Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Last Occupier in Berkeley

What remains of Occupy Berkeley.

By Ezra Silk

BERKELEY – The Occupy Berkeley encampment was evicted “with a whimper” last Thursday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Today I photographed what remains: this guy (above), who appears to be sitting in front of a Bank of America branch on the corner of Shattuck and University Avenues all day, every day. When we were driving back from Occupy Oakland tonight, he was there, sitting in the dark. He has a tent out there, clearly labeled “Occupy Berkeley Tent,” but it appears to be more symbolic than anything else. The man said he naps in it for a few hours every now and then.

The Occupy Berkeley Tent.

Continue reading

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A Crude Poem to Obama

By Ezra Silk

BERKELEY — While cleaning out my car earlier today, I came across an anonymously penned three-part poem, “Because You Promised, Mister President,” which I believe I obtained at Occupy Austin. Not only is the poem cruder than the others I’ve posted, but more topical, addressing the European debt crisis as well as a host of other current issues. The author appears to be a libertarian environmentalist, which is an oxymoron, as far as I’m concerned. The breadth of this poet’s concerns gives you a window into why it’s been so difficult for the uber-egalitarian Occupy protests to come to any agreement on “demands,” or even goals. It also shows how difficult it is to classify some of these people politically.

Because You Promised, Mister President

(Part I)

 

Because the time has come for real Hope and Change

The mobs are massing and they might get deranged

Because the people tire of promises that reek strongly of dung

They desperately need to once again hear the Liberty Bell rung.

Because they are ready to return as good as they get,

And they would hate to see you treated like Marie Antoinette.

Because hyperinflation is in the offing, it’s stench in the air,

The horrible consequences leaving destitution and despair.

Because corporations are not people they indeed have to go,

Despite the Supreme Court ruling that they do have a soul.

Because fracking is cracking our great Mother Earth,

Of other habitable planets there is such a dearth.

Because the food is polluted due to unchecked avarice,

On genetically modified organisms we should all take a piss.

Because pharmaceutical companies peddle poisons to treat resulting ills,

And then politely sodomize you as you swallow their little blue pills.

Because the deceitful FED is dead and not a moment too soon,

Toothless against the impending and crushing debt monsoon.

Because greed is the creed of the oligarch swine,

And meted out justice would be sublimely divine.

Because the bankster arrogance and excess has ignited a fire,

The pieces of paper they worship could become their pyre.

Because real Hope and Change never sounded sweeter,

Now get off your diplomatic ass and become a Leader!!!

(Part II)

Because the serpent’s head must be removed before it tightens its grip,

It is just a matter of time before the beast further constricts.

Because JFK lost his grey matter for Executive Order IIIO,

Although his brains were blown out he is still hailed a hero.

Because he defied the cartel and tried to expose their deceit,

But not every man who challenges shall suffer defeat. Continue reading

The End of the Occu-Pun

By Ezra Silk

BLACK BEAR DINER, MOUNT SHASTA — Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum has signed the death warrant for all bad “Occupy” puns:

You know what gives going viral a bad name: occupy “jokes” which alas have gone viral. By that, I mean not the Occupy Wall Street movement itself, but the sudden widespread use of the verb occupy to make squicky quips.

Like this one guy on Facebook (I guess he must be a “friend,” although he’ll probably defriend me now—sorry, bro) who occupies any time not devoted to political musings by posting notes about his every movement around the house: “I’m going to occupy the fridge now and get some beer”; “Time to occupy the La-Z-Boy.” Who’d have thought of occupying occupy this way? That’s how I keep up with trends, friends. (By the way, trending; your time has come: Trending has trended (“trent”?) into a cliché.)

I confess: When submitting recent Couchsurfing requests, I have asked several potential hosts whether I could “occupy” their couch.

No more, I guess.

“The Era of Ezra Klein”

By Ezra Silk

The Winter 2012 Edition.

I’m driving back to the Bay Area today to spend a few more weeks there. Before I leave, I wanted to let you all know that Rob Wohl recommends Jacobin, a Magazine of Culture and Polemic. I haven’t had time to read any of the Winter Occupy edition, but I do like their teasers a lot. Take this one:

Occupy Wall Street holds national attention. The Left is at its most visible in decades. Thousands march in New York. There’s a general strike in Oakland. The New York Review of Books publishes a reasonable young liberal with a lust for properly punctuated policy memos.

They don’t realize we are in the last throes of the era of Ezra Klein.

Lol!  The Era of Ezra Klein! I actually saw Ezra Klein at Zuccotti Park a few months ago. He looked a little uncomfortable. He seemed to be spending most of his time talking to an older man in a suit holding a sign that read, “Harvard Men for Economic Justice.”

The Harvard Man for Economic Justice (Photo: The Brooklyn Ink).

More on the 99 Percent Merch

Cousin Mossy poses with a Guy Fawkes "Anonymous" button.

By Ezra Silk

ANACORTES — When I was in Portland a few days ago, I went to Powell’s, the famous local bookstore, a few hours before I left. Near the front door, I found a bookcase stacked with a variety of progressive populist tomes such as Jeff Madrick’s, “The Age of Greed.” Centrally featured was “Debt: The First 5000 Years,” by David Graeber, who is credited with dreaming up “We are the 99 Percent,” and “This Changes Everything,” a collection of essays on OWS by some of our leading radical writers. Call it the Occupy stack.

Then, yesterday, I found dozens of Occupy buttons prominently arrayed near the cash register at the Red Snapper, a hippie-dippie tchotchke store in downtown Anacortes (the store’s mascot is a blue gnome holding a psychedelic peace flag). Several “Occupy Wall Street” buttons were stuck to a revolving magnet board, obscuring smaller, less prominent magnets including, “Re-Elect Obama 2012,” “I Gave Up Pimping for This?”, “Proudly Hallucinating Since 1968,” and “Someone You Know Is Gay.” After forcing my young cousins, Moss and Adelaide, to pose with the buttons, I asked the owner, a woman with flowing silver hair, how long she had been selling the OWS paraphernelia.

She told me that she first ordered the Occupy merch in late October, and had not stopped since, ordering the buttons in shipments of 25 and 50. They have been selling very well, she told me.

“We usually order them in fours and sixes,” she said. “Never 25s or 50s.”

In total, the Red Snapper has ordered 125 OWS buttons. Back in 2008, the store ordered 20 anti-Sarah Palin buttons in total, she said.

The Occupy buttons were on sale for $2 a piece. The owner told me that, while none of the proceeds go to Occupy Wall Street, the store has donated buttons to anyone affiliated with Occupy Anacortes, a group of protesters that wave signs downtown every Friday.

The Red Snapper purchased the buttons from Glendale, Arizona-based Dr. Don’s Buttons. The company does not appear to be donating any of the proceeds to the Occupy protests, but I’m planning on calling in to see whether they are discretely doing so. Check out Dr. Don’s collection of 27 different Occupy buttons, bumper stickers, and signs here. If you buy a Dr. Don’s Occupy button now, perhaps you can sell it to the Smithsonian for a hefty profit!

Cousin Adelaide is a 99 Percenter.

Occupy Merch

A box full of Occupy buttons at the Anacortes "Red Snapper" tchotchke store.

Thinking about Phase 2: The Unity Canard

By Rob Wohl

“The SEIU’s going that way, the 99 percent are staying here.”

I heard an occupier yell that unfortunate phrase in the rain soaked intersection of K and 14th on December 7th. Occupiers were shutting down the heart of the lobbying district of downtown DC. A coalition of unions and liberal pressure groups had been doing the same thing a few blocks to the west as part of the “Take Back the Capitol” week of action, but the vast majority of marchers had decamped when they received a final warning from police. On the way back to their base of operations on the mall, the liberals decided to march past the arrest-risking occupiers, and many in our ranks assumed that they intended to hold the street with us.

Nope.

Marshals directed marchers to keep moving. Occupiers ran into their ranks and started encouraging people to buck orders and stick around. In a fit of petulance, the marshals formed a human wall and started shoving occupiers back.  Not to be out-immatured, a few occupiers tried to form a blockade across 16th to hold the march in the intersection. The whole episode was a particular pathetic example of hot left-on-left action in the midst of an otherwise successful action.

Labor journalist Mike Elk watched this all unfold and was appropriately appalled. His take was that occupiers and labor (and presumably other left liberal activists) need to work together more closely and engage in tactics that won’t repel the general public (represented by his cop roommate). Mine’s a bit different: watching a few masked, black leather-clad occupiers hurl invective at a wall of orange-vested union organizers, I began wondering if attempts at unity are hamstringing truly productive solidarity.

Since the early days (three long months ago), I’ve been hearing a lot of desperate paeans to unity down at McPherson Square. Early on, they came from the representatives who wandered up from Freedom Plaza, DC’s other occupation. The history of the Great Occupy DC Schism (which was not actually a schism and has never been called that) is incredibly boring, but essentially it arose from a difference in styles between young rough-and-tumble radicals and progressives (McP) and older activists affiliated with the big antiwar groups of the last decade (FP). As it became clear that the DC occupations weren’t about to merge, the folks from Freedom Plaza insisted on a series of meetings in which various folks, but mostly FP big boss (er, nonhierarchical organizer?) Kevin Zeese,  spoke at length, with very little supporting evidence, about how we needed to “stand together” and “show unity.” Mostly because I didn’t want to prolong these meetings, I restrained the impulse to yell “why?”

I’m not entirely clear what all this unity is supposed to accomplish. Sure, it’s nice to have a lot of people in one place – it makes the organizers of an action feel like they’ve accomplished something. But I doubt that even on its best days OWS has come close to rivaling the numbers that turned out for the big anti-war marches in 2003. Our strength is rooted not in raw numbers or in lock-step coordination. I suspect that the Occupy International has conquered so much mindspace in large part because it’s so loosely organized.

Famously, the movement laughed off the idea of demands and our non-exclusive lists of grievances are expansive. We eschewed the language of limited campaigns and concrete demands that could easily be dismissed as unattainable, insufficient, or both. Without any platform to recite, people were encouraged to get personal when explaining the movement.  If you asked an occupier why they had gotten involved, you might get a titanically misinformed manifesto or you might get a touching testimonial about an individual’s correspondence with the late crisis, but you sure as shit would not have gotten a turgid lump of officially-approved propaganda. The Occupy appeal was always framed as a problem (hence the mass deployment of statistics on inequality in the early days) to be discussed and confronted collectively, thus inviting discussion and participation, not obedience or rejection. Meanwhile, the geographic dispersion of the occupations and the diversity of channels through which we testified meant that we could reach the public directly without having to rely too extensively on the media to relay our message. And because you didn’t have to drop everything and travel to Seattle or Toronto or Miami to participate in the occupations, occupations were populated with ordinary working people, not just lifestyle activists.

So if some diffusion is a good thing, what are the drawbacks to absolute unity? There are obviously some very different styles of activism that don’t necessarily go all that well together, and as Mike and me saw at the intersection of K and 14th, as I’ve noticed every time I go down to Freedom Plaza and get reminded that there’s a prohibition on swearing, stylistic differences can spiral into real tensions. But you know what?  People are different – if they want to have different kinds of actions, that’s fine.

And a diversity of tactics (let’s reclaim that useful phrase from the window smashers, shall we?) and actors can be a positive good, not just a prophylactic strategy to prevent me from getting into a screaming match with a CODEPINKer. You need to be awfully naïve to discount the importance of the SEIUs and MoveOn’s of the world in resisting the austerity class’s assault on the remnants of social democracy, but it seems increasingly obvious that in their present form they are unable to articulate an alternative vision.  Smart people inside, outside, and way the fuck outside the left-liberal establishment have argued that the future of progressive politics may lie with autonomous, extra-legal associations that can escalate, break the law, and challenge the legitimacy of neoliberal forces  in ways that mainstream unions and progressives cannot. Such groups could win real bread-and-butter victories for workers, tenants, debtors, etc, while allowing the legally constrained liberals to keep doing their work and slowly get more aggressive.

A movement is not an organization with a central office and clearly articulated goals (ask yourself what the labor movement’s one demand was, or feminism’s, or the civil rights movement’s). Rather, a movement is defined by a broad vision of a better world that can animate diverse struggles all over the place. There is no reason that the occupations need to exists as entities in themselves for the Occupy movement to persevere – rather, they can scatter to a swarm of organizations, campaigns, and affinity groups to fight against the many dimensions of economic injustice.

For the left, solidarity is the highest virtue. Hell, it’s in our national anthem. But, ever the Sociology major, every time I hear that word I want to know which kind we’re talking about. There’s mechanical solidarity, what one might call unity, the sense of commonality that comes from behaving the same way as another individual. But then there’s organic solidarity, the sense of purpose shared by people who depend on one another despite their differences. Organic solidarity is the sinew of industrial civilization, and it needs to be the guiding light for Occupy: Phase 2. In a fight as big as the one we’re waging, complimentarity will get the goods.

Occupy “Wall Street West”

By Ezra Silk

It looks like the mass action I heard about a few days ago has materialized. It’s a scheduled “daylong mass nonviolent occupation” in the San Francisco financial district called “Occupy Wall Street West,” that is set for Friday, January 20th–three days after Occupy Congress, a mass action scheduled to take place in DC on January 17th. The organizers are calling for a work/school walk-out. Here are the stated reasons for the occupation “of the Wall St. banks & corporations attacking our communities”:

  • Corporations are NOT people, Money is NOT speech. January 20 is the eve of the anniversary of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling for corporate personhood.
  • To expose how Wall St. operates in our midst attacking our communities, homes, education, environment, democracy, livelihood, and well being.
  • To broaden, deepen, mobilize, and assert the people power of the occupy-99% movement and allies.
  • To contribute to ongoing community fights for economic justice against banks and corporations.
  • To build a broad-based strategic mass movement of the 99% in SF, the Bay Area, California, and the region.

Unless something comes up, I will be there.

Occupy and the Progressive Movement

By Ezra Silk

Robert Cruikshank has an interesting piece, “Occupy the Progressive Movement,” placing the Occupy protests in the context of modern liberalism. He argues, among other things, that the protests temporarily united the progressive movement, which had been internally warring over Obama throughout 2011. Last month, I said pretty much the same thing, although what Cruikshank calls the progressive movement, I called the liberal intelligentsia. It’s a good read:

It was during the fifth or sixth major argument within the netroots in 2011 about the Obama Administration that the first protestors attempted to Occupy Wall Street in mid-September. Within days the talk of primary challenges, donor strikes, and third parties had vanished as the eyes of the progressive movement turned toward NYC. As protestors across the country took up the cause and the practices of Occupy Wall Street, setting up tents in cities large and small and bringing the message of the 99% to the masses, many progressive activists and organizations stopped what they were doing and gravitated to the new movement springing up in the streets…

Progressives were not wrong to care about winning elections and making sure the right people were in government. That matters a great deal. Who controls the levers of government, whose ideas prevail in a campaign, which ballot initiatives win and lose, which budgets get cut and which budgets get increased – all of these things are crucially important. And ultimately, if we are going to take our money back from the 1%, it’s going to require governmental action.

What progressives were wrong to do was to make electoral organizing such a central focus of their work, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The movement needs to broaden. The problem with focusing so much on Occupy is that it too is narrow. It’s the overture to the greater opera of change that is beginning. It won’t produce change on its own either.

Our government needs renewal. Our institutions need to be rebuilt. Our economy needs to be made democratic. Our culture and our society need to become much less barbaric and atomized and instead become much more loving and collaborative.

I recommend the whole thing. Cruikshank also takes a dig at the Occupiers’ obsession with the encampments:

Occupiers are openly advocating revolutionary change from the streets. But here is where I think the progressive movement’s love affair with OWS should find its limits. Occupy alone won’t produce the changes we need in this country. By focusing on physical occupation of public space, they’ve muddled their early message and have alienated potential allies. On the other hand, they have succeeded in kicking a door open. The public wants action on inequality and wants to go after the 1%. Progressives should walk through the door that Occupy opened – and they should be willing to work with anyone, Occupiers or not, who are interested in providing the leadership that is needed to make lasting change happen.

He may have a point there.

Update: In the comments on Cruikshank’s post, a San Franciscan named Thomas Brown disputes Cruikshank’s characterization of the occupiers as anti-government anarchists. This dispute highlights the problems with looking at Occupy as a monolith. It also shows how idealistic reformists such as Thomas Brown are willing to sweep some potentially unsavory truths under the rug in order to support this movement.

Your observations about the need for progressives to go beyond electoral organizing ring true, but your broad characterizations of the Occupiers as a group who consider government the enemy is simply not supported by the facts. Yes, there have been a few anarchists infiltrating occupy events (most notably targeting Occupy Oakland after their first general strike). But by and large, the majority of occupiers I know in the San Francisco Bay area are not anarchists or anti-government. In fact, the opposite is true.

From the very beginning Occupy has focused on the greed and economic crimes of Wall Street bankers, their ability to get away with those crimes, and the fact that their obscene wealth enables them to buy the legislation they want. Occupy demands include the removal of money from politics, making bankers and corporations accountable to the 99% and putting a stop to the foreclosure madness (hence the “occupy your home” movement). Here in San Francisco our occupiers (who were evicted from their camp on Dec 7th) continue to sponsor weekly marches with different themes, all of which would fall into the traditional liberal agenda. They also have made alliances with local progressive politicians and are promoting the idea of forming a community bank. Do these goals sound anarchistic to you?

…I say God Bless the Occupiers. We should give them our support, not our snide condemnation.

Broadly, I would say that Occupy is evenly split between the reformists and the revolutionaries. In the Bay Area, however, the revolutionaries appear to be in charge. From what I saw, the debate there, especially in Oakland, is not whether a revolution is needed. It’s about whether the revolution should be non-violent and whether property destruction is okay.

Brown is also conflating the Black Bloc with all anarchists. There are anarchists involved in Occupy throughout the country, and many are not affiliated with Black Bloc tactics. Many of the original participants in Occupy Wall Street were anarchists.

Occupy Anacortes

Kevin and Dick, of Occupy Anacortes, pose for a photo.