‘This is Just Practice’ reads the sub-title of Marisa Holmes’ book Organizing Occupy Wall Street, which is the latest addition to the Alternatives and Futures: Cultures, Practices, Activism and Utopias series. The book reverberates with revolutionary intent: a threat and a promise. As the editor of this Palgrave Macmillan (Springer Nature Singapore) series, I’m particularly proud of being one of the midwifes of the birth of such a penetrating book on Occupy Wall Street (OWS) as it happened.
Written by a key organiser, activist, facilitator and documentarian of OWS, Organizing Occupy Wall Street is a rich blend of grainy description of everyday practice, ethnographic analysis, critical argumentation, and refutation. Author Marisa Holmes is a Brooklyn-based educator and doctoral candidate in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information. Here is the participant observer, the roving eye ‘all day all week’, a John Reed for the twenty-first century.
Holmes draws on engagement and dialogues in assemblies, behind the scenes, as well as in key events to construct a strong sense of what really happened for those within the movement. A multi-media analyst, she refers to a series of sources, from emails and tweets to formal declarations, her own sound recordings, and video footage she shot herself. Readers like me will prickle with the intensity and excitement of the developing actions. As Day 1 ends – ‘It was as if our whole lives we had been silent, and we could suddenly speak.’
Such words resonate strongly for current activists who have experienced extended occupations of threatened forests, of indigenous lands, of ZADs (zones to defend, zones à défendre), or other spaces where sharing develops into commoning to create multidimensional prefigurative hybrids of postcapitalist futures.
This record of OWS is equally significant for left analysts who have been surprised and delighted by Occupy and those leftists who have never understood or dismiss its cut and thrust. Holmes recovers and highlights the radical practices and underground achievements of OWS, especially in terms of anarchist and autonomist intents and of horizontalist organising. This book is a human geography of the space of the square.
I hasten to add that the author does not treat the movement with undue reverence. Curiosity is a key attribute of this scholar-journalist, who is just as interested in analysing the weaknesses that she identifies within the movement as she is in countering merely perceived failings of OWS. She is not apologetic but, rather, suitably critical, reflective and judgmental. She wants us to do it better next time round. Her intent is to lay bare the inner workings and outside misconceptions of OWS, to deliver learnings.
Although the book has a strong plot based on actions, organisation and relationships, in tandem Holmes takes a thematic approach to agents and other topics. There is a probing chapter on race within OWS, and a similar one on gender. Discrete chapters are dedicated to the founders, money, co-option, informal elites, neo-fascism, and power and leadership. Each spells out particular dimensions of participatory politics, of horizontalism, and its internal and external challenges and opposition – with examples shown as if behind different cameras in distinct positions zooming in and out, delivering specific points-of view.
It will come as no surprise that banks were loathe to open an account for OWS as donations poured in and the organisation needed cash. Nor will it startle anyone that making decisions involving money had corroding, divisive and eroding effects on the base resource of mutual aid, relationships and community. Here, as elsewhere, Holmes draws directly from comments made within a community dialogue to spell out how people in solidarity triumphed over money in discussions on resourcing.
The story is set in an international context of influences on the Occupy movement and, in turn, its contemporary influences and significance. It’s hard to exaggerate the movement’s ambition, which remains in records such as this as both inspiration and significant food for thought. In the author’s words: ‘The vision of OWS was practiced in the here and now, and the goal was a total transformation of society. OWS was all day, all week, a break with the past, and a rehearsal for the future.’