Activism After Occupy?

By Steven Botticelli

The idea of meeting and interviewing a current activist was intriguing.  Might doing so help me explore my own current feeling of disengagement from politics?  Rachael put me in touch with the son of friends who she knew was involved with Occupy, and Leo and I sat down for coffee one afternoon in June. Leo had gone to Zuccotti Park a few days after the encampment started on September 17, 2011, participated in general assemblies there, and decided to engage people from his Brooklyn neighborhood in Occupy events. As part of the outreach working group he assessed how to reach people who might not be plugged into social media and who might be unfamiliar with how to participate in Occupy-style, nonhierarchical public meetings.  Soon he had helped organize twice-weekly general assemblies at two local churches.  Hundreds were organized to attend the large Occupy marches and rallies that took place through the fall.  In the meantime the group that had formed identified as a pressing concern the creeping gentrification of the neighborhood, which proceeded through the eviction by various means of long-term residents.  They identified several local landlords and real estate agents who were engaged in sometimes illegal practices and organized public events to “out” these individuals.  They also organized legal clinics to assist tenants who had been threatened with eviction.  Their efforts were so successful that the landlords they had targeted filed a lawsuit against them.  This work continues to this day, and no longer has any nominal connection to Occupy.

Leo admitted to feeling demoralized when the participation of other group members dropped off.  However he seemed buffered against the impact of the falloff by his own unwavering commitment:  “I had locked myself into logistical roles in the group, so I couldn’t back out.  I had called the group’s first meeting, so I felt responsible.”  At times his commitment moved him to assume the tasks left unfilled by members who had departed.  I was naturally curious about the sources of his resilience under these circumstances, but Leo here took himself at face value.  “It’s just my personality,” he said.

Listening to Leo, I felt deep admiration for the commitment and perseverance he had brought to his activist endeavor.  My own participation in Occupy had been much different from his.  I had been quite identified with Occupy as a nascent mass movement and felt a need to be in the street as much as possible.  I had gone to most of the large (and many of the smaller) rallies and marches, spent time at Zuccotti Park listening to teach-ins, attended general assemblies.  Aside from some flyering and posting an announcement for a health care rally on my institute’s listserve, I had done little of the organizing work into which Leo had burrowed so deeply, work for which I have little aptitude or inclination.  For each of us our distinctive relationship to our activism is infused by a particular “structure of feeling” (to lean on a concept of literary theorist Raymond Williams).  Without wanting to judge it, I consider that the nature of my relationship to Occupy had been intense, but perhaps a bit shallow, such that when the mass movement died down there wasn’t much to sustain my participation.  Malcolm Gladwell has argued that high-risk, high-impact activism (his example is the lunch counter sit-ins of the early 1960s) requires strong ties among people, and while I met and kept in some contact with people I met through Occupy, these connections weren’t significant enough to keep me involved after the large protests stopped.

This difference between me and Leo also made me think of the historical debate between German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin on the relative importance of “spontaneity vs. organization” in revolutionary movements.   Champion of spontaneity, Luxemburg is most remembered for her pamphlet on the mass strike, while Lenin never ceased emphasizing the importance of the vanguard party in its essential role in organizing the working class.  While historians have mostly interpreted this difference as the product of the relative levels of organization of the respective working classes of Germany (relatively high) and Russia (less so) at the time Luxemburg and Lenin were writing, one might also wonder about the role of emotional, personality factors that influenced their respective emphases.  There is so much we have yet to learn about the personal needs, wishes, fears and compromises among these that draw us into activism and shape the form our activism takes.

Structures of feeling, but thinking too: Leo had an intellectual perspective on his activism that sustained him though periods of demoralization. He traced a line between the mass protests during the Iranian election of 2009,  the indignados in the streets of Madrid in 2010-11, the Tahrir Square protests that brought down Mubarak in 2011,  Occupy, and then on to the mass protests just breaking out in Turkey and Brazil as we spoke in June 2013.  Occupy had given many thousands of people an experience of participation in activism, experience there to be drawn on and activated when the next political moment arises, as it inevitably will.  This was certainly demonstrated when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast and the networks that had been formed a year earlier through Occupy were instantly mobilized into Occupy Sandy, a huge and effective volunteer effort to assist victims of the storm.

Leo disagreed with me that there might be some value in giving voice to feelings of demoralization in public activist forums.  From his perspective the disappointment that followed the falloff of participation in his antigentrification group was the occasion to turn to more community-building, making an effort to engage new people.  My inclination toward discussion naturally follows from my sensibility as an analyst, as well as the influence of some recent work in cultural studies.  Perhaps more academic than activist in nature, this work (for instance Ann Cvetkovich’s recent Depression: A Public Feeling) looks to explore the potential political usefulness of bad feelings.  But I wonder whether, as Leo suggests, such feelings are better managed privately and taken as a sign to redirect energies.

Around the time of my meeting with Leo, Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying appeared in the media.  I felt outraged by the news of this massive violation of our civil liberties.  I felt even angrier at Obama’s hypocrisy in declaring that he welcomed an open public debate on a matter that he clearly had had no intention of telling us about, and about his presiding over such an operation after having spoken out so eloquently as a senator in 2005 against warrantless wiretapping.  I read and listened to as much as I could about the spying revelations as they emerged in The Guardian day by day, and was thrilled as Snowden managed to evade the American authorities who were certainly making more efforts than we would ever know about to get him in their custody.  I was heartened that mainstream media continued to pay attention, that the NY Times editorialized critically about the program, that people I knew (though not my patients) were talking about it.  I felt frustrated by the absence of opportunities for public expression about this, but remembered seeing a Free Bradley Manning (predecessor of Snowden’s in whistleblowing about American government malfeasance) contingent at the Gay Pride march in NY a few years ago, and knew I needed to be part of it this year.  The group of about 100 of us was quite diverse—I spent most of the time waiting to march talking to several straight women writers.  The crowd lining the route of the march seemed variously supportive and impassive.  I hope we helped to get more people to pay attention, both to Manning’s trial, which was about to start, and to the ongoing revelations about the NSA.

At some point in all of this I noticed that I had become activated again.  I don’t know what part my conversation with Leo had played in nudging me out of my demoralization.  But noticing the shift was a reminder that states of discouragement and withdrawal from politics are not a fixed position but rather states we move in and out of as we live through the vagaries of world events and our exchanges with each other—sometimes including interesting strangers.

Read about activism on the West Coast

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