Fieldnotes on Union Square, Anti-Oppression, and Occupy

From the Series: Occupy, Anthropology, and the 2011 Global Uprisings

Photo by Maple Razsa.

On March 19, 2012, at around midnight, the police moved everyone off the steps of Union Square Park, pushed them onto the sidewalk, put up barricades, and then stood shoulder to shoulder guarding the park. This was the Monday following the police brutality and arrests in response to the attempt to re-occupy Zuccotti Park on the six month anniversary of the initial occupation in lower Manhattan. The past weekend had been a brutal mélange of emotions: joy at being back in Zuccotti, followed by horror and sadness at the violence and then extreme tiredness. Sunday was spent worrying about those who had been hurt, doing jail support, and going on a solidarity march.

Sitting in Union Square the Monday night after all of this, many people were relieved and a little giddy: the weather was warm, those who had been arrested on Saturday were out of jail, and Union Square was “occupied” not least because a large Occupy banner was spread across the top of the stairs that led into the park on the South Side of the plaza. But the park could also be considered "occupied" because parts of the infrastructure of mutual aid [1] that people had grown accustomed to at Zuccotti were now present in Union Square. Below the Occupy banner an information table with flyers and pamphlets had been set up. The medics sat in a centrally located cluster on the second tier of stairs, distinguishable by their backpacks of gear with red duck-taped medic crosses on them. At the top of the stairs, by the statue of George Washington, bagels and other pastries had been “dumpster dived,” i.e. taken from the trash bags of nearby bakeries, and they now sat in boxes for people to eat. On the sidewalk in front of the stairs leading into the park, cardboard signs with political messages like “tax the rich,” “bailout the people not the banks,” and “we are the 99%” were arrayed. Next to this was a pile of cardboard and markers for those who wanted to their own sign and add it.

I had been part of Occupy Wall Street since late September 2011, both as a participant as well as an anthropology graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center doing ethnography in the movement, and so by now I recognized many of the people at Union Square. Many of these people were walking through the park to see what was happening, clearly excited about Occupy being located somewhere new. After the repression that had occured over the weekend at Zuccotti Park, it felt like there were, once again, possibilities for the movement.

That night, on the steps of Union Square about eight or ten of us were sitting close together and eating a picnic dinner of strawberries, cheese, bread, olives and other random bits of food people had found or had on them (my contribution was lentils and rice in a tupperware, leftovers from a meal the day before.) This meal happened the way these things often happened within Occupy: spontaneously and within an ethos in which anyone could join and we shared everything. Our conversation was similarly structured: it was a jumbled mix of politics, movement strategy, and discussion of who had been arrested over the weekend and what it was like to be in Union Square. I didn't know everyone there, some people I recognized, and others wandered over and sat down with us. The conversation felt exciting, and I was reminded of the early days of Zuccotti when sometimes “occupying” meant having these sorts of conversations and debates with people you knew and people you didn't know. I was thinking about how important a space to do this was until out of the corner of my eye I saw someone get up with an upset and agitated expression and leave the conversation.

I was concerned about what happened but when I inquired no one else had noticed. As I confusedly turned my attention back to the conversation, I overheard a white man in his mid- 30s using the word “gay” over and over again as a negative descriptor. Suddenly everything fit together: this usage had upset the person who left. I turned to the man who was using “gay” in a pejorative way and carefully told him that it is “not okay” to describe things this way. In response he mumbled something about me being uptight and then left.

This was not a big moment. In fact it was just a moment, just a second, just three people interacting, not even directly with each other: one person said something, another person left the group upset, a third person responded, the first person left as well. It was a moment that could have happened anywhere, a bar, a classroom, a party. My point, however, is that the context of this moment matters: the newly occupied Union Square, a group of people united by a diverse set of political interests but a commitment to Occupy, a group of people who think of themselves as part of a movement that is trying to prove itself a force to be reckoned with in the future, a movement that has put conversations about wealth and inequality and class back into public discussion. And at the core of this movement is a committment to radical inclusivity, to the idea that through various forms and tactics, whether being located in public parks, making decisions at General Assemblies and not having an official leadership structure, that this is a movement that aims to let everyone participate in whatever way they can. One whose rallying cry, heard over and over again in the streets at any Occupy event is "we are the 99%" a rallying cry that is about organizing beyond difference. Yet there I was sitting in this group and two people had just left.

As I sat there and thought about it; I was frustrated. Until that moment Union Square felt like a chance to start over, a chance to learn from what had happened in Zuccotti Park and move forward, to not repeat those mistakes again, a chance to try again to create a space for pre-figurative politics [2], a chance to start creating the world we wanted to live in. In the incarnation of Occupy Wall Street that took place in Zuccotti Park, I and many of my friends were frustrated by the lack of analysis around race, gender and privilege within the movement. We often felt as if we were doing “catch-up” work because Occupy's political analysis didn't initially include a framework in which to think about race, gender, oppression, privilege, and the connections between these issues and capitalism. Instead we had to constantly push this analysis on the movement. Sometimes this meant blocking the Declaration of Occupy Wall Street because we felt its language to be insensitive [3] or organizing anti-oppression trainings. Sometimes it meant creating a People of Color caucus to have a space to talk together, ally and organize. Sometimes it meant reading over the millionth draft of the Community Agreement that was aimed at creating the movement as a safe space around these issues. Most often, however, it meant confronting moments of micro-aggression like the one I just described, moments in which someone said or did something that revealed their unconsidered privileges and that in turn created a space that was upsetting, oppressive, and violent for someone else.

This is where Occupy has come up against a fundamental question: how can a movement that thinks of itself as radically inclusive and primarily about wealth inequality and the financial industry also take on the intersections of race, class, and gender? How can this movement recognize that moments of oppression, like the one I describe above, are not singular but part of the institutional patriarchy and racism that is at the core of a capitalist system? How can these connections be made among those working and organizing in the movement and in doing so how to realize, as many movements have realized in the past, that the personal is necessarily political? How can the movement come to realize that the spaces we create at 11:30pm on a Monday night in Union Square and the people we exclude by creating these spaces in particular ways are not side issues but actually fundamental to its success or failure?

I want to highlight the importance of these questions, not just for the viablity of a movement like that of Occupy but also for how we understand the place of intersectionality and identity politics within contemporary social movements. It has been argued that the form of Occupy, that in its use of horizontality and direct democracy and in its creation of participatory spaces, that the movement is creating new territories and modeling the world it wants to see [4]. However I offer the movement above as an example of some of the inherent challenges of these new spaces and the way that old problems, problems of racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism etc. force us to consider and take on, the role that difference has in creating our new futures.


[1] "Mutual Aid" can be defined as:" the voluntary exchange of goods and services in a way that is mutually beneficial. Generally, these exchanges do not include money. Mutual aid is an economy based on cooperation and support, not competition and manipulation." Leone, Rachel. 4/29/12. Mutual Aid on May Day and Beyond. Waging Nonviolence. (accessed on 7/30/12).

[2] For more on this see: Graeber, David. 11/30/212. Occupy Wall Street's Anarchist Roots. Al-Jazeera. on 7/30/12).

[3] Maharawal, Manissa M. 2011. “Standing Up.” In Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, edited by Keith Gessen, Astra Taylor, Eli Schmitt, Nikil Saval, Sarah Resnick, Sarah, Leonard, Mark Greif, and Carla Blumenkranz. New York: Verso.

[4] Sitrin, Marina. 1/9/12/ Horizontalism and Territory. Possible Futures. (accessed on 7/30/12).

Manissa McCleave Maharawal is a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has written extensively about the Occupy movement while also participating and organizing within it.