Occupy, Resist, and Grow

via Mobilizing Ideas, a blog of The Center for the Study of Social Movements at the University of Notre Dame

Picture by Julia Landau

Marshall Ganz calls Occupy a moment, but we have a history and a future.  My generation, in North America, was birthed over 12 years ago, in the streets of Seattle, when trade unionists joined with anarchists to disrupt the workings of global capital, well, in this case, the meeting of a major player, the World Trade Organization.  We refused to accept capitalism as a natural way of ordering our social world; “Another World is Possible” was a popular slogan.  We manifested alternatives in organizing our collective refusal.  Instead of relying on institutions created under capitalism, we created our own clinics, schools, decision-making bodies, and media outlets.  Some of which have formalized into counter-institutions that exist today.  The global network of independent media centers and community health centers, like the Common Ground clinic in New Orleans, started after Hurricane Katrina, are our legacy.

The Millennials may find inspiration when their peer, 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, educated yet unable to find a good job, self-immolated himself on the steps of the Tunisian governor’s office, sparking the uprisings of the Arab Spring.  Or, when 24-year old Bradley Manning, in a fit of frustration with military bureaucracy and the war abroad, uploaded confidential documents onto the Wikileaks website.  What is the future of the Occupy movement?  Approximately a half-year in and many camps have been violently evicted from the land on which they pitched their tents.  Many of us spent this late fall awake in an overnight vigil to defend a camp or recovering from being pepper sprayed by cops when trying to setup a new one.  At the time of writing this, only Occupy D.C. remains intact.  But, that is not the end of Occupy.

Like seeds released into the wind, we lodged into soil, to hibernate through the winter, and to unfurl new shoots in the spring.  For what Occupy has created is an opportunity for us collectively to create new subjectivities and to dream of a new world.  Social theorists have long thought about the relationship between the individual and society as a dialectical one, each informing the development of the other.  George Mead, for instance, wrote that social reality was an external thing that impressed itself upon and shaped a child during the process of socialization.  But, the self that had ideas that challenged social norms could win acceptance by the larger group, therefore changing society.

Under capitalism, Herbert Marcuse thought, the individual lost her capacity to think critically and the desire to yearn for freedom.  We lost our sense of self, subjectivity, and became objects in the process of production.  All of human life was organized for the instrumental means of achieving profit for the 1%.  We became mechanical producers, who worked to make a salary to enable us to passively consume mass culture and media.  This one-dimensional thinking dominated culture and ideology, focused only on keeping calm and carrying on.

One outcome of Occupy can be foretold by the example of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST).  Today, 350,000 families occupy 20 million acres of land, a challenge to global capital, which has setup white picket fences around the world, cordoning off what was once the commons.  MST’s flag celebrates the industry of the landless worker, represented by a couple holding aloft a machete, and their willingness to fight for land reform, with blood if necessary.   This flag accompanied MST leader Janaina Stronzake, when she visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment, before it was evicted from Zuccotti Park.  “Occupation was a time to grow,” she told the assembly, “To grow education, empowerment, and food community.”  The crowd echoed after her, amplifying Janaina’s words using the human microphone, “Occupy, Resist, and Grow!”

Janaina grew up in a MST occupation.  Her family lost their land to banks in the late 1970s because, like many family farmers in the global south at the time, they borrowed money in order to adopt industrial agricultural techniques.  Indebted and unable to pay back what they owed, the bank seized their land, displacing newborn Janaina, her eight older brothers, and parents to the city, where they survived precariously as field laborers.  But, in 1985, her family joined the MST and they moved into a camp, with 225 other families, for two years, where they studied and prepared to occupy land in the western part of the Parana state.

The MST uses a two-step method to expropriate land lying fallow, owned by corporations or latifundios, for collective use.  First, families are moved in rural camps, typically dwelling in shacks alongside highways, until land is identified for settlement.  This can take anywhere from six months to five years, but camp living has proved to be important preparation in transforming atomized individuals into collectively minded occupiers.  Camp residents receive a rigorous dose of participatory education, on politics and critical thinking as well as practical matters such as sustainable farming techniques and how to manage a cooperative.  Without this experience, families that move directly onto occupied land typically leave within a few months.  But, with this preparation, more than 90 percent stay for the long run.

The second step is occupation of the land by families, usually at dawn when security guards and police are sleeping.  Janaina remembers arriving early one morning with her family to an unused piece of land, but the police were waiting and prevented the families from entering the land.  So, they camped on the side of the road for two months, where conditions were difficult,  “hunger and cold were always stalking us,” Janaina recalled.  Brazil is unique in that, beginning in the nineteenth century, one had legal claim to land if it was serving a social function.  While petitioning through bureaucratic pathways for the title, the MST also moved the camp to occupy the plaza in front of the state capital, Curitiba.  After participating in seven occupations, Janaina’s mother finally acquired land, collectively.

Once land is occupied, the collective immediately begins to dig in and grow roots.  Peter Rossett describes how “crops are planted immediately, communal kitchens, schools, and a health clinic are set up, and defense teams trained in nonviolence secure the perimeter against the hired gunmen, thugs, and assorted police forces that the landlord usually calls down upon them.”  This is the new society that the MST is building alongside the current model of global capitalism.

Already, we are experimenting with land occupations.  A faction of Occupy Oakland tried to takeover a foreclosed homeless shelter on the day of the general strike.  They were unsuccessful, but planted a seed.  A seed that took root on December 6, the national day of action, where organizers across the country occupied foreclosed properties.  Next, come spring, as Max Rameau promises, we will emerge and bloom.

Postscript:

I had the opportunity to ask Janaina: How does the MST example apply to Occupy, which does seem primarily to be urban?  I found her response quite profound.  She said, “It’s time to break the Cartesian dualism, step away from the rural versus urban dichotomy, and think of other ways to defend land, grow food, and distribute resources… We who are living in ‘urban’ places can create ‘rural’ spaces, to grow our own food.”

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