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A Master Class in Occupation
Posted on Oct 31, 2011
By Chris Hedges
The park, especially at night, is a magnet for the city’s street population. The movement provides food along with basic security, overseen by designated “peacekeepers” and a “de-escalation team” that defuses conflicts. Those like Friesen who span the two cultures serve as the interlocutors.
“It draws everyone, except maybe the superrich,” he says of the park. “You’re dealing with everyone’s conditioning, everyone’s fucked-up conditioning, the kind of I’m-out-for-me-and-myself, that kind of instinct. People are unruly. People are violent. People make threats.”
“We are trying to sort this out, how to work together in a more holistic approach versus just security-checking someone—you know like tackling them,” he says. “Where else do these people have to go, these street people? They’re going to come to a place where they feel cared for, especially in immediate needs like food and shelter. We have a comfort committee. I’ve never been to a place where there’s a comfort committee. This is where you can get a blanket and a sleeping bag, if we have them. We don’t always have the resources. But everyone is being taken care of here. As long as you’re nonviolent, you’re taken care of. And when you do that you draw all sorts of people, including those people who have problematic behavior. If we scale up big enough we might be able to take care of the whole street population of Manhattan.”
The park, like other Occupied sites across the country, is a point of integration, a place where middle-class men and women, many highly educated but unschooled in the techniques of resistance, are taught by those who have been carrying out acts of rebellion for the last few years. These revolutionists bridge the world of the streets with the world of the middle class.
“They’re like foreign countries almost, the street culture and the suburban culture,” Friesen says. “They don’t understand each other. They don’t share their experiences. They’re isolated from each other. It’s like Irvine and Orange County [home of the city of Irvine]; the hearsay is that they deport the homeless. They pick them up and move them out. There’s no trying to engage. And it speaks to the larger issue, I feel, of the isolation of the individual. The individual going after their individual pursuits, and this facade of individuality, of consumeristic materialism. This materialism is about an individuality that is surface-deep. It has no depth. That’s translated into communities throughout the country that don’t want anything to do with each other, that are so foreign to each other that there is hardly a drop of empathy between them.”
“This is a demand to be heard,” he says of the movement. “It’s a demand to have a voice. People feel voiceless. They want a voice and participation, a renewed sense of self-determination, but not self-determination in the individualistic need of just-for-me-self. But as in ‘I recognize that my actions have effects on the people around me.’ I acknowledge that, so let’s work together so that we can accommodate everyone.”
Friesen says that digital systems of communication helped inform new structures of communication and new systems of self-governance.
“Open source started out in the ’50s and ’60s over how software is used and what rights the user has over the programs and tools they use,” he says. “What freedoms do you have to use, modify and share software? That’s translated into things like Wikipedia. We’re moving even more visibly and more tangibly into a real, tangible, human organization. We modify techniques. We use them. We share them. We decentralize them. You see the decentralization of a movement like this.”
Revolutions need their theorists, but such upheavals are impossible without hardened revolutionists like Friesen who haul theory out of books and shove it into the face of reality. The anarchist Michael Bakunin by the end of the 19th century was as revered among radicals as Karl Marx. Bakunin, however, unlike Marx, was a revolutionist. He did not, like Marx, retreat into the British Library to write voluminous texts on preordained revolutions. Bakunin’s entire adult life was one of fierce physical struggle, from his role in the uprisings of 1848, where, with his massive physical bulk and iron determination, he manned barricades in Paris, Austria and Germany, to his years in the prisons of czarist Russia and his dramatic escape from exile in Siberia.
Bakunin had little time for Marx’s disdain for the peasantry and the lumpenproletariat of the urban slums. Marx, for all his insight into the self-destructive machine of unfettered capitalism, viewed the poor as counterrevolutionaries, those least capable of revolutionary action. Bakunin, however, saw in the “uncivilized, disinherited, and illiterate” a pool of revolutionists who would join the working class and turn on the elites who profited from their misery and enslavement. Bakunin proved to be the more prophetic. The successful revolutions that swept through the Slavic republics and later Russia, Spain and China, and finally those movements that battled colonialism in Africa and the Middle East as well as military regimes in Latin America, were largely spontaneous uprisings fueled by the rage of a disenfranchised rural and urban working class, and that of dispossessed intellectuals. Revolutionary activity, Bakunin correctly observed, was best entrusted to those who had no property, no regular employment and no stake in the status quo. Finally, Bakunin’s vision of revolution, which challenged Marx’s rigid bifurcation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, carved out a vital role for these rootless intellectuals, the talented sons and daughters of the middle class who had been educated to serve within elitist institutions, or expected a place in the middle class, but who had been cast aside by society. The discarded intellectuals—unemployed journalists, social workers, teachers, artists, lawyers and students—were for Bakunin a valuable revolutionary force: “fervent, energetic youths, totally déclassé, with no career or way out.” These déclassé intellectuals, like the dispossessed working class, had no stake in the system and no possibility for advancement. The alliance of an estranged class of intellectuals with dispossessed masses creates the tinder, Bakunin argued, for successful revolt. This alliance allows a revolutionary movement to skillfully articulate grievances while exposing and exploiting, because of a familiarity with privilege and power, the weaknesses of autocratic, tyrannical rule.
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