Being secure in the space of occupation: notes from a student-led experiment in New York

Security is nothing if not the radical equality experienced when acting in concert. But even in spaces created through collective action, producing security in the commons requires positive action.

Sophie Lewis
6 March 2012

November 17th in New York – or N17 – was widely experienced as a day of glory. Imagine you are a part of the throng snaking along East 16th Street and south onto Fifth Avenue. Imagine nearing the TD bank on 14th, and realising that something very exciting is happening above it, where the glossy glass-fronted student study centre is situated. A scuffle at the entrance. Marchers – not all of them necessarily students – thronging in and up the escalator. Police scrambling to prevent entry with plastic blockades. Building superintendents angrily ejecting insurgents from the freight elevator at the side-entrance. The main door threatening to split. A cluster of students showing support for those inside receive baton blows, but banners are already fluttering out of the first-floor windows: ‘Free Space’, ‘Zuccotti is dead: the virus has spread’; ‘Students and Labor Unite’; ‘Labor & Students Take the City Back’.

Do you attempt to go in? Then, or hours later once the president of the New School had ‘allowed’ the occupiers to proceed, would you sleep there? If you surmounted your inhibitions, your nerves, and the adrenalin-fuelled, densely-packed chaos of that moment on the street, if you exited the heavily policed universe of the ‘public’ pavement that was being forcibly ‘cleared’ of human ‘obstructions’, if you plunged into the promised haven … what would you expect on the inside? What kind of society awaits you there, for your pains?

Protestors dismantle barriers put up by police in Zucotti Park, on the N17 day of action. Demotix/Stephanie Keith. All rights reserved.

I was involved in the occupation of the New School student study centre at 90, Fifth Avenue, just off Manhattan’s Union Square. Its regrettable degeneration into unsafety, paranoia, and internal non-cooperation is the basis for this reflection. This piece did not come naturally to me. To call for ‘safety’ seemed to me a pretty conservative impulse. But ‘unsafe’ is my main criticism; I’m ‘calling’ the occupation on it, as Americans would say. The thinking I had to do to get here was tricky, and took a little courage, as it was bound up with activities and individuals I stand behind or crave mutual recognition from. Perhaps my reservations hinged on the fear of appearing – precisely – “insecure”, in that prevalent socially Darwinian sense; of appearing ‘whiny’ or unwilling to ‘own’ responsibility for my personal wellbeing. Breaking with such individualistic logic, I am now offering some arguments on feeling secure in a New York City occupation, that is to say, on creating brave kinds of safety within heterotopic space, space collectively claimed in order to be transformed by direct action initiatives like Occupy.  

Occupations are – classically – houses of messy, over-determined contestation. The mainstream media often brand everyone inside them unwashed, unemployed petty criminals with inscrutable and thus irrelevant politics. Yet, significantly, mainstream representations also prop up the view of space-claiming action as essentially ‘virile’ – and threateningly so – rather than ‘feminine’, ‘safe’, ‘compassionate’. Thus, many actual participants, who are of course learning as they go, form their identity off the mirror of ‘public opinion’, and accordingly act in ways that seem uncompromised and uncompromising.

In reality, successful actions of this type are a form of direct domestic ecology insofar as they communalize and protect enclosed space, domesticating it in the half-forgotten sense of oikos: the public home. This immediately connects occupation as praxis with sexual difference and the politics of the (inter)personal. It places a strange set of demands upon those enjoying the dubious privilege of being stereotyped in the media as ‘frightening’ to the existing social order: those able-bodied masked young men who won’t ‘be reasonable’. To give specifics: I did not feel safe within the space of occupation on the first night of its establishment, because my participation in the home-making process was precluded by undiscussed graffitiing, smoking, vomiting, and sexist jokes from young white men. I stayed, anyway, and regretted it later. Others would not.

This does not mean that masked men and women are necessarily oiks unable to create oikos: I know many individuals whose embrace of ‘black bloc’ tactics (as an example of the disorderly and sinister trope I’m referencing) is a direct expression of their deep interpersonal sensitivity, their vegan-cupcake-baking domesticity, their skilful ability to think and emote collectively. I address myself not to them, but to those who have not understood that where ‘frightening’ is concerned, less is more.

To those whose imputed characteristics ‘fright’ the powers that be, I say, don’t be fooled. True fearsomeness is prefiguring a world without capital in a non-reactionary way. So, be less ‘professional’; ‘disobey’ less; avoid making sects; put yourself, but never comrades, at risk. For I believe that insecurity generated within the space of occupation stems not from true revolution vs. reform distinctions, but from such people’s (almost well-meaning) arrogance. Put bluntly, it stems from common or garden white male privilege masquerading as professionalism.

Everyone behaves badly a lot – if not most – of the time. We are trained to. However, most of us experience the bad behaviour of excited young white middle-class males as oppressive rather than merely ‘bad’. This is important, and Tools for White Guys help. This bad behaviour in particular expressed a shoddy interpretation of the widely shared desire to resist management-capital as comprehensively as possible in the form of non-solidarity towards those of us demanding a ‘safer space’ agreement. Security, after all, is their word. We, in flaunting them, should party hard and abolish rules (so runs the reasoning). Consequently, I was one of the only non-males who slept at 90 Fifth on day #1.

In the subsequent week, some attempts at mediation by perplexed and exhausted activists still failed to achieve the cohesive commune that might have succeeded in running and retaining the occupation. As the process disintegrated, we were forsaken not only by hoped-for allies but attacked by erstwhile supporters in positions of power. A letter with thirty signatories composed by Andrew Arato, a faculty member, was published online on colleague Jeff Goldfarb’s blog, condemning “random violence” and arguing that the liberal leadership of New School’s President David van Zant “had provided no conceivable excuse for this action” (they meant the occupation as a whole, metonymized by the graffiti-ing of the study space). MacKenzie Wark, opened his ‘Notes on the New School Occupation’ with the pithy sentiment “These are times when one must dispense contempt sparingly due to the unseemly number of things that deserve it.” The hebetudinous and offensive barricade-graffiti of the nihilist opportunists of ‘Occupy the New School’ is perhaps best condemned in this manner. Or, perhaps, one could invoke Slavoj Žižek’s double-edged epigram: “our violence is always legitimate and never necessary”. (One might even modify this slightly: “but never necessary”.) 

Graffiti and barricades do not constitute violence. But sexism, racism, ablism, and certain forms of insurrectionary discourse rooted in class privilege sometimes do. There is good reason to expect, moreover, that environments characterised by these give rise to bodily attacks. And, based on the irony I outlined above, it is sometimes those who believe themselves to be ultra-radical who embody the domestic threat to other bodies already traditionally vulnerabilized by capital. Unpicking this often becomes a shouting match about the place of ‘identity politics’ within revolutionary struggle. Faced with this onerous task, people I would call real radicals can sometimes effect anti-sectarian magic. The role of mediation within Occupy Wall Street has been documented, for instance, in relation to the internal dispute between drum-circle revellers (see also Truth-Out on safer spaces in Zucotti).

The ablest mediators cannot, however, bridge gaps created by violent crimes. Recently, generalized public unconcern for the rights of the movement as a whole (following Zuccotti’s eviction) gave way to hysteria in the media in response to OWS reports of an incident of a rape in the park. This despite (or perhaps because of) its having been extremely thoughtfully handled by the 'sexual assault survivors' team' which also escorted the victim to a police station.

In the New School study centre, no assault of that nature was - thankfully - reported. Yet a rhetoric of ‘divine violence’ (and outright rejection of Occupy Wall Street), emitted by some, amounted to small but meaningful assaults on others’ right to represent the occupation. It didn’t matter so much that a few blokes had drunkenly and unaesthetically graffiti-ed the walls. It mattered, however, that the enemy had been internalized. Trans, female, Black, Latin American, queer, disabled, working-class and older participants in the supposedly ‘all city student’ space were feeling indirectly targeted. And as one indignant African American New School student put it in a general assembly there she had decided to attend: “all I see here is white folks trying to tell me what radical activism consists of. Believe me, I know.” 

The difference between ‘direct action’ and ‘civil disobedience’ hinges on prefiguration. By offering a glimpse into another world, D.A., unlike C.D., is capable of destroying the ruling class’s sense of security. The former is frequently the more ‘civil’ of the two, despite its closer conceptual relation to violence. In fact, Arendtian civility, which is dialogic and promisory, forms the very basis of revolutionary politics. Foundationalist constitutionalist texts like Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Civil Disobedience’ argue that the acceptable kind of law-breaking (as distinct from ‘crime’) is explicitly that which is “tuned to necessary and desirable preservation or restoration of the status quo”. But she envisions “organized minorities that are too important, not merely in numbers, but in quality of opinion, to be safely disregarded”. Much can be provoked by that word, “safely”.

If existing neoliberal market logic is utopian (in the sense implied by ‘no-place’), and eu-topian aspirations raised in recent years across the world (in the sense of ‘good-place’) are still far from fruition, then hetero-topias are the bridge between the two, laboratories in which another world becomes possible. So, when we begin the rehearsals for revolution in our encampments and occupations, ‘their’ phobic security has got to be replaced by an alternate ordering, an unbreakable promise to one another, a sense of security that is ours.

A kind of permanent revolutionary tension is required to maintain that ordering to which this ‘ours’ belongs; and to which we cleave as a ‘we’. In our case, alas, clique formation attributable alone to the ‘home team’ of privately educated students succeeded in sinking the collective boat.

It had initially seemed possible that the occupation could be saved from becoming a ‘New School occupation’. No place really existed, at that time, for the diverse constituency of Occupy Wall Street to assemble. Ideally, to remedy this, occupiers would have wrested control of the escalator and entrance from the New School management and the bank. The catch-22 here became the fact that achieving that required serious support from the whole movement; gaining such support relied upon an open-door policy and a sense of trust which several union branches were reluctant to give to what appeared to be a bunch of drunken kids. But indeed, why should you – comrade, out there, whoever you are – enter a space that isn’t socially secure, when you are already preparing to take enormous political and material risks with your body in order to attempt proliferating eu-topia?

‘Security’ is not a word I use comfortably, though it was not previously clear to me why – beyond its hazy association with the word ‘homeland’ and with ‘anti-terror’ legislation. Ultimately, though, to be on some level se-cure, without-care, must be a precondition for equality of participation and action in concert with others. It cannot, as a concept, be given over to reactionaries, police commissioners, border vigilantes, and surveillance-fetishists. Ways in which so-called ‘security’ issues play out in temporary autonomous zones are often polarising,  and pin those raising concerns into a camp marked ‘self-involved’, or ‘identity politicians’, and those to whom the concerns are addressed in another marked ‘long-suffering true-radical’. As I have argued, this false dichotomy stems from a misunderstanding of ‘revolutionariness’ and amounts to a failure in holding open heterotopia. The space fails to be different and cannot therefore give birth to eu-topia. The stress produced by putting ourselves ‘at risk’ differs wildly – and for good reason – from person to person. The tenor of ‘safer spaces agreements’ penetrates only unevenly into the common sense. For some, ‘freedom’ still spells individualistic defiance of traditional morality, even within the temporary autonomous zone. So, which is the way to struggle against asymmetries grown insuperably visible once the prevalent, however imperfect, “sense of security” has been challenged. How do we behave to promote care-free existence, where the liberal democratic state’s panoptic gaze is stymied?  

In Kevin Hetherington’s book The Badlands of Modernity, heterotopias are alternate (not just ‘transgressive’) orderings, “uncertain zones that challenge our sense of security and perceptions of space as fixed”. But what must also be considered, then, is whose sense of security, whose perception of space, because the more “certain” zones we inhabit by default are rife with division, hierarchy and false consciousness. We know that privately owned squares, roads and buildings, with their insurance policies based on the logic of ‘risk society’, turn into supports for public action – and private life – when people pitch their tents there. These supports for action become, in theory, safe(r) spaces, because the collectivity frames alternate ‘commandments’ for its own society.

It is frequently said (for instance in David Graeber’s Direct Action) that she who has engaged in the collective rush, when bodies in alliance suddenly take notice of their common sense, gains sudden understanding of the miraculous ability of mutual acting to re-make space.

But the radical equality that seems to be produced in mutual acting must be repeated, again and again, or else it falters. It arises, in part, negatively, out of opposition uniting all whose bodies provoke the common – baton-wielding – enemy. Even here, vulnerability differentials require attention: arrest is a more serious matter for Black people. The equality I’m talking about arises positively, however, when a home can be made, a meeting-place defended, a people’s library stocked, individual traumas soothed, bellies filled, a social welfare net autonomously woven around the bodies in alliance, in resistance. Security is nothing if not that equality. Yet the radical equality of the commons is threatened constantly by consciousness copied from capitalism. Bearing this in mind, then, shall we try again?

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