“We cannot be pessimistic”

A conversation with the urbanists Gabriela Rendon and Miguel Robles-Durán from Occupy Wall Street on the future of the movement and the relationship between media images of tents and the concrete outreach in all parts of society.  

New York, 6 November 2011, updated via email in November 2011

Today it has been fifty days since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. The symbolic sign of the movement is Zuccotti Park with its iconic camp, its tents and signs, its self-organisation, and its visual presence in the media. But there are—less known but probably more important—a number of initiatives, committees, and sub-committees enlarging the idea, working out the demands, spreading it throughout the city. You are a member of the Education and Empowerment Committee. How would you describe the relationship between the very visible camp and the less visible activities backstage aiming for something more sustainable? 

All the committees that work alongside the movement started in the camp. In the beginning the movement was concentrated there and the camp played a very important role. But the question is, How necessary is the occupied space compared to all the other activities around Occupy Wall Street? What is their relationship? For example, all general assembly meetings happen in the camp. But if all of the more than 4,000 members were to attend, it would be impossible. The camp has logistically come to its limit. It is a representation of the movement. But it is not the movement itself.

But it is still needed as an image?

In the beginning it absolutely was. There have been many discussions about moving or leaving the camp. But such a decision has to be strategised very well. If we give it up, it should not be covered by the media as a defeat, as deserting. Why do we think about leaving the camp? Because we go beyond. Every day some of us occupy something. We go to the Ministry of Education, to the Ministry of Transportation, etc. And all of the important committee meetings happen at 60 Wall Street in a privately owned public lobby of a bank. The real actions of the movement are happening more and more outside the camp.

But the camp also functions as a model of society—a self-made state. A lot of committees deal with its organisation: in the security council, former gang members and former cops discuss how to solve conflicts without violence, while psychology professors and students seek solutions for attending to mentally ill people who want to join the camp. You discuss how to distribute donated food, clothes, how to organise the camp’s library. It is like the creation of a social structure from scratch; it is negotiating how to live togetheralmost in a utopian way. 

The United States has a long history of homeless camps that started in the 1960s and 1970s. Recently, we may recall images from cities like Camden in New Jersey or the outskirts of Newark or the North of Philadelphia or certain areas of Detroit where there are campsites of homeless people. They are called “tent cities”. Historically, tent cities have been associated with radical social formations. Homeless get organised and create their own environment and start to demand or construct or resist certain issues. They get empowered not only by themselves but also by organisations who give them the tents or food, etc. Don Mitchell says in his book The Right to the City that the reason why tent cities haven’t proliferated is that the government has always tried to annihilate them. The moment they start creating some sort of social cohesion, they get dissolved. The government is afraid of this form of organisation.

I think that the camp here mimics this. Don Mitchell argues that tent cities are centres for radicalisation. There has been an incredible knowledge transfer from homelessness into the camp, how to retain, how to survive. In the camp here there are some homeless, too. And many of the people that now give advice, for example on how to survive in the cold, are actually homeless. So, the camp might have its own very-well-working organisation, enclave-like community, where people form their own society, their own medical aid, etc.

It is a site of experimentation, of resistance, and of representation of the resistance. It might be a prototypical city, but we cannot forget what this movement is about. It’s about all of us. The people in the camp, they are the 99 per cent, but only together with the people who live around them in the same city, in the same world order.

It seems like the 99 per cent still need the image of the camp. What will happen when it is gone?

The image of the camp is very powerful. But the biggest efforts of the education committee or the outreach committee are about going into the disempowered neighbourhoods of New York and being present there. There is only a certain type of people who approach Zuccotti Park, which in the end is very limited. We have to reach out to those that have no access to Zuccotti Park. When we talk about the representation of the 99 per cent, we still have taxi drivers, we have room servers, we have construction workers from the MTA; we have steel workers around or cleaners or waitresses. And I don’t think that the Zuccotti camp does enough. The possibility to create different campsites all over the city is much more powerful than one central location in the city as a representation. I am more worried about how we can attract taxi drivers, sweepers of the park, gardeners—all those who’ve been much more oppressed than a big number of the people represented in Zuccotti Park.

So, what should the next steps be? How should the movement develop?

Look at the newspapers this week. Every single one claims that the G20 was a complete failure. Greece is totally in the mode chaos. Spain is getting there. Italy is in a very bad situation. France is also facing the threat of economical problems. There will be a tremendous growth of the movement all over the world. I think the movement should open its arms as wide as possible. To unite the Indignados, or ¡Democracia real YA!, or Krytyka Polityczna and so on, and to create a hyper-coalition of all of us. So, I believe that the movement will spread out. The movement grows organically; it’s already everywhere. The most important thing is, again, to go as a movement to the working class. We have to be in the disempowered neighbourhoods. The movement cannot be focused on those people who are already disappointed by the dominant politics and economy. Those people are at Zuccotti Park now. But there are people who are oppressed and who cannot imagine that something can change—they are in fact the majority. We have to approach them and integrate them; we have to listen to them and convince them to join.

If we compare the rather small number of Occupy Wall Street members with the huge movements in Spain or Greece, we realise that it’s not the number that makes media interested in your activity. Why are journalists so strongly focused on Occupy Wall Street?

Because Americans have been sleeping for decades. But that’s the end of this inertia. In the U.S. we are in the “belly of the beast”—in New York we are in the financial capital of the empire. And if the very centre of the empire is infected by the resistance movement, it can happen anywhere.

The movement has no leaders. At the same time you have more than eighty working groups targeting particular issues. What do they produce? What are your demands?

If we were to issue demands, we would be immediately co-opted and we would lose independence. The majority of us feel the same. Nobody wants to demand anything. We are totally disillusioned with the political system. The radicalism of the different manifestations around the world in the last two years has not been based on demanding anything from the government. They have been focused on self-awareness of society, on self-governing, without relying on politics.

In the beginning pure resistance might be good. But at a certain point you have to act, not only react. You cannot stay only extra-parliamentary.

Calm down. The movement is very young and it needs to form itself. The movement has transformed us and given us the possibility of creating parallel political, social, and economical realities. Perhaps in developing this parallel world, we will be able to insert ourselves into the political apparatus of the country one day. The democracy in America is not like the German one, where such a group like the Piratenpartei can suddenly appear, receive 10 per cent of the votes, and become a part of the governmental system. Here we have a two-party mob which controls everything through the financial system and blocks all ways to the Congress for all political subjects who are not Democrats or Republicans.

Already now, after six or seven weeks, it seems that different interests are tearing at this movement from all sides. Some want to either co-opt it, buy it, promote it, or kill it. How can you resist these demands? Are you not afraid of being transformed by the dominant system in order to mimic it?

People compare Occupy Wall Street to 1968. They remember May ‘68 because that’s when the riots happened. But 1968 lasted approximately three years. During this time they changed a lot, but later the process was stopped. Today we are fighting with a much bigger creature than in 1968. The globe is totally centralised now. Controlling and handling 40 per cent of the wealth of the world are 147 corporations. The internal economies of different states are strongly interconnected. Now, the EU is a completely different animal than it was in 1968. So patience will be one of our commandments. If we keep the same direction with the same principles, remain engaged and slowly grow, then capitalism will bring us more and more people, because this system is not able to change its own logic. Again and again capitalism makes people disappointed.

Occupy Wall Street has a structure. All of its committees—economy, education, media and so on—already have projects which are really developed. They will hopefully emerge in one year. We are able to create a nomadic university, alternative media and so on. We are practicing alternative politics and alternative economy. So, let’s continue.

Aren’t you afraid that this enthusiasm will wear off?

We cannot be pessimistic. For the first time, we feel that we are pre-something, not post-something. But it’s very difficult to predict what’s coming. The big questions is—and I’m quoting a song from Laurie Anderson—“How do we begin again?” Finally we are in the beginning of a brand new era. But which way do we go? We should figure this out before the movement gets hijacked by the financiers, by the capital market, by the governors, by a cynical political class. We have very few chances of doing something as a society, of making a revolution. If this movement dies, we are all damned. We cannot lose enthusiasm, because it will be very difficult to pick up similar feelings again. It is not a revolution in the traditional sense, where a new structure of power replaces the old one. This is a slow process of developing a parallel society which is free from capitalism, which is free from cynical exclusive politics.

What concrete steps should be taken?

In Amsterdam, at the Congress of Social Housing, there was a Dutch politician who proposed to develop houses for members of wide class spectrum, from high to low income, in the same neighbourhood, built by citizens. The programme pays an architect to design the house, and you can apply for funds to build your house. That’s a very small reform. But we should be focused on such strategies of self-governing and self-representation. As long as we don’t destroy the mortgage system that was imposed on citizens in the early 1990s by the neo-liberal governments, we are not changing anything. It’s a very Marxist structuralist understanding of the world, but that’s the way we see it. We know that we cannot destroy capitalism, even if thousands of bank accounts were closed during the last month. Our program “take your money out of the bank” is very effective and very concrete. It is so effective that the Bank of America retreated from its fees for cash withdrawal. That’s the evidence that we have an impact. But we must remember that the biggest amount of money that bankers are using doesn’t come from us. It comes from the financial system. Through coordinated people’s actions we can hurt them, but not seriously. So, the structural change is much more fundamental. There are alternative forms of banking and health systems, which are not related to the market. If we could build it at a macro scale, it would be a fundamental change.

We consider ourselves to be conscious entities, but we actually have no control over this economic knowledge.

That’s true. Following Marx, the movement is developing a class-consciousness now. Reading his writings is really canny. Now we are pushing for the New School to get out of the Bank of America. The whole faculty is pushing for that. Isn’t it great?

The public space that is occupied here, Zuccotti Park or 60 Wall Street, is in fact privately owned. You have spent the last fifteen years fighting against such ownership. Now it’s the only space in the downtown area where police cannot easily enter. The privatised “public” space seems to be more public than the real public space.

It’s a fantastic paradox. When there are actions on Washington Square, the police evicts the participants immediately because it’s real public space. But private space can be easily used against private interests. Our working groups can sit there and think how to radically redefine the meaning of the word “private property”.

The situation of Occupy Wall Street has drastically changed, and the city removed the camp during the last month. There has also been less and less interest displayed by the media for the movement. Where does Occupy Wall Street stand now?

True, but I am certain that the eviction has benefited the movement and its strategic outreach. For the majority of us, the movement’s success has been its consolidation around operative taskforces and working-groups which continue their short- and long-term projects and local and international outreach. I believe the movement today is much more consolidated and mature, with more defined targets, concepts, and active members. We are definitely moving away from the spectacle and have begun to be focused on the underpowered neighbourhoods and peripheral urgencies that need our support. Occupy Wall Street has already drastically changed the USA itself. It has produced an unprecedented awareness, contributed to pedagogical discourse, and has brought recognition and solidarity among the millions of citizens that have had enough!

According to the media, contrary to the sensationalistic coverage Occupy Wall Street got in the first month of its activity, every coordinated mass action we have organised has been given serious coverage in the international and national press. To give you an example, last Tuesday I participated in the national day of action on housing and foreclosures; the next day, The Guardian had a video report of the action on its front news page. The press has matured together with us, and this is a great thing.

Your optimism abounds.

My trust in the movement and the quality of people engaged in it is greater than ever. We are ever more aware that a revolution is never instant; it is a slow process that requires a lot of energy and dedication, and it feels like all of us working in it have decided to stay and continue the struggle. 

Christmas and New Year’s are coming up as is a cold New York winter. Will there still be a relevant movement next spring?

Absolutely! The Occupy Wall Street calendar is full of actions, from the three-month anniversary of national action on 17 December, to the occupation of the Department of Education and the Department of Buildings later in the month, and in January the Occupation of the US Congress, and so many projects that are in their early stages. The movement continues to gain energy. The difference is that the spectacle has been reduced to a minimum, and now we just have hard work to do.

What is the future of Occupy Wall Street?

We will continue our outreach in underpowered communities and develop taskforces with them. We will put into operation many projects like the Occupy Wall Street Nomadic University, extended open forums, student debt assistance, a foreclosure taskforce, a health-care system free from the market, housing alternatives and so on. And of course, more occupations!

Next year the struggle will continue! The time has come to redefine ourselves inside the active dimensions of the urban movements: 15-M, Occupy Wall Street, Indignados, The Arab Spring, ¡Democracia real YA! All of us are working on structural change in reality. It’s not about urban development, art, geography, sociology, political science, architecture, politics, health care and so on. We must struggle collectively to destroy our centuries-old disciplinary silos, to merge all separated disciplines into the dynamic ecological totality of civic action, into our precarious daily lives. Then, I believe, we might be able to conceive a new direction, together. You have my hand, how do we begin again?

Interview by Florian Malzacher & Joanna Warsza

Gabriela Rendón is an architect and urbanist. Her work combines research, planning and design at different scales focusing on spatial processes and transformations counteracting conditions produced by market-oriented urbanization. Rendon’s areas of expertise include housing and urban policy analysis and development, neighborhood decline and restructuring, and community-based planning. Her current research is based on the politics, practices and constrains of socio-spatial restructuring through citizens active engagement in low-income neighborhoods in Western Europe and America. Gabriela Rendon is co-founder of Cohabitation Strategies, researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, where she has coordinated and instructed architectural and urban design studios collaborating with activist, non-profit organizations, and grassroots groups.

Miguel Robles-Durán, urbanist, is co-founder of “Cohabitation Strategies”, Director of the Urban Ecologies graduate program at the New School/Parsons in New York and Senior fellow at “Civic City”, a post-graduate design/research program based in HEAD Geneva, Switzerland. Robles-Durán has wide international experience in the strategic definition/coordination of trans-disciplinary urban projects, as well as in the development tactical design strategies and civic engagement platforms that confront the contradictions of contemporary urbanization. He recently co-edited/authored the book ”Urban Asymmetries: Studies and Projects on Neoliberal Urbanization” that reviews the dire consequences that neoliberal urban policies have had upon the city and discusses possible alternatives to market-driven development. Robles-Durán’s areas of specialization are design/research interventions and strategies in uneven urbanization and areas of social urban conflict, urban political-economy and urban theory

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