We Created It, Let’s Take It Over

A standoff in Newark

Whether you are a student, a welfare rights activist, laid off, a union member, a teacher, an anarchist, or a concerned citizen, we all have come together to form Occupy Detroit for two reasons: because it is clear that the world around us, the world of the state and of capitalism, no longer work and because all traditional forms of politics, the parties, government, NGOs, no longer work either.

So we came together, occupied, and in less than a month, we have done things, such as learn how to self-govern, how to feed and care for one another and for those society has abandoned, and most importantly, how to take space, hold it and refuse to back down—all things that they, the state, the politicians, the 1%, and all those who live off the status quo, said could not be done.

But what is an occupation as a form of politics? What is our occupation in Detroit? And where is it going? First, to occupy means to take back what is ours: the parks, the city, the buildings, the street, the space both public and private—all this was built with either our hands or our money, on our backs, and as such to occupy means to take back what is rightfully ours. The occupations then have nothing to do with politics as usual, with parties, with the state (and their armed enforcers, the police), with NGOs. The occupation is then a force, its own force, our force, the power of direct democracy and direct action that says enough is enough and that is willing to fight for those who have been left behind, locked up, left to die. All of us who have participated in the occupation know what this force feels like: it’s the rush when we come to a consensus in a GA, or solve a complicated logistical problem in camp, or take the street and hold it against police threats during a march. This is the power of us, the power of the people.

If the occupation is a force what does it do? Or why is different than a welfare-rights organization, a union, a NGO, or a political party? The reason why the occupy movement is the most exciting social movement in the United States in many years is that it takes and holds space and most importantly it challenges the state. Why have cops beaten occupiers in Oakland, Denver, Atlanta, and New York? Why have city and state governments raided occupy camps in places too numerous to count with violence that has filled all of us with deep sadness and rage inside? It is because the state, the 1%, and the powers that be are afraid. This means we are doing something right. This means they are afraid that we will not be satisfied with a park, but will want a school, a factory, a bank. They know they have completely fucked over this country and they are afraid we are going to rise up and do something about it.

But what does it mean to rise up and do something about it? What are we rising up against? And why? For us, if the occupation is going to be something other than a party, a union, an organization for rights, it is going to have to fight for ourselves and those others who truly bare the full brunt of the 1% and the city and state governments that enforce their order. It means fighting for those who have been evicted and occupying their homes again. It means taking over closed schools and running them. It means taking over more parks, more buildings, until everything has been liberated, until all of society is run by neighborhood GAs, until we all make collective decisions about where the money goes, how education works, how we will live and care for one another. It is easy to see in Detroit that the state and city governments have failed. What’s more difficult to see is that as city and state governments fail, they inevitably become more repressive, and call in the cops to maintain order. Austerity, the “cuts,” are not actually cuts: they are not cutting, but shifting resources. For every dollar cut from social programs, from education, another dollar goes into the military budget, riot gear for cops, new prisons.

Michigan is only one of four states that spends more on incarceration than on higher education. In 2008, Michigan spent $2.08 billion on corrections, 1/5 of total spending from the general fund. In the city of Detroit, 1 in 25 of all adults are locked up. On the city’s eastside, in Brewer Park, 1 in 7 adult males is either behind bars or under supervision. Detroit provides the black and brown bodies for the prisons that are Michigan’s “New Economy,” structurally, the city has to offer up into the “pipeline” a certain number of bodies each year, so that conservative lawmarkers in the hinterlands can tout “job creation” with each new prison or prison employment. To this we say HELL NO. It is easy to see the abandonment of the city by the state; but we must also see and understand that this order of things can only be maintained through force. The young men of Brewer Park do not voluntarily line up in front of the prisons each morning, begging to be let in. They are put there, by a city, by a state, that no longer cares. We in Occupy Detroit are a force that opposes them. This is what it means to rise up, it means to fight, it means to take back the city and our neighborhoods from a corrupt and decadent power structure. Planting a garden is not going to dislodge them from power, nor liberate our city.

The visual evidence (abandoned buildings, train stations, schools) for the failings of the politicians, civic leaders, the 1%, is everywhere, but we must also confront the widespread repression that occurs daily, which can take direct forms like cops arresting youths or financial forms like the gentrification of Midtown which is being sold to all of us as “redevelopment.” That’s not redevelopment—redevelopment would be us as Detroiters deciding what gets to happen to our city—not funneling more money into the pockets of rich developers and their accomplices in the city government and saying that’s the best we can do. We have demonstrated in Occupy Detroit that that is not the best we can do, that there is another way, and that way is to occupy everything, to take back what is ours, to say we the people call the shots, we the people can best decide how to love and care for one another. You say more gentrification, more cops, more prisons, more foreclosures, attack the unions, more repression, we say ALL POWER TO THE OCCUPATIONS.

Right now, in Occupy Detroit we are facing two important challenges. The first is the looming eviction on Monday. The second is the winter. Both of these questions turn around the issue of what does it mean to occupy? Where are we going as an occupation, what are our goals? These are complicated conversations and ones that will require much thought, care, and debate. However, we’d like to make two points. First, there is no question that we should fight for the camp, we should resist and defend ourselves. It all comes down to a question of how much does the occupation matters to you. Do you have a comfortable life you can go back to? Or do you stand and fall with this movement, is it so important to you that you are willing to say “no, I refuse, I will fight for this space”? If we stay and we defend our space, our occupation, the force the city uses to evict us will be a black eye, and everyone will see that we are serious, that we are willing to fight for something we believe in, and they will join us in even greater numbers than before. If we lose and are evicted, we should come back the next day and everyday until we have taken back what is ours.

The second question, of what to do in the winter, is more complicated. It depends on how strong we are, how much space we can hold. Are we strong enough to take and hold a building throughout the winter? Would we be better served by maintaining a small presence in the park and staging temporary, symbolic occupations around the city (Cobo Hall, City Hall, etc) while organizing the neighborhoods into GAs? These are complicated strategic and tactical issues which will take much conversation to sort out. What is clear is that moving into private office space, paying rent, simply means that we have ceased to be an occupation and have become politics as usual, just another organization promising to make the city better, while turning a blind eye and refusing to fight against the daily repression occurring all around us.


Against Outrage


The news didn’t come in the middle of the night as we expected, but in the morning, at a reasonable hour EST. Hundreds of riot cops had raided the encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza, wildly swinging their batons and firing tear gas and beanbag rounds into a crowd made up of our friends, comrades, and allies who had for the last two weeks taken over and transformed dead space into the Oakland commune.

Our initial reaction was outrage, an intense hatred of the police and all those who look away, who justify their actions, who volunteer platitudes like, “They’re just doing their job.” Anger rose up inside of us. How could they—we growled indignantly, clenching our teeth—shoot teargas at innocent protesters?  What could possibly justify this show of militarized force? Is this really what democracy looks like?

And then we took a step back and started to think about outrage.

To feel outrage, we must hold that there are appropriate channels through which social conflict can be mediated and resolved. We must see the state as accountable to our needs and desires, effective and efficient in its provision of necessary services. We must forget that we are privileged, that in our privilege we are just like everyone else. That those who experience state terror at the hands of the police somehow deserve it. To feel outrage, we must believe that violence is the exception.

But it isn’t. Accountability is nothing more than a gilded myth: as the “Occupy” movement has recognized, the 1 percent has so taken hold of the political system that politics as such can no longer be said to exist. We are living under the rule of austerity capital. There will be no more necessary services, just as there is no more accountability. In Detroit, we know there’s no going back to that golden age of the welfare state, of union jobs, of a “comfortable” middle class life. Those jobs, and their conditions of possibility, are long gone. And even if we could, would we really want to return to a system that depended on the institutionalization of war, sexism, and racism to reproduce itself? These days, in any case, Michigan is cutting off welfare payments to those who’ve been unable to find work for four years and canceling programs that help poor families pay their heating bills in the winter. And winter, forecasted to be one of the coldest on record, is fast approaching.

To feel outrage is to give ourselves away. For those who face the brutality of the police every day of their lives, those who are stopped and frisked on the street, those who are arrested for inhabiting the wrong neighborhoods and the wrong skin color, those whose family members have been stolen by the prison-industrial complex, understand that the police are the foot soldiers of capital. To serve and protect—the 1 percent.

So. We have to smother our outrage, train ourselves to recognize the police for what they are, both rationally and affectively. It is only when we no longer feel outrage that we will be able to move beyond a reactive politics which traps us in endless cycles of legal battles, jail support, and internal investigations that never lead anywhere worthwhile. We must expect them. What Boston, New York, Atlanta, and especially Oakland have taught us is what we should have already known—that the cops are coming for us. All we can do is learn to defend ourselves, to move quickly. And to attack first.

* * *

At the march on Bank of America last week, which started from the occupation at Grand Circus Park and moved through downtown Detroit on a bright crisp fall day, we found ourselves astonished. Not at the 500 plus persons filling the normally deserted streets, not at the palpable joy in the air (the joy of realizing that we were no longer alone in trials and fears in this age of austerity, and the joy of finding a long-longed for family, filled with true care and love). Rather it was one moment, brief, and in the context of the brilliant and massive amount of organizational work that has occurred in the last two weeks perhaps easily overlooked: at one point in the march the police decided to intervene, to test us, and tried to force the march onto the sidewalk. They shouted threateningly, their cars darted at marchers, they revved their engines menacingly, but at the front of the march a man, holding his young infant daughter faced the police and refused to leave the street. He refused. He would not be moved. And in the face of his resolve the police relented, and the march followed him, shouting, singing, laughing in the streets.

His eloquent gesture said two things: this space is occupied and it is ours. If our movement is to become worthy of the name, we will have to learn two lessons. First, to be against outrage and the exceptionalism that it entails. From the state and the cops, we expect nothing but what they have already shown us: tear gas, rubber bullets, armored vehicles, all the technologies of foreign wars come home. And second, that occupy means to take and to hold space; that first we take a park, then the street, then the schools, then the banks, until what was built by all of us truly belongs to all, no gods, no masters.

Solidarity with Occupy Oakland!

Yrs in struggle,

Some communizers occupying Detroit