From the middle ranks of the Occupy movement, I have come to hear “occupy” as a question. The question is being put as to when and how I might be able to change. it sounds somewhere between portentous and new-age, I’m aware. It is nonetheless something that I go and practice–in the sense of perform and try out. I spent today at a workshop run by the amazing Lisa Fithian, called “Shutting Things Down to Open Things Up.”
As is now something of an Occupy cliche, change begins with yourself but it also has to be put into some form of practice: which is to say, it’s personal and it’s political. Hence my monstrous hybrid of a title. In the Areopagitica (1644), his great defense of freedom of the press, the poet John Milton declaimed:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d and unbreath’d that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for not without dust and heat.
So it’s one thing, whether good or not, to write about Occupy but you have to go and do it in the face of the adversary as well. And so the second half of the phrase comes from the regulations devised by Brookfield Properties for the appropriate use of Zuccotti Park: “passive recreation.” It is in its bureaucratic, unlovely way, a motto for the service sector of global neo-liberalism that the U. S. has become.
I am painfully aware of my own limitations in this context. The events I have organized or helped organize are details in a much broader picture. I am and will remain a university person. It is, however, one of those times in which you need to test the ideas you circulate by putting them into a form of practice because this is how we learn what to try and think next. Sometimes this is done text to text. Now it’s time for sallying out and seeing what happens, even if the result is another period of reflection.
The performative workshop is a very useful tool for measuring this sense of change and here I want to reflect on two such experiences that I’ve had recently: today’s exercise in taking space, and an earlier theatre of the oppressed workshop, based on the work of Agosto Boal, that I participated in at 16 Beaver. Both were very productive in making us think of ourselves as bodies in space with choices to make that might change the outcome of events. The comparison might help to highlight some tensions in Occupy’s relations to what we might call internal and external repression.
At the Boal workshop, facilitated by Eve Silber, the musician and actor, what had been a physically passive space of talking and listening became a very dynamic and open set of possibilities. Using the “image theatre” technique, Silber built up from a single image of direct democracy to an improvised encounter between protagonist and antagonist. The scenario involved an experience of trying to get access to an OWS Spokes Council, site of some of the most difficult personal interactions in the movement.
One woman present (I didn’t know her name) did a very convincing performance of such disruptions. She was as scary and confusing as the actual performances of such “blocks” and Joe N., playing the facilitator, did what I probably would have done–he played it for laughs, making fun of the rhetorics of facilitation. Afterwards in the discussion, I wondered if we’d missed a moment: instead of trying to work through the hardest place of internal dynamics, we’d stepped outside by being ironical.
Today in Fithian’s workshop, participants were again encouraged to visualize the space otherwise. This time, sets of bodily movement tactics were deployed to see if one set of people, playing protestors, could get past another, playing the police. The goal was to see if space could be taken, even symbolically. For most of those present, this was not an entirely abstract idea, because everyone has been on a demonstration where the police try and prevent you from going where you want.
Nonetheless, on the first effort, a pile of bodies resulted in the middle of the room. The “protestors” felt we had been successful in recovering someone the “police” had tried to arrest, until Fithian reminded us that the point was to get past them to the end of the room. The next sally went better, aided by the protestors numerical superiority and the absence of batons, helmets, shields and pepper spray that routinely appear in New York whenever police are deployed. Just yesterday an unarmed eighteen-year-old, Ramarley Graham, was shot and killed in the Bronx by the NYPD over alleged possession of some marijuana.
So the final venture, co-ordinated by Fithian rather than by us, had the protestors march up to the police and then suddenly sit down. There was a palpable moment of surprise from the “cops.” In that instant, a variety of options for claiming space would have become available. Then the cops recovered themselves and pepper-sprayed the seated demonstrators.
Doing what is not expected turned out to be the best resource, finding ways not to fulfill how power anticipates that we will perform. Fithian showed video of a trans group marching at the demonstrations against the G8 in Rostock, Germany and the complete bafflement of the police they confronted. Another group demonstrated nude.
In September 2011, physical encampments in public space were a brilliantly unexpected move: now the police regard tents as contraband. The difference would not have been that the police did not know an occupation was planned, as New York is now one of the most policed spaces in the world. Today at Penn Station in the shopping area between the subway and the Long Island Rail Road I saw five police officers and two soldiers. The occupation happened because the state did not believe it could be sustained. Paradoxically, the very sense that they have that Occupy is over could be its most useful asset come Spring.