Her earliest leaf’s a flower…

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

Photo by Maple Razsa.

Members of Occupy Chapel Hill/Carrboro NC (bottom liner: Diane Nelson, Duke University)

Dedicated to Bradley Manning

Diane: I am tongue-tied being called to re-present. I’m not an anthropologist at Occupy, in the effervescence beyond Levi-Strauss’ “mutilation inherent in the vocation” of participant/observation, its welcome relief from the subtle and intense hierarchies of academia. Occupy is so IN THE DOING, the ec-stasis of “things stirring,” the pitching in and getting it done, the TAKING IT UPON ONESELF. So, in the spirit of filmmaker Marlon Riggs, this is “Occupy Is…Occupy Ain’t,” striving for his critical inclusiveness while offering a tasty gumbo to the hungry.

On the we(e): Occupy Chapel Hill/Carrboro (OCHC) is a small Occupy (we rarely needed the people’s mic) in a small town in the U.S. South (Amanda: Our cosmopolitan camouflage masks a lot of country sincerity), part of a loose state-wide web (Duke, Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro, Wilmington, Asheville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville—Fort Bragg). Throughout the encampment (October 15, 2011 to January 10, 2012) the police were mostly respectful—the primary danger being drunk college students—and we housed and fed people and outreached and self-educated on economic justice and its corollaries in the war economy, the prison-industrial-complex, finance, foreclosure, environmental destruction, race, gender, and sexuality-based oppressions, immigration, and (Un)Occupying native lands. Direct Actions include Bank Days, Zombie walks, Occu-pie-ing the Holiday Parade, hooking up with Walk-upy (traversing the East Coast connecting with civil rights histories), street protests of police brutality and the privatization of public space, expression, and assembly (I can’t afford a lobbyist so I made this sign) and…

OCHC created a molten sea of mobilized people ready to act with sister projects (Move to Amend, ending the wars, fighting hydrofracking, gentrification, and Amendment One prohibiting gay marriage). Eloquence blossomed. Heather: The need is so great on all fronts that maybe an activist doesn't choose the thing that sounds most interesting or most worthwhile. Maybe an activist jumps in the mud and feels around to see what's there and *works with it.* And builds bridges outward and onward and reaches other people through it and makes art and becomes family through it and uses it to mend things and teach things and connect people, and that IS the frickin' globe.

And always the Occupation itself. The extraordinary poetry that arises in a General Assembly (GA) as homed and homeless border identities are engaged and transgressed. At a city council meeting as our “friendly neighborhood anarchist” movingly defends a building takeover and denounces having an assault rifle held at one’s head. The drumming, the DJ sampling our chants so we can dance (thanks Emma Goldman!). Steve: I showed up at Occupy because I was tired of yelling at the TV. I don’t know what the answers are but I know I’m awake. That’s better than it was before. Amanda: I found home at Occupy. It’s a no BS zone. We’re small but we fight above our weight. Kevin: What I hear from everyone. You are doing things you would NOT otherwise do: sitting here talking to you…. I’d be shopping, working, or sitting at home and wondering if I’m the only one who gets it. Sara: I felt so much shame—I’ve taken on so much debt and now there’s no work. But with Occupy I’m not alone. Ron: For a brief shining moment Occupy presented an opportunity, and many who had never chosen to participate before, myself included, did. The greatest thing to me was the role of women. The women were in Technicolor. Maria: I don't care all that much about politics. What excites me is people working together to feed each other and construct things… getting out of their homes and admitting that they had felt isolated and discovering that their struggles with health care and debt and unemployment were not theirs alone and beginning to interact with people on the Left and figuring out that the system is stacked AND that by working together we could have something different. Mark: Marx said that capitalism produces a monstrous inversion between the living and the dead. Because Occupy emphasized living beings, relations between people, not dead, commodified things, in its very being it is a blow to capitalism. Nick, connecting queer and Occupy strategies of visibility: both start to get uncomfortable when visibility reveals our deviance and our kinks, our complicated bodies… Likewise, worries the encampment undermined “our goals” by making visible the poverty, squalor, disorganization, and “off-message” signage from amongst our ranks…[But] its real value lay precisely in its filth and disorder and messy heterogeneity. By making poor people, shitty conditions, and a lack of neat consensus unavoidably visible in the center of town, we forced people to see what they'd prefer to keep hidden—that their progressive bubble floats on a stinking canal of exploitation.

The noontime concerts by the Raging Grannies. The night a child donated a box of Krispy Kreme donuts as big as he was, but people so focused on the GA didn’t notice till he wandered over to the food tent where shaggy Traveler kids (bored to tears by GA discussions) welcomed him. The day football fans with Louis Vuitton bags came by taunting “we’re the 1%” and got engaged in a ½ hour real conversation. Heather: GA is a crucible, it burns away ego, what is left is consensus, the phoenix rising from the ash. Nick: I can't go to a general assembly every single fucking day, not with two jobs, crisis hotline shifts, a radio show, the books to prisoners group, and occasionally a few hours sleep—and maybe trying to have a boyfriend on top of it all (so to speak). Steve: GA and conflicts as we pursued the idea of consensus rather than majority rules, were a very, very new thing to me, I loved it. But it took me awhile to even like it—I really felt, "Just get this thing done and move on!" But building community as a goal itself, that was new for me. The anarchists are really idealistic and it’s tough but that’s the work.

The sharing experience—entrepreneurs, military people, reverends, high school kids, black bloc, graduate students, nurses, people with incredible skill sets and willingness to pitch in. Nick: Two of the most visible occupiers are trans women, both actively participating in multiple working groups, facilitating meetings, and speaking to the media. Is our town a progressive place for trans folks? Or does Occupy attract the socially and economically precarious who are excluded from other activist communities?

Most of the theoretical energy, challenge, and written materials came not from professors but from “auto-didacts,” well organized anarchists, and people on the street. Felix: You are talking about the 99% and the 1% but I feel I am the 0%. Brian: If there is no connection between those who intend to transform society and those who suffer most within it, no common cause between the hopeful and the enraged, then when the latter rebel, the former will disown them, and the latter will be crushed along with all hope of real change. So instead of asking whether an action is violent, we might do better to ask simply: does it counteract power disparities, or reinforce them?

Do-it-Yourself (DIY)’ing the campsite, facilitating, websiting, negotiating bathrooms, nightwatch, food, without a lot of people was challenging. DIY-ing mental illness, addiction, and survival strategies of the deeply marginalized was harder. Devoted participants found kids’ grades slipping, those with bosses got leaned on, cold and exhaustion and illness set in. By late December, the people holding the plaza were those most at risk from the police, homeless men who are also artists and theorists of space and power. To make way for the annual MLK event on the Occupy site we voluntarily disbanded and moved towards a Nomadic Occupy still in formation. Now the challenge is to figure out What To Do With What We’ve Done, as the flower gives way to the leaf.

As we finished this at the April Fool’s guerrilla gardening tea party, Amanda said, Occupy is like the joke: the Past, the Present, and the Future walk into a bar. It was tense. “Intense?” someone said. “In tents!” We laughed.

Diane Nelson is an occupier and cultural anthropologist and has worked in Guatemala since 1985. She wrote Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala, and A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala and is thankful to the students at Duke University for paying her salary.