A Defense of Dreaming in Public
A guest post from my friend Christopher Miller.
“The street is a void in the sequence of man, as he sleeps by its side, in rows that house his dreams.”
- J. H. Prynne
What I have witnessed over the last few weeks is in fact the long patient work required for ensuring the street is not a void in the sequence of man.
In fact, what occupations have showed and continue to make so visible are the enshrined voids and empty spaces of “friendly enterprise” that we have taken in place of an actual public space where we can meet others, irreducible in their suffering and intelligible in their grievance. And what is the response of our urban leaders? We watch through blogs and newspapers as “public health and safety” is restored first by riot cops and then by legions of power washers and chemical agents, epitomized in newspapers around the country as peaceful, flood-lit absences. As Foucault taught us, “hygiene” here is short-hand for the re-assertion of state-regulated bodies, including profitable redirections of waste production. At University of California Berkeley, students stood by as a bulldozer gathered artworks, piano, and library shelf for the bureaucratic afterlife of sanitation garages. The voids are restored, made ready for future development.
I take the importance of occupation, in both its practical and philosophic senses, to lie in a fundamental assertion of presence. A sustained presence in a space is a declaration that something in me, in our collective assemblies, outlasts, persists beyond, or exceeds the weak characterizations we have available today in politics and journalism for human action. By the time you write up an article about why the occupation retook the square, another proposal will be in the works. Duration is a social and political demand, precisely because it confronts the paucity of our language for these events with the troubled fullness of a human life. Presence is a way to counter misrepresentation and the foreclosed commentary of comment boards, helicopter cameras, and administrative arbitrations. Those who have lived through encounters with riot police felt the difference and seek madly for some kind of public confirmation of their experience.
And the truth of the matter is that occupation will not eliminate the crime and social rifts that are innate to a population made radically unequal, indebted, and divided against resentful abstractions of itself. A series of tents is not going to end downtown blight, quell gun violence, or end the targeted criminalization and deportation of “extranjeros.” As any women knows, sexual harassment will not end when they leave the walls of the camp and the disenfranchised will not turn in their weapons simply because shelters are constructed, democratic assemblies manifested. A long history of violent appropriation has left us with many concrete legacies, legacies that cannot be simply displaced by portioning out the agency of “violence” between the police and the anarchists, the city and the mob. Figures like Angela Davis and Malcolm X know what it is like to fight over such rhetorical and physical boundaries. What can happen within these enduring human communities is a direct confrontation of these contradictions, which our voided publics have been displacing to well-policed marginal neighborhoods, prisons, and under-funded schools. Occupation is a legitimation of a different kind of human power, one that can address and absorb the roots of these forms of violence. I was part of a march in which quite literally an aggressive man was encircled by fellow protestors chanting “peaceful protest” after he pushed someone to the ground. He was not expelled, but shown what care looks like. I have never seen so much expected from such a transient community. A tent for the night.
And let us remember that tents are symbols of not just free speech, but basic shelter. Let us remember that architecture began with this fundamental instinct: to give form to a space in which we can carry out healthy lives. One of the first characters we learn is two vertical posts traversed by a lintel. Every vault and enclosure is a continuation of this expression. We also know that free speech is just as vulnerable as our human frames and can functions only insofar as it is constitutive of a public. In short, these tents give free speech a place to live.
There is a curious absence of a question in the discourse I see today around occupation. What is usually asked is why these occupiers don’t have any leaders or demands. Don’t they just level everything out into the 99%? What is never asked: Why do all these disparate grievances and injustices (to list some: health care reform, environmental justice, unparalleled socio-economic inequality coupled with racist practices of incarceration, etc.) find a common ground in these spaces? What is it that has enabled these people to speak, desire, listen, and make promises to each other without the shameful feeling that we are always asking for too much? It may be these case that you simply cannot see yourself in “them,” even if you are part of a struggling middle- or working-class family. The challenge for us today is to reckon with what it means to experience the inter-relation of these disparate, irreducible things, never subsumable to a monolithic, bloodthirsty mob.
I want to tell you a short, personal story. I live near University of California, Berkeley and am heavily involved in actions to restore the value of education as a public good, not an instrumental, privatized privilege. As Robert Meister has helpfully pointed out, for the last thirty years or so our country has been selling college degrees as guarantees of income inequality. Modern exceptionalism. You will be the one to win the future, to profit. But we can’t even meet that economic promise anymore and people choose the neo-liberal self-valorization of bowering power (loans and credit) over a direct, interest-free investment in state infrastructure (taxes). How are students responding? On November 9, there was a mass mobilization and “walk-out” organized to protest the neo-liberal refashioning of the university, including the corrupt, anti-democratic practices of the UC Regents who have been “rebuilding” the university through an unprecedented growth of student debt (it is now larger than all other forms of debt in the US). A group of activist students met to set up an “occupation” on campus that would be the basis for an ongoing protest of these administrative decisions, which they take to be a crisis of priorities and not the spurious “shared sacrifice” of an economic recession. Recent studies of census data show the bitter falseness of the “shared sacrifice” metaphor and logic since 2008, a sacrifice shared in majority by the very black and brown families who are now being shut out of the university and “public life,” not the war hawks fretting for the future of small business in America. When those students set up those tents, the riot cops moved in. As a way to protect this expression and demonstrate a physical solidarity with public education, university staff, professors, and students of all levels linked arms and formed a perimeter. After a declaration that the tents were a violation of the private property of the UC Regents and that the assembly was unlawful, Alameda county sheriffs rushed a line of students with batons, striking them across their stomachs, throats, and limbs. When bodies fell to the ground and others moved to protect them, the blows continued. Student medics moved in and pulled the injured away while the police watched at a distance. After tearing down the tents and arrested a few students and a professor, the police retreated. The demonstrators re-gathered, comforted each other, and tents were brought in once again and set up on the grass beside the Mario Savio steps. For the next few hours, many more professors, staff, and students gathered in the tense remainder of this scene, talking about what happened and planning the future with an astonishing degree of conviviality. The UCPD stood among the students, quietly, watching various interviews and cameras drift by. At around 9:30, the police once again moved in with riot gear, the demonstrators formed a human perimeter, and the violence was repeated, uncannily. A human wall was broken up with blows. Many more were arrested. Then, the most impressive moment of the day, for me, came a few hours later. Thousands gathered in the plaza to witness what was happening and to at least temper future police aggression. Out of the crowd, some of the very students who had been beaten, dragged by their hair, and scared into a frenzy emerged and facilitated a general assembly. A stack of speakers was mobilized for discussion and a proposal was put forward for a vote through a process of modified consensus.
I want to tell you that I have never felt so proud of my fellow students and teachers. What I saw was the best of a generation, not because they took themselves as representative of some vanguard, utopian future, but as an integral part of the long, slow, and brutal work of remaking spaces for democratic process. While I write, the brutality continues at UC Davis, and students remain patient and resistant. There is no better public school, it would seem, than an encampment.
For the youth who make up these occupations, bourgeois or working class, there is no harder lesson than the fact that the world we live in will not only ask you to take its blows, but to live past them, to be thankful for them, and to celebrate the safe return of well-cleaned, non-violent concrete where the rats can come out at night to collect scraps of a clerk’s sandwich. We will throw all your books into a dumpster and call on you to fight for legislation to refund public libraries. We will put you in solitary confinement for weeks and then ask that you maintain your manners. We will put you in a bomb suit on a road to Fallujah and then ask you to be a good, strong mother, to teach your children the values of giving. We will take away your home and then declare that your encampment is simply bad for local business. What should be understood as basic human services are re-written as forms of entitlement for which you must beg.
But to be personal, once again. Waking up the next day, on November 10, I found myself described as being “nudged” by batons. I had taken part in an organized “clash” with police. How pitiable it is, the chancellor of the university, Robert Birgeneau, remarked, that two groups who were fighting for the same thing, public education, had to meet under such terms and exhaust the financial resources of an already strained university. I am with you in this struggle, he says, but linking arms in the face of the police is not non-violent disobedience. From the city of Oakland, what we get are statistics of just how much they have spent on police overtime. We are all for protecting and feeding the homeless, but we simply can’t afford another riot. Well, as anyone who knows who has been living on these voided and swept streets, it is also quite costly to live out the consequences of failed enterprise. It is has been quite costly to defend the “rights” of these real estate speculators, oil magnates, and banks who reward us with the gifts of charter schools and unpaid internships. These mayors should be reminded of the prices many have paid simply to “occupy” where they are standing, to feed their families. These cities should be thanking those who, underfed and underused, find the strength to address these complex, overwhelming injustices which have reduced so many to a jaded callousness.
Duration is also a powerful tool precisely because the continuity of human life is understood not as a abstract scientific process, but as a dirty work. Duration reminds us there are both immediate and distant costs. A brief story of such a “price” paid: the slaves who were brought to work in the mines of South America. After working for years to build up the coiffeurs of Europeans in states of extreme malnutrition, their local agriculture being displaced for the efficiency of pure resource extraction, some escaped into the jungles to fill their stomachs with mineral-laden soil. A horrible expression. But even their sons and daughters continued to sing, to dream, and ultimately, to assemble on the peripheries of ports and cities without a common language to speak. We know this violent call and response of history. It has occurred on many continents, and continues to occur today. Standing where we are today, we should be asking of ourselves: what brought and brings these people together? What kind of counter-publics are we enacting today?
However one decides to characterize “the movement” and where it is going, there is nothing more important to me than the physical duration of our assemblies, transient shelters, and beleaguered bodies. We know there will be more tear gas, pepper spray, and “non-lethal” munitions, testing the thresholds of our capacity for patience, care, and pain. There has been a war on public space in the Western world, what used to be called “the commons,” ever since land was enclosed and leased back at a reasonable, profitable rate. I mean to say that the Diggers are just as relevant to the present moment of occupations as the Situationists.
It is time for human beings to meet each other and live through these contradictions, costs, and democratic struggles which constitute our everyday lives. We must give up the spaces of art and academic discourse as the privileged, symbolic spaces in which these arguments can be waged in discrete, formal terms. For those of us who grew up on critical theory, now is our opportunity to practice a critical, ethical, and creative public life, in all its messiness and redundancy. For those of us who have lived in and through abjection and poverty, beyond the privileges of such critical discourses, this is your chance to propose and shape a conversation. The beauty of an occupation is that no one else can do it for you. In cities and parks. In classrooms and homes. It is our responsibility to dream in public.