The Operation of the Machine

Mario Savio is famous, or at least he’s famous if you’re an activist at all interested in the history of student activism in the United States. He is famous enough that he’s even been institutionalized — or co-opted — at the University of California at Berkeley:

The steps [of Sproul Hall] are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent graduate student who was the symbolic face of the movement. There is even a Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus where some of Mr. Savio’s words are prominently displayed: “There is a time … when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part.”

The speech continues — although this part, apparently, they haven’t seen fit to emblazon

And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

That’s the idea of nonviolent protest. It’s the idea of strikes and sit-ins and of linked arms and of destroying draft files with homemade napalm. The idea is to keep the machine from working at all. But it turns out that in a lot of situations, that’s very hard to do.

When I was involved, in my own small way, in a sit-in at the University of Iowa in 2000, our idea was that we would keep the machine of the administration from working by occupying their main building. We ended up occupying their hallway for a week, and while we certainly inconvenienced them somewhat (I’ll never forget the woman who came out to spray air freshener over us every morning), we could not, as it turns out, stop the machine. We never even saw then UI President Mary Sue Coleman. She had, we assumed, some sort of bathole entrance to the building, because we were there round the clock and we never saw her enter or leave. She never once spoke to us.

And so our fight, like those of many of the Occupy movements now, became not against the machine itself but against its minions. We were lucky: when the cops came to get us, they acted nonviolently. No one was sprayed with pepper spray or dragged or beaten. Others, as anyone who watches YouTube knows, have not been so fortunate at late.

Most of the people who are involved with Occupy movements didn’t set out to treat the police as the enemy. Sure, police brutality is a problem, but I think for the most part we recognize it as a symptom, not a root cause. It’s true that the actions of the Chicago Police Department at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 were officially deemed a riot, but it was Mayor Richard Daley who gave the “shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city” order to the police some months prior to that in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was ordinary soldiers who carried out torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, but it was officials of our country at the highest levels of power who endorsed waterboarding.

It was campus police who pepper-sprayed students at UC Davis, but it was Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi who issued their orders.

And while it is local police who have done the dirty work of cracking down on Occupations in Oakland, Portland, New York City, and elsewhere, it is the mayors of those places — acting, apparently, not only with each other but also under the advisement of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security — who have issued those orders.

It’s damned hard to get to the chancellor of a university. It’s hard to shut down the machine of Wall Street. Even throwing money on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange only interrupted things for a little bit. It’s hard. You throw your body up against the machine, and fifty years later, they put your words in a coffee shop.

I understand that people are disappointed in those occupiers who have turned their attention to battling the cops. It saddens me, too. I’d rather be talking about economic inequality and the Supercommittee and the latest appalling contract between the University of Iowa and a multinational sweatshop and the work that Shelter House and the Free Mental Health Clinic have to do because we don’t actually bother to take care of people in this country and the staggering numbers of people who are out of work or on the verge of losing their homes and — well, I could go on. But how do you get people to talk about these things, or more importantly, to do something about them? And why, when people do try to dramatize them, do we insist they be “cleaned up?”

If you have an answer, I would love to hear it.

Occupy Iowa City No. 1

I am not actually occupying Iowa City (although this being Iowa City, we are transforming, not occupying. Liberating was rejected on the grounds of being too confrontation and sharing on the grounds that someone did not want to share with the 1%). My six-month’s pregnant old lady butt is instead occupying my sofa, which is where I’ve been sleeping lately because it seems to result in less back pain that sleeping on my bed. But I did stop by the occupation/transformation at College Green Park last night and stayed for a couple hours worth of the General Assembly, which churned out a preliminary statement of intent and a statement of nonviolence in two hours.

If you’ve ever been a part of consensus decision-making, especially in a group of 200 people, you’ll know that two statements in two hours is actually kind of a record. As I was telling a friend, it’s always instructive to remember the story of the SDS chapter in New Jersey that once spent 24 hours trying to decide if they could take a day off to go to the beach.

Decision-making of the sort being practiced at College Green Park and in public spaces all over the country is not something a lot of people are really willing to do. Even those of us who participate in such things are likely occasionally to say Dude, let’s just pick a word already. But that, of course, spins off into a debate about whether and how words matter.

Regular life affords few opportunities for such debate. Oh, sure, advertisers and politicians argue about wording all the time. But advertisers and politicians have a mission that’s about convincing other people, not about satisfying them. Wording a statement as an activist is about convincing other people, sure, but it’s also about defining yourself. It’s about defining and creating the kind of world and society that you want. In the beginning was the Word, and in some sense even atheists function that way.

I loved being at the park last night not because I really love sitting on the ground for two hours and repeating everything everyone says in phrases and twinkling with my hands to show approval. What I love is seeing people engaged in the process of creating something, watching them get to feel — for some for the first time — that they are making something that is real and true.

When I got home last night, I listened to the Friday installment of Planet Money. I have a perverse love of economic news and analysis (I lay it entirely at the feet of Louis Rukeyser for being so funny and dapper), even though it routinely pisses me off. Despite what the right wing seems to think, NPR, especially in the form of Planet Money, is not even remotely left-wing. It’s taken as a default position that capitalism is good, that the democratic process as displayed in the United States works, that growth is good. I disagree with almost everything they say. On last night’s show, they decided to visit Occupy Wall Street. I was immediately worried. It’s going to be like the time they interviewed “a socialist,” I thought (although to be fair, they poked no more fun at him than they did at the folks at libertarian summer camp, who were checking the price of gold on their smartphones in order to calculate how much gold to offer for goods at the camp). But it was actually pretty good: they are the first media people I’ve heard to understand that the part of the point of the protest is the protest. What we want for the larger world is what we are creating for ourselves. If hundreds of people living rather uncomfortably in a public place and sleeping on the ground can come to consensus, why the hell can’t the grown ups?

I don’t speak for anyone else at any Occupy event. But for me, at least, it’s true. The means is the end. Or, as one of my favorite bits of writing from another era put it,

We conducted a long struggle, assuming responsibilities we should not have been made to assume, heartbreakingly alone until the end, taking time out from our studies and our lives to do a job that should not have needed to be done. And we comported ourselves with dignity and grace, on the whole unexpectedly so, and with good hearts and kindness for each other. Confronting an institution apparently and frustratingly designed to depersonalize and block communication, neither humane nor graceful nor responsive, we found flowering within ourselves the presence whose absence we were at heart protesting.

(excerpt from a letter sent by a Berkeley Free Speech Movement participant to the judge in their case, quoted in Michael Rossman’s The Wedding Within the War)

Isn’t That Your Job?

Your week probably did not start at 8:30 on Monday morning with a health care professional telling you that you were gaining too much weight in your pregnancy and that “if you keep this up, you’re going to look like the Michelin girl by the time you deliver.” At least, I certainly hope your week didn’t start that way. I’m sorry to say that mine did, and even more sorry that my response, rather than uttering an expletive or an eloquently worded rejoinder, was to burst into tears.

Of course, pregnancy may well explain that response, as well as my getting teary looking at BoingBoing just now (and damn, that was some fast CSS work on someone’s part) and reading my all the nostalgic Apple posts stream by on FriendFeed and Facebook.

But I didn’t set out, actually, to whine about pregnancy or reminisce about Macs (I’ve done that before) but rather to comment a bit on one of the other events of this apparently tumultuous week, the Occupy This, That, and the Other Place movement that started with Occupy Wall Street. Before the Steve Jobs encomiums started rolling in, most of the posts I saw online this week were either repostings of assorted Occupy signs (hell, I posted a few of them myself) or people complaining about the ways in which the movement, or the people involved, lacked focus, or direction, or goals, or objectives. Frequently these went together — Gosh, I love this sign! I sure wish they had a program!

Watching activism take place on the internet makes me feel very, very old, and weirdly nostalgic for the days when I was handing out flyers that said, “meet on the Pentacrest at noon and the Ped Mall at 5 the day the war breaks out!”, because of course we didn’t know when the war was going to start (this would be the “first” Gulf War), and we wanted to have a plan, and we couldn’t email everyone, much less invite them all to a Facebook event.

The group that made those flyers was called Operation US Out, and I attended its very first meeting, when I was fourteen. We had a program, or at any rate we had five Points of Unity, the idea being that if you agreed with these, you were part of the coalition, regardless of your position on, say, abortion or Israel. The only ones I remember now (1990 was some time ago, and I’d have to look the rest up) were “Troops Out Now” and “End the Poverty Draft,” but the idea was to create some simple demands we could all get behind and rally around, so that we could build a broad-based coalition and gather the maximum possible resistance.

That worked, to a point, the point in question being when a group of mostly women decided that OUSO was being dominated by either men or International Socialist Organization members, or ISO members who were men, and they thus decided to form a separate group called Women Against War. I stuck with the original group, as that’s where my friends were. I knew the people on the steering committee. Of course, they mostly were ISO members, as tends to happen with new activist groups on college campuses with active ISO chapters, if Chicago decides that’s where ISO members should focus their energies. The idea of a Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist group is, at least in part, that you’re creating a vanguard for the revolution, because when the time comes, you’ll need to have people who are organized and know how to get shit done. Consequently, ISO people tend to be very organized and know how to get shit done, and while everyone else is sitting around and dithering about whether the group is anti-war or pro-peace, or whether or not to include demands about Palestine, or what have you, the ISO folks are going around and booking meeting rooms and getting march permits and making and copying flyers and generally, well, organizing. But I digress.

The Points of Unity weren’t, as it turned out, enough to preserve a unified group, and I’m not sure at all that they were ever mentioned or covered in any newspaper story about our actions. As my friend Meg says, you can be sure that at a rally of a thousand normal looking people, the newspaper photographer will find the one guy on stilts, and that will be what shows up on the front page of the paper. I love the guys on stilts, and the people with the giant puppets, and the Radical Cheerleaders, and the people who go around doing guerilla plantings of organic pumpkin seeds, and all the other forms of spectacle we have on the Left, but I do acknowledge there’s a certain problem of media representation.

I’ve since been involved in various other struggles that had programs and demands. Students Against Sweatshops had three very specific demands, all of which had been endorsed by a remarkable list of groups and people and institutions (shouts out, Tom Harkin!). To this day, eleven years later, the University of Iowa has still only met two of them (joining the WRC and drafting a licensee code of conduct — they have yet to drop out of the FLA). The sit-in and its associated spectacle, and the years that followed, were specifically designed in an attempt to bring attention to these specific and particular demands, and they were covered, to some extent, in the stories told about us. But of course they were very complicated and involved understanding things about factory monitoring and labor standards and the right to organize and a great many other things that don’t make a good caption on a picture of a bunch of unwashed college students.

And yet we did accomplish some of our goals. There have been improvements. Mostly those were the result of a lot of grueling, irksome, behind the scenes work. But you know what happened that first day of the sit in? The administration joined the WRC, something they’d refused to do for months. I don’t think they did that due to reasoned demands. We’d already made those. I think they did it because there were a bunch of grubby college kids bike-locked together in their offices. (Well. People weren’t grubby yet. It was the first day, before we started camping out in the hallway.)

I’ve long been a fan of Frances Fox Piven’s Poor People’s Movements. If you’ve heard of Piven, you’re probably either an old lefty or a fan of Glenn Beck. Given that you’re reading this blog, I’m betting on the former, although you never know. I’d like to think my father would read my blog if he were alive, and after agreeing that “main ideas belong in main clauses and subordinate ideas belong in subordinate clauses” and that bourbon is preferable to Scotch, I’m not sure he and I would see eye to eye on anything. Piven’s book is about various mass uprisings of the poor, some of them organized somewhat but most of them simply the result of huge numbers of people reaching a breaking point.

The folks occupying Wall Street do not have a great deal in common with the tenement dwellers who went on rent strikes in Piven’s book, but there’s a quality of unrest that I think they share, and a quality of demanding something — even if it’s an inarticulate, intangible something — but something different from what they have.

I remember way back at one of those early OUSO meetings someone was trying to get people to pin down exactly what our solution to — oh, I don’t know, the global oil market? the problems of capitalism? — was. Another member stood up to speak and said, “You know, I don’t know. But you know, we elect this huge bureaucracy. We elect these people who are supposed to figure out how to make the things we want work. Isn’t that, like, their job?

And to a great extent, I think that’s what the Occupy movement is saying. No, we don’t have a solution to the global debt crisis or the student loan scam or the unemployment rate or anything else. But dude, people in government, captains of industry, leaders of the free world — isn’t that your job? To which I can only say yes, yes it is.