I know my last post was a lengthy rant against so much attention paid to Occupy, but I am going to devote one more piece to the matter, for two reasons:
1. I hate to shut up;
and more pressingly,
2. In that last post my main charge against Occupy was that protest is not an answer, and complaint is insufficient solution-seeking. But seeing as my words were all complaint, I wanted to follow up with a few words of suggested solution, for my own conscience.
The greatest issue, to my mind, is Occupy’s lack of an actionable agenda – not their lack of a message, as others have claimed, but the absence of a concrete and specific set of proposals to be enacted in the name of rectifying their complaint. The “Move Your Money” campaign is a such a proposal, and by happy chance its timing coincided with media coverage of Occupy – but although Occupy seized on the campaign, it did not come from their ranks. They might originate a similar campaign targeting corporate consumerism (“Buy Local on Sundays,” to pull something completely out of my ass, advocating for complete non-corporate spending one day per week to re-ingrain the habit into American mercantile life). (Also, while I’m on the subject of corporate consumerism: yes, it is problematic that so many members of a movement whose central claim is opposition to corporations are so attached to Apple products in enacting this campaign. Apple products are awesome, but Apple is the second-most-capitalized corporation in the entire effing world – second only to Exxon – and their track records on environmental matters, labor issues, and corporate giving are all absolute shit. I’m typing this on a MacBook right now and as much as I like to believe in the Cult of Apple idea that they are the little guy, innovating against Microsoft, the truth is that Steve Jobs could be kind of a dick, and they deserve as much criticism as the oil companies.)
Other ideas to kick around: legislative proposals, centered around a more progressive tax code or perhaps taxing investment dividends as regular income. (Hey! You know who would be (and has been) a powerful ally in that particular fight? Warren Buffett! Mr. One Percent! He wants his riches to be more equitably distributed!) It’s all well and good to talk about eliminating corporate tax loopholes, but until somebody actually sits down with the federal tax code and hammers out a serious proposal of what should be done away with – or perhaps “streamlined” would be a more palatable phrasing – then talk is all it’ll ever be. Taxation is old news, though, so perhaps some policy ideas could be more imaginative: what if twenty percent of public pension funds had to be invested in B-corporations and other socially conscious businesses? What if they could only be put into safe, low-fee, decidedly unsexy index funds, rather than riskier and more heavily managed funds? What if the provisions of the federal Community Reinvestment Act stipulating that a certain percentage of big bank profits had to flow directly back into the community were both expanded, and extended to all corporations above a certain size regardless of industry? What if Occupy strove to reverse three decades of free-market demagoguery by borrowing Rovian communications: the right wing scored big when they re-named the estate tax the “death tax,” but what if Occupy took advantage of its current megaphone to brand it accurately as a tax on heirs and inherited oligarchy – the KardashiTax, perhaps?
I’m just making some things up. I haven’t really thought about this at great length, but as a reasonably intelligent, progressive, fairly aware person, I could come up with this stuff pretty easily. Imagine the ideas which could flow out of Occupy if they would commit themselves to the task – although who knows if a detailed revision of the tax code would earn the requisite wiggly fingers to pass muster?
My experience with Occupy has been mostly through Occupy Oakland, which may or may not be representative of the movement at large, even as it has come to be emblematic of it. It seems as though Occupy Oakland is more concerned with their own internal matters than with situating their ideas within any broader context, and therein lies the ultimate futility of the exercise: shouting down Mayor Jean Quan (or denying civil rights hero Congressman Lewis the opportunity to speak, as they did in Atlanta) might be emotionally satisfying, but it’s also just plain stupid. Quan is a major stakeholder in any kind of citywide economic restructuring; moreover, although she was ultimately responsible for the first brutal raid on the Oakland camp, she has also been an activist for much of her life. As a city councilmember she was arrested during the protests at Johannes Mehserle’s verdict last year, and her clashes with the previous police chief were fairly public. This doesn’t mean she should escape responsibility for her poor decision in ordering the first raid – far from it – but it does mean that cutting her out of the conversation and leaping to cries of “Recall Quan!” is misplaced and probably counter-productive.
Quan’s obligation, after all, is to the public, and while Occupy might have significant support, the truth is that they don’t actually represent ninety-nine percent of America; no group has that kind of backing. Occupy might feel victimized at having been evicted again from Frank Ogawa Plaza (as they were, peacefully, this morning), but they’ve been there for a month and the plaza has other uses too – not just for the one percent but for city festivals and events, civil wedding ceremonies, speeches, and – with great frequency – other protests. Much as Occupy might wish to co-opt all progressive protest in their name, that’s not their prerogative, and Frank Ogawa Plaza is a prime site for the protests that populate the East Bay regularly: against police brutality, against school closings, against public services cuts or tuition increases or a myriad other things.
So with that in mind, here’s two final ideas. Students were beaten by campus cops at Cal last week during an Occupy UC Berkeley event protesting tuition increases; the tuition hike is steep but the California budget necessitates it, because the state has no goddamn money. It sucks, and the students are justified in their anger. But could it be channeled more productively? After all, education cuts are only a small part of a budget balanced painfully on a staggering amount of cuts to public services. Why so many cuts? Well, because of California’s onerous public pension obligations – projections to the pension fund looked rosy while the stock market was doing well and rising home prices insured solid tax revenues, but then the bottom fell out of both simultaneously and the state was left holding the bag, legally obligated to pay out pensions that they can’t afford. Republicans love to paint this as an inevitable consequence of government largesse – indebtedness to our own lazy bureaucrats – but the truth is mathematically inarguable: the bulk of pensions (and all the priciest of them) are due to public safety personnel, including police and prison guards. The prison guards’ union, in fact, is widely considered to be the most influential force in state-level politics.
What does this mean for Occupy? Well, on the one hand, the state has a lot less money than they hoped because reckless bankers screwed us over. But the state also has no money left over because of where they are forced to spend what they do have – on an enormous, costly, and ineffective penal system, and the agents of that system. The US locks up more people than any other country, and California locks up more people than anywhere else in the US; the price tag is literally choking out other sectors of government services. And because many of the laws surrounding this issue were passed as ballot issues – as constitutionally binding propositions – this isn’t something that can be laid at the feet of legislative gridlock. California voters created this double-bind of structural oppression, in which an aggressive criminal justice system targets and locks up an ever-growing minority; and then the state must turn to the majority with empty pockets and slowly deconstruct access to Berkeley, the greatest public university in the world, because we already spent all our money getting the bad guys (or “bad guys”, as the case may be).
It’s systemic oppression, and it’s Berkeley. Stage a goddamned teach-in; disseminate the idea. Probably has more hopeful potential than getting beaten by police, although that does provide a nice demonstration of the system in action.
One last item, and then I promise I’m done. Occupy Oakland – and, from my understanding, Occupy in general – has made efforts at inclusion, at welcoming the homeless, and at providing services within the camp to all in need; medical tents, food, interfaith ministry. In fact, when eviction notices were doled at in Oakland, one of the great cries which went up was: but where will the homeless go?
I spent five months in 2008 couch-surfing, and another four months squatting at my one-time alma mater. I don’t claim to speak for everyone who has ever been homeless, but in my experience my daily routine revolved around three pressing issues: where I would sleep that night; where I would get food that day; and how I would take a shower, clean my clothes, and otherwise maintain my hygiene. The latter sounds luxurious compared to the first two, but to participate fully in regular society, hygiene is a precondition – the smelly homeless guy would get kicked out of Starbucks pretty quickly but when I went in after a shower I could spend two dollars and sit and read for hours, unbothered.
So here’s an idea for Occupy: if they really want to provide meaningful social services, occupy a building. One with plumbing. Do it legally – getting kicked out won’t help anybody. Oakland has plenty of vacant spaces, many of which are city properties – get an unemployed lawyer to pound out the details, negotiate a lease for a dollar a year, move operations indoors, cultivate volunteers, pay utility bills and build something sustainable. Need some help fixing the place up? Apply to Rebuilding Together; we might be able to give you a hand. You can still stage big, theatrical protests on a regular basis – other people here do it all the time! But you’ll have to accept liability, and fill out forms for the IRS, and maybe even make nice to a politician now and again. And if that’s too much, then consider that maybe you’re not as serious as you like to believe.
“Camping is a tactic. It’s not a solution,” said Jean Quan in a statement earlier today about the Occupy eviction. She’s an activist; she made a big mistake ordering the first raid; and she’s also right about this. If not the mayor then maybe Occupy should listen to John Lennon – Che t-shirts have long outsold pictures of Chairman Mao but if overthrow is what you’re advocating, you’re still not likely to make it with anyone anyhow. Occupy, you say you want a revolution; well, you know… put forth some serious, considered efforts at structural change and positive social impact, and we’ll see what happens.