This summer I wrote a piece to WSQ on my experience with gender in Occupy Wall Street. A strongly edited version of what I submitted has just been published in the current issue, Engage (Vol. 41, No. 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2013), as Reflections on Legal Support and Occupy Wall Street, by Elena Cohen, Rose Regina Lawrence (look, ma! that’s me!), and Moira Meltzer-Cohen. Here is the original version:
If the next revolution is not intersectional, than it will be nothing. (1)
Jail support is the clean up after a march or action. It is a crucial part of taking care of ourselves and standing up to state harassment of activists through the use of an increasingly militarized police force and judicial system. It is long, boring, lonely, and frequently frustrating. Many people have never really heard of it, and those who have frequently think of the large days of action when there’s a sizeable group waiting for the arrestees to be released and the overall mood is a continuation of the sense of community felt earlier. When there are only a couple of arrestees and they are the more vulnerable, those with fewer resources, including social resources, the experiences is frequently far less joyous, but the support provided is even more important, both for the arrestee’s health and continued participation in political activism and for effecting the outcome of the legal case. It is hard to keep spending nights waiting outside police precincts, cold, often wet, and almost always harassed by the police for people one doesn’t know or like. This is one example among many of the very unglamorous drudge work that really builds movements. It is to street activism as dishes are to collective living.
I was the daytime jail support coordinator for Occupy Wall Street. The “coordination team” consisted of me and my partner, who handled the hotline at night while working. Neither of us went down to Zuccotti thinking about how much we wanted to take on that role. We saw a system that was incredibly hard on the people trying to help and knew that there were free telecom tools and a little bit of planning that could make it so much easier, more useful, and empowering. We could not help but step up.
We worked out most of the structure based on wanting to make it as easy as possible for people to participate on their own terms, specifically creating space for people who could not participate in the dominant activities and modes of behavior of Occupy. This meant no hours-long meetings, the ability to opt in or out as desired, kits that contained all the materials and information for someone either new to the idea of jail support or to New York City needed to be there on the ground, and real-time contact through phone and text so that being there on the ground was far less intimidating or flat out scary.
The group grew and shrank. Many of us got burnt out. Some of us kept going long after burning out, scared of what would happen to people who didn’t have close friends or family to wait for them. As the winter wore on, Occupy received fewer and fewer of the care packages that we had used to stock the jail support kits. After the eviction of the park and the loss of the major storage space, we no longer had a place to store the prepacked kits. Still, we were there when people were released from precincts and central booking.
Seven months after my partner and I kick started a new plan for jail support, a group of us issued a strike statement. We could no longer abide the macho bullshit “this isn’t really our responsibility” response that organizers had after months and months of suggesting, asking, begging them to step up their organizing to include jail support and to recognize that an action isn’t over until everyone can go home.
When all you have is your labor, all you can do is to withdraw it. We weren’t on strike for money, hours, or wages. We were on strike for a massive rethinking of how to approach a movement for social justice. When we went on strike, our statement overtly talked about gender. We felt that our work, that of cleaning up and caring for activists, was seriously undervalued and disregarded, with more public facing organizing deeming it not their problem, with a heavy hand of “beneath them.” We also recognized that this wasn’t just about us; the constant undermining and devaluing of the work of women and the work that historically has been designated as women’s work was widespread and deeply engrained. All of us, but especially people for whom Occupy was their political awakening, brought with us the hangups and prejudices from larger society. This was true about gender, true about race, true about class, and especially true at the intersections.
I was unemployed before Occupy. I was unemployed during Occupy. I was unemployed after Occupy. I am amazed by the level of involvement that many people, like my partner, managed to maintain while working full-time. But, for me, it was just Occupy and plenty of time to think about my labor for Occupy in the context of my labor outside of Occupy.
In the unemployment after Occupy, I read a lot in hopes of contextualizing my experience in a way that I could make sense of my frustration and figure out what I might do in the future to stack my personal deck towards more fulfilling, more successfully future organizing. Unrelated to that, I picked up Silvia Federicci’s Revolution at Point Zero, which has a section of her writings from the 1970’s and 1980’s regarding wages for housework. Federicci’s writings from almost half a decade ago about the struggle of poor, mostly Black, single mothers to seek recognition and legitimization of their labor, spoke more to the issues with labor valuation and recognition of work that I had seen within Occupy than anything else I had read.
In that moment it became so palpable to me that even with racial and class privilege, any movement that does not center the experiences of people of color, poor people, women and gender nonconforming people, people with disabilities, indigenous people, and everyone else who make up the wretched of the earth, will ultimately cut me down and refuse to value my labor because if our struggle is not a struggle against the whole kyrarchical network of abusive power relationships, then our struggle will never rise up beyond a struggle against each other.
I still organize with many of the people I met through jail support. Now we are explicit in the necessity of a holistic approach to combating state repression that constantly reinforces that one cannot make progress against capitalism or the state without confronting and addressing oppression. The issues that I saw with the valuation of unpaid labor within Occupy are by no means exclusive to it. I have found it in my search for employment (ie, labor of the paid variety). It is about gender, it is about class, it is about race and overall status in society, it is about the pathological ways we exploit each other, frequently without even thinking. Just like almost everything is. I owe so much to my elders who told me time and time again that this is a long journey and the far-view is the only view that will matter, and that, yes, people are a bunch of jerks much of the time.
Occupy was about everything, but mostly it was about how we as a society got to the 2008 mortgage crisis and accompanying economic mess. The next revolution, the next uprising, the next dreams for a better tomorrow that will break through the shell of the old will be intersectional at its core, or it will not be the next.
1. This is a reference to a Foucault quotation: “if the next century is not Deluzian, than it will be nothing.”