Seeing and Believing in the Power to Change the World — and Ourselves
by Randall Amster
Words matter, especially in our mediated world where the resonance of language is greatly amplified. In this spirit, among some sectors that are otherwise sympathetic with and supportive of the overall aims of the Occupy Movement, there has been an important critique advanced about the nature of “occupation” as an operative premise, oftentimes seeking to deconstruct the racialized character of the concept as it applies to the legacy of occupiers and the makeup of the movement in its present form.
This critical perspective highlights the fact that Wall Street has always been “occupied territory,” tracing to its earliest days when an actual wall was erected, and even further back when the entire continent itself was taken by an occupying force that failed to recognize the humanity and validity of the original inhabitants. Most of us comprehend this reality — namely that we largely exist on thoroughly occupied land — even as we sometimes forget that for many of us working to #Occupy the centers of power, we ourselves are the beneficiaries of an ongoing and unremediated occupation.
We ought not dismiss the movement because of these problematic linguistics. Still, we should inquire whether some allies — especially people of color, who have suffered disproportionately from colonialism and occupation — are being perceptually discouraged from participating fully in this emerging mobilization. I won’t attempt to speak for them, but would instead suggest that we consider whether there are other ways of expressing the visceral sense of “taking back space” that is driving the effort. In fact, doing so can help foster the development of a deeper critique that subsumes not only obvious targets such as corporations and politicians, but also mores and values in themselves — including those internal to the movement.
As the colonialist history plainly indicates, one can occupy without liberating. Occupied places can become loci of control, authoritarianism, and hierarchical power. As such, they are susceptible to being regulated and policed by those seeking to reestablish their control, as we’ve seen in Zuccotti Park and other Occupied sites. On the other hand, liberated spaces — ones which have been wrested from external authorities and likewise freed from the baggage of patriarchy, racialization, classism, and other forms of creeping normativity — cannot be so easily circumscribed, since they are only partially dependent on their address. The liberated space of a decolonized mind moves with us wherever we go, and is the most powerful form of resistance.
Challenges into Opportunities
Considering that a big part of the movement is to set up public encampments for their symbolic impact, we can already glimpse the seeds of the liberation of space rather than merely the occupation of place. While the physical location of these occupations matters, the impetus is rapidly becoming more about the desire to reframe the sociopolitical dialogue and create nodes for effective (and interlinked) organizing in communities across the nation and world. These are struggles over space, in that they address the material and cultural realms alike, and bear a resemblance to precursors such as the Hoovervilles that arose during the Great Depression — even as we comprehend that most Occupiers do have other alternatives for actual habitation.
The movement is often branded as lacking a coherent message, but on some level the liberation of space is the message. Mass mobilizations of people defying law and authority to create autonomous zones for local assemblies, participatory democracy, consensus processes, and expressions of political solidarity are all embedded in the practice of liberated space. Likewise, a powerful statement is being made against the forces of privatization and authoritarianism, which have sought to exercise control intended to eviscerate the capacity of people to address the issues that fundamentally define their lives. A liberated space can be either public or private in its underlying legal fabric, celebrating and expanding the former while defying the latter.
The challenges posed by critiques from the left (occupation is colonialist) and the right (occupation is incoherent) are actually profound opportunities for the movement to sharpen its articulations. “Occupy Wall Street” is a fabulous catchphrase that has captured peoples’ imaginations around the world. Yet now it is equally crucial to speak with more clarity about what’s implicit in the slogan: decolonization, liberation, democratization, autonomy, community, dignity, and more. The effort is about reclaiming the commons, rejecting the culture of commodification of peoples and places, linking issues into a paradigmatic engagement with entrenched power, reactivating the vox populi, and creating buoyancy within the shell of a rapidly sinking ship. All of this is bound up with the inherent spatiality of the movement and its unique capacity to exist simultaneously in discontinuous yet interwoven locales.
Why This Movement Will Succeed
The combined effect of solidarity and decentralization bodes well for the success of the Occupy Movement. Of course, myriad provocateurs and party operatives are already sniffing around opportunistically to either control or decimate its potential. Pay them little mind — their laughable attempts are the last gasps of a dying ideology that has threatened to take us all down with it. The cell-like quality of the movement mitigates against widespread infiltration and cooptation, and the staunchly leaderless posture in evidence empowers people to think and act for themselves, in concert with others, rather than being lulled into obedience or manipulated into malleability.
This movement will succeed because it has learned the lessons of history and isn’t consumed with asking for concessions or fitting within the four corners of the “vast wasteland” that is the domain of demagogues and talking (corporate) heads. This movement will succeed because it is global in scope, essentially coming to encapsulate an Occupy Earth mobilization, and it taps into the conjoined interests of everyone who is not part of the international elite class that has rigged the game on every continent. This movement will succeed because people are tired of being told that they are little more than commodities to be bought and sold, molded and discarded, and stripped of rights without recourse.
Ultimately, this movement will succeed because we have no other choice but to make it so. Time is not on our side, but history might be — every empire eventually crumbles, and exploitation is a self-defeating enterprise in the end. The urgency of the moment is palpable, and there is a strong sense that this may well be our last, best opportunity before the window of inevitability is slammed shut in our faces. The course we’ve been on as a culture is inherently (and intentionally) unsustainable, both socially and ecologically. Science and intuition alike tell us that the critical juncture is imminent, and that the task cannot be passed down to our descendants if we have hopes of there actually being any.
Thus we arrive to meet the moment, fully aware of the implications. We’ve cut our teeth on anti-globalization actions, anti-war demonstrations, and anti-austerity efforts. Now, it all comes together under the amorphous but palpable rubric of Occupation, and its innate sense of liberating the material and ideological spaces of our lives. Indeed, the process of liberation in itself may well be the goal, in the sense of supplanting the stagnant, deadening nature of entrenched authority. The self-anointed powers-that-be will yield to a new sense of becoming, as people elect to exercise power in their own communities rather than ceding it to remote officials with only chambers of commerce in their hearts.
We are the people, and now is the time. Words matter, and deeds even more so. We are the occupied and occupiers alike; we have been mostly preoccupied but are now reoccupying the places and spaces of our lives. We have been striving to be somebody but are steadily recognizing that this only works if we create a world in which everybody can become the person of their full potential. The power to make this happen is coming into focus, and seeing is truly believing. Our collective liberation — and with it our capacity to help liberate one another and the balance of life around us — eagerly awaits.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor for New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).