For a little while I was hoping this 99% rhetoric was the answer to all the Left’s disorganizing problems. Finally, an easy way for United Statesians to talk about class, a rallying cry more unifying than the reactionary myth of the vanishing “middle class,” with broader appeal than the freighted “working class” (I told a colleague once, “I like the term ‘working-class,’” and she snapped back, “That’s because you’re not working-class”) and more descriptive than the increasingly absurd “working people” or “working families,” in an era when unemployment hovers near ten percent. Sure, we’re a nation of strivers, eager to identify with the folks just above us and distance ourselves from the folks just below, but who wouldn’t proudly claim membership in the 99%? Who doesn’t resent the excesses of the 1% elite? Why didn’t I ever think of this before?
Well. As it turns out, one clever phrase hasn’t dismantled the entire edifice of misplaced class allegiances in the United States. We’re finally having a high-profile public conversation about class, and that’s a big step forward, in itself. But the shape of the conversation exposes the long road we still have to travel.
I write this to you in mid-November, more than a month into the wave of occupations of public spaces that began with Occupy Wall Street and spread around the world. This weekend it looks like police actions against occupations are on the upswing, presumably beginning to prepare for the biggest shopping day of the year just a couple weeks away in downtowns across the U.S., and presumably also counting on a certain amount of public disenchantment with campers as the novelty wears off. For instance, in Portland, my ostensible home (though I’m on the road so much for work these days that I have mostly watched events unfold over the internet), cops tried to evict the Occupiers last night, and a joyous crowd that by some accounts swelled to ten thousand pushed them back all night; watch this thrilling video! In the morning, once most defenders headed home to sleep, the cops moved back in and broke down the camp. Anyway, though, what I really want to talk about here is the conversation around the cops’ closing the camp, how it’s being justified in Portland and elsewhere, and whose movement this is.
You know concern trolling? As a denizen of the internet, you are probably all too familiar with the tactic: expressing insincere concern about a group’s plans while pretending to share its overall goals. It’s used to sow doubt and division, and it’s not limited to the internet (for instance, in a union organizing campaign, the boss expresses a lot of altruistic concern about whether workers will lose money on dues or have a truly democratic voice in their union, when really the boss just doesn’t want to see workers develop organized power) but the anonymity of online forums makes it easy. So does a movement that defines itself around a membership (of almost everyone) rather than a goal.
Let me give a couple of Occupy examples. Check out this nonsense sentence from a Seattle KING 5 news report: “Even some supportive college students want the protesters gone.” What could it possibly mean to be “supportive” of a movement so far primarily defined by protesters camping out in public space, if you “want the protesters gone?”
We are a group of protesters as well. We are for the movement…. We just used signatures instead of protest signs… Hear us, because we are the 99% too.
Signers of the petition gave pretty obviously spurious reasons, like “the recent 18% increase in crime just in that area where the encampment exists,” “what they are doing to our parks,” and occupiers “being a danger to themselves and others by marching in the streets!” I doubt these petition signers are really even inconvenienced, much less endangered, by the protest’s occupation of a couple among dozens of blocks of park in downtown Portland. And what would it mean to be “for the movement” but oppose its primary tactic?
One particularly vitriolic Facebook commenter asserted:
Seriously…..the majority of the people who are down there right now have NOTHING to do with the original cause….and that’s a BIG PROBLEM…the outcry against the serious issues at hand that spurred this movement is lost among the homeless/street junkies/vagrants who have decided to turn a genuine and worthwhile demonstration into a ‘tent city’. No voices are going to be heard when they are associated with the filth that has become those couple city blocks downtown.
Ugh. What “original cause” does this commenter have in mind? It would be hard to argue that people experiencing homelessness or addiction to street drugs are part of the wealthiest 1%, and I would say that the cause (purpose) of this movement has everything to do with the causes (reasons) of homelessness and addiction.
The commenter above is not alone. Many seem eager to exclude marginalized people of various stripes from the so-called 99%. In an article called “Occupy’s Asshole Problem” that made the internet rounds a few days ago, Sara Robinson characterizes “drummers, druggies, sexual harassers, racists, and anarchists” as assholes inhibiting the movement, and urges other occupiers to get together and kick them out, especially the drug users. Her justification: “There is nothing totalitarian about asking people who join your revolution to act in ways that support the goals of that revolution.” But she never explains just what she believes those goals are, or how they are harmed by folks using drugs (or playing drums, or believing state power is illegitimate). Or what makes it “your” revolution, for that matter.
It’s become a pervasive narrative about Occupy: On the one hand there are the noble (if naïve) protesters, who have come to address an abstract injustice like “money in politics” or “corporate personhood,” or possibly something as concrete as unemployment or student debt. They may be looking for work, or coming by the camp before and after work, or maybe they even bravely quit their jobs to take part in the protest, but a month ago they they didn’t have to live on the street. On the other hand, there are the people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, or drug addiction, who are “using” the camp to meet their needs of food, shelter, and some degree of protection from police abuse. These needs, however real, are seen to distract from the larger protest purpose, whatever that is.
Portland Mayor Sam Adams has been repeating this narrative to explain why he decided to shut down the encampment. He told NPR,
Well, the unsustainable aspects of the camp that I’m most worried about are the drug overdoses. The fact that Occupy Portland itself has said last weekend that people are abusing their good will by using the camp – not my words – using the camp as camouflage for criminal activities. And, you know, at open-air camp like this is no place for folks that are facing, you know, illness, mental illness or drug addiction to be. And the concentration of all that is, you know, just beyond the ability of folks, with the best of intentions who put the camp together and are trying to maintain it, it’s just beyond their own ability to handle.
The Mayor’s altruistic sentiment rings a little hollow when you stop to wonder where, exactly, folks experiencing mental illness, homelessness, and drug addiction were facing these challenges last month before the camp was set up, where they’ll be facing them next month after the cops shut down the camp, and why they’ve taken refuge at this camp in the first place. What better options is the Mayor prepared to offer?
Most unsettling to me is that we are hearing this rhetoric not only from the Mayors and reporters and armchair concern trolls of the world, but even from activists within the Occupations. Occupy Portland’s public statements and actions have been mixed on the issue. I thought Occupier Jim Oliver had it right when he told PBS,
Hundreds of people are homeless out in the street every single night, regardless of whether Occupy exists or not. And it seems to only be a crisis when it’s actually at City Hall’s doorstep. The existence of our movement has cast light on the plight of economic refugees whose lives have been endangered and are forced to sleep on the street, thanks to the policies of the 1 percent.
On the other hand, a press release on the OccupyPortland.org blog last weekend announced the conclusions of a late-night “emergency” meeting to address the “growing problem” of “illicit drug use, violent behavior, and otherwise disruptive conduct.” According to the statement,
Occupy Portland didn’t create these problems however it has become a space for some of them, and it distracts from the message of the movement and the effort of our volunteers…. We do not wish to be an impediment to the efforts of social workers and public safety officials who exist to address these issues. Those who met planned to work with the Portland Police, established drug treatment programs, and other civil services to eliminate these problems from the space…. Occupy Portland was formed out of a popular sentiment that systemic problems within society were preventing the 99% from having a voice in our government, in our economy, and in our lives. We continue to focus our efforts on these things, and in creating a space for the people, we must remove the elements which are a danger to themselves and others.
The statement asserts that social workers, police, and city officials “exist to address these issues” and can “eliminate these problems from the space,” which must just mean kicking the offending people out of the park. The author of the statement betrays no awareness of the irony in stating that, on the one hand, “systemic problems within society were preventing the 99% from having a voice in our government, in our economy, and in our lives” and on the other hand planning to remove people (“elements”) suffering acutely from those systemic problems from participation in a public protest.
It’s not just Portland. According to a blogger named Jason, at Occupy Detroit, folks have actually started giving out wristbands to restrict access to food and supplies, and a ‘security’ team patrols the park with dogs, intimidating people. He writes,
some of the homeless people who have been hanging out and sleeping in that park for years are starting to resent being what they perceive to be as segregated and restricted from the rest of the occupiers, while others are getting angry at being pushed out of the park. Certainly there are issues that need to be addressed here. Some of the homeless who have joined the occupation are just there to hustle occupiers, while others are stealing things out of tents and selling drugs. But at the same time, they’re fucking homeless and we’re essentially occupying their park; what’d we really expect to happen, an endless chorus of Kumbaya? They’ve been doing this to survive long before we showed up, and they’re going to continue doing whatever it takes to survive long after we retreat to our regular lives…. It’s almost comical in that the occupiers are setting up a mini version of the system they’re protesting; and there seems to be a big disconnect between occupiers and the homeless, which should be natural allies in this fight.
The best piece I’ve read on this topic is the scathing “Occupy Wall Street is basically the most oppressive protest I’ve been to in my life,” on a blog called innocuous. You should read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:
When I ask anyone from any of these groups what the hell is up with that, they go on some classist and ableist rant about how they’re trying to “deal with” the homeless people. A mantra that gets repeated pretty often is “this isn’t a homeless shelter” — they want the homeless people OUT. Why did Food stop serving after 7? Because homeless people were coming here to get food. Why doesn’t Comfort have socks? Because homeless people come here to get things.
Of course, they don’t realize while they’re telling me this that I’m a homeless person with psychotic and personality disorders and a learning disability. From my end, the conversation goes something like this:
“You know, I’m really feeling marginalized at this protest! I thought it was supposed to be about the 99%, but really it feels like it’s only about the 99% who don’t need help to survive so we can take part in the movement, and it seems like a replication of the rugged individualism that got us into this mess in the first place.”
“Actually, us activists are working on ways that we can exclude and marginalize you further so that you leave the park entirely.”
I don’t think they realize how this sounds to me while they say this.
And there’s a lot of anger at the park over these situations, as there should be — what they don’t realize is that the crisis situations that happen when it rains and comfort is underprepared is what happens to homeless people every time it rains, period, unless someone steps in to help us. What they don’t realize is that, exactly, this is what it’s like. We want things to be different more than anyone. That’s why we came to Occupy Wall Street in the first place.
Like I said, read the whole thing. But I guess what I’m saying is, without a more explicit definition of who’s with us, who’s against us, and what we’re fighting for, the movement risks re-inscribing the status quo class system. Heck, Mayor Sam Adams claims to be on the side of the Occupy movement, even as he sends cops to shut it down locally, and even as he continues to push for severe budget cuts that will lay off union employees at the city. At the moment, being on the side of the 99% can mean absolutely anything you want it to mean.
Look, I don’t mean to join the right-wing media chorus of “the protesters don’t know what they want.” I think it’s been clear that folks want lots of different things, and that’s a strength of the movement. For now, it may be enough—it may be the best we can do—just to make a big stink about the many faces of the misery of capitalism, without having a unified platform on how to fix it. Maybe it’s okay that some folks think this movement is about “getting money out of politics” or “ending corporate personhood” (even if to me those kinds of articulations combine boringly abstract with boringly moderate) while others think it’s about creating jobs, raising wages, taxing the rich, or abolishing student debt, while folks like me think it’s about abolishing capitalism. Alas, we don’t have nearly 99% unity on that one; not yet, anyway. The strength of the 99% language is how it unites us. At least we can all be mad as hell together. But it worries me that so many people are framing the movement to exclude the people more marginalized than themselves, while including the forces of State power. If we’re going to talk like that, we might as well go back to talking about “restoring the middle class.”