latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
or some of us the word ‘occupy’ has an almost immediate connotation that refers back to the Native American occupation of the small island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay during the late sixties. A group of Native American activists took over what had been a high-level security prison, from which it was nearly impossibly to escape. They occupied this rock and re-claimed it for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, whose lands had been ‘occupied’ by the Spanish and English settlers. For them, to occupy meant to re-possess and re-claim. For Native Americans, reclaiming Alcatraz was a statement that possessed tremendous rhetorical power. Indeed, Native Americans were saying that they lived in occupied lands that had been dispossessed from them and that now they ‘occupied’ in order to reclaim. Native American activists held the island for nearly eighteen months: an abandoned prison built on the most improbable and inhospitable of locations. It was perhaps the almost useless and worthless character of Alcatraz that gave such power to the statement; to ‘occupy’ something that in its worthlessness foregrounds all that has supreme value: that which can be dispossessed, has been disposed, rendering one homeless and groundless, a refugee in one’s own land.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which has taken over Zuccotti Park for almost two months, has occupied a piece of real estate that is far from worthless. It is ironic that Zuccotti Park is not even a public space per se, but a privately owned ‘public’ space named after the chairman of the company that owns the park: Brookfield Office Properties. Zuccotti Park used to be called “Liberty Plaza Park.” In Wall Street to “occupy” can only mean to “re-occupy” a space that was formerly public but was sold to a real state developer. To “occupy” means to re-claim what belongs properly to citizens and the public, and not some corporation, to re-possess a bit of our ‘liberty’. In Wall Street, itself a space layered with history and meaning to occupy Zuccotti park, in order to occupy Wall Street, now synecdoche for the new wild economy, means to reclaim a space that was disposed by that very new economy. Some have complained that the Occupy Wall Street movement is not a movement, or if it is a movement, it is one without a message. But nothing can be further from the truth: the movement is the act of occupation and its message is the statement: Wall Street has dispossessed all of us who are part of the 99 %. At Occupy Wall Street, and all of the Occupy movements across the United States and around the world, the message is the in the statement: occupy means to reclaim. At the same time, there is another meaning of the word ‘occupy’ that I think the Occupy moments are rescuing for us today. This other meaning of occupy is to concern ourselves with, to deal with, to focus our attention on something specific. Occupy also means focused, vigilant, solicitous attention. To occupy today means not simply to reclaim a space, but to return to the habit, the habitation, the dwelling of solicitous attention of political agency. If the agents of neoliberalism that dissolved politics in the acid of economic frenzy and rapacious capital accumulation rendered us displaced docile bodies of consumption and dispossession, the courageous people weathering the coming winter and the beating sticks of the police have reclaimed for us the shrinking public spaces of politics. To occupy today means to return to the solicitous attention of political agency. This is their statement and message: Economics serves politics, i.e. people, not the other way, and public space is the proper sphere of public deliberation.