Occupy Memories: A Genealogy of Struggle (III)
In horribly ironic fashion, two days after the rally to restore education in Austin, students at the University of California, Davis, were pepper-sprayed in a ghastly and unrestricted display of police barbarity. I remember feeling rage at the traumatic spectacle, and still find it difficult to see images of the pepper-spraying today. However, I found solace in the “Causally Pepper-Spray Everything Cop” meme-archive, as the memory of Lt. Pike of the UCDPD was remixed and transformed (both to humorous and political effect)—it was a testament to the wide-ranging power of counter-memory. However, sometimes when the production of counter-memory as an alternative mode of perceiving-recollecting or narrativizing is called for, the response is absent and the call “forgotten.” For instance, I remember when a few Occupiers managed to slip President Obama a note calling them to their cause, and this call being almost entirely ignored save a few vague allusions to populist themes during his State of the Union address. Other examples of “forgetting” Occupy were also taking place on a daily basis in the national news media, as for example, when Time magazine removed the protest image featured on its cover in other countries from its US version. Yet despite such setbacks, participants in the movement continued striving to get their message out, producing counter-memory in whatever spaces possible, such as when “flash mobs” across the entire country spontaneously erupted into anti-corporate chants in “big box” department stores on Black Friday, so as to draw attention to the exploitation of workers, the draconian practices of Wal-Mart and other related corporations, and to decry the consumerist habits of American shoppers.
Regarding counter-memory as well, one of my fondest memories of participating in the Occupy Movement has to be when students from the University of Texas used the “human microphone” or “mic check” to disrupt a university tuition forum. I remember the students asking me to “case” the auditorium to see if police were awaiting them, and being nervous as to any “official” response to the student activists’ presence. Police were indeed standing in attendance, ready to arrest the activists, but student Occupiers followed the forum’s decorum so well that there was nothing to arrest them for. However, as nearly fifty students all chanted in unison that “We know that this forum is a mere formality. . . .We know that this forum was never a chance to democratically participate in this decision-making process” (Bernier N.p.), it certainly got the university administration’s attention (and was later rebroadcast on NPR). Indeed, I remember the student body president looking like she had seen a ghost. And I especially remember birthday-boy Adrian Orozco feeling nervous before he took the mic to initiate the chant, but during which he was absolutely fearless. With university president William Powers only a few feet away, he shouted “Mic Check!” and the rest is memory. As to whether and how the words of the “human microphone” resonated, its capacity to transform the subjectivity/memory of those in attendance, it is hard to say, but multiple administrators and even the Chief of the UTPD reported being moved by the display and how well-orchestrated it was, suggesting the discursive and affective archives of their memories had been transformed.
Fig. 1. Occupy UT “Mic-Checks” a University Tuition Forum.
Along with “mic-checking” various events, after the Occupy evictions activists began turning to different strategies (recalled from histories of protest) including “squatting” in foreclosed homes and disrupting activities at major business centers like ports. For instance, I remember watching on archived live-streaming video as activists in Houston blocked the entry-way into the Port of Houston, locking themselves together with plastic pipe until police cut them apart beneath a giant red tent. I remember watching the “tenting” frightened for the protesters, unsure of what was happening, and was struck by the desire of police to keep what was happening to the activists “forgotten” and veiled. Two days later, President Obama announced the end of major combat missions in Iraq accompanied by an eerie media silence, and new census data showed that one in two Americans was living at or below the poverty-line. It was an unsettling juxtaposition, as though not only had the horrors of the invasion/occupation of Iraq been “forgotten,” remaining dangerously un-mourned, but so had the economic plight of those struggling to make ends meet in America.
Although the previous year had been exhausting due to my involvement with Occupy, I remember beginning 2012 with a renewed energy. The shortcomings and painful experiences of the past year were “forgotten,” and the successes deployed in propelling me forward. Others must have felt the same as I recall Occupiers joining in the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day (much to the chagrin of some). There was little time to rest, either, so it was good that I felt ready to begin 2012 already running, for example, by participating in numerous interviews. Here, for example, is an excerpt from my discussion with Austin Culturemap’s Joe Faina, where I attempted to produce a counter-memorial narrative regarding tuition increases at the University of Texas at Austin:
JF: Why Occupy UT? What makes Occupy UT different than Occupy Austin? What issues are better addressed there than, say, protests at City Hall or on Wall Street?
TH: One thing people need to know up front is University of Texas tuition has quadrupled just in the past few decades, and it’s a huge problem. And unfortunately, the justification you hear from the University is, “We have to increase your tuition because we want to ensure you are getting the best education possible for your money.”
But by that logic, that means that the education you are receiving now is four times more valuable than it was two decades ago, which in the current job market is obviously not the case — people are having even more trouble finding jobs. (N.p.)
Beyond the university, at this same time several Internet sites were protesting the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), bills that sanctioned using the nearly omnipotent power of Net memory to record and control the activities of users. As a testament to the power of refusal, though, both bills were initially stopped, and the specific activities of certain users (at least for the time being) remained “forgotten.”
Shortly after SOPA and PIPA were being halted, I was fortunate enough to participate with my fellow activists in a march in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., an event where speakers continually evoked the rhetoric of the 99%. I was blown away by the thousands who took to the streets that day, though I remember being saddened by the thought that likely many of them did not realize how intertwined the race struggles of Dr. King were with the contemporary economic struggles of Occupy, or how in general so few see the profound connections between the memory of race, gender, sexuality, or ecology struggles and Occupy’s class struggles (or resistance tactics). But students from UT-Austin certainly understood such genealogical connections, as evidenced by their event posters:
Fig. 2. Student Occupiers before Austin’s Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. March.
After the long march ended, I was fortunate enough to hear Robert Hilary King, member of the Angola Three and Black Panthers, speak at an Occupy education event in Kealing Park. Sitting in the grass, I remember not only feeling grateful to hear King’s memories from the civil rights movement and prison, but loving the way he inflected the word “Occupy” itself, as though it had the word coup embedded in it. King also admonished those who chose to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory with a festival rather than to engage in Occupy’s economic struggle, one so closely tied to racial struggle—as he drew parallels between chattel and wage slavery.
Student activists at UT heeded King’s advice, however, and continued escalating their tactics. And just as the university was reiterating its ban against camping on campus, Occupy UT released its first official statement, a document that I recall staying up late to perfect for multiple nights, trying to ensure that the written memory of Occupy UT would be inscribed faithfully:
Declaration of the Occupation of the University of Texas at Austin
As we gather in the shadow of the Tower, we are drawn here by the need to confront radical injustice in our university and in our nation, and we desire nothing less than a profound transformation of the educational, economic, and sociopolitical order.
Thus, in active solidarity, we stand with all student, faculty, worker, alumni, and community groups organizing against injustices of every kind, with the Occupy Movement on its national and international fronts, and for a democratic and equitable leadership on campus.
Powerfully united and standing on the threshold of the future, we acknowledge that we must work together to achieve our common goals, and to expose the corruption of our society’s institutions. We write this declaration so that members of the University of Texas community and beyond will know the grim realities and problematic practices of the university system, not to assign guilt, but to initiate a profound mobilization.
As we have peacefully gathered here in this public space, as it is our right under the constitution of the United States as well as our human right, let it be known that:
The university has, over a few short years, quadrupled the cost of tuition such that lower- and middle-class families can no longer afford to attend.
The university has allowed students to accrue nearly $500 million dollars in student loan debt, which has led to wide-spread bankruptcy and default.
The university has leveled no serious rebuke against the Texas legislature demanding the regulation of tuition and return to previous levels of funding, and its regents have endorsed and financially supported politicians who oppose these initiatives.
The university has forged ties to the military-industrial complex whereby it has become a factory for weapons and surveillance, thus profiting from a vastly over-sized U.S. military as it spreads its deadly imperial force throughout the world.
The university has forged ties to major corporations that are destroying the environment and the food system, as well as contaminating American democracy through the funding of campaigns and the lobbying of all levels of government to promote the needs of the 1%.
The university has forged ties to major banks that have brutally evicted people from their homes, demanded great sums of money in the form of taxpayer bail-outs, and brought about a global financial meltdown through unethical lending and trading practices.
The university has partnered with an undergraduate health insurance provider that profits from denying students coverage in the face of significant emergencies.
The university has denied gay, lesbian, and unmarried employees the ability to extend health benefits to their partners.
The university has profited from brand-name apparel made in sweat-shops with horrific working conditions, has not fought to end this practice, and has ignored student efforts to do so.
The university has approved of administrators and coaches receiving exorbitant salaries stretching into the millions of dollars, while other employees (belonging disproportionately to racial minority groups and working under oppressive conditions) can barely make ends meet.
The university has approved measures making affordable student housing an impossibility, while simultaneously contributing to the gentrification of Austin’s East Side.
The university has engaged in massive building projects after having its funding dramatically reduced; to compensate, departmental budgets were slashed and student centers eliminated.
The university has allowed a gender-oriented pay gap to persist throughout its system.
The university has purchased its police force a frightening and excessive arsenal, as the administration actively monitors members of the campus community for exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.
The university has accepted funding for experimentation on non-human animals that is often cruel and unnecessary to the furtherance of its otherwise valuable research programs.
The university has transformed nearly its entire institutional structure from an open, public one into a private, corporate machine, offering up unwitting graduates and employee labor to companies possessing little ethical conscience.
The university has done all of the above with practically no democratic input, and will continue to do so until concerned members of its community unite to turn the tide.
To the diverse students and alumni, faculty and workers of the University of Texas and beyond, we urge you to rise up and assert your power. We say “What starts here changes the world,” and now is the time to prove it.
Join us and make your voices heard.
We are the 99%!
Bernier, Nathan. “Occupiers Object to Tuition Increase.” kut.org. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
Faina, Joe. “Protesters head back to school: Speaking with Occupy UT student organizer, searching for clarity.” austin.culturemap.com. 11 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
Hoag, Trevor. Student Occupiers before Austin’s Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. March. 2012. Austin, Texas.
Occupy UT Mic-Checks Tuition Forum. Occupy-UT.jpeg. 2011. Austin, Texas. dailytexan.org. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.