In the weeks that followed I combed through social media to see what others thought the march had been about. My favorite discovery was a ten-minute piece of vérité filmwork called “Into the Streets” that follows activists throughout the prep process and into march day. “We have so many people coming together across differences and realizing that we have so much more in common than not,” says a charismatic organizer in the first minute, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film. From there it mostly stitches together clips of the many contingents that showed up to march: environmentalists, economic and racial justice advocates, artists, scientists, students, union rank-and-file, celebrities, Quakers, Buddhists, anarchists, general radicals, mild liberals and so on. It’s absurdly stirring, and I cried each of the four or five times I watched it. Usually by the time the group with the cardboard fists-up signs take them bobbing across the screen. Or else by the time the Whose streets? Our streets! chant gets going. Or by the time the marchers come to a standstill with their arms in the air, observing a moment of silence that stretches for blocks in either direction. The shot moves in on the faces of a twenty-square-foot bloc of people. First you hear the cheer go up somewhere down the street; then it moves towards them in a wave. They are concentrating, anticipating, and when the cheer passes through them they roar, throwing their hands up higher, lost in a moment of throaty crowd love. If all else failed, I lost it then, reliably affected by the film’s upliftingly activist We.
As a canvasser, I had invoked that We constantly. After a couple days of fumbling with the wordy script given us by not-MoveOn—filled with figures no one wanted quoted to them by strangers on the street—I’d hit on a simpler rap, invoking a populist mass that needed to stand up and tell those in power that we were on to them. That we knew they profited from our precarity. That they had failed us, that we demanded action now, that we wouldn’t shut up until we’d forced them to take notice.
People liked that script. The first day I used it I hit my daily signature quota four hours early, and in the days that followed it produced pages and pages of pledges. I didn’t have time to stop to take careful stock of the We I was amassing. Looking back, in addition to the easy solidarities, it included guys who just wanted a date, guys with rants that took a racist turn, well-meaning ladies with stubbornly class-bound language, people who signed to be nice and comrades with model enthusiasm and no idea what I was talking about when, a few days later, I followed up to turn them out.
In short, it was a mixed-bag We, considerably less inspiring than the We of “In the Streets.” Words like motley and alienating might more accurately describe it.
In addition to the hopeful stuff, the post-PCM media contained a lot of bile: blog posts pointing out how many pounds of garbage the marchers produced, commentary calling the event a toothless photo op for guilty liberals, exposés of bloated budgets and the corporate-style march architecture. It’s important to debate strategy and vital to examine motives, and some observers did so constructively. Others seemed to have another goal entirely: calling bullshit on any optimistic formulation of the collective We and the people naïve enough to be believers in it. This essay isn’t that. It does share the urge to ask questions about what motivates us to get together as activists, though, and what that has to do with what we’re able to accomplish.
A few months after the march, I came across Sam Frank’s description of his experience at Occupy in Harper’s:
The first day in October 2011, two weeks into the Occupy Wall Street protests, I went down to Zuccotti Park. I was no activist; rather, a democratic-socialist introvert, fond of Antonio Gramsci’s idea that everyone is an intellectual, even if everyone is not allowed to function as such. I had gone to socialist summer camp; I had spent hopeless months writing utopian fiction in the first-person plural. So, that October afternoon, I was curious and skeptical.
Soon after arriving, a chant went up around him (another protest staple: We are unstoppable, Another world is possible!) and Frank joined a march that ended in his arrest along with more than seven hundred other people on the Brooklyn Bridge. The arrest had the same effect on Frank as on others I’ve heard report back on the experience: once released, Frank returned to Zuccotti. For the months that followed he spent most of his free time there, because “For the first time in my adult life, something seemed to be at stake and available to anyone: how to self-organize, how to be wholly democratic, what politics meant without parties.” Many of the conversations unfolding around him were bullshit, but enough weren’t. “This,” he thought, “was how we were supposed to live.”
But it had to end. Eventually “Mayor Bloomberg’s cops came in and cleared the park,” writes Frank. “Talk began to wear itself out. Reality resumed its daily demands.” The “preposterous, charming” thing to which he’d dedicated the last few months of his life—and the utopian longing it knocked loose—couldn’t sustain itself forever.
I’ve heard many versions of that story since I moved to New York, just in time for the one-year anniversary of Occupy. In one, told most often by people who orbited the movement but never quite found their home there, Occupy was filled with silly conversations, proved fleeting, and was thus best judged a failure. On the first anniversary, a day when many people gathered back at Zuccotti to celebrate what Occupy had been and debate its legacy together, that version of the story was resurrected in op-eds and private conversations all over the city. Some critiques were trenchant, others shot through with a cynicism that treated Occupy’s blind spots and provincialism as evidence it should never have happened in the first place. Occupy had a fetish for horizontality and was overrun with sparkle fingers. What had been the point of trying?
The cynicism felt familiar, even familial. “Intensely political seasons spawn reveries,” writes cultural theorist Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism. “People imagine alternative environments where authenticity trumps ideology, truths cannot be concealed, and communication feels intimate, face-to-face.” Berlant uses the term cruel optimism to describe an emotional attachment to any idea that seems to represent a path to a better life but in the end hinders and short-circuits it. The expectation that political participation should take the form of intimate and authentic interactions can be one such optimism, setting people up to chase fleeting emotional gratification while underpreparing them for the work of hashing out concrete structural demands. Still, Berlant argues, it’s an intuitive expectation for many people seeking meaningful political engagement, including sophisticated cynics. Because cynicism might have spent hopeless months writing utopian fiction, too; because cynicism tends to be nurtured in the fallout from great optimism; because cynicism, beneath the once-bitten veneer, is often guided by the same attachments as the amateurs it critiques.
The day after the PCM, a few thousand people shut down the streets surrounding the financial district’s iconic bull sculpture. Organizers called the action “Flood Wall Street” in a third-anniversary nod to Occupy and planned the event as an escalation after the tameness of the PCM. I joined in because, after the numbers-driven grind of canvassing, I imagined it as an opportunity for a purer kind of protest. Everyone wore blue and gathered in the morning at Battery Park, buzzing with the jittery-joyful energy of people who were about to do something risky together. At a signal we poured into the streets without a permit, bringing traffic to a standstill. People carried giant banners and drums and passed an oversized black-and-silver beach ball labeled “CARBON BUBBLE” with question marks on it over the heads of protesters and bystanders. It bounced against red double-decker buses packed with tourists, some of whom cheered, and over stranded cars. Their drivers honked approval, we chanted, the drums rumbled, and a palpable electricity surged up to buoy us past the banks and corporate offices. I didn’t see any cameras rolling, but it certainly felt like crowd love.
I don’t remember exactly when that feeling turned. We’d already reached the bull and taken the streets triangulated around it. The cops had gotten hold of the CARBON BUBBLE and we’d all watched as two of them stood splay-legged, punching it until it popped. Missing the big idea of the prop—that we wanted the carbon bubble to pop—and the poetry of the cops helping it along, a woman near me started chanting Stop killing the climate! with great urgency, scanning the crowd sardined around her to see if someone would join. I avoided her eyes as she kept pushing to make the chant happen again and again. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone put on their best poker face and left her hanging.
There were other deflating moments: When an indigenous activist got on a megaphone to declare solidarity with the (predominantly white) activists and asked for the same in the fight against environmental degradation in her community outside the city, and the crowd’s attention was lukewarm. When dozens of people sent pizzas and catered office-lunch leftovers and cookies and fruit and PowerBars that, as it became a weird glut no one on the street actually needed, began to feel indicative of something other than generosity. And the list goes on.
Late in the day my friend Robert, a photographer who documented the action, captured the crowd on my stretch of pavement in a moment of downtime. It is a less-than-uplifting shot. At the edge I’m looking irritated and unshowered. The woman next to me is sucking in her cheeks with an expression of patent boredom. And someone must have said something offensive to the two women near her, because they each look thoroughly disgusted. One’s jabbing a finger downward and emphatically, as though telling that offensive someone to go fuck off. Of the twenty-something people in the shot, only three or four appear to be talking to one another, and only two or three are wearing anything close to a smile. We look like we’re doing what Frank said he did at Occupy: being alone with everyone. Frank meant it approvingly, fondly, patiently. I wonder, in a given protest shot like this one, what percentage is thinking likewise—and what percentage is losing heart on the way to dropping out.
We sat alone together like that for hours longer than anyone had planned, because the police hadn’t hauled us away as immediately as we’d expected. They waited until the crowd thinned out and the media and sleek-suited bankers had gone home, until the story had wilted along with people’s wills. Then they arrested the stragglers.
“Traditionally,” Berlant writes, political solidarity has consisted of “an identification with other people who are similarly committed to a project that does not require affective continuity or warm personal feeling to sustain itself.” Those projects are at risk “when politics is reduced to the demand for affective attunement.”
Many forces encourage us to make such a demand: a consumerism that trains bodies to treat political work as an affirming lifestyle choice; privatization that has eroded civic institutions and obscured common agendas; media discourses that bury movement success stories, truncating our sense of collective possibility. It’s depressing to tease out the many ways our imaginations get strangled. But it also has the potential to provide focus: the political and economic forces that limit us as activists are, after all, the same ones driving the worst of climate change.