Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable NUMBER!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fall’n on you:
YE ARE MANY—THEY ARE FEW.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Masque of Anarchy: A Poem”
More than once those who have the least defenses against the violence of the powerful have dared to defy that power, dared to confront that violence, with their own. And, more than once, those with the most meager resources to resist oppression have won something important, as the result of that confrontation. And in every instance, it has never been who is the leader but rather who are the people. It has never been what is the organization but what is the crisis.
—June Jordan, Some of Us Did NOT Die
It is Shelley’s anguish, written in the aftermath of the massacre of demonstrators calling for reforms at Peterloo in 1819. It is Jordan’s amazement, reflecting on the spontaneous riots in Miami upon Arthur McDuffie’s death at the hands of police officers in 1980 (as with 1968, Rodney King, Oscar Grant…). Then, as now, the commoners are rising after slumber against the chains that bond them. Occupy Movement is “incoherent,” goes the oft-repeated critique. A multitude of screams against seemly endless injustices, channeled into specific sites of intensity that overwhelm as much as inspire: this is incoherence at its most brilliant, struggle at its most creative and open. It is the nascent struggle—the lion stretching its form in a full-bodied yawn, testing its power, scanning the horizon.
In the wake of a still-emerging struggle, we in the Team Colors Collective want to offer some context, questions, and critical points that we hope will be useful. But we do so out of the recognition that this struggle is still very young; that it continues to draw in more voices and conversations, of which ours is but one small addition; and that those on the ground are feeling both exhilaration and exhaustion. So we offer these words in the spirit of careful reflection, of constant listening, of humility, of gentleness. Chris Carlsson, in our book Uses of a Whirlwind, calls it “radical patience”: a strong sense of history, a slow-burning resistance that takes many forms, an orientation to the long haul as much as the here-and-now of awakening.
After Slumber: Crisis and Resistance
Much has been made of how 2011 has offered up a “perfect storm” of conditions for revolt: the untenable impositions of austerity and debt, the obvious fallacy of change through electoral politics, crises along multiple dimensions. But the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the “indignant” struggles in Europe, the student uprisings in Chile, and the now-exploding occupations of major cities cannot be explained through “perfect conditions,” nor solely understood as spontaneous struggle. They have emerged out of everyday resistances and frustrations, organized in a myriad of forms. We can return to this dynamic, if only because the occupations are sparking interest and conversations in new and startling places, of which self-identified radicals constitute only a small part.
Here in the US, we would do well to draw in histories of struggle that inform what we see today: the direct actions of AIDS activism and queer organizing in the 1980s, the movements of the urban homeless, the unions that refused co-optation, the inspiring work of environmental justice and ecological defense organizing. Connecting with contemporary struggles amplifies the occupied movement: the prisoners’ hunger strikes in California, wins resulting from domestic worker organizing, struggles in the universities. Its useful to remember that none of these struggles emerged fully-formed; they were messy from the outset and continued to engage with the messiness, shifting and re-making themselves in the wake of failures and difficulties. The messiness at the occupation sites, of the Occupy movement in its multitudinous forms, is thus no cause for alarm; what matters more is how it is engaged, through “radical patience,” and reaching out through concentric circles of activity and to other nodes of struggle.
The Many, the Few: Towards a Critical Conversation
“We are the 99%” finds its reflection in “Ye are many.” While “the few,” the 1%, is a good starting point for articulating the stark inequities of power and wealth throughout the world, the risk is in making it the endpoint as well. “The people” making up this 99% (and in its opposing 1%) are not easy to describe, but exploring these complexities is central to the movements’ ongoing conversation. A few thoughts.
The 99% and the 1% are not just opposed but related within a social system. The configurations of state and capital are not only crucial to maintaining inequity, but also defusing resistance. The 99% in practice is difficult to comprehend, as it is used in different ways. It is at once an illustration of Marx’s notion of a class in itself—a sack of potatoes sitting dormant for statisticians pecking. In others, it is used to mean the class for itself, the class in struggle—are 99% objectively, but you are against 99% when you abuse us, when you assault us.
The 99% includes not only the police that have beaten and repressed those at the occupation sitesand elsewhere, but also service providers that arbitrarily deny access to the most basic of needs and assistance, parents who punish gender non-conforming children, psychiatrists who abuse patients, and prison wardens and judges who maintain the smooth functioning of the criminal justice system, amongst many other functionaries.
There are nuances among the 99% such as unwaged work, which reproduces community and social relations (most of which is done by women); or social wages such as healthcare benefits (not available to many undocumented workers and precarious laborers) and the use of public commons (which are rare in the suburbs, where the majority of the US population now lives); or in the “wages of whiteness” and other benefits along lines of race, gender, sexuality, and ability. These differences are brought to bear at the occupations—where the sick, the imprisoned, the precariously employed, the survivors of trauma, the undocumented, the elderly, and children may not be as “active.”
Emergence: Sowing Radical Currents into Storms
Until recently, our collective was dialoguing with others around the questions of impasse, of a distinctive “stuckness” that seemed to pervade movements in the Unites States since the end of the alter-globalization cycle of confrontational protests a decade ago. Perhaps the “stuckness” is lifting; in fact, people might be more ready than we think, raring at the bit to generate powerful storms of activity that re-make the terrain of organizing.
What does seem certain is that something has to give. There are strong positions that could close-off organizing potential: relentless insistence on nonviolence, to the point of refusing self-defense; a settling into pre-figurative world-making in the space of the occupation, at the expense of necessary pushes towards confrontation; a bend towards symbolic reclamation rather than more disruptive direct action that pushes “occupation” into new territory. There appears to be greater emphasis on media attention and memes, and less on the relationships we have, the new ones we’re building, how we are changing through. There seems to be a stronger focus on the general assemblies (whose practices of radical democracy are still messy) and less on practices of listening, sharing of personal stories, harm reduction, and activities that center support and care.
A genuine opening-up of this struggle is already pushing back against these tendencies. Caucuses of women of color and queer folks are changing the conversations on the ground; through their own resistances, the organizing is shifting. We encourage greater energy to these forms of opening-up. We’ve discussed in our pamphlet Winds from Below the many tools at our disposal, such as inquiry, encounter, and dialog; in the space of the occupations, these can take the form of local organizing in nearby neighborhoods, churches, community centers, and street corners; community dialogs and interventions; or meetings with organizers in other historic and ongoing struggles. These activities can find a more solid grounding beyond financial instruments or electoral politicking: they can return to the stories of our everyday lives, the commonalities that resonate amongst each other—perhaps these can form the brunt of the general assemblies, both within and outside of the spaces of occupation. Such organizing recognizes people where they are, rather than where we would like them to be; it creates and reproduces autonomous self-activity that sustains us, but also pushes towards its own limits; it draws from the resources and activity of nonprofits, academic institutions, and longstanding community organizations, while consciously and radically extending beyond the confines that come with them.
Like lions after slumber, we are emerging, in ways that shout the possibility of new subjectivities and new worlds. The struggle did not begin with Occupy Wall Street; nor will it end there; and throughout its radically patient arc, it will continue to course through our everyday lives and resistances, our practices of care and support, our reaches towards the limits places upon us. We in Team Colors are excited to be part of the conversations and circulations; may they blossom in unvanquishable number.
Team Colors is a geographically-dispersed militant research collective. Together, they are the editors of the collection Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporay Radical Social Currents in the United States (AK Press, 2010).