Occupy, Solidarities, and Net Work
By Joan Donovan
I am often asked, usually in a pejorative tone, “What has Occupy even accomplished?” As a sociologist though, these questions make me wonder “How do occupiers accomplish anything? How are projects made? How are they spread? Under what conditions are they successful? What do failed projects have in common?”
This has led me to study of very boring things, like infrastructure across multiple platforms. Here, I articulate how the Occupy movement communicates and coordinates action using the example of Occupy Sandy. I also introduce an idea that I am calling net work, i.e. the use of one’s free time in the service of a project involving multiple skills, knowledges, technologies, and people. It is concept closely related to Star’s work on infrastructure, where she describes infrastructure as a process and product where people ideas and technology are densely entangled. The concept of Net Work helps to better grasp how Occupiers organize without organizations. Important for Occupy, no one directs how the movement will unfold. Instead, people begin working on an idea, recruit some allies, and carry out action without knowing if another group is doing the same thing. The hacker ethos of “don’t propose, just do” helped Occupy become a multi-modal movement that melds online worlds and offline spaces. Focusing on how the communication infrastructure became formalized across occupy projects illustrates how occupiers as knowledge workers cull, assess, analyze, summarize, and distribute information in the service of the movement. I conclude with the example of Occupy Sandy to show how the forms of communication networks already used by occupiers were leveraged to provide direct aid to storm torn communities.
Those who participate in net work projects are often already employed as knowledge workers. Italian theorist Bifo Berardi describes them as the cognitariat, workers whose labor consists of spending a good deal of their time thinking about and moving knowledge from one place to another. They gather, analyze and assess data, facilitate collaboration and think critically about future directions. In the case of Occupy, the cognitariat remix the corporate space of social media for their own purposes, while also taking up public space or “privately owned public spaces” (POPS) as a way to challenge corporate rule. I argue that net work becomes possible because the main currency of the internet is keywords. A keyword like “occupy” can be used to move between online and offline groups and helps the user find similar communities of practice in ways that keywords like “social justice” simply can not.
Star stipulates that “Nobody is really in charge of infrastructure.” This is because infrastructure is layered overtime and involves not just different locales, but also generations of users with different skill sets and idiosyncrasies. Occupiers did not consciously make decisions early on about how to build a unified infrastructure, but rather, many infrastructures appeared with similar characteristics. For each occupation there was a facebook page, twitter account, webpage, general inquires email address, a google group, a donation page, phone number, a camp or public meeting space, as well as a set of committees.
Also, they all had KEYWORDS in common: #OccupyWallStreet is not an address, but an organizational schema that signals to the user to go on twitter and use that keyword to seek out like-minded people. When coupled with other keywords like “#OccupyOakland” or “#OccupyCleveland” localized groupings become possible.
Keywords also produce a kind of solidarity, if solidarity is thought about in the sense put forward by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim believed that solidarity refers to the interdependence of components within a social system which are held together by a set of similar values. The term “Occupy” became synonymous with another more potent phrase “We are the 99%,” where 99% refers to not just a proportion of the population, but a class position opposite the moneyed 1%. Becoming part of Occupy was more than just identifying with a subject position, it included finding a niche where you could use the skills that you have in order to start a new project or work on an existing one. For some, this could mean sleeping in parks, going to street actions, doing outreach, picking up garbage, or working on the group’s finances. But for the cognitariat it meant curating information, producing content, broadcasting livestreams, and administrating social media platforms. Each form of participation was integral for the whole system to operate. Without people using the internet to promote actions, they would be sparsely attended. Without actions to report on, live streams would be dull and social media stagnant. Without a finance team, there would be no porta-potties.
The ability to find one another as well as a place to plug into the Occupy movement is an effect of rhizomatic communication:
Communication across this global movement has no center or command post; instead, there is a sprawling organizational structure that leverages all points of connectivity to foster growth. It’s a rhizome, a nodal mass of roots that grows horizontally under the soil, such as a root of ginger. Like infrastructure, rhizomes rarely become visible and as such require some digging.
Occupy employs rhizomatic communication, wherein multiple channels are used to strengthen networked connections that spread ideas from one group to another. This model includes the simultaneous use of email groups, social networking sites, text loops, conference calling and face-to-face meetings to circulate information from many to many. This rhizomatic form, then, becomes a model for how to carry out direct actions themselves in distributed and redundant (while also coordinated) fashion.
Mobile communications such as smart phones and laptops with WIFI are technologies of social change that allow users to connect to the global network from anywhere with signal. Global movements against capitalism have creatively re-imagined the uses and constraints of social media’s capacity to network and broadcast. Castells calls this counter-power, where people use technology to build a sense of togetherness to combat state power. And this, I argue is where “net work” flourishes. Today, no single call to action is effective, but rather cognitarians, such as the one pictured here, push information through networks with the intention of networking networks. Posting, linking, liking, friending, inviting, sharing, tweeting, retweeting, following, instagramming, regramming, streaming, broadcating, commenting, blogging, emailing, texting, calling, watching, donating, recording, editing, documenting, note-taking, meeting, and finally, protesting are all forms of “GSD” within Occupy. GSD means “getting shit done” … In other words, labor or work.
Importantly, many cognitarians brought skills from their daily lives to bear on occupy projects, while also poaching much of their paid work hours to conduct mundane tasks for Occupy projects, like answer email, write press releases, admin social media accounts all from their workplaces. Being able to plug into the network from both inside and outside the camps was critical for building solidarity and coordinating massive direct actions, like the west coast port shutdown in December 2011.
In my opinion, Occupy Sandy is the most sophisticated project to come out of the Occupy camps. Responding to the devastating superstorm, occupiers leveraged all existing platforms around a set of keywords in order to organize donations and volunteers. Instead of adopting a ridged bureaucratic structure that requires compliance to a set of rules (Think red cross), networks that use rhizomatic communication leverage aspects of bureaucratic communication, including reliance on documentation and skill building, while removing the hierarchical process of approval for taking action. “Don’t propose, just do!” became the ethos after the storm. With 40K new yorkers without power, water, or access to public transit, already-existing Occupy social media accounts began using the keywords #sandyvolunteer to query needs and link people to social services and web resources. However, this quickly became an overwhelming and ineffective way to organize. The demand for information and resources far surpassed the people-power managing those accounts. Moreover, occupiers on the ground in Rockaway, Red Hook, and Staten Island were also experiencing a myriad of communication glitches from lack of electricity to cell services.
Enter InterOccupy.net, a small group of “network nerds” based in locations all over America. IO began in October 2011 during the height of the encampments, as a project to link different occupations together and provide conference calls, email lists, and documentation tools for those who wanted to spread ideas or coordinate actions nationwide. Importantly, by the time Sandy hit NY, IO had some practice dealing with ecological crisis as some worked on a campaign after hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans. Moreover, IO and OWS volunteers also were able to rapidly set up internal and external email lists, a website, and social media accounts with nearly 30 administrators from all over the USA. Sharing the burden of communication and information management to those outside of the crisis area allowed for other forms of work, like databasing volunteers, routing donations, and answering emails, to get done more quickly.
The name #occupysandy was adopted later because one occupier who worked on finances for the camp in Manhattan already set up a donation page bearing the name. Moreover, in tweets inquirers were re-using occupy-related keywords and overlapping them with #sandyvolunteer. Many of the people volunteering in the emerging network were opposed to an occupy related organization, but were powerless to stop it’s momentum.
In order to remain cohesive around the Occupy Sandy keywords, a facebook page, twitter, and email account were set up to drive people to the website, donation pages, and volunteer locations.
On the back end a series of conference calls, email lists, text loops, chat boxes, google docs, maps, phone calls, carpools, a volunteer database, newsletters, and wifi equipped volunteer locations, held the network together, albeit by a thread. Because Verizon held the lone cell towers in badly damaged areas, some were unable to reach the cell network and began using google voice numbers through their wifi as a way to patch holes in the comms system.
Interestingly, while InterOccupy always envisioned themselves as a network that circulated ideas, it did not occur to any of us that we could also distribute goods. This fact though was obvious when the movement had camps; as occupiers were able to feed, clothe, and provide medical services to many on a daily basis. But after the raids the question remained: how could Occupy enliven a spirit of public service akin to the one felt in the camps? Occupy Sandy shows that whatever networks move information, can also move goods and people. Yet, the conditions of the crisis still matter.
A hashtag like “mutual aid” would not have produced the kind of solidarity needed to respond to hurricane sandy. However, mutual aid is the basis for projects that use “net work” to meet community needs. In the case of Occupy Sandy, a group running the social media accounts might never speak to the person transporting 1000 flashlights, but all of the work is significant for making Occupy Sandy successful because actions are animated by mutual aid.
The anarchist zoologist, Peter Kropotkin, describes the benefits of mutual aid in his study of bees, “These small insects by working in common, multiply their individual forces; by resorting to a temporary division of labor combined with the capacity of each bee to perform every kind of work when required, they attain such a degree of well-being and safety as no isolated animal can ever expect to achieve, however strong or well-armed it may be. In their combinations, they are often more successful than man, when he neglects to take advantage of a well-planned mutual assistance. Thus, when a new swarm is going to leave the hive in search of a new abode, a number of bees will make a preliminary exploration of the neighborhood, and if they discover a convenient dwelling-place-say, an old basket- they will take possession of it, clean it and guard it, some-times for a whole week, until the swarm comes to settle therein. But how many human settlers will perish in new countries, simply for not having understood the necessity of combining their efforts.”
Here, the combined efforts of Occupiers acting as cognitarians to leverage the networks built during the days of the encampments, while also scaling-up the technologies of communications that occupiers are already accustomed to using, led to direct aid in the most devastated areas. In the words of the NYT, “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There.”
What Might Occupy’s Nonviolent Militia Look Like?
By Joan Donovan
Over the past few weeks activists with OWS have been reflecting on the last two years of struggle. Some are quick to call out others’ mistakes and lambast each others’ ideas as either too liberal or too crazy. Some people’s thoughts are more reflexive and highlight their own successes and failures. During a discussion over an email list, Justine Tunney, an admin of the Occupwallst.org (which also includes large followers on Twitter and Facebook), proposed diversifying the form for street protest by building an “Occupy Militia.” During the same week at the EcoSocialist Conference in LA, a similar discussion was held about “raising armies” stirred by former Occupy LA participants engaging a panel on electoral reform. Seeing these similar proposals spark conversation in NYC and LA suggests that there are others having analogous ideas in-between the coasts. Here, I explore how Americans perceive talk about militias and juxtapose it to the emergence of the White Overalls brigades in Italy, who managed to tactically innovate during heavy police repression.
In NYC, Tunney called for a “nonviolent militia” that would put their bodies between the protesters and police. The militia would be trained in protest tactics and outfitted with body armor. She estimated that it would take one million dollars to organize, equip, and compensate those willing to put it all on the line. The cash and the militia would crowd sourced. In LA, debate about the extent of the climate crisis prompted activists to discuss building communes to encourage sustainable living practices as well as form an ‘army’ organized with ‘a singular and unified mindset.’
Tunney was met with varied response on the email thread. While some supported this idea, others called it “illegal” and “crazy.” All discussion ended when a moderator asked that the topic be moved to another email list so that those worried about legalities would not leave the group. In LA, the discussion about raising an army devolved into shouting as some griped, “Surely, you do not mean with guns?” and “Are you calling for civil war?” In both cases, the paranoia is certainly related to activists’ use of military-style vocabulary. When the words militia and army arise in serious conversations, common points of reference are visions of bullets, bombs, and death. From the US Army to the Michigan Militia, these words feel ugly to say because of the destruction caused by these groups. But, why do Americans equate the idea of an ‘army’ or ‘militia’ with weapons?
America’s provocative Second Amendment reads “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” While the 21st century popular interpretation of the 2nd amendment focuses on an abstracted clause, “the right to bear arms,” this amendment initially justified the Federal Government’s creation of a national standing army to protect against insurrection. It was also used to support the adoption of armed local police forces. Debate on what was meant by “militia” oscillates between the state’s right to organize a disciplined guard in the service of the national militia versus the individual right to own a weapon for the purpose of being part of the national militia. Note that “militia” is not plural and neither is “state.” Here then, “well regulated” does not refer to the quality of discipline, but to federal legal regulation for owning guns when in the service of the national militia. Further complicating the issue, the interpretation of this amendment by the US Supreme Court depends on historical differences in vocabulary and grammar so that the right to “bear arms” is considered separate from being part of the national militia. Today’s popular interpretation suggests that “bearing arms” is the same as “carrying weapons” as a guarantee against governmental tyranny. In this interpretation, forming a militia and/or owning a gun becomes an individual right to self-defense.
If activists were to organize and train a nonviolent militia or raise an army, they must rely on the same justification as those who insist this amendment protects an individual’s right to carry weapons. But, if the objective is to create a zone between the police and protesters then there already exist historical precedents without the need to call it a militia. For example, members of Veterans for Peace stood between the police line and the protesters, sans armor, during many Occupy protests nationwide. They often hold the American flag and engage the officers during standoffs, which can last hours. Veteran Scott Olsen was near the police line when he was shot with a tear gas canister and permanently injured during the raid on Occupy Oakland. In the liminal space between the state and the people, identity politics does not matter. Being a veteran is no guard against state violence. If the goal is to assemble a group with singular purpose and expert tactical repertoires, then will significant training is necessary to stand up to the police as well as to foment popular resistance.
The white overalls (AKA Tute Bianche), is a useful model for analyzing the bridge between discipline and people power. In 1994, a group of protesters wearing white overalls successfully defended the eviction of a social center in Milan by surrounding the police and government buildings. In contrast to blue overalls, a typical uniform worn by the working class in Italy, white overalls symbolized the invisible class of precarious workers. Animated by Italian Autonomous literature, a group of Italian activists traveled to Mexico City to learn strategies from the Zapatistas. They were also present in Seattle in 1999 and Quebec City in 2001. Their purpose was strategic, “we want to extend networks between grassroots, self-managed communities, we are not interested in nation-states.” Groups of protesters wearing white overalls captured the imagination of many during the G8 protests in Genoa 2001. But it wasn’t the white overalls or the ideology that put them in the media spotlight, it was their tactics.
As police suppression of white overalls protests grew, a plan for self-defense unfolded. The body armor of the police provided inspiration for protesters to wear gas masks, chest plates, goggles, and football helmets, while others donned padding made out of furniture cushions, bubble wrap, and styrofoam. The media called them “Michelin Men” because of the bulky attire. Another tactic was to wear or carry large inner tubes and plastic shields, which created distance between the protesters and the hungry arms of police. Props such as balloons, water pistols, and music were used to create a carnival atmosphere.
While padding reduced mobility and speed significantly, it also allowed protesters to move more deliberately en mass, like a tidal wave. It was not just well-ordered marching, but also the density of people and foam that mattered. It was cumbersome for police to make arrests because the bulky garb prevented handcuffing or placing protesters in police cars. When protestors change their body morphology by attaching items to their being, they also disrupt the tactics of the police who are trained to arrest ‘normal’ bodies. Is this the kind of street swarm needed for today’s policing techniques? How can this be effectively combined with other strategies of resistance, both offline and online?
I moved away from the language of a militia or army to reflect another style of resistance that emerged from police suppression. To be militant does not mean to be like the military. Using the vocabulary of war may not be the best course for activists who desire freedom from the state, but be sure it will get their attention and full force. The task is to find a fit between the symbols of a people’s movement, the discipline necessary to resist, and the values embedded within our actions. With the camps, Occupy created roving communes across the USA where people were trained in group decision-making and nonviolent direct action. It served as a terrific complement to the foreclosure crisis and ignited continuing national resistance.
If the hive mind is calling for bodies to fill the space between state violence and the people, then the white overalls remain an important paradigm to inspire activists worldwide. Yet, if the debate is about fostering a uniform purpose and goal, the strategy must rise from the chemistry of common life, where the tactics are both molar and polyvalent.
Occupy 3.0 — a slow network movement
By Joan Donovan (originally published at http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/occupy-3-0-slow-network-movement/)
It has been two years since the birth of the Occupy movement at Zuccotti Park — a movement organized through intensive in-person occupations connected through a wide range of online networks. Now, with the occupations long gone and those who supported them more dispersed than ever, activists must re-imagine digital infrastructure with an eye toward long-term network building. Nothing indicates the need for dynamic infrastructure more than the advertised theme of this second birthday, “Reconnecting with the 99%.” The time has come for a slow network movement, one in which infrastructures are developed from users’ perspectives and tailored to meet local needs.
I mean “slow network movement” in two senses. First, the movement must critique fast-paced corporate social networking for how it organizes us and prevents us from organizing effectively. Second, we need to learn the lessons of past organizing and recognize ourselves as part of a longer historical trajectory.
I recently traveled to New York City to catch up with the team behind InterOccupy — the global Occupy movement’s primary coordination platform — and discuss the infrastructure at work in the post-hurricane Occupy Sandy relief effort. While in town I also spoke with Todd Gitlin, the president of Students for a Democratic Society between 1963 and 1964. What piqued my interest was the similarity between the values outlined by SDS in the Port Huron Statement and OWS’s Declaration of the Occupation. While highlighting the continuity of values is critical, perhaps the most intriguing questions are much more banal: What skills were useful for organizing in the 1960s that are taken for granted now? Further, how does the current reliance on corporate social media make organizing both easier and more complex?
Jackrabbit, a volunteer with InterOccupy, reminded me, “Martin Luther King did not have a computer.” One of the significant effects of social media is the capacity to broadcast and amplify numerous voices across many platforms. But, a less-often-considered consequence is that activists have become less willing to do the messy work of collecting members’ information and maintaining a durable infrastructure. Moreover, many of our online networks are owned, operated, and located outside the movement itself — often by Wall Street-owned corporations. While automating information collection and network building leads to increased productivity, efficiency and a larger reach, it also produces a false sense of information security which stalls some activists from sharpening basic skills of organizing. Looking back, SDS’ infrastructure provides a valuable, offline exemplar of how a movement can be organized to coordinate networks of networks.
SDS formed in 1960 through the drafting of the Port Huron Statement, which outlined principles grounded in participatory democracy. Gitlin described his first encounters with SDS groups in Boston and Ann Arbor as a “far flung web” of “loosely connected” activists.
The infrastructure of the young SDS was held together by a cadre of office workers in New York — who assembled and mailed the newsletters, contact and work lists — as well as a complicated schema of elected national officers, local chapters, affiliates and associated groups. This structure allowed students to create their own SDS chapters on campuses, while it also encouraged established groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to work in temporary autonomous alliances. Technology important to SDS’ infrastructure included a national office, typewriters, a printing press and a Wide Area Telephone Service line for long-distance calls. SDS members relied on cars to travel between campuses and actions. Having the time, resources and ability to recruit at campuses, hand out leaflets and coordinate locally was an effective way to build chapters and camaraderie across the network. While the national agenda was set yearly at an open meeting, local chapters could choose to focus on issues like voting rights, poverty and racism in their communities.
While the dream of participatory democracy remained elusive for SDS in reality, coordination among chapters took place mainly through the national office in New York. Gitlin remembers, “During the time I was involved in the national organization, from ’63 to ’65, there was very little going on, between chapters.” National actions, workshops and convergences became more and more important for fostering ties as the network grew. By 1965, the intensification of the Vietnam War led to a rapid influx of new members, and the desire to modify the infrastructure revealed changing values. As Gitlin explains, “SDS decided to abolish the office of national secretary who was the staff chief, which is a development that came about because of a certain version of horizontalism although, it wasn’t called that then. It was a certain resistance to a division of labor.” Following this decision, numerous factions formed united fronts against the older SDS leadership. By 1966, a group once tightly coordinated and open to working with other organizations became fractionalized and more moderate elements, such as the Progressive Labor Party, were pushed out.
The Occupy movement first grew out of even more fractured conditions, with various groups around the country organizing more or less independently, coordinating only informally.
For every occupation, a new infrastructure emerged, which usually included a website, email list, streaming video, Facebook page, a Twitter account and public meetings. InterOccupy developed to bridge the gap between the various groups by using online tools as well as conference calls. Just as the Vietnam War propelled SDS to reorganize, a crisis propelled changes within OWS and InterOccupy.
During the Occupy Sandy campaign, more components were layered on top of this digital infrastructure. As the storm surged, an email list was set up by members of OWS and InterOccupy to circulate information about the condition of New York’s various neighborhoods. As the devastation grew, information gathered by volunteers on the ground in Brooklyn and Staten Island was funneled back to InterOccupy through texts, phone calls, email lists, a website, a donation page, maps and social media. InterOccupy then sorted the information for online distribution. Rather than occupying public squares, the movement transformed churches, storefronts and apartment lobbies into distribution centers. Although some participants wanted to separate the relief effort from the “Occupy” label, its ongoing use — as a political brand and a hashtag online — gave the effort momentum it might not otherwise have had.
There were two significant revisions to the digital infrastructure for Occupy Sandy. First, InterOccupy developed a database to log volunteers. Using open-source CiviCRM software, the network began gathering information about housing, work experience, languages spoken and more. Eventually, the online infrastructure grew as thousands of people signed up to volunteer and millions of dollars in cash and goods were collected. While the infrastructure could seem burdensome for those working in badly damaged areas, it brought to bear the coordinating capacities of those located outside the immediate area. With access to the database, I could find specific types of volunteers to fulfill needs in Brooklyn from my apartment in Los Angeles. I also arranged numerous shipments and hundreds of volunteers by staffing the main inbox, which could get as many as 1,000 emails per day.
Second, the vision of Occupy Sandy volunteers was long-term. Diego Ibañez, an organizer with OWS and Occupy Sandy, described the advantages of horizontal organizing during a crisis. “The network agreed that it is a crisis and then we all acted on it,” he said. “We didn’t ask — we created new channels so people can plug into and then address the crisis. If we could all agree that homelessness or houselessness was a crisis tomorrow, we could tackle it in the way that we tackled the hurricane.”
Being able to act in concert, without strict lines of communication and authority, allowed many small networks of relief workers to organize themselves according to the community’s needs. Along the lines of SDS chapters, the long-term vision included using funds to establish centers focused on organizing against racism, poverty and foreclosure, among other local concerns.
While participation in Occupy waxes and wanes, building databases that include information about the participants as well as the kinds of topics or events of interest to them can help point participants to projects they would like to work on. Much like missives from the national office in SDS, coordinating infrastructures like newsletters and phone banking can help maintain network ties during periods of relative stagnation. Moreover, a Facebook page or Twitter account could disappear at the discretion of the corporation that owns it or individuals with administrative access to it, potentially breaking the network into fragments. On Facebook, an upcoming March against Monsanto event was mysteriously deleted, as was the Occupy San Diego page and group. Examples like these suggest that simply relying on Facebook, Twitter or Google can make our networks highly vulnerable.
When events like Hurricane Sandy (or impeding war) require a strong public response, databases of volunteers, participants, activists and journalists, become indispensable for horizontal organizing because they mean that the infrastructure does not need to be built anew every time. Infrastructure design within a slow network movement requires thinking about the constituent elements of organizing, including the tedious tasks of database creation coupled with a multi-sited approach to distribution and storage. Thankfully, not only do many of the tools and software already exist, but groups like SDS and Occupy Sandy provide a historical precedent for what, if further developed, could work even better in the future.
When Dylan sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” hemeant that when social problems become obvious, no one needs to explain it. In our current situation of movements mediated by social media perhaps another lyric from Dylan should be considered: “The pump don’t work because the vandals took the handles.” When the lever breaks on corporate social media, how do we keep organizing?
Technologies of Social Change
Here is a presentation I gave on June 23, 2011 to members of STS Italia on the myriad ways in which the Occupy Network communicates across locations.
YouTube Link, or it Didn’t Happen!
It was surreal standing in the middle of art walk with two friends knowing that Occupy LA were essentially banned from Spring Street due to a police riot that broke out a month before. On July 12, 2011, the LAPD shot rubber bullets into a crowd of art walk attendees mixed with members of Occupy LA, myself included, because some were writing with chalk on the sidewalks. In an effort to avoid any more injuries from police violence, the Occupy LA General Assembly accepted a proposal effectively relegating all activities related to “chalking” to Pershing Square for the August 9th art walk. Occupy LA also called for solidarity “chalking” actions across the World on the same day.
In the week leading up to art walk, the LAPD arrested members of Occupy LA for chalking and other public misdemeanors, while the media published various articles debating the LAPD’s use of a vandalism law to arrest people writing with chalk. Early in the morning of August 9th, the cops detained members of Fresh Juice Party shortly after they finished an enormous chalk mural in Pershing Square. Later that day, the LA Times reported that a fist fight broke out between someone from Occupy LA and a visitor from Occupy Oakland over chalking skills. This only compounded the tensions that were amplified in the media over the LAPD “bracing” for Occupy LA’s return to art walk.
Fresh Juice Party’s “I (heart) the First Amendment” mural
“No stopping! No talking! Just buying! Everything’s fine!” I shouted as people passed on the crowded sidewalks of 5th and Spring. My two friends and I posted up near a KCAL reporter on the corner and unfurled our “Class WARhol” banner, while another held a sign that read “Legalize Art.”
Within a few minutes we were asked to move by the LAPD. We crossed the street and stopped again. This time we positioned ourselves behind a parked police car and a fire hydrant, so as not to disrupt the flow of pedestrians. LAPD Sergeant Bogart approached us on his bicycle and said “I’m going to need to ask you to move.”
My friend replied, “Where to? Three feet this way? Three feet that way? We were just told to move from the other corner.”
“I can’t tell you that. You just have to move” repeated the Sergeant.
I was looking down at my feet, a bit nervous to be around so many police, when I saw spit land next to my right foot. I looked up and asked the Sergeant, “Did you just spit at me?”
He smirked and said, “Does that make you feel intimidated?”
Choking on my words, I quietly said, “Why? Should I be?”
The Sergeant spit to my left side and smiled, “Did it look just like that?”
My friend then asked the Sergeant if it was department policy to allow officers to chew tobacco while on duty, to which the Sergeant replied, “I see we are going to have a problem here.” The Sergeant then got off his bike and spit again. This time it landed a little further from me, but still within a few inches.
My recent research into police tactics during protests made it easier to detect what the Sergeant was doing. He wanted either me or my friends to overreact to his taunts, so that we could be arrested and the LAPD could declare a moral victory over Occupy LA in the morning’s press. I stepped back and stated loudly “I am backing up! No need to spit at me!” By this time, there were at least five cameras on us, yet no one intervened. Because the cameras were not there when the altercation began, there is no ‘proof’ of his assault, but because the cameras were present during the aftermath, they may have protected me from further insult. Ironically, I had two cameras on me, but did not want to be shot for “reaching into a pocket” like so many others. Due to the Sergeant’s smugness, I have no doubt that this man has used a similar tactic to force compliance on other occasions. All that remains is my word and those of the witnesses against the Sergeant. I imagine the frustration I experienced is quite common in communities that are forced to interact with the police “for their own safety.”
The situation gives me pause to reflect again on police provocation, testimonies, and cameras. If anyone surrounding me did intervene, the consequences for all could have been tragic. There were no less than 30 police officers in that intersection, some on horses, others on bikes, and many on foot. The build-up by the local media to Occupy LA’s attendance at art walk, like Tyson Vs. Holyfield, put everyone on edge. No one wanted to back down. By spitting at me, Sergeant Bogart could have triggered a much larger reaction that would have provided the rationale for deploying hundreds of extra police to stamp out the vestiges of political speech in Downtown LA.
I remained collected enough to walk away with my body intact, but my dignity obliterated. The next day, The LAist wrote that Occupy LA claimed that the LAPD stood down (which they did because there were no arrests in a chalk covered Pershing Square), while the LAPD claimed that Occupy LA backed off (which they did because they did not go to art walk en mass). Importantly, this battle of Los Angeles has nothing to do with the medium of chalk as reported in the media. For the LAPD, it is really about vilifying those already marginalized and legitimating the increased policing of downtown, but for Occupy LA it is about slowing the gentrification of downtown in defense of the very poor.
The abundance of police during art walk- and in downtown more generally- has been questioned many times before Occupy LA even existed. In fact, the majority of Occupy LA unknowingly stepped into the debate after the raid on November 30, 2011. For years, the LAPD and The Central City Association’s private security have patrolled art walk to stave off the wayward homeless from neighboring skid row, so that the very poor, with their cries of hunger and untreated open wounds, do not disrupt the roving middle class crowd. Moreover, the art walk crowd is taught to fear skid row as lines of cops audibly warn middle class attendees not to travel far from Main Street.
My “Class WARhol” banner was designed to engage intelligent art walk attendees in conversation about the on-going class war in LA’s historic downtown core. I spoke with some art walk patrons who thought the banner was clever, but did not know much the treatment of the very poor in downtown LA. Others knew about the dangers of life on skid row (including rampant police harassment), but did not know that the police typically searched and arrested homeless people from skid row in preparation for art walk. While the galleries are busy washing their walls white to prepare for new art, the LAPD and CCA security are conducting their own kind of whitewash just outside.
CCA Prepares to “Clean Up” Skid Row
“Clean streets” in downtown LA does not simply mean removing trash and washing human waste into the gutters, it really implies ridding the streets of poor people and what little they own. Recently, it has come to include removing all memory traces of political speech by erasing the most ephemeral form of expression: sidewalk chalk. In the case of Occupy LA, they are getting lambasted by the police for calling attention to the problems of the very poor. Even more disheartening though, the shifting demographics of Occupy LA over the last 3 months are used to justify the actions of the LAPD - the poor, gay, black, and brown are now at the forefront of the Occupy movement and consequently, they bear the brunt of the attacks from the police. These populations are the favored marks of an institution that derives its own authority by depriving the people of their own power.
Lastly, I am beginning to better understand the imperative of ‘camera power’ to new social movements. Footage of cops enforcing their requests does in a flash what it might take years of filing official complaints to accomplish, the images reveal the non-institutionalized means by which compliance is actually accomplished: spitting, hair pulling, arm twisting, finger bending, and so on… all the things that children usually resort to in order to get their way. Resembling Tyson, when faced with an opponent that won’t yield, cops must also resort to cheating. Sadly though, like DNA evidence, future reliance on technology is at a cost to human witnessing itself as people’s testimonies become a comparably less authoritative account of an event. Like I said before, ‘give me the YouTube link, or it didn’t happen!’