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  • Otha N

    “Hoping for something better than survival” requires the privilege of being able to take survival for granted. And the unwillingness to acknowledge that for many, survival is the most immediate and pressing problem, a problem that demands urgent concrete action, is the essence of the problem with self-congratulatory and self-ingratiating “activism”.

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It kicked off the way many sketchy temp jobs do: I read a Craigslist ad, wrote an email, received an email, and the next day found myself in a big room with a bunch of other underemployed people waiting to interview for the gig. Some candidates knew each other from the circuit and chatted like old friends; the rest of us sat quietly, warily, awaiting further instruction. An older lady beside me rolled her agenda into a paper log and wrung it back and forth until it ripped. An overdressed kid paced anxiously at the back of the room. Then the program started and we settled in to listen to presentations about the organization, playact hypothetical scenarios in pairs and fill out tax papers to streamline the hiring process in the event we were chosen. Which, we discovered five hours later, we were, all of us, the leaders apparently being more interested in warm bodies than special skill. They handed out clipboards and fluorescent t-shirts and told us to report the next day at 9 a.m. sharp. Congratulations: we were now canvassers for the People’s Climate March (PCM).

I wasn’t in it for the money, or at least I hadn’t meant to be. My friend Brigid worked for a local labor group that was one of the hundreds of organizations with a hand in facilitating the PCM, and I’d been scheming to get involved, because like many other people I was finally absorbing the climate-change bottom line: shit, action was requiredand yesterday. Action at a scale far larger than could be reached through the sorts of bulk-bin, bike-riding interventions in which I’d dabbled; action that required a movement. The PCM seemed an obvious enough place to start.

The event was just two weeks away when the Craigslisters and I were hired, and we’d promised thirteen of those next fourteen days to a MoveOn-like organization with buckets of money and the desire to prove it could generate more than scattershot online petitions. The next morning our bosses, earnest organizers fresh off their B.A.s, split us into teams of ten to test their best-guess strategies on how to do so. We fanned out across the city to talk to strangers, circulate paper petitions and gather pledges to march. The next day we moved on to a different neighborhood and the next to another. When the march got closer we switched out petitions for posters and flyers, then settled in for long hours of phone banking in conference rooms borrowed from local unions and political orgs. Will you join us for the march? Can we expect you Sunday? Are you planning on coming out?

Somewhere in this blur, the People’s Climate March arrived. That day my team got assigned to the set-up detail at the end of the march route. Our regular bosses were gone, presumably plugged into a more important part of the apparatus, and our temporary bosses were burned out on delegating to the plebes, so we wandered around half-doing tasks and eating bagels bought for a group of volunteers that one of the other coalition organizations had recruited and then forgotten to make jobs for. They wandered around looking bewildered, too.

Eventually the marchers began rolling in. We all sat down to watch them, then trickled out and home, released from our duties without another word from not-MoveOn. Our checks arrived a few days later, temp contracts officially fulfilled.

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-MoveOnfilled with figures no one wanted quoted to them by strangers on the streetI’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 lifeand the utopian longing it knocked loosecouldn’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 propthat we wanted the carbon bubble to popand 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 likewiseand 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.

In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein’s climate-crisis call to action (whose publication coincided, perhaps strategically, with the PCM), she reports on a presentation titled “Is Earth F**ked?,” delivered by Brad Werner, a complex-systems researcher, at a 2012 conference of the American Geophysical Union. Werner showed slide after slide of statistics about alarmingly stretched resources and predictive models of drastic current and future instability in “earth-human systems,” nearly all of which painted a picture of a seemingly inevitable slide into environmental collapse. But he pointed to one dynamic that could provide “friction” to that trajectory“resistance” by people who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.” He hadn’t quite figured out how to measure that resistance, and he couldn’t say with certainty that it would be enough, but “if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough,” he told Jonathan Mingle in Salon, “that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”

A global movement that’s strong enough to force a meaningful response to the climate crisis will need to enlist (and keep) a lot of new activists, more than any other mobilization in history. In the face of that necessity, one first step might seem obvious: stop expecting “togetherness” to feel transcendent. Berlant never describes the challenge so simply, in part because she recognizes that political fantasies run to the core of people’s selves. They are foundational, written into our reflexes, and not discarded without considerable psychological upheaval. Some people can afford to shed the fantasies quickly; some will only do so slowly and painfully; still others have too much to lose and can’t chance the instability. Meanwhile, the climate crisis keeps deepening.

I went to a meeting of activists who were building a coalition to leverage the energy from the PCM and Flood Wall Street. After an icebreaker game, a slideshow with a taxonomy of metaphors to conceptualize the coalition’s organizational structure, and a discussion about mainstream environmentalist blind spots plus the need for anti-oppression trainings, the organizers directed us into groups of four for a brainstorming exercise. We were to take turns suggesting one dream-result of our activism, then work backward in order to arrive at more concrete demands. A local grid of solar, wind and wave power built by a green jobs program and operated by worker cooperatives, said one groupmate. A climate movement that would also fight inequality, blocking coal shipments one day and shutting down Riker’s the next, added another. When it came time for me to share my idea, I opened my mouth and nothing came out: the vision was apparently not there. For all my studied observation, I was unpracticed at the thing we were ultimately there to do.

Eventually talk turned to the day-to-day exhaustions of sustained activism. It took time to learn to collaborate well with fellow activists, began one woman, but time was also running out. She paused. The tension scared her. It was helpful to hear the way she acknowledged it but didn’t linger, and helpful to see the way the group did the same. Because the meeting was nearing hour three, people had left loved ones at home, and there was still a lot of ground to cover.

I recently re-watched “Into the Streets” and found that the filmmakers had inserted more cracks into the story than I was originally able to see. It’s punctuated by slow scenes with no momentum in sight. There are organizers from the Poor People’s Campaign explaining why it was hard to ask constituents to leave protests on police brutality to attend the PCM. An older lady tells the interviewer she lost her home in Typhoon Haiyan, then adds quietly, “There goes my life.” Another older lady chants still another protest staple, that she’s fired up, can’t take it no more, and her voice sounds bone-weary and angry. When considered alongside these moments, the short’s fluffier content begins to feel strategic, even necessary. As Berlant writes, “political fantasy can be ridiculous and self-defeating”but it might also be connected to the vision that allows us to hope for something better than survival. If we have trouble distinguishing between the fantasy and the vision, then that is our inheritance, which isn’t the same as saying we should stop trying.

The first anniversary of the PCM has just past and I have the feeling that something’s adding up beyond airy aspirationwords that sound more like justice, room for bolder policy, smarter alliances between elites and the grassroots. But I’m an amateur and can only wonder at my own optimism, whether it’s justified or just a measure of my inexperience. This time I’m not saying whether the video made me cry.

Click here to read the rest of The Point’s issue 11 symposium, What is Protest for?

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  • Otha N

    “Hoping for something better than survival” requires the privilege of being able to take survival for granted. And the unwillingness to acknowledge that for many, survival is the most immediate and pressing problem, a problem that demands urgent concrete action, is the essence of the problem with self-congratulatory and self-ingratiating “activism”.

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