Occupation Unknown… Why we should occupy, not protest

 November 3, 2011
Last week a group of anonymous Egyptian activists wrote a letter to Occupy Wall Street (OWS). For the first time two global political movements directly spoke to each other. “To all those in the United States currently occupying parks, squares and other spaces,” the letter read, “your comrades in Cairo are watching you in solidarity… we thought it’s our turn to pass on some advice.”

The Occupy movement may need it. OWS, which was initiated by activist group Adbusters in New York on 17 September and has since inspired similar movements across the world, has come under fire from the press and the public because of its lack of demands and organisation.

Although there is a resounding call for the marginalised, 99 per cent of society to speak out, what unifies all the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring is this fierce desire to reclaim a patch of land. From Tahrir to Times Square protesters have set up haphazard shantytowns in squares and parks. These tented communes are the key to understanding this global political phenomenon.

Amr, a politics graduate who co-authored the letter from Cairo, explained to this writer in an exclusive interview, that the focus of the letter became “the desire to maximise this idea of an occupation”, something that the Egyptians leveraged for change.

It is not as simple as just staying in your tent. As Amr and his co-author Sara put it, these areas are precious and must be defended. Facing violence is often inevitable.

OWS dealt with an attempted eviction and 700 arrests in its first few weeks. At Occupy Oakland, 24-year-old Scott Olfsen was left brain damaged after sustaining a skull fracture from a tear gas canister thrown by police. Video footage shows a policeman just a metre away attacking the group with gas as his fellow protesters rushed to his aid. Shocked and bewildered, the American protesters are getting “a taste of what we were getting into,” says Sara.

So why stay on these squares? “There is a sentiment in America that most of the public spaces and services in the cities have ceased to offer a platform for the public,” explains Greg Zucker, 28, managing editor of Logos, a culture and politics journal, who has been involved in the OWS movement since day one. “Occupy Wall Street is an effort to reclaim these spaces.”

The setting of the OWS camp is symptomatic of this very real problem. Unable to protest outside Wall Street itself, several hundred protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park, a “quasi public space”, Greg explains, because it is actually owned by Brookfield properties. The only reason the movement is in, what they have affectionately renamed, Liberty Square, is because this particular corporation let them. Ironically, Greg adds, they wouldn’t be able to do this in a proper public space.

There are, apparently, city hall buildings in the US that are built with specified protest spaces. It seems democratic expression is only acceptable if it is convenient to the authorities and controlled.

The European protesters face the same problem. Occupy London Stock Exchange (OccupyLSX) was unable to base themselves at their venue namesake. Pater Noster Square, where the Stock Exchange is based, is a “public” space owned by Japanese company Mitsubishi, who took a high court injunction out to stop members of the public accessing it.

Instead, the tents are huddled around St Paul’s Cathedral nearby. Even this area is still not safe: the church is already discussing evicting the protesters, which led to the resignation of one of its high profile clerics, Giles Fraser, last week.

In fact the whole district where OccupyLSX is currently based is restrictive. In some areas filming, taking photographs, cycling and eating are forbidden. So are protests. The same applies to areas of central New York.

It is telling that both the American and British protesters have come up against some of the very issues that first brought the Egyptians to the streets and then Tahrir. But the Egyptian people were fighting a 30-year-old dictatorship.

When systems of government are “rotten” to the core, Sara and Amr explain, protesters can’t simply protest, pack up and go home, but have to move outside their comfort zone. “Experiment with your methods, experiment with your daily life… try to survive in the streets collectively,” explains Sara, “you need to occupy, to take time and space and reclaim a new kind of social relations.”

The Americans, for the most part, agree. “Occupying is using our bodies and our voices,” explains Jake DeGroot, a theatrical lighting designer who helps run the official website for OWS. “It’s the only thing we have left to make a statement.” In the very action of occupying these so-called “public” spaces, the protesters are denying the tools of the state (the police) access to an area that the state claims monopoly over. The placement of these tents questions the state’s very legitimacy. This is powerful stuff.

The protests are not only taking but changing the spaces they occupy, by trying to make them open and inclusive. In many public spaces in the UK and US, benches are built with armrests so that people cannot lie down on them, bus shelters have tilted seats, so you can only perch. These sound like innocuous issues but they are indicative of an attitude: the poorest and most desperate people, like the homeless, are not welcome.

Building on the model of Tahrir, the OWS camps are creating something new that challenges the traditional community identity that the state and the elites say must make up a “nation”. One that isn’t based on where you grew up or what your religion is or even that you come from within the borders of the country, but rather on the fact that you all decided to be in the same place at the same time, to talk.

All of the Egyptian, American and British protesters that I interviewed, spoke of having more affinity with the people they were randomly living hugger-mugger with on the squares, than with the nation state which claims to represent them. These diverse meetings, they say, build a productive space to create discourse.

This is difficult for the public to accept, at a time where we acknowledge globalisation but still cannot imagine living in a world without national boundaries and easily identifiable groups of people. “There is a lot of public misconception” explains Greg. “For example, the pundits are making a deal out of the fact there aren’t demands. They aren’t appreciating the fact that a discussion is taking place.”

The lack of demands doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a focus. Tahrir had the battle cry of “down with the regime” but how this would be implemented, Sara and Amr say, is still up for debate. If you had to push an answer out of America, Jake summarises it would about “economic inequality and disparity of income” and “holding the one per cent to account”. How that is achieved is up for discussion but he maintains “it is a ruse if anyone says they don’t know what we’re about.”

Basically we’re seeing a new kind of radical political discussion that we haven’t had in the USA for 30 to 40 years, explains Greg. These collective spaces encourage a participatory politics that has been lacking. People consume information but rarely get involved as shown by the fact that only half the US voting population voted at the 2008 presidential elections. The Hizb Kanaba (couch party), to use an Egyptian expression, is the ruling party in the US and the UK.

“The best thing we can do is get the people to talk about alternatives, get them to look at the past… then hopefully this will lead to something that will create change on a legislative level,” adds Greg.

Getting people involved through raising awareness is something that Jake agrees with. “OWS is the occupation of the country’s consciousness, of people’s minds.” As long as the tents are pitched, the public cannot ignore them. This can be done globally, as Jake says, through “the occupation of social media”.

The Internet as a political tool was first properly seen with the Iranian “Twitter Revolution” in 2009 and then developed by the Arab Spring. Jake is building its third incarnation. His websitenycga.net, for OWS is a new social media network, borrowing already established structures from Twitter and Facebook and doctoring them for the Occupy movement. People can congregate in online forums, debate demands, share information and soon connect with other movements. They have personalised it as well: for example, instead of “liking” something they “twinkle”, a universal Direct Democracy hand gesture of approval used for large sit-in debates.

The Internet has crucially allowed Occupy protesters (including the Arab Spring) to author, collaborate and globalise content and ideas therefore bypassing traditional hierarchical organisations like parliament or the press. The Occupy hashtag is a great example of one tool. This has kept these movements growing bottom-up and globally side-to-side, which has sparked similar movements across the world almost spontaneously. In this “flat world” our governments are struggling to keep up; we demand more of them.

The occupations are far from utopian, as both the American activists and their Cairo comrades have learnt. Building a community means running it, and however small that space may be, those inside soon face the very issues they are grappling with, like hierarchy and policing. On Tahrir, the activists tell me of struggling with thieves and much darker issues of retribution. In Zaccotti park, freeloaders sometimes drop in, eat the food and start fights.

Even how you express yourself becomes an issue. Without a clear leader, the OWS General Assembly (GA) meetings can drag on for hours, prompting protesters to propose a Spokes Person Council. A drum group wanted to express themselves through drumming for 10 hours a day, which upset other protesters and the neighbouring community. The GA eventually had to employ mediators. On Tahrir, Sara and Amr remember one budding orator, who spoke into a microphone every night until 6am.

As most of the non-Arab Spring occupations are happening within the boundaries of the local authority’s rule book, creative solutions to logistical problems are always being found. For example the OWS doesn’t have an amplified sound permit, so they can’t use loud speakers or microphones. In meetings of over 1,000 they had to invent the “people’s mic” where people repeat what the speaker says, until everyone hears. Speeches can take hours but it works. One of the ways in which the authorities try to shut down camps is by using health and safety regulations, so OWS lost their generators a few days ago. Instead, they are going to use generator bikes and solar panels.

The biggest issue facing the Occupy movement is the future. How to keep the momentum and to what end? They don’t have the “luxury” of a tangible regime to bring down. There is a real possibility these movements are not sustainable or coherent enough to manage and lead change.

Greg is keen to move on from the symbolic act of occupying to using the spaces to focussing on educational component, to expand and develop. The communal living spaces help. Daily debates are held, discussion groups are formed and teach- ins organised where leading academics, filmmakers and world activists participate. In fact, renowned Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah who was recently detained by the military in Cairo, spoke at Occupy Oakland last week offering his support and advice.

The winter is also setting in. It is already snowing in New York so many of these camps will be forced to move inside, potentially losing their inclusivity and their presence. Another fear is political parties co-opting the movements in the run-up to the US presidential elections.

How the story ends is for the people in the squares to work out. It is significant enough to make some of the most powerful people on the planet take note. It has transcended borders as well, as illustrated through the Comrades from Cairo post, which Sara maintains “was like a love letter”.

This movement, as inspired by the Arab Spring, has a created a network that allows people from Cairo to write in solidarity with activists in New York, that has the potential, if harnessed correctly, to change the face of politics globally. Even if it doesn’t achieve this, it has managed to get people across the world debating democracy. We are the people we’ve been waiting for.

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