Occupy: the farce of protest without politics

An unintentionally hilarious new book celebrating the rise of the Occupy movement exposes the flaws that have already led to Occupy’s swift demise.

Patrick Hayes

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You have to hand it to book publishers Verso: it is getting good at turning round books documenting protest movements quickly. But given the fleeting nature of protests today, it is still not quick enough. Last year, it brought out Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, by which time not only had the student protests fizzled out in London, but the Arab Spring had completely overshadowed them. This year it just managed to get out Occupy: Scenes From Occupied America before the last of the Occupy movement’s tents had been packed up and the protesters gone home.

Occupy will be almost entirely forgotten in a few months, as the ‘radical’ left no doubt jump on a new gimmicky bandwagon. So Verso’s decision to neatly capture the movement and its obvious flaws in book form could provide quite a service for any future radical. Not that it would be a case of ‘first time tragedy, second time farce’ to repeat the Occupy stunt. It was a farce first time round.

With its ‘human megaphones’, endless organisational committees, ‘comfort teams’ and ‘tranquillity officers’, Occupy was beyond parody. And many aspects of Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America are unintentionally hilarious. Take, for example, the falling out between the ‘drum circle’ and the ‘general assembly’ in Zuccotti Park in late October 2011, which apparently threatened to ‘scuttle the New York Occupation’. The drummers saw themselves as embodying the spirit of Occupy. As one of the contributors to the book puts it, they were ‘manifesting 40 years of alternative organisation, from radical feminism and eco-anarchism, not just as entertainment, or spiritual practice, or as clarion sounds (like twenty-first century hip-hop bagpipes), but an action and practice that itself seems to cross-pollinate with, and manifest, the new political and deliberative structures culminating in occupation – without words. With drums.’ (While drug taking isn’t mentioned in the book, such passages – and there are many – do make you wonder what on earth they were on.)

The problem these enlightened drummers had, though, was that members of the Occupy general assembly, with their ‘words, words, words’, were clearly failing to appreciate the profundity of the incessant drumming taking place day and night. Why else had the general assembly decided to move the drum circle to a different place in the park and restrict its drumming to two hours a day. According to a drum circle contributor, this ‘seemed to reproduce a classic pairing within the dominant ideology… drums became “ethnic”, race coded: the assembly, “white”. The drums became male, the assembly female.’

These poor oppressed drummers became more and more upset because they ‘started to feel that what they were doing wasn’t ever recognised: couldn’t anyone see that they were doing the movement?’ The situation was resolved, however, as the drummers formed a lobby group to fight for their rights at general assemblies. They gave this lobby group the ‘symbolically ingenious’ name of PULSE, which ‘knits together the bodily metaphor, ending the mind/body split’.

The idea of ‘doing the movement’ was not exclusive to the drummers, however. It was in many ways the central tenet of the Occupy protests. Time and again, responding to the accusation that they had no demands, Occupy protesters would respond that the act of occupation was their protest. As one of the occupiers puts it in the book: ‘we all strive to embody the alternative we wish to see in our day-to-day relationships’. For Occupy it was not a battle of ideas about how to shape the future of society that mattered – indeed, as I have pointed out previously, debates and discussions were tightly regulated by their ‘safer space policies’. It was the physical act of occupying that mattered. Judith Butler, one of the many celebrity intellectuals visiting the camp and singing the protesters’ praises, puts it most eloquently: ‘it matters that as bodies we arrive together in public, that we are assembling in public; we are coming together as bodies in alliance in the street and in the square. As bodies we suffer, we require shelter and food…’

Given this emphasis on the physicality of the movement, it’s no surprise that, almost immediately, occupiers started to obsessively form organisational work groups that transformed the protest into an act of endurance. Occupy resembled more a survivalist cult than a traditional protest. Little wonder that, as the book recounts, groups were set up to crochet hats, scarves and gloves, ‘as it was going to get cold soon’.

Equally, some of the Occupy protesters were intimidated by the physicality of others. As one member of the Anti-Patriarchy group (which apparently later became ‘the Safer Spaces working group’) in Zuccotti Park described their meetings: ‘Women talked about feeling uncomfortable in the drum circle because of men dancing up on them and how to change this, about how to feel safe sleeping out in the open with a lot of men they didn’t know, and about not assuming gender pronouns and asking people which pronouns they prefer.’

The greatest discomfort the Occupy protesters suffered in their middle-class shanty towns was not lecherous drummers, however. It was the fact that they were forced to encounter other, less pleasant members of the 99 per cent: the homeless. Real homeless people who can’t just go back to their parents or their Manhattan apartment if they get too cold, hungry or need to charge their iPad. One contributor to the book recognised the usefulness of homeless people joining the Occupy camps because they ‘bring numbers to the cause’ and prove ‘powerful symbols of the economic system’s brutality’. But they are also a ‘detriment and a risk: diverting energy away from fighting the real issues, exacerbating the problems of cleanliness within the camp, offending the sensibilities of middle-class campers, verbally or physically assaulting passersby and participants, and polluting the image of an orderly protest’.

While some Occupy protests effectively became homeless shelters, others decided to draft declarations stating that if down-and-outs don’t ‘contribute’, then they need to move on: ‘If you are homeless in New York, there are plenty of places to be homeless. Go there. Feel free to visit, maybe even eat some free food, occasionally. But don’t stay here. Don’t cause trouble. This society gives us enough trouble.’

The message from an organisation that claims to represent ‘the 99 per cent’ is clear: go away you smelly tramps, this is our public space, not yours. Your lives may be difficult, but it pales in comparison to our banker-induced angst.

Not, of course, that Occupy would recognise the quoted statement as being ‘official’. Their much-hyped ‘leaderless’ nature means that they can conveniently disown any statement they don’t like. This leaderlessness also proved to be their Achilles heel. Indeed the most striking passage in Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America is a description of an occurrence at the general assembly. As usual the occupiers were allowing everyone who wanted to speak to do so using the ‘human microphone’, where all attendees repeat what the speaker says, sentence by sentence. A man who participated in the Egyptian uprisings begins to speak, delivering a stern warning to the assembled protesters: ‘Choose your leaders now! Choose one demand now or your movement is lost!’

The response from the Occupy protesters to advice from a man who participated in the uprising almost universally seen to have inspired theirs? They stopped listening and cut him off: ‘The human mic ceased amplification, drowned by audible disapproval.’

They would have done well to listen. Already, the warning from their ignored Egyptian comrade has come to pass. Replacing demands and leadership with the bodily act of endurance, once their bodies became physically weak and PC middle-class sensitivities were riled, the occupations dried up. The final dregs are now being powerlessly swept away by court orders and force from the authorities. Given the chronic amnesia of many ‘radical’ protesters nowadays, Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America may soon be one of the only legacies of the forgettable event its publishers over-zealously called a ‘global uprising’. May it serve as an embarrassing reminder as to why protests without politics – which Occupy represents more than any other – are not only farcical, but futile too.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes. He will be speaking at the Liberty League Freedom Forum 2012 held between Friday 30 March – Sunday 1 April in Newcastle.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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