Saturday, December 17, 2011

On Private Property, Structure, and Reappropriation

We call this an Occupation, but occupation is a vague and valueless term. The US occupies Iraq (and continues to, in spite of recent headlines, with private mercenaries), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Palestine through its unwavering support of the Israeli government. When we want to inflate our jobs to belonging to a "professional" class, we call them occupations, but fail to recognize how it is the job that occupies our time and often leave unexamined the question of whether our time is well spent. Recently, in reference to a number of actions including Occupy Our Homes, activists have increasingly spoke of this being a movement of liberating space. This comes closer to an expression of values, and values I can get behind. However, there is a better, more accurate word for what we do in physically holding open, visible space - reappropriation.

Recognizing this as reappropriation is crucial, because it places two critical demands on the occupiers:

1. To utilize this space in a way that is more beneficial to society than it was being used prior.
2. To challenge the underlying moral or ethical legitimacy of prior ownership.

In the case of OWS, the first criteria is an easy one to meet. At it's height, Liberty Square held a kitchen that provided free meals to 2,000 people every day (including vegetarian, vegan, and occasionally gluten-free options); a medical tent staffed with trained doctors and nurses who provided free treatment to anyone and everyone who came; a free library with thousands of books tracked by a reference desk; a comfort station that provided blankets, coats, sleeping bags, etc.; a composting area and water filtration system; daily teach-ins on topics like alternative economics and student debt slavery; free internet and power supplied by solar panels and bike generators; and, most importantly, a community striving to do away with the patterns of force, coercion, and exploitation. Occupy Boston has made a wonderful attempt at quantifying it's value here. Looking at their breakdown, it's clearly a conservative estimate that doesn't include clothing and medical, but even still, the $574,900 estimate dwarfs the donations that have come into their occupation.

The second criteria requires a more radical stance, one that rejects private property. Private property and land ownership are the bedrock of capitalism and statism, respectively. (Side note: This is really why it's so strange to see people *cough* Michael Moore *cough* say OWS isn't anti-capitalism. It is in method, practice, and tactics. Sorry, we're all just going to have to deal with that.) The irony is that OWS can't take "public" parks in NYC, because they don't really belong to the commons, they belong to the state that strictly enforces closing hours and bars camping or structure.

Modest as it may seem, a few tents and structure represent a real challenge to the traditional power structure, and the way the state has cracked down on these occupations is proof enough of that. Further proof is the lazy, defensive conflation in the media of a couple broken widows by the black bloc in Occupy Oakland with "violence." (For the record, I don't support these actions and without getting into it, I'll simply wholly endorse this piece by Boots Riley.)

In Occupy DC, which has much looser laws with respect to structure than New York, we see what happens when they attempt to evolve beyond a tent city. Legally they were allowed to have "prefabricated, modular and mobile structure" and attempted to erect this:
It's a big, beautiful stand that met all the legal requirements, and the cops took it down in a manner of hours. Structure represents something powerful. It says we're not going anywhere. It says we don't ascribe to the belief that ownership comes from on high. We hold this space because we're making best use of it right now. @OccupyKSt put it perfectly (and in perfect contrast to the black bloc tactics), "This structure is our way of escalating without being destructive; you can 'smash' the status quo without smashing anything."

Tomorrow, we're going to try and retake Duarte Square, privately owned by Trinity Church, the third largest owner of property in NYC and the largest in lower Manhattan. The NYSE is on their property, property acquired through the Church of England in 1697. It is a vacant lot with no plans of development for years. It sits very visibly in front of the Holland Tunnel. Let's reappropriate.

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