Looking Backward, Walking Forward: A Brief Analysis of Occupy Baltimore

Looking Backward, Walking Forward: A Brief Analysis of Occupy Baltimore

#occupybaltimore sign. Photo by: Clayton Conn
#occupybaltimore sign. Photo by: Clayton Conn

The revolutionary stage, in so many ways,is a microcosm of the world we live in. Few stages represented this more than that of Occupy. The Occupy movement came on the heels of a year in global revolt: global imagination had been ignited and 2011 saw international upheaval. Modern theorist, George Katsiaficas, calls this phenomenon “the Eros Effect,” meaning that through social/communal love for each other, for our fellow human beings, one group’s impact feeds into others’. This radical domino chain is based on instinct, intuition, and inspiration. In lived actions we inspire one another, incite one another to action, and struggle through and for one another.

The Occupy movement sprung into existence on September 17th, 2011, as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) began its battle for the every-person against the forces of super capitalism. Through a series of events and choices, thousands and thousands poured into the streets of NYC, igniting a new movement in the heart of the capitalist empire. The Occupy movement encapsulates many things; that has been both its power and its pitfall. It recognizes the violent forces of capitalism, as well as the hope that could lie in its ashes. Taking on memes like “We are the 99%” the movement has sought for solidarity across our differences. It has shouted both that the gross economic disparities can be easily conceptualized, in that the majority of the world’s wealth lies within 1% of the population, and that the other 99% bear the brunt of their splendor. The meme also cries that: We are many, and they are few. Together we have the power to overturn this system of profound exploitation and injustice. In an age when protest/direct action tactics appeared forgotten, millions took to the streets, marched, rallied, sat-in, and fought to reclaim public space.

As a protest tactic, the Occupy camps’ reclamation of public space served a number of functions. First, the Occupy movement called together scores of individuals, who often had very little in common—let alone a unified political vision—to create space and time to organize with one another. Occupy came into being against mass systemic/economic inequality. It was not a movement based around a specific target goal, nor detailed with a plan of action. Protesters knew they needed to scream at the injustices wrought by capitalism, but Occupy needed an establishing goal—a target to strive for and achieve, in order to found a revolution. The initial objective was to create an encampment: to claim space and time to learn about what each other wanted, and then learn how to build. In reaching across populations and visions, Occupy needed a target to achieve in order to garner focus; and in order to plan subsequent steps, it needed space and time, carved into its commencing outline.

Second, it was a cry to take what wealth and greed have stolen. For many, reclaiming public space was a direct affront to hegemonic forces that decide what is theirs and what is ours.[1] Reclaiming public space, in order to protest against mass reign and inequality, was a collective decision to take and to give to one another. The public affront was also a way to be visible, occupying space around the clock was a way to let hegemony—and to let one another—know that the people were moving. The encampments were spaces to learn how to build a movement and then to begin directly building it.[2]

Occupy came to Baltimore as the movement swept the country. The physical occupation lasted for two months. Since the McKeldin Square eviction, Occupy Baltimore (OB) has taken varying forms. People may come together and build off of one another’s revolutions, through shared love, instinct, and inspiration. We may realize that together: “We are Many” and “They are Few.” Yet, within that realization, we must also comprehend our variances and distinctions. Millions have sought, despite and because of our differences, to find common ground in the shared injustices that capitalism has perpetuated on our bodies. The ways in which capitalism has attacked our bodies differently, however, is immediate and entrenched. We are not the same. Capitalism, and any force that seeks to dominate, strives to divide us and separate us, so that we must then aim to parse apart who can rule one another. We are indebted to history. We cannot pretend that we inherit the same worlds or the same injustices. We organize within these realities.

OCCUPY BALTIMORE    

Occupy Baltimore was an experiment in not only creating prefigurative spaces and communities to articulate action and protest, but also to further actualize those politics with individuals from a wide net of perspectives, experiences, and identities. Through doing this, we inevitably encounter the manufactured realities with which we divide ourselves. These are the strongest at keeping us suppressed.

We are children of the power structures that breed us. We weave the systemic webs that strangle us. We cannot escape the world that has oppressed and defined us. And when we decide to say “no,” to say that this does not have to be the world that exists, we invite the inevitable struggle against the cruel injustices that history and present have written. Each movement has its own particular fight. Occupy Baltimore has shared a complex net of issues with the movement at large, has had its own, and has found those that reside in many modern accounts of struggle.[3]

OB had its initial meetings on October 2nd and 3rd, 2011. It began occupying McKeldin Square[4] on October 4th. Autumn happened fast. A movement erupted and people swung into action from multiple vantage points. As fall turned into winter—many camps were evicted—including Baltimore’s. OB lasted approximately two months until its eviction on December 13th, 2011.

Then, by the time the eviction had rolled around, the movement itself was already looking very different. While the McKeldin site still held space for people with varying perspectives to ally together, as the weeks bore on, the movement seemed less rooted in a specific location. “Affinity” groups were forming and people were planning eviction defenses, publicly critiquing the city’s economic structure via creative tactics, protesting the city’s prison-industrial complex, and, in general, moving the organizing away from the square and onto specific political campaigns. Many took time to reflect on where the occupation had gone, where it is, and what to do now. Reflection can be a revolutionary tactic.

DIRECT DEMOCRACY    

We organize through the activist rhetoric of: “Big R” Revolution and “small r” revolution. “Big R” Revolution is the kind you hear about in the papers. It is the masses out in the streets demanding for immediate gameshifting change, whereas “small r” revolution is our everyday struggle. It is the war we wage against a cruel system; revolution is deciding to build a world around a multiplicity of shared utopic visions.

The global revolt of 2011 was the start of a “Big R” Revolution. Yet, it could not have happened without the foundational tactics of “small r” organizing. Every Revolution is indebted to the Revolutions that came before it and, more so, to the revolutions that aim to change the world every minute via living ideology.

The Occupy movements are undoubtedly indebted to modern radical organizing; through many General Assemblies (GAs) being founded on consensus process, to organizing through committee structures, and even to organizing across listserves, Occupy came into existence and modern radical organizing offered practiced strategies—so that the movement could actualize from a starting framework.

The idea behind consensus is utopic in its visioning. Through conversation, listening, and aiming to hear as many varying voices as possible, you hope to subsequently reach a common agreement. This process is often long and arduous. However, the yielding result aims to be one that has fielded any initial concerns/problems. Consensus also works to represent those that the decision will serve, through collective creation, as well as set for a smoother way forward once the agreement is in practice. This being said, a great deal of critique has come against this type of participatory/direct democracy structure. Many claim that instead of doing something, they’ve merely been meeting about meeting and talking without doing. Consensus-based processes can seem very alienating to those unfamiliar with it—it often works off a shared language (hand signals, terms, etc.) and the loudest voices in the room can often overpower the common majority. Those with formulated critiques can often out-argue those working to find their articulation. Another simple condemnation is that, while we may like to believe that everyone’s opinion has resonance and value, we are not all always capable of being rational human beings. One of these dilemmas can also be a benefit, when people have more experience or a clearer understanding of the concept in question, there is validity in believing that their opinion should be given additional weight.

There is no clear consensus on consensus process. Consensus is a prefigurative practice. Even if every situation is not ideal in terms of decision-making, the ability for everyone to speak exists. In the attempt, power relations are restructured. It is a practiced framework, with a horizontalist-driven mindset; it is a given starting point, with an essential anti-authoritarian ethic, with which to progress upon.

OB did experiment with its original consensus model. At a few GAs, the large body broke up into a series of small groups. Within these small groups they debated either one decision or a set of decisions. This method invited multiple voices to speak in smaller, potentially more welcoming contexts. It also allowed for further humanization, via direct participation. Lastly, it fostered more prompt decisions. At the end of the small group discussion, a group representative would speak to the full GA. This tactic was often employed in order to empower voices that would often stay silent while in the larger group.

OB also experimented with stack-taking.[5] Sometimes only allowing people to speak once or twice in a conversation. Frequently, stack-takers would search the crowd for someone who hadn’t yet spoken before putting someone who had spoken back on the speaking order. Meeting styles will inevitably shift as Occupy shifts. For experienced activists, giving lessons learned and offering tools for movements is imperative. There is no “R” movement without the “r” in the constant. There is no set course. We learn as we do. Or as the Zapatistas[6] say, “Asking, we walk.”[7]

AFFINITY GROUPS

We act and we learn. As Occupy Baltimore grew, problems quickly arose. This can only be anticipated in any movement or reality. Yet, particularly in one such as Occupy, where a mass of individuals realize that the world in which we live is violent and unjust, and further, also have a vast array of perspectives, experiences, and lived realities. In the beginning months of Occupy Baltimore, “affinity” groups began to quickly form. One of the original and largest initial affinity groups developed out of many people’s need to work alongside those they trust or those whom they believed carried similar goals and visions. They were spaces for Occupy organizers to feel as if they were implementing a post-McKeldin foundation.

Other affinity groups, both from that initial umbrella and outside of it, have sprung up, including: an agitprop group, the local-economics-focused group Another BDC is Possible, the pop-up organizing body/ occupation Schools Not Jails!, B-Heard (Baltimore Higher Education for a Real Democracy)—which aims to unite professors and college students in radical higher-education centric organizing—and Occupy our Homes (OOH), which believes that housing is imperatively a human right and that there should be community control over land. The establishing of affinity groups, in many ways, was one of the Occupy encampment’s original purposes. It was meant to have bridged together a diversity of people—both who had organized together and those who had not. Then together learn what is necessary in order to attack and to build; and then to actualize those creations. The camps, in many ways, were the start of weaving people together in order to build a movement. Yet, they weren’t meant to last indefinitely. And one of the only ways Occupy could survive post-eviction is if it sprung into a multiplicity of approaches and struggles that threw out the idea of one common strategy. For strategy implies that we have a clear conception of what we must become. There is no single answer or strategy; only a multiplicity of tactics and paths.

Occupy has often been decried for not having an apparent aim. This has understandably separated many. The power of the Affinity groups is that they often have a common vision/goal of a different world, one without the rampant injustices capitalism executes on us. Yet, beyond that, they do not aim to focus on some set of future specific goals. For in the long-term, we will be gone— and while it is essential to organize in prefiguration, we cannot get caught up in our utopian specifics. For our utopic visions and what we organize around, should be ever continuously unmade and remade. Our visions should be fluid; evolving as we evolve and changing and as the world changes. There is no world after the Revolution, there is always Revolution/revolution.

The affinity groups not only made the movement survive the reflective stages of winter. They also have organized with the broad prefigurative visions of changing this unjust world through focusing on the short term issues of “Now”; what must we be changing now? For the revolution is now and if it is not, there is nothing.

All of this being said, it is always essential to see the duality in everything. By implementing one path forward, you bar another.

OB was powerful in that it resonated so quickly across a plethora of experiences. And to Occupy, it was in many ways the critical gateway towards politicization. You took common space to gather revolutionary tools. The Baltimore Affinity groups have largely functioned as a coming together of different experiences. Nevertheless, common among those bridgings are those who are already further along in their political narratives. Affinity organizers often have experience and ideas towards organizing for what needs to be accomplished in the now.

The affinity groups have a great deal of promise and power. Yet, they have also been criticized for subtracting the more experienced organizers from the larger movement. There is much to analyze within these claims, particularly as the affinity groups are part of the larger movement and are comprised of a diverse body of organizers with vast differences of experience. We must note though that one cannot change the foundations of a corrupt reality unless more and more and more of us say “no” to the world as it is now and learn from each other across a plethora of narratives. In moving forward, we must learn how to take these multiplicities that hold so much power and promise, and intersect them for broad multi-pronged power.

WALKING FORWARD  

“We are the 99%” may unite us, as common members of humanity, fighting against an unjust system. Yet, it also invisibilizes the multiplicity of identities/realities that we’ve been dealt. In intersectional feminist analysis, we can elucidate that we all have various realities with which oppression has delved into us. In order to have a comprehensive viewpoint, one must examine all these means. We must parse apart and sequence together the making of what categorizes us: race, sex, gender, age, class, ableism, sexuality, etc. We are all but a weave of identities. The politics of oppression teach us that we must use these lived-experiences against one another in order to determine who has value over another. We actively decide/create who is oppressed through reenacting that historical oppression.

As like every movement and community, we are indebted to this history. If we decide not to accept the violences of our world, we in turn accept struggle. We struggle against this world that defines and separates us.

In moving forward, we must unflinchingly recognize what separates us and how. We must be aware of that which diverges our experiences—for through the contrary you annul someone’s lived reality and remove the tools necessary towards attacking that which perpetuates. Then further, we must strive to find the root of why we are served different states of oppression. We must understand the function that they serve. We must examine what creates our identities and why we cling to them.

Every step we take must be through a prefigurative radical critique. We are human. We respond at times out of fear, anger, and pain. This should be utilized towards building a movement and a new society. We must ever continuously try to base our actions/reactions upon that which we are aiming to create.

Autumn turned into Winter. Winter has turned into Spring. We learn through doing. And while that will inevitably invite a score of mistakes and failures, we must do. If we do not, we recreate the system that divides, attacks, and oppresses us. If we do, and through our doing we say that we do not accept this world that we’ve inherited and mutually perpetuate, we will still inevitably feed the dominant system through our learned actions. However, we will also destroy and build something new. If we do nothing, there is no chance for either destruction or creation.

We come together across varying experiences but ultimately we have similar goals in that we see the destruction of now and wish to build something new. We want an answer. But there is no single answer, merely a multiplicity. In moving forward, we must recognize all our separate and shared oppressions and elucidate how they came into existence and the purposes they serve. Those who find commonality in their experiences must create separate spaces in order to comprehend their lived realities, and give one another fuel for organizing in the common whole. For in the end, we must work to come together. We do not have to be the same or utilize the same tactics. A multiplicity of people and visions and tactics—with a common purpose—can untangle the violent forces of capitalism.

Only through this widespread web of multiplicities can we create a new horizontal world.

Occupy Baltimore forced many to look at systemic issues in microcosm, as well as on local, national, and international scales. It also forced others to grapple with creating a path forward. It brought together a new force of activism in the city, whether that is through OB itself, the affinity groups that sprang from it, or outside groups that formulated in critique. Now that force is building, through broad-larger-movement initiatives, as well as locally focused direct organizing groups, actions, and campaigns. Movements can last for months, years, and decades, and, hopefully, create new worlds. The new world we create is what we decide. In whatever movements we are in, if there are problems, we move forward working on them and through them. We may pause for reflection but we must not stop in movement.

As the “Eros effect” presupposes, we inspire one another, incite one another to action, and struggle through and for one another. This is our way forward.[8]

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[1] It should be noted that we create and define these hegemonic forces and the powers that they hold over us. We are the system and we reinforce how it relates to us.
[2] It is essential to not invalidate the history that, in many ways, we are “reclaiming” already occupied soil, as this land was stolen from indigenous peoples.
[3] It seems a blatant injustice to write and describe the dynamics within Occupy centering around race, class, sex and gender, sexuality, ableism, and so on and so forth. I, one hundred percent, do not mean to eliminate those questions from this analysis. However, I want to do them some degree of justice—explaining multiple sides, with in-depth research. In the upcoming Indyreader online series, I will examine controversialissues, such as the camp’s rape accusation. We will approach it from a critical feminist narrative, understanding ‘rape’ in its full weight. Critiquing the potential of those who may have used the accusation in order to slander and destabilize the movement, as using rape and the idea of rape as a tool in order to advance a narrative is one of the most horrific patriarchal violences. On this same token, we will examine how disheartened many activists felt as many from within OB reacted to this moment solely from saying it was right wing slander, rather than engaging with it from a radical perspective for uncovering the details; as well as utilizing the public attention that had arisen, to discuss the systemic roots of sexual violence and, further, ways to combat it. These gender issues, along with a plethora of others, the series will analyze. It will also look at critical class issues, such as the fast arrival of the city’s enormous homeless population to the camp—and the strengths and the trappings it brought—as well as what it means along the movement’s narrative. Going on and on, we will analyze race, and the necessity of building a movement across this city’s enormous racial divide; in order to have a revolution, whatever its name. We must look at the problems OB imposed towards this idea, the way the city responded, and the way the city is moving forward. The series plans to attack these and numerous other issues in an in-depth way. This footnote is long because it is imperative that this article recognizes the necessity of discussing these intersectional issues in order to destroy oppression and create a new world. Yet, it seemed wildly inappropriate to try to give these issues the justice they deserve in such a brief analysis. If you want to be a part of looking at these issues, in this upcoming series, please contact me: corey@redemmas.org.
[4] The decision to occupy McKeldin Square was immensely controversial. There were other proposed sites, such as the site of the proposed youth jail and Johns Hopkins—sites that appeared to have more resonance with those who had been the targets of the city’s greatest violences. We will analyze this more in the Indyreader online series. McKeldin was chosen for numerous reasons: it is a city “free speech” zone, it is in an incredibly public arena, and many believe it symbolizes not only international corporate greed but also Baltimore’s contorted values through seeping money into corporations rather than its population.
[5] Stack-taking is the consensus process tool where those who wish to speak raise their hands. They are then added to a stack, so that people do not speak out of turn but rather when they are called upon.
[6] The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is a radical organization in Chiapas, Mexico that has engaged in direct antagonism with the Mexican government.They have also created an intentional community that adheres to their own collectively decided upon mandates. They are a blend of anarchism and Marxism. They are internationally recognized for their communiqués, critiques, and actions.
[7] Popularized Zapatista phrase, stating that there are no blueprints. We learn as we do.
[8] I would like to state that much of this article comes out of inspiration from John Holloway’s work.

 

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Corey Reidy has been an Indyreader collective member since the start of 2009. And.. she adores it with all her heart. When Reidy isn't editing, writing, interviewing, or other Indyreader-centric organizing, she works to do other forms of radical activism -- including, but not limited to, organizing/being a board member of Hollaback! Baltimore. If she's not organizing, Reidy is most likely reading, biking, or practicing/studying yoga (of which she adores and will 100% go to bat to defend and promote).