Occupy Wall Street and ‘Occupation’

Kareem Rabieby Kareem Rabie, City University of New York

One of the first critiques of OWS from the left has come from Indigenous activists, Palestine solidarity workers, and others questioning the use of the language of “occupation”. In my previous post I discussed some of the ways that Zionist organizers are preventing the idea of Palestine, or anti-Zionism, from entering into the debate about what Occupy Wall Street should be about. Their move is to take the open nature of the protests (anyone with a sign can show up), conflate it with some of the problems (there have been a couple of lunatic anti-Semitic conspiracy signs and they should have been excluded more quickly), and use both those issues and the organizing principles through which they emerged to attempt to prevent the message from straying too far beyond moderate claims about the necessity of economic justice. Are economic issues experienced uniformly by different groups of people? And does this message resonate to all members of the 99%?

There’s not much I can add to a conversation on the language; I am not upset by the use of the word “occupy”; and I agree completely that the issues of indigenous displacement, the settler colonial character of the US (and Canada, where this discussion seems to be much more advanced), and the idea of de-colonization should be on the table. What I’d like to do is to explore the ways that the movement is incorporating and excluding different political actors on this basis.

One of the first critiques – and clarifications – of the occupy language that I came across was the statement written by Occupy Seattle and the “Declaration to decolonize”. The participants in De-Colonize/Occupy Seattle argue that, while the term “occupy” has a long history of being used to describe radical actions, it fails to include, or offends, the indigenous peoples who have been the victims of settler colonial dispossession in Seattle and elsewhere. And African Americans have noted the sloppy language used by some occupiers and have criticized the use of slavery metaphors and the description of “Zuccotti” as the park’s “slave name” (see here). The challenge here, as Tequila Sovereign argues, is for the occupations to figure out how to become more broadly inclusive or risk fracture. Yet, as a Palestinian and someone who has spent long hours talking, thinking, and writing about the Israeli occupation and colonization, I’m not sure that this specific bit of language is at the center of the exclusion here. Not only does the term “occupy” have a long radical history, but these struggles should also be conducted and described in language that is broadly comprehensible.

Decolonize Language‘Decolonize Language’ by Pedro Lasch. Available from the brilliant Occuprint, and reproduced here with permission. (This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.)

Ultimately, solidarity might be meaningfully achieved on the basis of the occupation – and appropriation – of that language. In the case of the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, maybe a radical and optimistic re-use of the term “occupy” could help to make clear the sorts of things that Israel is desperate to obscure, that these are perpetually annexed territories that are incorporated into Israel while the people who live there are brutally excluded. More important, what constitutes meaningful solidarity between American occupiers and Palestinians? This issue is a red line for many in the movement who argue that it “does not fit neatly inside the general message”. Obviously, critiques of racism in the movement should not be avoided because they are “divisive”? A Twitter post (“We support and would like to express #solidarity to #FreedomWaves #Palestine #ows”) created an outsized controversy, and I saw a motion to express solidarity with Palestine get tabled very quickly at a massive General Assembly in Washington Square Park. If this movement is going to expand so must the message based on a broader analysis of the ways that the 99% exist – and capitalism menaces – beyond American cities and beyond expressions of solidarity. And what, anyway, is the significance of solidarity? How does solidarity with Palestinians make sense here? Is a post on Twitter a form of solidarity? In my next post I will deal with the suggestion that American protesters are now experiencing the same kind of brutality as Palestinians and the idea of US policing becoming “Israelified”. But for now it’s clear that as the movement expands it needs to decide who and where the 99% are; to strive for cross-border, cross-experience, and cross-race solidarity; to question the attitude that allows the occupiers at Zuccotti to take inspiration from Egypt yet invite themselves to monitor the Egyptian elections; and to reject a narrow liberal focus that would prevent a politics of common struggle from emerging out of a politics of solidarity.

This is the second in a series of three posts on Occupy and the question of Palestine. Kareem’s Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and anti-Zionism appeared on 30 January, and Occupy Wall Street and ‘Israelification’ will be available 27 February.