The better part of a year—the latter half of 2010 and beginning of 2011—I spent in therapy. First, to come to terms with the changing conditions of a dying relationship, and then to accept its overdue death. But that’s another story altogether. I bring it up to say that therapy is great, and I think at one point or another in everyone’s life, we would benefit from several months of weekly talk therapy. A good deal of my sessions was focused on trying to understand and deconstruct the way in which I would react to a situation, or attempt to preemptively correct, alter, or avoid a certain outcome. My therapist, Lily, observed that I would describe certain behaviors or reactions as “instinctual.” What if, she suggested, rather than thinking of these as instincts, I instead framed them as “habits” and “habitual” reactions. This was a transformative moment for me in how I viewed and processed my own behavior. Instincts are ingrained and inherent; habits are learned and conditioned and can therefore be unlearned.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include an additional thought on therapy, recently brought up by a close friend who I sent a first draft of this piece to under the subject, “does this suck?” He wondered if therapy is a remedy for the lack of community caused by capitalism. Which is interesting and, to an extent, I think is true, and also echoes sentiments I’ve heard recently that capitalist societies put too much emphasis on the individual. For months I deflected suggestions from my partner that perhaps I should go to therapy, that I might find it helpful, because, for the first time in a long time, I was opening up to my friends, seeking support and guidance from them, in essence, creating a community. Eventually, however, I found it was not quite enough. I wanted the focused support of a professional as well. I needed a balance between community and individualization—an important compromise I’ve tried to carry forward.
I’d largely stepped back from organizing directly under the Occupy Wall Street umbrella over the last two to three months. The looming one-year anniversary of Occupy (#s17) struck me as too self-referential, too retrospective, and honestly, too masturbatory. There’s too much work yet to be done, too much daily suffering and struggling, too little yet accomplished to spend so much time and energy honoring ourselves with symbolic actions aimed at symbolic targets that retread failed ground. I tried to engage with it; I tried really hard to be excited and to help make the day forward-thinking, radical, and not just an anniversary. Without equal or more emphasis put on planning what the day after the anniversary looks like, the celebration is bound to disappoint in the long run. To quote that same friend, “ramping up to one day of celebration is ideal for a birthday, but pointless in a movement. Celebration is good. Onanism is not so good as a strategy.” I had to look up onanism. It wasn’t what I expected, but it’s more than an appropriate analogy. No matter how hard I tried to care, I just didn’t. And the more I tried to engage with the organizing the more frustrated I became with the organizing space itself.
Since the eviction of Liberty Square last November, the community of Occupy Wall Street has changed, but has not really evolved. In the few days prior to the eviction, the community was reaching a boiling point. Race, class, and gender conflicts were beginning to bubble over. The distinction between “occupiers” and “organizers” was very tangibly manifested in the east side/west side divide of the encampment. We were recreating many of the oppressive structures that we came together to destroy, but we didn’t even recognize them. People were just beginning to try to talk about it. Then the raid happened, and we were thrust into logistical crisis mode. “Capitalism wins again.” In the winter, as the General Assembly and Operational Spokes Council devolved into squabbling over the general fund, much of it focused on the very present and important need to provide housing, transportation, and food to the remaining houseless population that was sustained by the encampment, experienced activists and radicals from all over the country began to trickle away. Still, we never got back to truly addressing the oppressions being recreated within the community. In fact, much of the winter was about “providing” solutions. It wasn’t about empowerment. But we were impatient and slipped into philanthropy, using our still healthy general fund to provide solutions.
May Day was framed as a re-galvanizing moment for “the movement” and nearly four months of focused planning was dedicated to this one day. If the goal was Occupy 2.0—a rebirth, a new spark, or anything else signifying renewed energy—then May Day 2012 was a colossal failure. Our failure to tangibly and tactically look towards May 2nd, 2012 was our collective failure. Instead this date marks the beginning of the second exodus of our community’s anarchist base, experienced radicals, and longtime activists. And still, our privileges and oppressions continued unaddressed.
A longtime activist, I am not. I don’t even know if I’m an anarchist. I’m anarcho-curious, that’s for sure. I know that I believe in the ideals of horizontalism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and equity (not equality.) I came to Occupy Wall Street in October of 2011 considering myself a far-left liberal. I campaigned for Obama in 2008 and believed that there was potential to work within our political system, that reform was possible and maybe even an end unto itself. I don’t believe that anymore. I’ve had a series of radicalizing moments that served as a personal escalation calendar over the last year.
The organizing for #S17 seemed to go against everything I had come to believe, to hold dear, to feel was at the heart of what this community was about. (I really don’t think it’s appropriate to refer to “the movement” when we are only referring to the specific element of a global struggle that has taken shape in New York City, under the name Occupy Wall Street, so I will try to refrain from doing so, unless I do actually think what I’m saying applies beyond the community with which I most actively engage.)
For transparency’s sake: I’m male-assigned and -identified, I am white, I consider myself heterosexual; I graduated from a private university. My education was funded through private loans that I will probably never have the means to pay back. So, yes, the societal cards have been well-stacked in my favor. Besides elective elements of my appearance and decisions I have made, I have many privileges handed to me, unearned and no more deserved than anyone else. When I walk into a room, sit in a meeting, or engage with a group, my voice has the potential to be given more authority, more weight, more respect, because it is the voice of a white cis-male.
This is my privilege. And I am learning to check it.
Honestly, I almost just typed, “I have learned to check it.” But that would erroneously imply that the work is done. The work will never be done. I will always carry with me conditioned privileges and internal oppression. I will always have to actively check my privilege and be conscious of how my being white, male, straight, and of able body has the ability to oppress others through the ways we’ve been conditioned to interact and to place hierarchies on our relationships.
Early in my involvement in Occupy I went to facilitation training with Lisa Fithian. I carry with me since then the notion that it is the responsibility of those who come from privilege, who have opportunities handed to them, to utilize that power for the benefit of everyone in the room, “a strategic use of privilege to raise all boats.”
I spoke earlier of equity as opposed to equality. Equality assumes we solve our problems by offering everyone the same slice of pie. What this doesn’t do is acknowledge that people come to the table with different histories, different needs, different privileges. I don’t come close to truly understanding oppression; all I can do is listen and put what I learn into practice. Equity on the other hand, derives from the principle, “to each based on their needs; from each based on their abilities.” As a white, able-bodied, cis-male, my needs are fewer, and to make up for the privileged place I hold in society, my piece of the pie should be far smaller. Amalia, from (un)Occupy Albuquerque points out that scales don’t balance by simply raising one side to the higher position of the other. Rather, one side must come down, in order for the other side to go up. And thus is the reality of privilege and oppression. In order to begin to balance the scales of oppression, those of us with privilege must be willing to give up some of what we’ve be given, to step back, so that others may step forward and fill the space we leave. Those of us with privilege don’t get to hold onto our positions; everyone must assume a new one.
This is by no means easy. It’s the hard work that we’ve all been talking about. And it’s obviously a whole lot easier to talk about than to actually try to live and embody. But, by dedicating ourselves to the effort of acknowledging our unearned privileges, the ways we have internalized capitalism, and the oppression we’ve been conditioned to, and then by actively disengaging from them, is how we begin to prefigure the world we want to see, how we create radical relationships and truly radical communities.
At least it’s how we start.