Occupy, Resist, and Grow

By Guest Contributor Yvonne Yen Liu, cross-posted from Mobilizing Ideas

Marshall Ganz calls Occupy a moment, but we have a history and a future.  My generation, in North America, was birthed over 12 years ago, in the streets of Seattle, when trade unionists joined with anarchists to disrupt the workings of global capital, well, in this case, the meeting of a major player, the World Trade Organization.  We refused to accept capitalism as a natural way of ordering our social world; “Another World is Possible” was a popular slogan.  We manifested alternatives in organizing our collective refusal.  Instead of relying on institutions created under capitalism, we created our own clinics, schools, decision-making bodies, and media outlets.  Some of which have formalized into counter-institutions that exist today.  The global network of independent media centers and community health centers, like the Common Ground clinic in New Orleans, started after Hurricane Katrina, are our legacy.

The Millennials may find inspiration when their peer, 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, educated yet unable to find a good job, self-immolated himself on the steps of the Tunisian governor’s office, sparking the uprisings of the Arab Spring.  Or, when 24-year old Bradley Manning, in a fit of frustration with military bureaucracy and the war abroad, uploaded confidential documents onto the Wikileaks website.  What is the future of the Occupy movement?  Approximately a half-year in and many camps have been violently evicted from the land on which they pitched their tents.  Many of us spent this late fall awake in an overnight vigil to defend a camp or recovering from being pepper sprayed by cops when trying to setup a new one.  At the time of writing this, only Occupy D.C. remains intact.  But, that is not the end of Occupy.

Like seeds released into the wind, we lodged into soil, to hibernate through the winter, and to unfurl new shoots in the spring.  For what Occupy has created is an opportunity for us collectively to create new subjectivities and to dream of a new world.  Social theorists have long thought about the relationship between the individual and society as a dialectical one, each informing the development of the other.  George Mead, for instance, wrote that social reality was an external thing that impressed itself upon and shaped a child during the process of socialization.  But, the self that had ideas that challenged social norms could win acceptance by the larger group, therefore changing society.

Under capitalism, Herbert Marcuse thought, the individual lost her capacity to think critically and the desire to yearn for freedom.  We lost our sense of self, subjectivity, and became objects in the process of production.  All of human life was organized for the instrumental means of achieving profit for the 1%.  We became mechanical producers, who worked to make a salary to enable us to passively consume mass culture and media.  This one-dimensional thinking dominated culture and ideology, focused only on keeping calm and carrying on.

One outcome of Occupy can be foretold by the example of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST).  Today, 350,000 families occupy 20 million acres of land, a challenge to global capital, which has setup white picket fences around the world, cordoning off what was once the commons.  MST’s flag celebrates the industry of the landless worker, represented by a couple holding aloft a machete, and their willingness to fight for land reform, with blood if necessary.   This flag accompanied MST leader Janaina Stronzake, when she visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment, before it was evicted from Zuccotti Park.  “Occupation was a time to grow,” she told the assembly, “To grow education, empowerment, and food community.”  The crowd echoed after her, amplifying Janaina’s words using the human microphone, “Occupy, Resist, and Grow!”

Janaina grew up in a MST occupation.  Her family lost their land to banks in the late 1970s because, like many family farmers in the global south at the time, they borrowed money in order to adopt industrial agricultural techniques.  Indebted and unable to pay back what they owed, the bank seized their land, displacing newborn Janaina, her eight older brothers, and parents to the city, where they survived precariously as field laborers.  But, in 1985, her family joined the MST and they moved into a camp, with 225 other families, for two years, where they studied and prepared to occupy land in the western part of the Parana state.

The MST uses a two-step method to expropriate land lying fallow, owned by corporations or latifundios, for collective use.  First, families are moved in rural camps, typically dwelling in shacks alongside highways, until land is identified for settlement.  This can take anywhere from six months to five years, but camp living has proved to be important preparation in transforming atomized individuals into collectively minded occupiers.  Camp residents receive a rigorous dose of participatory education, on politics and critical thinking as well as practical matters such as sustainable farming techniques and how to manage a cooperative.  Without this experience, families that move directly onto occupied land typically leave within a few months.  But, with this preparation, more than 90 percent stay for the long run.

The second step is occupation of the land by families, usually at dawn when security guards and police are sleeping.  Janaina remembers arriving early one morning with her family to an unused piece of land, but the police were waiting and prevented the families from entering the land.  So, they camped on the side of the road for two months, where conditions were difficult,  “hunger and cold were always stalking us,” Janaina recalled.  Brazil is unique in that, beginning in the nineteenth century, one had legal claim to land if it was serving a social function.  While petitioning through bureaucratic pathways for the title, the MST also moved the camp to occupy the plaza in front of the state capital, Curitiba.  After participating in seven occupations, Janaina’s mother finally acquired land, collectively.

Once land is occupied, the collective immediately begins to dig in and grow roots.  Peter Rossett describes how “crops are planted immediately, communal kitchens, schools, and a health clinic are set up, and defense teams trained in nonviolence secure the perimeter against the hired gunmen, thugs, and assorted police forces that the landlord usually calls down upon them.”  This is the new society that the MST is building alongside the current model of global capitalism.

Already, we are experimenting with land occupations.  A faction of Occupy Oakland tried to takeover a foreclosed homeless shelter on the day of the general strike.  They were unsuccessful, but planted a seed.  A seed that took root on December 6, the national day of action, where organizers across the country occupied foreclosed properties.  Next, come spring, as Max Rameau promises, we will emerge and bloom.

Postscript: I had the opportunity to ask Janaina: How does the MST example apply to Occupy, which does seem primarily to be urban? I found her response quite profound. She said, “It’s time to break the Cartesian dualism, step away from the rural versus urban dichotomy, and think of other ways to defend land, grow food, and distribute resources… We who are living in ‘urban’ places can create ‘rural’ spaces, to grow our own food.”

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/HH4K6T4PGYS6NYFB6HEGKWY6WI Phoenix

    A list of the current Occupy encampments nationwide: http://firedoglake.com/state-of-the-occupation/

    Note that these are only the Occupy encampment sites; there are other Occupy sites that have gone or stayed totally indoors, but they don’t have the visibility (and the support) that the camps get, which is why keeping actual encampments going through winter is so important to Occupy’s survival.

  • Koldobika2020

    Bradley (or Breanna) Manning did not upload that stuff in a fit of frustration with military bureaucracy. There is strong evidence that he was emotionally disturbed and was not functioning properly, probably due to repression of his sexuality.  One outburst does not make him an activist. He committed a crime of treason – that’s not activism. Activism shouldn’t involve breaking an OATH (i.e. not just a contract, but an oath) you make to the people you work for and with, ESPECIALLY to the people you work with; your peers. There should be honor in activism. Manning was just mad at nothing and disturbed due to unresolved personal issues, and he should certainly be punished. And he will be.

    • Paco Martin Del Campo

      Garbage. That’s like saying Daniel Ellsberg committed treason when he exposed government lies about Vietnam. It’s no coincidence that Ellsberg tried to talk to Manning during his hearing before the military court. It’s because both exposed government lies. They didn’t commit treason. Government officials did when they lied and lied over and over again about relations with foreign governments. You want a traitor? Go after George Bush or Cheney. They are the ones who are responsible for all the death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they did it based on lies. They are the ones who should be punished.

      Sovereignty lies with the people and their constitutional rights, not with the government or the military. The people have a right to know where their tax dollars are going and the moral and ethical justifications for using those funds. What Manning did was honorable. Loyalty and obedience to unjust systems is the problem, and no oath can justify it. We need more people like Manning to come forward to keep governments accountable.

      Breanna Manning is a courageous heroine, and history will remember her as one, even if she gets crucified in her own time. And that you would attribute her actions to supposed “repression” of her gender identity and resultant emotional issues is rather sad. I realize that’s how the defense is playing it, but they are making the most likely case to keep her from a lifetime in Guantanamo. We don’t know why she did it, but the fact that transgender people are not allowed to serve in the military undoubtedly contributed to whatever “repressed” identity she may have had. 

      Take your loyalty oaths and shove it. 

    • Anonymous

      Is it that hard for you to refer to her with proper pronouns? I’m also really not pleased with how you’re describing her as “not functioning properly due to a repression of sexuality” … it’s dismissive.

      The people she was working with would have abused her in an instant and taken away her job if they found out anything about her true identify. I wouldn’t call that an “unresolved personal issue”; you seem to be on the side that everything the rest of the military said was just fine when we all know that not to be true.

  • Iva

    Breanna Manning. Breanna Manning. Breanna Manning. Please edit your article to reflect Breanna’s gender. It hurts to see another transgender activist ungendered, especially here.

  • JJ

    I’m sorry, but I have to object to the characterization of Mohamed Bouazizi this article uses.  He did not self-immolate because he was educated but unable to find work (and as it happens, his sister corrected early media reports that he had a university degree; she says that he dropped out of high school).  He did so because the government had systematically harassed, stolen from, and beaten him.  He did not die in a protest against capitalism.  He died in a protest against a corrupt and violent government that refused to let him participate in capitalism. 

    I find it pretty offensive when the Occupy movement tries to appropriate the Arab Spring.  Some of Occupy’s grievances have similar roots in poverty and governmental abuses, but there are really enormous and important differences between the repression that the Arab Spring rose up against and the things that most Occupy protests are speaking out about.*  It’s horrific that healthcare is not a right in the U.S.  It’s horrific that unemployment is becoming a permanent state for many people while executive compensation has risen.  It’s horrific that education costs what it does in this country and that the student debt you take on as an 18-year-old can never be discharged.  But none of those things are comparable to what’s happening in Syria or what Qaddafi did to his people or how many deaths it took to oust Mubarek.

    By all means, draw inspiration from Mohamed Bouazizi.  But please respect his sacrifice enough to acknowledge the real reasons for and context surrounding it.  He died to give those grievances a voice.

    * I do see a really clear and direct parallel between endemic police violence against (and disproportionate criminalization of) persons of color in the U.S. and the Arab Spring protests, and I understand that Occupy Oakland has been addressing some of those issues.  But from what I’ve read, most Occupy sites have been less than enthusiastic about addressing racial justice alongside economic justice.

    • http://www.yvonnegraphy.com yvonnegrapher

      I think there’s a difference between appropriation and inspiration. 

      I am inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi martyrdom, in protest of economic conditions in Tunisia.   I personally do not interpret his actions as a desire to engage in global capitalism, but a frustration that he could not make a living to sustain himself. 

      It’s obviously important to recognize the particulars of the situation in Tunisia and countries in the Middle East versus the U.S., but because global capitalism unites us, from the working class Black factory worker laid off from his job when her company moves to the global south to the domestic worker from the Philippines who doesn’t see her children for six years, when she works abroad in Dubai. 

      Capital is global, and so is resistance.  So, I can find commonality and shared meaning in the actions of my brothers and sisters in Egypt, Tunisia, Russia, and China.  (I’m super excited, btw, about Occupy Wukan!)

      I know many in my generation, for example, were inspired by the Zapatista uprisings in protest of the NAFTA free trade agreement in 1994.  When Subcommandante Marcos and friends occupied villages in the Lacandon jungle, setting up directly democratic governing processes, refusing to participate and accede to global capital. 

      Like I said before, resistance is global.  It always has, always will be.  Struggles of the Third World to liberate themselves from Western European colonialism inspired domestic movements here, like the Panthers and Young Lords.