Occupy Memories: A Genealogy of Struggle (II)
On October 23rd, I returned to Occupy Austin’s encampment after a union solidarity march to find numbers had decreased significantly from previous weeks, and out of which I remember the local media making a great deal. Thanks to another event at City Hall, Occupiers had been forced across the street onto an island in the middle of traffic, but it helped me to have an experience with the homeless and the 24/7 Occupiers that I will never forget, standing amid the backpacks, sleeping bags, stacks of signs, and other refuse. It may have been a mess, but the various piles struck me as almost “found art,” or tiny monuments to the economic struggles faced by so many among the 99%.
Fig. 1. Occupy Austin Temporary Encampment.
However, others did not share my particular aesthetic or political tastes, and so local newscasters were singling out the most unkempt, tired, psychologically unstable, or otherwise “unsavory” protesters to interview as part of the nightly news spectacle. In an attempt to give viewers a counter-memorial narrative, therefore, I made sure to get myself some airtime. I remember the nervousness I felt being on television, but I had never been more proud to stand in solidarity against those on the FOX team, for example, who clearly perceived those who remained on the tiny traffic island as “the unwashed masses” that is, as worth forgetting. And even though the newscaster who interviewed me directly challenged my assertion that the movement was growing in her voiceover commentary, I was glad that I had proclaimed what I did (even if the interview cost me respect from some). More importantly, though, I am glad for my time spent with Occupiers, young and old, who had nowhere else to go that day, and I am glad that they would share their time, thoughts, and memories with me as we stood among what remained of the Occupy Austin encampment. For instance, I recall talking to two intelligent young men who wanted to return to school but had no means to do so, even though they were working full-time. It was a testament to the tragic circumstances of American culture, where many of the best minds of a generation are being destroyed by debt, while starving for knowledge and desiring to remake the world. But although it is a situation to mourn, it is an opportunity to transform mournful memory into non-violent action.
That night, then, perhaps not only out of anger and sadness, but an adamant desire to keep the movement growing, I created the “Occupy UT Austin (The University of Texas)” media streams on Facebook and Twitter, an archive of “common” memory and struggle that would help me to network with a group of student activists whom I have come to deeply respect. And moreover, it was through transforming these media applications into archives that facilitated the writing of this manuscript.
Fig. 2. Occupy UT Austin’s First Banner.
Before Occupy activism on UT’s campus began to escalate, however, I remember city Occupiers in Austin holding a “Zombie March” against corporate greed and corrupt politicians, where activists covered their faces in white paint and fake blood, performatively becoming devouring-machines that recall nothing more than an insatiable hunger for wealth. Around this same time as well, city activists engaged in a dramatic confrontation with Austin police over whether food tables could remain standing at night or whether they would be taken down for “cleaning” city hall (ostensibly to remove the “stench” of activists). Thirty men and eight women were arrested, including three students from the university, in what many perceived as overt police harassment and overreaction for merely attempting to feed the homeless and others at night. In response, Occupier Dave Cortez expressed surprise that “On a night where there are hundreds of drunks driving around town, they have all these resources here to take down three food tables. . . . It’s just unnecessary. We are a peaceful body” (Statesman N.p.). Sadly, though, this confrontation was not the last, neither in Austin nor anywhere else across the country, as police suppression of the protests quickly began to escalate in an attempt to remove activists from public memory.
As police violence and attempts to mnemonically “liquidate” Occupy escalated, however, activists increasingly took to the streets. And activists and others across the country engaged in actions of a different type than “street-fighting” for National Bank Transfer Day (Nov 5th), where activists removed their money from multinational banks to protest foreclosures, reckless investments, fraud, taxpayer bailouts, and more. It was evidence that a wave of subjectivity/memory-production had taken place, where many had come to perceive-recollect big banks as one of the primary institutions for financially exploiting the 99%. So in turn, just as the banks had “unproblematically forgotten” the needs of their clients, those clients would enact an affirmative forgetting of the banks.
Fig. 3. Occupy Austin Bank Action Campaign.
Indeed, one thing that participation in Occupy prompted me to do was to “affirmatively forget” JP Morgan Chase Bank and put my money instead into the University Federal Credit Union, a move that simultaneously involves recalling that “forgotten” community and inter-relatedness that holds the Austin community together, and invests in that community rather than seeking to individually profit from a bank with deeper pockets. I even felt so strongly about the importance of “forgetting the banks” that I tried (and failed, rather embarrassingly) to organize an event for students to close their bank accounts, and went on television to talk about Bank Transfer Day so as to produce counter-memories in a larger viewing audience. Such counter-memorial efforts have been quite successful thanks to Occupy, and Occupy Austin has succeeded in helping citizens to move over a million and half dollars from “bailout banks” into local communities. Shockingly, however, activists attempting to close their accounts in a “performative” way have been met with arrests, for example, in NYC, where young Occupiers were locked inside CitiBank and arrested merely for outwardly stating their intentions (as Occupiers) to close their accounts while explaining to bank-goers why they were doing so. The production of counter-memory is often a perilous undertaking!
However, some of the most interesting memories I have formed through Occupy, and that helped introduce me to the nuts and bolts of “traditional” activist strategy, were bank marches and rallies against multinational “bailout” banks like JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America. For instance, I will never forget the day while on a bank march that an entire Austin farmer’s market erupted into the chant: “We. Are. The 99%!” as we passed though. And I remember marching with Austin activists to Wells Fargo to protest spurious investments, foreclosures, and the funding of immigrant detention centers (seen below). It was an indication not only that the subjectivities/memory of activists had been reproduced—the activists were helping to ease a culture’s passage through mourning in the face of financial loss, whether in regard to resisting denial and depression regarding economic crisis, non-violent expressions of anger, and so on.
Fig. 4. Occupy Austin Marches to Wells Fargo.
While at the Wells Fargo march, I remember getting to meet student activists from the University of Texas at Austin for the first time, which was especially fortunate because just as I was gaining friends through social activism, I found that I was losing them as well. For example, some from my hometown, including close childhood friends, were coming to perceive-recall me as a “pinko radical,” even threatening me with physical violence, for speaking out about socio-economic inequality or ethically decrying US imperialism. Perhaps I should not have been shocked by such reactions, but encounters such as these were mildly traumatic, for they return to haunt my memory and led me to feel betrayed by those whom I believed would respect and value my opinions (especially given that I share with them a “common” memory of economic struggle). However, these painful memories also taught me some important lessons: for instance, that perhaps the most significant barrier to socio-political change are the very subjects who are being subjugated but are programmed to fight against their own interests, and that taking an ethical stand for something is an incredibly divisive social act. I remember learning as well that there are some for whom reason-giving is forlorn strategy.
Regarding forlornness and the pain of memory, around this same time I recall waking up to the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park and feeling horrible, and as lost as the activists whom I watched on archived live-streaming video as they struggled to find a new home. The cultural cleansing or “forgetting” of the encampment, the “forgetting” of the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly, the “forgetting” of the rights of the press to report on the event, all of it was uncanny. I had never witnessed anything like it before, and was therefore filled with an indescribable dread. Indeed, perhaps one day I will look back on November 15th, 2011, as the moment when the US turned a certain corner, for although protest actions throughout American history/memory have been met by brutality (recall Shay’s Rebellion, the Pullman Strike, student protests at Berkeley, Seattle 1999, and many others), I feared I had a front-row seat to watch as the capacity of citizens to speak out against injustice was being erased. And yet the effect of this memory was to only strengthen my desire to fight.
For me, one form that the continued struggle for socio-economic justice took was at the University of Texas at Austin and the national battle over tuition and student debt. Indeed, in contrast to memories of an America where educational opportunities were more readily available and affordable, today tuition and interest rates soar exorbitantly across the country, rapidly turning education (back) into a privilege for the wealthy rather than a human right. November 17th was therefore designated a national day of action for education rights in Occupy, and so as Occupiers in NYC flooded Wall Street by the thousands in an attempt to prevent the opening bell from ringing, in Austin, activists were busy readying not only for Occupy UT-Austin’s first General Assembly (GA) meeting, but for the education rally to follow. For a university the size of UT-Austin, I remember being shocked by the low numbers that attended the General Assembly meetings, especially in contrast to the Occupations at other (smaller) Texas colleges, and given how dramatically tuition rates at UT have risen in recent years. However, when one considers several key factors, an explanation becomes more readily available. For instance, students who attend UT have parents with incomes approaching (on average) $150,000 to $200,000 per year, therefore allowing them to “forget” the educational debt crisis. Students from the millennial generation also have little memory of protest; in contrast to students from earlier generations, they lack a re-education derived through struggle. Moreover, the University was attempting to convince students that tuition increases signaled an increase in the quality of the education that it was providing, rather than disintegration of state funding and the corporate structuration of the university itself. Thus, students and faculty who spoke/speak out against such spurious justifications by providing counter-narratives were producing an invaluable counter-memory—one linked to spurring action so that the value of education in the US is not entirely destroyed and forgotten.
Fig. 5. Occupy UT-Austin’s First General Assembly Meeting.
Regardless of the smaller audiences, the General Assembly meetings were transformative events for a number of reasons. For example, I remember being deeply touched by the students’ own narrative memories of struggle regarding debt and housing, which included a disproportionate number of students of color (and indeed, Occupy UT contains many, especially Latino/a, students of color). I remember the anger of students wanting to engage in direct action to show the university and state officials that they meant business. I remember the pain of being perceived with distrust as an outsider, and the paltry degree of faculty support. I remember the exhilaration and sometimes frustration of the Occupy “consensus” process for decision-making based on a non-hierarchical or “horizontal” model, especially when that model failed and I felt as though important voices were being “forgotten.” I remember the sometimes humorous hand-signals for making statements during GAs, and the truly affirmative attitudes and laughter of the students. I remember butting heads with stubborn activists with fiery attitudes, especially concerning Occupy UT’s response to the university’s revamped ban on camping. And I remember collaborating with students on projects and statements, and how I came to deeply respect and care about them. They were/are my teachers, too, the (re-)writers of my memory.
Thus, when I took the stage at the Texas Capitol after the Occupy march for education, I remember feeling no nervousness, only passion and a desire to mobilize others, as I “became-rhetorician” for the very first time, my memory/subjectivity metamorphosed through an unforgettable situation. Driven by the depths of memories wrought from lower middle-class struggle, from that “common” memory that I share with others, I tried to imagine and call for a different future, a “counter-future” wherein education is recognized as vital to society, to “progress,” and to hope.
Fig. 6. Occupy Austin Rally for Education.
Trevor’s Occupy Education Speech
(Mic check!) Good Evening! My name is Trevor Hoag, and I am an instructor at the University of Texas and at Austin Community College. I want to begin by saying ‘Thank You’. It is a privilege to be here. For it is the courage and enthusiasm of people like yourself who will make education a priority in this country, and who will draw attention to the importance of the Occupy movement—a non-violent movement that is succeeding in bringing attention to the economic struggles facing the majority of Americans. I am here this evening because I share with you all a vision: a vision of what this country can become, and of the greatness that we can achieve. Because we know that one way to make a country great is through the classroom. It is a place where students can acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for transforming the world and themselves. But students cannot make these transformations if they cannot afford to attend college, if their social class makes their dream of attending UT, for example, impossible. And make no mistake about it; the university has a class problem. It puts in place economic barriers that are insurmountable to many. Yet it is a public university—an institution supposedly open to the public, open to anyone! And like a predatory mortgage lender, they will tell you that not only can you get the education you desire, but that you will have no problem paying for it when you’re through. But we know this isn’t so. We know the stories of students buried in debt for years after graduation, the stories of loan default and bankruptcy that are becoming more and more prevalent. And although we may not know that students at the university currently carry almost $500 million dollars in debt, that tuition costs have increased 400% over the past four decades, and that private companies are profiting millions from ineffective testing measures, we are not surprised. Not only are we not surprised by these facts, given that the corporate business model of increasing privatization has become the model for public education, we are indignant. We are outraged. We are outraged when departments, centers, and programs have their budgets slashed or are eliminated entirely. We are outraged when administrator-CEOs see salary increases, while university regents contribute money to politicians promoting the deregulation of tuition, and the defunding of education at all levels. We are outraged when tax cuts and loopholes are provided for the rich while the rest of us suffer! Students, teachers, and staffers have bills to pay! WE ALL have bills to pay! And these bills are more important than eliminating the taxes on someone’s yacht! They are more important than profits, especially when the only people who should profit from education are students. Thus, we are outraged… But we are also full of hope. Full of hope for a future where education matters, where it is recognized that an educated populace is necessary for a flourishing society. And if those in power do not recognize this, we will make them recognize it! We will stand and make our voices heard, calling for loan forgiveness, affordable tuition, and actual funding! We will vote, strike, rally, and march! We will Occupy! We will take action today, and tomorrow, and the next day. I know that you will take action for your schools and I will take action for mine. And I must take this action because I love my university. It provides me my livelihood and the amazing privilege of working with passionate students and gifted colleagues. And it is because I love my university that I want it to be a place where anyone can attend, where anyone can attend and not remain mired in debt for the rest of their lives. Together. Together we can do this. So please… tell your colleagues. Tell your friends. Tell your families. Tell them what this movement means and why it matters, especially to education. At the university we say, “What starts here changes the world.” I say, “What starts right here will change it faster.” Thank you…
Ball, Andrea. “Nearly 40 Protesters Arrested Overnight at Occupy Austin.” Austin American Statesman. Oct. 30 2011. Web. Oct. 30 2012.
Hoag, Trevor. Occupy Austin Bank Action Campaign. 2011. Austin, Texas.
—. Occupy Austin Marches to Wells Fargo. 2011. Austin, Texas.
—. Occupy Austin Rally for Education. 2011. Austin, Texas.
—. Occupy Austin Temporary Encampment. 2011. Austin, Texas.
—. Occupy UT Austin’s First Banner. 2011. Austin, Texas.
—. Occupy UT-Austin’s First General Assembly Meeting. 2011. Austin, Texas.