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Back to Work: OWS and the Arab Spring

[Image via unknown archive.] [Image via unknown archive.]

I have been trying, and failing, to write about the Occupy movement—more specifically, about Occupy Wall Street, and even more specifically, about the connections between OWS and the popular uprisings that have come to be known by the convenient (although no longer remotely accurate) name of “the Arab Spring”—for weeks now. One of the many feelings that hit me yesterday morning when I woke to the news of the police raid on Liberty Square (nee Zuccotti Park) was a dismal sense of failure. I had thought that there would be more time; but now, maybe, it was all over.

I was at Zuccotti Park last evening, and I’m happy to report that no one there is talking about failure, and nothing is over. After the massive spree of late-night-into-early-morning police violence—which, in all truth, given the weaponry involved, should really be referred to as a military action (coordinated, it now seems, to absolutely no one’s surprise, by the Department of Homeland Security), and after a day of uncertainty as police occupied the space (prompting a fine satirical piece on the OWS website: “The NYPD have been occupying Liberty Square since 1am Tuesday morning, with the brand new occupation now set to enter its second day in just a few short hours. But will anyone listen to them when their message is so incoherent? ‘What are their demands?’ asked social historian Patrick Bruner. ‘They have not articulated any platform. How do they expect to be taken seriously?’")—on Tuesday evening, the New York General Assembly was back in session in Zuccotti (I suspect it may still be going on as I write this). There were report-backs on the arrests and the ongoing legal battles, but by far the overwhelming theme was: Let’s get back to work.

This is not the piece I had meant to write about OWS, about the Occupy movement, about what has been happening in this city and in so many cities around the world. But it’s a place to start: the ongoing work of Occupying. I don’t think anyone can deny that OWS has done some astonishing work over the past two months, and it’s far from finished; in fact, it just seems to be getting started.

I think those of us who are engaged with the struggles of the Arab Spring (forgive me for using the too-convenient shorthand) would do well to keep this particular temporality in mind, especially when considering the question of solidarity. This question that has come up quite a lot in recent weeks, in particular around two sets of issues: the Twitter message seemingly (but, it turned out, unofficially) sent by OWS in support of the Freedom Waves flotilla and later retracted (due, by all accounts, to questions of process rather than specific political motivations); and the decision to send a delegation to Egypt, apparently to “observe” upcoming elections.

Both of these have touched off debates about solidarity with popular liberation movements in the Middle East. As some have asked, how can a movement that declares itself to be inspired by the movements of the Arab Spring not take an unambiguous position in support of breaking the blockade of Gaza? Why would a movement that hastaken to the streets and occupied parks and cities out of a dissatisfaction with the false promises of the game of electoral politics” send a delegation whose presence could play into the hands of a process that many Egyptian activists consider to be “just a means of legitimating the ruling junta’s seizure of the revolutionary process,” as a much-read and circulated open letter to OWS from Comrades from Cairo so justly articulates it?

These are hugely important questions, and not just for OWS. The struggle for justice in Israel-Palestine has always been a source of red-hot controversy in US politics, including (perhaps especially) among the left. And the question of how to best support and work in solidarity with the ongoing struggles in Egypt, and throughout the region, is one that is just beginning to be raised in the US context.

All this is important to note, not as a way to simply excuse OWS (if one can even refer to it as some unified entity—as I’ll suggest, I think that we can’t, or shouldn’t, do so) or defend it against all criticisms in the name of solidarity, but rather as a way to think about solidarity as something that happens slowly, over time and space, and only through some hard and often agonizing work.

I think this notion of solidarity is clear in the statement by Comrades from Cairo, which is one of the things that makes it such a moving and energizing (and profoundly ethical) document. The criticism of the position taken up by OWS in deciding to send a delegation with the specific task of “observing” the elections is clear and unsparing: “we recently received news that your General Assembly passed a proposal authorizing $29,000 dollars to send twenty of your number to Egypt as election monitors. Truth be told, the news rather shocked us; we spent the better part of the day simply trying to figure out who could have asked for such assistance on our behalf.” It is also noted, albeit implicitly and rather gently (given the life and death urgency of the issues involved), that through this action OWS is actually failing to act in solidarity with the call sent out by the No Military Trials for Civilians Movement, which was specifically a call to defend the revolution. Insofar as the elections could be seen as part of the military junta’s attempts to legitimize the seizure of the revolution, sending a delegation to observe these elections could be seen as doing precisely the opposite of defending the revolution.

These points need to be made, and reiterated (and also argued over—none of them are self-evident), since they definitely indicate a failure on the part of whatever decision-making bodies at OWS designed the particular rationale for this proposed delegation (although, according to some accounts, it was a decision that was made in consultation with political groups working in Egypt—clearly, not any of the groups represented by Comrades from Cairo). But also worth noting is the tone taken up by the Comrades letter. The sentence above expressing a sense of shock is followed by this statement: “We have some concerns with the idea, and we wanted to join your conversation.” The tone is, in many ways, that of a conversation within a movement rather than between agonistic forces. There is of course a “you” and “us”—in this case, one separated spatially, among other ways—but it’s interesting to see where the emergence of a “we” shows itself in the statement:

We have, all of us around the world, been learning new ways to represent ourselves, to speak, to live our politics directly and immediately, and in Egypt we did not set out to the streets in revolution simply to gain a parliament. Our struggle—which we think we share with you—is greater and grander than a neatly functioning parliamentary democracy….But even though the idea of election monitoring doesn’t really do it for us, we want your solidarity, we want your support and your visits. We want to know you, talk with you, learn one another’s lessons, compare strategies and share plans for the future.…Let us deepen our lines of communication and process and discover what these new ways of working together and supporting one another could be.

The critique is there, and it is a (necessarily) sharp one, but it is, to use a definition of solidarity once proposed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a loving critique.

I note this because it is worth comparing the tone of the actual critique made by the Comrades from Cairo with much of the commentary that it has engendered as it has become a meme of sorts. Even on the Jadaliyya page where the statement is posted, the tone of the piece itself and the tone of the readers’ comments differ pretty widely. The latter, like a lot of informal commentary that I have been encountering, seems to take the Comrades’ statement as a way to make a larger criticism of the privilege, arrogance, and imperialist tendencies of OWS.

Again, it is good that such things be said, and certainly privilege, arrogance, and imperialist tendencies have, sadly, been all too present in the way the US left has dealt with popular movements in the rest of the world, especially movements in the Middle East and North Africa (but also more generally movements throughout the global south). As I noted in a recent piece on Edward Said, one of Said’s great lessons is that there is no true solidarity without criticism.

But I think we also have to insist upon the opposite: that, politically and ethically speaking, criticism without solidarity is not necessarily any more helpful. It strikes me (and I can only speak anecdotally here) that many of the more dismissive critiques of OWS around these particular issues have actually come from fellow activists in the US, especially activists who have been working on issues of Palestine solidarity and other issues related to the region.

There are, I think, some very good reasons for the skepticism that is revealed by these responses. Palestine solidarity activists in particular (as I can tell you from experience) have all too often been asked to check their politics at the door in various political coalitions in the US, in the interest of not “alienating” the mainstream (if we can speak frankly, this was a major issue in organizing against the Iraq war during the past decade). The recent response of Daniel Sieradski, a driving force between Occupy Judaism, to the controversy over support for Freedom Waves shows that this logic is still, unfortunately, current in parts of the Occupy movement (the interview quoted below is worth reading in its entirety, in particular for the way that Adam Horowitz pushes Sieradski on his position):

The ramifications I imagine begin with a mountain of press attacking OWS as being anti-Israel and pro-terrorism. Whereas beating back false charges of antisemitism was easy because the movement is not antisemitic, were the movement to embrace an explicitly pro-Palestinian agenda, it would be impossible to counter charges that the movement is anti-Israel. No matter how much we as individuals may reject such a framing, supporting the breaking of the Gaza blockade will surely be labeled as enabling the flow of arms into Gaza that will be turned on Israeli civilians. No matter how one might rebut those claims, we all know that mainstream media does not handle nuance well when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This sort of “don’t alienate the mainstream” mentality is unworthy of a movement with the transformational energy that OWS has shown; this is similar to the question raised by Comrades from Cairo about why such a movement would be interested in dealing with elections. And indeed, this may be the important point: that to attribute such a position to some stable entity called “Occupy Wall Street” is to fundamentally misunderstand the energy of the Occupy movement, which is that of a movement that has seized certain spaces in order to, in a sense, slow down time long enough to have extended, horizontal, consensus-based conversations about issues both large and small (indeed, anyone who has attended or participated in a GA knows that the experience is alternately exhilarating and exasperating).

Both the decision to retract the Freedom Waves tweet (made explicitly on the grounds that no consensus on the issue had yet been reached) and the preliminary and perhaps badly-formulated nature of the attempt to reach out to activists in Egypt have a great deal to do with the necessarily somewhat clumsy nature of such a process. It is not designed to come up with neat, streamlined solutions to key issues. As a friend, who is both a veteran of movements related to Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, and other parts of the region and also a sometime participant in OWS discussions, put it in a Facebook exchange, “a week ago, OWS was criticized for not hastily endorsing a specific Palestine solidarity thing; and now, OWS is criticized for hastily endorsing a specific Egypt solidarity thing.”

Obviously, the issues are more complicated, and it may be that the specific decision in each case is to be criticized; but the equally important point is that what we are talking about here are not fully-worked-out positions of some united political front, but the ongoing work of trying to work towards these positions. This work is envisioned as the opposite of “hasty”; it needs time, and part of what the Occupy movement has attempted to seize is precisely the time (and, equally necessarily, the space) to have these sorts of important political conversations. Solidarity is, if things work as they should, what emerges from this work; it’s not something that can be determined in advance, with only the details then to be filled in.

This is true even in terms of the delegation to Egypt: while the statement released by OWS is clear about constituting a delegation specifically to observe elections, a video of a deliberation regarding the nature of the delegation that was held in Liberty Square indicates that there is far from a consensus about the sort of solidarity work that such a delegation might best do. Indeed, it is not clear that the participants in this discussion even have a fully worked out position on the role of elections versus revolutionary change in the US, never mind in Egypt.

This confusion, and this lack of a fully-formed political position, might well strike many of us who have been involved in these struggles for years as frustrating, so frustrating that we might, as we sometimes have had to do before, throw up our hands and simply conclude that this is not a group with whom we can work. I think this would be a grave mistake. I think our impatience is motivated by our sense of the urgency of these struggles, and we would be wrong to give up this sense of urgency. But I think it might be balanced by the temporality of the Occupy movement, which reminds us that these struggles have moments of life and death urgency, but they are also, in another sense, struggles that can only unfold slowly, and that need to be sustained over a long period of time. It is in these sustained, slow, and often frustrating but sometimes exhilarating periods of work together, not in the composing of a tweet or a press release or the other sound bytes required by the temporality of our current political culture, that solidarity is created.

I have to add that for all the missteps that OWS will no doubt make in building solidarity with those who are engaged in the struggles of the Arab Spring, the very fact that the Occupy movement declares itself, in its very foundation, to be inspired by the Arab Spring is a hugely hopeful thing that must not be overlooked. The young occupiers who make up the heart of the movement are, in many ways, the generation that has grown up under the shadow of 9/11. They have been force-fed the notion of America as the bringer of democracy to the world—specifically, to the Middle East. It seems fitting that OWS began less than a week after the much-hyped tenth anniversary of 9/11, and that the space being occupied is directly adjacent to “Ground Zero.” This country has been living the aftermath of “9/11” for the past decade. It may be that 9/17 marks the beginning of something completely different.

A generation that has been told that the greatest dream of the rest of the world is to be like “us” (so much so that this dream sometimes turns into its nightmarish, jealous, fairy-tale-villain opposite: “they hate us for our freedom”) has pointed to the place in the world that they have been told is the most backwards, the most “undemocratic,” the place in most dire need of being saved (by force, if necessary)—OWS looks to Cairo and says: we want to do what they have done. We want to make Tahrir in New York. We want to fight they way they fight. One more step (a huge step, a slow, agonizingly slow step) to: their fight is our fight.

OWS declares itself to be inspired by the Arab Spring. Many of those who have made OWS may not necessarily even know what they mean by this, and as recent events show, many of the participants have a lot to learn before a real solidarity can be built. But the good news is that they have not stopped wanting to learn, and if we can keep our patience, we—and I mean all of us—can maybe learn together, as Beckett might have put it, if not to succeed once and for all, at least to fail better each time.

Or so it seems right now. It’s a good moment for wild mood swings. The one thing that is certain is that OWS isn’t going anywhere; it’s going to take its sweet time, and those who have created it have made it clear that they are planning to stay, and to fight. And it’s certainly true that those who are struggling in Egypt, in Palestine (like the Palestinian Freedom Riders), and throughout the world aren’t going anywhere either. Time, as always, to get back to work.

[My thanks to Tejasvi Nagaraja, Anjali Kamat, and my colleagues in the "Solidarities" seminar at the Committee on Globalization and Social Change-CUNY Graduate Center for the many conversations that have informed this piece.]

1 comment for "Back to Work: OWS and the Arab Spring"

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Thank you, Anthony, for this very very important piece! Some of the points you are making (especially towards the end) are close to those I tried to make in my piece here on the movement in Israel. There is no doubt in my mind that the next step up is to internationalize the movement, a step that will be siginificantly more difficult in Israel. Here, in addition to the racist anti-Arab brainwashing that is (as you can imagine) much more comprehensive in Israel than in the US, we also have to deal with the reluctance of non-Palestinian Arab activists to connect with Israelis, under the rubric of "normalization" (tatbi3). I believe activists from outside the Middle East have an important role to play in helping us overcome this as well. But as you say, it will take time. Let us all be patient then, patient and determined.

Matan Kaminer wrote on November 16, 2011 at 05:08 AM

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