Occupy Trust: The Role of Emotion in the New Movements

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

Photo by Maple Razsa.

One of the things that strikes me is the way that we talk to each other; we much more say “I feel” than “I think,” and I see this as related to our trying to really recognize each other. We also see this with our bodies. People hug and embrace so much, even the guys. Not that it is not about ideas, but there is this sense in the assemblies like, leave your political affiliations at the door. You just have to be present as who you are and recognize that you alone do not know the answer, and also see that together we can find answers. So it begins with “I feel” and it is about this affect that creates space for new relationships to emerge with one another. (Amin, New York, Occupy Wall Street, 2012)

Something feels different in our new movements. Many things are different now—but what feels different is the feeling. Many in the new movements reflect on the importance of new social relationships, ones facilitated through the development of horizontal spaces and processes by which we can all speak, be heard, support one another, and act together. What we do not always reflect enough upon however is the feeling part of all of this. I began participating in Occupy before we occupied, when we were the New York City (NYC) General Assembly. Even then, when sitting in a circle in Tompkins Square Park in August, trust and care were a basis for what we were doing—perhaps without this Occupy might not have happened the way it has. Then I went to Greece, and people in the movements there were reflecting on trust and affect, especially in the neighborhood assemblies, and then again in Spain people spoke of the foundational affection and care for the other developing in the Plaza.

Feelings are not often written about as a serious part of politics. Yet, how can we not reflect together on what we are doing, how we are doing it, and how it makes us feel? This is a place from which we organize, a tenant of creating a new politics. It is risky to write this. Emotion, you see, is frequently seen as something for women to write about, which I am. However, since the late 1990s, scholars have begun to write about affect, and the emotional responses provoked by and through organizing and action (see, for example, Goodwin et al. 2001), including recent work on global justice movements (cf. Juris 2008; Brown and Pickerill 2009; Roelvink 2008). These contributions open up important discussions of emotion within social movements, but here I am more interested in the politics of emotion, trust, and love as a foundational and self-reflexive dimension of movement organizing.[1] I thus write despite the risks in the same way that over 2,000 of us chose to trust one another in moving beyond what we imagined possible on the night of September 17, 2011. We dared to share something risky—a dream that something might change, perhaps not the spark of a national movement, but a jump into the unknown—together. We did not articulate it this way; we were just getting to know one another, using the process of direct democracy and consensus to hear and embrace the other—even with disagreements. Not coincidently, the Zapatistas and the autonomous movements in Argentina speak of new social relationships and ways of being as the heart of their construction—in Argentina they even use the phrase “politica afectiva” (affective politics).

Why did so many of the recent global movements begin with horizontal forms, the use of public space, and an attempt to create a base of trust and affect? I don’t know. Perhaps we were just ready to break from what we are told—that we are represented when really we are not. Perhaps we wanted to create something else—real democracy together.[2] To do this necessitated that we see one another, that we speak for ourselves and listen to one another, and that we do so in physical space—creating new relationships in the process of feeling real democracy. And all of this requires a trust, a trust in the other, in listening and hearing, and an affect is then created that is conducive of even more trust and care.

As we do this we feel joy, we celebrate, we dance and sing together, and often we embrace. Lots of emotions emerge from horizontal assemblies that strive for consensus. Sometimes it is frustration and anger, and sometimes joy, but the base upon which the process functions is caring and even love. Again, this does not mean we have to love each other, or even like one another for that matter, but that we open to a certain base of trust and affection that allows other communication to follow. Anger, hate, and frustration are all a part of the movements and what we are rejecting and feeling every day. So, this is not a “love thy neighbor” sort of politics, but an affirmation of one another in the new relationships we are creating grounded in trust and affect. This is one of the reasons people stayed in the Plazas or “couldn’t get enough” of them, and returned daily. It was the feeling, a part of the new social relationships.

So many people, especially in the first weeks, would speak of coming to the Plaza as a need, and as a place where they felt they could just be themselves, and be heard and respected. This was not at all something that only happened at the time of assemblies when everyone speaks and is heard. But, in fact, people intentionally distinguished the difference between the moments of formal listening and all the other times when one felt it possible to talk to a stranger. There was an openness in listening and in the approach to listening; the intention was to meet the other and to care about what they said and who they are. And there was an openness to do projects and actions, from art to research, education, and outreach, or to form groups for mutual support such as mediation, legal, and medical teams.

I use the past tense here since most of the hundreds of occupations across the U.S. no longer exist, not in the form of encampments anyway. But spaces of occupation still occur almost daily, in parks, universities, high schools, front lawns, and the courts. And over 100 working groups exist in New York City alone. In fact, many speak not only of how strong the feeling of support was at the time of the evictions, but how it became even deeper afterwards, with trust becoming more central as a base from which to organize. People who had only recently met opened their homes to those who had been recently evicted, and others volunteered the use of their showers or kitchens—trusting in and caring for that other person. Projects also became more concrete as the Plaza was no longer the central political project. And for these new projects, the relationships and base for those relationships that had begun in the Plaza extended outwards to neighborhoods, universities, and communities.

This horizontal affect-based politics is also driven by the need for real change. It is not only about changing relationships and “feeling good” but inextricably linked to direct action. It is about creating the alternatives that we now desire and need. It is using the base of trust so as to occupy homes and prevent foreclosures and evictions, all the while knowing that to call on one’s neighbor means they will come out and support you—as has been done many hundreds of times throughout the U.S. in only the past few months. People doing eviction defense in support of their neighbors even speak of how they might not have “liked” that particular person, but that they “felt” a connection to them and cared so much about what happened to them that they were risking possible arrest by putting their bodies between the marshals and the person’s home. From these relationships, in dozens and dozens of neighborhoods and communities across the country, networks of support and care have been formed. Neighbors go door-to-door to let others know that they can (and will) be defended if they need it, and also to just share stories, food, and support. In this affect-based organizing many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, have so far been kept in their homes and off the street. In each case of a home defense neighbors say they did not know what to do, but that through coming together and getting to know each other, and caring about each other, action became possible.

It’s about being able to create a new relational mode. What happens is that no one knows exactly how to do it. No one knows. And, it requires a collective process. It’s not like someone is going to come over and tell us how. One thing we have called this is affective politics, politics of affect, politics of affections.(Martin, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Neighborhood Assembly 2003).


[1] Speaking of care and trust in social movements is not an entirely new phenomenon, of course, and in fact the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and in particular Ella Baker, referred to Beloved Community as a key movement goal that was also prefigured in their social relationships. Similarly, the radical feminist movement of the late 1960s also talked about the importance of emotion and trust in their ongoing community building and praxis (see, for example, Taylor and Whittier 1995). However, social science literature on the subject has not sufficiently explored how movements self-consciously reflect upon such emotional dynamics as core elements of their organizational practices and forms.

[2] The network that began discussing the actions for May 15th 2011 in Spain is called “Democracia Real Ya!” accessed June 22, 2012.


Brown, Gavin and Jenny Pickerill. 2009. “Space for Emotion in the Spaces of Activism.” Emotion, Space and Society 2(1): 24-35.

Goodwin, Jeff, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta, eds. 2001. Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Juris, Jeffrey. 2008. Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Roelvink, Gerda. 2008. Performing New Economies through Hybrid Collectives. PhD dissertation: The Australian National University.

Taylor, Verta and Nancy Whittier. 1995. “Analytical Approaches to Social Movement Culture: The Culture of the Women’s Movement.” In Social Movements and Culture, edited by Hank Johnston and Bert Klandermans, 163-187. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marina Sitrin is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center and is a participant in the Occupy Movements. She is the author of Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina(2012), Occupying Language (2012), Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press, 2006) and forthcoming from Verso Press, They Can’t Represent US!