our strength.
Taking part in the struggles here in Oakland has been reinvigorating. I think it also helps place the woes of Occupy NOLA in context. So I’d like to conclude on an uplifting note. So far it has been totally fucking empowering to take the streets with hundreds of others. It’s a small but joyous occasion to hold up a finger– definitely not two!– to the riot police flanking and corralling us. And there is more to come. I never want this to stop. I will keep pushing myself to struggle even more fiercely– and strategically!– for the world I want and I long to see all of this revolutionary momentum continue to blossom into strikes and shutdowns everywhere all the time. I want those soulless rich– the so-called “1%”– to not find one moment of peace wherever they congregate to fuck up our lives. When the uniformed thugs gun down one of us, I want business as usual to grind to a halt. The world is already burning; the system is already in crisis– so if my life is one constant succession of abetting that rupture, seeking liberation in the small fractures of this oppressive society, I’d call that one well spent. And even though all of us may not be fighting explicitly for a world without cops and capitalism, what’s happening right now certainly isn’t a bad start…
So to my friends in New Orleans: keep fighting and don’t be discouraged. I will be back to join you shortly.