Over The Fences, Again. One Year After D17

This time last year was D17, a day when OWS tried to establish a new occupation at Duarte Square, land owned by Trinity Wall Street Church. The effort failed and Mark Adams spent 30 days in Rikers Island on exaggerated criminal charges resulting from the plan to cut back the fence that the church had put up. It seems so much more than a year.

Morgan Jenness has produced this rather wonderful artwork to commemorate the anniversary.

D17 by Morgan Jessens

D17 by Morgan Jenness

The vision here blends Delacroix’s 1832 classic painting Liberty Leading The People with the New York skyline and the Duarte fence. Ironically, the painting itself was also recently evicted out of Paris and sent to the Louvre’s outpost museum in Lens.

tous à lensLens is a depressed former industrial city in Northern France. One Parisian I asked why they had sent Liberty up there replied dryly: “Now everyone’s unemployed, they thought it was time for them to get some culture.”

Back in New York, the remembrance of a year ago brings back how absolutely vital it then seemed to continue the occupations as encampments. I don’t mean to disparage–the encampments were so amazing and nothing that has happened since would have happened without the experiences we had there and what was learned. A year on, and that self-fashioning into a community of mutual aid has blossomed in ways that we could not possibly have anticipated back then.

That’s why events like the Winter Jubilee are so important as a way for us all to check back in with our own “beloved community” from time to time. People are working with Occupy Sandy, in militant research, in the Rolling Jubilee and other projects and we don’t necessarily connect with each other. Of course, that was the beauty of the park, that the other working groups were just there. But if you’re building a movement, then or now, there comes a point where you can’t all fit into one square all the time.

As we put what we have learned into practice, it is borne in on us every day that the one per cent is still determined to foist the crisis onto us, to use every violence at their disposal to make sure that it remains that way, even to the point of trying to block relief aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, let alone banning the murderous weapons that kill people each and every day.

We’re still climbing fences. They’re just a little higher now.

Katrina on the Hudson

Devastated suburbs, vulnerable city spaces, immense budget numbers, shortages of all kinds: welcome to Katrina on the Hudson. Today I drove to the Rockaways to drop off supplies and then around the South shore of Long Island. For someone who has done research on Hurricane Katrina, some things seemed very unpleasantly familiar, for all that the evacuations and mass transit system kept the death toll far lower.

We still don’t know the full extent of what happened. It’s looking as if the entire beach front from Jersey along Fire Island to Montauk has been devastated. Communities in the Rockaways are at the very earliest stages of recovery. Contamination by sewage and other toxic elements is palpable in places. Now the city council are talking about FEMA trailers becoming part of the cityscape until the New Year at least. People in New Orleans will be shaking their heads and saying “here we go again.”

The Rockaways are still a disaster zone. The coast is just devastated.

The sand has been piled up to create some passable roadways but others have simply disappeared.

A former roadway

While the houses closest to the water show most damage, there’s debris and ruined furniture awaiting garbage collection for miles.

You can see here that the accumulated sand in front of the house is about two feet thick. It’s a massive removal job to imagine disposing of all this sand and all the new wreckage.

Power stops long before the beach at about 157 Ave, just south of the Belt Parkway, two bridges away from the barrier island. I saw one power crew at work the whole time I was there. As planes going into Kennedy roar overhead, the only governmental presence was a few National Guard armored cars, some wandering police taking souvenir photos and a fire truck. No FEMA, no Red Cross.

Gathering clothes on the sand covered parking lot

There’s a very impressive mutual aid effort. Clothes donations fill the former beach parking lot. They’re going to be much needed. It was cold by day down by the water and temperatures are close to freezing tonight in New York. There were free food services too, cooking Mexican and Chinese.

As much as these efforts are amazing, they can’t meet the full demands of what’s needed here, as Nick Pinto pointed out in his blog:

Occupy Sandy is mobilizing an army of sincere and hardworking volunteers, and is working to assess the needs of residents. But they don’t have the earthmovers necessary to clear the streets of sand and rubble. They don’t have the ability to restore power to residents. The crisis in the Rockaways remains severe, and it’s looking less and less like a natural disaster and more and more like a failure of the state.

(Just to be clear, the photos above are not Occupy Sandy efforts). So what’s going to be crucial is shaping a new politics going forward that sustains the horizontal voice of the communities but also reconfigures the practices of the state. New York local politics have been a byword for corruption and incompetence for, well, centuries. Things have to change.

We need to acknowledge the full scope of what’s happening and how we have far more questions than answers. Driving around the South shore, it was clear at certain points that the massive sewage spills of the storm had not been dispelled. It can’t just be at the places where the stench is unmissable that this is a problem. What does it mean to say on the Long Island Power Authority website that some locations should

plan for the potential that power restoration could extend a week or more beyond November 7th [?]

That’s obfuscation pure and simple.

There are 57 schools closed indefinitely by the storm, nearly all in Brooklyn and Queens. How many of these have majority minority student bodies and what’s being done for them? Can we make the media move beyond their “coverage” resulting from placing a “reporter” in the rain, wearing an anorak, in some place that floods? How can we coalesce the new seriousness of social media into a functional citizen’s media?

There’s great urgency to help people in the immediate term, a short term need to restore functional social conditions and then comes the chance for change.

The next storm is already on the way.



Year Two: Mutual Aid

What if the second year of the social movement in the U. S. was more radical than the first because it concentrated on social change by means of mutual aid? The direct democracy that attracted so much attention last autumn was not in fact particular to Occupy, although it was new to those like myself who had not been involved in the global justice movement. This movement also practiced, as many alternative groups have done, mutual aid as a means of self-sustaining, while also advocating it as a tactic. Perhaps seen in the wider frame, the implications of mutual aid are more radical still.

To be clear, I am not arguing for passivity and I am not against direct action. I am saying we need to challenge not just the economic results of neo-liberal capital but the basic cultural assumptions on which it is predicated.

It was the second year of the French Revolution that really made it unpopular with the world’s bourgeoisie. It was the year of the price maximum, of the abolition of colonial slavery, of the end of aristocracy. In order to make people forget that radicalism, history has concentrated on violence, forgetting the spectacular torture of the monarchical state and slavery to concentrate on the guillotine, which was in fact designed to minimize physical pain. Lost in this discussion was the possibility of a society based on equality as a fundamental principle, rather than the freedoms of the market.

This should not be unfamiliar, even if the historical details are new. What the police in the broad sense try to do is to turn all new forms of dissent into a question about violence. Even and especially when the movement is non-violent, as with the Civil Rights Movement or Occupy.

The classic source for discussions about mutual aid is Kropotkin’s 1902 treatise of that name. He argued against the Social Darwinists of the period like Thomas Huxley that Darwin’s concept of the “survival of the fittest” did not entail a violent struggle within or even across species. As he put it:

We have heard so much lately of the “harsh, pitiless struggle for life,” which was said to be carried on by every animal against all other animals, every “savage” against all other “savages,” and every civilized man against all his co-citizens — and these assertions have so much become an article of faith — that it was necessary, first of all, to oppose to them a wide series of facts showing animal and human life under a quite different aspect.

Again, our own era of evolutionary biology and neo-liberal economics takes the “war of all against all” as a given for all analysis. Often this gets reduced to the concept of genetics as the only conduit for information in non-human species. It may again be necessary to show human and non-human life under different aspects.

Sperm whales socializing

One of the most striking examples  can be seen in the observation of sperm whales by a scientific team led by Hal Whitehead, from which we learn not only that whales are capable of altruism and mutual aid but they do so because they have culture. As Whitehead tells it:

I was studying a group of whales off the Galápagos Islands, looking at their social systems, and found two kinds of sperm whale who were behaving really quite differently. They had different ways of communicating with each other, different ways of using the resources around the island, etc. The initial explanation was that we had two sub-species but there was virtually no difference genetically. So something else was causing these sperm whales to form radically different societies, with radically different ways of behaving. It became obvious that the only explanation was that these whales had different cultures.

Whitehead doesn’t try and draw wider implications but it’s clear that many other forms of non-human from insects to felines and apes have similar forms of culture and mutual aid.

So much of U. S. culture depends on violence as a fundamental organizing principle. We hear Tennyson’s aphorism “nature red in tooth and claw” endlessly quoted as if it were universally accepted, while forgetting that it was written in a poem called “In Memoriam,” written in mourning for Arthur Hallam to whom Tennyson had an intensely homoerotic attachment. Which is just to say, the line says nothing about evolution or the natural.

In short: the market is not “natural.” What we call “nature” is not founded on principles of violent competition. Humans are not that special. Let’s just look after each other. How did we ever get to a place where that seems radical?