Reflections on an Open Occupation for Movement-Building: Within, against, and beyond the U of Minnesota

6 Apr

by Rene G. –

Finding Each Other

Wisconsin students called for a nationwide student walkout on March 11th, 2011, at 2pm, to stand in solidarity with their teachers and other workers who are under attack, being stripped of their collective bargaining rights.  Finding their call through a facebook event, and inspired also by the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East, a few organizers in the neighboring state of Minnesota decided to make it happen.  The day before, we plastered the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis with posters for a walkout and general assembly.  The turnout was decent for only a day’s notice with a generally apathetic student body: about a hundred people attended, with about thirty sticking around through the end of the assembly (see video at The UpTake). Speakers from the Industrial Workers of the World talked about the insufficiency of the currently dominant strategy of trying to recall the Republican senators in Wisconsin—because it was not as if back in November before the vote, the working conditions were all that great—and, instead, why a general strike was necessary.  Meanwhile, on long sheets of butcher paper, participants wrote their grievances, visions for a better world, and strategies for how to get there.  The facilitators of the assembly drew out these reflections and—recognizing that they had so much potential power gathered together—the participants were inspired to commit to some plan of action, and through some debate they settled on occupying a University building.

Initially the plan was to occupy a building ten days later, on the day after Spring Break, but this was pushed forward by a week to allow for more time to get organized.  With about eight people involved in the organizing, we put out a call for a walkout, rally, march, and assembly at 11:30am on March 28th.  We met early in the morning to hand out fliers and make posters—with slogans including “direct action gets the goods,” “general strike,” “abolish student debt,” and “occupy everything.”  The rally in front of the Coffman Student Union had a small showing of about forty people with speeches about the effects on students and workers of budget cuts and corporatization, and about an ongoing popular education project (Whose University?) for equal access, saving Ethnic Studies programs, and defending the cultural centers in our Student Union.  The march around campus had some rousing chants, but dwindled to thirty folks by the time we reached the Social Sciences Building on the other side of the Mississippi River (the campus has two sides, or “banks,” split by the river).  Waiting for us in the space was free food from Food Not Bombs to fuel our discussions in the general assembly.   Through a long, democratic discussion, those assembled decided to occupy the first floor of the building.

Certainly we could have had many more people involved in the initial stages of this occupation.  Those of us who came to the assembly with the preconceived plan of occupying should have also come with more details of how to make that happen: supplies, organizational structure, media, legal support, etc.  I think, however, that we had a couple advantages from being under-prepared.  As the initial organizers were themselves hesitant about occupying, we were able to foster, in the assembly, a genuine feeling of openness about our possible courses of action, rather than making the occupation seem like a pre-set plan that we were coercing the other participants into following.  Of course we could have also created this openness by facilitating the meeting with a consensus process that would be sensitive to every participants’ concerns.  Yet, the lack of preparedness also had the advantage of forcing everyone into a shared situation of crisis, urgently scrambling around together to figure out what needed to be done and how to cooperate with each other and to make a new organizing machine from the ground up—anarchy in action.

Prefiguring the New World

As we weren’t prepared for a “closed” or “hard” occupation that would lock down the building, we opted for an “open” or “soft” occupation.  We left all building entrances open and all walkways clear, setting up our space in the lounge covering half of the first floor. We re-composed the space to make it ours.  The first change we made was to put “gender neutral” signs on the bathroom doors (which were continually taken complained about by the administration who apparently are attached to gender binaries). We were ‘building the new world in the shell of the old.’ Through the events, activities, and discussions we had in the occupied space, we prefigured the kind of utopian social relations we would like to create in the future, including: critical awareness of gender, directly democratic consensus-based discussions in all of our meetings, mutual aid around food, health, and childcare, and creating equal partnerships of solidarity with other groups engaged in struggles.  We were also ‘building the new school’ in the old one’s shell through putting on free education projects, such as a Transgender 101 training, a theater of the oppressed workshop on “power games,” yoga classes, and a reading group on the history of anarchism (which was already an ongoing class held through the local free school, Experimental Community Education (EXCO)). Meetings of other groups with affinities to our project—including EXCO and the Jimmy John’s Workers Union—were also held in the space.  Relationships of solidarity with other groups also spilled out of the space and into the wider city, including mobilizing for a picket with the Jimmy John’s Union to protest the recent firing of six organizers over their demands for paid sick days.  Some teachers at the University held their classes in our space, and some with larger classes asked for us to come to their classes and give teach-ins about the occupation.

Beyond lack of preparedness, we had some reasons for making it an “open” occupation that allowed people to go in and out freely.  One was that our main purposes were education and organizing: not to win demands from administrators, but to have many conversations with people and build relationships with them, relationships that could build towards a movement that could take democratic control of the University.  We had some success in this, as we used the demands that we developed through an hour-long discussion that produced a long list and, then, through a working group devoted to paring down the list to six that would seem reasonable and easily communicable to a non-radicalized audience: to peacefully occupy university space, for the general public to access university resources, respect workers’ rights to organize and earn a living wage, tuition and fee reductions, democratic election of university regents, and fair and equitable treatment of student groups regarding their funding and space.  We then used these demands as tools for initiating conversations with passers-by about these issues as well as for more general outreach when we made them into a petition and walked around asking for signatures, having more extended discussions with those who would engage with us.  To raise awareness of the occupation, we also put fliers up around campus (although these looked awesome, they could have been more informative).  Most importantly for the resilience of the project, through our organizing we fostered new affective bonds between the thirty or so people who were heavily involved.  These friendships are tied together with “lines of care” and forged in struggle, the kind of mutual bonds that can continue to motivate and support struggles for many years (Armstrong and Nadal, 2009).

These trusting, caring relationships were the basis for another reason that we chose to do an “open” occupation: to make for ourselves the space and time to have educational meetings, trainings, and workshops for building organizational capacity and to create new organizing tactics and forms.  Social Sciences Tower was a good location for this because we knew that we could hold it for a while (as it was out of the way, not a high priority for the administration, and full of sympathetic faculty and students, and because one of the occupiers worked there).  Although we didn’t have the best strategy or organizational form going into the occupation, through learning from our mistakes we developed some new organizational approaches (a pretty decent ‘occupation machine’ of working groups, including outreach, publicity, media, social networking, food, childcare, events, and legal) that started becoming effective and that we are continuing on after the occupation in transmuted forms (a regular info table and something like a ‘solidarity network’).  Having these continuing projects shows another advantage of the “open” style of the occupation: not having it “closed” helped prevent us from fetishizing the occupation as any kind of end-in-itself, and instead to see it as merely one means or tactic—though an extremely generative, collective, and complex one—amongst many others to be wielded strategically in the context of our broader movement.

Grappling with the Shell of the Old World

Another reason in favor of doing an open occupation is that a closed occupation would have put us in too adversarial of a relationship with the police and building security—pitting ‘us’ against ‘them’ as our main enemy.  Instead of creating this unnecessarily conflictual situation, in our open occupation we learned how to engage with the police, security, and building management as human beings, fellow workers, and in ways that connected—at least temporarily—with their sympathies with our struggle.  When we negotiated with them in a respectful manner, the police expressed their union affiliations, their critiques of increasing tuition (as one had a kid who goes to the U), and their outrage over increasing administrator salaries.  Through building relationships with them on these issues, we were able win the victories of staying the first night and then gaining a bigger space on the second and third nights, before they evicted us on the fourth night.

In order to win the negotiation for staying the first night, we also used a tactic of deploying our official institutional roles as masks of legitimacy— a sort of ‘shell of the old world’ embodied within their subjectivity.  We justified our use of the space during the building’s “closed hours” by appealing to how one of the occupants had two offices in the building (as a graduate instructor and student).  While we argued for being able to stay in the main first floor space, the police settled on a compromise of us staying in one of the offices (allowing 12 people stay there, all University-affiliated in some way, dwindling our numbers from the fifty or so who were there on the first night). This ‘faculty’ occupant found that some of the most interesting conversations they had during the occupation were with the main police negotiator, partly by recognizing the limitations and duties of each other’s institutional roles—as instructor and police—and moving beyond them to connect on the level of their shared identities as workers, as student or parent-of-student, and as democratic citizens (such as by commiserating together about the desecration of democratic principles by the Republicans in Wisconsin).

On the fourth night, however, we lost any delusions of ‘becoming friends with the police’ and all of us shifted back into an adversarial mode.  After midnight, after most of our supporters had gone home, eight armed police showed up and told us they’d received an order to evict us from University President Bruininks. With their unwillingness to challenge the University’s power structure, this order forced them to play only their institutional role.  They handed us copies of an (unsigned) “Statement Regarding Demonstration in Social Sciences Building” and threatened us with arrest if we did not leave within five minutes.  They were pretty nice and respectful, giving us about fifteen minutes to clear out our stuff, possibly due to our having established good relationships with them (though the main police negotiator was absent for this eviction).

The ‘faculty’ occupant also grappled with their multiple subjectivities in another important, complicated way.  Two of the other occupant organizers were students in a class currently being taught by this ‘faculty’ member (a class, appropriately, on citizenship and the university).  The relations between the three spun a complicated web of different sorts of relations between each other: as fellow activists, as student-to-teacher, as student-to-student, and as fellow workers. Recognizing their multiple subjectivities, they grappled with the complications.  When taking the perspective of the ‘teacher’ position, they were concerned about the ethics of being involved with their students in militant activism, including the potential danger of mis-using their authority to coerce them into taking on too dangerous of activities.  Conversely, they could collaborate on a kind of radical community-based undergraduate research, putting into practice the theories they had been discussing in class, and then creating new experiences that could be the objects for reflection during the occupation as well as after for research projects (and potentially to be given credit for them as part of their research project for the class).  From a popular education view, the ‘faculty’ occupant observed and appreciated that the relations between student and teacher were often flipped during the occupation, as they learned from the students when they took many autonomous actions and played leadership roles, such as by facilitating meetings, writing press releases, and building relationships with other campus groups.

Many other occupants also had powerful experiences grappling with their multiple subjectivities.  One occupant brought her two children along—ages four and ten—and they became participants in the occupation as well, sharing their joy, fun, adventurousness, and curiosity with all.  Through her elder child participating in meetings, the parent occupant felt that they were subverting their usual hierarchical relationship, as her child became a fellow occupant and peer.  Other occupants as well found the normal hierarchy of adult/child de-stabilized as they learned from, and took inspiration from, their young fellow occupants’ wisdom and courage.

Another sort of ‘shell’ that we had to grapple with were the organizations of other already-existing groups.  Relationships with other groups were essential for us to build, because the occupation began without any established groups involved officially in the main organizing.  This ‘blank slate’ beginning was part of what enabled the openness and generativeness of the occupation.  Soon after it began there was much outreach to other groups, but the main organizers initially came together as autonomous individuals and constituted a new democratic collective through their actions.  An advantage of this approach was that we avoided sectarianism and in-fighting; despite their being individuals of widely various political persuasions involved—from anti-big-government, feminist, and anarchist to liberal, environmentalist, communist, socialist, and queer/trans liberation—there were hardly any abstract arguments about how to define the politics of the organization.  The politics of the project were defined far more through practical needs and actions than through sectarian pre-conceptions and posturing.  The lack of organizational pre-structure (such as we might have with a ‘coalition’ or ‘alliance’ model) also helped us avoid allowing any individuals to project their own organization’s structure onto the newly forming organization of the collective.  Such a mimeographed organization would have stifled our organizational creativity.  It would also, likely, have set up a hierarchy of positions, and then competition for leadership positions as means of promoting one’s own pre-established group.  Likewise, this helped us avoid the compulsion to have  ‘representatives’ and ‘spokespersons,’ both of other groups within the collective and of the collective in relations with external groups.  Finally, this organizational openness also allowed us to avoid having the creative and subversive energies of our collective become recuperated within any pre-established group’s power structure, hierarchy, and agenda. Conversely, thinking constructively, we could recuperate these energies back into our own movement, re-investing them in our intensifying and expanding projects and relationships. [On the politics of “recuperation,” see Shukaitis, 2009.]

A more inward-focused ‘shell of the old world’ that we grappled with was that of heteronormative relationships.  These can be a pitfall for movements when participants feel joy from involvement in the collective but then mis-direct their desire for continued involvement into desire for the sense of unity of a hetero(or homo)-normative couple (whether directly or indirectly, such as by performing the stereotypical roles of a masculine dominant subject). Such actions can recuperate their movement’s creative and subversive energies within subject-forms of the status quo.  During the occupation, it’s not as if anyone was ‘policing’ against heteronormative relationships, but we were intentional about trying to avoid masculinist modes of discussion in the meetings (such as by ‘taking stack’ and aiming for gender inclusion).  Also, the usual compulsions to fall into these modes were, somewhat, de-stabilized with critical discussions about gender and sexuality, partly inspired through having three trans-identified persons involved in the organizing as well as through several of us having gone through a Transgender 101 training a few months prior, and through that training in the space, through our asking for gender pronouns during intros of meetings, and through labeling the bathrooms as ‘all genders welcome.’

Building the Movement

While we did well at building movement-invested relationships through organizing, we had many problems in expanding the collective of those doing the organizing.  A major obstacle to this that we created for ourselves was our neglect sufficiently to frame our language in a way that would resonate with non-radicalized or marginally radicalized students.  We shifted to try to do that with our demands and with our petitioning strategy, which was just getting into gear on the day before we were kicked out.    In hindsight, we should have been prepared to do launch that clear and widely communicable language from the very beginning.  I think that a key principle for our movement is that we should see all of the University as a complex terrain of struggle, and to analyze and engage in this struggle at every possible scale.  Our main purpose was not, yet, on the macro-political level of trying to force the administrators to meet our demands, but rather to build the relationships that could constitute a grassroots movement powerful enough to take democratic control of the University.  Rather than focusing a lot of energy into engaging with more ‘public’ rhetoric (as we did with our press releases), we were somewhat—but should have been more—engaged with the micro-political struggle on the inter-personal level of face-to-face communication—which requires us to reflect and anticipate how our rhetoric will connect with our interlocutors on the intra-personal level of their subjectivities.  Rather than engaging with the established media, it is currently more important for us to focus on creating, and becoming, our own media via Indymediaour blogfacebooktwitter, etc.  We shouldn’t get caught up dealing with the established media until we’ve built our movement powerfully enough to force them to cover us in a way that is most favorable for our movement.

I think, however, that there were some advantages of using more radical language initially, such as with the protest signs of “general strike.”  These advantages were particularly around bringing in folks who were already somewhat radicalized—helping us find each other—collecting ourselves into an organizing machine, so that we could find out what we wanted to do and how we should do it together.  This approach brought about 100 people together, about 40 of whom became seriously involved in the organizing together for several days.  After this first phase of “finding each other,” now (or rather, starting Tuesday when we formulated more accessible language for our demands) we’re transitioning into a “movement-building” phase in which we’ll be much more careful and strategic in using widely accessible language.  Likewise, in this new phase the more militant tactic of an occupation loses some of its relevance, as we shift into a more decentralized organizational form, such as a solidarity network.  Yet, we’ll keep the occupation tactic in our arsenal, ready to be assembled ‘like Voltron’ from our expanding network and to be deployed in solidarity with our allies’ struggles on the University’s campus and beyond.


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