Occupy & Space

Even before Liberty Plaza was raided many of us were asking what was next for Occupy Wall Street. The movement, we said, was about more than holding a space, even one in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. Occupation, I often heard, was a means, not an end, a tactic, not a target. The goal, from the beginning, was to do more than build an outdoor urban commune supported by donations solicited over the Internet. We wanted to discomfit the one percent, to interrupt their good times and impact their pocketbooks&#151or overthrow them entirely.

The dual threat of eviction and inclement weather meant next steps were never far from people’s minds. The camp can’t last forever, we’d say knowingly, while friends nodded in agreement. And yet, when the raid actually happened&#151when Bloomberg sent one thousand police officers dressed in riot gear, and paramilitary helicopters hovered overhead, when the entire encampment was hauled off to the garbage dump and half-asleep occupiers were dragged to jail&#151it was a shock. Circling the police barricades that night many of the faces I passed in the street looked stunned; some individuals crumpled on the sidewalk and wept. The loss of Liberty Plaza was experienced as just that&#151a real loss, a possibly profound one. By dawn photos began to circulate of the park, freshly power-washed, empty and gleaming, almost as though we had never been there, though the police ringing the periphery and the newly installed private security guards gave us away.

No one can really say what unique coincidence of events and factors caused OWS to break into mainstream consciousness when so many well-intentioned and smartly planned protests with similar messages fell flat in the months leading up to it, but certainly the encampments were crucial (crucial though not sufficient, since one protest that took place shortly before OWS actually involved camping). By taking space and holding it OWS has captivated America like no protest movement in recent memory. Yet the crackdowns on occupations across the country have shown it will be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain these bastions of resistance moving forward: We are simply outnumbered, outfunded, and outgunned. While some groups, like Occupy Oakland, have heroically attempted to reclaim the space from which they were ousted, they have been rebuffed each time by overwhelming force. (And there have been more wily kinds of subversion, too: At Oscar Grant Plaza, the original site of the Oakland camp, the authorities have reportedly kept the sprinklers on, turning the lawn into a soggy mess unfit for sleeping.)

Here in New York, though the raid on Liberty Plaza was the moment we had all been waiting for, we were still caught off guard. Most of us had no ready or clear answer to the question of how to move forward without the park. It turned out, though, that a small group had been secretly devising a plan to occupy a second space. They jumped into action, weaving through the crowd, instructing everyone to meet at Canal Street and 6th Avenue. A few hours later a couple hundred people amassed at a site called Duarte Square, a giant empty lot not far from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel owned by Trinity Church. Activists cut a hole in the fence surrounding the space and moved in, carrying large yellow signs, some attached to basic wooden frames alluding to shelter. OCCUPY. LIBERATE. The church had been, and still claims to be, supportive of OWS, offering office and meeting space and bathroom access to occupiers before and after the raid, but they did not appreciate the sudden invasion of their property. By noon the police had been called and clergy members watched, impassive, as protesters were beaten and dragged away.

Since that morning Duarte Square has become a flashpoint of sorts, the quixotic focus of one of OWS’s most disciplined organizing campaigns. On the night of November 20th I joined a candlelight procession following a small fleet of illuminated tents stenciled with the movement’s new slogan: “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.” Those tents, carried high on sticks, playfully reminded everyone we passed that Occupy was not over. Waiters smoking near staff entrances cheered us on as we paraded by, drivers honked their support, and an angry woman outside a bar made the “loser” signal at us, her eyes locking briefly with mine. The march arrived at Duarte Square, where we covered long sheets of paper with pleas directed at church officials, and I felt conflicted. I have no doubt the space could be put to better use by the movement (right now it’s waiting to be developed into a 429 foot tall “residential tower”), but there was something odd about our appeals for sanctuary. If, by some miracle, the church granted us permission to stay there, would it even be an occupation?

In the weeks that have followed Trinity Church has not budged, while a core group of organizers show no signs of relenting in their efforts to take the space, promising another attempt to “liberate” Duarte Square on December 17th, soon after this gazette goes to press. They imagine a new kind of occupation, better organized, more cohesive, and in some ways more exclusive, than the one at Liberty Plaza, and there is much to admire about their vision. In pursuit of it they have circulated petitions, solicited op-eds, and rallied faith leaders to their cause, consistently highlighting the contradictions between Trinity Church’s scriptural duties and its status as New York City’s third largest landholder. “In terms of them being a real estate company, their stance makes sense,” the Reverend at Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, told the press. “In terms of them being a church, it makes no sense. The question is, where are their obligations?” Raising the stakes, a group of three young men, former occupiers, declared a hunger strike demanding access to the vacant lot, which they sat down next to. The church quickly had them arrested for trespassing and, when they returned, arrested them again, underscoring the congregation’s inflexibility on the issue. Meanwhile, many movement sympathizers looked on in confusion. Given the various elements and issues at play&#151the eviction from Liberty Plaza, the lack of open space in which to peacefully protest in our city, the inequities of property ownership, the church’s ostensible sympathy towards OWS, the presence of hunker strikers, and the entreaties to religious figures who were also ruthless real estate moguls&#151the thread was getting hard to follow. Sill I signed the group’s latest petition, not wanting to lose faith.

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So far, in New York at least, energy for protest has not waned. The movement can appear anywhere at any time. There are inventive demonstrations every day, too many for any one person to keep up with, and more in the works. Yet attempts to occupy and hold space beyond Liberty Plaza have has missed the mark more than they have hit it, from the ridiculous and ridiculed takeover of the non-profit gallery Artists Space to the failed occupation of a student center at the New School, which initially had enormous promise yet quickly devolved despite the fact the building was secure thanks to support from sympathetic faculty and administrators.

Without a doubt, the most successful attempt to expand the concept of occupation took place on December 6th during a national day of action called “Occupy Our Homes,” an attempt to refocus attention and outrage on the havoc wrecked by the mortgage crisis&#151a crisis experts say is only half over (around 6 million homes have been seized since 2007, and over the next four years an estimated 8 million more are predicted go into foreclosure). In Chicago, a homeless woman and her baby moved into a foreclosed home with the blessing of the previous owner and the help of more than forty supporters; in Atlanta, protesters made an appearance at foreclosure auctions in three counties; in Denver, activists collected garbage from abandoned properties and delivered it to the mayor; in Oakland, a mother of three reclaimed the townhouse she lost after becoming unemployed while another group held a barbeque at a property owned by Fannie Mae. “To occupy a house owned by Bank of America is to occupy Wall Street,” one activist told me, explaining the underlying logic. “We are literally occupying Wall Street in our own communities.”

In New York, Occupy worked with a variety of community organizations and allies to host a foreclosure tour and coordinate the re-occupation and renovation of a vacant bank-owned property. When we reached our final destination, a small house at 702 Vermont Street in Brooklyn, the new residents, a previously homeless family of four, were already inside, along with a veritable army of activists coordinating the event and scheduling rotating teams to guard against eviction. Tasha Glasgow, the mother, was almost too shy to speak, but managed to express her sincere thanks to everyone assembled. Alfredo Carrasquillo, the father of her two children, including a 9-year old daughter who is severely autistic, held back emotion as he addressed the crowd, making sure to acknowledge the NYPD who dotted the sidewalks and could be seen on the roofs of nearby buildings. “I’m just hoping they don’t wake me up in my bed at 2 am,” he joked. As of this writing, almost a week later, the NYPD has not made any arrests at the house, though they have repeatedly intimidated the people staying there. The neighbors, in contrast, have welcomed the occupiers with open arms, inviting them over for tea and to baby showers held on the block. One woman, who lives a few doors down, said they could use her kitchen a few nights a week since the utilities in the occupied house aren’t hooked up.

Not only does the occupation of abandoned foreclosed homes connect the dots between Wall Street and Main Street, it can also lead to swift and tangible victories, something movements desperately need for momentum to be maintained. The banks, it seems, are softer targets than one might expect because so many cases are rife with legal irregularities and outright criminality. It’s not uncommon for customers to be misled, crucial paperwork lost and documents robosigned. While the mortgage crisis involved credit default swaps and securities and other complex financial instruments, one thing that clued investigators in to the systemic fraud now known to have taken place at Countrywide (right before it merged with Bank Of America) were the extra Wite-Out dispensers on brokers’ desks, the tool of choice for low-fi chicanery: signatures were forged, paperwork faked, and numbers fudged, leaving countless people with subprime mortgages when they qualified for better ones. This duplicity is why banks often change their tune when threatened with serious scrutiny; they count on cases to go uncontested, as the vast majority do, because they often lose if actually taken to court. In Rochester, one bank called off an eviction when they got wind that a protest&#151a blockade and a press conference&#151was being planned.

It’s interesting, given the glowing media coverage Occupy Our Homes received, that the action&#151billed as Occupy’s big leap forward&#151was not exactly innovative. Take Back The Land, which started in Miami, has been rehousing people in foreclosed properties since the mortgage crisis began. Going further back, the same techniques and rhetoric can be traced to the squatters campaigns that took off in New York City in the late ’70s (indeed, some of the squatting pioneers are now mentoring a new generation of activists) and the largely forgotten poor people’s movements of the late eighties and nineties. On May 1st, 1990, in an effort remarkably similar to Occupy Our Homes, homeless activists in eight cities reclaimed dozens of government owned properties, many of which they wrested control of for good. Occupy, in other words, is not breaking new ground, but bringing public attention to the kind of civil disobedience that typically goes under the radar.

But what’s clear&#151and terrifying&#151looking back on the occupation efforts of decades past, is that the potential base of support today is far broader than previous generations of activists could have ever dreamed. With one in five homes facing foreclosure and filings showing no sign of slowing down in the next few years, the number of people touched by the mortgage crisis&#151whether because they have lost their homes or because their homes are now underwater&#151truly boggles the mind.

Occupy Wall Street’s battle is nothing compared to what early civil rights advocates faced. Our predecessors had to convince their opponents to radically shift their worldview and abandon deeply held prejudices. Today, in contrast, public sentiment on economic issues broadly aligns with Occupy Wall Street. Americans are angry at the banks; they are angry about inequality; they are angry at politicians’ servility to corporate interests. The challenge, then, is convincing people that their anger is worth acting on, that something can be done. The path forward isn’t obvious. It’s difficult to organize against something as abstract as finance capital. How do you occupy something that is everywhere and nowhere?

Organizing around the mortgage crisis is a good step, for not only does it link seemingly arcane issues, like deregulation, to daily life and connect grassroots direct action to the action of the legislative variety (like the state attorney generals who are stepping up their inquiries into illegal home seizures and other mortgage misdeeds), it also promises small successes along the way, like offering shelter to a family that would otherwise be on the street. But not everyone is a struggling homeowner or already homeless; not everyone will identify with this particular struggle enough to join it.

Indeed, one problem facing many of Occupy’s early adopters is that, given high rates of student debt and unemployment, they may never have a chance to achieve that version of the American dream. As one of the big yellow signs at Duarte Square put it the morning after the eviction of Liberty Plaza: “I will never own a home in my life.” For these people questions of space and where and how to occupy take a different shape. For individuals who are not part of a student body, or rooted in neighborhood, or part of a union, the need, first of all, is to make a community from scratch, to cohere with a group under a common identity and find common cause. A community in formation was part of what the experiment at Liberty Plaza promised. Liberty Plaza was a space to be together, a space to struggle in and over&#151a space that grounded and oriented the movement, however imperfectly at times.

Space matters for Occupy. But when we seize it&#151whether it’s the sidewalk, the street, a park, a plaza, a port, a house, or a workplace&#151we must also claim the moral high ground so that others can be enticed to come and join us there. Occupy Our Homes made clear the connections between the domestic sphere and the financial sector: The occupation of abandoned bank-owned properties is actually a reclamation, a taking back of that which has been taken away, a recouping of something already paid for through other means (by unfairly ballooning monthly payments and the still-indeterminate government bail out, for example). The focus on Duarte Square, I fear, fails to draw the same kind of obvious unswerving link to the urgent issues that Occupy Wall Street emerged to address. At a direct action meeting a few weeks ago a young man spoke up. “We just need to occupy something,” he said impatiently. “Anything!” But if Occupy Wall Street takes the wrong space&#151or fails to clearly articulate the reasons why it is taking the right one&#151it may end up as lost as if it had none at all.

Also published in Occupy! #3. Occupy! is a semi-regular, forty-page broadsheet newspaper inspired by the Occupy movement.

A Love Letter to the Overcommitted

It usually starts with a lack of sleep. Then I notice I'm only eating carbohydrates, and mostly things which require less than 10 minutes to prepare. I find myself waking in the middle of the night to check my Blackberry, or worse, getting up to read and respond to emails at 3AM. Somehow my email will have strangely tripled in volume, seemingly without my noticing. I'll become nervous, kinda mean in meetings, prone to daydreaming, and tingly when I think about the object of my affection and obsession. Usually about 5 weeks in I wake up, joyful but tired, and realize I've done it all over again: in love with a campaign, I'm inevitably sliding into burnout.

Burnout is a risk in any field but it's especially prevalent in the social justice movement. There are lots of theories for this. Some think it's because we give more than we're ever given back. Others argue it's the working conditions–long hours, a lack of institutional support for self-care, or the tendency for nonprofits to take on more than they can accomplish. I think it's deeper than all that. As activists and organizers our role is to study where our society has failed and then generate creative solutions to fix it. We are students of violence, oppression, and harm. What most people spend their time tuning out we actively work to tune in. This can get depressing, especially when our gains might feel too minimal, or our efforts too small. Often we don't have a space to process our feelings about this, or we feel guilty for having them. Soon physical ailments appear and the stress gets the best of us. We no longer feel inspired and our work becomes stale, unoriginal, and brittle. It's a common story.

Sometimes it becomes a little too common. In my work at Occupy Wall Street I've noticed many people experiencing burnout, and felt myself compromise my own well-being in ways which are unsustainable and unjust. Like many I experience what E.B. White described so well: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Balancing these two needs is the chief tension in my existence.

It has been said we should be actively modeling the behaviors and structures of the world we want to achieve. Do we want to live in chaos? We have that now. Do we want people to overwork themselves? No. People died for the 8 hour workday for a reason. While campaigns are often our medium for change, they are actually somewhat corporate in their implementation: product development, branding, marketing. Yes, they are useful for recruitment and achieving some goals, but ultimately they trap us in a certain way of thinking: we have to do it all right now (!) because the campaign requires it. The campaign must have its pound of flesh!

Alright, well, let's just take a minute here. The revolution isn't going to be next Monday. That campaign you're feverishly working on is a great idea. It can help make some important changes. But burning yourself out on a single campaign isn't going to help anyone. We are in this for life. We will see change in our lifetimes but we won't see every aspect of that vision of a safe world we hold in our hearts. We have to commit to the long haul, folks, a lifetime of working on these concerns in one form or another.

What does that mean for you? It means you need to find a way to make it sustainable. It means the boundaries you've broken down to allow yourself to truly feel, and thus react, to atrocity must be reexamined. It means you have to find balance. Vacations are good, and necessary, but this is a daily practice. It is not enough to throw yourself into the abyss with the idea “well i have this spring break coming…” You have to find ways to play, to relax, and to engage with the world every day. If you don't you're not going to make it in this movement, and dear overcommitted, we need you too much for that.

So, what to do? There are some important practices you can implement within your organizations and for yourself that can help prevent burnout:

1. Self-assessment is crucial. There are many tools for this, but one of my favorites comes from the ACLU.

2. Play. Stuart Brown, who has devoted his life to the science of play, has found that “the process of play allows us to deal with the craziness and allows generation of solutions to problems…in the absence of play we meet life’s paradoxes with bitterness and rigidity that prevents us from really engaging.” Basically, play helps us to maintain empowered strategic thinking. Without it we lose our edge.

3. Create space for reflection. Emotional and physical check-ins at the beginning or end of each meeting, periodic burnout assessments, and planned reviews of goals and progress will help your group become more effective and healthier. Reviews of goals and progress should also include time to amend strategies and adjust practices to meet the needs of group members and campaigns.

4. Create a clear decision-making structure and write it down! Use it to clarify decisions and share it with new recruits so they don’t feel left out. Stick to this process even when everyone seems to agree to something informally. This will create a culture of transparency and participation that will benefit everyone.

5. Avoid informal power structures by developing clear roles with specific tasks. Make it a point to train new people in those roles on an ongoing basis, that way you have folks who can support each other and a way to bring new people into your work.

5. Recognize each other’s work. Offer feedback when people do things, including acknowledging those who do the grunt work. Thank people. Take time to also ask people if they feel supported and give them a chance to make asks of the group. This will help prevent any one person from getting overwhelmed or getting stuck doing backend tasks (like filling out forms) that are essential but often unnoticed.

6. Reconnect with your vision as an individual and as a group. Most people are activists for highly personal reasons and when you connect the group’s work to individual passions it helps foster awareness, empathy, and creativity. You can ask people to talk about their motivations or set aside time for people to get to know each other’s activist histories. This is especially useful as a way to engage new members.

7. Learn to facilitate conflict. You can help the group reach a decision and ease stress simply through developing strong facilitation skills. There are many books on this but the best way to learn is to practice.  Give group members turns practicing. Afterall, you’re going to be meeting anyway so it might as well be a learning opportunity.

8. Be intentional and deliberate about your work by setting SMART goals. (SMART=Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound) SMART goals give the group a shared standard by which to measure progress and review strengths and weaknesses. This is especially useful and necessary when group members need to talk about workload.

9. Utilize solidarity economy practices to reduce stress, meet needs, and create community. Often we're stressed due to our economic insecurity. By working cooperatively and democratically with others we can save money, live our values, and be healthier activists. Join a CSA and learn to cook with others. Join a housing co-op for cheaper rent and shared housework. Shareable has a ton of blog posts on ways you can live a more self-actualized existence through collaboration, and there are many examples of successful long-term activist communities who built themselves through these practices.

These steps can be difficult to take, which is why it may be helpful to work alongside others. In my collective, SolidarityNYC, we've recently begun meeting twice a month for  brunch to discuss the challenges we're experiencing in practicing our values. By meeting to discuss this struggle we hope to make our efforts both sustainable and create accountablity for ourselves when the work is more difficult. Creating an affinity group is one way we can learn together and reinforce each other's well-being.

In addition to this I've learned that leadership development and delegation are important group practices that support our individual well-being. I've also learned what works for me to get what I call head space: long walks, hula hooping (sometimes even on conference calls while on mute so no one knows), singing, dancing, biking, a moratorium on unnecessary media, writing, and nurturing relationships. This has been a long and slow process, so don't beat yourself up if it takes awhile, but know that growing sensitive to your own needs and to those of other leaders is an essential skill to your work. Setting boundaries that allow you to meet those needs is similarly vital. The integration of caring for self and those around you is what will ultimately allow us to sustain our leadership for the greatest possible impact. That's the goal, right?

I love all of you, you know, and I just want you to be happy, healthy, kicking corporate ass, and taking back and building power for as long as you are given the opportunity. We live in a beautiful world with exceptional opportunities for wonder. Make sure you're giving yourself time to access that too. Not a day goes by that I am not overwhelmed with gladness to know you and have the chance to work with you. But I'd be a liar if I said I'm not a little worried about this trend.

So take a break. Recognize someone's work. Cultivate wellness. And know in your heart that we will win eventually.

Cross-posted from Shareable.net