The few remaining occupations aren’t easy to find, but visiting one reminds you why Occupy set the imagination on fire. At a late-February “Occupalooza” organized by Occupy Fullerton in Orange County, we talked with Wolf, a 25-year-old transgendered activist, who explained how the group is lobbying the City Council to pass resolutions on issues ranging from Citizens United to predatory debt. We also met John Park, a Korean-American with two kids in college, who launched into a blistering critique of the ideology of free trade. That Wolf has found common cause with a middle-aged immigrant computer programmer speaks to the raw ideological and emotional power of the twinned slogans—“We are the 99 percent” and “Occupy Wall Street.”
At Occupy’s encampments, anyone could walk into the public space, share his or her story, find people with similar grievances and participate in building mini-societies. Creating democratic town squares next to centers of power drew in huge numbers of people who gave the movement life. First-time activists didn’t need to arrive having mastered volumes of social and cultural theory, and they weren’t treated to the same old canned chants and pre-printed signs. The movement didn’t require consultants, focus groups or polls to occupy the center of American politics with a radical left message. As such, Occupy wasn’t just a rejection of Washington and Wall Street; it revealed the failings of liberals, unions and the organized left.
Occupy Tampa has had a rough life. Born on a “Day of Rage” that drew 1,000 people to Tampa, Fla.’s downtown on Oct. 6, it put down roots three days later on a public sidewalk bordering Curtis Hixon Park. It soon blossomed into a community of more than 100 residents adorned with tents, medics, media, kitchen and library on a concrete patch less than 10 feet wide.
From day one, the Tampa police were a fixture in their lives. “They would come by at 6 a.m. to wake us up, and again in the afternoon to make us move our belongings off the sidewalk,” says Samantha Bowden, a 23-year-old senior at the University of South Florida. The occupiers taped off a 6-foot section of the sidewalk for egress and say the city conceded it had the right to a 24-hour presence, but the police were intent on retarding the occupation’s development by wielding a code against leaving articles on the sidewalk. Occupy Tampa occupiers adapted by placing their belongings on carts so they could be wheeled away whenever the police descended.
The Occupy movement is an exercise in the workings of power whether it is social, financial, policing or political. The occupations that began in September spread with an infectious passion in part because the police violence and mass arrests, the tried-and-true methods of state power employed to suppress radical movements, backfired and the movement grew more. By October hundreds of encampments had popped up nationwide with the tacit cooperation and sometimes explicit approval of local officials. For a few heady weeks Occupy Wall Street had the glow of popular legitimacy – social power – trumping whatever fusty laws prohibited camping or a continuous presence in a public space.
The inevitable counteroffensive was launched in November. Using the mass media, politicians hyped the movements as imminent threats to public health and safety, justifying aggressive evictions of prominent occupations in Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., and New York City. Within weeks other major encampments in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and New Orleans were scattered with hundreds of arrests. A third wave of closures has been underway since late January with occupations shut down from Hawaii to Miami and Austin, Texas, to Buffalo, N.Y.
Nonetheless, some encampments survive. In Houston a small contingent is legally maintaining a presence in downtown Tranquility Park, though a ban on tents and tarps has kept all but the hardy or desperate away. In Tampa Bay, after months of police harassment, occupiers found a safe haven in a privately owned public space donated by a wealthy supporter.
Now, a new strategy is being deployed to yank the rug from under occupations in four cities: legal power. Politicians have recently passed laws in Honolulu and Charlotte, N.C., that with a stroke of the pen made the occupations illegal, enabling police to sweep them away. Two more occupations, in Boise, Idaho, and Nashville, may be nearing the end as their respective state legislatures are on the verge of outlawing the democratic villages that for months have been thriving next to edifices of power. Critics charge that the anti-Occupy laws reveal how the law is not an objective code that treats everyone equally, but an arbitrary weapon wielded by the powerful.
Ever since the Garden of Eden headlined the Torah, savvy marketers have realized that we all deeply desire a slice of paradise. Utopia is woven into America’s national fabric starting with the Puritan ideal of a “city upon a hill” and progressing through the centuries to Shakers, Mormons, Manifest Destiny, socialists and suburbia. These days, paradise is all around us from potato chips seasoned with “harmonic convergence” to bath soaps that “take me away” to Steve Jobs’ “quest for perfection.”
Utopia has always been half the equation, however, the balance being the extermination of indigenous people, who already inhabited the land, and denial of entry for all manner of people from blacks and women to immigrants and the poor.
This dichotomy is evident in Hawaii where competing visions of paradise blend with dystopian realities. Now, Hawaii would soften even a cynic’s heart. I’ve been visiting Kauai, the “Garden Island,” for 20 years and remain intoxicated by the undulating emerald mountains of the Na Pali Coast, the warm, aquamarine waters of Hanalei Bay and the “Aloha spirit” of its people.
The natural splendor of Hawaii draws about seven million tourists a year as well as thousands of transplants, many wealthy, who relocate to the Pacific island chain for the relentlessly balmy weather. At the same time, the tropical Shangri-La barely conceals teeming tent cities, droves of poverty-wage workers and the legacy of the conquest of native Hawaiians.
Excerpts from a talk by Arun Gupta in Marfa, Texas where he discusses the Occupy Movement, his experiences meeting occupiers during his and Michelle Fawcett’s travels, the Democratic party, and the potential of the movement. Video produced by Michelle Fawcett.
Sitting in a car parked at a gas station on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, my colleague Michelle holds an audio recorder to my cellphone. At the other end of the line is Arundhati Roy, author of the Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, who is some 2,000 miles away, driving to Boston.
“This is uniquely American,” I remark to Roy about interviewing her while both in cars but thousands of miles apart. Having driven some 7,000 miles and visited 23 cities (and counting) in reporting on the Occupy movement, it’s become apparent that the US is essentially an oil-based economy in which we shuttle goods we no longer make around a continental land mass, creating poverty-level dead-end jobs in the service sector.
This is the secret behind the Occupy Wall Street movement that Roy visited before the police crackdowns started. Sure, ending pervasive corporate control of the political system is on the lips of almost every occupier we meet. But this is nothing new. What’s different is most Americans now live in poverty, on the edge, or fear a descent into the abyss. It’s why a majority (at least of those who have an opinion) still support Occupy Wall Street even after weeks of disinformation and repression.
In this exclusive interview for the Guardian, Roy offers her thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, the role of the imagination, reclaiming language, and what is next for a movement that has reshaped America’s political discourse and seized the world’s attention.