The following is a personal account and analysis of the first month of OccupySTL.
In hopes of depicting a more well-rounded picture of #OccupySTL, I’m going to try and quickly describe the last 2 or 3 weeks – warts and all. It seems initial excitement (and plain lack of time to describe more) might have helped form an image of the occupation (that well not untrue) might not have touched on the less glamorous aspects. If the summary is too long, feel free to skip around. You might find “WHY WE KEEP PARTICIPATING” and “THE FUTURE” to be less depressing.
The first two weeks were definitely the most exciting: new faces, unknown directions, the shedding of lots of cynicism and professional activist roles, taking to the streets for the first time in almost a decade, anarchist-initiated events being successful (not just piggybacking off of liberal ones). And even though there were individuals pushing a lot of shitty ideas (centralized control, censorship, etc.) people we didn’t even know were arguing them down.
But after the initial excitement, people had to start preparing for the long haul – which in a lot of ways hasn’t been very pretty. General Assemblies that had had 100-150 participants have been having 30-50. Their character has shifted from being a mix of announcements for actions and internal policies, to being mainly the drafting of more and more bureaucratic policies (that most people don’t follow anyway.) About 3 or 4 pretty serious physical fights break out a day – someone got shanked in one. No real, solid, kitchen with steady cooking abilities has emerged.
Committees that had been started with the goal of being a clearinghouse for certain ideas and activity now claim they’re the only ones allowed to do that sort of activity (which was the opposite of what was agreed upon). Coupled with that is the ubiquitous presence of societal roles that carry a seed of policing in them starting to bloom. One assembly someone proposed that House Keeping be granted the authority to (while cleaning) throw away signs that they didn’t think were in the true spirit of the occupation (?!?!?!). The Safety Committee, that was formed with the idea of mediating and de-escalating internal conflict, after days of breaking up fights, has taken it upon themselves to become a police force. They now have walkee-talkees, walk a beat and have proven that they known close to nothing about de-escalating conflicts while still addressing the cause: when someone wrote “no sexual harassment” on a sign of other donts, the safety committee stepped in to tell the person who had been sexually harassed it was out of line to deface an official sign.
One or two people (thankfully only that few) have appointed themselves unofficial leaders. They hold little-to-no actual authority and to most of the occupation they’re a joke. But there is an element of participants who have been receptive to them. On more than one occasion they’ve done really fucked-up things: one of them gave a personal, toadied tour to a congressman. Luckily, someone noticed and had the courage to tell the politician to fuck-off.
The weather’s been getting colder and raining more (one of the first nights of this someone got hypothermia). Women have been talked-over, catcalled and a few instances of domestic assault have occurred. While some participants for the first time in their lives are questioning the role of the police, others are still welcoming them to join us while being threatened with eviction. A lot of the internal violence (instead of being assigned to individuals) has broadly been assigned to “the homeless” and on more than one occasion police have been called to break up fights.
And then, JESUS-FUCKING-CHRIST, the world series happen – which was shit-storm of its own.
A lot of the problems and tensions mentioned above have only been addressed superficially, or made worse when people have tried to address them. It’s important, though, that as long as there is an occupation people try to address them.
Between weather, sexual harassment, physical fights and certain people being buddy-buddy* with the police, more and more people don’t feel safe at the plaza. This certainly isn’t the only reason numbers have dropped, but one of the biggest.
Another factor has to do with people not knowing what to do when they’re given the power to make decisions themselves. This isn’t a call to end consensus, just pointing to the sad truth that there’s a disconnect for a lot of people who don’t yet know how to self-initiate activity. They don’t know how to go from making discouraging comments online or in a discussion to, “I’ll do this myself. Who wants to join me?”
WHY WE KEEP PARTICIPATING
One reason is that we’re trying to address the problems, particularly the more fucked up ones of sexual harassment, the scapegoating of homeless participants, and alliances with the police. Another reason is that some of the activity continues to be engaging on a personal, but also a social level. And finally, the potential for future activity is still great.
Two Fridays ago (the same night as Game 7 of the World Series), a group of about 30 people left the plaza, and attempted to board the metrolink. The reason was to go protest a curfew law in another part of the city. The law was passed a couple of years ago after an influx of black teenagers began hanging out in one of St. Louis’ bohemian stretches of stores and coffee shops known as the Loop. Business owners and affluent white consumers flipped out and made it so if you’re under-age you can’t be there after 9pm. If you’re suspected of being under-age, the cops can stop you, question you, do whatever bullshit cops feel like doing in the moment. At times the curfew has been enforced by police blockades at either end of the Loop.
Immediately, metrolink security harassed us, tried to stop us from boarding and turned some people away. The march was smaller then the last two Fridays and had a harder time focusing itself once it arrived in the Loop. Police responded quickly and trailed us the whole time. The march didn’t last very long, but there were a few encouraging moments, including people’s positive response to the below text that was handed out and the ride back.
The Loop should belong to those who live it, work it, and enjoy it. It should belong to US… NOT those who police and profit off of US.
In this society, space is almost exclusively the domain of the market, in which people exist only as workers and consumers. Those who control the Loop (the politicians, the business owners, the landlords and their police force) have punctuated this reality with their racist, classist, youth-hating curfew.
Their message is clear: If you’re not working for us or buying our shit – GET OUT!
We Occupiers have a different message: PUBLIC SPACE SHOULD BE PUBLIC SPACE 24 HOURS A DAY.
We are creating a different society within the spaces we have occupied. One where we, everyday people, run the show. One where everyone is equal and everyone a participant. This should look familiar to the Loop. What if the drum circle was expanded, what if it was made permanent? What if Occupy STL spread to the Loop? People all over the world have answered this invitation, from Egypt to NYC, from Tahrir Square to Kiener Plaza.
THE LOOP IS OURS!
OCCUPY THE LOOP!
When we boarded the metrolink again, we started blasting music and handing out the text and the V For Vendetta flier. Most people were into it and an impromptu dance party to “April 26, 1992”, “Fuck the Law” and “Dancin’ In the Steets” was had. By the end of the ride, even those who had been skeptical at first seemed to be enjoying themselves. And when someone asked “Are yall ‘part of that wall street stuff” and we said “yeah”, they responded by starting a “FUCK THE SYSTEM!” chant. The dude selling bootlegs pulled down a skull mask and started dangling upside-down from the handrails. So if nothing else, for a moment the wet dream of so many bored, alienated commuters was lived-out: dancing, shouting and the explicit rejection of their alienation through screaming “Fuck the system!” and “Let it burn. Wanna let it burn. Wanna let it burn, wanna wanna let it buur-urn!”**
The strike activity of the past few days and the Occupation’s interaction with is has also been encouraging. Late one night we received word that 76 out of 110 social workers at the Social Security Office had called in sick that day. In Missouri it’s illegal for state employees to strike (the state-sponsored bullshit that had Wisconsans up in arms last Spring is common place here). Sick-in are one of the only legal means such workers have, and possibly points to an illegal strike on the horizon. So the next morning, 30 of us trickled into the Social Security office and then read and handed out the following statement.
Strike, Strike, Occupy! Strike, Strike, Occupy! Strike, Strike, Occupy! Strike, Strike, Occupy!
We are here today to support the workers who called in sick yesterday. We– some of us workers, students, unemployed, food stamp recipients– from Occupy St Louis believe that your grievance is ours. Together we are strong. Today in California workers are striking, encouraged by the actions of Ocuppy Oakland. Today, just down the street, machinists at F and C Truck Sales and Service are striking. You’re not alone. The time to strike is now!
Strike, Strike, Occupy! Strike, Strike, Occupy! Strike, Strike, Occupy! Strike, Strike, Occupy!***
A banner was unfurled that read “BE NOT AFRAID TO STRIKE”. A lot of the workers stood up and cheered as the statement was read and shouted “That’s right! That’s right!” After we left we received word through the grapevine that a lot of workers were really pumped and were regretting not having walked out with us, starting their strike right then. If the social workers strike it may be the beginning of a wave of illegal strikes: nurses, teachers, etc. – all of which has the potential for major social conflict.
We then paraded a few blocks down the street to the machinists’ picketline. So far their strike (at that point only a few days old) had brought their employer’s profits to all but a total standstill. Morale there was high, and while interacting with strangers can sometimes be awkward it seems that that melts away the more we get to know each other.
The expansion of Occupy into other forms of collective revolt (work and school related-strikes, further occupations, things we haven’t thought of yet) while not a guarantee even as a possibility that’s being discussed and in some cases starting to be planned is very exciting.
A lot of the problems with the plaza occupation might be solved or better addressed with the expansion of it into a building – a very likely possibility. There would be better shelter against the elements, a way to address internal violence and sexual harassment better (it’s uncomfortable and inappropriate to kick people out of a public space or threaten to with ultimatums, especially if it was their home before the occupation showed up. It’s equally fucked-up to not offer all elements of the exploited a space they feel safe in), an actual kitchen, etc, etc.
Hopefully, better conditions and the expansion of Occupy will engage people again. It’s hard to say: things could die slowly, blow-up tomorrow with a police raid, or new elements could skyrocket us into the unknown. The next few weeks will be interesting.
*It’s been really hard to get across to certain people that being friendly with the police, using them to “solve” the occupations problems, etc, while posing a serious threat to the occupations expansion also makes it so a lot of people can’t participate or only can at great risk. From individuals and communities on probation and parole to those without papers to those who throughout their life or on a regular basis are on the receiving end of police violence (read violence as the police department’s very existence), the range of exclusion is great. Ironically, all those groupings of people are often the lowest, most fucked-over segments of the 99%, while anyone with a basic understand of the police’s role throughout history (particularly social movements) wouldn’t being thinking twice about inviting them to join us, especially at so many others’ expense.
**In some ways, the entire anecdote is hardly worth relating and only makes sense if coupled with this larger attempt to describe the Occupation as a whole.
*** While this had the potential to repeat the proselytizing mistakes of past leftists (going to the workers to announce their striking) it had a more humble and genuine spirit, and the idea of “One Struggle, One Fight” seems to have been communicated in its most sincere form.