Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lessons and Repression

* “If a homeless man dies in Pioneer Park and there aren’t hippies around to blame… does SLCPD made a sound?”
~ Bob Aagard

If you haven't seen on the news, last weekend the Police kicked approximately 150 homeless people and political activists out of their tent city encampment in SLC's Pioneer Park. 19 were voluntarily arrested as they refused to leave in protest of the eviction. Several thousand dollars of donated camping gear were destroyed and thrown away by the police, scooped up by a large loader and placed inside of dump trucks. Much food, literature, and the kitchen were evacuated, but the camping gear wasn't and the retreat was generally conducted chaotically and in a highly personal manner.

Similar evictions have occurred at other occupations elsewhere. There's news stories about it you can read on news websites and I'll probably write about my personal experiences that day soon. But today, let's start a discussion about the political lessons of the movement.

First, let's begin a review of movement literature and some political criticisms that I have been raising and contributing since the beginning of my involvement with Occupy SLC. The point is not to go over every argument here, but to provide you with an index of what they were.

The political document I am most proud of that this movement was able to produce before its repression was a newsletter that was produced as a project of the free school at Pioneer Park. It is online at http://occupyslcnewsletter.blogspot.com. The PDF version, which is what was actually printed out in 200 copies is online here.

It was edited together from 10pm-midnight the night before the eviction so that we could have something to give out the next day. It is about 50% interviews with people living at the park and the rest involves movement news and accounts by different activists. Jesse F, Michael W, Aharon, Justin, myself, Badger, Mearle, and three other people who are anonymous from the park all have contributions in it.

This is newsletter, of course, has been a completely separate project from my own blog, here. I got involved with Occupy SLC about a month ago when I came into town while I was looking for a winter job and housing. The park was a convenient thing to have because I was living in my truck and people in cities usually look at you weird for doing that. So I had a place to sleep and eat and cook while getting my act together and, as I also have a political background in social justice movements I was excited about the political movement as well.

I was, however, rather disturbed by the lack of long term planning or strategy, the lack of a clear articulation of demands or focus among the various fronts of the movement, and in particular a lack of accountability, definition of roles, or democratic structures in the movement. As a result, and as I am a writer, I began a series of blogs about the movement, most of which I also printed out with my own money and shared with people I had met at the park. Here they are in ascending order:

The Occupation of Wall Street (reposts of some a perspectives article by someone else and the demands of Occupy Wall Street.)
Sat Oct 15

Two Counteroffensives of the 1%: Middle Class, Will You Join Us?
(Arguments against the middle class prejudices attempting to be cultivated around the "53%" anti protest slogan) Wed Oct 26th

Political Perspectives for Broadening the Occupy SLC Movement (discussion and proposals for outreach, producing more educational materials, why it makes more sense to protest in the day rather than at night time)
Thurs Oct 27

We Took the Park, Now What?
(Arguments that bringing down plutocracy takes more than camping. We shouldn't fetishize a tactic. Proposals for homeless advocacy as a focus of pioneer park, generally acting more efficiently so as not to waste time, and a humorous critique of "leaderlessness" and the "consensus" model of decision making).
Sun Oct 30, 2011

Occupation in Danger
(Critiques of the "town hall" meetings as being undemocratically run, unclear in their purpose or structure, confusing to new activists, and inefficient. Frustrations and difficulties with the fact that the web site manager is out of touch and the site is not being updated. "How to Run a Meeting" Proposals for having the most basic structures of facilitators, time keepers, stack takers, and minutes takers at meetings. A very poignant prediction that "If you are very involved in some kind of political work but you are not trying to come up with a longer term plan and goal for the park, the whole occupation will stagnate around you and eventually crumble.")
Wed Nov 2nd

To Empower the 99%
(What are the resources and the campaigns of the movement and how can we make it work? I critique the proposed campaigns of "buying locally", using credit unions instead of major banks, and calling for a "general strike" with zero organized labor support and none of the infrastructure to run it as solutions that are not likely to produce the kinds of political, regulatory, and economic changes that are needed to actually empower "the 99%" and limit the control of the "1%". Arguements for more organization and for recognizing leadership and keeping it accountable rather than pretending it doesn't exist. Ends with a concrete proposal and political plan to turn pioneer park into a campaign to expand the inadequate shelter system. Sadly, the day this was written was the day the police announced they would be shutting down the park).
Friday Nov 11, 2011

Another blog that talks about the park and the movement is Deb's blog. I met Deb just as the park was being shut down. Here is her blog about after Eviction Day. Here is her blog about the eviction itself.

"The usual suspects say the campers (of which a large percentage are homeless) should go to the shelters in the community. What they seem to not understand is that the shelters are full. You also cannot get into the shelter if you do not have identification. Instead of identification, you can bring a utility bill or a credit card statement (if you’re so lucky to have had an address at one point or the luxury of a credit card). The media does not tell you that to get into these shelters, the homeless need to have their TB shots. Without healthcare, how is one supposed to keep up with luxuries like a TB shot? Homeless are also not allowed to bring anything with them into the shelter, so if they have a suitcase full of their prized possessions, they are expected to abandon it."

"We have been told the camp is undermining the services available to the homeless community. They don’t seem to understand that we, as Occupy, are trying to address the fundamental issue of how one becomes homeless in the first place...."

"...The reason why many resist the negotiations to come back daily yet not camp is that it is an attempt to hide the issue of homelessness. Asking us to come back everyday assumes that the population has somewhere else to go. We stand with the 99% and the homeless in Pioneer Park in addressing the fundamental flaws in our communities..."

* * *

Struggle moves forward. It takes different forms and creates different organizations and adopts new tactics and strategies in light of new experience. Let the struggle continue. And let the popular classes of the "99%" re-group and re-organize themselves for a new assault on the "1%". But let us not do so on the basis of the same disorganization and confusion that has hindered, rather than helped, our Occupying movement hitherto.

Ultimately, I believe the movement was repressed and is experiencing serious setbacks today as a result of its own inherent weaknesses. The spontaneity of it and the fact that anyone could get involved and start doing whatever they wanted did bring a lot of people together, but there was never a specific list of demands or focus for the work of the Pioneer Occupation. Neither was it professionally and sanitarily managed well enough (the kitchen passed the code, but there were feces and needles in some tents) to actually be a "winter long" homeless camp as many of the organizers there envisioned, even if we didn't have any deaths and we could have retained political 'goodwill' from the police. The nature of movements is that if they don't have a plan for how to move forward, and they stagnate, the power structure eventually comes up with a plan for how to repress them.

That is, of course, exactly what happened. It is almost surreal how completely oblivious most of the movement's leading activists were about the need for long term plans, strategy, and efficient, reliable structures up until the very moment they were looking repression in the face. Less than 18 hours before the police announced the park would be closed I interviewed a few leading activists who specifically told me they rejected the idea of listing specific demands, or even articulating a vision of what we could "win" as a victory before ending the occupation. One leading activist who was arrested at the park closure and was on the radio talking about it the next day told me a day and a half before his arrest that he was against us ever leaving the park "until the plutocracy was turned into a democracy". A term prospect indeed. Another activist, J___ who has been very active with the Federal Reserve Occupation, and whose interview was published in the newsletter, spoke glowingly and full of confidence in the police to me less than a day before the same police said they were shutting the park as well as the newly won Fed- Gallivan Occupation down!

I generally think that activists like myself or perhaps you who may also read politics and history a lot more than most people often run the risk of over estimating how effective literature can be in people's political education. I have always believe that most people don't form their political opinions on the basis of what things they read, but by the life they live. That is why the Occupy Wall Street movement is huge now in a way it wasn't- and couldn't have been- for the past 3 years. It took that long of living in a recession for people's ideologies and illusions in the system to be broken down by their own life experience to the point where they were willing to seriously consider, and be involved with, systemic critiques of the system.

We too, however, are people. And with regards to political education I agree with the statement that "Theory is gray, but green is the tree of life!". I hope we all will look long and hard at the successes, as well as the challenges, limitations, and recent repression of the Occupy SLC movement and in doing so identify our strengths and weaknesses, successes as well as mistakes.

Consensus-based decision making, the experiment of "leaderlessness", the fetishizing of one specific political (occupying) tactic, and the overall theories of actions and propaganda designed to spark "spontaneous" movements without strategic plans are all good places to start.

I will contribute to the assessment of these weaknesses in the coming days on this blog. I hope my discussion about these things digitally are being mirrored by similar discussions among occupiers and ex-occupiers far and wide.

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