Occupy Wall Street.
For many, even those here in the very city that gave birth to it, it is now but a distant memory. Even those ‘hangers on’ I met celebrating it in fashionable bars and events in Williamsburg and DUMBO, have moved onto other fashionable causes. I remember distinctly that none of those who were actually living out in the tents and on the pavements, the ones who were risking their bodies and their futures facing the brutality of the New York police, seemed to be at these events. It was mostly Prada-wearing editors from fancy ‘editorial’ publications and publishers of books trying to make a living off the movement that was made up mostly of idealists, dreamers, and desperate people from all walks of America’s life. Today people talk about OWS and wash down their cynical words with a smirk if not a laugh. It is spoken about as if it was, for a brief moment, a game some misguided people played, and then simply walked away – something nothing more than a summer festival where a few young kids had a great time, pretended to stand against ‘the system’ and then had to return to their homes and to their day jobs.
But the OWS movement – perhaps one of the most incredible, creative, and powerful civil disobedience actions we have seen in the USA since the anti-war protests in the early 2000s, did not die from lethargy, but was systematically and brutally crushed through a close collusion and collaboration between corporate interests, unnerved government bureaucrats, the intelligence agencies, and the local police force. The entire weight of the America’s dissent suppression machinery had to be mobilized to break the back of this movement. Harassment, assaults, raids, infiltration, surveillance, overt police violence, mass arrests, and court indictments were the weapons of choice. The degree of coordination between state and police authorities was staggering and vast. The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, has revealed the scale of the nationwide crackdown in their report which points out that:
FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF’s Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.
Today I am more likely to hear people waxing lyrical about Pussy Riot and the brutality of Putin’s rule. Or mindless resorting to the the comforts of a tried and true Orientalist discourse lambasting Arabs from their cultural’s inability to be politically, economically and socially more like ‘us’. And yet, right here, in their own neighbourhoods, as the state, corporations and their civic policing institutions attacked, arrested, brutalized and prosecuted peaceful protestors demanding change, and did so with sophisticated planning and tactics right out of the years spent undermining the civil rights struggles, they seem unable to connect the dots. The American ideological blinkers have become so start, so dark, so opaque, that we can only see ideology and anti-democratic actions elsewhere even as clear and explicitly evidence of its occurrence right here in our own country is presented in front of their own eyes. It is as if our society today has been deprived of its critical faculties, unable to think of anything outside of its consumer concerns, its utilitarian needs, and its immediate pursuit of leisure. And perhaps it has been.
Now, after nearly three months in New York, the sheer obfuscatory nature of the institutions that surround me is more evident than ever. From the false histories, and sentimental peans of the 9/11 Memorial, to the shoddily and hastily put together commercial art at our shopping malls of art that were once museums, we are surrounded by works that refuse thought, distract from thought, and numb us towards unchallenging niceties and mindless lullabies. As David Harvey pointed out in his work Spaces of Hope:
…Benjamin remarked on the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century, the whole environment seemed designed to induce nirvana rather than critical awareness. And many other cultural institutions – museums and heritage centres, arenas for spectacles, exhibitions, and festivals – seem to have as their aim the cultivation of nostalgia, the production of sanitised collective memories, the nurturing of uncritical aesthetic sensibilities, and the absorption of future possibilities into a non-conflictual arena that is eternally present. The continuous spectacles of commodity culture, including the commodification of the spectacle itself, play their part in fomenting political indifference. It is either a stupefied nirvana or a totally blase attitude (the found of all indifference) that is aimed at. The multiple degenerate utopias that now surround us – the shopping malls and the ‘bourgeois’ commercialized utopias of the suburbs being paradigmatic – do as much to signal the end of history as the collapse of the Berlin Wall ever did. They instantiate rather than critique the idea that ‘there is no alternative’, save those given by the conjoining of technological fantasies, commodity culture, and endless capital accumulation.
But back in 2011 something was happening. Back then, for just a moment, a few lucid, intelligent, independent, young and old, clear-headed and courageous, people broke through this vise of mediocrity and apathy, and gathered together in the cold New York winter inside the centre of oligarchic corruption and nepotism that is Wall Street, and raised their voices. For just a moment, after many decades of stunned silence, people spontaneously came together and asked that they be heard past the screams and shouts of the corporations that have imprisoned our government, and laced the pockets of our representatives with trinkets, and their souls with pusillanimity. In Tahrir Square something larger, more revolutionary was taking place, but many in Zucotti Park acknowledged the inspiration they took from the Egyptians confronting the American-back Mubarak dictatorship. Courage is contagious. And inspiring. As David Graeber, one of the founding visionaries of the movement, pointed out:
The politics of direct action is based, to a certain degree, on a faith that freedom is contagious. It is almost impossible to convince the average American that a truly democratic society would be possible. One can only show them. But the experience of actually watching a group of a thousand, or two thousand, people making collective decisions without a leadership structure, let alone that of thousands of people in the streets linking arms to holding their ground against a phalanx of armored riot cops, motivated only by principle and solidarity, can change one’s most fundamental assumptions about what politics, or for that matter, human life, could actually be like.
These are the kinds of words that the ‘realists’, and the ‘pragmatic’ mock. Their mockery of course veiling a cowardice and an intellectual laziness that accepts the status quo and justifies their imprisonment in it. It is a cynicism that eats away at them of course, tearing into their souls, reducing them to a shells, devoid of imagination, and of a sensibility that can respond to the beautiful and sublime. They mock those who chose to be otherwise, those who believe in a body politic, a social fabric, a cultural web and a human society that is inter-connected and inter-dependent, and where the success of the weakest ensures the success of the strongest. As Roberto Unger argued in his work Social Theory: Its Situation And Its Tasks:
The few who try to work out the alternatives more considered than those found in the party platforms of the mainstream of leftist literature are quickly dismissed as utopian dreamers or reformist tinkerers: utopians if their proposals depart greatly from the establish arrangements, tinkerers if they make modest proposals of change. Nothing worth fighting for seems practicable, and the changes that can be readily imagined often hardly seem to deserve the sacrifice of programmatic campaigns whose time chart so often disrespects the dimensions of an individual lifetime. If all of this were not enough, the would-be program writer still has a final surprise in store for him. He will be accused – something by the very people who told him a moment before they wanted alternatives – of dogmatically anticipating the future and trying to steal a march on unpredictable circumstances, as if there were no force to Montaigne’s warning that ‘no wind helps him who does not know to what port he sail.’
Dreamers. That is what I remember thinking as I walked around Zuccotti park in the early months of 2012. Precisely the kinds of people I had not seen in the country for years. We had pursued unjust wars, instituted torture as ‘standard operating procedure’, resorted to preemptive murder with the use of drones, renditioned and disappeared hundreds from across the globe, strengthened dictatorships and helped crushed popular movement, broken the economy, cheated tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, enriched the financial and corporate class to a degree unprecedented in world history, sold our political institutions and representatives (with the help of the Supreme Court) to the highest bidder, disconnected in the process, our public from the political institutions meant to represent and protect it. All throughout this time, the American had been quiet, resigned and defeated. But here, huddled against each other, in tents and plastic shelters, were dreamers. Once again, as David Graeber wrote:
“We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt.” Three weeks later, after watching more and more elements of mainstream America clamber on board, I think this is still true. OWS … is at core forwards-looking youth movement, just a group of forward-looking people who have been stopped dead in their tracks; of mixed class backgrounds but with a significant element of working class origins; their one strongest common feature being a remarkably high level of education.
I was starkly taken back to those beautiful days, those amazing moments of collective courage, when I recently came across the photographs of photographer Annie Appel. I only recently came across her work and these images – simple, clear, direct, honest, took me back to 2012 when it seemed that something new was forming, and that there was hope for a turn away from an America teetering towards greater violence, greater inequality, greater exploitation and greater indifference to the rights, needs and participation of its citizens.
A Kickstart campaign video (Disclosure: I am a supporter of this campaign) showed Annie at work – her technique and engagement with her subjects reminded of me of the lovely Latvian photographer Inta Ruka’s methods and her ability to find tremendous camaraderie and connection with her subjects. It is an ambitious campaign, and recent conversations with Annie suggest that she is struggling to raise the funds, but at the same time, remains determined to find them, and to publish this document.
There is no doubt that there are new conversations taking place in America. Its false ideaology of free-market capitalism – one aided and abetted by an army of modelling economists more enamoured with the equations than with the realities of life, lies in the squalor of the lies it was based on. And whereas we may need to wash our hands of the empty-headed, pocket-lining, conniving, snake-oil salesmen that are today’s politicians and corporate elite, there is a new generation that is entering a world that can no longer promise them a future, and the protections they are due. They are entering a world awash in wealth, and simultaneously awash in staggering misery, deprivation, violence, and dispossession. They are arriving in a world where a new discourse is needed, and evidence, of the struggles that have begun, that were attempted, and the ideas that were articulated.
Annie’s work is part of that evidence – a critical part of American history, and a story of some of the most imaginative, and courageous Americans our generation, and the younger ones that have followed, has produced. Her’s are photographs that are made, not taken, and are evidences of acts of collaboration, not capture. The take us back to the people who were able to see past the institutions designed to numb us into submission, and ask for something different, more just, and more civilised.
The extent of this act of the imagination that the OWS movement represented – and that is what it really was, can only be understood if we accept and recognize how constrained our own worlds, and ideas of its horizons are. It was wonderful to see the video where you can see Annie working with her subjects – a very simple, straight, and honest process that comes across in the seemingly simplicity of the images. And yet, in our image suffused world – 99.99% of the images of course being narcissistic documentations of the banal, pretentious attempts at a pseudo-aesthetics, and entirely devoid of an ethical and intelligent core, these images stand out for the messages and the evidence they carry. In them, the real comes through and all sophistry, trickery, technological sophistication and advanced digital darkroom techniques are erased. You see people, and you see a world in their eyes and world, that gives you hope that this miserable, commodified, and consumerist sorrow we are compelled to celebrate and negotiate with brutality and barbarism, need not be the only thing we experience.
Most all of us live in a world that does not extend too far beyond our immediate circle of peers, our purchasable comforts, our charter flights to gated resorts, and our climate-controlled shopping centers. Our experience of what is possible, and impossible, is defined by the banality of our work and play worlds, and it is from within these that we imagine that we are free, and able to have free will. But these starkly small horizons are also why most of cannot imagine changing this world, and transforming the unjust and exploitative arrangements to which we too are a part of. As Levitas pointed out in his essay ‘The future of thinking about the future’ in Bird, Curtis, Putnam, Robertson, Tickner’s Mapping The Futures:
The main reason why it has become so difficult to locate utopia in a future credibly linked to the present by a feasible transformation is that our images of the present do not identify agencies and processes of change. The result is that utopia moves further into the realms of fantasy. Although this has the advantage of liberating the imagination from the constraint of what it is possible to imagine as possible – and encouraging utopia to demand the impossible – it has the disadvantage of severing utopia from the process of social change and severing social change from the stimulus of competing images of utopia.
Annie Appel’s work is a document of history. It is a document of the imagination, which for a moment made us belief that another world was possible. It widens the horizons we see and believe in. It moves us past our narrow ones and allows us to share in the vast, encompassing vision that these individuals reached for. It is a permanent reminder of what it is that we continue to struggle for, and the words and voices of the people she met, spoke to, got to know and photographed, are heralds that remind us of what it is that we have yet to walk towards, work towards and construct. The movement, its ideals, its naivety, its beautiful innocence that America remains a democracy and that its modern soul remains deeply pluralist, democratic, and inclusive. As I flipped through these images I smiled, and was inspired by the voices and the imaginations on display. I felt stronger for having seen them, and read what the subjects said. They reminded me that I am not alone, and that there is yet much to do, and we are the ones that will have to do it. A toast to the dreamers. The fools. The Utopians. The misguided.