Monday, February 18, 2013

Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy and Mkie McGuire: We Are Many

I don't buy a lot of books anymore, but I'm kind of obsessed with Oakland: AK Press published a book on Occupy that put Occupy Oakland (OO) at the center of the story, so I did it. Even more than that, the book took on race and Occupy: something that as an armchair critic, I thought was a major problem. "We Are Many," a collection of essays, personal stories and documents from Occupies around the country takes on the project of looking at "movement strategy," not just the movement itself, and so doing race plays a crucial part. The book is giant and uneven with tons of contributors, and I've been reading it for awhile, so I can't sum it up, but it's definitely a worthy piece. Caveat: AK Press is an anarchist/radical publisher, and they make me look centrist. "Liberals" and "nonprofits" take a lot of heat in this book, maybe unjustly. This is a drawback: the audience of this book just might be the liberal nonprofit, "traditional" organizing crowd that might want to learn from "We Are Many": taking flack from radicals isn't a great marketing strategy. (So what, say the contributors!)

It's almost impossible to even talk about this book as a whole, just as it would be almost impossible to talk about Occupy as a whole: how can you talk about a movement that, by nature, is leaderless, demandless, nameless. There are some common take-aways, though.

1. The movement is not over, and it is not fair to say this, say many contributors. Historically, movements are not built in a day, and just because we live in a world of FAST everything, and because the encampments sprung up quickly and were crushed quickly and were discussed in real-time on social media does not mean that Occupy is over. I want to believe this, and much of me does believe this. Frances Fox Piven (not exactly a flash in the pan activist herself) is particularly convincing on this, but she is also convincing on what it will take for Occupy to keep going: "the growth," she writes "depends on its ability to reach beyond its largely young and student constituency and to sweep in diverse groups of workers and students and the poor." While one Occupy in the book describes its constituency as older- 50s and 60s in Santa Fe- this Occupy was notably "conservative" for an Occupy, and not representative of poor or workers, but the more "typical" Santa Fe liberal.

2. Occupy needs to address race issues. I've said this before, and to anyone that would listen, but movements and activities and projects in Oakland won't work if they're based in downtown Oakland. They're destined and pre-determined to be predominately white if they're based in downtown Oakland, and any movement/activity/project that doesn't analyze where they choose their home base is already missing a chance to evaluate their racial biases. Downtown Oakland may seem convenient: it's right by two BART stations, after all, but most of Oakland isn't that close to BART. East Oakland is "served" by Coliseum BART and West Oakland has West Oakland BART, but that's it. Movements that center in downtown or uptown cater to those people, generally white, who live there, or can bike or travel there. Not everyone in East and West can bike or travel there. "Oscar Grant" Plaza was a great example of that. How many people in East Oakland actually came to OGP? Could come to OGP? Wanted to come to OGP?

Interestingly, a piece in "We Are Many" by a collaborative group, Croatoan, argues that statements like mine serve to erase the contributions of people of color from Occupy Oakland: "To describe the participants of Occupy Oakland as primarily white men is not only factually incorrect, it ultimately prevents participants from being able to look honestly at the social interactions which occurred under its auspices." After reading all of the pieces about problematizing race and Occupy, I would argue that rather than erasing, my point just further complicates the issue, and perhaps combines point number one (how to extend the longevity of the movement) with this point: For Occupy to survive, it must extend its physical form. Further, Occupy is absolutely not ALL white, or male, or white male. But it certainly never came close to reflecting Oakland's diversity, even a casual observer could see this. Croatoan made a fabulous point, however, that diversity can be an empty category: The US Army is "simultaneously one of the most racially integrated and oppressive institutions in American society." My  point is that they don't have to be mutually exclusive: the ideal would be to continue to do the work that "We Are Many" advocates for while simultaneously doing the work that is missed, the kind of work of cooperation discussed in "Hillbilly Nationalists."

3. Occupy didn't need demands, and this isn't a problem. How many times have you heard "what do they WANT?!" "We Are Many"'s contributors explain over and over that demands would delegitimize Occupy by legitimizing the system that Occupy was trying to expose as illegitimate. Further, much of Occupy was about developing a new process- a horizontal democracy, true participation, not about "demands" at all. Changing the conversation.

There's a ton more, but really hard to encapsulate. There is a lot to like in this book and a lot that really grated on me. There were smoothing over of facts (like the myth that Jean Quan and mayors "conspired" to evict the various camps) and some seriously patronizing language. I liked that some of the things that I find problematic with Occupy, like "diversity of tactics" being language for violence had multiple sides represented, and I especially liked how various authors placed Occupy in historical context, even when the historical context differed. That's okay: this is history that isn't being told by the winners, but by the vanguards.