On Occupy Wall Street’s Radical Roots

As it moves into a new year, and an election year no less, the Occupy movement will likely be claimed by more and more hopefuls in the mainstream trying to benefit from it, and to sanitize it in the process. I guess that’s why I’ve found myself writing a lot lately about the movement’s radical roots, radical ambitions, and radical tactics—to remind us that if it had played by the rules some now want it to play by, it wouldn’t have gotten where it is in the first place.

For the occasion of a recent panel discussion at Columbia Law School on Occupy Wall Street and the First Amendment, I wrote this essay, subsequently published on the website of Harper’s Magazine. It argues that one should not take the movement’s appeals to the Bill of Rights too literally in legal terms, and that its tactics and aims have always been infused with an impulse more revolutionary than the law could ever accommodate. The whole discussion at Columbia, which also included WNV contributor and legal scholar Jeremy Kessler, can now be watched here:

Following that, The Nation published my essay “Thank You, Anarchists,” which explores some of what anarchist thought has contributed to the movement and why it deserves to be taken more seriously than it often is by those on the outside:

As assemblies enter our own politics through the Occupy movement, we should take care to recognize what they’re not and will never be. Even more important, though, is what they’ve already done. They’ve reminded us that politics is not a matter of choosing among what we’re offered but of fighting for what we and others actually need, not to mention what we hope for. For this, in large part, we have the anarchists to thank.

Co-opt that.

A Law Higher than the Law

Law, law, law. The other day I published an essay about the renegade lawyer William Stringfellow. Today I’ve got a new one at Harper’s exploring what Occupy Wall Street has to do, if anything at all, with the First Amendment. Most people think it does, and I think they’re mostly wrong. Here’s a bit of it:

As the movement matured, … it became common practice for occupiers to make reference to the guarantees of the First Amendment as they justified their actions to the public. The “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” passed by the General Assembly on September 29, states, “We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right.” It further calls on “the people of the world” to “exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” The “Statement of Autonomy” passed on November 1 described the occupation as “a forum for peaceful assembly.” Meanwhile, lawyers working on behalf of the movement were trying to establish, on First Amendment grounds, the occupations’ legal right to exist — even as the constant police presence around the occupiers suggested that they had none. The “right” the legal documents spoke of were more an aspiration than a reality.

Ultimately, however, the struggle didn’t play out on legal grounds; Zuccotti Park remained occupied mostly thanks to extra-legal pressures. When the city proposed to clean the park on October 14 — effectively a forcible removal — thousands of people arrived before dawn to stand in the way. A month later, when the eviction finally came, it was as a surprise in the middle of the night. The difference wasn’t so much legal as tactical.

In the end, I think the “peaceable assembly” this movement is doing is less about the letter of the law than about a law inscribed in us elsewhere—in the conscience. Call be a bad lawyer. Or maybe just go ahead and call me an anarchist.

Listen to This Man

An ongoing hobby of mine is to try and help keep my favorite theologian, William Stringfellow, in circulation. In the past, I’ve written about his ideas on biography, on the sexuality and the circus, on his partner Anthony Towne’s amazing obituary for God, and more. This time, in Commonweal, I had the opportunity to review an important new book about him—An Alien in a Strange Land, by Anthony Dancer. It goes a little something like this:

A lifelong Episcopalian and inveterate Bible-thumper, Stringfellow was a Protestant in the most etymological sense. He saw Christianity as a call to dissent. The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth recognized this, and urged an audience at the University of Chicago in 1962 to “Listen to this man!” Barth saw in Stringfellow’s writing a “theology of freedom” more concerned with proclaiming the gospel than with catering to the habits and fads of American society—a theology unwilling, as Stringfellow put it, “to interpret the Bible for the convenience of America.” Barth also saw in him a way of doing theology free from the pomp and insularity of academia.

That Stringfellow has remained mostly ignored in academic theology is at least in part his own doing. He would say that, for the sake of vocation, he had “died to career,” both in law and theology. Though he did quite a lot of each, he refused to define himself by the professional standards of either—they’re principalities in themselves. His writing is decidedly vernacular even when demanding, the product of reading far more from the Bible and the newspaper (as Barth urged preachers to do) than from the theological canon. “A person must come to the Bible with a certain naivety,” Stingfellow wrote; “one must forego anything that would demean God to dependence upon one’s own thoughts.” What he wrote is a model for serious, engaged, and yet decidedly lay theology, carried out with a sense of both play and dire seriousness. Caught as we are between the blogosphere rabble and the over-specialized academy, we need more of this today.

Best of all, the folks at Commonweal realized that they had an article by Stringfellow in their archives: a 1972 call to “Impeach Nixon Now. What’s so special about that? you might ask. Weren’t a lot of people calling for Nixon’s resignation in 1972? The thing is, the article is dated May 26. The Watergate break-in was June 17 of that year, less than a month later. Stringfellow’s concern, though, was more serious than what ultimately brought about Nixon’s resignation: above all, the continuation of a brutal, illegal, unnecessary war.

We should have listened.

Two Happy Stops Along the Greek Apocalypse

In the middle of the second millennium B.C., a dark cloud of noxious falling ash and a tsunami wave spread across the Mediterranean. It was enough to leave Minoan civilization—that of the Minotaur, of the bare-breasted snake goddess, of the palace at Knossos—in ruins. Some say the event might also have had some connection with the ten plagues Pharaoh endured in the book of Exodus. It now seems pretty clear that the epicenter of this cataclysm was none other than the Greek island of Santorini—the land mass of which, as I learned this past week during a sojourn there, looks like and is the rim of the crater around a gigantic sunken volcano.

The excuse for my trip was the Caldera (=“crater”) Arts & Literature Festival hosted by Atlantis Books, one of the best bookshops in the world. (Atlantis’s name refers to the rather dubious theory that Santorini is also the legendary island nation mentioned by Plato. The size of Libya and Asia combined? Beyond the Strait of Gibraltar? Yeah, right.) The couple dozen of us in attendance enjoyed readings, musical improvisations, a lesson in taking non-sappy photos on a picturesque Greek island, and hors d’oeuvres prepared before our eyes by Vefa Alexiadou, the kinder and more law-abiding Martha Stewart of Greece. The festival’s climax was the launch of another magnificent issue of Five Dials magazineFive Dials editor Craig Taylor (who meanwhile released a new book of his own) wrote to his readers about all this private revelry at the little bookshop collective the only way he could: “I know; I’m sorry.”

A short flight up and over the crater brought me back to Athens, the epicenter of another great Greek volcano of sorts, which I write about in a new post at Waging Nonviolence:

From a glance at a recent front page of The New York Times, you might guess that a political meeting in Athens this week would be full of talk about the resigning prime minister, bailout deals, and the Euro. The land that gave birth to European civilization now seems on the brink of sinking the whole continent’s economy. But, among those gathered on Monday in a basement in the neighborhood of Exarcheia—a kind of Haight-Ashbury for Greek anarchists—the agenda was completely different. They talked instead about parks, public kitchens, and barter bazaars. They even seemed pretty hopeful.

The lack of concern for political figureheads, in retrospect, was to be expected. Greek anarchists see no more reason to care about whether George Papandreou goes or stays than those at Occupy Wall Street are agonizing over Herman Cain’s sexual foibles. They have another kind of politics in mind.

The artistic collectivity of Atlantis Books turned, for me, into the political collectivity of Exarcheia. Despite all the signs past and present that the end is near, that week in Greece made it seem like everything is going to be fine.

Occupying Memory

My coverage of Occupy Wall Street continues, and evolves. The movement that started at Liberty Plaza is growing all the time, and as it does, I’ve been spending less and less time at the occupations themselves and more and more time writing about them, trying to take account of what has so far been the most tremendous, instructive, and hopeful political experience of my life, and perhaps of my whole generation. I’ve noticed many of the early organizers now stepping back some—resting, letting others take leadership roles, trying to dodge the temptations of ego that come with a movement that has hit the big time, a movement that is not to be confused with particular individuals, even while being made up of nothing else.

As a journalist, I’ve been doing the same. Everyone with a notebook or a camera seems to be covering the movement now, so I’m letting them do the work I was doing early on, when few others were there. I’m going through my notes and through my pictures and through my memories, trying to sort out where this came from and how. In the meantime, some more publications and appearances:

Killing Celebrity Buddhas

Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Plaza has become pretty much the place for self-styled progressive celebrities and politicians to appear. On the one hand, these visits are greatly appreciated by the occupiers and have helped strengthen the movement. However, they also raise tricky questions for a movement determined to be non-hierarchical and egalitarian. In a roundtable on the occupation movement at Religion Dispatches today, I try to explain the rationale behind the rather unfortunate recent episode in which Occupy Atlanta opted not to allow civil rights veteran John Lewis to speak to their General Assembly:

Occupy Wall Street has had its share of celebrity visits and they haven’t always gone very well either. The example that comes to mind concerns another prominent black leader, Russell Simmons, who was allowed to speak during a General Assembly meeting. He interrupted the discussion at hand and gave his two cents about what, in general, the movement should do, concerning the by-then-tabled question of “demands.” He received applause and thanks. But a few minutes later, after the scheduled discussion continued about how white, male-bodied people on the plaza needed to “check their privilege,” a white, male-bodied young man got up and said something like, “Perhaps celebrities should check their privilege, too.” That got applause as well. A lot, as I recall.

It’s really unfortunate that this has become a racial issue, especially when the occupiers have problems with outreach to some racial groups already. As one black left-wing journalist suggested in a conversation I took part in recently, it may be better understood as a problem of communication styles among different communities rather than active, albeit subtle, racism.

But I do think this represents a really interesting effort on the part of occupiers to—so to speak—kill the Buddhas of power and hierarchy in our society. And celebrity really is a huge Buddha. Even well-earned celebrity. I’ve witnessed other—including white—notable people getting essentially no attention during visits to the plaza. I think it’s really telling that Lewis chose not to hold a grudge. From his remarks, I don’t get the sense that he understands the movement in a deep way, but he does clearly understand—from experience—that creating a new world can get messy sometimes.

The occupiers’ obsession with process—the General Assembly meeting, in this instance—is one really important case of the role of ritual in what they’re doing. The ritual of process comes before all else because it is the vehicle of the future, and the bulwark against compromises with the past.

Read the rest, including Anthea Butler’s discussion of the Lewis incident, at Religion Dispatches.

Ten Years of War, Three Weeks of Occupation

Today—or yesterday, depending on how you count it—marks a decade since the ongoing war on Afghanistan began. Tomorrow marks the end of the third week since the occupation of Liberty Plaza near Wall Street began. The first might be an utterly solemn occasion were it not for the second. And were it not, also, for the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., which began yesterday and, at nightfall, held a candlelight vigil for 10 years of war.

I wrote about the Freedom Plaza undertaking yesterday in The Nation:

A group of seasoned activists has been planning it for months already, since before the Wall Street occupation was even proposed by Adbusters. And like those in Liberty Plaza, they are intent on staying as long as it takes to be heard.

Before taking to the streets, the October 6 group gained the support of such familiar mass-mobilizers as the Green Party and Veterans for Peace, as well as newer ones like Peaceful Uprising and US Uncut—though they stress that this is a coalition of individuals above all. As individuals, they’ll be having open discussions on Freedom Plaza about 15 “core issues,” ranging from corporatism and militarism at the top on down to transportation.

Continue reading


Over at Waging Nonviolence, I’ve been doing a bunch of coverage of some of the big protest actions being planned this fall, efforts to turn people’s attention away from the nonsense straw polls and candidate posturing and onto masses of people in the streets. I’ve been going to planning meetings for both those intending to occupy Wall Street on September 17 and those who will do the same at Freedom Plaza in DC on October 6. Though only loosely coordinated, these are part of a nationwide effort to bring the spirit of 2011 to the United States in the coming months. As I write today in the Boston Review:

With uprisings having spread from Tunisia to Egypt, across the Arab world, and then in various forms to China, Greece, Spain, Israel, and England, 2011 may join 1789, 1848, and 1968 as a year synonymous with people-power—and no small amount of chaos. Though their aims are more limited, the September 17 and October 6 groups have adopted what seems to be this year’s signature tactic: the sustained occupation of symbolic public spaces. They’re planning to build their movements by holding public assemblies that will last for days, weeks, or even months. Their respective agendas, though not final until they hit the streets, involve curbing corporate influence on politics and society, protecting the environment, and finally ending the costly wars abroad.

Also, don’t miss another short piece that went up yesterday at Killing the Buddha on the young Wall Street occupiers to be in Tompkins Square Park. And my comprehensive Waging Nonviolence story about them too.

Stop Bombing Them

Sometimes, when one belongs to the richest and most militarily over-equipped country in the world, there’s a bit of a temptation to overthink things. I was reminded of this at the end of my interview—just published at The Immanent Frame—with the great Pakistani anthropologist Saba Mahmood. I asked the tangled question of what American women can do to help their Afghan counterparts. Some American feminist groups, you might recall, were among those who mobilized to support the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Her reply was thorough, though the gist of it was plain: “Stop bombing them.”

The entire social fabric of Afghani society has been torn apart as a result of, first the war between the United States and the Soviet Union, between 1979 and 1989, and then the U.S. war against the Taliban and now al-Qaeda. There are civilian casualties reported almost every day—the vast majority of whom are women, children, and the elderly—as a result of U.S. bombs and drones. This violence exceeds and parallels the violence unleashed by the Taliban on the Afghanis.  We read about these casualties in the media, but I do not see any mobilization by major U.S. feminist organizations to demand an end to this calamity. This silence stands in sharp contrast to the vast public campaign organized by the Feminist Majority in the late 1990s to oust the Taliban. I am often asked by American feminists what they can do to help Afghan women. My simple and short answer is: first, convince your government to stop bombing them, and second urge the US government to help create the conditions for a political—and not a military—solution to the impasse in Afghanistan. It is the condition of destitution and constant war that has driven Pakistanis and Afghans to join the Taliban (coupled with the opportunistic machinations of their own governments). Perhaps it is time to asses whether diverting the U.S. military aid toward more constructive and systemic projects of economic and political reform might yield different results.

Mahmood also discusses her debt to Talal Asad, whom I interviewed, also for The Immanent Frame, earlier this month.

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