Secure in the space of occupation: notes from a student-led experiment in New York

Secure in the space of occupation: notes from a student-led experiment in New York

 

I was involved in the occupation of the New School student study centre at 90, FifthAvenue, just off Manhattan’s Union Square, and its regrettable degeneration is the basis for this reflection. This piece did not come naturally to me. The thinking I had to do for it was tricky, and took a little courage, as it was bound up with activities and individuals I stand behind. At Open Security’s request, I am offering some arguments on feeling secure in a New York City occupation, that is to say, on creating brave kinds of safety within heterotopic space, specifically, space collectively claimed in order to be transformed by direct action initiatives like Occupy.

 

The student rally on November 17th (N17, widely experienced in New York as a day of glory) was on Union Square in the early afternoon. Then it got moving, in order to join the unions’ and “labor” activists’ rally downtown on Foley Square, by City Hall. Imagine you are a part of the throng snaking along East 16th Street and south onto Fifth Avenue. Imagine nearing the TD bank on 14th, and realising that something very exciting is happening above it, where the glossy glass-fronted student study centre is situated. A scuffle at the entrance. Marchers – not all of them necessarily students – thronging in and up the escalator. Police scrambling to prevent entry with plastic blockades. Building superintendents angrily ejecting insurgents from the freight elevator at the side-entrance. The main door threatening to split. A cluster of students visibly supporting those inside receiving baton blows. Banners already fluttering out of the first-floor windows: ‘Free Space’, ‘Zuccotti is dead: the virus has spread’; ‘All-City Student Occupation’; ‘All Welcome’; ‘This is not a New School Occupation’; ‘Students and Labor Unite’; ‘Labor & Students Take the City Back’. Do you attempt to go in? Then, or hours later (once President van Zandt had ‘allowed’ the occupiers to proceed), would you sleep there? If you surmounted your inhibitions, your nerves, and the adrenalin-fuelled, densely-packed chaos of that moment on the street, if you exited the heavily policed universe of the ‘public’ pavement that was being forcibly ‘cleared’ of human ‘obstructions’, if you plunged into the promised haven … what would you expect on the inside? What kind of society awaits you there, for your pains?

 

Occupations are – classically – houses of messy, over-determined contestation. The mainstream media often brand everyone inside them as unwashed, unemployed petty criminals with inscrutable and thus irrelevant politics. Yet it, significantly, also props up the view of space-claiming action as essentially ‘virile’ – and threateningly so – rather than ‘feminine’/’compassionate’. Thus, many actual participants, who are of course learning as they go, form their identity off the mirror of ‘public opinion’, and act accordingly in ways they deem uncompromised and uncompromising. I believe that insecurity within the space of occupation stems not from true radical vs. reformist distinctions: it stems from this (almost well-meaning) arrogance in those enjoying the dubious privilege of being stereotyped as frightening, i.e. from common or garden white/male privilege masquerading as professionalism. To give specifics: I did not feel safe within the space of occupation on the first night of its establishment, because my participation in the home-making process was squashed by undiscussed graffitiing, smoking, vomiting, and sexist jokes from young white men. I stayed anyway and regretted it: others would not. Everyone behaves badly a lot of the time. We are trained to. Most of us experience the bad behaviour of excited young white middle-class males as oppressive as well as ‘bad’, however. This is important, and Tools for White Guys help. Yet I am still identifying, primarily, a shoddy interpretation of the widely shareddesire to resist management-capital as comprehensively as possible as the source of behaviours of non-solidarity by these few towards those demanding a ‘safer space’ agreement. 

Security, after all, is their word. We, in flaunting them, should party hard and abolish rules. (So runs the reasoning.) Consequently, I was one of the only non-males who slept at 90 Fifth on day#1. And in the subsequent week, some attempts at mediation by perplexed and exhausted activists still failed to achieve the cohesive commune that might have succeeded in running and retaining the occupation. As the process disintegrated, we were forsaken not only by hoped-for allies but attacked by erstwhile supporters in positions of power. A letter with thirty signatories composed by Andrew Arato, faculty member published online on colleague Jeff Goldfarb’s blogDeliberately Considered, condemned “random violence” and argued that the liberal leadership of President David van Zant “had provided no conceivable excuse for this action”. MacKenzieWark, however, from Eugene Lang college within the same university, seems to me to make clear he deems the letter to constitute what Rancière calls the high treason of the Critical Left, opening his ‘Notes on the New School Occupation’ with the pithy sentiment “These are times when one must dispense contempt sparingly due to the unseemly number of things that deserve it.” The hebetudinous and offensive barricade-graffiti of the nihilist opportunists of ‘Occupy the New School’ is perhaps best condemned in this manner. Or, perhaps, one could invoke Slavoj Žižek’s double-edged epigram: “our violence is always legitimate and never necessary”. (One might even modify this slightly: “but never necessary”.)

 

 

Graffiti and barricades do not constitute violence. But sexism, racism, ablism, and certain forms of insurrectionary discourse rooted in class privilege sometimes do. There is good reason to expect, moreover, that environments characterised by these give rise to bodily attacks. And, based on the irony I outlined above, it is sometimes those who believe themselves to be ultra-radical who embody the domestic threat to other bodies already traditionally vulnerabilized by capital. Unpicking this often becomes a shouting match about the place of ‘identity politics’ within revolutionary struggle. Faced with this onerous task, people I would call real radicals can sometimes effect anti-sectarian magic. The role of mediation within Occupy Wall Street has been documented, for instance, in relation to the internal dispute concerning drum-circle revellers (see also Truth-Out). Sometimes documents and manifestos arise in networks in response to experiences of internally generated un-safety. The ablest mediators cannot, however, bridge gaps created by violent crimes. Recently, generalized public unconcern for the rights of the movement as a whole (following Zuccotti’s eviction) gave way to hysteria in the media in response to OWS reports of an incident of a rape on the park. This despite (or perhaps because of) its having been extremely thoughtfully handled by the ‘sexual assault survivors’ team’ (which also escorted the victim to a police station). In the New School study centre, no assault of that nature was – thankfully – reported. Yet a rhetoric of ‘divine violence’ (and outright rejection of Occupy Wall Street), emitted by some, amounted to small but meaningful assaults on others’ right to represent the occupation. It didn’t matter so much that a few blokes had drunkenly and unaesthetically graffiti-ed the walls. It mattered, however, that the enemy had been internalized. Trans, female, Black, Latin American, queer, disabled, working-class and older participants in the supposedly ‘all city student’ space were feeling indirectly targeted. And as one indignant African American New School student put it in a general assembly there she had decided to attend: “all I see here is white folks trying to tell me what radical activism consists of. Believe me, I know.”

 

I ought to mention, here, that what I have been calling an ‘occupation’ (here is a statement from its website) never substantively became one. President David van Zandt played a tricky game, killing us with kindness and enforcing an ‘academics-only’ door policy rather than anything stricter. To our dismay, moreover, very few non-academics arrived to make use of the student-ID-distribution system we ran to get around this. I should also add that I did not help plan the occupation, in fact, as an extremely new arrival in New York City, I was bedazzled enough by my new social environs to assume that the groundwork for a student occupation to mitigate the loss of Zuccotti had been more extensively carried out than it actually had. In fact, not much outreach had been undertaken among the ‘labor’ and longer-term Occupy Wall Street organising structures. The meetings I attended, i.e. the penultimate and ultimate meetings before the seizure of the space – distinct from the all-city OWS student general assemblies – nevertheless had representation from diverse New York universities: not just the New School, but Columbia, NYU, Pratt, CUNY, and even Juilliard. It initially seemed possible, therefore, that the occupation could be saved from becoming a ‘New School occupation’. Had that been the case, cliques might have had a harder time sinking the collective boat. It was urgent that no place really existed, at that time, for Occupy Wall Street to assemble. Ideally, to remedy this, occupiers would have wrested control of the escalator and entrance from the New School management and the bank. The catch-22 here became the fact that achieving that required serious support from the whole movement; gaining such support relied upon an open-door policy and a sense of trust which several union branches were reluctant to give to what appeared to be a bunch of drunken kids. And why should you – comrade, out there, whoever you are – enter a space that isn’t socially secure, when you are already preparing to take enormous political and material risks with your body in order to proliferate eu-topia? If existing neoliberal market logic is utopian (in the sense implied by ‘no-place’), and eu-topian aspirations raised in recent years across the world (in the sense of ‘good-place’) are still far from fruition, thenhetero-topias are the bridge between the two, laboratories in which another world becomes possible. So, when we begin the rehearsals for revolution in our encampments and occupations, ‘their’ phobic security has got to be replaced by an alternate ordering, an unbreakable promise to one another, a sense of security that is ours.

 

‘Security’ is not a word I use comfortably, though it was not previously clear to me why – beyond its hazy association with the word ‘homeland’ and with ‘anti-terror’ legislation. After all, to be on some level se-cure, without-care, must be a precondition for equality of participation and action in concert with others. It cannot, as a concept, be given over to reactionaries, police commissioners, border vigilantes, and surveillance-fetishists. Ways in which so-called ‘security’ issues play out in temporary autonomous zones are often polarising, pinning those raising concerns in a camp marked ‘self-involved’ and/or ‘identity politicians’, and those to whom they are addressed in another marked ‘long-suffering true-radical’. As I have argued, the false dichotomy stems from a misunderstanding of ‘revolutionariness’ and amounts to a failure in holding open heterotopia. The space fails to be different and cannot therefore give birth to eu-topia. The stress produced by putting ourselves ‘at risk’ differs wildly – and for good reason – from person to person. The tenor of ‘safer spaces agreements’ penetrates only unevenly into the common sense. For some, ‘freedom’ still spells individualistic defiance of traditional morality, even within the temporary autonomous zone. So, which is the way to struggle against asymmetries grown insuperably visible once the prevalent, however imperfect, “sense of security” has been challenged. How do we behave to promote care-free existence, where the liberal democratic state’s panoptic gaze is stymied?

 

In Kevin Hetherington’s book The Badlands of Modernity, heterotopias are alternate (not just ‘transgressive’) orderings, “uncertain zones that challenge our sense of security and perceptions of space as fixed”. But what must also be considered, then, is whose sense of security, whose perception of space, because the more “certain” zones we inhabit by default are rife with division, hierarchy and false consciousness. We know that privately owned squares, roads and buildings, with their insurance policies based on the logic of ‘risk society’, turn into supports for public action – and private life – when people pitch their tents there. These supports for action become, in theory, safe(r) spaces, because the collectivity frames alternate ‘commandments’ for its own society. It is frequently said (for instance in David Graeber’s Direct Action) that she who has engaged in the collective rush, and experienced political ‘take-off’ on the streets, when bodies in alliance suddenly take notice of their common sense, gains sudden understanding of the miraculous ability of mutual acting to re-make space. But the radical equality that seems to beproduced in mutual acting must be repeated, again and again, or else it falters. It arises, in part, negatively, out of opposition uniting all whose bodies provoke the common – baton-wielding – enemy. Even here, vulnerability differentials require attention: arrest is a more serious matter for Black people. The equality I’m talking about arises positively, however, when a home can be made, a meeting-place defended, a people’s library stocked, individual traumas soothed, bellies filled, a social welfare net autonomously woven around the bodies in alliance, in resistance. Security is nothing if not that equality. Yet the radical equality of the commons is threatened constantly by consciousness copied from capitalism. Bearing this in mind, then, shall we try again?

 

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