Occupy Memories: A Genealogy of Struggle (I)
The first time I remember hearing about “Occupy” was when my colleague and friend Matt Morris asked me at a party whether I had heard that a call had been issued to occupy Wall Street. It sounded like an intriguing idea at the time, but I have to admit that it was something I quickly forgot. Before I knew it, though, Occupy had not only occupied my academic work, it had become an integral part of my life and online persona. Indeed, Occupy led me to rhetorically reframe (through affirmatively forgetting and counter-remembering) much of my world, and transformed my social media applications into archival weapons in the name of social, political, and economic change.
From what I can tell, I began archiving my Occupy story, my genealogy of local and national “combats,” on Facebook/Twitter beginning September 19th, 2011, two days after the occupation of New York City’s Zuccotti Park (aka “Liberty Plaza”) began. A few days later, I remember being struck by an image of philosopher Cornell West as he took to the streets for Occupy, and certainly, seeing West and other intellectuals like Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek, Noam Chomsky and Naomi Wolf, was galvanizing in my desire to join the fight for economic and social justice, especially because these academic giants already operated as models for emulation in my life. They were/are also the teachers who called me to analyze the rhetorical production of my own memories by apparatuses of control and domination, and who called me to seek an alternative form of life through reframing and “counter-remembering” the truths of my world.
Fig. 1. Cornell West with Activists in New York City.
As October dawned, I recall how the Occupy Movement began to explode, taking center-stage in my life and work as it re-wrote the archive of my subjectivity/memory through a barrage of rhetorics. At first, the movement was merely something to intellectually comment upon, but before long, I was knee-deep in the struggle, and in many ways became increasingly aware that I had been indirectly engaged in the (class-)struggle my whole life, having lived entirely under the shadow of neoliberal economic ascendency. Indeed, it was my involvement with Occupy that not only led me to increasingly reminisce on my economically-crumbling hometown (Occupy YC!), dilapidated schools, empty town square, and old trailer-home, but also the attitudes and beliefs of those in my hometown who, being programmed to disparage public funding, social programs, and other forms of political/economic intervention, had no idea that it was they who (living on or below the cusp of the lower- and middle-classes) were the ones in need of assistance and economic justice. Only an imaginary cabal of “lazy people on welfare” begged for any assistance and damned if “we” should help them. Thus, a small-town ideology of staunch individualism, nationalism (as unquestioned loyalty/honor to country despite what it does), and stoic silence in the face of pain, deprivation, and economic exploitation prevented them from realizing that they were destroying themselves and their town through their values—where every election signaled precisely “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” as they voted themselves into economic servitude/desolation.
Two decades later and two thousand miles away, however, I remember being blown away by those who (in contrast to the memories of my childhood and adolescence), were fighting tooth and nail to end the class war that had been waged against them over the past three to four decades. For instance, I remember Occupiers storming the Brooklyn Bridge and being trapped by police, and I remember being stunned when three young women were pepper-sprayed by the NYPD for merely demonstrating. It was moments like these and their media suppression that really “ethically” called me to become involved in the movement (and make activism an integral part of my life). For they not only transformed my memory/subjectivity through a kind of “traumatic” encounter (as I mourned the loss of the fantasy that I lived in a country where the freedoms of speech and assembly are fiercely protected), these events justified the feelings I remember having so long ago—that stoic silence in the face of exploitation and injustice is a recipe for servitude and resentment. In fact, I remember wanting to rebel against the powers that bound me for years, but on October 6th, 2011, I got a real opportunity as Occupy came to Austin.
Indeed, for me Day #1 of the Austin occupation was truly formative. I remember being nervous as we arrived, my car filling with the smell of markers as we scribbled on cardboard signs, and remarking at the irony of having to pay (to park) in order to protest downtown. I remember my friend Matt asking me if we were going to get arrested, and saying that I thought we would be alright. Our fears were further allayed, too, when we saw over a thousand Occupiers flocked around City Hall, and rather than a tense situation, found a sort of quasi-festival taking place. For although Occupy Austin had only a single symbolic tent, a diverse array of activists stood like living monuments to resistance, flashing signs proclaiming everything from “People Not Profits” to simply “Tax Me!” Television cameras were everywhere, the music boomed, and Matt and I wound our way through the crowd having a somewhat humorous discussion on diplomatic relations. At this point, local police were cordial, and even the Chief of Austin PD came up and said hello. Sadly, though, the honeymoon between activists and the APD would soon be over, as they would join other police departments across the country in stealthily infiltrating Occupy with undercover officers before forcibly evicting them from public memory.
Fig. 2. Occupy Austin Activists Holding Signs.
Although at this point the movement was not yet fighting its national battle to remain in the spotlight in the face of state suppression, it was already engaged in a media fight to get its message out (despite the release of numerous “grievance declarations”). This was especially the case given that the movement was struggling against the corporate media’s narrative that Occupy was simply confused and misguided, or full of slackers and discontents in search of government handouts or Soviet-style revolution. Sadly, the obfuscation worked, and to this day I am still asked: “So what is it that you Occupy people want?” no matter how many times one says “Economic and social justice!” It was an incredible testament to the power of suggestive rhetorics and collective amnesia, and also highlighted the need for counter-rhetorics and counter-memorial genealogies such as this one.
Fig. 3. What Does Occupy Want?
Ten days after the occupation of Austin began, I returned to City Hall. The crowd had dwindled a bit from the first week, but spirits were high and the festival atmosphere was still in full-effect. I wandered the “encampment” alone this time, but paradoxically, this had the effect of compelling me to talk with several other activists whom I did not know. It was then that I realized (even if only unconsciously) that Occupy activism was characterized by community, not only in the outward sense of a coalition built to engage in calls for socio-economic justice (and to “monumentalize” these struggles), but also a “forgotten” sense of community where those gathered at City Hall seemed to implicitly realize that they needed one another, that it was possible to share with, respect, and care for complete strangers. My subjectivity as/and memory were being transformed by the “Occupied” space by other rhetorical means as well. For instance, I remember being struck by a young musician who could not have been more than ten or twelve singing Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” and by yoga practitioners engaged in a graceful bodily ballet. I remember a young woman in a bright purple dress with a hula hoop and sign that proclaimed “The Beginning is Near!” I remember calls for citizens to remove their money from multinational banks and to put their money in credit unions. I remember the Occupy Austin library, and today feel melancholy regarding all the Occupy libraries that were destroyed during the evictions, the great “forgetting” that the destruction of such archives entails. I remember a young man named John whom I spoke to about corporate accountability on a traffic island, as cars zoomed by exposing us to shouts of praise, middle fingers, and someone even asking to what address he could send us pizza (an “Occu-pie”). And although there is much about that day I surely have forgotten, I am confident in claiming that it still deeply marked me, that the words, pictures, feelings, and other Occupy rhetorics made me someone new, transforming the archive of my subjectivity forever.
Fig. 4. “Employed + Enrolled American Seeking Accountability.”
Beyond being transformed by any “boots on the ground” activism, I have also produced a lot of Occupy-oriented media that I have archived online, and likely no other media-artifact I produced was as powerful or controversial as my own “Percentile Narrative.” Although I had remembered seeing such narratives from those supportive of the movement both from members of the 99% and the 1%, when compelled to create my own in solidarity, I felt a strange “sickness.” I knew that the narrative would not be well-received in some quarters, and I knew that in order to create the narrative that I would have to break the stoic silence about suffering, class struggle, and my own economic status that I had been taught to abide by my entire life. Indeed, the narrative signified a break, a truly affirmative forgetting of the values that had produced me as a child. Hence, I will not forget the knot in my stomach as I posted it online, and even now it fills me with a range of emotions, not only because the narrative forces a mildly traumatic encounter with my past, but because I know my struggles pale in comparison to others. Moreover, the memories and insights from my narrative expose/archive my existence within a particular socio-economic class and the opportunities lost because of it, the financial plight of educators in twenty-first century America along with the near-absence of value placed on public education, and most importantly, the unjust economic arrangements of US society and the heart-wrenching fact that so many have been ideologically programmed to perceive any critique of such injustices as “just whining for a handout.” Hence, the importance of reframing and counter-remembering the social, political, and economic arrangements of contemporary American/global society, emphasizing the employment of new vocabularies that allow one to not only articulate one’s existence within a particular socio-economic class, but also the exploitation of that class by a tiny portion of society, as they strategically pocket the wealth produced by the majority.
I lived almost the first third of my life in a trailer-home. I had to attend a financially-deprived public school despite my academic abilities, and later a community college, because my family could not afford otherwise. I attended a small in-state college because no one else would accept my community college credits, which initially prevented me from getting into graduate school. I have an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and will soon have a doctorate, yet I cannot afford to pay my bills every month. Although my tuition is waived, I receive no scholarships and no significant grants. I have no choice but to borrow loan money that, thanks to recent legislation, is no longer subsidized. When I graduate, I have no guarantee of a job despite attending school for twelve years, and it will take several years to pay off my student loans. I have had to borrow even more money because …. no longer receives significant grants, is an unpaid intern, and cannot get sufficient health insurance as a student. While in school, I have had two surgeries that I could not afford to pay back even though I have insurance, and …. had a surgery that her original insurance plan refused to cover. Each time I resign my apartment lease, my rent is raised exorbitantly. I do not spend money on extravagant things. I have no cable TV and no smart phone. Both now and when I am a professor, I will work 50+ hours a week grading, teaching, writing, and performing administrative duties, yet I will do so without financial security (perhaps indefinitely). I am the 99% and this why I occupy (99 Percent N.p.).
Cornell West with Activists. Cornel-West-Occupy.jpeg. 2011. New York, New York. http://polizeros.com. Web. 30 October 2012.
Hoag, Trevor. Employed + Enrolled American Seeking Accountability. 2011. Austin, Texas.
—. Occupy Austin Activists Holding Signs. 2011. Austin, Texas.
—. What Does Occupy Want? 2011. Austin, Texas.
We are the 99 Percent. N.p. Sept. 2011. Web. Oct. 2012.