Occupy Memories: A Genealogy of Struggle (IV)
As the spring 2012 semester unfolded, one of the most memorable Occupy events that took place (and that was directly linked to memory as well) was when activists on UT’s campus chagrined administrators for organizing a “History of Racism on Campus” tour that highlighted the university’s shockingly racist past. That windy early winter day, I remember walking across campus with my jaw dropped open in disbelief, listening intently to Professors from the African and African Diaspora Studies Departments as they quite literally “Occupied memory.” For instance, I had no idea, but will certainly not forget, the observations that the UT Tower (as well as the Texas Capitol) faces south in homage to the confederacy, that the buildings and statues on campus are primarily of confederate heroes or of officials who supported segregation, that hidden inscriptions lauding the confederacy are lurking everywhere, and that the first African-American students at UT had to live in shacks down by a creek near where the stadium now stands. Indeed, the excavation of latent memory during the tour was profound, and its genealogical strategy left a significant impression on all who participated.
Fig. 1. Occupy UT’s History of Campus Racism Tour.
For student activists at UT, however, the racism tour was only the beginning. Shortly after, I remember “teach-in” lectures on the silencing of student protest, demonstrations against the university using sweat-shop labor to produce its apparel, and fights to get a tuition referendum placed on student election ballots—each case an attempt to resist a “forgetting” of the needs of the 99%, and to instead produce an ethically imperative counter-memory of struggle. With regard to the silencing of protest and the “forgetting” of the 99%, though, likely the most significant local event in this regard was the eviction of Occupy Austin from City Hall on February 3rd, 2012. This instance of “public forgetting” was so shocking because after the Austin police had initially treated activists so well on Occupy Austin’s opening days, and the city stated that it would staunchly protect the Occupiers’ First Amendment rights, they had over the course of a few months devolved into proto-fascist tactics. Indeed, enforcing a newly-created ban on sleeping in public places overnight, police swarmed Occupy Austin, removing anything not tied down and destroying any artifacts that would aid in activists “becoming-monumental,” whether it was cardboard signs, tables, tents, and so on. In the wake of the destruction near midnight, activists shouted “Freedom of Speech!” and “Freedom to Assemble!,” and one woman even stood before encroaching police and read from the Constitution in an appeal to historical memory. Later on, as my colleague and fellow Occupier Dana Cloud related to me, when Austin activists held a solidarity march in mourning for their leveled, “forgotten” encampment, more police than she had ever seen at a protest event stalked them silently through the streets, daring them to re-occupy.
Fig. 2. Occupy Austin Fights Eviction.
However, although Occupy Austin had lost its home, and Occupy UT was never allowed to camp, activist efforts continued. For instance, Occupy Austin managed to convince the city to divest from Bank of America through a counter-memorial narrative regarding the bank’s financial crimes, but ironically, Chase Bank swooped in to “steal the deal” when it averred that local credit unions could not handle the city’s finances. At UT, Occupiers held a banned book reading in solidarity with those in Arizona whose ethnic studies programs had been gutted in an attempt to “problematically forget” Latino/a culture, and they also organized a “homecoming” where veteran UT activists visited to share memories and tactics. Soon after, Occupiers from both the city and campus joined together to protest the implementation of “high-stakes” testing in Texas, where corporate groups seeking to profit from standardized tests pushed for legislation that would make measures like STAR testing count for grossly disproportionate percentages of student grades, and which severely disadvantages minorities. The event was therefore a call to resist the “banking model” of education, where students mindlessly memorize and then regurgitate information over and over in the name of “accountability,” rather than learning to critically think. Thus, Occupiers marched to/from the Texas Capitol chanting “More teaching, fewer tests! Education at its best!”
Fig. 3. Occupiers March for Education in Austin.
Although bills were being passed at this time in early-mid spring to make certain forms of Occupy protesting illegal (for example, to “mic-check” became a federal offense in certain contexts), activist efforts continued. For example, at the University of Texas, student Occupiers joined forces with United Students Against Sweatshops in order to protest the conditions of the factories in Honduras where Longhorn apparel is produced (and which some students had visited). They therefore attempted to pull into the light those “forgotten” workers whose labors are occluded by the distance between the productive processes and the exchange of capital. In protest, students not only cordoned off the university COOP as a crime scene, a group of twenty dedicated activists occupied President Power’s office in an attempt to convince the university to change the group responsible for monitoring the conditions of workers who produce Longhorn apparel. Though they were arrested, the students emerged as heroes, and over a hundred students rallied to their cause outside the University of Texas Tower. In July, the university would accede to the activists’ demands, their initial position softened through an effective ethical appeal.
Fig. 4. Student Occupier Lucian Villasenor Arrested.
As students on UT’s campus were escalating their efforts, students in Canada were also mobilizing to produce the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history (in opposition to an unprecedented spike in tuition costs). And in the US, tuition and student debt were on the minds of many Occupiers as well, especially when the total US student debt surpassed one trillion dollars in April. To commemorate the event, a giant cardboard “One” followed by twelve zeros suddenly appeared on UT-Austin’s campus, looming like a monument to the plight of indebted students not only at the University of Texas, but all across the country. The giant “Trillion” therefore also appeared to function as a counter-memorial spur, calling viewers to make the perceptual-recollective shift toward seeing student debt as a major crisis, rather than an inevitable part of pursuing an education.
Finally, as a last entrée into recalling the Occupy Movement and reconstructing a genealogy of struggle, one can turn to the pinnacle of the movement’s first “cycle” prior to receding from visibility, the so-called “General Strike” of May 1st—an event whose own title recalls a memory of struggle itself, harkening back to the many mass strikes of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the US and Europe. Although the strike actions of May 2012 were not as large as hoped, in some places such as Oakland, California, the numbers of activists were staggering, stretching into the tens of thousands. And as these actions unfolded across the country and around the globe, I had the opportunity to participate in an action against foreclosures in Austin that touched me deeply. The memory that stands out from this day, however, did not involve traditional Occupy appeals like slogans or signs, though. Rather, it was when activists started to sing an old protest song as the auctioneer began to sell peoples’ homes to the highest bidder. While the numbers standing in for lives and homes were callously recited, the sad slow hymn drawn up from activist memory resonated and brought tears to my eyes: “Mr. Auctioneer / All the people here / Want you to hold all the sales right now / We’re trying to survive, but we don’t know how / Mr. Auctioneer…”
Fig. 5. Occupiers Sing at Austin Foreclosure Auction.
Later, while reminiscing on and recounting the event, I remember someone saying that some people simply deserved to be foreclosed upon, so I should not presume anyone’s “innocence.” However, it was in the wake of this comment that I came to realize precisely why the concept of desert is one worthy of an affirmative forgetting, given the inescapable power of those material and economic conditions that inescapably shape our lives. And it is because of these forces that singularities so desperately need one another, must depend upon one another, must remember one another, in order to survive. For indeed, the problem that now faces America and the world, and to which Occupy is responding, is how it is possible to do otherwise than “accumulate wealth, forgetting all but self,” ignoring the common song binding us all together in solidarity.
Hoag, Trevor. Occupiers March for Education in Austin. 2012. Austin, Texas.
—. Occupiers Sing at Austin Foreclosure Auction. 2012. Austin, Texas.
—. Occupy UT’s History of Campus Racism Tour. 2012. Austin, Texas.
—. Student Occupier Lucian Villasenor Arrested. 2012. Austin, Texas.
Occupy Austin Fights Eviction. 2012. Occupy-Austin-Eviction.jpeg. 2012. Austin, Texas. Austin American Statesman. 30 Oct. 2012.