Two Anthropologists Discuss the Occupy Movement

On Saturday, October 22, I was a participant-observer at Occupy Denver, a sub-group of the larger Occupy Together movement that is now in 1,608 cities across the world. While the movement has been growing both in numbers and in sophistication, there is still a lot of confusion about the intentions and characteristics of the people involved. The following is a discussion between myself and Mabebones about the movement based on our observations and experiences over the last month. Please check back regularly as it is anticipated that this conversation will evolve.

What is the Occupy movement?

This is the most basic question, but in some ways the most difficult to answer. The Occupy movement is a loose consortium of individuals who are dissatisfied with the current socio-economic system. At one time I would have claimed that the it was a progressive movement, but even that may be too much of a pigeon-hole as I have seen self-identified Libertarians, Republicans, and Anarchists in addition  to Liberals and Democrats.  A more pertinent question is Who is the Occupy Movement? I ask Who it is, rather than what, because the entire Occupy Together movement is people. The dismissive meme by opponents to the movement have described these people as shiftless, unemployed contrarians; doe-eyed students; or the freakish margins of American society looking for attention. What I have seen in Denver is a representative cross-section of Colorado society. The Occupy Together movement, which has quickly expanded beyond Wall Street and now includes 1,523 cities across the globe has landed on a strategy of marking Saturdays as a day of protest. This allows all of us “weekend revolutionaries” (a brilliant term that I saw fly by on my OWS twitter feed) to participate, eliminating the meme by detractors that the disgruntled are only the shiftless and  doe-eyed students, i.e. non-productive contrarians. Because of  this, the demographic of Saturday’s event truly encompassed a cross-section of Colorado citizens. The protestors included young professionals; families with young children, some of whom had made their own signs; retired folks who would have looked just as comfortable at the golf-course as at the protest; college students who were just as worried about upcoming exams as they were about social-justice issues; guys in late-middle age who looked as if they had never taken a day off from work in their lives; all these people were a mix of White, African-American, Hispanic, and Native American peoples from all walks of Colorado life.

What was the atmosphere like on the ground in Denver?  Happy?  Upbeat?  Angry?  Hopeful?

The scene at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver on Saturday, October 22 was a far cry from the week before when an estimated 2000-3000 marched, and faced the wrath of the city. Many protesters reported wiping mace from their eyes with bandanas soaked in vinegar, watching as police confiscated their food and dumped the contents of their water containers onto the streets, a primevally inhuman act even in a city where food and water are readily available. This week a few more than 1000 people marched, although that number quickly dropped by half by mid-afternoon with only a couple of hundred stalwart members standing their ground to occupy the park, while others, myself included, came and went, adding their numbers and their voice intermittently. This drop was likely due to the very visible police presence. During the day we saw dozens of city Police Officers and State Troopers, mostly in large groups of 5+, ringing the protest area. All of my observations of Law Enforcement and my own interaction with them was very pleasant. However, they had been brutal the week before, and were visibly imposing and intimidating. Everyone I spoke with who was planning on spending the night in the park- Occupying the public space- were wary about how the Police would behave at 11pm.

During the daylight hours the general mood was very upbeat, although not hopeful. The participants are very dedicated to non-violence, non-aggression, and inclusivity. The volunteer making sandwiches at the community food pantry, the table set up on Lincoln Street to feed protestors, summed it up better than anyone: “We are building a social revolution from the ground up that enfranchises everyone. A Wall Street banker could walk by right now and I would serve him just as well as you fucking street people”. Then he handed the peanut-butter sandwich he was making to the guy he just berated to applause from the rest of us. The organizers  had speakers, including David Barsamian of Alternative Radio, as well as a variety of bands. People were selling Occupy-related items, although mostly for donations. One such woman was taking donations for buttons; she lived in community house for impaired individuals. Many of the residents wanted to participate but were unable, so they made political buttons as their contribution. What I found the most interesting, while people were milling about with their Guy Fawkes masks and home-made placards was that there were actual conversations taking place about the issues and about potential ways to solve them. There were contrarians, looking to get into an argument, but for the most part people didn’t take the bait. I think that at this early juncture of the movement the creation of a space for civic discourse is the most valuable contribution.

How do you respond to the critiques that the movement has no unifying focus?

The critique that the Occupy movement has no unifying focus is a critique that echoes many contemporary progressive protests over the last decade. A cursory look at the grievances of the protestor does indicate that there isn’t a unifying focus; one sees slogans against “capitalism”; against individual banks and financial institutions; against political leaders; against specific policies; against judicial decisions; and against the American government. What participants in the Occupy movement would tell you is that these seemingly disparate grievances are united under a common perception that democratic ideals about social responsibility have been sacrificed so that a few can have a lot.

On Saturday this commonality was crystallized in a speech by Dr. Glen Morris of the  American Indian Movement of Colorado in the single issue of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The XL is a proposed pipeline between the oil sands of Canada and Texas, 1,702 miles. There are several areas of concern that different groups of activists have targeted, including the potential environmental degradation of sensitive areas; this includes the effects on major water resources such as the Ogallala aquifer, which provides potable water to people in 175,000 miles across 8 western plains states. The EPA has provided two separate reports that call for more scientific investigation of the potential impacts of the project, as have several independent scientists. Scientists also question the claim that this pipeline will “reduce reliance on foreign oil” as the type of crude that will be extracted and transported requires high energy inputs to refine and process, creating a large carbon footprint. There are social and environmental justice issues, as the project originates in Canadian First Nations land, and crosses the tribal lands of several Native American groups in the United States, an aspect of the project that has been completely ignored in most reports. Finally, because the project is international in scope, it requires permits from  the President of the United States and the United States State Department, which has come under severe criticism for intimate connections with TransCanada, the company responsible for the pipeline, that calls into question the objectivity of the State Department in the review process. Finally, despite the fact that the project has not been officially permitted, it has been reported that American farmers in western plains states have already received notice of the acquisition of their property through eminent domain, a legal but highly undemocratic action that allows, in this case, private companies to confiscate land.

To sum up, this brief description of a single, complicated project illustrates that, regardless of an individual’s political priorities- environment, indigenous issues, climate change, eminent domain- these seemingly disparate issues are interrelated, and ultimately stem from structural relationships between the government officials and business leaders, whom provide opportunities for each other at the expense of  a larger public. It is this systemic inequality that most of the protestors recognize, and this allows them to unify under a single movement.

What about the critique that groups are protesting big corporations, yet still patronizing them?  (the usual example is the protester with a cup of Starbucks coffee)
This criticism is a distraction, a dismissive tool designed to embarrass supporters rather than a criticism that elevates discussion of the issues at hand. There are a couple reasons that this is a distraction, the first being, as discussed so eloquently by DouglasRushkoff, because patronizing “corporations” shouldn’t necessarily have to be an all or nothing affair:
“As so many journalists seem obligated to point out, kids are criticizing corporate America while tweeting through their iPhones. The simplistic critique is that if someone is upset about corporate excess, he is supposed to abandon all connection with any corporate product. Of course, the more nuanced approach to such tradeoffs would be to seek balance rather than ultimatums. Yes, there are things big corporations might do very well, like making iPhones. There are other things big corporations may not do so well, like structure mortgage derivatives. Might we be able to use corporations for what works, and get them out of doing what doesn’t?”  In other words, Starbucks makes a fine damn cup of coffee, so why shouldn’t people purchase that company’s products?

This is directly related to the second reason that this critique is leveled as a distraction (and I am going to continue with the Starbucks example here). Not all corporations are created equal. While a dominant theme of the Occupy movement that unites the grievances of the protestors is that the corruption and power of large corporations needs to be addressed, for the most part no one calling for a complete moratorium on every corporation that ever existed. There is a difference between Starbucks and General Electric, for example. One the one hand you have a highly visible company that employs individuals from around the neighborhoods where they are located. While the job of a barista is largely a low-wage service sector job, Starbucks offers a variety of investments in their employees, as well as perqs such as health benefits. SB supports fair-trade and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices to a larger degree than companies of comparable size with the farmers from whom they purchase their coffee beans and attempt to expand such practices as the opportunities arise. Also, and perhaps most important from an Occupy perspective, I do not know of a single incident in which SB has thrown its weight into an election or purchased the loyalty of a politician, particularly at the  expense of the public good. GE, on the other hand, has been criticized for not paying taxes (while this is not entirely accurate, GE has, over the last several decades, aggressively lobbied for and helped to achieve extraordinarily low corporate tax rates); has increasingly outsourced jobs out of the United States, including an estimated 22,000 in CFL manufacturing in 2009 alone. Where this becomes a structural problem that extends beyond economics is when President Obama chose the GE CEO to head his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. This adds a whole new dimension to Rushkoff’s discussion:  corporations have never been very good at making public policy decisions, particularly ones that are in the public’s best interest. Yet our current political system has increasingly accepted and sought their influence.

What are the ultimate goals of the Occupy movement?

It could be said that the ultimate goal of the Occupy Movement is the inclusion of the “99%”, or the average American, defined primarily through socio-economic status, in the policy decisions of the United States government and the minimization of multinational corporations in policy-making decisions. By removing the corruptive force of the multinationals, concerns of the larger American Public can be met by our politicians. However, one of the significant characteristics of the Occupy Movement is that, while it has a national flavor, the individual Occupy City movements have local concerns that are being addressed. For instance, while we see Unions engaging with Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Denver was the first city to adopt an Indigenous agenda. The concerns of the individual General Assemblies within each city will most likely evolve, and while the movement will be united under a common umbrella that gives it national cache, they will have to be locally significant to remain relevant.

How does the Occupy movement compare to the Tea Party movement?  In particular, here is a story from NPR about one activist urging that the two movements join forces:

I think Lessig was correct to urge OccupyDC to reach out to the Tea-Party; and in all honesty I don’t think it will take much reaching out as so many Tea-Partiers have found their way to the Occupy movement themselves. Because the Occupy movement is coalition of individuals with a variety of grievances, there is space for people who may be conservative, but are still unhappy with the current system.

But I also think that the similarities end with the basic shared grievance of the two movements that the “system” is broken. The Tea Party was very much a reactionary movement that was in part spurred by fear of the changing demographics of the United States. The rhetoric of the Tea-Party, in many ways, was exclusionary. Involvement in the group was a self-identifier of a “true” American- white, middle class, suburban. And for all the group’s anti-Government sentiment, their actions were in many ways antithetical to those sentiments as they pushed for candidates that would create exclusionary policies on their behalf, so they were (are) very involved political actions that reinforce the inequality we see in the socio-economic system. The Tea-Party was also never truly grass-roots, in that it was heavily funded and promoted by conservative corporate entities such as Fox News.

Thus far the OccupyTogether movement has corrected some of the structural problems that cased fracturing in the Tea-Party, particularly as the TP grew in visibility, full-time “leaders” emerged with their own agendas which has really splintered the groups’ message. The Occupy movement relies on “General Assemblies” to make decisions and set agendas. While this lack of visible leadership has come under severe criticism by observers, that criticism seems to stem more from a lack of understanding of the system then a true criticism of the process of General Assemblies.

In your opinion, is any of this realistic?  Will this make any difference?  Is this just a movement that satisfies an urge to be angry without an actual game plan for effecting change? 

Only time will tell if this movement will be a success, and I am sure exactly what constitutes “success” will be up for debate. First and foremost, I reject the idea that OccupyTogether, or any other truly grass-roots movements, has to provide a game-plan for change. In the United States of America we have democratically elected leaders whose purpose is to legislate policies for the public good. It should simply be enough that a large percentage of the public voices its discontent with current policies and practices for those leaders to enact significant change. Every American should not have to be a social scientist or legal expert to have their grievances taken seriously.

On the ground I hear people talking about how they are in for the long haul. There is awareness that changes will not be enacted overnight. As long as protesters do not give up physically Occupying the public space- and there for giving body to their grievances- then eventually this movement can have a significant impact. During the 2011 populist uprisings that have taken place around the world, many, many observers have focused on the use of “social media”, and have erroneously cited this as a significant attribute of the movements. First, this ignores the long history of populist actions around the globe. Second, while social media has been useful in sharing information, it has been the actual event of bodies on the street that has created a new cognitive space for political change- Twitter didn’t topple Ben Ali, Face Book didn’t depose Mubarak, and livestream didn’t feel the sting of rubber bullets in Oakland. It was human bodies. As long as bodies remain on the streets, then yes, this movement can have an impact.

As an intellectual and an educator, how aware do you think the protestors are of the complexity of our democracy?  Do they recognize the overwhelming challenge to change in a system such as ours? 

That is a good question. The short answer is I don’t know. Among the protestors on the street, I think the degree of knowledge about the intricacies of our political system works runs the entire spectrum. The various conversations help; intellectuals, scholars and lawyers have been heavily involved in many Occupy sites and have held various teach-ins to educate people about protesting, their rights, how different systems work, etc. Book exchanges are also becoming a significant part of the material culture of the Occupiers. OccupyBoston has set up a tent-library. OccupyDenver requested book donations along with other consumable and non-consumable donations this past week, and many of the volumes I saw were informative, so there are various ways that individuals are educating themselves on the issues at hand.

I see photos of signs in the media that say things like “I want to work.”  I want to say to those people, that’s great, but what are you actually asking for, specifically?  Are you asking for a revision of tax policy so that more jobs are created and maintained in the US?  Are you looking for immigration reform to open up lower-wage jobs that have been previously held by illegal immigrants?  Or are you just angry and looking for a platform to say so?  I know you can’t answer for that person, but what is your reaction to this critique?

I think this is related to the above question. What those individuals are asking for is going to be related to the degree of knowledge they have about the current political and economic system. But again, I think it is completely reasonable for a citizen to tell their elected leaders that they want to work, and for the leaders to make that happen. On the one hand, our public discourse in the last several years has been to allow for the fact that our economists and financial leaders may have missed important characteristics of the economic system because of its complexity, but that same public discourse demands that average citizens have actionable plans for those systems when they protest. We have to be careful not to denigrate average citizens’ claims, and instead focus those critiques on politicians .

What do you think the next step is for the Occupy movement?

The Occupy movement is going to have to start adopting specific issues for change, even though in some ways that is contrary to their current way of doing things. These specific issues are going to have to be local, and relevant to the individual cities and states in which the groups are based. Until our political establishment sees that the Occupy movement has the power to enact change, they are going to continue to be denigrated in the media and abused by local municipalities.




2 thoughts on “Two Anthropologists Discuss the Occupy Movement

  1. Brilliant, Murph. Thanks for taking the time to answer all of my posed questions. I particularly appreciate your answer to the last three questions, and it helps reign in my overall reaction the most. Keep doing what you do!

    1. Thanks for great questions to get the conversation started. I think valid criticisms are appropriate to make any movement, and individuals within that movement, take a look at their organization and themselves and reflect on the relevance of their arguments.

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