Occupying the Future
November 30, 2011
As I write, a moment of reckoning tangibly links three seemingly disparate protest sites: Tahrir Square, Los Angeles City Hall, and plazas across the University of California system. The opening moment of elections in Egypt, the closing of the Occupy movement’s last tent encampment by Los Angeles mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, and a UC-wide meeting of the Regents to discuss the shockingly mishandled response to student protests clearly illustrate, in their coincidental proximity to each other, what actors in each of these three contexts have long been self-consciously referencing: a global crisis.
There is nothing vague or obscure about this crisis and, if we follow the words and signage emanating from these communities of protest, they articulate a forceful message about global flows of money and capital that advantage the few and leave the rest at risk. They suggest that no longer can we evaluate terms or conditions such as freedom or wealth based on countries, nations, or even continents. Instead, newly transnational social hierarchies render the connection with Tahrir Square more viable for the Occupy Movement’s 99 percent than lunch with an inhabitant of New York’s Upper West Side might be. Occupy Oakland and Tahrir Square have forged a particularly strong correspondence, as solidarity marches from Cairo to California bear witness to the embattled relationships between police and citizens that each of these communities have struggled to redefine. And images of a policeperson in riot gear walking up and down in front of a line of UC Davis students dispensing pepper spray as if he were watering shrubbery, calls to mind a series of similar images from multiple sites in 2011 where linked arms were characterized as provocative and violent suppression was unleashed by authorities: from student protests in London, Spain, and Greece; to the shocking (and ongoing) events across the Arab world, from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria; and from Wisconsin to Zuccotti Park, to the steps of UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, now consecrated in the name of the Free Speech Movement’s Mario Savio. So what, if anything, have these actors learned from that ‘other’ global crisis of 1968?
I spent 12 years living in Berkeley and was a UC graduate student in History for most of them. Activism in Berkeley had become a passé stereotype that no longer fittingly described the radicals that were now campus administrators or the hippies who were now protective and edgy property owners. The closest I ever came to active protest on that campus was the coffee table at the library’s Free Speech Movement Café laminated with broadsheets capturing the historical flavor. So I watched, dumbfounded, as two zones of personal interest—my research area of the Middle East, and my network of friends and associates in the Bay Area—collided. Friends who formerly knew barely enough to politely nod when I spoke about my own academic concerns, now easily exchanged comments about Tahrir Square, events in Libya, and the complex environment of Syria. They passed on experiences from Oakland’s General Assembly meetings, and were the first to inform me of the Cairo/California solidarity marches. And the students who, when initially teaching as a Graduate Student Instructor in 2000, I had quietly labeled “conservatives,” were standing up with urgency and grace as a newly politicized body. What forged that link?
Forgive me, as a historian, for using a long axis of comparison to suggest how we might go about answering this question. Two moments of dramatic global change come immediately to mind. One, already mentioned, was the student-driven protest of 1968. But this, in turn, was grounded in the unresolved crisis of 1848, when revolutions from Brazil to Hungary challenged the newly formed notions of a liberal state and demanded egalitarian rights and protections that themselves came to define what it meant to be a ‘citizen’ in a new era of national identity. Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto in this context, and Marxist analysis, if not his specific political aims, shaped demands in 1968 and have emerged as a touchstone once again in 2011. Why? Because protestors from Cairo to California face conditions of severe economic insecurity and lack the necessary safety nets or, minimally, recognition by their governments that these conditions must be ameliorated. The unemployment rate in the US and Egypt hovers around the same mark, 10 percent, and protestors in both countries decry political corruption, and urge the de-linking of corporate interests from economic solutions. The problem, of course, is that the public outcry of 1848 and 1968 was folded into the system and resulted in little durable change. In fact, this may be the ultimate success of the liberal state, wherein victims of structural inequality seek redress from the very system that created them.
So, once again, we have a global moment of reckoning. Ironically, the time schedules of complaint have linked communities of citizens from America (independently governed since 1776) to Egypt (emerging finally from crippling episodes of imperialism and puppet governments with a military coup that eventually brought Nasser to power and sets the parameters for today’s elections in 1952). This simultaneity has awakened a new consciousness that rule by the 1 percent is not sustainable. Or is it? These three movements have also been linked by the naysayers: the ‘Arab Spring’ will only give rise to Islamist dominance or military juntas; the Occupiers are an inchoate mass of hipsters and homeless with no coherent agenda; the UC students are privileged rabble rousers who enticed the police to violence. Or, there are those who argue that these protests, despite their purported aims of economic redress, have actually done more to harm than to transform; Anthony Shadid’s New York Times’ November 27 column reports a restaurant owner in Casablanca angrily demanding: “Stop screaming, it’s bad for the economy.” Even more terrifyingly, as Naomi Wolf reveals in her November 26 Guardian opinion piece, a quietly orchestrated, behind-the-scenes effort to disable and disband the Occupy Movements, must have required collaboration from the White House to Homeland Security to city mayors and their police forces.
These are disquieting thoughts: youth shouldn’t protest because protest hurts the economy; don’t get involved because change never really happens; don’t express ideals because ideals aren’t a coherent agenda. Certainly, the ramifications in California should not be easily compared to those in Cairo. Further, we shouldn’t forget that the contexts of Egypt and Syria heighten the danger faced by individual protestors who take to the streets. But it takes courage to participate, regardless of the context, and the participants deserve our attention whether facing pepper spray or live ammunition. More significantly, they deserve our willingness to read the signs they leave behind. Not only the signs that link the movements, or the signs that state “freedom is coming to Cairo and California,” but also the signs of hope that reference the possibility for a new future. When UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau (who now faces a no-confidence vote by the faculty) ordered the removal of students’ tent city on the steps of Sproul Plaza, the students responded with an inventive bid to occupy the air. They attached tents to helium balloons and they hung, dramatically suspended, above the steps. Perhaps this is what a new wave of protest can teach us: if you can’t occupy the ground, occupy the imagination. Change structures of thought, and from there, affect the socioeconomic structures that chain our imagination to the ground of the past.
Heather Ferguson is an assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College