The Return of the Repressed at #OccupyLA

In the past few weeks, Occupy LA has experienced a shift in leadership and public discourse. Some have left to start their own general assemblies in Culver City and Los Feliz or joined Long Beach and UCLA. Others who want to camp travelled to nearby Orange County and as far as DC. Unfortunately, those who remained with the LA General Assembly are witnessing a sharp divide over calls for reform versus radicalism. Appearing in mid-January, a subversive blog site, OLA Anti-Social Media, from an anonymous group of OLA volunteers desiring more radical actions, prompted a series of discussions on what counts as radical. Their posts range from banal to informative, but they mainly target perceived liberals who promote militant non-violence at OLA. The companion twitter account, @olaasm, tweets personal information, business affiliations, and divisive comments at accused “liberal reformists.” The first post, titled “The Liberal Phallusy”, on OLAASM further divided working groups at Occupy LA over accusations of authorship and sweeping claims such as this, “With their iron grip on certain key elements of the OLA movement: the twitter feed, the website, Union contacts - the Liberal Reformists refuse to engage with the masses aside from remotely, and yet insist that they are able to represent voices they do not listen to nor engage with.”

This in-fighting raises some good questions for sociologists studying the movement. What does authorship mean for horizontalidad and transparency? How does representation and resentment work in a leaderless movement? Is there room for both reform and radicalism? Moreover, how can the movement consistently fail to see itself as radical? Is it just that some desire flagrant law breaking like burning a flag stolen from City Hall on livestream over the freedom exuded by a solitary act of pissing on an ATM machine? Or, is there more to the story? While I can not answer all of these questions here, I begin by charting some of the ways that OLA attempted to deal with their relationship to political reform and state authority as well as how OLAASM represents a return of the repressed at OLA.

While radical tendencies have always been prevalent at OLA, those in OLAASM claim to be marginalized by a strong current in the OLA group towards reform. Interestingly, the tactics used by OLAASM are similar to young republicans, like Brandon Darby and James O'Keefe, who seek to destroy a radical left by making broad claims to delegitimize strong leaders and embarrass them with public streams of information. Devastating to the solidarity of OccupyLA is that while OLAASM claim to be anonymous, they take up familiar positions of the most vocal members of the OLA, who are often dismissed because they defame those they disagree with openly on the Occupy LA email list serve. Worse though, the OLAASM blog posts often leave out facts that implicate their own members attempting to cooperate with police. This is all to say, if OLAASM believe themselves to be anonymous, they just are not very good at it. Also harmful to solidarity, a reactionary twitter account, @agblink, is devoted to making accusations about the identities of OLAASM, while OccupyLosAngeles posted that OLAASM are informants for Department of Homeland Security. Accusing OLAASM of being cops speaks volumes about the detrimental effects of paranoia and use of divisive labels to break the movement. This political name calling is not only factionalizing the remaining members of Occupy LA, but it is also putting everyone on guard.

While the encampment was standing, an undercurrent of radicalism flourished, but no one really noticed. For example, several autonomous actions were conceptualized on the grounds of OLA and were pulled off without any police intervention, including wheat pasting posters and information all over city about the 99%, setting a series of trash can fires, the slashing of tires on several cop cars near the encampment, open use of drugs in the camp as an expression of freedom, and spray painting “Fuck capitalism” on the side of City Hall itself. No one has ever claimed authorship or been arrested for these acts. Not to mention the radicalism inherent in the act of occupying City Hall park with over 500 tents, a kitchen, a university, a library, medical care, and a series of non-permitted concerts, marches, and flash occupations.

Despite these occurrences, there were some major problems articulating what was within the discursive jurisdiction of OLA and what should be left aside, including an active and specific suppression of groups that called out the LAPD. On October 5th, “the committee to end police brutality” appeared at GA and was met with cheers and boos. Later in the night, a question about the legitimacy of the committee arose when the GA realized that no one consented to the formation of this committee. In reality, it was only a small minority in the camp who objected to the “Committee to End Police Brutality,” but due to the consensus process the committee was blocked from forming on several occasions. The minority voice shouted the loudest in these instances. OLA GA consented to the need for a committee on police brutality only after a bold move orchestrated by twenty or so members of OLA to occupy the Bank of America plaza ended in thirty arrests. Everyone seemed concerned that the police overreacted to the expansion by sending 300 police in riot gear to the scene. This maneuver proved to be good practice for the LAPD who later ended the City Hall encampment with another overwhelming display of state power. In essence, the cops were always a formidable issue for OLA, but consensus reigned over concern in such a way that obfuscated how to deal with an aggressive police state given that occupying is against the law. Here, the process made the committee’s formation the problem in place of the real issue of peoples’ fear of provoking state power.

Since getting the state to react is no longer difficult because of their constant presence at OLA actions, this conversation has evolved into talk of a “diversity of tactics” and the need to recognize the difference between violence against people and destruction of property. OLAASM is pushing this issue on OLA by calling everyone “liberal reformists” who do not agree that OLA should take “property destruction” out of the statement of non-violence, which reads “As a non-violent movement, we have agreed to refrain from violence against any person, from carrying weapons, and from destruction of property. We reject violence, including property destruction, because we recognize that it undermines popular support and discourages the broadest possible participation among the 99%.” Which raises more questions for the movement. What might property destruction have to do with protesting capitalism? Could it be useful?

In the early days of the occupation of City Hall in Los Angeles, a young man walked around the encampment reading from a text very familiar to me. He shouted, “Everyone agrees it is about to explode!” I approached him asking how he heard of this book and what he liked about it. He said that the text itself he got at the people’s library, but that the ideas inside are good conversation starters. I took turns with him reading aloud, walking around, and chanting the phrase, “We are not depressed, we are on strike!” The text, originally published in French, is called, “The Coming Insurrection” and it is authored by the Invisible Committee (IC). Drawing heavily from situationist theory, Giorgio Agamben, and Hardt and Negri, the IC detail the end of empire and propose a new form of life for those tired of the perpetual crisis of capitalism. The IC declares the cities to be a war zone and advise its readers on the tactics of urban warfare. For example, they suggest learning how to move through walls and floors to avoid the militarized streets of the city. Their stance on pacifism is particularly thought provoking,

An authentic pacifism cannot mean refusing weapons, but only refusing to use them. Pacifism without being able to fire a shot is nothing but the theoretical formulation of impotence. Such a priori pacifism is a kind of preventive disarmament, a pure police operation. In reality, the question of pacifism is serious only for those who have the ability to open fire. In this case, pacifism becomes a sign of power, since it’s only in an extreme position of strength that we are freed from the need to fire. (71)

This kind of thought has been expressly prohibited from discussion at the OLA GA especially with the statement of non-violence read aloud as an opening ritual to GA. But, what might confronting these ideas do to tame the disruptions caused by OLAASM and their detractors?

Two years ago, I wrote a short paper on the publishing of “The Coming Insurrection” and presented it at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. What confounded me about the text was the way the American translation was proudly marketed as a “manual for terrorism,” conveniently available on Amazon and at your local Barnes and Noble. Historically, there have been thousands of revolutionary calls to action, especially by the French, so what made this one unique? Well, while the French publication of the text received little attention, the American translation was met with flash mob readings in bookstores and was widely condemned by Glenn Beck and his followers. Most importantly, between the time of the French publication and American translation, the suspected authors had been charged with terrorism by the French Government.

The Tarnac Nine, as they came to be called by the global media, were described as a group of ‘anarchist- terrorist- graduate student- ultra left- grocers’ who were accused of using large metal hooks to derail morning sweeper trains heading from the suburbs to Paris in November of 2008. The sabotage was designed to disrupt the transport of people and cargo to the city, but not to harm any living being in the process. Three days after the act that caused thousands of people to be delayed in their travels, over 300 police descended upon Tarnac, guns drawn, to arrest nine suspects. While the police suspected these arrestees of writing the revolutionary script, they did not find any copies of “The Coming Insurrection” nor did they find a stash of weapons. Rather, the state stumbled upon a refuge for communal living, where a group of friends moved to Tarnac because of its sympathetic communist mayor and a desire to create an alternative to capitalism. The police charged several of them with terrorism, which awoke the ire of the townspeople and some notable academics, including Agamben and Slavoj Zizek.

The set of resonances between the sabotage of the railways and the call to “disrupt the flows of capital” by the IC is powerful. Ideas came alive in that moment. French police sought out the railway saboteurs in Tarnac because they believed that one of the Tarnac residents, Julien Coupat, authored “The Coming Insurrection.” Years earlier, Coupat and others founded a situationist philosophical journal, Tiqqun, which referred to an “invisible committee” or “imaginary party” in an early publication. There were several other reasons why Coupat was arrested for the sabotage, he was already under surveillance for associating with anarchists in NYC and he was reportedly near the scene of the railway sabotage.

What is important for the purposes of my argument is that the ideas on the IC preceded the terrain of action and created a specter of possibility around radical action. This was bothersome for the state, but they did not act until after the trains were interrupted. Empire is organized in such a way as to govern the conditions of possibility for the future. That is why the slogan of Occupy, “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” floats about from NY to LA with such deep meaning for those shouting it. For the state, it did not matter whether the Tarnac nine were actually the IC, only that the ideas in the book manifested themselves and someone had to be held accountable. The year before the arrests of the Tarnac nine, there were 27,000 attempts at sabotage and vandalism on the French railway system.

I am still very unsure that the state cared about who was responsible for writing “The Coming Insurrection,” rather they only want to punish the spirit it evokes. It would be a mistake to underestimate the state’s desire to quell the belief that large scale blockades, such as the shutting down of major rail lines, without the need for thousands of people are useful for combating capitalism. In a world of increasing automation, throwing a wrench in the gears when no one was ever looking might be the only hope left. In fact, given the breadth of Anonymous, the internet activists, this rebellion consists of hybrid moments of the brute force of thousands of bodies coupled with the creativity of a few programmers with the capacity to seek out and publish previously random traces of information, like the home address and dating preferences of their targets.

“Kill the sleeping cop that lives inside your head” was scribbled on the walls around Paris during the uprisings in 1968. Perhaps, the IC had managed to kill the sleeping cop, which allowed them to write and distribute such a text. Between Santa Claus, cell phones, and public video surveillance, it is difficult to imagine a situation where Americans feel truly uninhibited to speak freely about their desires. Perhaps, whoever did commit the sabotage of the railways also murdered that sense of self-surveillance that makes us all afraid to speak candidly about what constitutes violence and what kind of subversion of law is necessary to put an end to capitalism. Certainly at OLA, this conversation is long overdue as there is a growing desire for the occupy mass to act against state power because of its role as an interlocutor between Wall Street and our streets. By ending the discussion about OLA’s relationship to state power before it really got started back in early October, there has always been a perceptible distrust between those who sought out police cooperation during the encampment and those who wave their black flag high or eschew the need for consensus at all.

To return to some of the questions asked at the outset of this post about representation and horizontalism, OLAASM, on the one hand, have raised this question of how should occupy confront state power, but on the other hand their tactic of personally attacking those they view as representatives of OLA met with the same kind of misrecognition as the committee to end police brutality. This is a form of second order semiology, where those with the capacity to speak and be listened to by the state or the public- i.e. the web and social media working groups of OLA- are positioned by OLAASM as either reformists or co-conspirators against radicalism no matter the content they produce because of their capacity to represent. Locked in a two-step with OLAASM, those they have reprimanded then accuse OLAASM of the very same thing because OLAASM’s missives misrepresent them. The inevitable conclusion of this is more and more deserters of Occupy LA from both sides.

In reference to the question about authorship and transparency, maybe OLAASM are OLA’s version of the Invisible Committee. By raising difficult questions while simultaneously refusing authorship, the possibility for discussion dead ends abruptly. Taking from the example of the Tarnac nine, all that is left is to do something and see what happens. While one might believe this would also require OLAASM to lead the charge in an action that is unmistakably geared towards smashing liberal reforms while maintaining the spirit of occupy against corporate greed, I disagree. I suspect what it really means is that OLAASM will get blamed for any act that is perpetrated with these characteristics. Moreover, there are members of OLA who are eager to turn these people over to authorities despite the damage it will do them personally and the movement as a whole. What is learned from Tarnac is that no one is invisible if the state can trace resonances between your way of life and the actions that take capitalism as its object, however circumstantial the evidence might be. But perhaps, when playing with the beast it is best to get caught in the teeth than end up in the belly.

In sum, articulating radical thought is very difficult when coupled with the capacity for action and the fear of provoking state power. It reminds me of the time I first sang aloud to Area 51’s song “Dead Cop” in the car with friends, “Have you ever seen a dead cop? Sorry, I don’t care if his head is busted wide open and he is bleeding all over the concrete! It doesn’t count! Unless he’s dead!” Because these were not my words and there were no police around, I felt safe nestled in that Buick. Today, I feel something nostalgic about the safety of youth where no one could be accused of being a cop because we were just so young. Now that the confrontations with the police have ratcheted up in the last few months, just knowing that the song “Dead Cop” is in my mp3 player makes me wonder if it could be construed as evidence if anything horrific were to go down at an action.

In any event, my point is that in order to engender the kind of mature discussion that the movement obviously needs to have, especially in light of events in Oakland this past weekend, there must be provisions for safety and respect of a diversity of not just tactics, but also of opinions and paces. OLA must move forward knowing that personal reconciliation might not be possible, but it is important to bear in mind that reform can complement radicalism and vice versa. This reciprocality of tactics has occurred a lot lately, but goes relatively unnoticed. For example, when people marching get manhandled by police, Anonymous posts a laundry list of officer’s personal information. When Anonymous posts thousands of emails from government officials, reformists can use that as evidence to buttress legal cases or claims in the media. Because information has become a form of capital, it’s usefulness for seizures, blockades, and destruction is untold, so shutting down the conversation about the nature of reform versus radicalism is quite antiquated given this new terrain. This is the knowledge that must be sought out today. Within this knowledge is potential power and in that potentiality is our freedom to think and act without fear of mistaking these dead cops for sleeping ones.