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Occupy Commons Are Dead? Long Live the Commons!!
In light of the fact that Occupy D.C. has re-staged a public presence at Mc Pherson Square in solidarity and support through Anarchist Alliance D.C. Network, on Thursday, June 28th, 2012, I felt compelled to pass along this op-ed by my dear friend and colleague, ZenFidel. Congratulations, D.C. on the vim and vigor you show in your attempt to re-establish a presence in the heart of the nation's capital! -Howard Chelle
Last spring when the Tunisians, and the Egyptians rose up to claim their public squares and fight for change, I found myself wondering when the citizens of the United States would wake up to emancipate themselves from the corruption that abounds in our "transparent" democracy. I imagined it would be a difficult task. After all... We have no despots. We elect our government representatives on a regular basis. People are free to speak their mind. People work where and how they want. And the will of the people is the law of the land ... or is it?
Then, during the summer there was the call for a mass action in New York City, to barricade Wall Street on September 17th, which led to the materialization of Occupy Wall Street, in Zucotti Park. By October 17th, cities across the United States had set up similar occupations, in parks and town squares, in their local financial districts and a movement was born, or was it?
The tactic of occupation is not new. When people are angry enough about conditions that they are willing to go to jail as an intervention, they occupy the space best suited for their purposes. Occupy has no single stated purpose for which the movement fights. It's a people's movement, or a popular movement, driven by the desire to establish social justice and economic equity in the face of the economic crisis created by the financial industry's "profits over people" mentality and the subversive corporate rule of our democracy.
The wick is short across the world, but many in the United States will not be driven to act on behalf of these issues until, they too, suffer the same loss that millions have already suffered here. Those millions are (for the most part) the lower classes, who suffer from long term unemployment, and working class families who struggle to maintain their assets in the face of the economic crisis created by the financial industry's "profits over people" mentality and the subversive corporate rule of our democracy.
Meanwhile, Occupy's camp/us, or commons, or encampments, which blossomed in the fall had been shut down across the nation. By spring, very few of these centers were left standing. These commons were the trademark tent communities in public parks and squares where, in most locations, one could find access to food, blankets, information and affiliation. Each location also practiced an age old form of democratic process, called consensus, in an open community meeting called general assembly. A good deal of these commons were populated full time by the indigent and the dispossessed. There were also college students, professionals and retirees who lived in the commons, but there were far fewer of these than the aforementioned.
As Occupations were forcefully evicted, and the commons were closed down across the nation, many felt that the tactic had outlived its usefulness. There was much discussion as to the commons' worthiness for the movement, its drain on financial resources, as well as the occupiers' ability to focus on action as activists. It seemed that the fight for the commons had turned the "voice" of the movement into a first amendment struggle, and many citizens in the general assemblies wanted to get on with the business of direct action in the face of the overwhelming issues.
There was much talk about the "next step" for Occupy, as different locations chose to move to inside office spaces, community center basements and such. It seemed that the Occupy commons was dead. In my own community, (where I had lived in the commons since it's beginning on October 15th, 2011) we had commons in two successive parks, and a group of us slept on the sidewalk beneath the stars, from the date of our second eviction (on Decemeber 22nd), until the first week of February. Our general assembly agreed to establish a new commons in the easement area of a community park, where they knew that the occupation could skirt the laws used to evict the commons from two previous parks. I pulled off ground that day, believing that the breadth of vision was not grand enough to foster growth of the movement. I believed that the commons was an epic fail on behalf of our culture here in the United States. Living together across diverse generational, cultural, economic and religious backgrounds, was an impossibility, for most would-be occupiers and active participants of the general assemblies. It was time to move on to the much touted second stage of Occupy.
At the time, it was my belief that Occupy needed to do two things:
1) Close the public commons and begin occupying political/environmental hot spots. Places like contested mining or foresting areas, along the route of endangered environments where pipe lines for oil were to be laid, blighted neighborhoods, or endangered neighborhoods that were subject to re-development -that misnomer, of evicting families from properties, so that developers could commodify and gentrify the area, then resale the properties at a much higher bid.
2) Take over abandoned spaces such as schools and churches to create social living quarters and training areas for activists, to educate and mobilize the greater portion of foot soldiers, the demographic which is both most representative of the ramifications of what has gone wrong in our nation and those who have the most time on their hands to organize and help grow the movement during this stage of the game, the indigent and the dispossessed.
It was my journey to Washington D.C. for the National Occupation of Washington D.C. that renewed my understanding in the need for maintaining a commons established in the heart of every city and town where the movement was taking hold. I arrived in Washington D.C. during the end of March. It was cold, and rainy even though the cherry blossoms were in bloom. There were two separate Occupy Camps in D.C. One at Freedom Plaza, and one at McPherson Square, a third was planned for the National Convergence at Franklin Square. There were five people at Franklin Square the day I arrived, and a tent was never pitched there. I had traveled 2,000 plus miles to present a workshop at the NOWDC Social Forum and had expended my resources to get there. I was looking for fraternity and community, I was searching for the commons. After about four days, the two canopy tents for welcoming the national convergence were struck, and the meagerly attended social forum at the Quaker House slogged on until mid April.
During the NOWDC Social Forum, my daily interactions with the various professional activist/organizers who attended the workshops was relegated to speaking on behalf of Occupy and defending the need for maintaining a public square presence. During the day, we would meet to discuss strategy, and tactics, the pros and cons of occupation, and how to move forward in the context of the movement. There were approximately 50 to 60 people who attended the social forum the first week a handful of whom were Occupy activists. The second week, the numbers fell considerably from the initial count.
During the first week of the social forum, I spent full days of workshopping and networking with these "white collared" activists with a mean age of 50, At night, I found myself wandering the streets of our nation's capital with no where to go for sleep and safety. The epiphany came to me during these nights of wandering the city that the commons across the nation were closed down to keep poor people from being able to travel the country easily to network and organize for the movement. Without these stable centers to arrive at for communal sustenance, there could be no means for the movement to actually swell in the ranks of that demographic which had the most time to devote to it. Those who could become the most radicalized, those who had the least to lose in the struggle against economic disparity and political corruption had their support structure ripped from their grasp by the closing of the public commons.
While the commons might have been an epic fail as intentional community whereby a broad spectrum of this nation's citizens can de-program themselves from conspicuous consumerism and hierarchal thinking, I became a proponent of the importance of a continued public staging ground for Occupations across the nation, to maintain at whatever level they can, a very public presence for information and networking for the would-be-activists that have few resources, in the way of cell phones, computer access and internet technology, or the fiscal reserves to rent hotel rooms and dine in restaurants, while networking on behalf of Occupy. The only means by which this demographic can organize, is through real world affiliation that can assist in the dissemination and organization for active resistance, which will onlt come through the trademark presence of tents and public squares in every Occupy location.