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Occupy Anarchism


I wrote the following essay for the anthology We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation (AK Press, 2012), edited by Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire, and encourage you to pick up a copy of this hefty collection for the approximately fifty contributions, including insightful pieces by many good comrades. I'm particularly excited to share the pages with some of my friends: Josh MacPhee, Ryan Harvey, Andy Cornell, Chris Dixon, Koala Largess, George Caffentzis, and Team Colors! Thanks to Kate and Mike for giving me permission to release my essay into the world so soon into this book's printed life, since they, like me, see all the essays as tools/weapons in the struggle for freedom.

I hope my partial, open-ended, experimental musings shake up your thinking a bit and maybe make you smile, shed a tear, get angry, and/or recall Occupy from angles you'd forgotten. More to the point, I wrote this piece as inward self-reflection to shake up my own thinking about this past year, but also to spark dialogue and debate, among anarchists especially, about our relation to, role in, mistakes and possible achievements within the occupy movement/moment. Dig in, share, engage with it, make up your own prehistory or future (im)perfects.

For the book, head to your local anarchist or indie bookstore, or click here and support AK Press rather than Amazon: http://www.akpress.org/wearemany.html


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Prehistory 1

Some say that anarchism is as old as human history; that people have been living it since they first, say, formed into a circle to deliberate about and then decide (with gestures, grunts, or language—maybe even twinkles) where to hunt and gather. Before it had a name, anarchism was practiced and preached by, for instance, Jesus. Maybe that goes partway to explaining why at Occupy Philly, and no doubt at all Occupies, the Occupiers acted like anarchists with a religious-like zeal from day one, even though most were and still are not anarchists.[1] Indeed, a small but vocal bunch of them were vehemently anti-anarchist, which perhaps illuminates why one Occupier hijacked the thirty-thousand-person-“liked” Occupy Philadelphia Facebook page, and then posted a drawing of Christ with his middle finger raised and the words “Cindy Milstein EVEN JESUS HATES YOU” (hint: I’m a vocal anarchist; hence a convenient straw person).

Prehistory 2

Months after the Philly encampment was history, on a brilliant sunny April 2012 day, I ventured into a windowless basement room to do a talk and discussion on “Occupy Anarchism” at the New York Anarchist Bookfair. As I waited for people to gather, one eager participant told me that he and his OWS friends were also speaking later that afternoon on a similar Occupy-related theme—“The Prehistory of Anarchism.” I was tabling at the bookfair, so knew I’d miss their workshop, and thus asked, “When does your prehistory start?” “August!” he quickly responded. “This past August?” He looked a little taken aback, then exclaimed, “Yes! Why?”

Prehistory 3

In springtime 2004, I was in Paris during the anarchist bookfair and so was able to table for the Institute for Anarchist Studies, of which I’m a collective member. When a member of one of the many French anarchist organizations wandered over to ask about the IAS, I in return inquired about his collective. “How long have you been around?” His brow furled, and he threw back his shoulders, as if I’d served up the most impertinent of questions, and haughtily replied, “We French invented anarchism!”

Prehistory 4

Several years before that, in April 2001, in a different French-speaking place, Québec City, during the Carnival against Capitalism to contest the Summit of Americas, my affinity group and I were walking near a large catapult, constructed and now pushed by the medieval bloc toward the fence protecting the elites from the rabble. In this cluster of autonomous affinity groups’ words, in a letter written afterward to help clear Montréalanarchist Jaggi Singh of false charges related to, as the Canadian Crown called it, this “dangerous weapon,” the medieval bloc explained that it built the “prop” to “mock the absurdity of holding the secretive and undemocratic Summit within a walled fortress.” As our huge “red” contingent—based on the three-tiered color-coding system put in place through a series of consultas and directly democratic assemblies to indicate varying possibilities of arrest risk and militancy, per the new “diversity of tactics” clause in the Basis of Unity for this antiauthoritarian convergence—trooped close to the castle gates and lines of heavily armored security, the catapult lobbed its munitions across the perimeter: stuffed animals, or what infamously became known as “teddy bears.” The riot cops sent back their own far-from-cuddly fire: tear gas canisters. Through and despite our stinging eyes, it felt revolutionary.

Prehistory 5

There’s a lot more—a whole lot more—that could be filled in about the twentieth-century prehistory, like the poetically bold inspiration of the Zapatistas. Or before that, the rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s, and specifically the new social movements, which opened up space for a contemporary anarchism in North America, reimagined and experimented with through the lens of identity, intersectionality, and countercultural lifeways, among others. This, in turn, built on postwar rethinkings of anarchism in counterpoint to the brutality of actually existing colonialism, communism, and fascism. Late-twentieth-century anarchism was also a challenge to and yet shaped by emergent phenomenon after the fall of the Berlin wall, especially the triumph of capitalism, which then exponentially “globalized” and bulldozed its way into an increasingly hegemonic neoliberal phase.

But alas, I can only toss so many stones into the pond here, creating fluid circles that form overlapping circles between each other. So I’ll heft an especially big rock and let a prominent circle spread across the waters of Occupy anarchism: the anticapitalist wing of the alter-globalization movement, and in particular one of its well-formed inner circles, the Anticapitalist Convergence (Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes, or CLAC), an anarchist organization started in the lead up to the teddy bear–tear gas joust described above and still existing in Montréal. In response to free trade agreements, the CLAC and those in its milieu dreamed up innovative anarchist mobilizations in North America, starting in the late 1990s, a few years before a so-called new anarchism burst on to the scene in the famous form—only because it took place in the United States—of a brick through a Starbucks’ window in Seattle in 1999.

At the dawn or dusk, depending on your perspective, of the twenty-first century, a renewed anarchism was now definitively far beyond its initial classic period of “no gods, no masters.” It subscribed to a fully nonhierarchical sensibility, an array of anti-oppression principles, and the notion of prefigurative politics, even if its practice (like all human practice) continually falls far short of its intended mark. This contemporary anarchism stressed a do-it-ourselves culture and mutual aid, radical ecology, collectively run spaces and projects, more explicitly queer, feminist, and people of color organizing, and various types of self-governance (often an affinity group–spokescouncil version, and frequently linked to consensus).

What Comes Around . . .

For this summer 2012 after Occupy—or in Occupy 2.0, 3.0, or maybe some 3G version—I’ve stumbled just as serendipitously into the Maple Spring neighborhood of Montréal as I did the Occupy Philly one in late September 2011.[2] The curveball path of these two stopovers on my way to settling down again soon isn’t germane to this tale. Suffice it to say, though, the utter surprise of the North American uprisings ever since last September 17 made me realize that all bets had to be off. Occupy in the United States and now the Québec student strike—both rare moments of possibility—are at once too perplexing and too promising to be missed. They are, in fact, the stuff of what anarchists dream about, or should, myself included.

So I’ve been in Montréal now for nearly two months as a participant-observer, and that has taken me to many an illegal night demonstration and neighborhood casserole. It’s put me into two and soon another of the monthly “grand manifestations” of hundreds of thousands taking to the streets, also illegal. It’s brought me to various assemblies too (again illegal, all thanks to loi spéciale 78, or special law 78, passed just before I arrived by the government in a vain effort to squash this movement by criminalizing a wide range of dissent)—mixes of neighborhood, student, and anticapitalist, including the “congress” of la Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarite Syndicale Etudiante (CLASSE), a major student federation, made up of the most radical, strategic, and savvy organizers of this now-longest-running student strike in North American history.

And here’s where things come full circle, at least for a brief moment. The CLASSE Congress was held deep within the labyrinth of the Université du Québec à Montréal college complex, the hotbed school for Maple Spring. So I didn’t make the connection until I sat down that the daylong assembly was in the same room that CLAC had used for some of its general assemblies years ago, at the height of the alter-globalization movement.

Throughout the student strike, current and former CLAC anarchists in Montréal, “grown up” from their Québec City mobilization (and often college) days, have pitched in by, say, organizing themselves into groups of professors, parents, and book and cultural types (such as publishers, writers/translators, musicians, and designers) in solidarity and active engagement. They’ve also initiated and facilitated assemblies in their neighborhoods, and coordinated baby blocs for marches. CLAC co-organized anticapitalist blocs with CLASSE at some key moments, and no doubt more collaboration is in the cards as things heat up in August when school is supposed to begin—by law. CLASSE, in turn, has been using a modified version of CLAC’s directly democratic decision-making process, which involves proposals, debate, caucusing, and voting along an affinity–spokes model. And even though not anarchist per se, CLASSE circled its “A” on the sign pointing to the congress convergence space—a roundabout way of signaling not only its institutional memory and praxis of antiauthoritarian innovation but also the still-dynamic binding ties that helped to forge the remarkable current student–social strike.

Present (Im)perfect 1: Anarchism

I’ve given many an “intro to anarchism” talk—or as a nihilist once remarked in less kind terms, I have this bad habit of trying to encourage folks to explore and embrace anarchism for themselves. So when Occupy Philly first pitched its secondhand couch, then dumpster-dived folding tables, and finally lots and lots of tents on the cold lifeless-gray concrete surrounding Philadelphia’s massive city hall, I signed up at the people’s library to do a teach-in on the same topic.

We gathered on the pavement in a circle at the far end of the plaza, by then home to many of us, and after describing anarchism in a nutshell, I was met, as usual, with, “What are some examples of anarchism actually working?” I never seem able to supply a convincing response, so as usual, I started hemming and hawing, raised myself up a bit on one knee out of nervousness, and then it hit me, as the vista of the busy beehive of Occupy Philly came into sharp focus. There, all self-organized, self-managed, and self-governed, was our kids’ zone, art and comfort areas, health care facilities, outdoor movie theater, safety station, info booth, food and media tents, canvas and pallet housing, recharging and tech centers, education hub, general assembly spot, and more. There, anarchist-painted banners reading “Commons Not Capitalism and “We’re Occupied with Direct Democracy,” but more than words, the social fabric of all types of people enacting collective structures and a gift economy to meet needs and desires, based on an egalitarian ethics as well as generosity of spirit. None of it had been there a week ago.

“There!” I said in astonishment, rising up even further on the other knee, “there! Out there, right here. That’s anarchism in action!”

Present (Im)perfect 2: Anarchy

Soon after OWS began, someone made a Facebook events page calling for an initial meeting for what would become Occupy Philly, the encampment. People were supposed to meet at the Wooden Shoe, a longtime anarchist bookstore in Philadelphia, but it was apparent within minutes that we’d never fit. Somehow, someone managed to get us space at the Arch Street Methodist Church, about a mile and a half away, and so we all started walking—some five hundred or more people, most new to politics. When we got to the church, it was clear that the Facebook “organizers” hadn’t showed up, so a few anarchists volunteered to facilitate, because no one else wanted to do it, or more likely, knew how. It was soon apparent that everyone wanted to occupy, and there were many suggestions of locations, but no real notion of the pros and cons of each spot, or how we’d even decide. An ad hoc working group of fifty people was formed, by one guy simply agreeing to collect emails, and it met a day or two later in another space that someone, somehow, managed to find, and sheer confusion notwithstanding, our temporary committee somehow forged a directly democratic process.

A few days after that, we borrowed the Methodist Church again, and this time a thousand people converged, most new to politics. And with little concept of why or how we would occupy, in less than two hours, using our version of the CLAC/CLASSE decision-making structure, we easily came to agreement in the smoothest, most purposeful, most uplifting assembly I’ve ever participated in. This group of mostly strangers was obviously of a united mind, almost mystically and definitely euphorically, thereby somehow bringing us skeptical anarchists along. We anarchists “conservatively” wanted more time to first conduct skill shares and organize. But we, too, were propelled to our feet after the votes were counted to cheer wildly with all in the room: the illegal takeover of city hall plaza was set for the day after tomorrow at 9 AM.

Two days later, sans permit, plan, or experience, a whole bunch of people “broke ground” for the nonhierarchical city of Occupy Philly within the shadow, quite literally, of the extremely hierarchical one of the City of Philadelphia. It was, for hours, beautiful chaos. From that moment on until the end of our physical home some two months later, I heard the phrase “I’ve never felt so alive” repeated ad nauseam, largely because of how empowering it felt to constantly turn that chaos into our own makeshift self-creations, only to see them become chaotic again, and so begin the cycle afresh. That phrase was matched only by my own use of the term “messy,” because among those many things I learned from Occupy Philly, I discovered this as well: trying to create a new society under the heavy boot and socialization of the old is going to involve us making more mistakes than I thought possible, messy and messier ones, including stepping on way too many toes but also stumbling on sheer genius and glimpses of our own potential humanity—precisely through such anarchic experimentation.

So within hours of making camp, one of the original Facebook events page makers showed up in person to declare that Occupy Philly wasn’t going how he’d envisioned, and he set about trying to shut it down—the start of his self-appointment as “police liaison.” Within days, the assembly voted to get a permit, because according to way too many a trusting white Occupier, the mayor and cops were being “so friendly,” which in turn exacerbated already-present tensions in light of years of police violence against blacks in Philly, and particularly after a racial epithet had been yelled at a person of color only a day or two earlier.[3] That first week, many also seemed to think that facilitators were a secret cabal, directing the occupation, and the mushrooming number of working groups along with the once-daily coordinating council and twice-daily assembly quickly became revolving doors for misfits, mayhem, and misunderstandings.

And yet, within a week, those of us who stuck around all had a crush on Occupy Philly, and people were vigilantly defending our face-to-face democracy against any attempts to turn it into something that even remotely reeked of representation. From the spontaneity of being thrown together willy-nilly with people you’d probably never in a million years want to spend time with, or didn’t even much like, we became one big, happy family-cum-community, as in “Yeah, your cousin kinda rambles on too long, but we love them anyway.” As a previously nonpolitical Occupier put it in the early days, when someone asks them, “What are you doing at Occupy?” they reply, “We don’t know. And that’s OK. Nobody knows. This may end in a week. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll be the people who change the world.”

Present (Im)perfect 3: Anarchistic

Winding back around to my one and only intro to anarchism teach-in at Occupy Philly, besides realizing that we Occupiers were doing anarchism, it fully struck me that the “we” by and large wasn’t made up of anarchists—even though there were probably more anarchists involved than at most other Occupies. If there was one prevailing common denominator among this hodgepodge of human beings, it was this: most were liberals. That loudly took the form of, as one of my anarchist friends called them, “militant liberals,” most of them near-caricatures of patriarchal, heteronormative white males who thought the “founding fathers” had it right. Yet it also encompassed a much wider, calmer range of well-meaning “less-militant” liberals, such as progressives, peace and justice activists, Quakers and interfaith folks, veterans, Democrats, democratic socialists, third-party advocates, college and high school students, single and nuclear-family/GLBT parents, community organizers, antiprison and anticurfew activists, feminists, environmentalists, rank-and-file laborers and the un- and underemployed, people without homes, and (neo)hippies—and probably their dogs too.

Without anarchists, of any adjectival variety, expending months of directly democratic elbow grease toward constructing a visible and visibly anticapitalist convergence, or like “occupy everything” part 1 on mostly California and New York City college campuses a couple years ago, autonomously and invisibly seizing spaces, sans demands, with anonymously penned communiqués urging people to then communize them, Occupy Philly was largely constituted and peopled by liberals. These liberalistas followed swiftly in the OWS footsteps out of neither aspirations nor theory, but increasing necessity, often vaguely referred to as “intuition”—a necessity born of foreclosures, lost jobs, no health care, and onward and downward.

To meander back around again, this time to that first walk from the Wooden Shoe to Arch Methodist Church, one young hippie-clothed woman sauntered up to me and cheerfully shared that she’d intuitively known her whole life that something was wrong. She didn’t have words for what was wrong or what she wanted, other than a rather-jumbled monologue about her previous week’s experience at OWS that was liberally peppered with the word “love.” It had taken some powerful people a long time to mess this world up—she was sure of that. She also knew, after sleeping in Liberty Plaza during its first seven days of life, that there were no easy answers, especially any solutions that could be constrained by demands. Instead, and this she was sure of too, she and others were experimenting with building a new world in the corporate parks of the old.

In Philadelphia—the fifth-largest city in the United States, based on 2011 data, and with an unusually disproportionate amount of profound social suffering, structurally enforced along racialized, gendered, and class-based lines—there was always this white elephant in the occupied city hall plaza. Those many liberals at “base camp,” as one of them put it, were overwhelmingly Caucasian U.S. citizens from the downwardly (de)mobilized middle class. That they seemed to be the last to discover that the “American dream” was a nightmare for most created a cornucopia of problems. Yet there they were, some of the last people in the United States that one would expect to want to illegally “occupy everything” that’s been stolen from so many “othered” people, and in that open space of possibility, act anarchistically. As one particularly naive liberal Occupier dude observed, as if thunderstruck by his own words, “It doesn’t matter how, or if, the mainstream media explains what we’re doing. We know what we’re doing!” In the Occupy Philly commons, our doing was our demand; our demand was in our doing.

Let’s go back once more to the circle of my intro to anarchism talk, where I experienced another lightbulb moment of my own. If liberalism, neoliberalism, or other various top-down “-ism” forms of social organization, all inherently limiting freedom to a powerful few, can and do function perfectly well when inhabited by all sorts of people who don’t identify as liberal, neoliberal, and so on; and if those types of social organization socialize us to their “values” and practices, and not the other way around; then anarchism too, understood as a wholly different form of social organization, sans hierarchy and striving toward a cornucopia of freedoms, can and should—and as Occupy at its best showed, does—function perfectly well when populated by people who aren’t anarchists.

An always-enthusiastic Occupier did this hokey, in my view, group exercise at one of our general assemblies, at least a couple months into our occupation. It involved free-ranging brainstorms on our shared core values, and lots of sheets of paper, colorful pens, and running around, culminating in us then narrowing it all down to our collective top-five picks. I hate such reductionist activities and barely participated, grumpily, unlike the several hundred who just as enthusiastically took part—again, mostly liberals. At the end of this half hour or so, without any anarchists at Occupy Philly ever having put out a laundry list of our principles, the five values at the heart of our encampment could easily have been an ABCs of anarchism.

Present (Im)perfect 4: Anarchists

And this, in turn, brings me round to “us” anarchists, of all stripes—black/green, black/red, black/brown, black/pink, black/black, and so forth. As I noted just above, at Occupy Philly, we were there in good-size numbers, which shouldn’t be surprising given Philly’s lengthy anarchist history and its longtime “anarchist neighborhood” of West Philly. And over the course of Occupy Philly’s life span, our numbers increased, which again shouldn’t come as a surprise, because living, breathing anarchism in action—especially when done by us anarchists, who already had some skills in doing it comparatively well, compared to the liberals—made anarchism itself seem extra appealing, or at least commonsensical.

What was surprising, however, was that we found and/or rediscovered each other. None of us entered the encampment as an affinity group, or coordinated ahead of time to be there en masse. In fact, like anarchists in many U.S. cities, we often don’t like each other, don’t work well together, have stepped back from organizing, or specifically in Philly, simply have many separate micro-projects/collectives and micro-scenes, and so rarely convene in large groups, except at a yearly bookfair, say, and Philly doesn’t have a bookfair.

But none of us, even anarchists long dormant, could resist the pull of Occupy Philly when it first started. We scurried downtown from all corners of the city and set about doing what we anarchists do best: self-organize. Or in this case, we instantly, unthinkingly (because who the hell thought Occupy Philly would last so long), became do-it-ourselves city technocrats and maybe even bureaucrats on pretty much all the working groups of this pop-up city, because that was what was needed: do-it-ourselves know-how. After all, we had a big, well-stocked toolbox to draw from, collected from our anarchist prehistory.

So our Occupy was abundantly supplied with anarchists, and we joyfully reconnected with each other and our anarchism. We just as joyfully leaped into our labors of love, abandoning our paid work or paid-for schooling, remembering the exhilaration of former convergences, but remarking how this felt extraordinary—revolutionary and historic even. And perhaps most especially, we joyfully watched in awe as so many non-anarchists took to our practices so quickly and so . . . well, not so well, but they took to them nonetheless, none the wiser at first that they were doing anarchism.

Even though it seemed like a dream come true, it was excruciating at times to be an anarchist among liberals—especially on that early-Occupy night mentioned above where a huge general assembly, many of the same folks who had only a week earlier voted to illegally occupy this same plaza, decided we suddenly had to have a permit for our own “protection.” So we gathered outdoors for late-night conversations and commiserations in what became known as the “anarchist guild.” It even produced some good literature, workshops, and other projects, but never explicitly as anarchist or by anarchists.

Which brings me to this curiosity: while there were hundreds of anarchists at Occupy Philly throughout its physical-space days, it was hard for the uninitiated liberal to recognize an anarchist, since most anarchists in Philly dress like “regular” folk. Even after anarchists verbally identified themselves as such, or stood up in front of the general assembly to read a lovely little statement titled “We Are Anarchists” (explaining that “We’re here with everyone else, practicing power-with not power-over”), or folks already knew a bunch of us from projects like Decarcerate PA or Food Not Bombs and collective spaces like LAVA or the A-Space, or it was made clear that some of the things people loved best about Occupy Philly (such as the aforementioned couch, to name one) were kicked off and/or sustained by anarchists—even after all that and more, most of the Occupiers thought there were few, if any, actual anarchists around.

Thanks to the militant liberals, or rather their militant inner circle of white, hetero-misogynist, conspiracy-theorist-paranoid macho men (and this said by someone who rarely thinks in binary or flat identity categories, much less really believed in them before Occupy Philly), “the” anarchist at Occupy Philly was me, as in the “EVEN JESUS HATES” example—one of the less-egregious assaults directed at me, I might add. I was a convenient bogeyman, because I’m both visible and not one to back down, but that the state/police directly, indirectly, or serendipitously via these militant liberals targeted anarchists in an effort to destroy Occupies only underscored for me that anarchism in action was working. That was my positive spin, most of the time. But such “red-baiting” also served, I think, to make many a Philly anarchist cautious about outing themselves as an anarchist, ultimately reducing our contributions and stifling our often-needed voices.

We also inadvertently made ourselves invisible, though, by keeping our self-imposed technocratic noses to the do-it-ourselves grindstone, thereby leaving the self-governance way too frequently to the well-meaning liberals, which in turn made Occupy extra frustrating, to put it mildly, and often extra unsafe or racist, say, to put it bluntly. (In turn, many anarchists simply drifted away, back to their other, admittedly far less stressful and far less messy projects.) For instance, two or three of us had basically drafted the directly democratic process for our general assembly, using methods that worked relatively well in anarchist situations. We had no way of knowing—although in hindsight it seems obvious—that such processes would be wholly inadequate under Occupy conditions, which are precisely the conditions (society at large) that we need to start tinkering with and learning from if we hope to replace states, capitalism, and their ilk. When it didn’t work and indeed became a disaster, we didn’t step into the decision-making fray to help sort it out. Beyond the “form,” we also were wary about offering “content” through proposals, for example, around consent or via collective structures to try to grapple with institutional oppression within our Occupy.

Not that we have all the answers. Or even many of them. Those of us anarchists who showed up at and especially stayed put within Occupy Philly, the encampment, learned more than we ever bartered for. But there were two particularly huge lessons.

First, self-organization really does work, as do all our other principles. The random Occupiers flung together without a road map or boss didn’t just stand around looking confused, or tear each other apart (at least initially). They passionately threw themselves headfirst into doing what they love, teaching each other new skills, lending a hand, sharing materials and ideas, trying to protect and care for each other, figuring out how to deal with those tasks none of us really want to do (like, in the case of Occupy Philly, when one of our most considerate general assemblies centered on how to keep the portable toilets clean), and so much more, as other global revolts of late have demonstrated as well.

Second, self-organization ultimately didn’t work, and everything we ever thought we knew about ethical social transformation needs to be thoroughly rethought. In our excitement at the outset, at least within Occupy Philly, we misjudged many things, such as the depth of personal and societal damage, and how long it will take to work through—certainly far longer than our occupation—or more to the point, what it will take to undo. We contributed, more than we should have, to letting power dynamics and troublesome individuals spiral increasingly out of anyone’s control—partly a result of the genuine dilemma of how, without relying on domination, to ensure and especially “enforce” accountability as well as create safer spaces and consensual boundaries. We didn’t have the patience to retool, perhaps time and again, the directly democratic and autonomous structures that we largely brought to the occupation in the first place, even though it soon became apparent that they didn’t simply scale-up from, for instance, an anarchist infoshop to daily life within a heterogeneous community with many pressing needs.

To be fair, we also just didn’t have time for such reevaluation, much less continually inventing new practices to test out with others. We were all trying to do everything at once, from scratch, without sleep. And more important, there was still the snarling “outside world” barking at our heels, from the many historical and contemporary wrongs in our midst like homelessness and racism to the beat cops stationed on our plaza, from a “good” mayor playing us off against each other to the barrage of bad press, from Homeland Security to capitalism, just to mention a few.

Maybe then, more accurately, there weren’t lessons but only a gift. Occupy presented us with the humbling experience of coming face-to-face with the chicken-and-egg question (the vegan version, of course): society and selves need to change before our selves and society can change, yet we can only transform society and our selves through the very process of trying to doing so. To an astonishing degree we did—and to an equally astonishing degree, we didn’t. It’s just a whole hell of a lot messier than we anarchists ever dreamed, even though we also never imagined we’d live to participate in an Occupy, if only for a few months.

What’s a Poor Anarchist to Do Now?

The pond of this essay is, alas, way too small for me to swim into the murky depths of all the problems that Occupy raised for anarchists, anarchism, and those who found they liked living in an anarchistic world populated by all sorts of people, including anarchists. So I’ll end with a few circles of hell or maybe heaven, or for us godless anarchists, the constant conundrums we face attempting to do anything in this world.

Future (Im)perfect 1

“I never thought it would work. So I never showed up. OK, so I stopped by for some free pizza a couple times, but it was fucked up from the start. I’m an anarchist. Occupy was some liberal shit.”

Or:

“I thought Occupy offered potential, so I showed up, but it got so hard to stay because of the [fill in the blank]. I’m an anarchist. I was already doing rad work that I cared about with folks on the front lines, like prisoners and people without papers, so I’ve gone back to those struggles. Too bad Occupy never quite figured out a way to reciprocally make those connections.”

Future (Im)perfect 2

“I’m an anarchist, and Occupy shook up my world; it made me believe again. I’m not sure yet what to do with all I learned, loved, and lost, or what’s left of Occupy itself, but maybe I need more processing time, alone and with others. Right now, it feels for naught, but I know that’s only my disappointment speaking.”

Future (Im)perfect 3

Occupy is dead. Long live Occupy. Or maybe it’s just taking a nap. Should we wake it up?

Future (Im)perfect 4

Maybe it’s time we kill Occupy once and for all, in our minds and nostalgia, and bring something else to life—and not through wishful thinking, memes, or Adbusters, or adding “occupy” to everything. Maybe there’s a reason why the more powerful, inspiring, and longer-lasting do-it-ourselves revolts globally of this past year and a half have been attached to springtime, with its renewal, dynamism, and freshness: Arab Spring, Maple Spring. Maybe, in the United States, because we’re so behind the curve on rebellion, we needed to start with Occupy Fall—a surprising blaze of autumnal color to reawaken our senses, followed by a raked-up pile of downed crisp leaves to jump in, and yet all too soon blanketed by snow. Practice, with a bittersweet dose of self-reflection, might make for a bit more perfect uprising next time, but only if the next time isn’t simply a toothless pantomime of Occupy (or the Arab or Maple springs either).

Future (Im)perfect 5

About a month ago in Montréal, I ran into an old friend, who is also a longtime anarchist and CLAC member, at one of the enormous, rambunctious, ungovernable (by the province and police) illegal night demos, which as I write, will be heading tomorrow into consecutive night 78 contra special law 78. The law was intended to have a chilling effect on the student strike; instead, it only heated up Maple Spring, pushing it closer toward a social strike by the people and definitively into a political crisis for the government.

We got to talking intensely about all things Maple Spring, which is what people do night after night on the streets that are ours, and lost in our conversation, we drifted to the back of the huge, snaking mass of people—people of all types and politics, people who never seem at a loss in these near-five months of student strike for imaginative, flexible, effective strategies that only seem to open up space for more popular participation and solidarity. Not to romanticize what’s going on here, but there’s a depth that comes from knowing one’s prehistory (nearly every seventeen- to twenty-two-year-old striking student I talk to mentions it), having actual practice for several generations in forms of participatory and direct democracy (via institutionalized structures at many of the colleges, and thus the structural basis for carefully organizing this strike), and still believing that society should provide people with social goodness like free education (a legacy, for one, of the promise of the so-called Quiet Revolution here in the 1960s and 1970s).

My friend said that last year, after ten years in Montréal, he was just about to move, because nothing interesting was going on, particularly among the anarchists. “Now,” he said, pointing ahead to the thousands of rebellious disobedients in front of us, “The people are leading, and we anarchists are running to catch up”—quite literally, as he and I picked up our pace to join in this historic moment once again.


[1] The anarchism piece of the Occupy puzzle is, appropriately, a circle—or at least the piece told here. And it’s told here as a circuitous first-person narrative, because among the numerous things that Occupy taught me, it’s that, first, storytelling is a lost art and painful need in the age of (a)social networking, and second, that there’s nothing linear about social transformation. My thanks to Kate Khatib and Sean West Wispy for their invaluable insight and editorial assistance; they improved this essay, although its perspective and any missteps are mine. I also offer my gratitude to (almost-all) Occupy Philly folks for the messily beautiful experiment of trying to collectively cobble together a city from below.

[2] In both cases, I also wrote and am writing blog posts. For my “Dispatches from Occupy Philly” and still-accumulating “Dispatches from Maple Spring,” see Outside the Circle at cbmilstein.wordpress.com. You’ll also find essays related to this piece: “Something Did Start in Québec City” and “Anarchism’s Promise for Anticapitalist Resistance.”

[3] Ironically perhaps, even though our DIY legal working group followed the general assembly’s directive and applied for a round-the-clock permit from the city, the city bureaucrats signed off on that full day but also notated that our “permitted” time was from 7 AM to 7 PM daily—meaning our general assembly always began just as we became illegal each night.

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Photos: Occupy Philly by Cindy Milstein, save for the "Occupy Pumpkin," by Dave Onion (http://multi.lectical.net/flickr); Montreal's Mile-End, by Thien V Qn (http://quelquesnotes.wordpress.com/).

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If you've run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/. Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.

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