— James Clark
THE DECISION BY Time magazine to name “the protester” its Person of the Year was largely a response to the two major events that bookended 2011: the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.
While the scale of popular revolution in the Middle East and North Africa easily surpasses that of the Occupy protests based primarily in North America and Europe, the two movements are clearly related and continue to influence each other’s politics, composition and trajectory.
As the increasingly widespread use of “Occupy” suggests, however, there is a much broader history underpinning today’s movements, stretching as far back as the Palestinian Intifada in 1987 (if not further), to the Seattle anti-globalization protests in 1999, to the unprecedented global antiwar movement in 2003, and to the nascent Arab democracy movements in the 2000s.
The ever-evolving meaning of “occupy” both reveals a genealogy of struggle over the last 25 years and provides an “occupy” framework in which activists and academics alike can identify and generalize common methods of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist resistance.
The purpose of this approach is to “move in from the margins.” In other words, we should aim to place more central focus on our interconnected histories of struggle, the movements in which we have been involved (and which continue to shape us), and ourselves as agents who can more consciously play a role in our own collective resistance and liberation.
Within this history of social movements, the term “occupy” has generally manifested itself in three ways: 1) As a term that describes the process of taking up space; 2) as a term that describes a particular tactic of resistance; and 3) as a term that describes the process of taking up time.
The Oxford English Dictionary locates the origins of “occupy” in the Latin occupare, “to seize.” The use of the term “occupy” in these disparate and competing contexts no doubt leads to its heated contestation, a fact that we should not necessarily lament. Each of these meanings, despite their sometimes contradictory applications, preserves their historical and political specificities in a way that reminds us of the genealogy of struggle: How did we get where we are today, and where might we go in the future?
Imperial and Colonial Occupation
In the sense of taking up space, the term “occupy” has been most commonly used in anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, from national liberation struggles to their international solidarity counterparts, to describe a military-backed occupation — by troops, “advisors,” contractors and other specialists — of a generally defined geographical space, to satisfy particular political and economic ends.
The countless examples of these include the European-dominated “scramble for Africa” in the 19th century and Britain’s long and entrenched presence in India until 1947. These expressions of imperial conquest sought a more permanent form of occupation to serve the needs of a metropole economy.
We are perhaps more familiar with recent examples of military occupation: the Israeli presence in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 (or, on all of historic Palestine since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948); the U.S.-led occupations of Afghanistan beginning in 2001 at the start of the “war on terror,” and of Iraq since 2003 that, despite recent claims of a withdrawal, continues to dominate all aspects of Iraqi life.
There are other non-Western examples of occupation as well, many of which replicate Western military methods of occupation and, in fact, sustain them through the use of Western-made armaments: India’s decades-long occupation of Kashmir and Sri Lanka’s ongoing occupation of Tamil Eelam, the traditional lands of the Tamil people.
In North America, Indigenous peoples have also used the term “occupy” to describe the historical process of colonization and settlement by Europeans of Turtle Island, an experience that includes genocide, ethnic cleansing, biological warfare, rape and sexual abuse, and forced assimilation. Indigenous activists have rightly insisted on connecting Western military adventures abroad to the racist policies and legislation that continue to affect the lives of aboriginal people in North America.
In the context of military occupation, the term “occupy” clearly establishes two distinct and opposing forces: the “occupier” and the “occupied.” It also qualifies what we mean by an occupation, in the sense that it defines a particular tactic of imperial domination.
Factory Seizures, Sit-Ins and Blockades
In terms of tactics, the term “occupy” has been widely used in a range of struggles to describe the more-or-less familiar tactic of physically occupying a space — a factory, an office, an administration building, or even a highway — in order to disrupt the usual flow of business, particularly the production of profit, in a way that both draws attention to the struggle itself and increases the political and economic leverage of those who occupy the space.
This tactic is classically conducted in a grassroots or “bottom-up” manner; in other words, it is not likely to be the first tactical approach in a struggle, but a subsequent and more militant step that becomes an option when more typical methods fail to achieve their demands.
There is a rich history within labor, anti-racist and student movements, both within the United States and internationally, of physically occupying space as a means to escalate struggle. The famous “Sit-down Strikes” in Flint, Michigan in 1937 are perhaps the best example within the American labor movement: Workers in the powerful auto industry physically occupied their plants and ceased production in order to force General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers (UAW) as its employees’ sole and legitimate representative.
Within the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the occupation of lunch counters, buses and other segregated spaces by African-American activists and their allies also represents the application of the “occupy” tactic that led to dramatic reforms and effective anti-racist movements.
French students occupied their campuses in May 1968, following running street battles with the police. Their occupations led to the takeover of administrative buildings, lecture halls and classrooms, and created the space for students to conduct their own educations — and on radically new terms. Within weeks, ten million French workers were on strike.
Within the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, activists and their allies have occupied highways and freeways to block the transport of goods across traditional lands and to prevent the extraction of minerals, gas and oil from un-ceded territories by mining and energy multinationals. On Mothers’ Day in 2009, members of the Tamil community in Toronto occupied the Gardiner Expressway for five hours to protest the killing of 30,000 Tamils by the Sri Lankan military at the close of the country’s civil war.
In this context, the term “occupy” also clearly establishes two distinct and opposing forces: the “occupier” and the “occupied.” But the value that we assign it is different; rather than seeing it as a tool of imperialism or colonial conquest, we see it as a progressive and militant tactic of resistance against exploitation, oppression and injustice. In this case, “occupation” becomes something we seek to continue, prolong and spread, rather than end immediately.
From Daily Routine to Revolt
In terms of taking up time, the term “occupy” is most commonly used in everyday speech to describe the most quotidian of experiences. For example, I am “occupied” with this or that task. Preparing this essay has “occupied” my time in the weeks before this conference. I have been “pre-occupied” with debates about the Occupy movement. In this sense, “occupy” refers to the passage of time during which we do something.
Similarly, the term “occupation” — to describe a job or a career — generally describes what one does to make a living or earn an income over a period of time. In this sense, being “occupied” does not necessarily connote the politics of imperialism or resistance. It conveys a much more “neutral” meaning.
That brings us to the Occupy movement of today. Just over six months old, Occupy has managed to give expression to the term “occupy” in all the ways I have already described, at the same time as radically transforming those meanings and opening up space in which their seeming contradictions may rest — even if uneasily — alongside each other.
If we return to 2011 and review the two events that bookended that year — the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement — we can see the relationship between one and the other, especially through an Occupy framework. The Arab Spring itself may be interpreted as a culmination of a decade (or more) of resistance to U.S.-led imperialism in the region (particularly in Iraq), to the project of Zionism in Palestine, and to the devastating effects of neoliberalism in the Arab economies, compounded by entrenched Western-backed dictatorships that have brutally suppressed all aspirations for basic democratic reform.
The tactic that has become most widely associated with that movement is the large-scale occupation of public spaces. Tahrir (“liberation” in Arabic) Square in central Cairo is probably the most famous example of this tactic. Tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians physically occupied for weeks on end a site whose original design in its size and scale was meant to discourage protest, both defying the decades-old “emergency laws” formally integrated into Egypt’s constitution under Hosni Mubarak, and creating a living, working alternative of human organization to the autocratic capitalist model.
At its height, the occupation of Tahrir Square involved hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people. The unprecedented international media coverage of events in Tahrir Square may very well have obscured some of the other tactics that significantly contributed to Mubarak’s ouster — especially the spread of strikes to key sectors of the Egyptian economy — but it nevertheless allowed millions of people around the world to witness the emergence of a popular and powerful movement that, “in just 18 days,” overthrew a dictator that had been in power for 30 years.
In turn, the success of the Egyptian Revolution (not to suggest that the process is anywhere near completion) has inspired movements outside Egypt, both long-standing and emerging, to pursue similar tactics. By the spring of 2011, we saw the large-scale occupation of public squares and plazas by the Indignados in Spain and by trade unionists in Greece.
By the end of the summer, the first attempts were made to occupy Wall Street, although they were unsuccessful. By the fall, however, Occupy Wall Street had sparked a response in the United States, Canada, Europe and around the world that led to the creation of literally thousands of encampments, all of which raised a series of demands that addressed the totality and systemic nature of the global capitalist system. OWS also articulated and renewed concepts of class politics through the expression of the slogan, “We are the 99%.”
Taking Space and Time
In this process, the term “occupy” has managed to encompass all the meanings associated with it before the movement emerged, but it also dramatically deepens and expands them. The sites of protest are themselves occupations — they take up space. They are also a particular tactical approach, moving directly to a more militant expression of politics, instead of beginning with the more usual rallies, marches and pickets.
At the same time as they embrace and pay tribute to the tactic of occupation that has roots in the labor, Civil Rights and student movements, they also acknowledge and engage the term “occupy” in its imperialist context, as evidenced by the centrality of anti-war demands in the movement. Consider the slogans: “Occupy Wall Street, not Afghanistan!” (or Iraq, Palestine, etc.).
Likewise, the Occupy protests take up time, but in a much more meaningful way. On the one hand, the protests have no end point, even when the camps have been evicted; they reorganize elsewhere or reoccupy the same sites. On the other hand, they occupy the time of all those who participate in Occupy — and on every level: from sharing in the collective labor of establishing and sustaining the camps themselves to engaging in the more overtly political debates and gestures that pervade the movement.
In addition, they increasingly occupy the time of all those who witness Occupy. In this sense, Occupy has come to occupy the mainstream media (The Economist ran an article on how to tax fairly the 1%; Fox News, despite its ongoing attempts to dismiss Occupy, un-self-consciously amplifies its demands); the political arena (at both official and informal levels), other movements and struggles (unions now increasingly describe themselves as “part of the 99%”), and academia (numerous conferences continue to engage and theorize Occupy).
Perhaps most important is the impact on public consciousness: How many of us have heard from “non-political” family members, friends and colleagues who want to know more about the Occupy phenomenon? In just a few weeks, we had been reshaped by Occupy and are now pre-occupied with it, and possibly for a very long time.
Occupy has also helped to conflate the once distinct terms of “occupier” and “occupied” — in that the participants in the Occupy movement are both “occupiers” and “occupied.” They are one and the same. Their practice has rehabilitated the term “occupier” in such a way as to emphasize its progressive content as a tactic and to invest within it a certain kind of agency, and perhaps even a certain kind of subjectivity.
On another level, the movement has transformed “occupy” from a tactic into a demand, by the simple addition of an exclamation point: “Occupy!” Occupy-as-demand may then exist as a one-word slogan — simply “Occupy!” — or as an imperative verb attached to a series of targets, from the specific to the general: “Occupy Wall Street!” “Occupy Parliament!” and “Occupy Everywhere!”
In response to ongoing job losses and plant closures, Michael Moore recently said: “We need to occupy our jobs. Sign union cards. When they try to close down your work, sit down, lock the doors!”(1) Moore’s formulation should be of particular interest in connecting the energy, enthusiasm and innovation of Occupy with existing struggles.
In this sense, “Occupy!” simultaneously expresses itself as both a tactic and a demand that immediately achieves its goals as soon as it is practiced. In other words, when we occupy, we demonstrate the tactic at the same time as we satisfy the demand to occupy.(2) There is no delay, a fact that contributes to the tactic’s wide appeal among activists who are impatient with the overall pace of change.
Even as a speech act, “Occupy!” achieves its goal as soon as it is uttered. We are immediately “occupied” when we hear “occupy.” In this sense, the term “occupy” has also come to describe a performative political gesture that we repeat the more we participate in and witness the protests; in the process, it contributes to the development of a community and a movement.
Having Our Diversity and Unity Too
In response to the perception that these various manifestations of “occupy” represent competing and contradictory meanings, activists as well as academics have begun to grapple with the consequences of their application to the most immediate demands of the Occupy movement. For instance, in her paper, “Literary Studies and the 99%,” Caroline Levine frames this question in terms of the seeming incommensurability between “a politics of equality,” on the one hand, and “a politics of difference,” on the other.(3)
Is there any hope their apparent contradictions may be resolved? Are they permanently counter-posed? Rather than engaging these questions on the level of theory, I would like to discuss two concrete issues that emerged in the early days of the Occupy movement that seem to suggest on a practical level some ways to achieve a politics of “both/and” instead of “either/or.” Or, as Caroline Levine suggests, “to have our cake and eat it, too.”
At Occupy Wall Street, during the first attempts to draft a common declaration of purpose, a number of activists objected to a series of liberal claims about unity and the “human race” that glossed over and, in many cases, erased (and devalued) the dramatically different and uneven experiences among Occupy participants of the effects of exploitation, oppression, alienation and so on, under neoliberal capitalism.
In response, a group of activists launched what came to be called the “People of Color Working Group” at Occupy Wall Street that opened up space to address the questions of systemic oppression — first, in terms of race, but also in terms of gender, sexuality, ability, nation, status, etc. — which are inevitably reproduced within the Occupy movement, despite all of our “best intentions,” and to develop collective strategies to hold ourselves to account, and to acknowledge and even emphasize difference, but in a way that engages with and is a part of a broader, united struggle: being part of the 99%.
Similarly, Indigenous activists in Occupy Toronto and other parts of Canada have intervened as participants in the Occupy movement to address the historical and political meaning of the term “occupy” for First Nations people on Turtle Island. Their contributions continue to demonstrate that a movement that seeks equality can only meaningfully do so if it seriously engages (and organizes accordingly) the difference of experience and perspective of all groups who do not encounter the capitalist economy and society in a uniform and homogeneous way.
These concerns have led to the further modification of “occupy” that both signals a desire to be part of and participate in a broader movement, and refuses the erasure of urgent political and historical specificities: (de-)Occupy Montreal and (un)Occupy Albuquerque are just two of many examples.
By highlighting these questions, I do not mean to suggest that these debates have been settled or that they have proceeded smoothly or without sharp disagreement. They are best described, however, in the most optimistic sense, as productive and necessary sites of tension that continue to negotiate the relationship between a politics of equality and a politics of difference.
Crucially, they demonstrate that the 99% is a vastly heterogeneous and diverse “grouping,” for lack of a better word, that shares a strategic opposition to the 1%. We are united, and even organized, by our shared exploitation and oppression by the 1%, even though those experiences are at times dramatically different, uneven and unequal.
Even in our totality, which we now refer to as the 99%, and despite the numerical majority that we represent, we have been historically a marginalized group. The lie of bourgeois democracy is the idea that the will of the majority rules the day. Paraphrasing Levine, what counts is counting ballots, and even that remains contested.
Occupy, in response, has shown in a relatively short amount of time that something else counts — and that is our movements. More importantly, the impact of our movements so far in terms of occupying the broader public’s consciousness demonstrates the potential for a significantly larger, more powerful and more transformative struggle, one that addresses much more than radical reforms, but the fundamental questions of how human beings organize into society, politics and economy.
It is in this sense that the 99% — long marginalized without real political or economic power, but with our previously unrecognized collective potential strength (our numbers and the positions we occupy in the economy) — may begin to “move in from the margins” and “occupy everything,” including our future.
- Moore gave a stand-alone address to Left Forum 2012 on March 17, 2012. The theme of this year’s conference was “Occupy the System: Confronting Global Capitalism.” A video of Moore’s speech is available online: http://www.leftforum.org/content/michael-moore-left-forum-2012-full-video.
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- Don Pease made this observation in “The Tea Party, Obama and the Politics of Occupy: A Conversation with Donald Pease Jr.,” a lunch-time talk at “Marxism and New Media,” a graduate conference at Duke University, January 19 to 21, 2012.
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- Keynote address to “Occupied: Taking Up Space and Time,” Indiana University, Bloomington, March 22- 24, 2012.
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May/June 2012, ATC 158