On Friday, I attended the first General Assembly for Occupy Davis, CA. After reading reports about Occupy Wall Street for weeks, I wasn’t surprised to quickly run into a conspiracy theorist. He was an older gentleman in a hoodie who seemed eager to suggest that we coordinate with other organizations around the state and try to take the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
I knew that the protests had drawn right-wing elements — gold bugs, Alex Jones fans, and Ron Paul revolutionaries — but I wasn’t prepared for the rest of the meeting. Everyone wiggled their hands in approval and immediately afterward a young participant added that we should also tap into Davis’s lively conservative scene and liaise with the Tea Partiers. The evening’s mediator seemed to agree. Speaking as if for OWS, she reminded us that the group was “bipartisan” and “apolitical.” Though some contested the idea that politics reduces to bipolar party politics, everyone seemed to concede that the movement was all-inclusive. As one man said, unconsciously repeating Mitt Romney’s assessment of the occupiers, the protests are about national “unity.” Indeed, serious discussion of political differences or common principles seemed to be ruled out in advance — we were all informed that we should simply “have our own opinions.”
The group’s emphasis on conciliation extended to its choice of tactics, as well. We moved quickly to discussing protest actions, spending more time talking about how we might endear ourselves to local institutions — Davis City Council, the police, and the university — than how we might challenge them. Several participants noted with approval that Seattle’s Occupation had the blessing of the Mayor. One of the highlights of the evening was when the mediator announced that we shouldn’t antagonize University of California administrators “because many of us work there.” This was particularly ironic because our campus has been the site of a number of struggles over the past few years, including numerous occupations and 50+ arrests after tuition hikes and a contentious graduate student worker contract negotiation. Indeed, UC system protest tactics provided one of the many inspirations for Occupy Wall Street’s. But, rather than occupying campus buildings, the favored protest action at the meeting was to get people to switch from Bank of America to credit unions en masse.
There were a few bright moments. Several activists from the UC protests called for free education. And later, after several participants talked about a restoration of American principles, a return to our founding fathers, other group members reminded them of the nation’s legacy of capitalist exploitation, racism, and colonial oppression. (This has not, however, stopped someone from peppering the Facebook page with Thomas Jefferson quotes.) At other times, though, it seemed like the radicals were in the minority and that our nascent chapter of Occupy Together had strayed far from the Declaration given by the New York protesters.
Instead of unity or compromise, the Declaration of Occupy Wall Street demands “solidarity.” Solidarity is not simply unifying as a country or a community. Solidarity means a unity of “us” — the 99% — against “them” — the 1%. In other words, the unity of the occupation is its antagonism with capital. While we should reach out to all individuals and agitate where we can, we should not compromise our solidarity by courting and compromising with institutions and individuals whose aims are antithetical to fighting against Wall Street. That means, then, that we cannot be “bipartisan” or “apolitical.” If opposing Wall Street means anything at all, the movement should at the very least exclude free market partisans who would shift our attention from working against financial corporations to dismantling the state, starting with the Fed.
But the real danger, I think, comes not from the right but from the Democratic center. The utopian horizon of NYC seems to have contracted to voting with our dollars to support local businesses and cooperatives. I’m hoping that this is a product of the people involved, or the political climate in Davis, but it does seem to portend co-optation ahead. Political commentators are already talking about Occupy Wall Street as an inchoate “frustration” and a “liberal Tea Party.” I don’t know if things would be any different if OWS had a specific platform, but the occupy movement is starting to turn into a political Rorschach test. If more bourgeois liberal occupations start sprouting up like this, the movement is going to have to clarify itself — and risk offending our liberal and libertarian friends — or just become a vague umbrella term for more or less unrelated consensus-based protests.