Safe Occupation

Notes from a student-led experiment in New York

u'\xa9' Main photo Rachel Eisley © 2011

By Sophie Lewis, January 2012

We al­ways hope that ‘days of ac­tion’ will spawn dur­able struc­tures, and gen­er­ate per­man­ent re­volu­tion. When something comes of those red-let­ter days we fash­ion in­to hash-tags — and this usu­ally means that a build­ing is seized — any ini­tial suc­cess faces the forces of polit­ic­al in­er­tia and neut­ral­isa­tion. Some­times half-baked pro­jects amount to tac­tic­al mis­steps, and one pays for such er­rors polit­ic­ally.

Novem­ber 17th in New York — or N17 — was widely ex­per­i­enced as a day of glory. Ima­gine you are a part of the throng snak­ing along East 16th Street and south onto Fifth Av­en­ue. Ima­gine near­ing the TD bank on 14th, and real­ising that something very ex­cit­ing is hap­pen­ing above it, where the glossy glass-fron­ted stu­dent study centre is situ­ated. A scuffle at the en­trance. March­ers — not all of them ne­ces­sar­ily stu­dents — throng­ing in and up the es­cal­at­or. Po­lice scram­bling to pre­vent entry with plastic block­ades. Build­ing su­per­in­tend­ents an­grily eject­ing in­sur­gents from the freight el­ev­at­or at the side-en­trance. The main door threat­en­ing to split. A cluster of stu­dents show­ing sup­port for those in­side re­ceive bat­on blows, but ban­ners are already flut­ter­ing out of the second-floor win­dows: ‘Free Space’, ‘Zuc­cotti is dead: the vir­us has spread’; ‘Stu­dents and Labor Unite’; ‘Labor & Stu­dents Take the City Back’.

Do you at­tempt to go in? Then, or hours later — once the pres­id­ent of the New School had ‘al­lowed’ the oc­cu­pi­ers to pro­ceed — would you sleep there? If you sur­moun­ted your in­hib­i­tions, your nerves, and the ad­ren­al­in-fuelled, densely-packed chaos of that mo­ment on the street, if you ex­ited the heav­ily po­liced uni­verse of the ‘pub­lic’ pave­ment that was be­ing for­cibly ‘cleared’ of hu­man ‘ob­struc­tions’, if you plunged in­to the prom­ised haven … what would you ex­pect on the in­side? What kind of so­ci­ety awaits you there, for your pains?

I was in­volved in the oc­cu­pa­tion of the New School stu­dent study centre at 90, Fifth Av­en­ue, just off Man­hat­tan’s Uni­on Square. Its re­gret­table de­gen­er­a­tion in­to un­safety, para­noia, and in­tern­al non-co­oper­a­tion is the basis for this re­flec­tion. This piece did not come nat­ur­ally to me. To call for ‘safety’ seemed to me a pretty con­ser­vat­ive im­pulse. But ‘un­safe’ is my main cri­ti­cism; that is, I’m ‘call­ing’ the oc­cu­pa­tion on it, as Amer­ic­ans would say. The think­ing I had to do to get here was tricky, and took a little cour­age, as it was bound up with activ­it­ies and in­di­vidu­als I stand be­hind or crave mu­tu­al re­cog­ni­tion from. Per­haps my re­ser­va­tions hinged on the fear of ap­pear­ing — pre­cisely — ”in­sec­ure”, in that pre­val­ent so­cially Dar­wini­an sense; of ap­pear­ing ‘whiny’ or un­will­ing to ‘own’ re­spons­ib­il­ity for my per­son­al well­being. Break­ing with such in­di­vidu­al­ist­ic lo­gic, I am now of­fer­ing some ar­gu­ments on feel­ing se­cure in a New York City oc­cu­pa­tion, that is to say, on cre­at­ing brave kinds of safety with­in het­ero­top­ic space, space col­lect­ively claimed in or­der to be trans­formed by dir­ect ac­tion ini­ti­at­ives like Oc­cupy.

[…] suc­cess­ful ac­tions of this type are a form of dir­ect do­mest­ic eco­logy in­so­far as they com­mun­al­ize and pro­tect en­closed space, […]

Oc­cu­pa­tions are — clas­sic­ally — houses of messy, over-de­term­ined con­test­a­tion. The main­stream me­dia of­ten brand every­one in­side them un­washed, un­em­ployed petty crim­in­als with in­scrut­able and thus ir­rel­ev­ant polit­ics. Yet, sig­ni­fic­antly, main­stream rep­res­ent­a­tions also prop up the view of space-claim­ing ac­tion as es­sen­tially ‘virile’ — and threat­en­ingly so — rather than ‘fem­in­ine’, ‘safe’, ‘com­pas­sion­ate’. Thus, many ac­tu­al par­ti­cipants, who are of course learn­ing as they go, form their iden­tity off the mir­ror of ‘pub­lic opin­ion’, and ac­cord­ingly act in ways that seem un­com­prom­ised and un­com­prom­ising. In real­ity, suc­cess­ful ac­tions of this type are a form of dir­ect do­mest­ic eco­logy in­so­far as they com­mun­al­ize and pro­tect en­closed space, do­mest­ic­at­ing it in the half-for­got­ten sense of oikos: the pub­lic home. This im­me­di­ately con­nects oc­cu­pa­tion as prax­is with sexu­al dif­fer­ence and the polit­ics of the (inter)per­son­al. It places a strange set of de­mands upon those en­joy­ing the du­bi­ous priv­ilege of be­ing ste­reo­typed in the me­dia as ‘fright­en­ing’ to the ex­ist­ing so­cial or­der: those able-bod­ied masked young men who won’t ‘be reas­on­able’. To give spe­cif­ics: I did not feel safe with­in the space of oc­cu­pa­tion on the first night of its es­tab­lish­ment, be­cause my par­ti­cip­a­tion in the home-mak­ing pro­cess was pre­cluded by un­dis­cussed graf­fiti­ing, smoking, vomit­ing, and sex­ist jokes from young white men. I stayed, any­way, and re­gret­ted it later. Oth­ers would not.

This does not mean that masked men and wo­men are ne­ces­sar­ily oiks un­able to cre­ate oikos: I know many in­di­vidu­als whose em­brace of ‘black bloc’ tac­tics (as an ex­ample of the dis­orderly and sin­is­ter trope I’m ref­er­en­cing) is a dir­ect ex­pres­sion of their deep in­ter­per­son­al sens­it­iv­ity, their ve­gan-cup­cake-bak­ing do­mest­icity, their skil­ful abil­ity to think and emote col­lect­ively. I ad­dress my­self not to them, but to those who have not un­der­stood that where ‘fright­en­ing’ is con­cerned, less is more.

To those whose im­puted char­ac­ter­ist­ics ‘fright’ the powers that be, I say, don’t be fooled. True fear­some­ness is pre­fig­ur­ing a world without cap­it­al in a non-re­ac­tion­ary way. So, be less ‘pro­fes­sion­al’; ‘dis­obey’ less; avoid mak­ing sects; put your­self, but nev­er com­rades, at risk. For I be­lieve that in­sec­ur­ity gen­er­ated with­in the space of oc­cu­pa­tion stems not from true re­volu­tion vs. re­form dis­tinc­tions, but from such people’s (al­most well-mean­ing) ar­rog­ance. Put bluntly, it stems from com­mon or garden white male priv­ilege mas­quer­ad­ing as pro­fes­sion­al­ism. Every­one be­haves badly a lot — if not most — of the time. We are trained to. However, most of us ex­per­i­ence the bad be­ha­viour of ex­cited young white middle-class males as op­press­ive rather than merely ‘bad’. This is im­port­ant, and Tools for White Guys help. This bad be­ha­viour in par­tic­u­lar ex­pressed a shoddy in­ter­pret­a­tion of the widely shared de­sire to res­ist man­age­ment-cap­it­al as com­pre­hens­ively as pos­sible in the form of non-solid­ar­ity to­wards those of us de­mand­ing a ‘safer space’ agree­ment. Se­cur­ity, after all, is their word. We, in flaunt­ing them, should party hard and ab­ol­ish rules (so runs the reas­on­ing). Con­sequently, I was one of the only non-males who slept at Oc­cu­pied 90 Fifth Av­en­ue on day #1.

In the sub­sequent week, some at­tempts at me­di­ation by per­plexed and ex­hausted act­iv­ists still failed to achieve the co­hes­ive com­mune that might have suc­ceeded in run­ning and re­tain­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion. As the pro­cess dis­in­teg­rated, we were for­saken not only by hoped-for al­lies but at­tacked by erstwhile sup­port­ers in po­s­i­tions of power. A let­ter with thirty sig­nat­or­ies com­posed by An­drew Ar­ato, a fac­ulty mem­ber, was pub­lished on­line on col­league Jeff Gold­farb’s blog, con­demning ”ran­dom vi­ol­ence” and ar­guing that the lib­er­al lead­er­ship of New School’s Pres­id­ent Dav­id van Zant ”had provided no con­ceiv­able ex­cuse for this ac­tion” (they meant the oc­cu­pa­tion as a whole, met­onym­ized by the graf­fiti-ing of the study space). MacK­en­zie Wark, opened his ‘Notes on the New School Oc­cu­pa­tion’ with the pithy sen­ti­ment ”These are times when one must dis­pense con­tempt spar­ingly due to the un­seemly num­ber of things that de­serve it.” The heb­etudin­ous and of­fens­ive bar­ri­cade-graf­fiti of the ni­hil­ist op­por­tun­ists of ‘Oc­cupy the New School’ is per­haps best con­demned in this man­ner. Or, per­haps, one could in­voke Sla­voj Žižek’s double-edged epi­gram: ”our vi­ol­ence is al­ways le­git­im­ate and nev­er ne­ces­sary”. (One might even modi­fy this slightly: ”but nev­er ne­ces­sary”.)

Graf­fiti and bar­ri­cades hardly ever con­sti­tute vi­ol­ence. But sex­ism, ra­cism, ab­lism, and cer­tain forms of in­sur­rec­tion­ary dis­course rooted in class priv­ilege really do.

Graf­fiti and bar­ri­cades hardly ever con­sti­tute vi­ol­ence. But sex­ism, ra­cism, ab­lism, and cer­tain forms of in­sur­rec­tion­ary dis­course rooted in class priv­ilege really do. There is good reas­on to ex­pect, moreover, that en­vir­on­ments char­ac­ter­ised by these give rise to bod­ily at­tacks. And, based on the irony I out­lined above, it is some­times those who be­lieve them­selves to be ul­tra-rad­ic­al who em­body the do­mest­ic threat to oth­er bod­ies already tra­di­tion­ally vul­ner­ab­il­ized by cap­it­al. Un­pick­ing this of­ten be­comes a shout­ing match about the place of ‘iden­tity polit­ics’ with­in re­volu­tion­ary struggle. Faced with this oner­ous task, people I would call real rad­ic­als can some­times ef­fect anti-sec­tari­an ma­gic. The role of me­di­ation with­in Oc­cupy Wall Street has been doc­u­mented, for in­stance, in re­la­tion to the in­tern­al dis­pute con­cern­ing drum-circle rev­el­lers (see also Truth-Out). Some­times doc­u­ments and mani­fes­tos arise in net­works in re­sponse to ex­per­i­ences of in­tern­ally gen­er­ated un-safety.

The ablest me­di­at­ors can­not, however, bridge gaps cre­ated by vi­ol­ent crimes. Re­cently, gen­er­al­ized pub­lic un­con­cern for the rights of the move­ment as a whole (fol­low­ing Zuc­cotti’s evic­tion) gave way to hys­teria in the me­dia in re­sponse to OWS re­ports of an in­cid­ent of a rape in the park. This des­pite (or per­haps be­cause of) its hav­ing been ex­tremely thought­fully handled by the ‘sexu­al as­sault sur­viv­ors’ team’ which also es­cor­ted the vic­tim to a po­lice sta­tion.

In the New School study centre, no as­sault of that nature was - thank­fully - re­por­ted. Yet a rhet­or­ic of ‘di­vine vi­ol­ence’ (and out­right re­jec­tion of Oc­cupy Wall Street), emit­ted by some, amoun­ted to small but mean­ing­ful as­saults on oth­ers’ right to rep­res­ent the oc­cu­pa­tion. It didn’t mat­ter so much that a few blokes had drunk­enly and unaes­thet­ic­ally graf­fiti-ed the walls. It mattered, however, that the en­emy had been in­tern­al­ized. Trans, fe­male, Black, Lat­in Amer­ic­an, queer, dis­abled, work­ing-class and older par­ti­cipants in the sup­posedly ‘all city stu­dent’ space were feel­ing in­dir­ectly tar­geted. And as one in­dig­nant Afric­an Amer­ic­an New School stu­dent put it in a gen­er­al as­sembly there she had de­cided to at­tend: ”all I see here is white folks try­ing to tell me what rad­ic­al act­iv­ism con­sists of. Be­lieve me, I know.”

The dif­fer­ence between ‘dir­ect ac­tion’ and ‘civil dis­obedi­ence’ hinges on pre­fig­ur­a­tion. By of­fer­ing a glimpse in­to an­oth­er world, D.A., un­like C.D., is cap­able of des­troy­ing the rul­ing class’s sense of se­cur­ity. The former is fre­quently the more ‘civil’ of the two, des­pite its closer con­cep­tu­al re­la­tion to vi­ol­ence. In fact, Aren­d­tian ci­vil­ity, which is dia­lo­gic and promis­sory, forms the very basis of re­volu­tion­ary polit­ics. Found­a­tion­al­ist con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist texts like Han­nah Aren­dt’s ‘On Civil Dis­obedi­ence’ ar­gue that the ac­cept­able kind of law-break­ing (as dis­tinct from ‘crime’) is ex­pli­citly that which is ”tuned to ne­ces­sary and de­sir­able pre­ser­va­tion or res­tor­a­tion of the status quo”. But she en­vi­sions ”or­gan­ized minor­it­ies that are too im­port­ant, not merely in num­bers, but in qual­ity of opin­ion, to be safely dis­reg­arded”. Much can be pro­voked by that word, “safely”.

[…] ‘their’ phobic se­cur­ity has got to be re­placed by an al­tern­ate or­der­ing, an un­break­able prom­ise to one an­oth­er, a sense of se­cur­ity that is ours.

If ex­ist­ing neo­lib­er­al mar­ket lo­gic is uto­pi­an (in the sense im­plied by ‘no-place’), and eu-to­pi­an as­pir­a­tions raised in re­cent years across the world (in the sense of ‘good-place’) are still far from fruition, then hetero-to­pi­as are the bridge between the two, labor­at­or­ies in which an­oth­er world be­comes pos­sible. So, when we be­gin the re­hears­als for re­volu­tion in our en­camp­ments and oc­cu­pa­tions, ‘their’ phobic se­cur­ity has got to be re­placed by an al­tern­ate or­der­ing, an un­break­able prom­ise to one an­oth­er, a sense of se­cur­ity that is ours.

A kind of per­man­ent re­volu­tion­ary ten­sion is re­quired to main­tain that or­der­ing to which this ‘ours’ be­longs; and to which we cleave as a ‘we’. In our case, alas, clique form­a­tion at­trib­ut­able alone to the ‘home team’ of privately edu­cated stu­dents suc­ceeded in sink­ing the col­lect­ive boat. It had ini­tially seemed pos­sible that the oc­cu­pa­tion could be saved from be­com­ing a ‘New School oc­cu­pa­tion’. No place really ex­is­ted, at that time, for the di­verse con­stitu­ency of Oc­cupy Wall Street to as­semble. Ideally, to rem­edy this, oc­cu­pi­ers would have wres­ted con­trol of the es­cal­at­or and en­trance from the New School man­age­ment and the bank. The catch-22 here be­came the fact that achiev­ing that re­quired ser­i­ous sup­port from the whole move­ment; gain­ing such sup­port re­lied upon an open-door policy and a sense of trust which sev­er­al uni­on branches were re­luct­ant to give to what ap­peared to be a bunch of drunk­en kids. But in­deed, why should you — com­rade, out there, who­ever you are — enter a space that isn’t so­cially se­cure, when you are already pre­par­ing to take enorm­ous polit­ic­al and ma­ter­i­al risks with your body in or­der to at­tempt pro­lif­er­at­ing eu-to­pia?

Se­cur­ity’ is not a word I use com­fort­ably, though it was not pre­vi­ously clear to me why — bey­ond its hazy as­so­ci­ation with the word ‘home­land’ and with ‘anti-ter­ror’ le­gis­la­tion. Ul­ti­mately, though, to be on some level se-cure, without-care, must be a pre­con­di­tion for equal­ity of par­ti­cip­a­tion and ac­tion in con­cert with oth­ers. It can­not, as a concept, be giv­en over to re­ac­tion­ar­ies, po­lice com­mis­sion­ers, bor­der vi­gil­antes, and sur­veil­lance-fet­ish­ists. Ways in which so-called ‘se­cur­ity’ is­sues play out in tem­por­ary autonom­ous zones are of­ten po­lar­ising, and pin those rais­ing con­cerns in­to a camp marked ‘self-in­volved’, or ‘iden­tity politi­cians’, and those to whom the con­cerns are ad­dressed in an­oth­er marked ‘long-suf­fer­ing true-rad­ic­al’.

As I have ar­gued, this false di­cho­tomy stems from a mis­un­der­stand­ing of ‘re­volu­tion­ar­i­ness’ and amounts to a fail­ure in hold­ing open het­ero­to­pia. The space fails to be dif­fer­ent and can­not there­fore give birth to eu-to­pia. The stress pro­duced by put­ting ourselves ‘at risk’ dif­fers wildly — and for good reas­on — from per­son to per­son. The ten­or of ‘safer spaces agree­ments’ pen­et­rates only un­evenly in­to the com­mon sense. For some, ‘free­dom’ still spells in­di­vidu­al­ist­ic de­fi­ance of tra­di­tion­al mor­al­ity, even with­in the tem­por­ary autonom­ous zone. So, which is the way to struggle against asym­met­ries grown in­su­per­ably vis­ible once the pre­val­ent, however im­per­fect, ”sense of se­cur­ity” has been chal­lenged. How do we be­have to pro­mote care-free ex­ist­ence, where the lib­er­al demo­crat­ic state’s pan­op­tic gaze is sty­mied?

In Kev­in Heth­er­ing­ton’s book The Bad­lands of Mod­ern­ity, het­ero­to­pi­as are al­tern­ate (not just ‘trans­gress­ive’) or­der­ings, ”un­cer­tain zones that chal­lenge our sense of se­cur­ity and per­cep­tions of space as fixed”. But what must also be con­sidered, then, is whose sense of se­cur­ity, whose per­cep­tion of space, be­cause the more ”cer­tain” zones we in­hab­it by de­fault are rife with di­vi­sion, hier­archy and false con­scious­ness. We know that privately owned squares, roads and build­ings, with their in­sur­ance policies based on the lo­gic of ‘risk so­ci­ety’, turn in­to sup­ports for pub­lic ac­tion — and private life — when people pitch their tents there. These sup­ports for ac­tion be­come, in the­ory, safe(r) spaces, be­cause the col­lectiv­ity frames al­tern­ate ‘com­mand­ments’ for its own so­ci­ety. It is fre­quently said (for in­stance in Dav­id Grae­ber’s Dir­ect Ac­tion) that she who has en­gaged in the col­lect­ive rush, when bod­ies in al­li­ance sud­denly take no­tice of their com­mon sense, gains sud­den un­der­stand­ing of the mi­ra­cu­lous abil­ity of mu­tu­al act­ing to re-make space.

[…] the rad­ic­al equal­ity that seems to be pro­duced in mu­tu­al act­ing must be re­peated, again and again, or else it fal­ters.

But the rad­ic­al equal­ity that seems to be pro­duced in mu­tu­al act­ing must be re­peated, again and again, or else it fal­ters. It arises, in part, neg­at­ively, out of op­pos­i­tion unit­ing all whose bod­ies pro­voke the com­mon — bat­on-wield­ing — en­emy. Even here, vul­ner­ab­il­ity dif­fer­en­tials re­quire at­ten­tion: ar­rest is a more ser­i­ous mat­ter for Black people. The equal­ity I’m talk­ing about arises pos­it­ively, however, when a home can be made, a meet­ing-place de­fen­ded, a people’s lib­rary stocked, in­di­vidu­al trau­mas soothed, bel­lies filled, a so­cial wel­fare net autonom­ously woven around the bod­ies in al­li­ance, in res­ist­ance. Se­cur­ity is noth­ing if not that equal­ity. Yet the rad­ic­al equal­ity of the com­mons is threatened con­stantly by con­scious­ness copied from cap­it­al­ism. Bear­ing this in mind, then, shall we try again?

A form of this art­icle was ori­gin­ally com­mis­sioned by Open Demo­cracy for its Open Se­cur­ity sec­tion.

Sophie Lewis is one of the conceivers and editors of JOS. She also blogs independently at

Article CC-BY-NC-SA Main photo Rachel Eisley © 2011